Google’s Penguin Update – How to Recover if You Have Lost Rankings

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Starting around the end of April rolled out not one, but two updates aimed at cleaning up their index.  The second update, code named “Penguin” seems to have had the largest impact to many sites.

While Google insists this update targeted about 3% of all search queries, I’ve heard from many site owners who were impacted and read hundreds of other stories of sites that were ranking at or near the top of the page which suddenly lost a bunch of important rankings.

So what happened?  What did Penguin target?

Well according to this Google Blog Post Google actually used this update to “reward high quality sites” by removing or penalizing sites that took advantage of loopholes in Google’s own ranking algorithms.

While the blog post only goes on to say that they targeted webspam and gave some examples of obviously over optimized web pages, they didn’t say that they also targeted questionable links which some sites had been gathering over the years.

In the stories I’ve read and business owners I’ve talked to who were affected there was a common theme.  They had no idea why their sites had been targeted.  Their sites had been ranking “forever” for a few important search terms and now their sites were nowhere to be found.

In my recent article on disappearing from Google I explained how this site has disappeared completely from Google for about 24 hours but returned with all its former ranking.  I have heard of a few other sites which also went through this around the time of the first Google update.

But the second update – the Penguin update – is the one causing the most problems because in all the cases I am aware of it wasn’t just a 24 hour bug.  It’s been more than a week in most cases.

So what did these businesses do?

What likely caught up most of these businesses was the link spam portion of the update.  They had crossed the threshold of what Google considers to be good links.  In other words they had too  many “bad” links and not enough “good” links.  In most cases the business owners had no idea what caused this nor how to fix it.

With the people I’ve talked to I have recommended the following course of action:

  1. Review the site to look for obvious signs of over optimization – using the Google Blog post as an example, look at your site to see if there is any text which does not appear natural.  You may have to view the source of your web code to see if there is hidden text hidden on your page that someone else may have placed there.
  2. If you do find hidden code or feel that your site has been over optimized simply removing it should be enough to trigger a review of your site by Googlebot which should then restore your site to where it was.  This may happen soon but most likely you would see your site begin to return during the next Panda update (which tend to run the last week of the month)
  3.  If you can’t find any hidden text or you don’t feel your site has been over optimized you need to look at your links.  Because chances are you have been linked to from some sites Google now considers “spam.

In most cases the issue is links.  You either need to try and get rid of them or build up enough “good” links to counteract the bad ones.

Now the process for link removal can be very time consuming. It involves identifying those bad links using Google Webmaster Tools and then attempting to contact the site owner or webmaster to get rid of them.  Sometimes Google is nice enough to email you to let you know what has happened and even provide you with a list of those links so that you can get them removed.

In my experience though, getting those links remove is almost impossible.  I say almost because in some cases owners of those websites are responsible enough to place contact information or a form on their site so you can easily contact them and request the link is removed. However in a lot of cases these sites hide their contact information.  Even reviewing the site ownership using a WHOIS request doesn’t always return valid contact information.

Therefore your alternative is proper link building to give yourself more good links than bad.

However, keeping in mind that Google is policing links a lot more, one has to be mindful of the fact that they will be more critical of the new links to your site.  Therefore you don’t want to do a blast of 1000 new links this month to try and turn things around.

I recommend slow and steady – a few new links per month, wait, check your rankings and see if they’ve improved, then repeat.  Slowly increasing the number of links per month as needed.

For example, let’s say you’ve had 1 main term hit hard and you can’t find your site like you used to.  Start out this month with 5-10 good links.  Next month do the same 5-10 then in month 3 increase to 15 new links.  Stay at 15 new links per month for a couple months then move up to 20, in a few months increase to 30 and so on.  Be sure to keep track of your progress as you are building new links.  And be patient – links you build this month likely won’t start to help your site out for 2-3 weeks or more. Within a few months you should start to see your site creeping back up in the rankings as the new links value begins to outweigh the value of those bad links that put you in this spot.

If all of this seems overwhelming to you, you can always contact an SEO firm to help you wade through the process.

And remember, Google is constantly changing – as we’ve seen with this update what used to be acceptable practice no longer is, therefore you need to consider longer term strategies to ensure that your site is not caught up in future updates.

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