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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The following is a brief overview of some link building tactics that still have merit and are based on the thinking above.
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.