In the 6 months since Google gave birth to the Penguin algorithm update it has had a dramatic effect on the SEO industry. For years Google's rhetoric had been about quality of content and links, but they'd been unable to back up what they said you should (and perhaps more importantly shouldn't) do with what the industry saw worked.
It was a cause of frustration for large numbers of white hat SEOs to be doing the sort of things that Google recommends (give or take), and still be outranked by the people spamming anchor text with low quality paid links. Wil Reynolds's complained about exactly this when he spoke at Searchfest just 8 weeks before Penguin, stating that a client of his is "getting killed by a website who is just targeting tons of anchor text only links on GARBAGE sites and is KILLING my client in the rankings" (he later wrote it up for SEOmoz - get it here). So many were happy to see Penguin, whereas many were less so.
So to celebrate Penguin's 6 month birthday, I did a survey, asking 78 SEOs about their experiences with Penguin, their reactions to it, predictions for the future and any Penguin tips.
I presented some of these survey results at SMX Stockholm, where I spoke with Per Eriksson from MediaAnalys about Penguin (my slides, Per's slides). Per and I come from agencies that are quite different in many ways, but also similar in others, yet we found that the reaction to Penguin seems to be pretty consistent!
This post isn't going to be a lot of commentary but is going to focus on a few interesting results from the survey, and what the SEOs had to say.
Prediction: The next big algorithm update?
In the last 2-3 years, we've seen May Day, then Panda, and most recently Penguin targeting authority, quality content and over-optimised links, with a bunch of other updates in between. I asked the SEOs what they thought Google would be targeting next. Here are the top 10 responses and how many votes they each got (the responses were freeform so I've categorised them as neatly as I could managed):
The top response though was that Google could be targeting fake social signals. Something that struck me, is that with that response 3 of the top 4 responses are all about social signals, trusting them, authoring them (which is a specific means of attaining trust, and one I think is important), and penalising abuse. I found this interesting because it still isn't clear exactly how such signals are used, and whether we are seeing causation or simply correlation.
Observation: Where would you typically expect to find a Penguin link hiding?
Another interesting result from the survey was regarding where you'd expect to find Penguin links living. This isn't particularly actionable, I know - but I thought it worth a brief mention:
The interesting part of this for me is the emphasis on sitewide links being a strong Penguin signal. All the widgetbait we spent all that time crafting is now coming back to bite us in the ass.
There was lots of data to dig through, but amongst it were some interesting tips that are worthy of sharing:
"Group sites using IP address and quality metrics (e.g. PR) and target to largest groups for efficient removal." - John Trimble
Gianluca Fiorelli suggests using Buzzstream for link cleanup - somewhat the reverse of what it is normally used for, but a cool idea.
On a similar theme, Mike King, has a great suggestion for using Boomerang for following up on link cleanup requests.
Not a tip per se - but a fantastic slide deck from Ian Howells that everyone trying to recover from Penguin should read: http://www.slideshare.net/ianhowells/life-after-penguin.
"Sadly, smaller sites are often better starting over than trying to clean up, depending on the severity of the bad link profile." - Cyrus Shepard
"Link Removal is NOT cost effective, if you can move domain you should. Even if you're a large brand, if you can get a domain which is close enough then move. I've worked with clients who have cleaned up 1000s of links and huge portions of their profile to essentially be fobbed off with the standard Google response." - Mike Litson
Two breakout tools which came up often and are specialised for Penguin recovery were SEO Gadgets Cleanup & Contact utility Tool which does what it says, and the totally awesome PanguinTool which overlays your analytics data with Panda and Penguin dates so you can identify easily if an update was responsible for your woes:
(thanks to Per at MediaAnalys for the image)
Reactions and Quotes
There were too many to pull them all out, so I picked out some favourites. If you want to read more, see below to access the spreadsheet of the full answers.
"[Penguin targets] unearned links - those that aren't naturally created as a result of doing #RCS" - Rand Fishkin
"If my company had embraced #RCS (Real Company... Stuff) a long time ago, we'd be in a much better spot today. We're now focused on tactics that create real relationships, real content, and real influence (you know, with people). IF we succeed, no matter how Google decides to measure authority and trust, we'll have it in spades." - Nathan Grimm
"If [Google] are going to make huge changes like Penguin they should be better at running it more regularly and also provide more transparency to webmasters about what links they consider bad." - Chris Clayton
"I have to say that overall I feel favourable about Penguin. It hasn't been 100% successful, but on the whole the SERPs are more agreeable now than before." - Iain Bartholomew
"They need to run a data refresh. I think the reason they haven't done a data refresh is because something went wrong. Of course, they'll never ever admit it." - Sean
"I worry about the folks who purchased existing sites, or hired a VP of marketing they trusted, or otherwise got themselves in trouble. What's their recourse in a system like this?" - Ian Lurie
"The use, or not, of anchor text shouldn't steer you to the types of links you get. It's rather the situation and the type of link that should dictate the anchor text. There are no hard and fast rules or percentages that you need to strive for... it's all about keeping it natural." - Paul Martin
"There's a lot of blurring of Penguin penalty vs. manual penalty, despite what Matt Cutts has said recently at conferences. It's interesting however how many times a Penguin penalty hits and then the site ALSO gets the manual penalty email." - Michael Cottam
There were more questions, so if you want to dive into the data you can grab a copy here.
From my point of view - it is frustrating that Google, directly or indirectly, encouraged certain activities (optimising anchor text) by creating the eco-system that they did, and now slapped some people for exactly that when there never was a clear line of how much is too much. However, I feel like Penguin was a good update on the whole, and once the dust has settled it will have helped good sites more than it harmed.
My concern is, the main signals for Penguin links will be easily enough circumvented (tone down anchor text, cut out site-wide links, and try to avoid being on pages with people who are leaving a footprint) and we'll end up with a not dissimilar situation again.
I'd love to here from people in the comments about their experiences, and particularly interested in what other people think is going to follow on from Penguin.