On Tuesday, April 24, 2012, this website suffered a significant drop in Google-sourced traffic. The new algorithm they introduced was quickly given the name Penguin and started a mass of speculation amongst SEOs.
Here I chronicle my actions to try and get myself out of the Penguin Prison.
I didn’t panic. Luckily in my case, Google had not ruined my life. My income did not dry up, and I didn’t have to sell the home and car I don’t even own.
I keep myself up-to-date on the Penguin chatter, and over time I have become more confident about the nature of the beast. I decided to make my moves slowly, thus giving me a chance to discover what I had done to unleash its wrath.
A month before the release of Penguin, Matt Cutts talked about working on an Over Optimisation penalty. Then, just before Penguin was let out into the wild, he posted a blog called Another step to reward high-quality sites. It provided a warning about the upcoming update.
It was clear that Penguin (as it was later named) would target websites breaking their Quality Guidelines. This included both onsite and offsite linking tactics that aimed at influencing the search engines instead of providing a good user experience.
So why was I hit?
Being hit by a penalty brings up those tricks you know you did. Be honest, are you squeaky clean?
For me, it was my own URL shortener. I bought the domain in good faith and set it up to do its duty by shortening URLs. Then I realised it had a good ranking and a load of deep backlinks.
I couldn’t resist, and I set up 301 redirects from those juice-rich URLs to pages on this website. This was a long time back, and at first, it seemed to create traffic. Now, looking at the longer term picture and the extra traffic looks like a tiny blip on the radar, and those extra visitors it caused had no interest in SEO. In hindsight, a stupid risk to take for such a small reward.
So, I removed all those redirects and initially made them redirect to the home page. I’m not sure why I didn’t set up a proper 404 response at the time; I was probably busy. I fixed that up later.
Penguin is like Panda. There are periodic updates, and only then will you see if your work has helped you in any way. There was an update on May 25th… no change 🙁
I decided to then address any onsite issue I may have had. I do a lot of experiments with my website, and one of them may have put me in purgatory.
All my content is original, with much of it getting traffic and social interactions. There are just over 100 pages, so it was easy to check through them all.
I felt my page template could do with a bit of a clean-up. I minimised the footer and dropped some sidebar elements that could distract from the subject of each page. In particular, I decided a feed was not needed; it was a bit like a dynamic blog roll!
Otherwise, in my opinion, my content was of good quality and should not raise any flags.
Then I spotted some hidden keywords on the website… oops.
I participate in quite a few forums, and that gives me an opportunity to get signatures which are sometimes not nofollowed. For my main forums, I decided to switch my signatures to be more brand focused and less about promoting my tools with keywordy text.
I later fixed up some more signatures when I performed a detailed backlink analysis.
Pesky site-wide backlinks and PageRank
I did some basic backlink analysis to see if anything stood out. And it did.
Two large Iranian websites had decided to include sitewide links to one of my pages. I am no longer talking to that page (no joke, see later).
Currently, both those websites have gone. However, Google Webmaster Tools (Google Search Console) is still reporting 45,664 links from one of them. So it could probably still be doing some damage. Hurry up Google, and clean up those links.
Why am I not talking to that page anymore? For one, it’s a Google Toolbar PageRank checker, something I don’t think people should focus too much on. Second, it attracts stupid links. Third, I like experiments…
So, this domain no longer has any links to that page. It also does not link to any other page on the domain. It’s a page in isolation. Currently, that isolation has had no impact on its traffic or the traffic to the rest of the domain. It’s my second most popular page, with most of its traffic from the Philippines, India and Bangladesh. Strangely the last PageRank update did not cause a traffic spike like it usually does.
Penguin updates are few and far between at the moment, and this can be frustrating….No recovery. Time to get serious.
Full-on backlink analysis
Comments from several Googlers have made it clear to me that the nature of the links to your website is taken into account with Penguin.
I spent around 10 hours checking and categorising my backlinks. I also tidied up a few things in the process. Here’s the distribution of the domain types that still have active backlinks that are not nofollowed.
I only gathered data from Google Webmaster Tools (Search Console). I did analyse nofollow domains but excluded them from this chart as they are not considered in the algorithm. About one-third of the links (and domains) reported no longer existed. This shows how out-of-date the data provided can be. Some of those old links, like the Iranian websites, may still be causing a problem.
I found the text in links to my site was quite diverse, with few target phrases getting over-repeated in multiple sources.
There were some sites that repeated the same link text many times. e.g. on forum signatures. I may review some of those links to make sure they don’t look bad.
Otherwise, the top link text was what to be expected. My URL, my business name, my name and Tiggerito.
No keyword link present on multiple domains exceeded 1% of my link profile.
In my early days, I did do active link-building. In most cases, it was on business directories which I feel are relevant, but in a few cases, I think I strayed outside the realm of doing things for the good of the user. e.g. a single-page website full of keyword links! There was only one like that, and it was easy to delete.
I have a go at everything. Because of that, I also have a lot of online profiles, many of which were used once and then forgotten.
A known link-building tactic is creating mass amounts of profiles to get backlinks from them. I would not blame an algorithm for thinking that was my motivation.
I decided to strip down any profiles that I classed as inactive. In particular, I removed any links back to this website. That way, I could still make use of them later if I happened to find them of interest again.
I also found several cases where a website had stolen my profile information from Experts Exchange and set up their own profiles of me. I could not get them removed, but I could claim them and strip them down to nothing.
Google recently introduced a new weapon for Webmasters. The Disavow Tool enables us to list domains or URLs we want nothing to do with, and their links will be excluded from the algorithms. It comes with many a warning about how dangerous it can be.
I think the dangers are overplayed a bit. You can remove or replace your disavow list at any time, and things should revert once Google has re-crawled the places.
Saying that, I don’t think you want to go crazy. Scraper websites and Domain Information websites may be of low quality and value, but they are probably not hurting you. They are out of your control, and hopefully, Google knows that.
In my case, I found only one link I felt I needed to disavow. It is a random keywordy link on an irrelevant website’s links page, and links to dodgy SEO services surround it. I contacted the owner and got no response. So they have the honour of being my only disavow.
This is where I am now. This stage was to clean up my backlink profile, and now I am waiting on the next Penguin update.
This algorithm change may be something out of my control. Penguin may return my website to its proper and deserved place, or the cleaning up may actually make things worse, as I am de-optimising it.
However, I am happy to do it. From what I’ve discovered so far, the dodgy stuff would never have benefited me much and may have hurt me.
There were positives to doing all this analysis. Seeing where people have written articles that refer to my content and others who tell people about my tools as a solution in forums. Having those links in over 20% of the domains that link to me is excellent.
Meanwhile, I should get back to focusing on real shit, like writing more helpful articles and earning more of those links.
Update: Find out what happened later in my Penguin Recovery saga.