What do Penguins, Pandas, and black hats have in common? Lots! Penguin is the most recent set of guidelines published by Google designed to clean up abuses in the field of SEO, and a new version is due out soon, according to Google’s Web Spam Czar, Matt Cutts. The impending event has marketers, reputation managers, and webmasters scurrying for cover.
SEO – A Concept Recap
SEO (search engine optimization) is the relatively newborn public relations field that tries to increase the visibility of websites by the strategic placement of keywords, content, and social media interaction, and the industry has grown rapidly in a little over a decade.
Carried to extremes, as such things always are, black-hat SEO is a subdivision within the field that tries to achieve money-making results in an unsustainable way (ie, against Google’s webmaster guidelines). It frustrates the very purpose of a search engine, which is to help users find the information they need. Instead, rampant SEO gone amok serves only the needs of online marketers wishing to increase sales for themselves or their clients.
To readjust the proper balance, Mr. Cutts and his team of “penguin” police have attempted to establish guidelines that will rule out the most abusive practices of black hat SEO.
BlackHat SEO – Are You Doing It?
The predecessor to Penguin was Panda, with much the same purpose. Panda included a series of algorithm updates, begun in early 2011. These were aimed at downgrading websites that did not provide positive user experiences.
Panda updates of the algorithm were largely directed at website quality. The term “above the fold” is sometimes used to refer to the section of a website that a user sees before one begins to scroll down. The term comes from newspapers, which are delivered folded in two. The section that is “above the fold” is the section one sees before opening the paper, or unfolding it.
Typically, marketers wish to cram as much eye-catching, commercial material as possible into this section, while responsible journalists wish to pack it with the most relevant and useful information.
Penguin, on the other hand, is targeted more specifically at keyword stuffing and manipulative link building techniques.
One targeted abuse, keyword stuffing, is not a tasty Thanksgiving delicacy, but the practice of loading the meta tag section of a site, and the site itself, with useless repetition of certain words. Sites can lose their ranking altogether as a result of such stuffing.
Abusive practitioners of keyword stuffing are not above using keywords that are rendered invisible because their font color is identical with the background color. The user doesn’t see them, but the search engine spider does. This practice was soon discovered, however, and dealt with by the search engines.
Meta tags are sometimes placed behind images, or in “alternative text” fields, so that the spiders pick them up while they remain invisible to users. Popular or profitable search keywords are sometimes included invisible to humans, but visible to the search crawlers. Very clever, but also soon discovered and dealt with. With Penguin, Google now analyzes the relevance and subject matter of a page much more effectively, without being tricked by keyword-stuffing schemes.
“Cloaking” is another tactic that was used for a while to present a different version of a site to the search engine’s crawler than to the user. While a legitimate tactic when it tells the crawler about content embedded in a video or Flash component, it became abused as a Black Hat SEO technique, and is now rendered obsolete by the technique of “progressive enhancement,” which tailors a site’s visibility to the capabilities of the user or crawler. Pornographic sites have often been “cloaked” in non-pornographic form as a way of avoiding being labeled as such.
The first set of Penguin guidelines and algorithms went live in April 2012, and the second main wave is due out any day now (though Penguin has gone through several periodic updates since its initial release). It’s designed to combat an excessive use of exact-match anchor text. It will also be directed against links from sources of dubious quality and links that are seen as unnatural or manipulative.
The trading or buying of links will be targeted as well. The value of links from directories and bookmarking sites will be further downgraded, as will links from content that’s thin or poor-quality. Basically, the revision in the algorithms will be designed to rule out content that serves the marketer’s ends rather than the users’.
Advice For SEO Marketers To Stay Clean
If you are a professional SEO, the questions to ask yourself are:
- Is this keyword being added in order to serve the customer’s potential needs, or is it designed merely to increase the number of hits? If the latter, then the additional users that would be brought to the site by the keyword are probably not high-quality conversion potential.
- Is the added SEO material being hidden from the user or the search engine crawler? If so, with what purpose? If that purpose amounts to dishonest marketing practices, the material runs the risk of getting you in trouble with Penguin.
- What’s the overall purpose of your SEO strategy? If it’s anything other than increasing sales by enhancing user experience, then you may expect an unwelcome visit from Penguin.
If you’re a user, you’ll very likely not be as conscious of these changes, except inasmuch as they will alter the look of your search results page when you perform a search in Google. Will the new Penguin algorithms cut down on those ubiquitous “sponsored links” or “featured links”? Probably not. But savvy users know how to ignore those links by now, except of course when they turn out to be useful.
Will the new algorithms enhance the overall usefulness of the search engine experience? Probably, at least marginally, and perhaps even in a major way. The whole field of internet marketing and e-Commerce is changing so rapidly and radically that it’s hard to keep track of the terminology, especially the proliferation of acronyms. But the ultimate goal will be an enhanced user experience.