Understanding Google’s Algorithms – Part 1 of 3 – Google Penguin

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For the average user, Google seems simple enough – just type in your search, and get back a list of relevant results. However, to digital marketing professionals and SEO experts, there’s a whole world of complex systems and processes behind each Google search.

Small business owners might find this world of SEO technicalities confusing and frustrating. Even minor changes in how Google chooses to rank their search results can have massive ramifications for local business owners who rely on search engine rankings to drive new business.

Sometimes an SEO campaign might have to change rapidly to accommodate a new Google requirement. In other cases, an SEO strategy that once worked great can actually backfire, causing a website to get removed from search results entirely.

To help business owners in Texas and around the world better understand Google’s updates, the SEO team at Tech-Critic has put together a 3-part series to cover some of the major algorithmic updates Google has recently implemented. In this post, we’ll cover Google Penguin – which we’ve seen have a huge impact on many small business websites.

Taking a Step Back: How Does a Search Engine Actually Work?

So you know what a search engine does, but how does it really work on the back end? Of course, the exact details of how Google indexes and ranks websites are ultra-complex and highly confidential, but the basics can be understood fairly easily.

The first step to the operation of a search engine is what’s called “crawling” and “indexing” content. Basically Google uses a computer program called “GoogleBot” to download webpages. Google’s goal is to download every page on the entire internet, and store these pages within a huge database.

Google’s bots are constantly active on the web, finding and downloading new content thousands of times per second. This process happens automatically – there’s no real need to “submit” your website to Google, as Google will discover new content automatically.

When a user performs a search, Google takes that user’s query, and matches it against the database of content that GoogleBot has crawled. The pages with content that matches the user’s search are then displayed within the results page that we’re all familiar with.

However, the obvious challenge here is knowing which pages to surface within the first few results. When a user searches for something like “Digital Cameras”, Google will have millions of pages that are relevant to this term. Google then has to decide which of these pages should rank within the top 10 results, and therefore get the majority of the clicks.

Google does this in many ways, but two core elements determine rankings more than anything else: relevance, and authority. For our purposes today, we’ll focus on authority. Authority means how “important”, “popular”, and “trustworthy” an individual webpage is in Google’s eyes. One way that Google determines the authority of a webpage is the number of links that page has pointing to it. Hence the SEO process of “link building” is meant to make a page more authoritative. Now that you understand at least roughly how a search engine works, we can explore the details of the Google Penguin algorithm.

Understanding Google Penguin

google-penguinWe’ve explained how Google uses the number of links pointing to a page as a way to estimate how authoritative that page is. For SEO practitioners, understanding this system is the root of the link building industry.

For years, SEO experts have known that creating more links to a page would make Google think that page was more authoritative, and therefore that page would rank better. Creating links became a critical part of SEO. However, link building was often done in ways that were basically fake: attempts to trick Google, rather than legitimately improve the authority of a page.

Link building tactics like forum spam, low quality directory submission, social bookmarking spam, and other unsavory systems to generate links became popular. This often lead to poor quality search results, where Google was ranking pages that were actually not very good, just based on their falsely created links.

That’s where Google Penguin comes in. Fundamentally, Google Penguin is the code name for a change in Google’s ranking system that punished bad links. It represents a major effort from Google to rank websites based on their legitimate quality, and reduce the rankings of websites engaged in false link building strategies.

For many SEOs and business owners, Google Penguin was a painful update. SEO strategies based on easily-obtained links fell apart, and many websites lost rankings. In fact, entire SEO strategies like directory links were rendered largely irrelevant.

Since Penguin’s introduction in 2012, it has gone through many changes. Many different versions and tweaks of the update have been processed since then, but all ultimately share the same purpose of punishing websites using bad link building strategies.

Penguin is a sophisticated system and a sign that Google is getting harder and harder to “trick”. Basically, SEO experts and business owners need to adapt to the new reality where link building is difficult, slow, and based on real marketing efforts, rather than spammy tactics.

How to Optimize for Google Penguin

If you’ve been hit by a Google Penguin penalty, there is a four step process you should be taking to help recover your rankings:

  • Remove Bad Links. Wherever possible, attempt to delete or remove bad links that you or your past SEO agency has created. This might mean deleting forum or social site profiles, requesting link removals from other webmasters, deleting dummy blogs that you’ve created, and so forth. The more that you can clean up your link profile, the better chance you’ll have to recover.
  • Disavow Bad Links. Within Google Webmaster Tools, you can submit a request to Google to ignore some of the bad links your website might have. This is called a disavow request, and is accomplished by submitting a simple list of links to Google that you would prefer be ignored. Note that this tool isn’t necessarily a “get out of jail free” card: if you have not made an effort to actually remove some bad links, Google is likely to just ignore your request.
  • Submit a Reconsideration Request. In some cases, you might actually get a notice from Google within Webmaster Tools that some action has been taken to penalize your site. (This isn’t specific to Google Penguin, but can occur across a range of issues). If you have gotten such a notice, you can reply with a request to remove the penalty, and explain what you’ve done to get back into Google’s graces. Again, don’t just submit a hasty request – you need to take the time to actually improve your website’s quality.
  • Work on New, Positive Marketing Efforts. While the above three steps are purely reactive, webmasters and marketers should also take proactive steps to help mitigate a Penguin penalty. Create new and improved website content, make your site more user friendly, and work on legitimate link building and social media strategies.

Ultimately, Google Penguin has changed the game permanently. Today’s SEO agencies need to be holistic digital marketers, working on real strategies to create content and build a quality web presence. Business owners should abandon cheap and easy link generation tactics, and move towards real and robust marketing strategies that will stand the test of time.

We hope this post has helped you understand Google Penguin and the impact it has had on the SEO industry. Stay tuned for our future “Google Algorithms” posts, where we’ll explore Google Panda and Google Hummingbird. And if you have any other questions about Google Penguin, or need help recovering from a Google Penguin penalty, please feel free to contact the team at Tech-Critic for a free link analysis and consultation.

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