Open Letter to Google: Google Penguin Has Gone Too Far

For those of you who follow the latest developments in search engine optimization, you are likely familiar with Google Penguin. If that is you, please skip ahead to here to read the open letter itself.

For everyone else, let’s take a moment to frame the situation.

Google Penguin: The History

We have covered the various updates and penalties from Google here. Google Penguin was a major update that they rolled out initially on April 21, 2012.  With links to a page having become a major ranking factor (some estimate it was over 50% of the overall correlation to ranking prior to Google Penguin), this update aimed to penalize websites that had practiced manipulative link building techniques.

Google Penguin included two components – algorithmic adjustments to reduce the positive impact of bad links and a manual penalty for sites that benefited a great deal from manipulating their link profile. Many webmasters found that their traffic decreased upon its release, but without a penalty. Still others found an unfortunate message in Google Webmaster Tools notifying them that they had been assessed a manual penalty.

Through 2012 and into early 2013, there were a few additional releases of tweaks to the original Google Penguin rollout, some to clean up collateral damage that had gotten caught up in it, and others to hone the spam targeting piece of it. Then in late May of 2013, Google Penguin 2.0 was released. This “will go a bit deeper and have a little more impact” as Matt Cutts suggested last spring, meaning that it hit link manipulation to internal pages. Since that time, we have had an entire year of pretty much the same situation.

Fast forward to today, and we are anticipating the soon-to-be-released Google Penguin 3.0. While there has been a great deal of speculation about what that will entail, Google has provided very little direction for us to build upon. Will it be the same type of update? Will it be more algorithmic to automate what has been manually penalized in the past? Will it penalize nofollow links too? We could go on and on with questions, and we will soon know the answers.

The Impact of Google Penguin

Google Penguin was felt far and wide across websites on the internet. The first iteration was focused on overoptimized links to the home page.

What are overoptimized links you ask? It falls into some very specific categories.

  1. Your link profile is stuffed with exact match keyword-based anchor text, rather than a natural mix of keywords, brand terms, URLs, and generic text such as “click here”. Yes, click here is no longer a bad anchor text, but rather, a good one.
  2. The sites that link to you are questionable, spammy, or low authority.
  3. The places your links come from do not make sense for links to your site, either because they are on unrelated topics or do not include content that realistically would be linking to you naturally.
  4. The types of links you are getting are clearly purchased, bartered for, or otherwise obviously acquired for the sole purposes of boosting your ranking, and this has been done in volume.

That’s it. Penguin isn’t very complicated, but it essentially crushes everything webmasters and SEOs had been doing for years to jump ahead of their competition.

Where We Stand Today

Today the internet marketing community is waiting anxiously for Penguin 3.0. Many of us have been through the ringer, either as web owners or agency providers. We have a good idea of how the reconsideration and disavow processes work. But we have no idea what is coming next.

Many companies have become generally afraid to do much of anything aside from inbound marketing and on page optimization. While this general apprehension is warranted for those of us with a less detailed view of what the penalties mean, it is evidence that the slew of slaps and penalties from Google has caused much stagnation, second-guessing, and over-analyzing for companies far and wide.

In reality, marketers should be focused on doing what is best for their business. But they have no idea what that is, and what reverse-engineered risk they are in for if they do anything to move the needle. And in light of this reality, I offer Matt Cutts and the entire Webspam at Google the following…

Open Letter to Google

Dear Matt Cutts and Team,

First I want to say thank you for your tireless efforts in cleaning up the disaster of SERPs we had several years ago. While I don’t agree with every move you’ve made, the quality of the results pages has certainly improved.

That said, I have big concerns for the upcoming Penguin 3.0 launch. The previous two major updates and penalty rollouts for Penguin included a lot of collateral damage. They penalized website owners for a variety of things, including links that were truly earned and links that were not actually manipulated by the site owners themselves.

Case in point – I have worked with a list of clients who are tirelessly working to clean up link profiles. And some of them are failing to see the light of day, even though they are following your recommended process to the letter.

One of them has been at it for a year. Every time they address the list of links you’ve provided, you come back with more surprise links. They then have to research the sites, reach out to for removal requests, and often disavow. The problem is that some of these links are 100% natural and earned, and on sites that logically WOULD be linking to them. Yet the hits keep coming, and they are at a loss for what to do. They are so afraid of your hatchet-based approach that they decided to stop focusing on SEO at all until / unless they can clean up this mess. Sure, they had a vendor who was out building purchased and shoddy links, however, they were unaware of the breadth and depth of the campaign. Now, they have been penalized in retrospect, and continue to get hit for old links that were built as many as six years ago. When will good faith effort be enough to show that they get the point?

Another client we worked with also found that they had also been penalized for a poor link profile. This client in question has never run an SEO campaign, nor even done any intentional link building. They rely heavily on PR, publicity, word of mouth, and typical email marketing to promote their business. Unfortunately, they have been under a negative SEO attack since the middle of 2012. Why do you not offer a way for them to communicate the exact nature of this attack? This has been a known problem since Day 1 of Google Penguin, it happens more often than you may want to admit, and it’s just wrong for them to have to work so hard to lift a penalty that they had no part in doing. They are the victims, not just of the attack but of a mis-directed penalty.

I implore you to look at this problem differently. The authority assigned through these links was something you provided. You can easily mark a link as spammy and remove the authority. We don’t have to make an example of everyone who has the unfortunate situation of having some bad links. I get why you found it necessary to hang out some of the bigger players, like MyBlogGuest, to dry. It sent a message, and that message has been heard loud and clear by the marketing and webmaster community.

Meanwhile, black hats continue to play the system, working the loopholes and outranking reputable websites in many cases. The net result of the penalties is that non-blackhat practitioners are afraid to play ball. Blackhatters simply adjust their techniques, figure out how to work the system without being penalized, and take advantage of the free traffic. Heck, they can tackle rankings in multiple ways – cheat to rank themselves, or launch negative SEO campaigns at the folks ranking ahead of them. You’ve given them a whole new tool to use for manipulation!

There has to be a better way. Between Author Authority, Publisher Authority, and your own ownership of the algorithm for assigning domain and page authority via links, you hold the keys to the sports car. Yes, rankings are a privilege and not a right, but people have built businesses based on the ecosystem you’ve created. Let’s find a way to clean up the spam that doesn’t take down entire businesses, in many cases for things that they never even did themselves.

I truly hope the next iteration of Google Penguin takes some of this into account and behaves differently. Blackhats will always be blackhat as long as there is an algorithm to manipulate. If you can simply remove authority on questionable links, treat them like nofollows if you will, it makes much more sense in the grand scheme of the internet. Layer in the authority and social metrics you’ve been working so hard to get your arms around. Implement the citations as implied links stuff that you have submitted a patent for.

I get that you’re a business, and the quality of the SERPs is crucial to your success as both a search engine and an advertising platform. But as a business, I hope you can understand the plight of folks like the two examples provided above. Let’s find a better way, and together, we can make the internet and the world a better place.

Respectfully yours,
Tommy P. Landry
Return On Now


Credits: Feature Image sourced under creative commons attribution license from Wikimedia.org