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How to Detect and Recover from Google Penguin

Posted by on in Adult SEO
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A few years ago I set out to build a large network of blogs. My secondary goal was to launch a few hundred within one year and build enough organic traffic for each blog to be worth one sale per month. I projected that after three months the initial sales, combined with rebills, would bring in around $10,000 monthy. My primary goal, however, was to see if I could rank all of these blogs on auto-pilot. 

So I grabbed a bunch of domains (many of them were expired domains with existing links), cranked out a bunch of Wordpress themes, optimized the shit out of everything and used automation plugins to keep everything updated with sponsor RSS feeds. And then to get on Google's radar I setup thousands of links trades with other blogs. I also got many of my blogs listed in directories, ran some monster nukes and had a massive network of Twitter accounts managed centrally using Tweet Attacks Pro.

Once I had my network of blogs up and running I made a second set of twelve blogs. My goal with these were to make them very high quality, to compare performance with my big blog network. These blogs had custom designs, hand written content and had fewer affiliate links. 

I learned a few interesting things from this project. The first was that my blogs with RSS content were indexed and ranked at about the same rate as my hand written blogs. This proved an earlier theory of mine that content syndication was valued, rather than penalized, if done right. The second thing I learned was that ABC trades worked very well, for both of my blog networks. I received higher value trades to my hand written blogs due to the quality and a higher volume of trades to the others. Both networks hit my traffic goals, all from an accumulation of hundreds of small keywords pitching in their share of traffic each day. 

Revenue was a different story, I never did hit my $10k. I simply didn't have enough time to manage my traffic well enough. Some paysites converted and some didn't, but I never had the time to move my traffic around to where it performed best (which is a never ending job). Once I got the networks up and ranking I basically just ignored them and was happy with the money they did make. 

Then in April of 2012 Google rolled out its newest weapon against webspam, an algorithmic filter they named Penguin. This filter was engineered to basically go out and enforce Google's long-standing rules against link building. For years they've had the same rules listed under their webmaster guidelines. 

  • No buying or selling links
  • No trading links
  • No linking to web spammers
  • No building partner pages just for cross-linking
  • No using software to build links

You might notice that the first two rules effectively eliminate the two link building methods adult webmasters have relied on for many years. 

If we can't buy or trade links, than how else can we get links? 

We can ask friends for links, we can submit to the few directories that are still actively maintained, we can submit to the few adult social bookmarking sites we have, we can search for some link dumps, we can post on surfer forums and we can hope that some surfers will link to us from somewhere. And if we're lucky this will result in maybe 5% of the link volume we actually need to have a shot at ranking for a profitable keyword. Of course since link value accounts for more than link volume, and all but one of these link sources are very low value, it shows that these alternative link sources are not viable for us. 

This is the problem adult sites are faced with, having to abide by rules that were designed with mainstream websites in mind. 

Mainstream websites have far more resources for building links than we do. This page alone lists around 200 link building strategies, none of which include buying or trading links. Mainstreamers can follow Google's guidelines and still have enough link resources to compete for great keywords. We don't have these resources, and on top of that we're all competing for the same shallow pool of keywords (as opposed to mainstreams countless industries, markets and products).

This is a problem we've all shared for many years. And the result of this was not only an acceptance of our limited resources but an assumption that it was an acceptable means to promote our sites. Or at least an assumption that Google understood these limitations and made an exception to the rules for our industry.

But in April '12 we learned this was not true. And this message was again reinforced in May '13 when Penguin 2.0 was rolled out. Countless adult sites lost their organic traffic overnight. Webmasters were understandably frustrated, feeling they were unfairly penalized for doing what they've always done, for doing what they assumed was right. 

My blog networks were not exempt from this either, although I didn't notice it at first. As I mentioned earlier, I had been ignoring them for a long time. But what I DID notice was that my checks started getting smaller and then soon stopped coming altogether. At this point I knew what had happened, like so many others my blogs had been bit by Penguin and they lost virtually all of their organic traffic.

penguin.jpg

When I looked into my traffic stats I noticed that my high quality hand written blogs were hit just as hard as my low quality ones. Even though my high quality blogs had unique content, fewer outbound links and fewer affiliate links they still shared one big thing in common with my low quality blogs: low value over-optimized links, and a lot of them.

Since that time I've helped many adult companies with their SEO campaigns. And I've probably helped twice as many webmasters to diagnose ranking difficulties with blogs, tubes, cams, paysites and review sites. And from this work I've learned that the one thing most adult sites share in common is a lack of quality links, and the consequence of this is a lack of organic traffic. 

So how do you know if your lack of organic traffic is a consequence of simply not having enough quality links to compete for top ranks, or if it's a consequence of a Penguin penalty? The answer is important because it will dictate what you have to do to start ranking better. It will also help you to set realistic expectations regarding the time it will take to earn your ranks. For example, if you just need better links than you know once you get the links you can expect to see growth. But if you've been hit by Penguin you will need to come to terms with the fact that you will first need to fix the problem that attracted Penguin before you can expect to start growing again. 

How to Diagnose a Penguin Penalty

When I perform SEO audits the first thing I do is check Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools to see if drops in organic traffic coincide with the dates of known Google algorithm changes. If I notice sharp traffic drops on or around 4/24/12, 5/25/12, 10/5/12 or 5/22/13 I know that a Penguin penalty may be responsible since these are the dates Penguin was run (Note: Most sites affected by Penguin aren't actually penalized, rather they're devalued). For a full list of Google's algorithm change history you can check out Moz. Alternatively, you can use this handy tool which graphs known algorithm change dates directly over your Google Analytics reports.

panguin_tool.jpg

I also use a tool called Ahrefs to get an overview of the websites link profile. Ahrefs groups links by type, one of which is sitewide links. This is an important metric to pay attention to because a high percentage of sitewide links is indicative of trading and selling links. Sitewide links on their own are natural, due to the common use of blogrolls, and Google knows this. They assign less value to links in sitewide locations, such as sidebars and footers, but they've never come out and said sitewides equate to spam. The problem, however, is when the majority of your link profile is made up of sitewide links. At this point it starts to look unnatural, like you had a hand in getting those links. And when Google thinks you had a hand in building links to your own site the value of those links tend to vanish. 

sitewides.jpg

So if I'm looking at a site with a high percentage of sitewide links I then have to analyze their use of anchor text, because most webmasters who trade or buy links have a bad habit of using the same keywords in most of their anchor text. And anchor text over-optimization is another common indicator of link building.

anchors2.jpg

Unfortunately, most of the sites that I review for webmasters contain both a high percentage of sitewides (a natural consequence of having limited link building resources available) and an over-optimization of their target keywords. I often see other problem areas as well including too many links pointing the homepage, a history of inconsistent link building and I tend to see a lot of technical issues. But these all pale in comparison to the potential damage caused by low value sitewide links that target the same keywords.  

Here is a list of a few things Penguin looks for: 

  1. Links from low value pages
  2. Links from sitewide locations
  3. Links that share similar anchor text
  4. Links from pages that also link to other sites not relevant to its own
  5. Links from pages that link to others using primarily keywords as anchors
  6. Links from Penguin penalized pages

And this list continues on to include similar links from your site to others. You might notice that this list describes link trading and buying quite accurately. If you trade or sell links you're going to have a lot of keyword optimized links stuffed into your sidebars and footers and they're likely to point to sites not relevant to your own. And, specifically if you trade links, you're going to link out to other sites with the exact same flags as your own, they too will link to many others using over-optimized keywords in sitewide locations. So you can see that trading and buying links using this system that has worked for us for years can now be easily mapped and that it can be used to group and label us as bad neighborhoods.

Were you affected directly or indirectly?

If you look into your own traffic stats and notice that your ranks dropped suddenly on one of these known Penguin dates than it's more than likely you were hit and will need to do some extra work to remove the penalty before you can begin to rebuild your ranks. On the other hand, if you notice that your drop in organic traffic was sharp, but not necessarily on or around one of these key dates, it might indicate that you were indirectly affected by Penguin. This means that you could have lost your rankings because of other sites outside of your own control. If you have a lot of links from other sites that were flagged and devalued by Penguin than the value that used to flow through those links would be cut off. From your perspective, this is the equivalent of losing good links, and when you lose good links your rankings suffer. 

Recovering from an indirect hit

If your rankings dropped due to a devaluation of links from other sites than your path back to top rankings is relatively easy. You'll need to build new links to replace the old ones. Just be sure that the new links you get are from quality sites and that you use your site name instead of keywords as your anchors. Also, try to make your new links look as if you had nothing to do with getting them. Make sure you get them slowly over time, that they're in locations other than sitewides and that you link to some internal pages as well as to your homepage. And try to get links from within content whenever possible (buying blog posts is one way to do this).

Recovering from a direct hit

There are many differing opinions on how to do this, but here's the way that works (I've helped several clients recover from Penguin).

1. Use Ahrefs or Webmaster Tools to find the sites linking to you from the most pages. If a site has you in a sitewide and has 30,000 pages than they are linking to you using the same exact anchor text 30,000 times. This site may not be low value, but all of these sitewide links are effectively over-optimizing your site for the keyword they're using to link to you with. So first evaluate the site, if it's a quality site that is relevant to your own than contact the webmaster to ask for a link on a single page rather than in a sitewide location. If the site is low quality than ask the webmaster to remove the link entirely. Just be sure you use these tools so that you're sure you're not wasting your time contating sites that aren't negatively affecting your rankings. These tools might show you that there's only 12 sites that are beating you up with sitewides, this would mean that contacting only 12 webmasters could greatly improve the health of your link profile. 

2. Start building new higher value links, and a lot of them. You will need more quality links to get your rankings back than any other non-penalized site will. This is because you will first need to show Google that you cleaned up your site and you started to naturally pick up new quality links. Once this is recognized you will be at your break-even point, back to a neutral position. From this point forward additioal quality links you get will start to count toward higher rankings and more traffic. (If you still see no movement at this point than it might indicate a manual penalty which will require that you submit a reconsideration request to have the penalty reassesed and hopefully removed).

These two steps might seem easy until you actually start on them. It's not easy work and it can't be done quickly. And if you're relying on your site for the revenue it used to earn from your old organic traffic than it can be a stressful process as well. It's at this point when you need to decide if the site is valuable enough to you to put in this time and effort, or if it's more practical or economical to start a new site. I've had clients who have done both successfully. 

Negative SEO

When reaching this stage of the process with clients, when they realize the solution to this problem is not quick or easy, some choose to deny it. They claim that links from other sites can't hurt you, that if they could negative SEO would be rampant.

Here's the deal on negative SEO, it does exist. 

Bad links can hurt you if your site does not yet have enough trust and authority to insulate it from attack.

From googlebot's perspective, if it finds your site and notices that 95% of your links are from low quality and over-optimized pages than it can flag you for it. It won't have any other quality signals to use in your defense. This is why authority sites like big tubes can have millions of shit links, because they also have enough high value links to have earned the trust of Google. Once you're trusted bad links can't hurt you. But until you are, they can. 

So if you run your site through Ahrefs and can see that the majority of your links send low quality signals, you now know the only way to reverse any devaluation placed on your site is to improve the health of your link profile by removing the worst links and start working on new higher quality links. 

If you would like to learn more about this process please visit my adult SEO training course. And feel free to contact me if you would like me to help with a full SEO review of your own site. 

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