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by Nathan Schaad

The elephant in the room for SEOs for the past several months has been Panda, a Google update which was supposed to punish sites with low-quality content. How the change defined “quality” was hotly contended for quite some time, and then people more or less went quiet. Anymore, Panda is used primarily as a reference point for new updates. And Penguin definitely offers SEOs every opportunity to be compared to Panda.

I think they named the update Penguin to purposely call Panda back into the minds of SEOs. I can’t think of a single naming convention that would ever go from “Panda” to “Penguin” as a natural progression, and the fact that they are both black and white animals supports this suspicion. Or maybe I’m paranoid and they’re just on a black and white kick recently. However, the fact that efforts designed to game the search algorithm is referred to as “black hat SEO” and efforts focused on meeting the ideals of search is referred to as “white hat SEO” has me wondering about the symbolism. Will the next update be Zebra? How about Orca, like Bruce Clay has suggested?

But, I digress. The real question on most SEOs’ minds is what, precisely, Penguin is designed to punish, and how to recover a website which has been punished by the update (Penguin-slapped?). The update itself has happened so recently that there is little “settled” on the matter, but from what I’ve gathered, the following things are likely to be true about the update.

This is the “over-optimization penalty” Matt Cutts was talking about

For those readers who are new to this site or to SEO blogs in general, Matt Cutts is the head of Google’s anti-spam team. As a result, when he speaks, SEOs tend to listen, because his recommendations are the closest thing to insider information you can legally get. So when Matt Cutts’ admitted that the Penguin update is designed to address the issue of “over-optimized websites,” this tends to be accepted as “probably true.”

Quick backstory: I mentioned in an earlier post that a statement was made by Cutts at a SXSW conference that Google was working on a way to keep search “fair” through penalties for “over-optimized websites.” However, now, with the Penguin update released, he claims that what he was really referring to was spam, and that the phrase over-optimization was a bit too vague, to say the least. So, lesson number one: “over-optimization” = spam, according to Google. Got it.

Two Panda Updates, Too

A lot of the confusion in the SEO community right now seems to be caused by Panda update 3.5 (which happened about a week before Penguin) and Panda update 3.6 (which happened just a few days after Penguin). The result is that people have been hit for either spam (Penguin) or low-quality content (Panda) and it’s all getting attributed to Penguin. As a result, many people are complaining that Penguin ruined their website despite them following all of “the rules” which Google laid out. Of course, if they had low-quality content, then Panda is probably what got them. It’s created quite a bit of confusion, to say the least.

If you got hit, the best way to tell which update got you is to evaluate your site for spam. This can be link spam, keyword stuffing, or any other questionable practice on a website. If it blatantly breaks one of Google’s guidelines, it may have been treated as spam by the Penguin update, and this may be what hurt your rankings. In this case, you need to fix your site so that it is within Google’s basic guidelines. Don’t do any of the things that Google explicitly tells people not to do, and the next time Google indexes your site you should get most, if not all, of your rank back.

If you are within those guidelines, however, there’s a much better chance that your site got hit by Panda 3.5 or 3.6, not Penguin. Panda is getting refreshed in Google more and more frequently, and so the good news is that if you got hit by Panda, another update is probably just around the corner. Look at the content on your site. Does it enhance the user experience? If not, it needs to be deleted or edited. Focus on the quality of the content you provide, and Panda will reward you the next time it runs.

This is the simplest way to follow Google’s guidelines: Think like a user. Since Google claims to be most concerned about the relevance of content to users conducting queries, if you are attempting to be relevant to users conducting a certain set of queries, then you at least have a case when/if Google’s hammer falls. This is the mindset which we use at RevBuilders Marketing, and so far neither Penguin nor Panda have been a problem for any of our clients. So, it seems to be working pretty well for now.

In short, the answer to this and most other updates by Google is, quite simply, to make sure you’re thinking about the user first. Write good content, market it to as many people as you can with good old-fashioned footwork, and Google may just reward you with good ranking in the search engine results.

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