How Much Has Link Building Changed in Recent Years?

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

I get asked this question a lot. It’s mainly asked by people who are considering buying my link building book and want to know whether it’s still up to date. This is understandable given that the first edition was published in February 2013 and our industry has a deserved reputation for always changing.

I find myself giving the same answer, even though I’ve been asked it probably dozens of times in the last two years—”not that much”. I don’t think this is solely due to the book itself standing the test of time, although I’ll happily take a bit of credit for that 🙂 I think it’s more a sign of our industry as a whole not changing as much as we’d like to think.

I started to question myself and if I was right and honestly, it’s one of the reasons it has taken me over two years to release the second edition of the book.

So I posed this question to a group of friends not so long ago, some via email and some via a Facebook group. I was expecting to be called out by many of them because my position was that in reality, it hasn’t actually changed that much. The thing is, many of them agreed and the conversations ended with a pretty long thread with lots of insights. In this post, I’d like to share some of them, share what my position is and talk about what actually has changed.

My personal view

Link building hasn’t changed as much we think it has.

The core principles of link building haven’t changed. The signals around link building have changed, but mainly around new machine learning developments that have indirectly affected what we do. One thing that has definitely changed is the mindset of SEOs (and now clients) towards link building.

I think the last big change to link building came in April 2012 when Penguin rolled out. This genuinely did change our industry and put to bed a few techniques that should never have worked so well in the first place.

Since then, we’ve seen some things change, but the core principles haven’t changed if you want to build a business that will be around for years to come and not run the risk of being hit by a link related Google update. For me, these principles are quite simple:

  • You need to deserve links – either an asset you create or your product
  • You need to put this asset in front of a relevant audience who have the ability to share it
  • You need consistency – one new asset every year is unlikely to cut it
  • Anything that scales is at risk

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into all of this and I’ll talk about how this relates to link building.

The typical mindset for building links has changed

I think that most SEOs are coming round to the idea that you can’t get away with building low quality links any more, not if you want to build a sustainable, long-term business. Spammy link building still works in the short-term and I think it always will, but it’s much harder than it used to be to sustain websites that are built on spam. The approach is more “churn and burn” and spammers are happy to churn through lots of domains and just make a small profit on each one before moving onto another.

For everyone else, it’s all about the long-term and not putting client websites at risk.

This has led to many SEOs embracing different forms of link building and generally starting to use content as an asset when it comes to attracting links. A big part of me feels that it was actually Penguin in 2012 that drove the rise of content marketing amongst SEOs, but that’s a post for another day…! For today though, this goes some way towards explain the trend we see below.

Slowly but surely, I’m seeing clients come to my company already knowing that low quality link building isn’t what they want. It’s taken a few years after Penguin for it to filter down to client / business owner level, but it’s definitely happening. This is a good thing but unfortunately, the main reason for this is that most of them have been burnt in the past by SEO companies who have built low quality links without giving thought to building good quality ones too.

I have no doubt that it’s this change in mindset which has led to trends like this:

The thing is, I don’t think this was by choice.

Let’s be honest. A lot of us used the kind of link building tactics that Google no longer like because they worked. I don’t think many SEOs were under the illusion that it was genuinely high quality stuff, but it worked and it was far less risky to do than it is today. Unless you were super-spammy, the low-quality links just worked.

Fast forward to a post-Penguin world, things are far more risky. For me, it’s because of this that we see the trends like the above. As an industry, we had the easiest link building methods taken away from us and we’re left with fewer options. One of the main options is content marketing which, if you do it right, can lead to good quality links and importantly, the types of links you won’t be removing in the future. Get it wrong and you’ll lose budget and lose the trust if your boss or client in the power of content when it comes to link building.

There are still plenty of other methods to build links and sometimes we can forget this. Just look at this epic list from Jon Cooper. Even with this many tactics still available to us, it’s hard work. Way harder than it used to be.

My summary here is that as an industry, our mindset has shifted but it certainly wasn’t a voluntary shift. If the tactics that Penguin targeted still worked today, we’d still be using them.

A few other opinions…

I definitely think too many people want the next easy win. As someone surfing the edge of what Google is bringing our way, here’s my general take—SEO, in broad strokes, is changing a lot, *but* any given change is more and more niche and impacts fewer people. What we’re seeing isn’t radical, sweeping changes that impact everyone, but a sort of modularization of SEO, where we each have to be aware of what impacts our given industries, verticals, etc.”

Dr. Pete

 

I don’t feel that techniques for acquiring links have changed that much. You can either earn them through content and outreach or you can just buy them. What has changed is the awareness of “link building” outside of the SEO community. This makes link building / content marketing much harder when pitching to journalists and even more difficult when pitching to bloggers.

“Link building has to be more integrated with other channels and struggles to work in its own environment unless supported by brand, PR and social. Having other channels supporting your link development efforts also creates greater search signals and more opportunity to reach a bigger audience which will drive a greater ROI.

Carl Hendy

 

SEO has grown up in terms of more mature staff and SEOs becoming more ingrained into businesses so there is a smarter (less pressure) approach. At the same time, SEO has become more integrated into marketing and has made marketing teams and decision makers more intelligent in strategies and not pushing for the quick win. I’m also seeing that companies who used to rely on SEO and building links have gone through IPOs and the need to build 1000s of links per quarter has rightly reduced.

Danny Denhard

Signals that surround link building have changed

There is no question about this one in my mind. I actually wrote about this last year in my previous blog post where I talked about signals such as anchor text and deep links changing over time.

Many of the people I asked felt the same, here are some quotes from them, split out by the types of signal.

Domain level link metrics

I think domain level links have become increasingly important compared with page level factors, i.e. you can get a whole site ranking well off the back of one insanely strong page, even with sub-optimal PageRank flow from that page to the rest of the site.

Phil Nottingham

I’d agree with Phil here and this is what I was getting at in my previous post on how I feel “deep links” will matter less over time. It’s not just about domain level links here, it’s just as much about the additional signals available for Google to use (more on that later).

Anchor text

I’ve never liked anchor text as a link signal. I mean, who actually uses exact match commercial keywords as anchor text on the web?

SEOs. 🙂

Sure there will be natural links like this, but honestly, I struggle with the idea that it took Google so long to start turning down the dial on commercial anchor text as a ranking signal. They are starting to turn it down though, slowly but surely. Don’t get me wrong, it still matters and it still works. But like pure link spam, the barrier is a lot more lower now in terms what of constitutes too much.

Rand feels that they matter more than we’d expect and I’d mostly agree with this statement:

Exact match anchor text links still have more power than you’d expect—I think Google still hasn’t perfectly sorted what is “brand” or “branded query” from generics (i.e. they want to start ranking a new startup like meldhome.com for “Meld” if the site/brand gets popular, but they can’t quite tell the difference between that and https://moz.com/learn/seo/redirection getting a few manipulative links that say “redirect”)

Rand Fishkin

What I do struggle with though, is that Google still haven’t figured this out and that short-term, commercial anchor text spam is still so effective. Even for a short burst of time.

I don’t think link building as a concept has changed loads—but I think links as a signal have, mainly because of filters and penalties but I don’t see anywhere near the same level of impact from coverage anymore, even against 18 months ago.

Paul Rogers

New signals have been introduced

It isn’t just about established signals changing though, there are new signals too and I personally feel that this is where we’ve seen the most change in Google algorithms in recent years—going all the way back to Panda in 2011.

With Panda, we saw a new level of machine learning where it almost felt like Google had found a way of incorporating human reaction / feelings into their algorithms. They could then run this against a website and answer questions like the ones included in this post. Things such as:

  • “Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?”
  • “Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?”
  • “Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?”

It is a touch scary that Google was able to run machine learning against answers to questions like this and write an algorithm to predict the answers for any given page on the web. They have though and this was four years ago now.

Since then, they’ve made various moves to utilize machine learning and AI to build out new products and improve their search results. For me, this was one of the biggest and went pretty unnoticed by our industry. Well, until Hummingbird came along I feel pretty sure that we have Ray Kurzweil to thank for at least some of that.

There seems to be more weight on theme/topic related to sites, though it’s hard to tell if this is mostly link based or more user/usage data based. Google is doing a good job of ranking sites and pages that don’t earn the most links but do provide the most relevant/best answer. I have a feeling they use some combination of signals to say “people who perform searches like this seem to eventually wind up on this website—let’s rank it.” One of my favorite examples is the Audubon Society ranking for all sorts of birding-related searches with very poor keyword targeting, not great links, etc. I think user behavior patterns are stronger in the algo than they’ve ever been.

– Rand Fishkin

Leading on from what Rand has said, it’s becoming more and more common to see search results that just don’t make sense if you look at the link metrics—but are a good result.

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning advanced has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Edit: since drafting this post, Tom Anthony released this excellent blog post on his views on the future of search and the shift to data-driven results. I’d recommend reading that as it approaches this whole area from a different perspective and I feel that an off-shoot of what Tom is talking about is the impact on link building.

You may be asking at this point, what does machine learning have to do with link building?

Everything. Because as strong as links are as a ranking signal, Google want more signals and user signals are far, far harder to manipulate than established link signals. Yes it can be done—I’ve seen it happen. There have even been a few public tests done. But it’s very hard to scale and I’d venture a guess that only the top 1% of spammers are capable of doing it, let alone maintaining it for a long period of time. When I think about the process for manipulation here, I actually think we go a step beyond spammers towards hackers and more cut and dry illegal activity.

For link building, this means that traditional methods of manipulating signals are going to become less and less effective as these user signals become stronger. For us as link builders, it means we can’t keep searching for that silver bullet or the next method of scaling link building just for an easy win. The fact is that scalable link building is always going to be at risk from penalization from Google—I don’t really want to live a life where I’m always worried about my clients being hit by the next update. Even if Google doesn’t catch up with a certain method, machine learning and user data mean that these methods may naturally become less effective and cost efficient over time.

There are of course other things such as social signals that have come into play. I certainly don’t feel like these are a strong ranking factor yet, but with deals like this one between Google and Twitter being signed, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ever-growing dataset is used at some point in organic results. The one advantage that Twitter has over Google is it’s breaking news freshness. Twitter is still way quicker at breaking news than Google is—140 characters in a tweet is far quicker than Google News! Google know this which is why I feel they’ve pulled this partnership back into existence after a couple of years apart.

There is another important point to remember here and it’s nicely summarised by Dr. Pete:

At the same time, as new signals are introduced, these are layers not replacements. People hear social signals or user signals or authorship and want it to be the link-killer, because they already fucked up link-building, but these are just layers on top of on-page and links and all of the other layers. As each layer is added, it can verify the layers that came before it and what you need isn’t the magic signal but a combination of signals that generally matches what Google expects to see from real, strong entities. So, links still matter, but they matter in concert with other things, which basically means it’s getting more complicated and, frankly, a bit harder. Of course, on one wants to hear that.”

– Dr. Pete

The core principles have not changed

This is the crux of everything for me. With all the changes listed above, the key is that the core principles around link building haven’t changed. I could even argue that Penguin didn’t change the core principles because the techniques that Penguin targeted should never have worked in the first place. I won’t argue this too much though because even Google advised website owners to build directory links at one time.

You need an asset

You need to give someone a reason to link to you. Many won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart! One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a content asset and use this as your reason to make people care. Once you’ve made someone care, they’re more likely to share the content or link to it from somewhere.

You need to promote that asset to the right audience

I really dislike the stance that some marketers take when it comes to content promotion—build great content and links will come.

No. Sorry but for the vast majority of us, that’s simply not true. The exceptions are people that sky dive from space or have huge existing audiences to leverage.

You simply have to spend time promoting your content or your asset for it to get shares and links. It is hard work and sometimes you can spend a long time on it and get little return, but it’s important to keep working at until you’re at a point where you have two things:

  • A big enough audience where you can almost guarantee at least some traffic to your new content along with some shares
  • Enough strong relationships with relevant websites who you can speak to when new content is published and stand a good chance of them linking to it

Getting to this point is hard—but that’s kind of the point. There are various hacks you can use along the way but it will take time to get right.

You need consistency

Leading on from the previous point. It takes time and hard work to get links to your content—the types of links that stand the test of time and you’re not going to be removing in 12 months time anyway! This means that you need to keep pushing content out and getting better each and every time. This isn’t to say you should just churn content out for the sake of it, far from it. I am saying that with each piece of content you create, you will learn to do at least one thing better the next time. Try to give yourself the leverage to do this.

Anything scalable is at risk

Scalable link building is exactly what Google has been trying to crack down on for the last few years. Penguin was the biggest move and hit some of the most scalable tactics we had at our disposal. When you scale something, you often lose some level of quality, which is exactly what Google doesn’t want when it comes to links. If you’re still relying on tactics that could fall into the scalable category, I think you need to be very careful and just look at the trend in the types of links Google has been penalizing to understand why.

The part Google plays in this

To finish up, I want to briefly talk about the part that Google plays in all of this and shaping the future they want for the web.

I’ve always tried to steer clear of arguments involving the idea that Google is actively pushing FUD into the community. I’ve preferred to concentrate more on things I can actually influence and change with my clients rather than what Google is telling us all to do.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about it.

General paranoia has increased. My bet is there are some companies out there carrying out zero specific linkbuilding activity through worry.

Dan Barker

Dan’s point is a very fair one and just a day or two after reading this in an email, I came across a page related to a client’s target audience that said:

“We are not publishing guest posts on SITE NAME any more. All previous guest posts are now deleted. For more information, see www.mattcutts.com/blog/guest-blogging/“.

I’ve reworded this as to not reveal the name of the site, but you get the point.

This is silly. Honestly, so silly. They are a good site, publish good content, and had good editorial standards. Yet they have ignored all of their own policies, hard work, and objectives to follow a blog post from Matt. I’m 100% confident that it wasn’t sites like this one that Matt was talking about in this blog post.

This is, of course, from the publishers’ angle rather than the link builders’ angle, but it does go to show the effect that statements from Google can have. Google know this so it does make sense for them to push out messages that make their jobs easier and suit their own objectives—why wouldn’t they? In a similar way, what did they do when they were struggling to classify at scale which links are bad vs. good and they didn’t have a big enough web spam team? They got us to do it for them 🙂

I’m mostly joking here, but you see the point.

The most recent infamous mobilegeddon update, discussed here by Dr. Pete is another example of Google pushing out messages that ultimately scared a lot of people into action. Although to be fair, I think that despite the apparent small impact so far, the broad message from Google is a very serious one.

Because of this, I think we need to remember that Google does have their own agenda and many shareholders to keep happy. I’m not in the camp of believing everything that Google puts out is FUD, but I’m much more sensitive and questioning of the messages now than I’ve ever been.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts in the comments.

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Leveraging Panda to Get Out of Product Feed Jail

Posted by MichaelC

This is a story about Panda, customer service, and differentiating your store from others selling the same products.

Many e-commerce websites get the descriptions, specifications, and imagery for products they sell from feeds or databases provided by the
manufacturers. The manufacturers might like this, as they control how their product is described and shown. However, it does their retailers
no good when they are trying to rank for searches for those products and they’ve got the exact same content as every other retailer. If the content
in the feed is thin, then you’ll have pages with…well….thin content. And if there’s a lot of content for the products, then you’ll have giant blocks of content that
Panda might spot as being the same as they’ve seen on many other sites. To throw salt on the wound, if the content is really crappy, badly written,
or downright wrong, then the retailers’ sites will look low-quality to Panda and users as well.

Many webmasters see Panda as a type of Google penalty—but it’s not, really. Panda is a collection of measurements Google
is taking of your web pages to try and give your pages a rating on how happy users are likely to be with those pages.
It’s not perfect, but then again—neither is your website.

Many SEO folks (including me) tend to focus on the kinds of tactical and structural things you can do to make Panda see
your web pages as higher quality: things like adding big, original images, interactive content like videos and maps, and
lots and lots and lots and lots of text. These are all good tactics, but let’s step back a bit and look at a specific
example to see WHY Panda was built to do this, and from that, what we can do as retailers to enrich the content we have
for e-commerce products where our hands are a bit tied—we’re getting a feed of product info from the manufacturers, the same
as every other retailer of those products.

I’m going to use a real-live example that I suffered through about a month ago. I was looking for a replacement sink
stopper for a bathroom sink. I knew the brand, but there wasn’t a part number on the part I needed to replace. After a few Google
searches, I think I’ve found it on Amazon:


Don’t you wish online shopping was always this exciting?

What content actually teaches the customer

All righty… my research has shown me that there are standard sizes for plug stoppers. In fact, I initially ordered a
“universal fit sink stopper.” Which didn’t fit. Then I found 3 standard diameters, and 5 or 6 standard lengths.
No problem…I possess that marvel of modern tool chests, a tape measure…so I measure the part I have that I need to replace. I get about 1.5″ x 5″.
So let’s scroll down to the product details to see if it’s a match:

Kohler sink stopper product info from hell

Whoa. 1.2 POUNDS? This sink stopper must be made of
Ununoctium.
The one in my hand weighs about an ounce. But the dimensions
are way off as well: a 2″ diameter stopper isn’t going to fit, and mine needs to be at least an inch longer.

I scroll down to the product description…maybe there’s more detail there, maybe the 2″ x 2″ is the box or something.

I've always wanted a sink stopper designed for long long

Well, that’s less than helpful, with a stupid typo AND incorrect capitalization AND a missing period at the end.
Doesn’t build confidence in the company’s quality control.

Looking at the additional info section, maybe this IS the right part…the weight quoted in there is about right:

Maybe this is my part after all

Where else customers look for answers

Next I looked at the questions and answers bit, which convinced me that it PROBABLY was the right part:

Customers will answer the question if the retailer won't...sometimes.

If I was smart, I would have covered my bets by doing what a bunch of other customers also did: buy a bunch of different parts,
and surely one of them will fit. Could there
possibly was a clearer signal that the product info was lacking than this?

If you can't tell which one to buy, buy them all!

In this case, that was probably smarter than spending another 1/2 hour of my time snooping around online. But in general, people
aren’t going to be willing to buy THREE of something just to make sure they get the right one. This cheap part was an exception.

So, surely SOMEONE out there has the correct dimensions of this part on their site—so I searched for the part number I saw on the Amazon
listing. But as it turned out, that crappy description and wrong weight and dimensions were on every site I found…because they came from
the manufacturer.

Better Homes and Gardens...but not better description.

A few of the sites had edited out the “designed for long long” bit, but apart from that, they were all the same.

What sucks for the customer is an opportunity for you

Many, many retailers are in this same boat—they get their product info from the manufacturer, and if the data sucks in their feed,
it’ll suck on their site. Your page looks weak to both users and to Panda, and it looks the same as everybody else’s page for that product…to
both users and to Panda. So (a) you won’t rank very well, and (b) if you DO manage to get a customer to that page, it’s not as likely to convert
to a sale.

What can you do to improve on this? Here’s a few tactics to consider.

1. Offer your own additional description and comments

Add a new field to your CMS for your own write-ups on products, and when you discover issues like the above, you can add your own information—and
make it VERY clear what’s the manufacturer’s stock info and what you’ve added (that’s VALUE-ADDED) as well. My client
Sports Car Market magazine does this with their collector car auction reports in their printed magazine:
they list the auction company’s description of the car, then their reporter’s assessment of the car. This is why I buy the magazine and not the auction catalog.

2. Solicit questions

Be sure you solicit questions on every product page—your customers will tell you what’s wrong or what important information is missing. Sure,
you’ve got millions of products to deal with, but what the customers are asking about (and your sales volume of course) will help you prioritize as well as
find the problems opportunities.

Amazon does a great job of enabling this, but in this case, I used the Feedback option to update the product info,
and got back a total
bull-twaddle email from the seller about how the dimensions are in the product description thank you for shopping with us, bye-bye.
I tried to help them, for free, and they shat on me.

3. But I don’t get enough traffic to get the questions

Don’t have enough site volume to get many customer requests? No problem, the information is out there for you on Amazon :-).
Take your most important products, and look them up on Amazon, and see what questions are being asked—then answer those ONLY on your own site.

4. What fits with what?

Create fitment/cross-reference charts for products.
You probably have in-house knowledge of what products fit/are compatible with what other products.
Just because YOU know a certain accessory fits all makes and models, because it’s some industry-standard size, doesn’t mean that the customer knows this.

If there’s a particular way to measure a product so you get the correct size, explain that (with photos of what you’re measuring, if it seems
at all complicated). I’m getting a new front door for my house. 

  • How big is the door I need? 
  • Do I measure the width of the door itself, or the width of the
    opening (probably 1/8″ wider)? 
  • Or if it’s pre-hung, do I measure the frame too? Is it inswing or outswing?
  • Right or left hinged…am I supposed to
    look at the door from inside the house or outside to figure this out? 

If you’re a door seller, this is all obvious stuff,
but it wasn’t obvious to me, and NOT having the info on a website means (a) I feel stupid, and (b) I’m going to look at your competitors’ sites
to see if they will explain it…and maybe I’ll find a door on THEIR site I like better anyway.

Again, prioritize based on customer requests.

5. Provide your own photos and measurements

If examples of the physical products are available to you, take your own photos, and take your own measurements.

In fact, take your OWN photo of YOURSELF taking the measurement—so the user can see exactly what part of the product you’re measuring.
In the photo below, you can see that I’m measuring the diameter of the stopper, NOT the hole in the sink, NOT the stopper plus the rubber gasket.
And no, Kohler, it’s NOT 2″ in diameter…by a long shot.

Don't just give the measurements, SHOW the measurements

Keep in mind, you shouldn’t have to tear apart your CMS to do any of this. You can put your additions in a new database table, just tied to the
core product content by SKU. In the page template code for the product page, you can check your database to see if you have any of your “extra bits” to display
alongside the feed content, and this way keep it separate from the core product catalog code. This will make updates to the CMS/product catalog less painful as well.

Fixing your content doesn’t have to be all that difficult, nor expensive

At this point, you’re probably thinking “hey, but I’ve got 1.2 million SKUs, and if I were to do this, it’d take me 20 years to update all of them.”
FINE. Don’t update all of them. Prioritize, based on factors like what you sell the most of, what you make the best margin on, what customers
ask questions about the most, etc. Maybe concentrate on your top 5% in terms of sales, and do those first. Take all that money you used to spend
buying spammy links every month, and spend it instead on junior employees or interns doing the product measurements, extra photos, etc.

And don’t be afraid to spend a little effort on a low value product, if it’s one that frequently gets questions from customers.
Simple things can make a life-long fan of the customer. I once needed to replace a dishwasher door seal, and didn’t know if I needed special glue,
special tools, how to cut it to fit with or without overlap, etc.
I found a video on how to do the replacement on
RepairClinic.com. So easy!
They got my business for the $10 seal, of course…but now I order my $50 fridge water filter from them every six months as well.

Benefits to your conversion rate

Certainly the tactics we’ve talked about will improve your conversion rate from visitors to purchasers. If JUST ONE of those sites I looked at for that damn sink stopper
had the right measurement (and maybe some statement about how the manufacturer’s specs above are actually incorrect, we measured, etc.), I’d have stopped right there
and bought from that site.

What does this have to do with Panda?

But, there’s a Panda benefit here too. You’ve just added a bunch of additional, unique text to your site…and maybe a few new unique photos as well.
Not only are you going to convert better, but you’ll probably rank better too.

If you’re NOT Amazon, or eBay, or Home Depot, etc., then Panda is your secret weapon to help you rank against those other sites whose backlink profiles are
stronger than
carbon fibre (that’s a really cool video, by the way).
If you saw my
Whiteboard Friday on Panda optimization, you’ll know that
Panda tuning can overcome incredible backlink profile deficits.

It’s go time

We’re talking about tactics that are time-consuming, yes—but relatively easy to implement, using relatively inexpensive staff (and in some
cases, your customers are doing some of the work for you).
And it’s something you can roll out a product at a time.
You’ll be doing things that really DO make your site a better experience for the user…we’re not just trying to trick Panda’s measurements.

  1. Your pages will rank better, and bring more traffic.
  2. Your pages will convert better, because users won’t leave your site, looking elsewhere for answers to their questions.
  3. Your customers will be more loyal, because you were able to help them when nobody else bothered.

Don’t be held hostage by other peoples’ crappy product feeds. Enhance your product information with your own info and imagery.
Like good link-building and outreach, it takes time and effort, but both Panda and your site visitors will reward you for it.

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How to Have a Successful Local SEO Campaign in 2015

Posted by Casey_Meraz

Another year in search has passed. It’s now 2015 and we have seen some major changes in local ranking factors since 2014, which I also expect to change greatly throughout 2015. For some a new year means a fresh starting point and yet for others it’s a time of reflection to analyze how successful your campaign has been. Whatever boat you’re in, make sure to sit down and read this guide. 

In this guide we will cover how you can have a successful local SEO campaign in 2015 starting with the basics and getting down to five action items you should focus on now. This is not limited to Google My Business and also includes localized organic results. 

Now the question is where do you start?

Since Pigeon has now rolled out to the US, UK, Australia, and Canada it’s important to make sure your strategies are in line with this no matter what part of the world you’re in. A successful local SEO Campaign in 2015 will be much more successful if you put more work into it. Don’t be fooled though. More work by itself isn’t going to get you where you need to be. You need to work smarter towards the goals which are going to fuel your conversions.

For some industries that might mean more localized content, for others it may mean more social interaction in your local area. Whatever it ends up being, the root of it should be the same for most. You need to get more conversions for your website or your client’s website. So with this in mind let’s make sure we’re on the same page as far as our goals are concerned.

Things you need to know first

Focus on the right goals

Recently I had a conversation with a client who wanted to really nail in the point that
he was not interested in traffic. He was interested in the conversions he could track. He was also interested to see how all of these content resource pieces I recommended would help. He was tired of the silly graphs from other agencies that showed great rankings on a variety of keywords when he was more interested to see which efforts brought him the most value. Instead, he wanted to see how his campaign was bringing him conversions or meaningful traffic. I really appreciated this statement and I felt like he really got it.

Still, however, far too often I have to talk to potential clients and explain to them why their sexy looking traffic reports aren’t actually helping them. You can have all of the traffic in the world but if it doesn’t meet one of your goals of conversions or education then it’s probably not helping. Even if you make the client happy with your snazzy reports for a few months, eventually they’re going to want to know their return on investment (ROI).

It’s 2015. If your clients aren’t tracking conversions properly, give them the help they need. Record their contacts in a CRM and track the source of each of these contacts. Track them all the way through the sales funnel. 

That’s a simple and basic marketing example but as SEOs
your role has transformed. If you can show this type of actual value and develop a plan accordingly, you will be unstoppable.

Second, don’t get tunnel vision

You may wonder why I started a little more basic than normal in this post. The fact is that in this industry there is not a full formal training program that covers all aspects of what we do. 

We all come from different walks of life and experience which makes it easy for us to get tunnel vision. You probably opened this article with the idea of “How Can I Dominate My Google Local Rankings?” While we cover some actionable tips you should be using, you need to think outside of the box as well. Your website is not the only online property you need to be concerned about.

Mike Ramsey from Nifty Marketing put out a great study on 
measuring the click-through rates from the new local stack. In this study he measured click-through rates of users conducting several different searches like “Salt Lake City Hotel” in the example below. With so many different options look where the users are clicking:

They’re really clicking all over the place! While it’s cool to be number one, it’s much better if you get clicks from your paid ad, organic result, local result, and barnacle SEO efforts (which we’ll talk about a little later). 

If you combine your conversion marketing data with your biggest priorities, you can put together a plan to tackle the most important areas for your industry. Don’t assume it’s a one-size-fits-all approach. 

Third, some spam still works. Don’t do it and rise above it.

There’s no doubt that some spammy tactics are still working. Google gets better everyday but you still see crap
like this example below show up in the SERPs.

While it sucks to see that kind of stuff, remember that in time it disappears (just as it did before this article was published). If you take shortcuts, you’re going to get caught and it’s not worth it for the client or the heartache on your site. Maintain the course and do things the right way. 

Now let’s get tactical and prepare for 2015

Now it’s time for some practical and tactical takeaways you can use to dominate your local search campaign in 2015.

Practical tip 1: start with an audit

Over the years, one of the best lessons I have learned is it’s OK to say “I don’t know” when you don’t have the answer. Consulting with industry experts or people with more experience than you is not a bad thing and will likely only lead to you to enhance your knowledge and get a different perspective. It can be humbling but the experience is amazing. It can open your mind.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work with over ten of the industry’s best minds and retained them for site audits on different matters. 

The perspective this gives is absolutely incredible and I believe it’s a great way to learn. Everyone in this industry has come from a different background and seen different things over the years. Combining that knowledge is invaluable to the success of your clients’ projects. Don’t be afraid to do it and learn from it. This is also a good idea if you feel like your project has reached a stalemate. Getting more advice, identifying potential problems, and having a fresh perspective will do wonders for your success.

As many of the experts have confirmed, ever since the Pigeon update, organic and local ranking factors have been more tied together than ever. Since they started going this direction in a big way, I would not expect it to stop. 

This means that you really do need to worry about things like site speed, content, penalties, mobile compatibility, site structure, and more. On a side note, guess what will happen to your organic results if you keep this as a top priority? They will flourish and you will thank me.

If you don’t have the budget or resources to get a third party opinion, you can also conduct an independent audit. 

Do it yourself local SEO audit resources:

Do it yourself organic SEO audit resources:

Alternatively if you’re more in the organic boat you should also check out this guide by Steve Webb on
How To Perform The World’s Greatest SEO Audit

Whatever your situation is, it’s worth the time to have this perspective yearly or even a couple times a year if possible.

Practical tip 2: consider behavioral signals and optimize accordingly

I remember having a conversation with Darren Shaw, the founder of 
Whitespark, at MozCon 2013 about his thoughts on user behavior affecting local results. At the time I didn’t do too much testing around it. However just this year, Darren had a mind-blowing presentation at the Dallas State of Search where he threw in the behavioral signals curve ball. Phil Rozek also spoke about behavioral signals and provided a great slide deck with actionable items (included below). 

We have always speculated on behavioral signals but between his tests and some of Rand’s IMEC Lab tests, I became more of a believer last year. Now, before we go too deep on this remember that your local campaign is NOT only focused on just your local pack results. If user behavior can have an impact on search results, we should definitely be optimizing for our users.


You can view Phil Rozek’s presentation below: 

Don’t just optimize for the engines, optimize for the humans. One day when Skynet is around this may not be an issue, but for now you need to do it.

So how can you optimize for behavioral signals?

There is a dark side and a light side path to this question. If you ask me I will always say follow the light side as it will be effective and you don’t have to worry about being penalized. That’s a serious issue and it’s unethical for you to put your clients in that position.

Local SEO: how to optimize for behavioral signals

Do you remember the click-through study we looked at a bit earlier from Nifty Marketing? Do you remember where the users clicked? If you look again or just analyze user and shopper behavior, you might notice that many of the results with the most reviews got clicks. We know that reviews are hard to get so here are two quick ways that I use and recommend to my clients:


1. Solicit your Gmail clients for reviews

If you have a list of happy Gmail clients you can simply send them an email with a direct link to your Google My Business Page. Just get the URL of your local page by pulling up your URL and copying and pasting it. A URL will look like the one below:

Once you have this URL, simply remove the /posts and replace it with: 

 /?hl=en&review=1


It will look like this:

If your clients click on this link via their logged-in Gmail, they will automatically be taken to the review page which will open up the box to leave a review which looks like the example below. It doesn’t get much more simple than that. 

2. Check out a service like Mike Blumenthal’s Get Five Stars for reviews

I recently used this with a client and got a lot of great feedback and several reviews.

Remember that these reviews will also help on third-party sites and can help your Google My Business ranking positions as well as click-through rates. You can
check out Get Five Stars Here.

Another way outside of getting reviews is to optimize the appearance of your Google My Business Page. 


3. Optimize your local photos

Your Google My Business page includes photos. Don’t use generic photos. Use high quality photos so when the users hover over your listing they get an accurate representation of what they’re looking for. Doing this will increase your click-through rate. 

Organic SEO: Optimize for Behavioral Signals

The optimization for click-through rates on organic results typically focus on three areas. While you’re likely very familiar with the first two, you should not ignore them.


1. Title tags: optimize them for the user and engine

Optimize your meta title tags to increase click-through rates. Each page should have a unique title tag and should help the viewer with their query. The example below (although fabricated) is a good example of what NOT to do. 


2. Meta descriptions: optimize them for the user

Optimize your meta description to get the user to click on the search result. If you’re not doing this just because Google may or may not pull it, you’re missing opportunities and clicks. 


3. Review Schema markup: add this to appropriate pages

Reviewing
Schema markup is still a very overlooked opportunity. Like we talked about above in the local section, if you don’t have reviews coded in Schema, you could be missing out on getting the orange stars in organic results. 

Practical tip 3: don’t ignore barnacle SEO

I firmly believe that most people are not taking advantage of barnacle SEO still to this day and I’m a big fan. When I first heard Will Scott introduce this term at Pubcon I thought it was spot on. According to Will Scott’s website Search Influence, barnacle SEO is “attaching oneself to a large fixed object and waiting for the customers to float by in the current.” In a nutshell, we know that if you’re trying to rank on page one of Google you will find others that you may be able to attach to. If Yelp results come up for a lot of your search terms you might identify that as an opportunity. But there are three main ways you can take advantage of this.


1. You can try to have the most visible profile on that third party page

If Yelp is ranking for LA Personal Injury Attorneys, it would suit you to figure out how the top users are showing up there. Maybe your customers are headed there and then doing some shopping and making a selection. Or maybe they’re using it for a research platform and then will visit your website. If your profile looks great and shows up high on the list, you just gave yourself a better chance at getting a conversion.


2. You can try to get your page to rank

Hey, just because you don’t own Yelp.com or whatever similar site you’ve found, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put in the effort to have it rank. If Google is already showing you that they trust a third party site by ranking it, you can use similar organic ranking techniques that you would use on your own site to make your profile page stronger. Over time you might add this to your bio on interviews or other websites to earn links. If you increase the visibility of your profile on search engines and they see your website on the same page you might increase conversions.


3. You can help your Google My Business

If the site you’re using passes link juice and you earn links to the third party profile page, you will start to see some strong results. Links are a big factor in local since Pigeon this year and it’s an opportunity that should not be missed.


So how can you use this advice?

Start by finding a list of potential barnacle SEO partners for your industry. As an example, I did a search for “Personal Injury Attorneys” in Los Angeles. In addition to the law firms that showed up in the results on the first page, I also identified four additional places I may be able to show up on.

  1. Yelp
  2.  Thumbtack
  3. Avvo
  4. Wikipedia

If you were attorney, it would be worth your while to explore these and see if any make sense for you to contribute to.

Practical tip 4: earn some good links

Most people get too carried away with link building. I know because I used to do it. The key with link building is to change your approach to understand that
it’s always better to get fewer high quality links than hundreds or thousands of low quality links

For example, a link like this one that one of our clients earned is what I’m talking about. 

If you want to increase your local rankings you can do so by earning these links to your associated Google My Business landing page.

Do you know the URL you entered in your Google My Business page when you set it up? That’s the one I’m talking about. In most cases this will be linked to either a local landing page for that location or the home page. It’s essential to your success that you earn solid links to this page.


Simple resources for link building

Practical tip 5: have consistent citations and remove duplicates

Identifying and correcting incorrect or duplicate citations has been getting easier and easier over the years. Even if you don’t want to pay someone to do it, you can sign up for some great do-it-yourself tools. Your goal with any citation cleanup program is this:

  1. Ensure there are no duplicate citations
  2. Ensure there are no incorrect citations with wrong phone numbers, old addresses, etc. 

You can ignore small differences and inconsistencies like St vs. Street. I believe the importance of citations has been greatly reduced over the past year. At the same time, you still want to be the least imperfect and provide your customers with accurate information if they’re looking on third party websites.  

Let’s do good things in 2015

2014 was a tough year in search altogether. We had ups like Penguin refreshes and we had downs like the removal of authorship. I’m guessing 2015 will be no different. Staying on the roller coaster and keeping with the idea of having the “least imperfect” site is the best way to ring out the new year and march on moving forward. If you had a tough year in local search, keep your head up high, fix any existing issues, and sprint through this year by making positive changes to your site. 

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!

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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: â€śPlease 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.

PQPkyj0.jpg

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:

m4M4n3g.jpg?1

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.

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!

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How to Do a Quick Backlink Audit & Google Disavow

This is a guest post to help you with the link disavow process – Let’s face it. We have all been there. We’re in the process of reviewing a client’s website and notice a slew of low quality directory and article links pointing to their website. We quickly have a call with the client who…

The post How to Do a Quick Backlink Audit & Google Disavow appeared first on Majestic Blog.

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The Danger of Crossing Algorithms: Uncovering The Cloaked Panda Update During Penguin 3.0

Posted by GlennGabe

Penguin 3.0 was one of the most anticipated algorithm updates in recent years when it rolled out on October 17, 2014. Penguin hadn’t run for over a year at that point,
and there were many webmasters sitting in Penguin limbo waiting for recovery. They had cleaned up their link profiles, disavowed what they could, and were
simply waiting for the next update or refresh. Unfortunately, Google was wrestling with the algo internally and over twelve months passed without an
update.

So when Pierre Far finally
announced Penguin 3.0 a few days later on October 21, a few things
stood out. First, this was
not a new algorithm like Gary Illyes had explained it would be at SMX East. It was a refresh and underscored
the potential problems Google was battling with Penguin (cough, negative SEO).

Second, we were not seeing the impact that we expected. The rollout seemed to begin with a heavier international focus and the overall U.S impact has been
underwhelming to say the least. There were definitely many fresh hits globally, but there were a number of websites that should have recovered but didn’t
for some reason. And many are still waiting for recovery today.

Third, the rollout would be slow and steady and could take weeks to fully complete. That’s unusual, but makes sense given the microscope Penguin 3.0 was
under. And this third point (the extended rollout) is even more important than most people think. Many webmasters are already confused when they get hit
during an acute algorithm update (for example, when an algo update rolls out on one day). But the confusion gets exponentially worse when there is an
extended rollout.

The more time that goes by between the initial launch and the impact a website experiences, the more questions pop up. Was it Penguin 3.0 or was it
something else? Since I work heavily with algorithm updates, I’ve heard similar questions many times over the past several years. And the extended Penguin
3.0 rollout is a great example of why confusion can set in. That’s my focus today.


Penguin, Pirate, and the anomaly on October 24

With the Penguin 3.0 rollout, we also had
Pirate 2 rolling out. And yes, there are
some websites that could be impacted by both. That added a layer of complexity to the situation, but nothing like what was about to hit. You see, I picked
up a very a strange anomaly on October 24. And I clearly saw serious movement on that day (starting late in the day ET).

So, if there was a third algorithm update, then that’s
three potential algo updates rolling out at the same time. More about this soon,
but it underscores the confusion that can set in when we see extended rollouts, with a mix of confirmed and unconfirmed updates.


Penguin 3.0 tremors and analysis

Since I do a lot of Penguin work, and have researched many domains impacted by Penguin in the past, I heavily studied the Penguin 3.0 rollout. I 
published a blog post based on the first ten days of the update, which included some interesting findings for sure.

And based on the extended rollout, I definitely saw Penguin tremors beyond the initial October 17 launch. For example, check out the screenshot below of a
website seeing Penguin impact on October 17, 22, and 25.

But as mentioned earlier, something else happened on October 24 that set off sirens in my office. I started to see serious movement on sites impacted by
Panda, and not Penguin. And when I say serious movement, I’m referring to major traffic gains or losses all starting on October 24. Again, these were sites heavily dealing with Panda and had
clean link profiles. Check out the trending below from October 24 for several
sites that saw impact.


A good day for a Panda victim:



A bad day for a Panda victim:



And an incredibly frustrating day for a 9/5 recovery that went south on 10/24:

I saw this enough that I tweeted heavily about it and
included a section about Panda in my Penguin 3.0 blog post. And
that’s when something wonderful happened, and it highlights the true beauty and power of the internet.

As more people saw my tweets and read my post, I started receiving messages from other webmasters explaining that
they saw the same exact thing, and on their websites dealing with Panda and not Penguin. And not only
did they tell me about, they
showed me the impact.

I received emails containing screenshots and tweets with photos from Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools. It was amazing to see, and it confirmed
that we had just experienced a Panda update in the middle of a multi-week Penguin rollout. Yes, read that line again. Panda during Penguin, right when the
internet world was clearly focused on Penguin 3.0.

That was a sneaky move Google… very sneaky. 🙂

So, based on what I explained earlier about webmaster confusion and algorithms, can you tell what happened next? Yes, massive confusion ensued. We had the
trifecta of algorithm updates with Penguin, Pirate, and now Panda.


Webmaster confusion and a reminder of the algo sandwich from 2012

So, we had a major algorithm update during two other major algorithm updates (Penguin and Pirate) and webmaster confusion was hitting extremely high
levels. And I don’t blame anyone for being confused. I’m neck deep in this stuff and it confused me at first.

Was the October 24 update a Penguin tremor or was this something else? Could it be Pirate? And if it was indeed Panda, it would have been great if Google told
us it was Panda! Or did they want to throw off SEOs analyzing Penguin and Pirate? Does anyone have a padded room I can crawl into?

Once I realized this was Panda, and started to communicate the update via Twitter and my blog, I had a number of people ask me a very important question:


“Glenn, would Google really roll out two or three algorithm updates so close together, or at the same time?”

Why yes, they would. Anyone remember the algorithm sandwich from April of 2012? That’s when Google rolled out Panda on April 19, then Penguin 1.0 on April 24,
followed by Panda on April 27. Yes, we had three algorithm updates all within ten days. And let’s not forget that the Penguin update on April 24, 2012 was the
first of its kind! So yes, Google can, and will, roll out multiple major algos around the same time.

Where are we headed? It’s fascinating, but not pretty


Panda is near real-time now

When Panda 4.1 rolled out on September 23, 2014, I immediately disliked the title and version number of the update. Danny Sullivan named it 4.1, so it stuck. But for
me, that was not 4.1… not even close. It was more like 4.75. You see, there have been a number of Panda tremors and updates since P4.0 on May 20,
2014.

I saw what I was calling “tremors”
nearly weekly based on having access to a large amount of Panda data (across sites, categories, and countries).
And based on what I was seeing, I reached out to John Mueller at Google to clarify the tremors. John’s response was great and confirmed what I was seeing.
He explained that there
was not a set frequency for algorithms like Panda. Google can roll out an algorithm, analyze the
SERPs, refine the algo to get the desired results, and keep pushing it out. And that’s exactly what I was seeing (again, almost weekly since Panda 4.0).


When Panda and Penguin meet in real time…

…they will have a cup of coffee and laugh at us. 🙂 So, since Panda is near-real time, the crossing of major algorithm updates is going to happen.
And we just experienced an important one on October 24 with Penguin, Pirate, and Panda. But it could (and probably will) get more chaotic than what we have now.
We are quickly approaching a time where major algorithm updates crafted in a lab will be unleashed on the web in near-real time or in actual real time.

And if organic search traffic from Google is important to you, then pay attention. We’re about to take a quick trip into the future of Google and SEO. And
after hearing what I have to say, you might just want the past back…


Google’s brilliant object-oriented approach to fighting webspam

I have presented at the past two SES conferences about Panda, Penguin, and other miscellaneous disturbances in the force. More about those “other
disturbances” soon. In my presentation, one of my slides looks like this:

Over the past several years, Google has been using a brilliant, object-oriented approach to fighting webspam and low quality content. Webspam engineers can
craft external algorithms in a lab and then inject them into the real-time algorithm whenever they want. It’s brilliant because it isolates specific
problems, while also being extremely scalable. And by the way, it should scare the heck out of anyone breaking the rules.

For example, we have Panda, Penguin, Pirate, and Above the Fold. Each was crafted to target a specific problem and can be unleashed on the web whenever
Google wants. Sure, there are undoubtedly connections between them (either directly or indirectly), but each specific algo is its own black box. Again,
it’s object-oriented.

Now, Panda is a great example of an algorithm that has matured to where Google highly trusts it. That’s why Google announced in June of 2013 that Panda
would roll out monthly, over ten days. And that’s also why it matured even more with Panda 4.0 (and why I’ve seen tremors almost weekly.)

And then we had Gary Illyes explain that Penguin was moving along the same path. At SMX East,
Gary explained that the new Penguin algorithm (which clearly didn’t roll out on October 17) would be structured in a way where subsequent updates could be rolled out more easily.
You know, like Panda.

And by the way, what if this happens to Pirate, Above the Fold, and other algorithms that Google is crafting in its Frankenstein lab? Well my friends, then
we’ll have absolute chaos and society as we know it will crumble. OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but you get my point.

We already have massive confusion now… and a glimpse into the future reveals a continual flow of major algorithms running in real-time, each that
could pummel a site to the ground. And of course, with little or no sign of which algo actually caused the destruction. I don’t know about you, but I just
broke out in hives. 🙂


Actual example of what (near) real-time updates can do

After Panda 4.0, I saw some very strange Panda movement for sites impacted by recent updates. And it underscores the power of near-real time algo updates.
As a quick example,
temporary Panda recoveries can happen if you
don’t get out of the gray area enough. And now that we are seeing Panda tremors almost weekly, you can experience potential turbulence several times per
month.

Here is a screenshot from a site that recovered from Panda, didn’t get out of the gray area and reentered the strike zone, just five days later.

Holy cow, that was fast. I hope they didn’t plan any expensive trips in the near future. This is exactly what can happen when major algorithms roam the web
in real time. One week you’re looking good and the next week you’re in the dumps. Now, at least I knew this was Panda. The webmaster could tackle more
content problems and get out of the gray area… But the ups and downs of a Panda roller coaster ride can drive a webmaster insane. It’s one of the
reasons I recommend making
significant changes when
you’ve been hit by Panda. Get as far out of the gray area as possible.


An “automatic action viewer” in Google Webmaster Tools could help (and it’s actually being discussed internally by Google)

Based on webmaster confusion, many have asked Google to create an “automatic action viewer” in Google Webmaster Tools. It would be similar to the “manual
actions viewer,” but focused on algorithms that are demoting websites in the search results (versus penalties). Yes, there is a difference by the way.

The new viewer would help webmasters better understand the types of problems that are being impacted by algorithms like Panda, Penguin, Pirate, Above the
Fold, and others. Needless to say, this would be incredibly helpful to webmasters, business owners, and SEOs.

So, will we see that viewer any time soon? Google’s John Mueller
addressed this question during the November 3 webmaster hangout (at 38:30).

John explained they are trying to figure something out, but it’s not easy. There are so many algorithms running that they don’t want to provide feedback
that is vague or misleading. But, John did say they are discussing the automatic action viewer internally. So you never know…


A quick note about Matt Cutts

As many of you know, Matt Cutts took an extended leave this past summer (through the end of October). Well, he announced on Halloween that he is
extending his leave into 2015. I won’t go crazy here talking about his decision overall, but I will
focus on how this impacts webmasters as it relates to algorithm updates and webspam.

Matt does a lot more than just announce major algo updates… He actually gets involved when collateral damage rears its ugly head. And there’s not a
faster way to rectify a flawed algo update than to have Mr. Cutts involved. So before you dismiss Matt’s extended leave as uneventful, take a look at the
trending below:

Notice the temporary drop off a cliff, then 14 days of hell, only to see that traffic return? That’s because Matt got involved. That’s the
movie blog fiasco from early 2014 that I heavily analyzed. If
Matt was not notified of the drop via Twitter, and didn’t take action, I’m not sure the movie blogs that got hit would be around today. I told Peter from
SlashFilm that his fellow movie blog owners should all pay him a bonus this year. He’s the one that pinged Matt via Twitter and got the ball rolling.

It’s just one example of how having someone with power out front can nip potential problems in the bud. Sure, the sites experienced two weeks of utter
horror, but traffic returned once Google rectified the problem. Now that Matt isn’t actively helping or engaged, who will step up and be that guy? Will it
be John Mueller, Pierre Far, or someone else? John and Pierre are greatly helpful, but will they go to bat for a niche that just got destroyed? Will they
push changes through so sites can turn around? And even at its most basic level, will they even be aware the problem exists?

These are all great questions, and I don’t want to bog down this post (it’s already incredibly long). But don’t laugh off Matt Cutts taking an extended
leave. If he’s gone for good, you might only realize how important he was to the SEO community
after he’s gone. And hopefully it’s not because
your site just tanked as collateral damage during an algorithm update. Matt might be
running a marathon or trying on new Halloween costumes. Then where will you be?


Recommendations moving forward:

So where does this leave us? How can you prepare for the approaching storm of crossing algorithms? Below, I have provided several key bullets that I think
every webmaster should consider. I recommend taking a hard look at your site
now, before major algos are running in near-real time.

  • Truly understand the weaknesses with your website. Google will continue crafting external algos that can be injected into the real-time algorithm.
    And they will go real-time at some point. Be ready by cleaning up your site now.
  • Document all changes and fluctuations the best you can. Use annotations in Google Analytics and keep a spreadsheet updated with detailed
    information.
  • Along the same lines, download your Google Webmaster Tools data monthly (at least). After helping many companies with algorithm hits, that
    information is incredibly valuable, and can help lead you down the right recovery path.
  • Use a mix of audits and focus groups to truly understand the quality of your site. I mentioned in my post about

    aggressive advertising and Panda

    that human focus groups are worth their weight in gold (for surfacing Panda-related problems). Most business owners are too close to their own content and
    websites to accurately measure quality. Bias can be a nasty problem and can quickly lead to bamboo-overflow on a website.
  • Beyond on-site analysis, make sure you tackle your link profile as well. I recommend heavily analyzing your inbound links and weeding out unnatural
    links. And use the disavow tool for links you can’t remove. The combination of enhancing the quality of your content, boosting engagement, knocking down
    usability obstacles, and cleaning up your link profile can help you achieve long-term SEO success. Don’t tackle one quarter of your SEO problems. Address
    all of them.
  • Remove barriers that inhibit change and action. You need to move fast. You need to be decisive. And you need to remove red tape that can bog down
    the cycle of getting changes implemented. Don’t water down your efforts because there are too many chefs in the kitchen. Understand the changes that need
    to be implemented, and take action. That’s how you win SEO-wise.


Summary: Are you ready for the approaching storm?

SEO is continually moving and evolving, and it’s important that webmasters adapt quickly. Over the past few years, Google’s brilliant object-oriented
approach to fighting webspam and low quality content has yielded algorithms like Panda, Penguin, Pirate, and Above the Fold. And more are on their way. My
advice is to get your situation in order now, before crossing algorithms blend a recipe of confusion that make it exponentially harder to identify, and
then fix, problems riddling your website.

Now excuse me while I try to build a flux capacitor. 🙂

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