So it happened. Google finally released Penguin 4.0 — the last Penguin update of its kind, as it now processes in real time as a part of Google’s core ranking algorithm.
In this post, I want to take a look at what Penguin is, how this update affects the SEO community as a whole and how the brave and the bold can continue to safely improve their organic visibility without fear of repercussions from punitive search engine algorithms.
After a few weeks of turbulence in the SERPs, the announcement that many had predicted was finally made.
The Penguin 4.0 announcement had two key points:
- Penguin is now running in real time. This is really good news. There are lots of folks out there who have paid the price for low-quality SEO yet are still not seeing a recovery after removing or disavowing all of their spammy backlinks. Certainly, a house built on dodgy links will not spring back to a position of strength simply by removing those links; however, there are many businesses out there that seem to have been carrying algorithmic boulders around their digital ankles. Hopefully, these folks can now move on, their debt to a punitive algorithm update paid in full.
- Penguin is now more granular. This element is a little more curious, in that Penguin 2.0 seemed to add page-level and keyword-level penalties, making it more granular than the 1.0 release. However, we can only imagine that things have got much more advanced, and possibly individual links are considered rather than the seemingly aggregate approach that was taken historically. Only time will tell the degree to which this granular approach will impact sites, but I suspect it will be a good thing for those looking to play by the rules.
It will also be interesting to see how this fits in with the other 200 or so factors or “clues” that Google uses to rank websites. We now we have both Panda and Penguin integrated into Google’s core ranking algorithm (though Panda does not run in real time), so it’s possible that the weight of the various known ranking factors may have changed as a result.
One other interesting nugget is that there will be no more notifications for Penguin updates. Penguin now constantly updates as Google crawls the web, so tweaks to the finer points of this system will no longer be announced. Personally, I think is a good thing — folks can concentrate on doing good marketing (and SEO) rather than nervously waiting for the hammer to fall on some overused link-building tactic.
Links are still important
It’s important to remember that links are still important. Google has clarified this a number of times now, with Googlers such as John Mueller, Gary Illyes and even Matt Cutts clarifying the importance of links as a ranking signal, while also often warning of the problems of focusing on just links as a marketing and SEO strategy.
Of course, if we can step back a little, this makes perfect sense. If you have a simple five-page website, no corresponding social or PR noise, and 5,000 links… something does not quite add up there. Why would people cite that resource so widely?
On the other hand, if you have worked hard on your site and have a hundred or so great content pieces, solid reputation signals and 500 or so editorial links with wildly varied anchor text spread across the web with no discernible pattern, then this does look a little more natural. Add on some PR and social activity, and we start to see a pattern that looks like a real business.
So links are important — critically so for SEO. But links are one of many factors and should not be looked at in isolation. In fact, great links should often be the side effect of great marketing. So take off your reverse-engineering hat and put on your smart marketing hat, and you are moving in the right direction.
What Google wants
I always find it useful to briefly analyze Google’s recommendations. You can be sure those press releases and webmaster guideline pages are carefully worded, and often we can derive more clarification of what is needed.
- From the Penguin 4.0 announcement: “focus on creating amazing, compelling websites.”
- From the Link Schemes page: “The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.
- From the Webmaster Guidelines: “Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.”
- From the original Penguin announcement: “focus on creating amazing, compelling web sites.” This is the same statement again, so they must mean it, folks!
There is a common thread here: quality. Whether it’s website quality, link quality or content quality, Google clearly wants to drive this point home.
“The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community.”
That statement says it all. The only problem here is that Google is often a little (wildly?) optimistic. Creating great content often is not enough on its own. You have to let people know about it.
You have to build relationships with folks who may be interested in what you have to say. You want to build relationships with other bloggers and website owners. You will then want to look at ways to use these relationships to start building the kind of links that will move the needle.
High quality, in Google’s eyes, means making your site valuable to your target audience. Create something that is really, truly helpful — then let people know about it. Don’t do this the other way around and start building links in volume where there is nothing of value to link to.
This, in a nutshell, is the problem with most link-building efforts — they are tackled completely back to front. Links are built before on-site value has-been created. The solution to this is simple: Start with your site. Build something of value. Then layer your link building over the top.
Link building tactics
The following is a brief overview of some link building tactics that still have merit and are based on the thinking above.
- Basic prospecting. Using a range of advanced query operators, you can often find resource pages or even (shock, horror!) highly ranking and well-maintained directories that are relevant to the product or service you provide. The more content you have on your site, the easier it becomes to find sites that are linking to similar resources and that will consider linking to you. Search for your keywords +resources, +links, +directory and other terms that indicate a relevant resource. Then do the requisite research. (More details.)
- Competitor research. Often, reviewing the links your competitors have will reveal some sites that will consider linking to you or your content. Again, make sure you have something of value before requesting any links — and remember that just because a site links to your competitor, it does not mean that link is helping them rank. Think quality. See some smart thoughts on how to do (and not do) competitor research the right way here.
- Guest post prospecting. Guest posts are a still a great way to generate exposure for your business and tap into a site’s audience. Remember, though, quality must come first. Likewise, if you have an opportunity to link to a piece of content within the body of the article and it adds value, then do it in a natural way to get an editorial vote within that article. I would tend to look for blogs in your space initially and manually review whether they have guest authors. You can also prospect, again on Google, using search strings like “Keyword” + “guest post,” “keyword” + “write for us,” “keyword” + “contributor” — I favor this approach rather than tools, as the sites returned highly are likely to be authoritative.
- Content + outreach. Once you have a bedrock of great content on your site, you can find sites that link to other articles and then go about contacting the owners to see if they will link to your content. Ideally, your content should improve on what they already link to so that link can be swapped out or yours can be included in addition to the original link. The Skyscraper Technique can work well here; however, it is not perfect for every situation.
- Broken link building. This is similar to #4 in many ways, but you are looking for broken links on sites you have identified as potentially providing a valuable link (or vote) for your business. You may well need to create some content to fill the gap when you find an opportunity, but this approach where you are helping the site owner and providing a simple alternative can yield great results. Identify sites you would like a link from, then crawl those sites with Screaming Frog or Xenu Link Sleuth to find opportunities. Lots of legwork here, but you can find diamonds in those 404s!
- Local organizations. With local businesses, I like links that help tie you into that physical location. Often you will be able to find clubs or some such that will accept some sponsorship in return for a safe, branded link on a page of their site. Play it safe here; do this for the right reasons, and you can generate some solid ties with local businesses, leading to more eyes on your business and some great local links.
- Press and PR. Further to having an amazing site, doing great things in the real world can also have benefits in getting exposure in the press and relevant publications. This will, in many cases, generate a link back to your site, again helping you build trust and relevance.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and really, I don’t like to attempt link building from a tactics perspective without having a clear and unique strategy tailored to each business. We see tactics that deliver great results for one business completely fail to deliver for another.
This game is all about determining what is right for you and adding links to your site that enrich the web and make the linking page a better place. Of course, to do this, you have to focus on ensuring your site is the very best it can possibly be so the linking site is improved by the link to yours.
The best SEO often comes down to common sense. Spammy directory listings did not make sense. They were there purely for SEO. This backwards approach meant many sites were top-heavy with links with no content. All that time and effort spent, and no real value added to the site.
I talked about the psychology and history of this in a post on my own blog called “Ass Backwards Link Building” that really dives into how search engines work, the mentality of many low-end SEO agencies and how their practices are directly out of alignment with Google’s own “give, give, give” mentality.
Sure, Google shows us ads. Lots and lots of ads. But they gave us free access to the world’s information. In my mind, that is a good trade-off.
Unfortunately, though, we live in a world where we have folks looking for a cheap SEO solution, and there will always be some provider who will fill that gap — the demand for cheap SEO creates cheap SEO. Around and around we go… unless, of course, Penguin 4.0 finally puts pay to risky, low-value tactics.
I sincerely hope that Penguin 4.0 puts and end to the often daft link-building tactics of the past. Penguin may well need some fine-tuning, but link building in 2016 and beyond will mean tackling your website first — building something great, and then letting people know about it.