Google regularly updates how they arrive at the search results provided to users. The process is part of the ever changing search landscape; SEOs tweak for best Google positioning and Google tweaks for best search results. You can view a list of Google's algorithm updates at SEOMoz, a SEO tools provider. Two recent Google algorithm updates have had a particularly significant effect: code named Panda and Penguin.
For Google's search results to be relevant it has to correctly identify the best answers to user searches. Google works hard in this regard, sometimes with transparency and sometimes not. To it's credit Google has published Google Webmaster Guidelines for designers and SEOs outlining best practices. To quote Google (emphasis mine):
Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you'd feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"
Avoid the following techniques: Automatically generated content, Participating in link schemes, Cloaking, Sneaky redirects, Hidden text or links, Doorway pages, Scraped content, Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value, Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
All of the techniques Google mentions have at one time or another been common practice to either promote websites or create website content.
Panda Cleans House
The Panda algorithm update targets websites whose content was duplicated or automatically created. Examples include websites that copy content from other websites for the purpose of competing for search traffic and selling advertising. You may have encountered such sites while doing Google research - websites with an uninspiring appearance and generic names whose content exactly or nearly matches that of another site in your results. If Google thinks it had correctly identified such a site it is moved much lower in search results.
Penguin Takes Names
The Penguin algorithm update is a different animal altogether. While Panda focuses on website content, Penguin looks at where and how a website is being linked - back links.
Search engines have for a long time used a website's incoming links as an indicator of relevance. This being the case SEOs have tried to game the system by manipulating these links. Examples of this type of promotion include the automated creation of thousands of links to a website in unrelated comment forums or attaching unrelated links onto buzz words in an article that bears no relevance to linked website. Called link spam these disingenuous links have always been considered low value, but because they are simple to create in quantity they are widely used.
Penguin turned this around by identifying disingenuous links and assessing a penalty on the targeted page. Particularly chilling as this turns what was once considered website promotion, if low value, into a penalty! The effects often evidence as specific search terms for a website which once ranked well dropping off suddenly and without warning.
And For The Worst Offenders
Google also starting issuing manual penalties for particularly egregious practices. Google calls these unnatural linking practices, and include linking schemes like web rings or purchased links. While for Panda and Penguin Google would simply adjust their search results to reflect it's assessment, with a manual penalties result in exclusion from the Google index along with an email or notice informing the website of the action.
Things Gets Personal
My Blender website was itself affected by the Penguin algorithm update. Through monitoring I noticed the traffic to my website from Google drop off suddenly. With a little research I identified which search terms had stopped ranking well. Knowing this it became obvious that Google did not like how I was promoting my website with footer links in websites I had designed for clients. I had been including keywords such as 'website design' in these links, and for this Google was penalizing me on these terms.
How To Recover
If you have noticed a drop in search traffic and can identify which of Google's guidelines you may have transgressed there are actions you can take.
Panda - If your website is a copy of another or scraped from several sources you might be out of luck. If you have several websites under different names with the same content you need to choose which you want to be the primary and either remove the others or identify the primary as canonical. Then wait and see. It might speed things up to resubmit your website through Google's Webmaster Tools.
Penguin - Look at your website's incoming links and clean them up. Either remove them or change them to be less spammy. If you do not have control over the links and are unable to change them Google has provided a disavow tool. Then wait and see.
Manual Penalty - Much more serious and complicated. What I have read indicates this penalty has been assessed by an officer at Google and will not be removed without rectifying the issue. You will need to document how you corrected the problem and register an appeal.
A Happy Ending
For my Blender website I was fortunate. I had access to troublesome back links as I was still working for the clients whose websites had the problematic footer links. I updated in one of two ways:
- In some cases I edited the links to focus only on my website name 'Blender', removing verbiage like 'website design'.
- In others I pointed the footer links to an internal page within the website which itself mentioned me a linked to my website. This dropped the number of back links from these websites from in some cases hundreds to one.
Within a week of updating my website's back links it began climbing to it original place in the SERPs and my traffic from Google search was restored.