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FEATURE: Bruce Clay on Expecting and Escaping Google Penguin's Wrath

by Kristi Kellogg, April 29, 2013

Audience: SEOs

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


  • Discover Bruce's predictions for when Penguin will roll out, what to expect and how to prepare.
  • Recall what Google has cracked down on in the past.

During The Search Police panel at last month's SMX West, Matt Cutts announced that a significant update to Penguin is on its way. The algorithm change known as Penguin launched last April and was updated in May and again in October, leaving a string of penalties for over-optimized sites in its wake on each occasion. SEOs everywhere have since been wondering when the update will hit and what it could mean for their sites.

Bruce Clay predicts the update could roll out as soon as this month and, as for who will be affected by penalties, he asserts “only the top ten sites of ten million will not feel the wrath of Google.

Here, Bruce answers the questions that have been running through webmasters’ minds, and provides some suggestions to avoid penalties.

penguin.jpgQ: When do you predict the next iteration of the Penguin update will occur?

BC: Historically, we’ve seen that Google likes to do things before major conferences. So it is entirely likely they will do something before SMX Advanced (June 11-12). 

Q: Portent, Inc. released a report noting that when Penguin was first released, sites with 80 percent or more bad links were penalized. In the subsequent major updates, that percentage increased and sites with 65 percent or more bad links were penalized, and then 50 percent or more. Will this trend continue?

BC: Yes. The percentage of tolerable bad links will continue to lower. I think over the next year it will fall to as low as ten percent. Ten percent of bad links seems like a reasonable threshold for sites. Ultimately, I think they could drop it to zero percent.

Q: What advice would you have for webmasters as they prepare for the next update?

BC: Every website has a weakest link. Even if you’ve never previously been caught with a penalty, that doesn’t mean you won’t be. We’ve been advising people since last year that everyone has weakest links that they should be pruning. Even on our own site, we’ve been pruning the weakest links even though we haven’t had a penalty for bad links.

Q: What is the No.1 thing you can do to avoid having bad links?

BC: All links should be earned, so you do not buy links, you do not reciprocate links, leave spammy, off-topic comments on blogs, or any of the things that are historically listed as bad. You don’t do the things that are generally recognized as generating an inorganic link on purpose.

The best way to get links is to earn them, and the best way to earn them is to have quality content, share knowledge and have something worth linking to. If you do that, you will do well on the Web.

People like to link to experts, so, show off. Contribute to the industry. Build your brand. Those are the things you should be doing, not playing the game “whoever dies with the most links wins.” That’s not the right way to do it.

Q: What black hat technique does Google hate the most?

BC: Across the board, Google probably has different people who hate different things the most. Google’s core public offering was significantly influenced by linking and PageRank transfer — all the buzz about how wonderful Google is came from its democratic voting system. In light of that, I have to think that what Google, as a whole, hates the most are the people who deceive that component of the algorithm.

Google has also published Terms of Service, so they must seemingly have people that care if you violate those terms or misuse Google by stealing or scraping.

Q: What else can we expect from the Penguin update?

BC: I would bet money that Google rolls out multiple releases together intentionally. The changes will be part Panda, part Penguin and part algorithmic differences; they’ll probably also tighten down on reading levels, page sizes (that load slowly on a mobile device) and performance. You have to assume they're going to blend together in one release, so it’s almost impossible for spammers to tell which one they violated.

All of the facts will probably fall into a linear scale with shades of grey; the penalty that people are going to see could be a result of five variables that were done a little bit wrong, but when you aggregate it, it turns out to be just enough for earn a penalty, where someone else doing three out of five wrong may not earn the penalty. It could be the sum of the pieces that triggers the penalty. Bottom line, the more variables that are changed, the harder it is to determine a cause.

Google claims it makes 525 changes a year to the algorithm — at that rate (1 change every 13 hours), it is less likely that spammers will be able to make a change and see an effect. That’s what Google doesn’t want — for spammers to be able to figure out “this change = this effect.”

Q: Any final thoughts?

BC: Be warned that everyone will ultimately feel a penalty, if not on this release, then on the next one. Only the people that are in the top ten of ten million will not feel the wrath of Google. A little bit of imperfection, a little bit of penalty — that can keep you off page one of the search results. Google only wants the best and the most relevant results, and they’ll keep tightening their algorithms until the spammers are gone.

Expect the Penguin update, know it’s coming and be the best you can be. That’s my advice.

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