The Google Penguin algorithm update is the latest spam-fighting wave to crash against the shore of search and it has heralded something of a new dawn for SEO, especially in terms of offsite strategy.
In 2011, Google ran an algorithm update, known as the Panda update. It may sound cute and cuddly, but the Panda update was the first major algorithm update to focus on the quality on of onsite content -- pushing sites with rich content and a great user experience to the top of its search rankings, and relegating low-quality sites to the bottom.
Whilst the Panda algorithm, which is still refreshing 18 months on, is arguably more concerned with onsite factors, its not-too-distant relative, Google Penguin, was designed to focus on the other significant realm of SEO: offsite.
The Google Penguin update has led to the ice cracking under many websites tried and tested offsite strategies, which until now have involved the use of a high quantity of low-quality links.
Google has long advised web users to make sure their content adheres to the "Google Webmaster Guidelines," and the presence of the heavily referred to "Web Spam team" has contributed to the common consensus the days of low-level linkbuilding were numbered. Indeed, with the rise of personalized search and social signals seeming to be an increasing factor in ranking, it could be argued those SEO-ers who have not started to adapt their strategy could be left out in the cold.
It was around mid-March 2012 that webmasters began to receive messages warning of detected unnatural links pointing to domains, and gave advice on how to spot them:
"...artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site which could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass Page Rank or participating in link schemes."
Search personalities such as Google's Matt Cutts and SEOmoz's Rand Fishkin have long spoken against using the black hat techniques of high volume, low-quality linkbuilding, but this was a first from Google, in the sense of the volume of sites contacted.
Over 700,000 messages were sent by the end of Q1 -- more than the whole of 2011 and for many, this represented the beginning of the end for many SEOers current offsite strategies. And if it didn't, the ranking drops and the subsequent Webmaster Tools messages should have.
"We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you've made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google's search results."
Now, Google's initial messages sent in March 2012 were the equivalent of an organic visibility death sentence, but their hard-lined message was blurred when a new wave of messages were sent in July, only this time sites which hadn't been participating in shady link schemes were receiving them too.
How could a site which had never built any links be receiving such messages?
Matt Cutts was quick on the scene and cleared things up via his Google+ account, insisting the latest batch of messages were not to induce panic, but were sent as a transparency exercise to allow greater clarity as to what Google likes and doesn't like. Another round of Webmaster messages were sent insisting Google would only take action against specific links which contravened their guidelines, and not on the domain as a whole (as they previously did back in March).
Whichever way you look at it, the future is NOT in low-level link building, so start planning and move one step ahead with a new offsite strategy immediately.
Most SEOers reacted by balancing the following two strategies:
1) Identifying possible links that may contravene the Google Webmaster Guidelines, contacting the sites and requesting that these links be removed. Google has de-indexed a substantial portion of "spammy" sites, so removing these links from your site should become a top priority before a site could/should be submitted for a reconsideration request.
Since so many historical links pointing to a site had been de-valued or de-indexed, all previous link equity would have been removed, thus weakening the authority and trust of your site.
How could a severely weakened offsite profile be strong again?
2) Agreeing and implementing a new content-focused strategy built around engagement with relevant communities.
The ideal way of obtaining natural links is by creating content that is so useful/informative/entertaining that it begs to be shared, retweeted, '+1'd, and embedded on blogs that attract the same demographic of users that visit your site. This might also mean some actual natural traffic from your offsite efforts (something low-level linkbuilding does not provide!).
Creating content to be shared is a longer-term strategy than the quick fix of buying low-level links. But a natural strategy should engage the right audience along the way, moving SEO into the realm of more creative marketing. It also means that the great content which has been produced can take on a life of its own and be shared and linked to long after its inception.
Guest blogging, too, is a natural way of building brand recognition. Partnership with popular blogs in your industry means that more people will read your content, and the potential for natural back links, and natural traffic as a result of this, should not be underestimated.
So, Google Penguin has arrived and ruffled the feathers of SEO and offsite strategies. With so much great, unique content being shared such as infographics, widgets and videos, Google deemed now the perfect time to rid its index of low quality sites with low quality content, destabilising many offsite strategies, and penalizing those who implemented them.
For SEO offsite strategy, it means adopting a longer term strategy revolving around unique, high-quality content and utilizing social platforms to drive engagement and exposure. Creativity should be at the heart of offsite strategies moving forward, and if it isn't you may well be left out in the cold... like a Penguin.
With contribution from Sam Baker, SEO Executive, iProspect