12 Common Reasons Reconsideration Requests Fail

Posted by Modestos

There are several reasons a reconsideration request might fail. But some of the most common mistakes site owners and inexperienced SEOs make when trying to lift a link-related Google penalty are entirely avoidable. 

Here’s a list of the top 12 most common mistakes made when submitting reconsideration requests, and how you can prevent them.

1. Insufficient link data

This is one of the most common reasons why reconsideration requests fail. This mistake is readily evident each time a reconsideration request gets rejected and the example URLs provided by Google are unknown to the webmaster. Relying only on Webmaster Tools data isn’t enough, as Google has repeatedly said. You need to combine data from as many different sources as possible. 

A good starting point is to collate backlink data, at the very least:

  • Google Webmaster Tools (both latest and sample links)
  • Bing Webmaster Tools
  • Majestic SEO (Fresh Index)
  • Ahrefs
  • Open Site Explorer

If you use any toxic link-detection services (e.g., Linkrisk and Link Detox), then you need to take a few precautions to ensure the following:

  • They are 100% transparent about their backlink data sources
  • They have imported all backlink data
  • You can upload your own backlink data (e.g., Webmaster Tools) without any limitations

If you work on large websites that have tons of backlinks, most of these automated services are very likely used to process just a fraction of the links, unless you pay for one of their premium packages. If you have direct access to the above data sources, it’s worthwhile to download all backlink data, then manually upload it into your tool of choice for processing. This is the only way to have full visibility over the backlink data that has to be analyzed and reviewed later. Starting with an incomplete data set at this early (yet crucial) stage could seriously hinder the outcome of your reconsideration request.

2. Missing vital legacy information

The more you know about a site’s history and past activities, the better. You need to find out (a) which pages were targeted in the past as part of link building campaigns, (b) which keywords were the primary focus and (c) the link building tactics that were scaled (or abused) most frequently. Knowing enough about a site’s past activities, before it was penalized, can help you home in on the actual causes of the penalty. Also, collect as much information as possible from the site owners.

3. Misjudgement

Misreading your current situation can lead to wrong decisions. One common mistake is to treat the example URLs provided by Google as gospel and try to identify only links with the same patterns. Google provides a very small number of examples of unnatural links. Often, these examples are the most obvious and straightforward ones. However, you should look beyond these examples to fully address the issues and take the necessary actions against all types of unnatural links. 

Google is very clear on the matter: “Please correct or remove all inorganic links, not limited to the samples provided above.

Another common area of bad judgement is the inability to correctly identify unnatural links. This is a skill that requires years of experience in link auditing, as well as link building. Removing the wrong links won’t lift the penalty, and may also result in further ranking drops and loss of traffic. You must remove the right links.


4. Blind reliance on tools

There are numerous unnatural link-detection tools available on the market, and over the years I’ve had the chance to try out most (if not all) of them. Because (and without any exception) I’ve found them all very ineffective and inaccurate, I do not rely on any such tools for my day-to-day work. In some cases, a lot of the reported “high risk” links were 100% natural links, and in others, numerous toxic links were completely missed. If you have to manually review all the links to discover the unnatural ones, ensuring you don’t accidentally remove any natural ones, it makes no sense to pay for tools. 

If you solely rely on automated tools to identify the unnatural links, you will need a miracle for your reconsideration request to be successful. The only tool you really need is a powerful backlink crawler that can accurately report the current link status of each URL you have collected. You should then manually review all currently active links and decide which ones to remove. 

I could write an entire book on the numerous flaws and bugs I have come across each time I’ve tried some of the most popular link auditing tools. A lot of these issues can be detrimental to the outcome of the reconsideration request. I have seen many reconsiderations request fail because of this. If Google cannot algorithmically identify all unnatural links and must operate entire teams of humans to review the sites (and their links), you shouldn’t trust a $99/month service to identify the unnatural links.

If you have an in-depth understanding of Google’s link schemes, you can build your own process to prioritize which links are more likely to be unnatural, as I described in this post (see sections 7 & 8). In an ideal world, you should manually review every single link pointing to your site. Where this isn’t possible (e.g., when dealing with an enormous numbers of links or resources are unavailable), you should at least focus on the links that have the more “unnatural” signals and manually review them.

5. Not looking beyond direct links

When trying to lift a link-related penalty, you need to look into all the links that may be pointing to your site directly or indirectly. Such checks include reviewing all links pointing to other sites that have been redirected to your site, legacy URLs with external inbound links that have been internally redirected owned, and third-party sites that include cross-domain canonicals to your site. For sites that used to buy and redirect domains in order increase their rankings, the quickest solution is to get rid of the redirects. Both Majestic SEO and Ahrefs report redirects, but some manual digging usually reveals a lot more.

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6. Not looking beyond the first link

All major link intelligence tools, including Majestic SEO, Ahrefs and Open Site Explorer, report only the first link pointing to a given site when crawling a page. This means that, if you overly rely on automated tools to identify links with commercial keywords, the vast majority of them will only take into consideration the first link they discover on a page. If a page on the web links just once to your site, this is not big deal. But if there are multiple links, the tools will miss all but the first one.

For example, if a page has five different links pointing to your site, and the first one includes a branded anchor text, these tools will just report the first link. Most of the link-auditing tools will in turn evaluate the link as “natural” and completely miss the other four links, some of which may contain manipulative anchor text. The more links that get missed this way the more likely your reconsideration request will fail.

7. Going too thin

Many SEOs and webmasters (still) feel uncomfortable with the idea of losing links. They cannot accept the idea of links that once helped their rankings are now being devalued, and must be removed. There is no point trying to save “authoritative”, unnatural links out of fear of losing rankings. If the main objective is to lift the penalty, then all unnatural links need to be removed.

Often, in the first reconsideration request, SEOs and site owners tend to go too thin, and in the subsequent attempts start cutting deeper. If you are already aware of the unnatural links pointing to your site, try to get rid of them from the very beginning. I have seen examples of unnatural links provided by Google on PR 9/DA 98 sites. Metrics do not matter when it comes to lifting a penalty. If a link is manipulative, it has to go.

In any case, Google’s decision won’t be based only on the number of links that have been removed. Most important in the search giant’s eyes are the quality of links still pointing to your site. If the remaining links are largely of low quality, the reconsideration request will almost certainly fail. 

8. Insufficient effort to remove links

Google wants to see a “good faith” effort to get as many links removed as possible. The higher the percentage of unnatural links removed, the better. Some agencies and SEO consultants tend to rely too much on the use of the disavow tool. However, this isn’t a panacea, and should be used as a last resort for removing those links that are impossible to remove—after exhausting all possibilities to physically remove them via the time-consuming (yet necessary) outreach route. 

Google is very clear on this:

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Even if you’re unable to remove all of the links that need to be removed, you must be able to demonstrate that you’ve made several attempts to have them removed, which can have a favorable impact on the outcome of the reconsideration request. Yes, in some cases it might be possible to have a penalty lifted simply by disavowing instead of removing the links, but these cases are rare and this strategy may backfire in the future. When I reached out to ex-googler Fili Wiese’s for some advice on the value of removing the toxic links (instead of just disavowing them), his response was very straightforward:

V3TmCrj.jpg 

9. Ineffective outreach

Simply identifying the unnatural links won’t get the penalty lifted unless a decent percentage of the links have been successfully removed. The more communication channels you try, the more likely it is that you reach the webmaster and get the links removed. Sending the same email hundreds or thousands of times is highly unlikely to result in a decent response rate. Trying to remove a link from a directory is very different from trying to get rid of a link appearing in a press release, so you should take a more targeted approach with a well-crafted, personalized email. Link removal request emails must be honest and to the point, or else they’ll be ignored.

Tracking the emails will also help in figuring out which messages have been read, which webmasters might be worth contacting again, or alert you of the need to try an alternative means of contacting webmasters.

Creativity, too, can play a big part in the link removal process. For example, it might be necessary to use social media to reach the right contact. Again, don’t trust automated emails or contact form harvesters. In some cases, these applications will pull in any email address they find on the crawled page (without any guarantee of who the information belongs to). In others, they will completely miss masked email addresses or those appearing in images. If you really want to see that the links are removed, outreach should be carried out by experienced outreach specialists. Unfortunately, there aren’t any shortcuts to effective outreach.

10. Quality issues and human errors

All sorts of human errors can occur when filing a reconsideration request. The most common errors include submitting files that do not exist, files that do not open, files that contain incomplete data, and files that take too long to load. You need to triple-check that the files you are including in your reconsideration request are read-only, and that anyone with the URL can fully access them. 

Poor grammar and language is also bad practice, as it may be interpreted as “poor effort.” You should definitely get the reconsideration request proofread by a couple of people to be sure it is flawless. A poorly written reconsideration request can significantly hinder your overall efforts.

Quality issues can also occur with the disavow file submission. Disavowing at the URL level isn’t recommended because the link(s) you want to get rid of are often accessible to search engines via several URLs you may be unaware of. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that you disavow at the domain or sub-domain level.

11. Insufficient evidence

How does Google know you have done everything you claim in your reconsideration request? Because you have to prove each claim is valid, you need to document every single action you take, from sent emails and submitted forms, to social media nudges and phone calls. The more information you share with Google in your reconsideration request, the better. This is the exact wording from Google:

“ …we will also need to see good-faith efforts to remove a large portion of inorganic links from the web wherever possible.”

12. Bad communication

How you communicate your link cleanup efforts is as essential as the work you are expected to carry out. Not only do you need to explain the steps you’ve taken to address the issues, but you also need to share supportive information and detailed evidence. The reconsideration request is the only chance you have to communicate to Google which issues you have identified, and what you’ve done to address them. Being honest and transparent is vital for the success of the reconsideration request.

There is absolutely no point using the space in a reconsideration request to argue with Google. Some of the unnatural links examples they share may not always be useful (e.g., URLs that include nofollow links, removed links, or even no links at all). But taking the argumentative approach veritably guarantees your request will be denied.

54adb6e0227790.04405594.jpg
Cropped from photo by Keith Allison, licensed under Creative Commons.

Conclusion

Getting a Google penalty lifted requires a good understanding of why you have been penalized, a flawless process and a great deal of hands-on work. Performing link audits for the purpose of lifting a penalty can be very challenging, and should only be carried out by experienced consultants. If you are not 100% sure you can take all the required actions, seek out expert help rather than looking for inexpensive (and ineffective) automated solutions. Otherwise, you will almost certainly end up wasting weeks or months of your precious time, and in the end, see your request denied.

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Reblogged 3 years ago from moz.com

International SEO Study: How Searchers Perceive Country Code Top-Level Domains

Posted by 5le

The decision to focus your site on an international audience is a big step and one fraught with complexities. There are, of course, issues to deal with around language and user experience, but in addition there are some big technical choices to make including what domains to use.

Any authoritative
international SEO guide will elaborate on the differences between the options of subdirectory, subdomain, and country-code top level domain (CCTLD). One of the most common suggestions is for a site to opt to use a ccTLD (e.g. domain.co.uk) as the domain extension. The reasoning behind this is the theory that the ccTLD extension will “hint” to search engines and users exactly who your target audience should be versus the other, less explicit options. For example, a search engine and human user would know, even without clicking into a site, that a site that ends with .co.uk is targeting a user looking for UK content. 

We have solid data from
Google that a ccTLD does indicate country targeting; however, when it comes to users there is only an assumption that users even notice and make choices based on the ccTLD. However, this is a fairly broad assumption that doesn’t address whether a ccTLD is more important than a brand name in the domain or the quality of a website’s content. To test this theory, we ran a survey to discover what users really thought.

User knowledge of TLDs

Even before trying to understand how users related to ccTLDs it is essential to validate the assumption that users even know that general TLDs exist. To establish this fact, we asked respondents to pick which TLD might be the one in use by a non-profit. Close to
100% of respondents correctly identified a TLD ending with .org as the one most likely to be used by a non-profit. Interestingly, only 4% of people in the US stated that they were unsure of the correct TLD compared to 13% of Australians. Predictably, nearly all marketers (98%) chose the .org answer.

Another popular TLD is the .edu in use by educational assumptions, and we wanted to understand if users thought that content coming from a .edu domain might be more trustworthy. We asked users if they received an unsolicited email about water quality in their town whether they would place more trust in a sender’s email address that ended with .edu or .com.
89% of respondents in the US chose the .edu as more trustworthy, while only 79% said the same in Australia. Quite interestingly, the marketer responses (from the survey posted on Inbound.org were exactly the same as the Australians with 79% declaring the .edu to be more trustworthy.

.org cctld survey australia

If users can identify a .org as the correct TLD for a non-profit, and a .edu as a TLD that might be more trustworthy, it is likely that users are familiar with the existence of TLDs and how they might be used. The next question to answer is if users are aware of the connection between TLDs and locations.

Country relationship awareness

Next, we asked respondents to identify the location of a local business using a .ca TLD extension. The majority of respondents across all three surveys correctly chose Canada; and nearly all marketers (92%) got this correct. Oddly, more Australians (67%) correctly identified Canada than Americans (62%). We would have thought Americans should have been more familiar with the TLD of a neighboring country. Additionally, more Americans (23%) fell for the trick answer of California than Australians (15%). Regardless, we were able to conclude that most Internet users are aware of TLDs and that they are tied to a specific country.

canada cctld survey

To really gauge how much users know about TLDs and countries, we asked users to pick the right domain extension for a website in another country. In the US survey, we asked users to pick the correct TLD for an Australian company, and in the Australian survey we used a British company. In each of the questions we gave one correct answer possibility, one almost correct, and two entire wrong choices.For example, we gave .co.uk and .uk as answer choices to Australians.

In both the US and Australia, the majority of respondents chose the correct TLD, although Americans seem to have been confused by whether Australia’s TLD was .AU (35%) or .com.AU (24%).

There is a common practice of using country-code domain extensions as a vanity URL for content that is not geotargeted. For example, .ly is the domain extension for Libya, but it is frequently used on domains that have a word that ends with “ly.” Additionally, .me is the domain extension for Montenegro; however, the TLD is used for many purposes other than Montenegro content.

We wanted to understand if users noticed this type of TLD usage or if they thought the content might still be related to another country. We asked respondents what might be on a website that ended with .TV which is the TLD for the island nation of Tuvalu and is also a popular TLD for TV show websites. 51% of US respondents thought it might be a TV show and 42% chose the “it could be anything” answer. In Australia, 43% thought the site would be a TV show, and 44% said “it could be anything”.

tuvalu cctld survey

One of the answer options was that it could be a website in Tuvalu and interestingly twice as many Australian (9%) chose this option vs US respondents (4.5%). This question was one of the areas where marketers’ answers were very different from those in the US and Australia. 77% of marketers chose the TV show option and only 19% said it could be anything.

Based on the these three results, it is apparent that
users recognize TLDs, know that they are from other countries, and appear to make some judgments around the content based on the TLD.

Decision making using TLDs

Since users know that TLDs are an important part of a URL that is tied to a country of origin, it is important to understand how the TLD factors into their decision-making processes about whether or not they visit certain websites.

We asked users whether they thought medical content on a foreign TLD would be as reliable as similar content found on their local TLD. In the US, only 24% thought the content on the non-local TLD (.co.uk) was less reliable than content on a .com. In Australia, the results were nearly identical to what we saw in the US with only 28% answering that the non-local TLD (.co.uk) was less reliable than the content on a .com.au. Even 24% of marketers answered that the content was less reliable. The remaining respondents chose either that the content equally reliable or they just didn’t know. Based on these results, the TLD (at least as long as it was a reputable one)
does not seem to impact user trust.

UK cctld survey

Digging into the idea of trust and TLD a bit further, we asked the same reliability question about results on Google.com vs Google.de. In the US, 56% of respondents said that the results on Google.de are equally reliable to those on Google.com, and in Australia, 51% said the same thing when compared to Google.com.au. In the marketer survey, 66% of respondents said the results were equally reliable. The fact that the majority of respondents stated that results are equally reliable should mean that users are more focused on the brand portion of a domain rather than its country extension.

CcTLD’s impact on ecommerce

Making the decision to use a ccTLD on a website can be costly, so it is important to justify this cost with an actual revenue benefit. Therefore the real test of TLD choice is how it impacts revenue. This type of answer is of course hard to gauge in a survey where customers are not actually buying products, but we did want to try to see if there might be a way to measure purchasing decisions.

To achieve this result, we compared two different online retailers and asked respondents to choose the establishment that they thought would have the most reliable express shipping. In the US survey, we compared Amazon.co.jp to BestBuy.com. In the Australian survey, we compared Bigw.com.au (a well known online retailer) to Target.com. (Interesting fact: there is a Target in Australia that is not affiliated with Target in the US and their website is target.com.au) The intent of the question was to see if users zeroed in on the recognizable brand name or the domain extension.

cctld trust survey

In the US, while 39% said that both websites would offer reliable shipping, 42% still said that Best Buy would be the better option. Australians may have been confused by the incorrect Target website, since 61% said both websites would have reliable shipping, but 34% chose Big W. Even marketers didn’t seem oblivious to domain names with only 34% choosing the equally reliable option, and 49% choosing Best Buy. The data in this question is a bit inconclusive, but we can definitively say that while a large portion of users are blind to domain names, however, when selling online it would be best to use a familiar domain extension.

cctld trust survey australia

New TLDs

Late last year, ICANN (the Internet governing body) announced that they would be releasing dozens of new
GTLDs, which opened up a new domain name land grab harkening back to the early days of the Internet. Many of these domain names can be quite expensive, and we wanted to discover whether they even mattered to users.

gtld survey

We asked users if, based solely on the domain name, they were more likely to trust an insurance quote from a website ending in .insurance.
62% of Americans, 53% of Australians, and 67% of marketers said they were unlikely to trust the quote based on the domain alone. Based on this result, if you’re looking to invest in a new TLD simply to drive more conversions, you should probably do more research first. 

A new gTLD is probably not a silver bullet.

Methodology

For this survey, I collaborated with
Sam Mallikarjunan at HubSpot and we decided that the two assumptions we absolutely needed to validate where 1) whether users even notice ccTLDs and 2) if so do they really prefer the TLD of their country. While we received 101 responses from a version of the survey targeted at marketers on an Inbound.org discussion, we primarily used SurveyMonkey Audience, which allowed us to get answers from a statistically significant random selection of people in both the United States and Australia.

We created two nearly identical surveys with one targeted to a US-only audience and the other targeted to an Australian-only audience. A proper sample set is essential when conducting any survey that attempts to draw conclusions about people’s general behavior and preferences. And in this case, the minimum number of respondents we needed in order to capture a representative example was 350 for the U.S. and 300 for Australia.

Additionally, in order for a sample to be valid, the respondents have to be chosen completely at random. SurveyMonkey Audience recruits its 4-million+ members from SurveyMonkey’s 40 million annual unique visitors, and members are not paid for their participation. Instead, they are rewarded for taking surveys with charitable donations, made on their behalf by SurveyMonkey.

When tested against much larger research projects, Audience data has been exactly in line with larger sample sizes. For example, an Audience survey with just 400 respondents about a new Lay’s potato chip flavor had the same results as a wider contest that had 3 million participants.

SurveyMonkey’s survey research team was also able to use SurveyMonkey Audience to accurately predict election results in both 2012 and 2013. With a US sample size of 458 respondents and an Australian one of 312 all drawn at random, our ccTLD user preferences should reliably mirror the actual reality.

Summary

There will be many reasons that you may or may not want to use ccTLDs for your website, and a survey alone can never answer whether a ccTLD is the right strategy for any particular site. If you are thinking about making any big decisions about TLDs on your site, you should absolutely conduct some testing or surveying of your own before relying on just the recommendations of those who advise a TLD as the best strategy or the others that tell you it doesn’t matter at all.

Launching a PPC campaign with a landing page on a ccTLD and measuring CTRs against a control is far cheaper than replicating your entire site on a new TLD.

Based on our survey results, here’s what you should keep in mind when it comes to whether or not investing your time and money in a ccTLD is worth it:

  1. Users are absolutely aware of the TLDs and how they might relate to the contents of a website
  2. Users are aware of the connection between TLDs and countries
  3. Users do make decisions about websites based on the TLD; however there are no absolutes. Brand and content absolutely matter.

As to whether a ccTLD will work for you on your own site, give it a try and report back!

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

Reblogged 3 years ago from moz.com

Your Google Algorithm Cheat Sheet: Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird

Posted by MarieHaynes

If you’re reading the Moz blog, then you probably have a decent understanding of Google and its algorithm changes. However, there is probably a good percentage of the Moz audience that is still confused about the effects that Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird can have on your site. I did write a post last year about the main 
differences between Penguin and a Manual Unnautral Links Penalty, and if you haven’t read that, it’ll give you a good primer.

The point of this article is to explain very simply what each of these algorithms are meant to do. It is hopefully a good reference that you can point your clients to if you want to explain an algorithm change and not overwhelm them with technical details about 301s, canonicals, crawl errors, and other confusing SEO terminologies.

What is an algorithm change?

First of all, let’s start by discussing the Google algorithm. It’s immensely complicated and continues to get more complicated as Google tries its best to provide searchers with the information that they need. When search engines were first created, early search marketers were able to easily find ways to make the search engine think that their client’s site was the one that should rank well. In some cases it was as simple as putting in some code on the website called a meta keywords tag. The meta keywords tag would tell search engines what the page was about.

As Google evolved, its engineers, who were primarily focused on making the search engine results as relevant to users as possible, continued to work on ways to stop people from cheating, and looked at other ways to show the most relevant pages at the top of their searches. The algorithm now looks at hundreds of different factors. There are some that we know are significant such as having a good descriptive title (between the <title></title> tags in the code.) And there are many that are the subject of speculation such as 
whether or not Google +1’s contribute to a site’s rankings.

In the past, the Google algorithm would change very infrequently. If your site was sitting at #1 for a certain keyword, it was guaranteed to stay there until the next update which might not happen for weeks or months. Then, they would push out another update and things would change. They would stay that way until the next update happened. If you’re interested in reading about how Google used to push updates out of its index, you may find this 
Webmaster World forum thread from 2002 interesting. (Many thanks to Paul Macnamara  for explaining to me how algo changes used to work on Google in the past and pointing me to the Webmaster World thread.)

This all changed with launch of “Caffeine” in 2010. Since Caffeine launched, the search engine results have been changing several times a day rather than every few weeks. Google makes over 600 changes to its algorithm in a year, and the vast majority of these are not announced. But, when Google makes a really big change, they give it a name, usually make an announcement, and everyone in the SEO world goes crazy trying to figure out how to understand the changes and use them to their advantage.

Three of the biggest changes that have happened in the last few years are the Panda algorithm, the Penguin algorithm and Hummingbird.

What is the Panda algorithm?

Panda first launched on February 23, 2011. It was a big deal. The purpose of Panda was to try to show high-quality sites higher in search results and demote sites that may be of lower quality. This algorithm change was unnamed when it first came out, and many of us called it the “Farmer” update as it seemed to affect content farms. (Content farms are sites that aggregate information from many sources, often stealing that information from other sites, in order to create large numbers of pages with the sole purpose of ranking well in Google for many different keywords.) However, it affected a very large number of sites. The algorithm change was eventually officially named after one of its creators, Navneet Panda.

When Panda first happened, a lot of SEOs in forums thought that this algorithm was targeting sites with unnatural backlink patterns. However, it turns out that links are most likely
not a part of the Panda algorithm. It is all about on-site quality.

In most cases, sites that were affected by Panda were hit quite hard. But, I have also seen sites that have taken a slight loss on the date of a Panda update. Panda tends to be a site-wide issue which means that it doesn’t just demote certain pages of your site in the search engine results, but instead, Google considers the entire site to be of lower quality. In some cases though Panda can affect just a section of a site such as a news blog or one particular subdomain.

Whenever a Google employee is asked about what needs to be done to recover from Panda, they refer to a 
blog post by Google Employee Amit Singhal that gives a checklist that you can use on your site to determine if your site really is high quality or not. Here is the list:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?
  • Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  • Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  • Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  • Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  • Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  • Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

Phew! That list is pretty overwhelming! These questions do not necessarily mean that Google tries to algorithmically figure out whether your articles are interesting or whether you have told both sides of a story. Rather, the questions are there because all of these factors can contribute to how real-life users would rate the quality of your site. No one really knows all of the factors that Google uses in determining the quality of your site through the eyes of Panda. Ultimately though, the focus is on creating the best site possible for your users.  It is also important that only your best stuff is given to Google to have in its index. There are a few factors that are widely accepted as important things to look at in regards to Panda:

Thin content

A “thin” page is a page that adds little or no value to someone who is reading it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a page has to be a certain number of words, but quite often, pages with very few words are not super-helpful. If you have a large number of pages on your site that contain just one or two sentences and those pages are all included in the Google index, then the Panda algorithm may determine that the majority of your indexed pages are of low quality.

Having the odd thin page is not going to cause you to run in to Panda problems. But, if a big enough portion of your site contains pages that are not helpful to users, then that is not good.

Duplicate content

There are several ways that duplicate content can cause your site to be viewed as a low-quality site by the Panda algorithm. The first is when a site has a large amount of content that is copied from other sources on the web. Let’s say that you have a blog on your site and you populate that blog with articles that are taken from other sources. Google is pretty good at figuring out that you are not the creator of this content. If the algorithm can see that a large portion of your site is made up of content that exists on other sites then this can cause Panda to look at you unfavorably.

You can also run into problems with duplicated content on your own site. One example would be for a site that has a large number of products for sale. Perhaps each product has a separate page for each color variation and size. But, all of these pages are essentially the same. If one product comes in 20 different colors and each of those come in 6 different sizes, then that means that you have 120 pages for the same product, all of which are almost identical. Now, imagine that you sell 4,000 products. This means that you’ve got almost half a million pages in the Google index when really 4,000 pages would suffice. In this type of situation, the fix for this problem is to use something called a canonical tag. Moz has got a really good guide on using canonical tags 
here, and Dr. Pete has also written this great article on canonical tag use

Low-quality content

When I write an article and publish it on one of my websites, the only type of information that I want to present to Google is information that is the absolute best of its kind. In the past, many SEOs have given advice to site owners saying that it was important to blog every day and make sure that you are always adding content for Google to index. But, if what you are producing is not high quality content, then you could be doing more harm than good. A lot of Amit Singhal’s questions listed above are asking whether the content on your site is valuable to readers. Let’s say that I have an SEO blog and every day I take a short blurb from each of the interesting SEO articles that I have read online and publish it as a blog post on my site. Is Google going to want to show searchers my summary of these articles, or would they rather show them the actual articles? Of course my summary is not going to be as valuable as the real thing! Now, let’s say that I have done this every day for 4 years. Now my site has over 4,000 pages that contain information that is not unique and not as valuable as other sites on the same topics.

Here is another example. Let’s say that I am a plumber. I’ve been told that I should blog regularly, so several times a week I write a 2-3 paragraph article on things like, “How to fix a leaky faucet” or “How to unclog a toilet.” But, I’m busy and don’t have much time to put into my website so each article I’ve written contains keywords in the title and a few times in the content, but the content is not in depth and is not that helpful to readers. If the majority of the pages on my site contain information that no one is engaging with, then this can be a sign of low quality in the eyes of the Panda algorithm.

There are other factors that probably play a roll in the Panda algorithm.  Glenn Gabe recently wrote an 
excellent article on his evaluation of sites affected by the most recent Panda update.  His bullet point list of things to improve upon when affected by Panda is extremely thorough.

How to recover from a Panda hit

Google refreshes the Panda algorithm approximately monthly. They used to announce whenever they were refreshing the algorithm, but now they only do this if there is a really big change to the Panda algorithm. What happens when the Panda algorithm refreshes is that Google takes a new look at each site on the web and determines whether or not it looks like a quality site in regards to the criteria that the Panda algorithm looks at. If your site was adversely affected by Panda and you have made changes such as removing thin and duplicate content then, when Panda refreshes, you should see that things improve. However, for some sites it can take a couple of Panda refreshes to see the full extent of the improvements. This is because it can sometimes take several months for Google to revisit all of your pages and recognize the changes that you have made.

Every now and then, instead of just
refreshing the algorithm, Google does what they call an update. When an update happens, this means that Google has changed the criteria that they use to determine what is and isn’t considered high quality. On May 20, 2014, Google did a major update which they called Panda 4.0. This caused a lot of sites to see significant changes in regards to Panda:

Not all Panda recoveries are as dramatic as this one. But, if you have been affected by Panda and you work hard to make changes to your site, you really should see some improvement.

What is the Penguin algorithm?

Penguin

The Penguin algorithm initially rolled out on April 24, 2012. The goal of Penguin is to reduce the trust that Google has in sites that have cheated by creating unnatural backlinks in order to gain an advantage in the Google results. While the primary focus of Penguin is on unnatural links, there can be other 
factors that can affect a site in the eyes of Penguin as well. Links, though, are known to be by far the most important thing to look at.

Why are links important?

A link is like a vote for your site. If a well respected site links to your site, then this is a recommendation for your site. If a small, unknown site links to you then this vote is not going to count for as much as a vote from an authoritative site. Still, if you can get a large number of these small votes, they really can make a difference. This is why, in the past, SEOs would try to get as many links as they could from any possible source.

Another thing that is important in the Google algorithms is anchor text. Anchor text is the text that is underlined in a link. So, in this link to a great 
SEO blog, the anchor text would be “SEO blog.” If Moz.com gets a number of sites linking to them using the anchor text “SEO blog,” that is a hint to Google that people searching for “SEO blog” probably want to see sites like Moz in their search results.

It’s not hard to see how people could manipulate this part of the algorithm. Let’s say that I am doing SEO for a landscaping company in Orlando. In the past, one of the ways that I could cheat the algorithm into thinking that my company should be ranked highly would be to create a bunch of self made links and use anchor text in these links that contain phrases like
Orlando Landscaping Company, Landscapers in Orlando and Orlando Landscaping. While an authoritative link from a well respected site is good, what people discovered is that creating a large number of links from low quality sites was quite effective. As such, what SEOs would do is create links from easy to get places like directory listings, self made articles, and links in comments and forum posts.

While we don’t know exactly what factors the Penguin algorithm looks at, what we do know is that this type of low quality, self made link is what the algorithm is trying to detect. In my mind, the Penguin algorithm is sort of like Google putting a “trust factor” on your links. I used to tell people that Penguin could affect a site on a page or even a keyword level, but Google employee John Mueller has said several times now that Penguin is a sitewide algorithm. This means that if the Penguin algorithm determines that a large number of the links to your site are untrustworthy, then this reduces Google’s trust in your entire site. As such, the whole site will see a reduction in rankings.  

While Penguin affected a lot of sites drastically, I have seen many sites that saw a small reduction in rankings.  The difference, of course, depends on the amount of link manipulation that has been done.

How to recover from a Penguin hit?

Penguin is a filter just like Panda. What that means, is that the algorithm is re-run periodically and sites are re-evaluated with each re-run. At this point it is not run very often at all. The last update was October 4, 2013 which means that we have currently been waiting eight months for a new Penguin update. In order to recover from Penguin, you need to identify the unnatural links pointing to your site and either remove them, or if you can’t remove them you can ask Google to no longer count them by using the 
disavow tool. Then, the next time that Penguin refreshes or updates, if you have done a good enough job at cleaning up your unnatural links, you will once again regain trust in Google’s eyes.  In some cases, it can take a couple of refreshes in order for a site to completely escape Penguin because it can take up to 6 months for all of a site’s disavow file to be completely processed.

If you are not certain how to identify which links to your site are unnatural, here are some good resources for you:

The disavow tool is something that you probably should only be using if you really understand how it works. It is potentially possible for you to do more harm than good to your site if you disavow the wrong links. Here is some information on using the disavow tool:

It’s important to note that when sites “recover” from Penguin, they often don’t skyrocket up to top rankings once again as those previously high rankings were probably based on the power of links that are now considered unnatural. Here is some information on 
what to expect when you have recovered from a link based penalty or algorithmic issue.

Also, the Penguin algorithm is not the same thing as a manual unnatural links penalty. You do not need to file a reconsideration request to recover from Penguin. You also do not need to document the work that you have done in order to get links removed as no Google employee will be manually reviewing your work. As mentioned previously, here is more information on the 
difference between the Penguin algorithm and a manual unnatural links penalty.

What is Hummingbird?

Hummingbird is a completely different animal than Penguin or Panda. (Yeah, I know…that was a bad pun.) I will commonly get people emailing me telling me that Hummingbird destroyed their rankings. I would say that in almost every case that I have evalutated, this was not true. Google made their announcement about Hummingbird on September 26, 2013. However, at that time, they announced that Hummingbird had already been live for about a month. If the Hummingbird algorithm was truly responsible for catastrophic ranking fluctuations then we really should have seen an outcry from the SEO world of something drastic happening in August of 2013, and this did not happen. There did seem to be some type of fluctuation that happened around August 21 as reported here on Search Engine Round Table, but there were not many sites that reported huge ranking changes on that day.

If you think that Hummingbird affected you, it’s not a bad idea to look at your traffic to see if you noticed a drop on October 4, 2013 which was actually a refresh of the Penguin algorithm. I believe that a lot of people who thought that they were affected by Hummingbird were actually affected by Penguin which happened just a week after Google made their announcement about Hummingbird.

There are some excellent articles on Hummingbird here and here. Hummingbird was a complete overhaul of the entire Google algorithm. As Danny Sullivan put it, if you consider the Google algorithm as an engine, Panda and Penguin are algorithm changes that were like putting a new part in the engine such as a filter or a fuel pump. But, Hummingbird wasn’t just a new part; it was a completely new engine. That new engine still makes use of many of the old parts (such as Panda and Penguin) but a good amount of the engine is completely original.

The goal of the Hummingbird algorithm is for Google to better understand a user’s query. Bill Slawski who writes about Google patents has a great example of this in his post here. He explains that when someone searches for “What is the best place to find and eat Chicago deep dish style pizza?”, Hummingbird is able to discern that by “place” the user likely would be interested in results that show “restaurants”. There is speculation that these changes were necessary in order for Google’s voice search to be more effective. When we’re typing a search query, we might type, “best Seattle SEO company” but when we’re speaking a query (i.e. via Google Glass or via Google Now) we’re more likely to say something like, “Which firm in Seattle offers the best SEO services?” The point of Hummingbird is to better understand what users mean when they have queries like this.

So how do I recover or improve in the eyes of Hummingbird?

If you read the posts referenced above, the answer to this question is essentially to create content that answers users queries rather than just trying to rank for a particular keyword. But really, this is what you should already be doing!

It appears that Google’s goal with all of these algorithm changes (Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird) is to encourage webmasters to publish content that is the best of its kind. Google’s goal is to deliver answers to people who are searching. If you can produce content that answers people’s questions, then you’re on the right track.

I know that that is a really vague answer when it comes to “recovering” from Hummingbird. Hummingbird really is different than Panda and Penguin. When a site has been demoted by the Panda or Penguin algorithm, it’s because Google has lost some trust in the site’s quality, whether it is on-site quality or the legitimacy of its backlinks. If you fix those quality issues you can regain the algorithm’s trust and subsequently see improvements. But, if your site seems to be doing poorly since the launch of Hummingbird, then there really isn’t a way to recover those keyword rankings that you once held. You can, however, get new traffic by finding ways to be more thorough and complete in what your website offers.

Do you have more questions?

My goal in writing this article was to have a resource to point people to when they had basic questions about Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird. Recently, when I published my penalty newsletter, I had a small business owner comment that it was very interesting but that most of it went over their head. I realized that many people outside of the SEO world are greatly affected by these algorithm changes, but don’t have much information on why they have affected their website.

Do you have more questions about Panda, Penguin or Hummingbird? If so, I’d be happy to address them in the comments. I also would love for those of you who are experienced with dealing with websites affected by these issues to comment as well.

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