Monday, February 17th, 2014

Panda UJan14 – Uncovering the Panda Update from January 11, 2014 (with a note about Expedia)

Panda Update on January 11, 2014

As of July 2013, Google will not confirm Panda updates anymore.  And as I explained in my post about unconfirmed Panda updates, this can lead to serious confusion for webmasters.  For example, if Panda updates are not documented, then it becomes that much harder to understand why a serious drop in organic search traffic occurred.  Was it Panda, a smaller algo change, was the drop due to links, or other factors?  Even when Panda updates were confirmed, it was still a a confusing topic for business owners.  And now it’s even more confusing since those updates are cloaked.

According to John Mueller of Google (via a webmaster hangout video), the Panda algorithm is now trusted enough that Google feels comfortable rolling it out once per month.  That link should jump you to 22:58 in a video where John speaks about Panda.  It’s not real-time like some people think, it’s simply trusted more than it once was (and Google can bypass some of the testing it used to implement prior to rolling out Panda).  The new Panda can take ten days to fully roll out, and again, Google will not provide confirmation of the updates.  So yes, Panda updates have been occurring since the last confirmed update, but it’s just harder to pinpoint those exact dates.

Human Panda Barometers
In my post about unconfirmed Panda updates, I explained that SEOs well-versed in Panda can typically shed some light on new updates.  That’s because they have access to a lot of data.  And not just any data, but Panda data.  The more companies an SEO is helping with Panda, the more that SEO has visibility into when Panda actually rolls out.  In addition, SEOs heavily working with Panda might have more companies reach out to them that were impacted by subsequent Panda updates.  That’s even more Panda data to analyze.

That’s why I believe SEOs heavily involved with algorithm updates can act like human Panda barometers, and can help determine when new updates roll out.  Based on my work with Panda, I’ve had the opportunity to see when some cloaked Panda updates rolled out (like the August and September Panda updates that I documented in my post from November).  The reason I can identify some of the newer Panda updates is because some of the companies I’m helping see recovery, while other companies that were just hit by Panda reach out to me for help.  The combination of the two enables me to pick up when some Panda updates roll out.


Welcoming 2014 with a Panda Update – January 11th Specifically
So, 2014 kicked off and I was wondering when the first major algorithm update would happen.  And it didn’t take long… as January 11th was a tough day for many webmasters.  Right around the 11th, I noticed an uptick in webmaster chatter about an update occurring, which quickly led me to Google Analytics to trend Google organic search traffic across several websites dealing with Panda problems.   Low and behold, there was significant movement.

Check out the SEO visibility for a company that got hit by the January 2014 update:

Website Impacted by Panda UJan14

In addition to companies I am currently helping, my inbox also confirmed something was going on.  I had several new companies reaching out to me after the 11th explaining that they saw a major hit starting on that date.  Upon checking their reporting, you could clearly see a significant drop beginning on January 11, 2014.  And digging deeper revealed that a number of those companies had battled with Panda in the past.  A few had also exchanged blows with Phantom on May 8, 2013.

This led me to believe that we were witnessing our first Panda update of 2014.  And since I’m a big believer in naming updates to document them specifically, I’m going to name this one too.  I’m calling it Panda UJan14, for “Unconfirmed January 2014″.  I think this naming convention works extremely well, since the new Panda is supposed to roll out monthly.  Providing the month and year in the update will help clarify when those updates rolled out.

And based on the data I have analyzed since July, here are the Panda updates I believe have rolled out since the last confirmed update in July 2013.  Notice how they are approximately one month apart:

  • Panda UAug2013 – on August 26th
  • Panda USep2013 – on September 16th
  • Panda UNov2013 – on November 18th  - (Note, I don’t have a lot of data backing this update, but several sites I analyzed saw significant movement on the 18.)
  • Panda UDec2013 – on December 17th
  • The latest – Panda UJan2014 – on January 11, 2014

The Impact of Panda UJan14
Let’s start with the negative impact of the latest Panda update.  The companies that reached out to me after getting hit by Panda UJan14 saw a big drop from Google Organic search traffic.  That ranged from 20-35% and began on January 11, 2014.  Here’s the SEO visibility of another site hit by the January Panda update:

Negative Impact from Panda UJan2014

As mentioned earlier, a number of those companies had previous battles with Panda.  Clearly, they had content quality issues from a Panda standpoint.  When speaking with the business owners about the drop, they all explained implementing changes over the years when dealing with previous Panda updates.  But as I explained in a post about the grey area of Panda, if you don’t significantly tackle the content quality situation, you could very well get hit again (or not recover in the first place).  It’s extremely important to make significant changes in order to exit the grey area.  If you don’t, you could sit in the grey area of Panda forever, never knowing how close you are to recovery.  Several of the companies that were hit in January did not do enough to clean up their Panda issues, and were subsequently hit with another Panda update.

Now the positive impact from UJan2014.  On the flip side of the Panda hits were some positive stories.  A few companies I have been helping saw increases ranging from 15-25% based on the January 11, 2014 update.  These were companies that experienced previous Panda and/or Phantom hits, have been working on fixing their content problems, and saw an increase in Google organic traffic during the UCJan14 update.

Notice the uptick in impressions and clicks starting on January 11th:

Positive Impact from Panda UJan2014

It’s important to note that several of the companies did not recover fully to pre-Panda or pre-Phantom levels, but they definitely saw a nice increase.  Remember, there’s a reason the sites got hit by Panda in the first place.  The content that was once ranking well and driving traffic shouldn’t have been ranking that well in the first place…  which led to a lot of traffic with serious engagement issues.  And serious engagement issues (like extremely low dwell time), can cause a Panda attack.  More context about that situation in my Search Engine Watch column about the sinister surge before Panda strikes.

Others Benefiting From the Drop
In addition to websites recovering from Panda, I noticed a number of companies simply benefiting from the hits others were taking.  For example, if certain companies drop out of the rankings, then others take their place.  Those companies were simply benefiting from the drop in rankings of January Panda victims.

For example, here’s the trending for a site that directly competes with a Panda victim I analyzed.  Notice the jump starting around January 11, 2014.

A website benefiting from Panda UJan2014

A Note About Expedia – Was it Panda Versus a Manual Action?
It sure looks that way to me.  Nobody knows for sure other than Google and Expedia, but the drop occurred exactly when I saw the January Panda update.  Check out the trending below based on Search Metrics data.

Was Expedia Hit by Panda UJan2014?

That’s just something to think about since many people believe that Expedia was hit by an unnatural links penalty.  I tend to think it was Panda instead.  That said, I would have to heavily analyze the keywords that were impacted, the content that was once ranking, etc. to better determine if that was the case.

Summary – The Importance of Monitoring Cloaked Panda Updates
As I explained above, it’s getting extremely difficult to identify Panda updates.  They are supposed to roll out monthly, take ten days to fully roll out, but Google won’t confirm when the updates occur.  For the average business owner, this is a recipe for serious confusion when organic search trending takes a dive.

My goal with posts like this one is to provide as much data as I can with regard to major algorithm updates so webmasters can take the appropriate actions to rectify the problems at hand.  Without understanding the specific algorithm update that hits a website, companies could struggle with deciphering the root cause of the problem.  And that could easily lead to spinning wheels, or in a worst case scenario, implementing changes that actually make the situation worse SEO-wise.  Moving forward, I’ll try and document subsequent Panda updates the best I can.

But hold on… has the next Panda update already rolled out??  There’s a lot of chatter about a February update and I am seeing movement across sites hit by Panda (starting around February 11th).  It very well could be Panda UFeb14.  The timing makes a lot of sense as well, since the last update was exactly one month ago.  I’ll know more in a few days once more data comes in.  Stay tuned.  :)

GG

 

 

Monday, January 27th, 2014

In-SERP Hover Cards – How Google Could Surface Your Answers, Products, Downloads, Reviews, Events, and More Directly in the Search Results

New Google Hover Card in SERPs for Beats Music
Last Wednesday, Google rolled out new functionality in the search results, which sure got the attention of SEOs across the industry.  Now when searching for information, you will sometimes see an additional link directly in the search results for specific organizations and/or websites.  Users can click on that link to view additional information about that organization right in the search results (via data from Google’s Knowledge Graph).

Google states that this can occur for websites that are “widely recognized as notable online, when there is enough information to show or when the content may be handy for you.”  When clicking the link next to the URL in the search snippet, a small window opens providing the information.  It’s basically a hover card that provides additional information.  This is an important move by Google, since users don’t need to leave the search results to find more information.

Here’s an example of the info card for Netflix:
New Google Hover Card in SERPs for Netflix

The information displayed in the hover card is based on Google’s Knowledge Graph, or data that Google has collected about “real world things”.  Knowledge Graph data comes from a variety of trusted sources, including Freebase (which Google acquired), Wikipedia, CIA World Factbook, etc. As of July of 2012, Google had collected information about 570 million entities, including 18 billion facts and connections.

To quickly summarize the new addition to the search engine results pages (SERPs), if you are searching for answers, and Google has information in its Knowledge Graph about the sites ranking in the search results, you just might see that new link appear directly within the search listing.  And if you click that link, you’ll see Knowledge Graph data in a small window directly in the search results.

Hover Creep: Your Content, Answers, Products, and Downloads Directly in the Search Results?
As I was testing these new “Info Cards”, I started to think deeper about what was occurring, and how this might be the next phase of a monumental shift for Google.  Over the past few years, SEOs have seen Google provide more and more information directly in the search results.  For example, check out all of the types of answers Google will provide right in the results (courtesy of Pete Meyers).  Based on this shift to the all-knowing SERP, many SEOs believe that at some point, Google won’t need to drive users to third party websites anymore.  Instead, maybe it could provide all the information directly in the results.

Don’t believe me?  How about this search for “calories in bananas”:
Nutrition Information in the Search Results

 

Expanding Hover Cards – Coming Soon to a SERP Near You
Based on how much information Google is already providing in the search results (driven by Knowledge Graph data), combined with new hover card functionality in the search results, is it really far-fetched to think Google could expand this approach?  Sure, it won’t happen overnight, but as Google collects and trusts more information from trusted third parties, it could absolutely start providing that data right in the search results.

And that little popup window (hover card) is the first sign that Google isn’t afraid to add more information directly in the SERPs for specific listings.  Let’s face it, providing author details (based on authorship markup) is one thing.  But using a hover card to provide more content per search listing is another.

And maybe this is just a test to see how users react before rolling out more and more content directly in the search results.  And maybe it’s not limited to content… maybe other types of functionality are coming, like ecommerce functionality, downloads, sign-ups, etc.  Now that would be interesting, unless of course, you’re the owner of that content, download, etc. who gets cut out of the process.  Yes, beware the hover card.

So, let’s have some fun and explore what this could look like and how it could work.  It just might be closer than you think.


Trusted Sources, and a Note About Publishership
Some of you reading this post might be wondering how Google could verify typical websites, especially since it’s using trusted data for the recent release of “info cards”.   For example, Google trusts the data in its Knowledge Graph, so it’s comfortable providing the popup window with more information about certain entities.  But will it do this for the average site on the web?  If Google is going to provide more information directly in the search results, then it’s going to have to trust those third party websites, and their content, to do so.

Although many website owners have been focused on authorship markup, where author details can show up in the search results, there is publishership as well.  By claiming publishership (rel=publisher), Google can connect a website to an entity in Google Plus (similar to the way an author is tied to a G+ profile).  That connection could possibly be the basis for providing more content in the search results.  And yes, this could drive even more people to Google+ over the next few years.

By the way, just last year Google tested out showing publisher images in the search results (similar to author details).  I saw the test live, and others did too.  I almost fell out of my seat when I saw client logos in the search results.  That test was removed quickly once word started getting out, but here’s a screenshot of what that looked like.  Check out the publisher image in the search results below:

Publisher Markup in the Search Results

So, if Google understands more about a website via publishership, maybe it can use data from the website to provide more information directly in the SERPs.  Hey, it’s entirely possible.

Now, if this was the case, at least website owners could remove publishership from their sites (if they didn’t like Google providing more data directly in the search results).  But that could be a double-edged sword for content owners.  Sure, you could stop Google from providing your answers in the search results, but maybe Google won’t rank your listings highly anymore (since it’s getting more engagement from listings that provide the in-SERP functionality).    Who knows, I’m just thinking out loud here…

Now let’s take a look at what could potentially appear in the SERPs if this comes to fruition.

Hover Cards and Google – The Various Types of Content and Functionality That Could Appear Directly in the Search Results
Based on what I explained above, how could Google implement additional content or functionality directly in the search results?  And what would it look like?  I started brainstorming a few different ways this could happen and have provided some possibilities below.  Note, these are just some logical options based on what I’ve seen happening with Google and its search results over the past few years.  There are definitely more possibilities than what I’m listing below, but this is a good start.

And yes, in-SERP content and functionality could have a huge impact on websites and businesses.  I’ll cover more about that later in the post.

1. Direct Answers (From Your Site)
There are a lot of companies receiving traffic from users based on queries for direct answers to questions.  Again, Google is already providing many answer boxes for various topics (as covered earlier).  But that’s not per listing in the search engine results pages…  it’s usually via an answer box at the top of the search results.  That’s much different than a hover card per search listing (or for certain listings in the SERPs).

Let’s use my website as an example.  How about a search for “how many dmca requests google impact”?  That’s a search related to the Pirate Update, which I covered extensively in a post in December.  If Google provides the answer in the SERP via an “Answer Card”, it could look like this:

Google Answer Card in the Search Results

If this type of answer card rolls out, and the hover card provides enough of the answer, users will never hit your site.  So, if you are hoping that users visit your site to find the answer, and then take some other action on your website, good luck.  You better start thinking of another way to get that to happen.

2. How-Tos  or Tutorial Segments
If someone searches for how to perform a certain task, and that task is limited in steps, then maybe that information could show up in the search results via a “Tutorial Card”.  Or maybe someone is searching for a specific step in a tutorial.  Google could provide just that step in a hover card directly in the SERPs.

Google Tutorial Card in the Search Results

3. Product or Service Information
If someone is interested in a certain product category or service, then maybe that information is pulled directly from sites in that niche.  For example, if someone searches for “IT consulting” or “computer science” or “4K television”, Google could provide that information directly in the SERPs via a “Product or Service Card”.  For example:

Google Category Card in the Search Results

4. Ecommerce – Fighting Amazon via the “Ecommerce Card”
Information is great, but let’s talk about ecommerce.  Google and Amazon battle heavily in the ecommerce space.  Sure, Google doesn’t sell anything directly, but they make a boatload of money via paid search.  And product listing ads (PLAs) are at the heart of that growth right now.  On the flipside, many people go directly to Amazon to search for products.  That’s the result of a huge inventory, a boatload of review data, and Prime membership (with free, two-day shipping).

But, what if Google decided to provide one-click ecommerce functionality directly in the SERPs?  This could be handled by connecting your Google profile to Google Wallet and buying products directly in the SERPs via the “Ecommerce Card”.  This would be amazing for people that already know which product they want to buy.  It could look like this:

Google Ecommerce Card in the Search Results

And yes, this would be like AdWords on steroids since Google could generate revenue via the organic listings by earning a percentage of the sale.  Holy cow.  :)  More about the ecommerce impact later in this post.

 

5. Reviews
Going even further with our ecommerce example, if someone searched for reviews of a product or service, Google could surface that information and provide it directly in the “Review Card”.   For some people, the review snippet below would be enough.  And that could drastically impact the downstream traffic to pcmag.com.

Google Review Card in the Search Results

6. Downloads
Along the same lines, what if you were looking to download content via pdfs (or other formats)?  Imagine Google provided this download functionality via a “Download Card” directly in the search results.  Google could scan each file for malware and tee it up for users to download.  And if you want to charge for that file, then you can combine the “Ecommerce Card” with the “Download Card”.  That would be a smart combination for sure.

Google Download Card in the Search Results

7. Sign-ups/Registration
Looking to sign up for a webinar, join an email list, or confirm you’ll be attending an event?  Registration functionality could also be provided directly in the search results.  Actually, Google has already been testing functionality for joining email lists in AdWords (via ads in the search results).  This could easily be included in a “Registration Card” directly in the organic search results.

Google Registration Card in the Search Results

I can keep going here… but I think you get the picture.  And these hover cards don’t have to be limited to Knowledge Graph data.  If Google can verify certain entities, then it can feel comfortable providing more information to users directly in the search results.  That data could be answers, information, coupon codes, medical information, pricing, reviews, downloads, list signups, ecommerce functionality, and more.

 

What Happens if this Rolls Out?
Website owners will riot in the streets.  :)  Ok, maybe not literally, but this could cause serious problems for many business owners.

Publishers with an Ad-Driven Model
Let’s start with websites earning advertising revenue based on traffic.  Well, if a site is charging a CPM (or cost per thousand impressions), and 40% of its traffic goes away, their revenue will take a huge hit.  And as their traffic numbers plummet, so will their ability to sell advertising on the site.  Publishers will once again need to figure out other ways to monetize, which is no easy feat.

Ecommerce Retailers
Next on the list are ecommerce retailers.  The once pure, ROI-driven organic results will now be asking for a commission.  If Google does roll out the ability to buy directly from the search results via one-click “ecommerce cards”, then it will surely want a cut of the sale.  Remember, advertising comprises a huge percentage of Google’s revenue and product listing ads are doing extremely well for them (via AdWords).  But having the ability to sell via the much larger set of organic listings could be huge for Google.

Blogs and Resources
For those writing great content on blogs and resource websites, then the possibility of having that content surfaced in “answer cards” could be a big problem (although not as big of a problem as large publishers and ecommerce retailers).  The real downside here would be users gaining answers based on your hard work, without needing to visit your site.

And if they don’t visit your site, they can’t find out more about you, they can’t subscribe to your feed, find your social accounts, or contact you.  I’m sure some users will decide to visit the site, but a certain percentage surely won’t.  This could lead to a drop in awareness, which could impact multiple channels for content owners.  i.e. less subscribers, twitter followers, facebook fans, etc.  And of course, this could impact leads and new business for the organizations publishing content.

Hover Card Extensions – A Note About Ads
It’s hard to write about Google without bringing up advertising.  Again, advertising drives ~96% of Google’s revenues, so these new hover cards would probably have some type of advertising component.  I already mentioned the revenue that ecommerce cards could drive (via a percentage of the sale), but Google could absolutely add sponsored information to hover cards.

For example, imagine having the ability to promote certain pages on your site (to increase click through), provide the ability to subscribe to a feed, follow you on Google+, etc. right from the various hover cards.  This type of ad extension could easily be included in the AdWords platform.  And if that happens, Google could expand AdWords-like functionality to the organic listings.  As long as it’s clearly labeled, and it’s actually helpful to users, then it’s a huge win-win for Google.  Users get what they are looking for, and Google just added a massive new source of revenue.

Hover Card Ad Extensions in Google

 

Summary – Hover Cards and the All-Powerful SERP
The addition of “info cards” in the search results caught serious attention last week across the industry.  But is this just the beginning?  Is it merely a test to see how users react to providing more information directly in the search results per listing?  And if it works well, it’s hard to say how much information and functionality Google could provide in the SERPs.

Time will tell how much of what I listed above becomes a reality.  Until then, I recommend continuing to diversify your digital efforts.  If not, you run the risk of transforming from a website with a lot of traffic into a hover card sitting in the search results.  And there’s not much room to play with there.

GG

 

 

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Rap Genius Recovery: Analyzing The Keyword Gains and Losses After The Google Penalty Was Lifted

Rap Genius Recovers From Google Penalty

On Christmas Day, Rap Genius was given a heck of a gift from Google.  A penalty that sent their rankings plummeting faster than an anvil off the Eiffel tower.  The loss in traffic has been documented heavily as many keywords dropped from page one to page five and beyond.  And many of those keywords used to rank in positions #1 through #3 (or prime real estate SEO-wise).  Once the penalty was in place, what followed was a huge decrease in visits from Google organic, since most people don’t even venture to page two and beyond.  It’s like Siberia for SEO.

Gaming Links
So what happened that Google had to tear itself away from eggnog and a warm fire to penalize a lyrics website on Christmas Day?  Rap Genius was gaming links, and badly.  No, not just badly, but with such disregard for the consequences that they were almost daring Google to take action.  And that’s until Matt Cutts learned of the matter and took swift action on Rap Genius.

That was Christmas Day. Ho, ho, ho.  You get coal in your lyrical stocking.   I won’t go nuts here explaining the ins and outs of what they were doing.  That’s been documented heavily across the web.  In a nutshell, they were exchanging tweets for links.  If bloggers added a list of rich anchor text links to their posts, then Rap Genius would tweet links to their content.  The bloggers get a boatload of traffic and Rap Genius got links (and a lot of them using rich anchor text like {artist} + {song} + lyrics).  Here’s a quick screenshot of one page breaking the rules:

Rap Genius Unnatural Links

A 10 Day Penalty – LOL
Now, I help a lot of companies with algorithmic hits and manual actions.  Many of the companies contacting me for help broke the rules and are seeking help in identifying and then rectifying their SEO problems.  Depending on the situation, recovery can take months of hard work (or longer).  From an unnatural links standpoint, you need to analyze the site’s link profile, flag unnatural links, remove as many as you can manually, and then disavow the rest.  If you only have 500 links leading to your site, this can happen relatively quickly.  If you have 5 million, it can be a much larger and nastier project.

Rap Genius has 1.5 million links showing in Majestic’s Fresh Index.  And as you start to drill into the anchor text leading to the site, there are many questionable links.  You can reference their own post about the recovery to see examples of what I’m referring to.  Needless to say, they had a lot of work to do in order to recover.

So, you would think that it would take some time to track down, remove, and then disavow the unnatural links that caused them so much grief.  And then they would need to craft a serious reconsideration request documenting how they broke the rules, how they fixed the problem, and of course, offer a sincere apology for what they did (with a guarantee they will never do it again).   Then Google would need to go through the recon request, check all of the removals and hard work, and then decide whether the manual action should be lifted, or if Rap Genius had more work to do.  This should take at least a few weeks, right?  Wrong.  How about 10 days.

Rap Genius Recovers After 10 Days

Only 10 days after receiving a manual action, Rap Genius is back in Google.  As you can guess, the SEO community was not exactly thrilled with the news.  Screams of special treatment rang through the twitterverse, as Rap Genius explained that Google helped them to some degree understand how to best tackle the situation, or what to target.  Believe me, that’s rare.  Really rare…

Process for Removing and Disavowing Links
Rap Genius wrote a post about the recovery on January 4th, which included the detailed process for identifying and then dealing with unnatural links.  They had thousands of links to deal with, beginning with a master list of 178K.  From that master list, they started to drill into specific domains to identify unnatural links.   Once they did, Rap Genius removed what they could and disavowed the rest using Google’s Disavow Tool.   Following their work, Google removed the manual action on January 4th and Rap Genius was back in Google.

But many SEOs wondered how much they came back, especially since Rap Genius had to nuke thousands of links.  And many of those links were to deeper pages with rich anchor text.  Well, I’ve been tracking the situation from the start, checking which keywords dropped during the penalty, and now tracking which ones returned to high rankings after the penalty was lifted.  I’ll quickly explain the process I used for tracking rankings and then provide my findings.

My Process for Analyzing Rankings (With Some Nuances)
When the penalty was first applied to Rap Genius, I quickly checked SEMRush to view the organic search trending and to identify keywords that were “lost” and ones that “declined”.  Rap Genius ranks for hundreds of thousands of keywords according to SEMRush and its organic search reporting identified a 70K+ keyword loss based on the penalty.

Note, you can’t compare third party tools to a website’s own analytics reporting, and SEMRush won’t cover every keyword leading to the site.  But, for larger sites with a lot of volume, SEMRush is a fantastic tool viewing the gains and losses for a specific domain.  I’ve found it to be extremely thorough and accurate.

Checking the lost and declined keywords that SEMRush was reporting lined up with manual checks.  Those keywords definitely took a plunge, with Rap Genius appearing on page five or beyond.  And as I mentioned earlier, that’s basically Siberia for organic search.

When the penalty was lifted, I used the same process for checking keywords, but this time I checked the “new” and “improved” categories.  The reporting has shown 43K+ keywords showing in the “new” category, which means those keywords did not rank the last time SEMRush checked that query.

I also used Advanced Web Ranking to check 500 of the top keywords that were ranking prior to the penalty (and that dropped after the manual action was applied).  The keywords I checked were all ranking in the top ten prior to the penalty.  Once the penalty was lifted, I ran the rankings for those keywords.  I wanted to see how much of an improvement there was for the top 500 keywords.

Then I dug into the data based on both SEMRush and Advanced Web Ranking to see what I could find.  I have provided my findings below.   And yes, this is a fluid situation, so rankings could change.  But we have at least a few days of data now.  Without further ado, here’s what I found.

 

Branded Keywords
This was easy. Branded keywords that were obliterated during the penalty returned quickly with strong rankings.  This was completely expected.  For example, if you search for rap genius, rapgenius, or any variation, the site now ranks at the top of the search results.  And the domain name ranks with sitelinks. No surprises here.

Rap Genius Branded Keywords

Category Keywords
For category keywords, like “rap lyrics”, “favorite song lyrics”, and “popular song lyrics”, I saw mixed results after the recovery.  For example, the site now ranks #1 for “rap lyrics”, which makes sense, but does not rank well for “favorite song lyrics” and “popular song lyrics”.  And it ranked well for each of those prior to the penalty.  Although specific song lyric queries are a driving force for rap genius (covered soon), category keywords can drive a lot of volume.  It’s clear that the site didn’t recover for a number of key category keywords.

Rap Genius Category Keywords

 

Artist Keywords
I noticed that the site ranked for a lot of artists prior to the penalty (just the artist name with no modifiers).  For example, “kirko bangz”, “lil b”, etc.  Similar to what I saw with category keywords, I saw mixed results with artists.  Searching for the two artists I listed above does not yield high rankings anymore, when they both ranked on page one prior to the penalty.  Some increased in rankings, but not to page one.  For example, “2 chainz” ranks #12 after the penalty was lifted.  But it was MIA when the penalty was in effect.  Another example is “Kendrick Lamar”, which Rap Genius ranked #8 for prior to the penalty.  The site is not ranking well at all for that query now.  So again, it seems that Rap Genius recovered for some artist queries, but not all.

Rap Genius Artist Keywords

Lyrics Keywords
Based on my research, I could clearly see the power of {song} + lyrics queries for Rap Genius.  It’s a driving force for the site.  And Rap Genius is now ranking again for many of those queries.  When the penalty was first lifted, I started checking a number of those queries and saw Rap Genius back on page one, and sometimes #1.  But when I started checking in scale, you could definitely see that not all keywords returned to high rankings.

Rap Genius High Rankings for Lyrics Keywords

For example, “hallelujah lyrics”, “little things lyrics”, and “roller coaster lyrics” are still off of page one.  Then there are keywords that skyrocketed back up the charts, I mean search rankings.  For example, “swimming pool lyrics”, “marvins room lyrics”, and “not afraid lyrics” all returned after the penalty after being buried.  So, it seems that many song lyrics keywords returned, but there are some that rank page two and beyond.

Rap Genius Low Rankings for Lyrics Keywords

What About Keywords That Were Gamed?
I’m sure some of you are wondering how Rap Genius fared for keywords that were gamed via unnatural links.  For example, “22 two’s lyrics” yields extremely strong rankings for Rap Genius, when it was one of the songs gamed via the link scheme.  Actually, rap genius ranks twice in the top 5.  Go figure.

Rap Genius Rankings for Gamed Links - Jay Z

Ditto for “timbaland know bout me”, which was also one of the songs that made its way into the spammy list of links at the end of articles and posts.  Rap Genius ranks #3 right now.

Rap Genius Rankings for Gamed Links - Timbaland

And then there’s Justin Bieber, which I can’t cover with just one sentence.  Rap Genius currently ranks on page 3 for “Justin Bieber song lyrics”, when it used to rank #8!  And then “Justin Bieber baby lyrics” now ranks #12 on page 2, when it used to rank #8.  But for “Justin Bieber lyrics”, Rap Genius is #10, on page one.

Rap Genius Rankings for Justin Bieber Lyrics

Overall, I saw close to 100 Justin Bieber keywords pop back into the top few pages of Google after the penalty was lifted.  But, many were not on page one anymore… I saw many of those keywords yield rankings on page two or beyond for Rap Genius.  See the screenshot below:

Rap Genius Keywords for Justin Bieber

 

Summary – Rap Genius Recovers, But The Scars Remain
So there you have it.  A rundown of where Rap Genius is after the penalty was lifted.  Again, I can’t see every keyword that was lost or gained during the Christmas Day fiasco, but I could see enough of the data.  It seems that Rap Genius came back strong, but not full-blast.  I saw many keywords return, but still a number that remain buried in Google.

But let’s face it, a 10 day penalty is a slap on the wrist for Rap Genius.  They now have a clean(er) platform back, and can build up on that platform.  That’s a lot better than struggling for months (or longer) with horrible rankings.  As I explained earlier, too many business owners aren’t as lucky as Rap Genius.  10 days and help from Google can quicken up the recovery process.  That’s for sure.

I’ll end with one more screenshot to reinforce the fact that Rap Genius is back.  And it’s a fitting query. :)

Rap Genius I'm Sorry

GG

 

 

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Panda Report – How To Find Low Quality Content By Comparing Top Landing Pages From Google Organic

Top Landing Pages Report in Google Analytics

Note, this tutorial works in conjunction with my Search Engine Watch column, which explains how to analyze the top landing pages from Google Organic prior to, and then after, Panda arrives.  With the amount of confusion circling Panda, I wanted to cover a report webmasters can run today that can help guide them down the right path while on their hunt for low-quality content.

My Search Engine Watch column covers an overview of the situation, why you would want to run the top landing pages report (with comparison), and how to analyze the data.  And my tutorial below covers how to actually create the report.  The posts together comprise a two-headed monster that can help those hit by Panda get on the right track.   In addition, my Search Engine Watch column covers a bonus report from Google Webmaster Tools that can help business owners gather more information about content that was impacted by the mighty Panda.

Why This Report is Important for Panda Victims
The report I’m going to help you create today is important, since it contains the pages that Google was ranking well and driving traffic to prior to a Panda attack.  And that’s where Google was receiving a lot of intelligence about content quality and user engagement.  By analyzing these pages, you can often find glaring Panda-related problems.  For example, thin content, duplicate content, technical problems causing content issues, low-quality affiliate content, hacked content, etc.  It’s a great way to get on the right path, and quickly.

There are several ways to run the report in Google Analytics, and I’ll explain one of those methods below.  And remember, this should not be the only report you run… A rounded analysis can help you identify a range of problems from a content quality standpoint.  In other words, pages not receiving a lot of traffic could also be causing Panda-related problems.  But for now, let’s analyze the top landing pages from Google Organic prior to a Panda hit (which were sending Google the most data before Panda arrived).

And remember to visit my Search Engine Watch column after running this report to learn more about why this data is important, how to use it, red flags you can identify, and next steps for websites that were impacted.  Let’s get started.

How To Run a Top Landing Pages Report in Google Analytics (with date comparison): 

  • First, log into Google Analytics and click the “All Traffic” tab under “Acquisition”.  Then click “Google / Organic” to isolate that traffic source.
    Accessing Google Organic Traffic in Google Analytics
  • Next, set your timeframe to the date after Panda arrived and extend that for a decent amount of time (at least a few weeks if you have the data).  If time allows, I like to set the report to 4-6 weeks after Panda hit.  If this is right after an algorithm update, then use whatever data you have (but make sure it’s at least one week).  I’m using a date range after the Phantom update hit (which was May 8th).
    Setting a Timeframe in Google Analytics
  • Your next move is to change the primary dimension to “Landing Page” to view all landing pages from Google organic search traffic.  Click the “Other” link next to “Primary Dimension” and select “Acquisition”, and then “Landing Page”.  Now you will see all landing pages from Google organic during that time period.
    Primary Dimension to Landing Page in Google Analytics
  • Now let’s use some built-in magic from Google Analytics.  In the timeframe calendar, you can click a checkbox for “Compare to” and leave “Previous period” selected.  Once you click “Apply”, you are going to see all of the metrics for each landing page, but with a comparison of the two timeframes.  And you’ll even have a nice trending graph up top to visualize the Panda horror.
    Comparing Timeframes in Google Analytics
  • As you start going down the list of urls, pay particular attention to the “% Change” column.  Warning, profanity may ensue.  When you start seeing pages that lost 30%, 40%, 50% or more traffic when comparing timeframes, then it would be wise to check out those urls in greater detail.  Again, if Google was sending a lot of traffic to those urls, then it had plenty of user engagement data from those visits.  You might just find that those urls are seriously problematic from a content quality standpoint.
    Viewing The Percent Change in Traffic in Google Analytics

 

Bonus 1: Export to Excel for Deeper Analysis

  • It’s ok to stay within Google Analytics to analyze the data, but you would be better off exporting this data to Excel for deeper analysis.  If you scroll to the top of the Google Analytics interface, you will see the “Export” button.  Click that button and then choose “Excel (XLSX)”.  Once the export is complete, it should open in Excel.  Navigate to the “Dataset” worksheet to see your landing page data (which is typically the second worksheet).
    Exporting A Report In Google Analytics
  • At this point, you should clean up your spreadsheet by deleting columns that aren’t critical for this report.  Also, you definitely want to space out each column so you can see the data clearly (and the data headers).
    Clean Up Google Analytics Export in Excel
  • You’ll notice that each url has two rows, one for the current timeframe, and one for the previous timeframe.  This enables you to see all of the data for each url during both timeframes (the comparison).
    Two Rows For Each URL Based on Timeframe
  • That’s nice, but wouldn’t it be great to create a new column that showed the percentage decrease or increase for visits (like we saw in Google Analytics?)  Maybe even with highlighting to show steep decreases in traffic  Let’s do it.  Create a new column to the right of “Visits” and before “% New Visits”.  I would title this column “% Change” or something similar.
    Creating a New Column for Percent Change in Excel
  • Next, let’s create a formula that provides the percentage change based on the two rows of data for each url.  Find the “Visits” column and the first landing page url (which will have two rows).  Remember, there’s one row for each timeframe.  If your visits data is in column C, then the post-Panda data is in row 2, and the pre-Panda data is in row 3 (see screenshot below).  You can enter the following formula in the first cell for the new column “% Change”.=(C3-C2)/C3.Again, C3 is the traffic levels from the previous timeframe, C2 is the traffic levels from the current timeframe (after the Panda hit), and you are dividing by the previous traffic levels to come up with the percentage change.  For example, if a url dropped from 5,450 visits to 640 visits, then your percentage drop would be 88%.  And yes, you would definitely want to investigate that url further!
    Creating a Formula to Calculate Percent Change in Excel
  • Don’t worry about the floating decimal point.  We’ll tackle that soon.  Now we need to copy that formula to the rest of the column (but by twos).  Remember, we have two records for each url, so you’ll need to highlight both cells before double clicking the bottom right corner of the second cell to copy the formula to all rows.  Once you do, Excel automatically copies the two rows to the rest of the cells in that column.  Now you should have percentage drops (or increases) for all the urls you exported.  Note, you can also highlight the two cells, copy them, and then highlight the rest of that column, and click paste.  That will copy the formula to the right cells in the column as well.
    Copying a Formula to All Rows in Excel
  • Now, you will see a long, floating decimal point in our new column labeled “% Change”.  That’s an easy fix, since we want to see the actual percentage instead.  Highlight the column, right click the column, and choose “Format Cells”.  Then choose “Percentage” and click “OK”.  That’s it.  You now have a column containing all top landing pages from Google organic, with the percentage drop after the Panda hit.
    Formatting Cells in Excel

 

Bonus 2: Highlight Cells With A Steep Drop in Red

  • If you want the data to “pop” a little more, then you can use conditional formatting to highlight cells that exceed a certain percentage drop in traffic.  That can easily help you and your team quickly identify problematic landing pages.
  • To do that, highlight the new column we created (titled “% Change”), and click the “Conditional Formatting” button in your Home tab in Excel (located in the “Styles” group).  Then select, “Highlight Cells Rules”, and then select, “Greater Than”.  When the dialog box comes up, enter a minimum percentage that you want highlighted.  And don’t forget to add the % symbol!  Choose the color you want to highlight your data with and click “OK”.  Voila, your problematic urls are highlighted for you.  Nice.
    Applying Conditional Formatting in ExcelApplying Conditional Formatting by Percentage in Excel

 

Summary – Analyzing Panda Data
If you made it through this tutorial, then you should have a killer spreadsheet containing a boatload of important data.  Again, this report will contain the percentage increase or decrease for top landing pages from Google Organic (prior to, and then after, a Panda hit).  This is where Google gathered the most intelligence based on user engagement.  It’s a great place to start your analysis.

Now it’s time to head over to my Search Engine Watch column to take a deeper look at the report, what you should look for, and how to get on the right track with Panda recovery.  Between the tutorial and my Search Engine Watch column, I hope to clear up at least some of the confusion about “content quality” surrounding Panda updates.  Good luck.

GG

 

 

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Google’s Pirate Algorithm and DMCA Takedowns | Exploring the Impact Threshold

Google Pirate Algorithm

In August of 2012, Google announced an update to its search algorithm that targeted websites receiving a high number of DMCA takedown requests.  The update was unofficially called “The Pirate Update”, based on the concept of pirating someone else’s content like music, movies, articles, etc.  With the update, Google explained that “sites receiving a lot of removal notices may appear lower in our results.”   For most websites, this wasn’t a big deal.  But for others, this was more than just a proverbial “shot across the bow”.  It was a full-blown cannon shot right through the hull of a ship.

I do a lot of algorithm update work, including Panda, Penguin, and Phantom work, so it’s not unusual for website owners to contact me about major drops in traffic that look algorithmic.  And I’ve had several companies contact me since August 2012 that believed the Pirate update could be the cause of their drop.   Regarding dates, the update first rolled out in August of 2012, and the impact could be seen almost immediately.  I’ll cover more about how I know that soon.

My goal with this post is to introduce the Pirate update, explain how you can analyze DMCA takedowns requests (via data Google provides), and explore the threshold of removal requests that could get a site algorithmically impacted (or what I’m calling “The Threshold Impact”).

So without further ado, it’s time to sail into dangerous waters.

 

DMCA Takedowns
So, what’s a DMCA takedown?  It’s essentially a notice sent to an online service provider explaining that infringing material resides on its network, and that the infringing url(s) or website should be taken down.  As you can imagine Google receives many of these takedown requests on a regular basis, and it provides a simple process for filing takedowns.  Actually, Google provides a complete transparency report where it lists a slew of data regarding removal requests, copyright owners, domains specified in DMCA notices, etc.  I’ll explain more about that data next.

Google Transparency Report

For the purposes of this post (focused on the Pirate update), DMCA takedowns are sent to Google when someone or some entity believes urls on your website contain their copyrighted material.  And of course, those urls are probably ranking for target queries.  So, companies can go through the process of filing a copyright complaint, Google will investigate the issue, and take action if warranted (which means Google will remove the url(s) from the search results).  In addition, every request is documented, so Google can start to tally up the number of DMCA notices that target your domain.  And that’s extremely important when it comes to the Pirate algorithm.

And jumping back to Google’s original post about the Pirate Update, Google says, “Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.” So every time a new takedown notice comes in, you have one more strike against you.  Now, we don’t know how many strikes a site needs to receive before the Pirate algorithm kicks in, and I try and shed some light on that later in this post.

Google Transparency Report – Requests to Remove Content
I mentioned earlier that Google provides a Transparency Report, where it lists requests to remove content from its services (from governments, and due to copyright).  The section of the Transparency Report focused on copyright requests provides a wealth of data regarding takedown notices, domains being specified in those takedowns, top copyright owners, etc.  You can see on the site that over 5M urls were requested to be taken down by Google just last week, and 24M in the past month!  Yes, it’s a big problem (and a huge undertaking by Google).

Copyright Removal Requests

Being a data nut, I was like a kid in a candy store when I started going through this data.  This is the “smoking gun”, so to speak, when analyzing sites that could have been hit by Pirate.  By clicking the “Domain Specified” link in the left navigation, you can scroll through a list of the domains being targeted via DMCA takedown notices.  You can see the number of copyright owners that have filed notices, the number of reporting organizations (which work on behalf of copyright owners), and the number of urls submitted (that allegedly contain copyrighted material).  You can filter this data by week, month, year, or “all available”.  And more importantly, you can download the data as a .csv file.  This is where it gets interesting.

Domains Listed in Google Transparency Report

Working with the .csv file
First, and most importantly, the file holding domains contains 14M records. So if you try and simply open the file in Excel, you won’t get very far. Each worksheet in Excel can only contain 1M rows, so you have far too much data to run a simple import.  To get around this issue, I imported the file into Access, so I could work with the data in various ways.  Note, Access is a database program that enables you to import larger sets of data, and then query that data based on various criteria.  It’s a robust desktop database program from Microsoft that comes with certain versions of Microsoft Office.  So, you might already have Access installed and not even know it.

Using Microsoft Access to Analyze DMCA Takedown Requests

My goal was to analyze the domains getting hit by the Pirate algorithm, and then also try to identify the threshold Google is using when choosing to target a domain.  For example, how many requests needed to be filed, how many urls needed to be targeted, and what’s the “url to total indexed ratio”?  More about that last metric soon.

Tracking The Pirate Update via Data
Now that I had Pirate data, it was time to start analyzing that data.   I began to take a look at the top domains in the list, and cross-reference their organic search trending via SEMRush.  I wanted to make sure I could spot the impact from the Pirate algorithm for these specific domains.   That turned out to be easier than I thought. Check out the trending below for several of the websites that topped the list:

Website Impacted by Pirate Update - Example 1

Website Impacted by Pirate Update - Example 2

Website Impacted by Pirate Update - Example 3

Website Impacted by Pirate Update - Example 4

And I saw many more just like this…

Searching For The Impact Threshold – The Connection Between DMCA Takedowns and Algo Hits
Based on heavily reviewing the organic search trending for sites on the list, I wanted to see if there was a threshold for getting algorithmically impacted.  For example, did there have to be a certain number of complaints before Google impacted a site algorithmically?  Or was that too rudimentary?  Were there other factors involved that triggered the algo hit?  These are all good questions and I try to answer several of them below.

In addition to straight removal notices, it’s hard to overlook a specific metric Google is providing in the transparency report for DMCA takedowns.  It’s listed on the site as “percentage of pages requested to be removed based on total indexed pages”.  Now that metric makes sense! (theoretically anyway).  Understanding the total package could yield better decisions algorithmically than just the pure number of takedown requests.

For example, if the percentage is 1% or less for certain sites, they might be treated differently than a site with 5%, 10% (or even higher).  Note, I saw some sites with greater than 50%!  Based on my research, I saw a strong correlation with sites showing 5% or greater and what looked to be Pirate algorithm hits (i.e. 5% of the total urls on the site were requested to be removed via DMCA takedown requests).  And for the domains that dropped sharply after Pirate was first introduced, the percentage was often higher.  For example, I saw percentages of “<50%” often, and even a few “>50%”.

Website With High Percentage Of Removal Requests Based On Total Indexed Pages

I know this sounds obvious, but if half of your indexed urls have been requested to be taken down, you’ve probably got a serious Pirate problem. :)  And it should be no surprise that you’ve been hit by the Pirate update.

DMCA Takedowns and Google – What To Do If You Have Been Contacted
If a DMCA takedown request has been filed with Google about infringing url(s) on your site, you should receive a message in Google Webmaster Tools explaining the situation, along with links to the infringing content.  At that point, you can file a counter notice, remove the content, or choose to ignore the problem (which I don’t recommend).  If you do remove the content, then you can fill out the “content removed notification form”.   Once you complete the process of removing urls and notifying Google, then you will need to wait to see how your site rebounds.  Note, Google provides links to the forms I mentioned above in their messages via Webmaster Tools.

Example of a DMCA notice in Google Webmaster Tools:
In case you were wondering what a DMCA takedown request from Google looks like, here’s a link to a webmaster forum thread that shows a GWT DMCA message.

Example of DMCA Notice in Google Webmaster Tools

Also, and this is more related to the algorithmic hit you can take, I recommend visiting the transparency report and analyzing the data.  You can search by domain by accessing the search field in the copyright section of the transparency report.  You can also download and import the data into Access to identify the status of your domain (as mentioned earlier).

For example, you can figure out how many requests have been filed and review the % column to see how Google understands your entire domain based on alleged copyright violations.  If you see a large number of urls, and a high(er) percentage of infringing urls based on total indexation, then it could help you determine the cause of the latest algorithm hit that impacted your site.  Or if you’re lucky, you could thwart the next attack by being aggressive with copyright cleanup.

Summary – Walking The Plank With The Pirate Update
I hope this post explained more about the Pirate update, how it can impact a website, how you can research your domain via Google’s Transparency Report, and what to do if you have received a DMCA message from Google.  My recommendation to webmasters is to (obviously) avoid breaking copyright laws, take swift action if you are contacted by Google with DMCA notices (remove content or file a counter notice), and to research your domain to better understand the big picture (% of urls requested to be removed based on total indexation).

If not, you could very well be walking the plank into search oblivion.  And let’s face it, nobody wants to sleep in Davy Jones’ locker.  :)

GG

 

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

How To Track Unconfirmed Panda Updates in a Quasi Real-time World

Cloaked Panda Updates

In June I wrote an important blog post, based on the amount of Panda work I help companies with.  The post was about the maturing of Panda, and how Google planned to roll out the algorithm update once per month, while taking up to ten days to fully roll out.  Google also explained that it will not confirm future Panda updates.  After hearing both statements, I couldn’t help but think the new Panda could lead to serious confusion for many webmasters.  And I was right.

Let’s face it, Panda was already confusing enough for the average business owner.  Whenever I speak with Panda victims (which is often), I joke that Panda should have been titled “Octopus” instead.  That’s because there are many tentacles to Panda.  There are a number of reasons a site could get hit, and a deep analysis is often needed to determine what happened, why, and how to rectify the situation.  Sure, Panda focuses on “content quality”, but that could mean several things based on the nature of the website.

For example, I’ve seen affiliate content get hit, doorway pages, scraped content, heavy cross-linking of company-owned domains, duplicate content, thin content with over-optimized titles and metadata, etc.   And then you have technical problems that could cause content problems.  For example, code glitches that replicate content across large sites.  Those technical problems could impact thousands of pages (or more), and it’s one of the reasons I start every Panda engagement with a deep SEO technical audit.  What I find often helps me track down Panda problems, while having the added benefit of identifying other technical problems that can be fixed (and sometimes quickly).

Webmaster Confusion – My Prediction About The New Panda Was Unfortunately Spot-on
Believe me, I don’t want to pat myself on the back about my prediction, because I wish I was wrong.  But I have received many emails from webmasters since June that signal there is serious confusion with the new algorithm update.  And I totally get it.

An example of a Panda hit:
A Typical Panda Hit

For example, if you wake up one morning and see a big drop in Google organic traffic, but have no idea why, then you might start researching the problem.  And when Google doesn’t confirm a major update like Panda, stress and tension increase.   That leads you to various blog posts about Google traffic drops, which only cause more confusion.  Then you grab your SEO, your marketing team, and developers, and hit a war room in your office.  Diagrams are drawn on large white boards, finger pointing begins, and before you know it, you’re in the Panda Zone, or a state of extreme volatility that can drive even the toughest CEO mad.  I know this because I have seen it first-hand many times with companies hit by Panda, from large companies to small.

 

Have There Been Additional Panda Updates As Expected?
Yes, there have been.  They’re just not easy to spot unless you have access to a lot of data.  For example, it’s easier to see the pattern of Panda updates when you are helping a number of companies that were impacted by our cute, black and white friend.  If those companies have been working hard on rectifying their Panda problems, then some may recover during the new, stealthy Panda updates.  Fortunately, I help a number of companies that were impacted by Panda, so I’ve been able to catch a glimpse of the cloaked Panda.

The Last Confirmed Panda Update in July 2013

The last confirmed Panda update was July 18, 2013, even though that was after Google said it wouldn’t confirm any more Panda updates.  Go figure.  And by the way, I have data showing the update began closer to July 15.  Regardless, that was the last confirmed date that Panda rolled out.  But we know that wasn’t the last Panda update, as the algorithm graduated to quasi real-time.  I say “quasi” real-time, but some people incorrectly believe that Panda is continually running (part of the real-time algorithm).  That’s not true, and a recent webmaster hangout video explained more about the new Panda. Check 22:58 through 25:20 in the video to watch John Mueller from Google explain more about how Panda is currently handled.

In the video, John explains that Panda is not real-time.  Yes, read that again.  It is not real-time, but it has progressed far enough along that Google trusts the algorithm more.  That means the typical, heavier testing prior to rollout isn’t necessary like it once was.  Therefore, Google feels comfortable unleashing Panda on a more regular basis (once per month), and Matt Cutts explained that it could take ten days to fully roll out.

This is important to understand, since you cannot be hit by Panda at any given time during the month.  But, you can be impacted each month (positively or negatively) during the ten day rollout.  Based on what I have seen, Panda seems to roll out in the second half of each month.  July was closer to the middle of the month, where the August update was closer to the end of the month.  Here’s a quick timeline, based on Panda clients I have been helping.

Recent Undocumented Panda Sightings:
Cloaked Panda 1 – Monday, August 26

Unconfirmed Panda Update in August 2013


Cloaked Panda 2 – Monday, September 16

Unconfirmed Panda Update in September 2013

Those are two dates I saw recoveries with several Panda clients.  Also, if we start with the confirmed July update (which I saw starting on the 15th), you can see all three updates were during the second half of the month.  That could be random, but it might not be.

Regarding your own website and identifying impact from the new Panda, we need to remember the details of our new, stealthy friend.  If Google is telling us the truth, then it could take ten days for sites to see the impact from Panda.  So if you took a major hit near one of those dates, then you very well could have been hit by Panda.  And again, someone reviewing your site through the lens of Panda would be able to confirm if any content factors were at play (like I mentioned earlier).  That’s why a thorough Panda audit is so important.

Also, Panda hits are typically very apparent.  They aren’t usually slight increases or decreases.  Remember, Google is continually pushing smaller updates to its real-time algorithm, so it’s natural to see slight increases or decreases over time.  But significant changes on a specific date could signal a major algorithm update like Panda or Penguin.

Tips for Tracking Cloaked Panda Updates:
Now, you might be reading this post and saying, “Thanks for the dates Glenn, but how can this help me in the future?”  Great question, and there’s no easy answer.  Remember, the new Panda is hard to spot, and the Panda gatekeepers (Google) won’t tip you off about when it’s released.  But there are some things you can do to monitor the situation, and to hopefully understand when Panda rolls out.  I have provided some tips below.

1. Know Your Dates
First and foremost, identify the exact date of a drop or boost in traffic in order to tie that date with potential algorithm updates.  This goes for Panda, and other algorithm updates like Penguin.   It’s critically important to know which algorithm update hit you, so you can target the correct path to recovery.  For example, Panda targets content quality issues, while Penguin targets unnatural inbound links.  And then there was Phantom, which also targeted low-quality content.

Moz has an algorithm change history, which can be very helpful for webmasters.  But, it’s hard for Moz to add the stealthy Panda updates, since Google isn’t confirming them.  Just keep that in mind while reviewing the timeline.

Moz Algorithm Update History

2. Visit Webmaster Forums
Monitor Google Webmaster Forums to see if others experienced similar effects during the same date.  For example, when Penguin hits, you can see many webmasters explaining the same situation in the forums.  That’s a clear sign the algorithm update was indeed rolled out.  Now, Google is continually updating its algorithm, and sites can be impacted throughout the month or year.  So you must identify the same date and the same type of update.  It’s not foolproof, but might help you track down the Loch Ness Panda.

Google Webmaster Forums

3. Connect With SEOs Well-Versed in Panda
Follow and engage SEOs that are focused on algorithm updates and who have access to a lot of data.  And keep an eye on the major industry blogs and websites.  SEOs that are well-versed in algorithm work have an opportunity to analyze various updates across industries and geographic locations.  They can often see changes quickly, and confirm those changes with data from similar websites and situations.

4. Take Action with an SEO Audit
Have an SEO Audit conducted through the lens of a specific algorithm update. The audit can help you confirm content quality problems that Panda could have targeted.  I’ve said this a thousand times before, but a thorough technical SEO audit is worth its weight in gold.  Not only can it help you understand the problems impacting your site Panda-wise, but you will undoubtedly find other issues that can be fixed relatively quickly.

So, you can better identify what happened with your site, you’ll have a roadmap for Panda recovery (if applicable), while cleaning up several other technical problems that could also be causing SEO issues.  During my career, I’ve seen many webmasters spinning their wheels working on the wrong SEO checklist.  They spent months trying to fix the wrong items, only to see no change at all in their Google organic trending.  Don’t let this happen to you.

5. Check Algorithm Tracking Tools
Monitor the various algorithm weather report tools like MozCast and Algoroo, which can help you identify SERP volatility over time.  The tools by themselves won’t fix your problems, but they can help you identify when the new Panda rolls out (or other major algorithm updates).

Mozcast Algorithm Weather Report

It’s Only Going to Get Worse and More Confusing
I wish I could tell you that the situation is going to get better.  But it isn’t.  Panda has already gone quasi real-time, but other algorithm updates will follow.  I do a lot of Penguin work, and once Google trusts that algorithm more, it too will launch monthly and without confirmation.  And then we’ll have two serious algorithm updates running monthly with no confirmation.

And who knows, maybe Panda will actually be part of the real-time algorithm at that point.  Think about that for a minute… two major algo updates running throughout the month, neither of them confirmed, and webmasters losing traffic overnight.   Yes, chaos will ensue.  That’s even more reason for business owners to fix their current situation sooner than later.

By the way, if you take a step back and analyze what Google is doing with Panda, Penguin, Pirate, Above the Fold, etc., it’s incredibly powerful.  Google is crafting external algorithms targeting various aspects of webspam and then injecting them into the real-time algorithm.  That’s an incredibly scalable approach and should scare the heck out of webmasters that are knowingly breaking the rules.

Summary – Tracking Cloaked Pandas Can Be Done
Just because Google hasn’t confirmed recent Panda updates doesn’t mean they aren’t occurring.  I have seen what looks to be several Panda updates roll out since July.  Unfortunately, you need to be analyzing the right data (and enough data) in order to see the new, cloaked Panda.  The tips I provided above can help you better track Panda updates, even when Google won’t confirm each release.  And knowing a major algorithm update like Panda rolled out is critically important to understanding what’s impacting your website.  That’s the only way to form a solid recovery plan.

So, from one Panda tracker to another, may the algorithmic wind always be at your back, keep your eyes peeled, stay caffeinated, and monitor the wounded.  Good luck.

GG

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

A Double Penguin Recovery (via 2.1 Update) – But Does It Reveal A Penguin Glitch?

Summary: I analyzed the first double Penguin recovery I have come across during my research (after the Penguin 2.1 update). But what I found could reveal a glitch in the Penguin algorithm. And that glitch could be providing a false sense of security to some business owners.

Double Penguin Recovery is a Double-Edged Sword

If you have followed my blog and Search Engine Watch column, then you know I do a lot of Penguin work.  I started heavily analyzing Penguin 1.0 on April 24, 2012, and have continued to analyze subsequent Penguin updates to learn more about our icy friend.  I’ve had the opportunity to help many companies deal with Penguin hits, and have helped a number recover (and you can read more about those recoveries via several case studies I have written).  It’s been fascinating for sure.  But it just got even more interesting, based on analyzing a site that recovered during Penguin 2.1.   Read on.

Penguin 2.1 rolled out on October 4, 2013, and based on my analysis, it was bigger and badder than Penguin 2.0.   Matt Cutts confirmed that was the case during Pubcon (which was great to hear, since it backed up what I was seeing).  But as I documented in one of my recent Search Engine Watch columns, Penguin 2.1 wasn’t all bad.  There were recoveries, although they often get overshadowed by the carnage.  And one particular recovery during 2.1 caught my attention and deserved further analysis. That’s what I’ll cover in this post.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Introducing The Double Penguin Recovery
I believe it’s important to present the good and the bad when discussing Penguin updates, since there are still some people in the industry who don’t believe you can recover.  But you definitely can recover, so it’s important to document cases where companies bounce back after completing hard Penguin recovery work.

An example of a Penguin recovery:
Example of a Penguin Recovery

Now, there is one thing I hadn’t seen during my past research, and that’s an example of a company recovering twice from Penguin.  I’m not referring to a company that recovers once, gets hit again, and recovers a second time.  Instead, I’m referring to a company that initially recovers from Penguin, only to gain even more during a subsequent Penguin update.

Now that would be an interesting case to discuss… and that’s exactly what I saw during Penguin 2.1.  Interested?  I was too.  :)

Double Penguin Recoveries Can Happen
After Penguin 2.1, I analyzed a website that experienced its second Penguin recovery.  The site was first hit by Penguin 1.0 on April 24, 2012, and recovered in the fall of 2012.  And now, with 2.1 on 10/4/13, the site experienced another surge in impressions and clicks from Google Organic.

The second Penguin recovery on October 4, 2013:
Second Penguin Recovery During 2.1 Update

I’ve done a boatload of Penguin work since 2012, and I have never seen a double Penguin recovery.  So as you can guess, I nearly fell out of my seat when I saw the distinct bump on October 4, 2013.

Penguin Recoveries Lead To Penguin Questions
Based on the second recovery, the big questions for me (and I’m sure you as well), revolve around the reason(s) for the double recovery.  Why did this specific site see another surge from Penguin, when they already did in the past (after hard recovery work)?  Were there any specific factors that could have led to the second recovery?  For example, did they build more natural links, add high quality content, disavow more links, etc?  Or was this just an anomaly?  And most importantly, did Penguin help this website a second time, when it never should have?  In other words, was this a false negative (with the added benefit of a recovery)?  All good questions, and I hope to answer several of them below.

The Lack of Penguin Collateral Damage
I’ve always said that I’ve never seen collateral damage with Penguin.  Every site I’ve analyzed hit by Penguin (now 312), should have been hit.  I have yet to see any false positives.  But with this double recovery, we are talking about another angle with Penguin.  Could a site that shouldn’t see a recovery, actually recover?  And again, this site already recovered during a previous Penguin update.  Could this second recovery be a glitch in Penguin, or were there other factors at play?

History with Penguin
Let’s begin with a quick Penguin history for the website at hand.  It’s an ecommerce website that was devastated by Penguin 1.0 on April 24, 2012.   The site lost close to 80% of its Google Organic traffic overnight.

Initial Penguin Hit on April 24, 2012:
Initial Penguin Hit on April 24, 2012

The site had built thousands of exact match and rich anchor text links over years from spammy directories.  The link profile was riddled with spam.  After the Penguin hit on 4/24/12, their staff worked hard on removing as many links as they could, contacted many directory owners (with some success), and then disavowed what they could not manually remove.  Yes, the disavow tool was extremely helpful for this situation.

The site recovered relatively quickly from Penguin (within two months of finishing the recovery work). The site recovered to about 40% of its original traffic from Google Organic after the Penguin recovery.  That made sense, since the site had lost a majority of links that were once helping it rank for competitive keywords.  Now that the unnatural links were removed, the site would not (and did not) recover to full power.  That’s because it never should have ranked highly for many of the keywords in the first place.  And this is where the site remained until Penguin 2.1.

Initial Penguin recovery in 2012:
Initial Penguin Recovery in 2012

And Along Came Penguin 2.1
After Penguin 2.1 hit, the site experienced an immediate surge in impressions and traffic from Google Organic (and this was crystal clear to see in Google Webmaster Tools).  I’m not sure anyone was expecting a second Penguin recovery, but there it was…  as clear as day.

Impressions were up over 50% and clicks were up close to 60% (when comparing the timeframe after Penguin 2.1 to the timeframe prior).   Checking webmaster tools revealed extremely competitive keywords that were once targeted by Penguin, now gaining in average position, impressions, and clicks.  Certain keywords jumped by 10-15 spots in average position.  Some that were buried in Google were now on page one or page two.  Yes, Penguin 2.1 was providing a second shot in the arm for the site in question.

Impressions and Clicks Increased Greatly After Penguin 2.1 Recovery:
Increase in Impressions and Clicks After Penguin 2.1 Recovery

It was amazing to analyze, but I couldn’t stop several key questions from overpowering my brain.  What changed recently (or over time) that sent the right signals to Google?  Why would the site recover a second time from Penguin?  And could other websites learn from this in order to gain the infamous double Penguin recovery?  I dug into the site to learn more.

What Changed, Why a Second Recovery?
What you’re about to hear may shock you.  It sure shocked me.  Let’s start with what might be logical.  Since Penguin is hyper-focused on links, I reviewed the site’s latest links from across Google Webmaster Tools, Majestic SEO, and Open Site Explorer.

If the site experienced a second Penguin recovery, then I would assume that new links were built (and that they were a heck of a lot better than what got the site initially hit by Penguin).  Google Webmaster Tools revealed a doubling of inbound links as compared to the timeframe when the site first got hammered by Penguin (April 2012).  Majestic SEO and Open Site Explorer did not show as much movement, but did show an increase.

I exported all of the new(er) links and crawled them to double check anchor text, nofollow status, 404s, etc.  And I paid special attention to the links from Google Webmaster Tools, since it showed the greatest number of new links since the first Penguin recovery.  It’s also worth noting that Majestic showed a distinct increase in backlinks in early 2013 (and that includes both the raw number of links being created and the number of referring domains).

Backlinks History Reveals More Unnatural Links Built in Early 2013:
New Unnatural Links Built in Early 2013

Surely the natural, stronger linkbuilding was the reason the site experienced a double Penguin recovery, right?  Not so fast, and I’ll explain more about this next.  It seems Penguin might be glitchy.

More Unnatural Links = Double Penguin Recovery?  Crazy, But True
Believe me, I was really hoping to find stronger, natural links when checking the site’s latest link reporting.  But that wasn’t the case.  I found more spammy links from similar sources that got the site initially hit by Penguin in 2012.  Spammy directories were the core problem then, and they are the core problem now.  Actually, I could barely find any natural links in the new batch I checked.  And that was disturbing.

With all of my Penguin work (having now analyzed 312 websites hit by Penguin), I have yet to come across a false positive (a site that was hit that shouldn’t be hit).  But how about a site recovering that shouldn’t recover?  That’s exactly what this case looks like.  The site built more spammy links after initially recovering from Penguin, only to experience a surge in traffic during Penguin 2.1.  That’s two Penguin recoveries, and again, it’s the first time I have seen this.

The Danger of Heavily Relying on the Disavow Tool
To clarify, I don’t know if the site’s owner or marketing staff meant to build the newer spammy links.  Unnatural links tend to have an uncanny way of replicating across other low-quality sites.  And that’s especially the case with directories and/or article marketing.  So it’s possible that the older, spammy links found their way to other directories.

When You Disavow Links, They Still Remain (and Can Replicate):
The Danger of Relying on the Disavow Tool

This is why I always recommend removing as many links as possible versus relying on the disavow tool for all of them.  If you remove them, they are gone.  If you disavow them, they remain, and can find their way to other spammy sites.

What Does This Tell Us About Penguin?
To be honest, I’m shocked that Penguin was so wrong.  The initial Penguin recovery in 2012 was spot on, as the company worked hard to recover.  They manually removed a significant percentage of unnatural links, and disavowed the rest.  Then they recovered.  But now they experienced a second recovery, but based on the site building more unnatural links (and from very similar sources to the original unnatural links that got them hit in 2012).

So, is this a case of Penguin not having enough data on the new directories yet?  Also, did the company really test the unnatural link waters again by building more spammy links?  As mentioned above, I’ve seen spammy links replicate themselves across low-quality sites before, and that’s especially the case with directories and/or article marketing.  That very well could have happened, although it does look like the links were built during a specific timeframe (early 2013).  It’s hard to say exactly what happened.

Also, will the company eventually get hit by Penguin again (for a second time)?  It’s hard to say, but my guess is the surge in traffic based on Penguin 2.1 will be short-lived.  I cannot believe that the newer, unnatural links will go undetected by our icy friend.  I’m confident the site will get hit again (unless they move quickly now to remove and/or disavow the latest unnatural links).  Unfortunately, the site is teed up to get hit by Penguin.

Summary – Penguin 2.1 Was Wrong (for Now)
This was a fascinating case to analyze.  I have never seen a double Penguin recovery, and I have analyzed hundreds of sites hit by Penguin since April of 2012.  The website’s second recovery looks to be a mistake, as Penguin must have judged the new links as “natural” and “strong”.  But in reality the links were the same old spammy ones that got the site hit from the start.  They were just on different websites.

But as I said earlier, the site is now teed up to get hit by Penguin again. And if that happens, they will lose the power and traffic they have built up since recovering from the first Penguin attack.  If that’s the case, the site will have done a 360 from Penguin attack to Penguin recovery to second Penguin recovery and back to Penguin attack.  And that’s never a good place to be.

GG

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

How Bing Pre-Renders Webpages in IE11 and How Marketers Can Use The Pre-Render Tag for CRO Today

Bing, IE11, and Pre-rendering Webpages

Bing recently announced it is using IE11’s pre-render tag to enhance the user experience on Bing.com.   Pre-rendering enables Bing to automatically download the webpage for the first search result before you visit that page.  Note, this only happens for “popular searches”, and I’ll cover more about that below.  Pre-rendering via Bing means the destination page will load almost instantaneously when you click through the first search result.  Bing explained that over half of users click the first result, and using IE11’s pre-render tag can enhance the user experience by loading the destination page in the background, after the search is conducted.

A Quick Pre-Render Example:
If I search Bing for “Samsung” in IE11, the first result is the U.S. Samsung website.  When clicking through to the website, the first page loads immediately without any delay (including all webpage assets, like images, scripts, etc.)  Checking the Bing search results page reveals that Bing was using pre-render for the Samsung website homepage.  You can see this via the source code.  See the screenshots below.

Search Results and Sitelinks for Samsung

Checking the source code reveals Bing is pre-rendering the U.S. Samsung homepage:

Bing Source Code Pre-Render Tag

 

Yes, Google Has Been Doing This With “Instant Pages”
In case you were wondering, Google has been accomplishing this with “Instant Pages” in Chrome since 2011, but it’s good to see Bing roll out pre-rendering as well.  My guess is you’ve experienced the power of pre-rendering without even realizing it.  When Bing and Google have high confidence that a user will click the first search result, they will use the pre-render tag to load the first result page in the background.  Then upon clicking through, the page instantaneously displays.  That means no waiting for large photos or graphics to load, scripts, etc.  The page is just there.

Testing Bing’s Pre-Render in IE11
Once Bing rolled out pre-render via IE11, I began to test it across my systems.  When it kicked in, the results were impressive.  The first result page loaded as soon as I clicked through.  I was off and running on the page immediately.

But when did Bing actually pre-render the page and why did some search results not spark Bing to pre-render content?   Good questions, and I dug into the search results to find some answers.

Identifying Pre-rendering with Bing and IE11
During my testing, I began to notice a trend.  Pre-rendering was only happening when sitelinks were provided for a given search result.  So, if I searched for “apple ipad”, which Bing does not provide sitelinks for, then pre-rendering was not enabled.  But if I searched for just “Apple”, and Bing did provide sitelinks, then pre-render was enabled.  If I searched for “Acura”, sitelinks were provided for the branded search, and the first result was pre-rendered.

A Bing search for “Acura” yields sitelinks:
Search Results and Sitelinks for Acura

 

Checking the source code reveals Bing is pre-rendering the first search result for “Acura”:
Bing Source Code Pre-Render Tag for Acura

 

A Bing search for “Derek Jeter” does not yield sitelinks:
Bing Search Results for Derek Jeter
Checking the source code reveals Bing is not pre-rendering the first search result for “Derek Jeter”:
Bing Source Code for Derek Jeter Without Pre-render

 

So, Bing clearly needed high confidence that I would click through the first listing in order to use pre-render.  In addition, there was a high correlation between sitelinks and the use of the pre-render tag.  For example, “how to change oil” did not yield pre-rendering, “Derek Jeter” did not trigger pre-rendering, and “weather” did not trigger pre-rendering.  But “Firefox” did trigger sitelinks and the use of pre-render.

How Can You Tell If Pre-Rendering is Taking Place
You need an eagle eye like me to know.  Just kidding.  :)  I simply viewed the source code of the search result page to see if the pre-render tag was present.  When it was, you could clearly see the “url0=” parameter and the value (which was the webpage that was being pre-rendered).  You can see this in the screenshots listed above.

And for Chrome, you could check task manager and see if a page is being pre-rendered.  It’s easy to do and will show you if the page is being pre-rendered and the file size.

Using Chrome’s Task Manager to view Pre-rendered Pages
Using Chrome Task Manager to Check Pre-render

 

How Marketers Can Use Pre-Render On Their Own Websites for CRO Today
Yes, you read that correctly.  You can use pre-render on your own website to pre-load pages when you have high confidence that a user will navigate to that page.  I’m wondering how many Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) professionals have tried that out!  Talk about speeding up the user experience for prospective customers.

Imagine pre-loading the top product page for a category, the first page of your checkout process, the lead generation form, etc.  Pre-rendering content is supported by Chrome, IE11, and Firefox, so you can actually test this out today.

I’ve run some tests on my own and the pre-rendered pages load in a flash.  But note, Chrome and IE11 support prerender, while Firefox supports prefetch.  That’s important to know if you’re a developer or designer.  Also, I believe you can combine prerender and prefetch in one link tag to support all three browsers, but I need to test it out in order to confirm the combination works.  Regardless, I recommend testing out pre-rendering on your own site and pages to see how it works.

You can analyze visitor paths and determine pages that overwhelmingly lead to other pages.  And when you have high confidence that a first page will lead to a second page, then implement the pre-render tag.  Heck, split test this approach!  Then determine if there was any lift in conversion based on using pre-render to speed up the conversion process.

Analyzing Behavior Flow in Google Analytics to Identify “Connected Pages”:
Analyzing Behavior Flow to Identify Connected Pages

 

An Example of Using Pre-Render
Let’s say you had a killer landing page that leads to several other pages containing supporting content.  One of those pages includes a number of testimonials from customers, and you notice that a high percentage of users click through to that page from the initial landing page.  Based on what I explained earlier, you want to quicken the load time for that second page by using pre-render.  Your hope is that getting users to that page as quickly as possible can help break down a barrier to conversion, and hopefully lead to more sales.

All that you would need to do is to include the following line of code in the head of the first document:

<link rel=”prerender” href=”http://www.yourdomain.com/some-page-here.htm” >

Note, that will work in Chrome and IE11.  If you combine prerender with prefetch, then I believe that will work across Chrome, IE11, and Firefox.

When users visit the landing page, the second page will load in the background.  When they click the link to visit the page, that page will display instantaneously.  Awesome.

 

Summary – Pre-Render is Not Just For Search Engines
With the release of IE11, Bing is starting to pre-render pages in the background when it has high confidence you will click the first search result.  And Google has been doing the same with “Instant Pages” since 2011.  Pre-rendering aims to enhance the user experience by displaying pages extremely quickly upon click-through.

But pre-render is not just for search engines.  As I demonstrated above, you can use the technique on your own pages to reduce a barrier to conversion (the speed at which key pages display for users on your website).  You just need to determine which pages users visit most often from other key landing pages, and then implement the pre-render tag.  And you can start today.  Happy pre-rendering.  :)

GG

 

Monday, October 7th, 2013

Penguin 2.1 Analysis and Findings (Based on the October 4, 2013 Update)

Penguin 2.1 Released on October 4, 2013

On Friday, October 4th at 4:50PM, Matt Cutts announced that Penguin 2.1 was rolling out.  It was shortly after reading that update that I tweeted we could be in for an icy weekend (as the latest update would surely take out more websites).  But on the flip side, a new update also meant that more companies could recover from previous Penguin updates.  Needless to say, I was eager to begin analyzing the impact of our cute, black and white friend.

If you have you followed my blog over the past few years, then you know I do a lot of Penguin work.  So it should be no surprise that I’ve dug into Penguin 2.1 victims to determine new findings, insights, etc.  I fired up my computer at 5:30AM on Saturday morning and started digging in.  Since then, I have analyzed eleven websites (update: now 26 sites) hit by Penguin 2.1 and have provided my findings below.

Note, since this was a minor update (2.1), it signals that the core Penguin algorithm hasn’t been updated since 2.0, but that the data has been refreshed.  Let’s cover what I found during my research.

 

Fresh Dates, Fresh Spam
While analyzing sites hit by Penguin 2.1, I wanted to check the creation dates for the unnatural links I was coming across.  For most of the sites, the links were first found in late spring 2013, and many were found during the summer.  That makes complete sense, since the sites in question weren’t hit by Penguin 2.0 on May 22.  Instead, they were hit with this latest Penguin update on October 4, 2013.  So, it does seem like fresher unnatural link data is being used.

Penguin 2.1 and Fresh Dates for Unnatural Links

 

Categories of Unnatural Links Targeted
Since Penguin 2.1 launched, many people have been asking me if the unnatural link footprint has changed since previous Penguin updates.  For example, what types of unnatural links are showing up (for the sites that have been hit by Penguin 2.1).  I have listed my latest findings below (and yes, some familiar unnatural link types showed up):

  • Forum Spam
    I have seen forum spam targeted before, but I saw it heavily targeted with this update.  For example, comments in forum threads that used exact match anchor text links pointing to websites trying to game the system.  During my latest analyses, I saw a lot of forum spam mixed with forum bio spam, which is covered next.
  • Forum Bio Spam
    During my research, I saw forum bios filled with exact match anchor text pointing at sites hit by Penguin 2.1.  This is where the “linkbuilder” set up a profile on a forum, only to use that profile to gain exact match anchor text links to the target website.  I also saw bios targeting multiple websites with exact match anchor text.  This was obviously an attempt to maximize the forum bio to help multiple sites rank.  More about multiple sites soon.
  • Do-Follow Blogs
    I have seen links from various resources that identify do-follow blogs.  A do-follow blog is one that doesn’t add nofollow to links posted (even blog comment signatures in some cases).  The do-follow blog resources are problematic on several levels.  First, they act like a directory using exact match anchor text linking to do-follow blogs.  Second, they absolutely flag certain blogs as being a resource for rich anchor text links (which can send Google down an icy path).Let’s face it, being listed on do-follow resource sites can absolutely send Google a signal that you are trying to game links.  Also, simply finding do-follow blogs and dropping links is not linkbuilding.  If you are doing this, and you got hit by Penguin 2.1, then remove those links as soon as possible.Do-Follow Directories Targeted by Penguin 2.1
  • Blogroll Spam
    OK, an old friend shows up in the list… Just like with Penguin 1.0 and 2.0, spammy blogroll links showed up on sites hit by Penguin 2.1.  This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone involved in SEO, but should reinforce that blogrolls can be extremely problematic when they are on the wrong sites.I believe John Mueller from Google is on record saying that blogrolls overall aren’t bad, but it’s how they are used that can trigger a problem.  I’ve always believed the same thing.  If you have many blogroll links from questionable sites, then I highly recommend attacking them (nuking them, nofollowing them, or disavowing them).  But again, some may be fine.  If you are unsure which ones are bad versus good, ask for help from a seasoned SEO.
  • Spammy Directories
    Another old Penguin friend showed up during my research.  Similar to what I explained above with blogroll spam, certain directories are absolutely Penguin food.  If you have used this tactic in the past, and still have links out there in spammy directories, then nuke them, have them nofollowed, or disavow them.  I’ve seen this category of links show up so many times during my research across Penguin updates, it’s not even funny.  Beware.In addition, I found several sites with millions of inbound links, and many of those were across spammy directories. Let me tell you… if you want to flag your own site, go ahead and build over 2M inbound links from spammy directories.  You’ll get a knock on the door from Mr. Penguin.  That’s for sure.Excessive Links from Spammy Directories
  • Blog Comment Signature Spam
    I came across numerous instances of blog signatures using exact match or rich anchor text.  What’s interesting is that Google seems to target these links, even when they aren’t followed links (most blogs nofollow signature links, and I saw this was the case during my research of sites that were hit by Penguin 2.1).  So, it seems if you were using exact match anchor text as your blog comment signature, then it could be targeted by Penguin (even when those links are nofollowed).
  • (Update) Classified Ads Spam
    As I analyzed more sites hit by Penguin 2.1, I saw low-quality classified websites show up with links pointing at destination sites.  Classified ad listings were used to drop exact match anchor text links, and sometimes in great volume.  For some sites I was analyzing, there were hundreds of pages showing from each domain with links to their websites (from the classified ad websites).  I’ve analyzed many sites hit by Penguin (historically), and haven’t come across many classified websites showing up in the various link profiles.  But with 2.1, I saw this a number of times.

 

“Linking” Victims Together Via Shared Tactics
One interesting finding I picked up during my analyses was the lumping together of victims.  I noticed forum comment spam and forum bio spam that contained multiple sets of exact match anchor text links (to two different sites).  That even helped me find more Penguin 2.1 victims… as I didn’t know about the second site being hit by Penguin until I found the first one during my research.

So, I’m wondering if Google was able to identify additional targets since they were associated with initial targets.  This would be a brilliant approach for situations where multiple sites were targeted via unnatural links.  It would be a solid example of Google targeting like-minded linkbuilders via evidence it picks up during its crawls.  I can’t say for sure if the other sites would have been targeted anyway by Penguin 2.1, but I saw this numerous times during my latest research of Penguin 2.1.

Linking Targets Together in Forum Spam

 

Deeper Pages Targeted, P2.0-style
Content-wise, deeper pages were targeted by Penguin 2.1, just like Penguin 2.0.  And since this is a minor update of 2.0, then that makes complete sense.  I’m referring to the target pages of unnatural links on sites hit by Penguin 2.1.   In case you aren’t familiar with what I’m referring to, Penguin 1.0 targeted links to the homepage of a website, where Penguin 2.0 targeted links to any page on the website.

When Matt Cutts first explained this after Penguin 2.0 launched on May 22, it made complete sense to me.  That’s because I had Penguin 1.0 victims ask me why their competitors also weren’t targeted initially by Penguin.  It ends up their competitors had targeted many pages within their own sites versus just driving unnatural links to their homepages.  But in true Google algo fashion, those additional, deeper pages were eventually targeted.  And many sites got hit by Penguin 2.0 (and now 2.1).

Deeper Pages Targeted by Penguin 2.1

 

How To Recover:
My advice has not changed since Penguin 1.0.  If you have been hit by Penguin, then you need to take the following steps.  And you need to be aggressive with your approach.  If you put band-aids on your Penguin situation, then you might not remove enough links to recover.  And if that’s the case, then you can sit in the gray area of Penguin, never knowing how close you are to recovery.

  • Download Your Links – Download all of your links from multiple sources, including Google Webmaster Tools, Majestic, Open Site Explorer, etc.
  • Analyze Your Links – Analyze and organize your links.  Identify which ones are unnatural and flag them in your spreadsheets for removal.
  • Attack the Links – Form a plan for removing unnatural links.  I always recommend removing as many as you can manually, and then disavowing the remaining links.
  • Removal of Pages is OK – You can also remove pages from your site that are the target pages of spammy links.  John Mueller from Google confirmed that removing pages is the same as removing the links.  Of course, if those are important pages, then you can’t remove them (like your homepage!)
  • Head Down, Keep Driving Forward – Once you have completed your link cleanup, then you’ll need to wait for another Penguin update.  Note, I have seen several Penguin recoveries during Panda updates, so that’s always a possibility.

 

Summary – Dealing With Penguin 2.1
That’s what I have for now.  I will continue to analyze more sites hit by Penguin 2.1 and will try and write follow-up posts, based on my findings.  If you have been hit, you need to move aggressively to fix the problem.  Be thorough, be aggressive, and move quickly.  That’s the best way to recover from Penguin.  Good luck.

GG

 

Friday, September 27th, 2013

A Wolf in Panda’s Clothing – How An Expired SSL Certificate Could Impact Organic Search Traffic

Summary: How I helped an ecommerce retailer recover from Panda in eight days, when it was never Panda in the first place.

Expired SSL Certificate Impacting SEO Traffic

A few weeks ago, I had a business owner reach out to me about a potential Panda hit.  His initial email to me was similar to many others I have seen.  He noticed a large drop in Google organic search traffic on a specific date.  And that specific date lined up with an alleged Panda update.  In addition, it was an ecommerce site, which can be susceptible to the wrath of Panda for several reasons.  For example, duplicate content, thin content, technical problems causing perceived content quality issues, etc.

Shortly after receiving the email from the business owner, I also received a call from him.  Yes, he was eager to get moving on recovering from Panda.  It wasn’t long before our call took a left turn, and it was a path this business owner would end up liking.  In addition, it emphasizes an incredibly important point about SEO, Panda, Penguin, and other algorithm updates.  Read on.

It Sure Looks like Panda, But…
Yes, the date of the traffic hit lined up with Panda, but is that enough to clearly say the site was indeed hit by our cute, black and white friend?  Sure, he ran a relatively large ecommerce site, which can open itself up to getting by Panda for several reasons (some of which I mentioned earlier).  But, there are a few points that I firmly believe when it comes to algorithm hits:

1. You need to make sure you know which algorithm update hit your site, or if you were instead hit by a manual action.

2. A thorough SEO audit should be conducted to identify the various problems that could be impacting the site from a Panda, Phantom, or Penguin standpoint.  To me, thorough SEO audits through the lens of an algo update are worth their weight in gold.

So, I asked for the domain again and was planning on performing some checks while we were on the phone.  I wanted to make sure this truly looked like a Panda hit.  One important thing I’ve learned over the years… you never know what you are going to find once you dig in.

Analyzing the Site… Wow, That Was Quick!
I entered the domain name in Chrome and BOOM, I saw the red screen of death.  You know, the one that flags an expired SSL certificate.  It’s scary enough that most people won’t venture any deeper.  I quickly asked the business owner if he was aware of the situation.  He explained that he wasn’t technical, but he knew there was some type of issue with the certificate.  He said his developer had been looking into the problem, but that nothing had changed.

An expired SSL certificate warning in Chrome:
Expired SSL Certificate Warning in Chrome

An expired SSL certificate warning in Firefox:
Expired SSL Certificate Warning in Firefox

So, I checked in Firefox, and BOOM, the same scary message showed up.  I asked if the SSL certificate problem started recently.  He explained that the problem first showed up about the same time he saw the drop in organic search traffic.  So I stopped reviewing the site immediately and explained that we might have just found a “Wolf in Panda’s Clothing”.

The expired SSL certificate was throwing a serious security barrier between his prospective customers and his website.  And the red screen of death is nothing to sneeze at.  The message warning users about the SSL certificate could very well be stopping visitors in their tracks.  And that is what could be impacting the site’s traffic from organic search.  That was my theory anyway.

A Note About SSL Certificates (Along With Expert Information and Advice)
If you run an ecommerce site, then it’s important to understand what an SSL certificate is, and how it can impact your business.  SSL certificates activate the padlock in a web browser when visiting secure sites, and it’s what allows data being sent between the server and the browser to be encrypted.  You can actually view a website’s SSL certificate by right clicking on the padlock and clicking “View Certificate”.  So, if your certificate is expired, the browser is going to warn the user about this.  And that warning could send them running from your website faster than you can say “identify theft”.

Example of an SSL Certificate for JCrew

To explain more about SSL certificates, I asked Brad Kingsley from ORCSWeb for some information.  Brad runs ORCSWeb, which is one of the best hosting providers I have seen in my 18+ years of digital marketing work.  Brad pointed me to Terri Donahue, a Senior Support Specialist and IIS MVP.

Here is a direct quote from Terri:
“An SSL certificate is used to encrypt sensitive data that is being transferred over an insecure network such as the Internet. Without an SSL implementation, when data is transmitted between your server and the recipient of the requested data, it is visible at each ‘hop’ along the way. With an SSL implementation, the data is encrypted until it reaches the destination computer that requested it. This protects the data, such as your credit card number, and ensures that only the requesting entity can decrypt the data for actual viewing.”

“There are a number of trusted Certificate Authorities (CAs) that issue SSL certificates. When purchasing an SSL certificate, these CAs verify the identity of the requestor before issuing the certificate. SSL certificates can be purchased with varying lengths of validity. The shortest term is 1 year with some CAs offering up to 10 years.”

“There are certificate chains that are included in every SSL certificate. The CA has a root or top-level certificate and intermediate certificates that chain to the actual issued SSL certificate that a user purchases. If any of these intermediate chains are not installed on your web server, visitors receive an error when accessing the secured pages of the website. Each vendor is different in the way that these intermediate certificates are obtained. To ensure that all necessary certificate chains are installed, you can check your implementation using this site. This will verify that your certificate is valid and display the full certificate chain.”

SSL Certificate Checker

And here is some important information from Terri regarding SSL certificate expiration (which is exactly what was impacting the business owner I was helping):

“Certificate expiration is handled differently by each CA. Some send notifications to the email address used when the certificate was purchased, while others do not provide any notification. If the CA does not provide notification of expiration, there are multiple ways to handle this. Here is a blog post that refers to a script that can be used to check the expiration of an SSL certificate and send an email when the threshold before expiration is reached. Another way to do this would be to create a database that is maintained with the SSL name and expiration date, which is then monitored, and sends an email at a set period prior to the expiration date.”

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Based upon the information Terri provided, you can see that SSL certificates are pretty important.  And since each Certificate Authority (CA) handles expiration differently, expired SSL certificates can throw a wrench into an ecommerce operation pretty quickly.  Now back to our Panda, I mean SSL, problem and how the business owner at hand worked to rectify the situation.

The Quick Fix & The Panda Has Been Exiled
I explained to the business owner that he should address this problem ASAP (like right after we get off the call).  I explained that he should contact me once he renews his SSL certificate, so I could take a quick look to make sure the problem was fixed, and that the red screen of death was gone.  Then we could see if his Google organic search problem turns around.

I received an email from the business owner two days later, and low and behold, his problem was gone.  The mighty Panda had been exiled!  OK, maybe not, but at least the website was humming again with Google organic search traffic.  And that meant revenue was returning to its correct levels.  And yes, this was incredibly important since holiday season was quickly approaching.  The red screen of death would not be good for holiday sales, even if it was red and white like a candy cane. :)

Key Points About SSL Certificates and SEO:
Before I end this post, I wanted to provide some key learnings based on this case study.  If you are an ecommerce retailer, the following bullets could save you from the pain that this business owner felt while his traffic plummeted.

  • Although some business owners aren’t technical, you must understand the ins-and-outs of ecommerce.  That means understanding more about SSL certificates, how they work, when they expire, and other problems that could occur that would inhibit customers from reaching your site.
  • Work with your hosting provider and developer(s) to make sure there are periodic checks of your SSL certificate.  That could nip any serious issues in the bud.  And this includes checking the site across browsers and devices to ensure all is ok.  Avoid the red screen of death at all costs.
  • Keep a master document with information about your SSL certificates, including the certificate authority (CA) that granted the certificate and the expiration date.  Set reminders so you don’t get caught at the last minute (or after the fact).  And you can use the techniques Terri listed above to automate the process of knowing when your certificates will expire.
  • From an SEO standpoint, make sure you know which algorithm update hit your site (or if one hit the site at all).  I worked with this specific business owner to guide his efforts (which led us to the SSL issue without the need for a full-blown Panda audit).  There are times that SEO problems aren’t really SEO problems.  Technical issues that appear at the same time algorithm updates hit can be confusing.  Don’t waste your time, money, and resources tackling the wrong problems.

Summary – Recovering From Panda in 8 Days Can Only Happen If It’s Not Actually Panda
I wish Panda victims could recover in just eight days.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to recover from Panda or Phantom.  Luckily for this business owner, Panda didn’t impact his website.  Instead, it was an ecommerce gremlin that attacked his SSL certificate.  And that gremlin was a lot easier to get rid of than a Panda.

GG