Since Matt Cutts announced the Penguin update some weeks ago (aka, the over-optimization penalty), the SEO industry has been trying to figure out exactly what it means. Penguin officially rolled out late last month, and there have been a whole passel of accounts of sites getting hit pretty hard.
In the official post on the Google blog, Cutts talks about how the update addresses webspam issues like keyword stuffing and link schemes. It’s funny to me to think of an algorithm update in 2012 that addresses keyword stuffing. Is anyone really still trying that, and if so, was anyone ranking because of keyword stuffing up until Penguin slapped them down?
Link building is another matter, though, and this update seems to be telling us that link building for SEO purposes is just not going to work anymore. Based on what Cutts is saying (which has really been Google’s consistent message all along), the traditional SEO approach to link building is backwards. There’s a site or piece of content that’s not ranking prominently for the desired terms, so let’s go out and create as many backlinks as we can in order to improve that ranking. Cutts describes good SEO as usability, speed and compelling content. The theme here is that all of these things are a benefit to the user. In other words, good SEO from Google’s perspective is about making the site better. It’s pretty hard to argue that going out and creating a bunch of backlinks makes a site any better for the user.
In many ways, the Penguin update isn’t really much of a change at all. Google’s whole purpose in looking at links from the beginning was to more effectively evaluate which pages are the best result for a given query. In that sense, creating a bunch of links solely for the purpose of rising in the rankings has always been a bit of a trick – almost a loophole to artificially gain position. Penguin is just Google’s way of telling people to knock that off. Get your content noticed, certainly, but don’t go out and do it merely for purposes of SEO. Google wants you to know (or at least think) that they’re much too sophisticated for that kind of chicanery.
In fact, Google regularly emphasizes how they look at 200 different factors when determining the ranking of a page. As Amit Singhal said at SMX London just the other day, links are just one part of “a variation of signals that reinforce each other, which strengthen a website’s ranking.” At a higher level, a focus on ranking as a key indicator of campaign success is far less meaningful today with all of the personalization going on in search. All of these things bring us back to the content itself. Content that’s not ranking is likely not ranking because it’s not good enough, not specific enough, not useful enough, not compelling enough. This is why I see Penguin as the final blow to link building as we know it. If your content is not working for you, the answer can no longer be a bunch of links. The answer needs to be better content, new content, more (and more useful and compelling) content, measured not by where it’s showing up on a given SERP, but by what it’s yielding against business objectives.
So, in light of this update, what should you do with your link building efforts? If you haven’t already, this is certainly the time to take a detailed look at what you (or others on your behalf) are doing so you can put the brakes on anything that doesn’t pass the sniff test (comments on unrelated blogs, links from low-quality sites, reciprocal links, PageRank manipulation, aggressive exact match anchor text, etc.). Once that’s been done (and there are some guides out there on taking down junk links if you need them), start evaluating your link building in the context of your larger marketing efforts. Links coming your way as a result of legitimate marketing promotions, public relations, guest blogging and other integrated efforts are great, but the Penguin update is just one more milestone on the road to irrelevancy for link building as we have known it.
Scott Ensign, Senior Digital Strategist