The penguin algorithm, launched in April 2012, is designed to penalize websites engaged in link spam. It's backfired though, and here's why...
Google's famous PageRank algorithm takes into account over 200 factors when ranking webpages for their search results. But, at heart, it works by equating the number and authority of inbound links with overall quality.
So effective is PageRank, that the vast majority of Internet users who make use of Google search are very happy with it - and this has helped propel Google to state of absolute dominance virtually planet wide.
But the number of inbound links (and their estimated authority) don't really equate to quality. And here's where our problem begins.
Links & page rankings
Let's say we have two publishers, A & B. Publisher A is much larger than B, but both of them publish an article on the same topic at the same time.
Publisher B puts a lot of hard work and research into their article, producing an intelligent masterpiece. Publisher A does a good enough job.
But, because publisher A has a much wider audience, their article gets retweeted and referenced much more quickly than publisher B's.
These extra links help to drive A's article up the search rankings where more people find it and mention it. This effect continues until publisher B's article is lost in obscurity, and publisher A's article dominates.
In Google's eyes, A's article is "better".
How links are susceptible to spam
Knowing how Google ranks pages, SEOs set out to spread their content far and wide, ensuring that they generated as many backlinks as possible. The more the merrier.
In the early days, Google wasn't particular good at working out which links were of good quality, and which were spammy.
This meant that so called black hat SEOs could write an article containing a few backlinks, spin it a thousand times, and post it to hundreds, if not thousands of low quality article and directory sites.
Google would dutifully index all these incoming links and blast the spammers pages to the top of the search results. But this is not good for Google because spam in the search results means unhappy searchers.
So what did they do?
Penguin algorithm to the rescue
Because Google had such a difficult time keeping the uncountable torrents of spam out of their search results, they felt it was time to go after the main culprits who gamed the search results by exploiting the PageRank algorithm's love of links.
So Google released the Penguin algorithm, designed to find spammy linking practices and penalize them.
Good news, right? After all, penalizing spammers would hit their revenue streams and hopefully shut them down, at the same time as cleaning out the search results. A win-win situation.
The problem is that while Google worked on Penguin, the SEO industry was offering their services to small businesses who also wanted to take advantage of valuable organic search traffic.
Many of these businesses were completely unaware of the SEO tactics being used on their behalf. And many got slapped by Penguin when it was released.
So why is this a problem? After all, it should have been up to those enterprises to ensure the services they paid for were above board.
Quite right. I agree.
But, you have to have sympathy for the thousands of small business sites who do a genuinely good job, offer great service, market hard to win new clients, work hard for their customers, but are penalized because the marketing service they paid "professionals" to provide ended up devastating their business.
This is where I have a problem with Penguin...
Penguin is Google's biggest blunder
Currently, the Penguin algorithm has not been refreshed for nearly a year. This means that those small businesses who got penalized in the last update have not had the opportunity to recover.
Many of them have spent large amounts of time and money fixing the problems created by SEO companies (they paid in the first place). The issues are fixed. There is no spam. But they remain penalized.
And here's what's worse. Because Google is almost completely opaque when it comes to helping companies resolve algorithmic penalties, no-one knows which links are good and which are toxic.
Webmasters have stopped linking to other websites, and have started demanding that backlinks to them be removed. Since it is not clear which ones are good and which ones are bad, many webmasters are damaging their backlink profile unwittingly.
Google recommends 'nofollow'
The insanity continues because Google decreed that paid links, which must not affect their PageRank algorithms should be set to 'nofollow'.
Great. Now webmasters have a way to specify whether or not a link is natural or paid. The problem is that Google views almost all links as paid.
Want to talk about an exciting new project of yours on your blog? That's a nofollow. Why? Because you have vested interest in that project, Google might view that as spam. Sure, a few self-serving followed links might not hurt, but who wants to lose 90% of their traffic by taking that chance?
Changing the structure of the Internet
So panic and hysteria has swept across the Web as people scramble to get themselves out of penalties and restore their organic search traffic volumes.
In some cases, webmasters are automatically setting all their links to nofollow in an attempt to steer clear of the entire issue of whether or not Google will believe a link is paid or natural.
I recently received a request to remove a link to an entrepreneur's company homepage. The thing is, I was praising his startup and using it as a shining example of how being creative can lead to success. Unsolicited.
That link he received from SME Pals, he earned fair and square. But, because he had hired an SEO who had built spammy links in the past, he was now removing everything.
I guess he figured it was better to go back to zero than spend uncountable resources pouring over thousands and thousands of links, for a recovery that may never come anyway.
Why Penguin is so poorly conceived
So not only does Penguin require webmasters to undergo the almost impossibly arduous task of:
- analysing each and every link ( which may be in the tens of thousands, if not millions)
- finding out who and why it was placed
- deciding whether it is good or bad
- contacting the linking webmasters to have it removed if it is bad
- disavowing those links if they aren't removed
it also gives rise to Negative SEO.
Penguin loves negative SEO
For a long time Google, via Matt Cutts their head of Webspam, were pushing the message that negative SEO was virtually impossible.
I don't think anyone really believes that now. It costs about $15 to find a "SEO" in India to post thousands upon thousands of spammy backlinks to competitor's site, on thousands of different domains.
As soon as Google indexes all these toxic backlinks they need to make a decision. Is this negative SEO, or is the webmaster trying to game the search results? Which one do you think they choose? How can they tell who is responsible for these links?
The fact is that by penalizing spammy backlink profiles,
Google have both damaged the organic structure of the Internet, made the environment unfriendly and laden with suspicion, and hurt many, many small business sites who might actually offer excellent quality content and services.
The fundamental quality of a website is NOT always tightly coupled with its backlink profile.
It gets worse...
Because companies find themselves in the awkward position of having to manually remove links there is a strong financial incentives for spammers to create those links in the first place.
What this means is that spammers can flood the Web with toxic backlinks to your site, sit back and wait for you to come knocking.
How do they know you'll come knocking?
Google says it is your responsibility to clean up bad backlinks by contacting the offending webmasters and having those links removed. If they don't feel you've made the effort, the penalty won't be lifted (in this case, I'm talking about a manual penalty - but a manual link penalty is sure to tightly coupled with a Penguin penalty).
At great expense, companies hire link removal services who contact the spammers on their behalf. The spammer lick their lips with glee and reply with an "invoice" (read: ransom note) to have the links removed.
In effect, Google has set up the perfect conditions to promote opportunistic, parasitic behaviour from spammers who are more than happy to extort cash from genuine businesses.
Don't believe it's this bad? Here's a thread in the Google Webmaster support forums talking about how eflorist has been extorted into paying ransoms to remove links.
You'll also notice that while it seems that, despite the confusion caused by Google's manual and automated communications, the manual penalty was removed - but this did not result in any improvement in performance.
They are a genuine business with a good quality website, trying hard to make things right. But Penguin is still crushing them and there's nothing they can do about it.
Time to retire Penguin
The only way to get around the mess that Google have created for themselves and everyone else trying to do business online, is to roll back Penguin.
Or, if they want to save face instead of admitting they got it wildly wrong, they can simply tune down Penguin so that it has little to no effect.
I mean, here's the most bleedingly obvious question that everyone in Google's webspam team seemed to ignore:
Why not ignore links that appear to be of low quality, instead of penalizing them?
Ignoring low quality links would do three very important things:
- remove the potential for negative SEO attacks
- allow webmasters to go back to work instead of wasting time repairing links they may or may not have built in the first place
- help re-establish natural, organic linking and structure on the Web
Black hat SEOs couldn't harm a site using negative SEO because Google would simply ignore these backlinks.
At the same time, spammers couldn't shoot to the top of search result pages because ignored links wouldn't contribute to their PageRank.
And, everyone else would be able to go back to work.
So that's why I think Google have turned their bad decisions into a complete disaster for the Internet as a whole.
What are your thoughts on the Penguin algorithm and how it has affected the search results, and the companies responsible for powering them with content? Share your opinions in the comments below.