How to Clean Your Site after the Google Penguin Update

Confused-Penguin-Google-UpdateIf you read our previous blog post you will know that we were hit by the latest Google Penguin Update. We suspect it was because we had used blogging networks in the past although on further analysis it looks like it could also relate to our early link building strategies where we focused on backlinking using the same keywords over and over again. Or it could even be the number of keywords we have on those pages.

Honestly, it’s just too difficult to say what the exact reason might be – we’ve tried so many things over the years (before we knew better) and I guess it was going to catch up with us in the end. That’s not to say we did anything black hat, but these days even what was once accepted as white hat is becoming unethical in the eyes of Google.

You’ll see a lot of posts on the net about Penguin and how to get through it but really when it comes down to it nobody really has all the answers because nobody really knows exactly what Google does. I’ve heard so many conflicting theories – some say it’s is all about the backlinks, while others says it’s nothing to do with backlinks and it’s all about the on page SEO. If they had all the answers, they wouldn’t be online writing blog posts about it – they’d be off on their own private island somewhere logging in only to check their bank balance.

We of course don’t have all the answers either. That doesn’t sound very comforting does it but it’s all just  part of the wonderful world of internet marketing.  However, we can at the very least get our information straight from the horses mouth…Google themselves, instead of relying on theories that may or may not be correct.

Now this is easier said than done of course because Google isn’t particularly forthcoming about what they do. They tend to be very vague about things and we can only get snippets of information from them if at all. But sometimes those little snippets are enough. So below you will only find information based on actual Google data.

But First…Why This Update Didn’t Really Work

I’m all for Google cleaning up their search results and only getting the high quality sites ranking. I really want to see this happen but at this point, with all the Panda and Penguin updates nothing has really changed. Sure some sites have moved up and some down but we still see scraper sites ranked before legitimate sites, those with thin content ranked before quality sites and sites full of spammy ads and nothing much else beating out well developed content sites.

I really don’t think this update did the trick. And as always there are plenty of people who were innocently hit. Google’s goal with this update was to target over-optimization both on page and off. Too many spammy links to your site and you were penalized, too many keywords on the page and you were penalized. Unfortunately however, that is all they looked at. They still didn’t look at the content. Just because a page of content has a lot of keywords and has a lot of spammy links to it, doesn’t mean the content is bad. It might be fantastic content but Google doesn’t know that…their search engine still isn’t sophisticated enough to compare pages for quality and usefulness. So penalizing a page simply for spammy links just doesn’t work in my opinion.

But there’s no point whingeing about it. You could spend hours on forums and blogs commenting on how bad this all is depending on your situation.  The only way to get around it is either to comply with Google or to move on to some other form of traffic generation.

Where to Start

In order to clean up our sites to get them ranking again we need to start from the very beginning with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.  The reason we need to start here is that Google explicitly stated that the Penguin change “decrease(s) rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing ‘quality guidelines”.

So when they refer to those ‘quality guidelines’ they are talking about their Google Webmaster Guidelines. According to Google, these guidelines will help them “find, index and rank your site”.  There are three sections to these guidelines and I’ll summarize the main points for each:

1. Design and Content Guidelines

  • ensure that each page on your site can be reached from at least one other page
  • use a site map to link to important pages
  • keep the links on a page to a ‘reasonable number’ – they don’t say what that is
  • create a useful, information-rich site
  • use words on your pages that people would use to find your site
  • use more text links than images for important links or content
  • ensure you use descriptive and accurate title tags and ALT attributes
  • check for broken links and correct HTML
  • for those using dynamic pages (ie. the URL contains a ? character) be aware that not all search engines can crawl these pages.

2. Technical Guidelines

  • Google recommend using the Lynx browser to view your site since it will display it the way most search engines see it. If some content is missing then search engines may have trouble viewing it. (I had a quick look at the Lynx site and it looks complicated so haven’t really tried it yet. I did instead find a Lynx viewer where all you need to do is type in your url and it does the same job.)
  • Allow search bots to crawl your sites without session IDs or arguments that track their path through the site. (I have no idea what this means but some of you might.)
  • Ensure your web server supports the If-Modified-Since HTTP header as this allows Google to tell whether your content has changed since they last crawled the site. (I simply typed in ‘If-Modified-Since HTTP header Hostgator’ as my search query in Google to find out if our hosting company supports this.  They do! You can do the same search with your hosting company or simply contact them directly and ask.)
  • Ensure that advertisements do not affect search engine rankings. (I’ m not quite sure what Google are getting at here but I think it has something to do with paid links. In other words, if you are selling paid ads on your site then add the rel=’nofollow’ attribute to the links.)
  • If you use a content management system ensure that pages can be read by Google.

3. Quality Guidelines

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users by using cloaking devices.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings.
  • Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your search engine rankings.
  • Avoid linking to web spammers or ‘bad neighborhoods’ as your own ranking may be adversely affected. (Interesting that even linking to a poor quality site could affect your ranking).
  • Don’t use unauthorized computer pages to submit pages, check rankings etc. (Not sure how you know what is authorized or not authorized. Google doesn’t elaborate.)
  • Avoid hidden text or links.
  • Don’t use irrelevant keywords on your pages.
  • Don’t create multiple pages, domains or subdomains with duplicate content.
  • If you have an affiliate site, make sure your site adds value and provides unique and relevant content.

You can read the full version of the Google Webmaster Guidelines here.

As you can see, Google provides us with a basic overview of what they are after in their Google Webmaster Tools. It’s worth going through each of them to see whether you comply.

In this respect, we are on our own because unfortunately Google doesn’t elaborate too much on anything.  We might think we are complying with their guidelines but how do we really know? They say for instance to ‘keep your links on a page to a reasonable number’. What is ‘reasonable’…who knows? You have to really dig around to find the answer which I managed to do. It was in a  post by Matt Cutts (Google Engineer) and written in 2009. He mentioned that the page should preferably hold fewer than 100 links. Of course, the post is old so that could all be considered out of date by now and there could be a whole new number of links that we need to have on a page.

The Next Step

Google-Penguin-UpdateOnce you have gone through the Webmaster Tools and ensure that you comply to each…as best as you can, the next step is to figure out what this Penguin update was all about.  By doing this we can get a better insight into exactly what we need to do about cleaning up our sites. As we mentioned in the opening paragraphs, everyone has their own theory about what happened with this update but we want to hear what Google has to say. Here is what we found:

1. The Official Word

On April 24, 2012 Google published a blog post indicating that an update was imminent and this one was going to “reduce webspam and promote high quality content”. In the post they provided a couple of examples of keyword stuffing, spun content and outgoing links on a page that lead to unrelated content.

Apart from that, they didn’t impart too much information so at this point we were left in the dark. Considering we don’t keyword stuff, use spun content or link out to unrelated pages, this blog post didn’t help in the slightest.

Source:  Another step to reward high quality sites

2. Matt Cutts Interview with Search Engine Land

On May 10, 2012 Danny Sullivan from Search Engine Land interviewed Matt Cutts (Google Engineer). In the interview, Matt Cutts said that the Penguin update was designed to be quite precise and act against pages when there was an extremely high confidence of spam being involved.  Matt Cutts said, “The bottom line is, try to resolve what you can” and you will know if you have done the right thing the next time Penguin updates.

Again, we don’t really have much to go with here. Just a few snippets of information….just clean up the spam and you may be back ranking again when Penguin updates again….hmm, easy said than done when you don’t really know what the problem is to begin with.

Plus, Matt Cutts flippant statement “that you may need to start all over with a fresh site” if you can’t recover from the Penguin update just shows you how far removed he is from the rest of us. He obviously doesn’t know the amount of work that goes into it all. And what about small business owners who have created a branded website. You can’t tell me that they should start up a whole new website.

Source: Two Weeks In, Google Talks Penguin Update, Ways to Recover and Negative SEO

3. Google Updates Penguin Again

On May 26, 2012 Matt Cutts announces on his Twitter account that Google has pushed through a second Penguin data refresh. So if you weren’t hit the first time then you could have been hit the second time. Alternatively, if you made positive changes to your site since the first update, you might have seen an increase in traffic.

Does that mean we will see monthly Penguin updates? Hopefully, because it will mean that anyone affected by the Penguin update will be able to make changes to their site and not have to hang out for months waiting for the next update.

4. Matt Cutts Interviewed at SMX (Search Marketing Expo)

On June 5, 2012 Matt Cutts speaks at the SMX conference in Seattle. He informs the audience that Google’s definition of a Google penalty is something that is done manually. In other words, someone manually looks at the site and deems it to be bad. The Penguin update however was not a penalty but an algorithm change which is why you cannot submit your site for reconsideration.

Matt also spoke about negative SEO and that they are considering whether to create a system where you can disavow a link to your site. This would be fantastic but to me that says yes, negative SEO exists. Why would they bother creating a system otherwise? And if you’re wondering what negative SEO is, it is simply a way of killing a competitor by blasting their site with spammy backlinks.

One of the most interesting things to come out of this interview was when he was asked a question about wpmu.org, a reputable site that was hit badly by the Penguin update. The site went to the Sydney Morning Herald (an Australian newspaper) who in turn interviewed Matt Cutts about it.

In the SMX interview, Matt Cutts response was:

“They didn’t rank as high after Penguin, they made their case, and I thought it  was a good case. We were able to remove about 500,000 instances of links, and  that helped them.”

Now if you look at that response, Matt Cutts is effectively saying that it was their backlinks that caused the problem and by removing 500,000 links their ranking improved.  The site had created free WordPress themes and in the footer section had added a link back to their website. This was what resulted in their penalty as a lot of spammy sites used the theme.

Now this is all very nice for wpmu.org who were able to get to the press first to turn their site into a high profile case. But for the rest of us, we are left with spammy links to our site which in most cases are no fault of our own and we are left trying to figure out how to get them removed. Sure, we can email each and every site but do you think a spammy scraper website owner is going to give a toss about removing a link on their site? The whole reason they have a spammy site is that they couldn’t be bothered working on them to begin with. They just want to automate it all and sit back and not touch them ever again.

Another point that Matt Cutts made that would be of interest to us are affiliate links. He did say that they do handle affiliate links okay but if you are in any way worried about them, then add nofollow to them.

And just one more thing which is interesting to note, Matt does say that Google does not look at Google Analytics in its rankings.

Source: You & A with Matt Cutts – SMX Advanced 2012
and Matt Cutts on Penalities vs Algorithm Changes, A Disavow-This-Link Tool and More

Now What?

That’s about all I have been able to find so far on the Penguin update that comes from straight from a Google representative. If you know of anything else, please let us know in the comments below.

From what I can tell from all of this,  the Penguin update focused on two things:

1. Links
2. On page SEO

Of the two, I personally think that the links are the main factor.  In other words, if you have spammy sites linking to you in quantity then you are likely to be affected. If you have  used blogging networks or if you have paid someone to get hundreds of thousands of links to your site overnight then you would likely have felt the affects of this update.

I do also suspect that it could be the anchor text used in those links so try to avoid using the same anchor text over and over when backlinking.

Also if you link out from your site to totally unrelated sites then this could also affect you. So if you accept guest articles then ensure the links in those articles are to related sites. We often get sent articles for our sites and the article might be about dogs for instance which would be suitable for our dog site but the links in the article go to a credit card or insurance company. Don’t accept these articles. Keep them related to your site topic.

If you think that spammy backlinks are your problem then go to your Google Webmaster Tools and take the following steps to view your backlinks:

1. Click Traffic from the menu sidebar.

2. Click Links to Your Site from the drop-down that appears.

You can assess each link and if you deem it to be a spam site you can always email them to see if they will remove it.

As for the on page SEO, this has always been a problem for Google but perhaps they are cracking down a little harder. In this case, I would simply check your reviews and articles and if they sound unnatural to you when you read them out aloud then you are probably using too many keywords on the page. We’ve said for a long time now to just write naturally…throw in a few keywords to help Google find your pages but just don’t overdo it.

I think Google have a love-hate relationship when it comes to SEO. They need it because it helps them find relevant pages on the net for their search engine but at the same time it causes them all sorts of grief as webmasters attempt to use every SEO tip and trick in the book to attempt to manipulate their rankings.

What We Are Doing About It

We personally want to stick with Google but at the same time we want to focus on other forms of traffic. This was our goal before we went overseas and is something we are still looking into. But for the moment we want to get our sites back and ranking well in Google. Fortunately we weren’t hit too hard but it was enough to give us a jolt and get us focused again.

We started by doing nothing and you may think that a little odd but we have learned from years of experience that when it comes to Google updates that you don’t make any changes straight away if you have been hit. It’s always best to leave things alone for a while because oftentimes you will find yourself ranking again.

So after waiting a month or so we realized that our traffic wasn’t going to improve so we started to make some slight changes. Nothing major, just some changes to a few pages on our sites.  Fortunately we can take our time with this and not make too many drastic changes at once.

We tried those blogging networks at one point but gave up on them pretty quickly because we realized they didn’t work very well.  Plus we just didn’t feel comfortable about the sites the articles were going on. They just looked spammy to us and we wanted to be associated with quality wherever possible.

The other problem is spammy sites that link to us and that is out of our control. We noticed that some sites add hundreds of our links to their sites. I’m not sure why…we didn’t ask them to. One would be enough but they link to us from all sorts of pages in their ‘Further Information’ sections. This doesn’t help us if their site is just a scraper site of sorts.

However, we will try to contact the major offenders to see if they will remove the links and see how we go.

We are hoping that Google implements their ‘disavow’ option which will allow us to reject a site that is linking to us. But who knows when this will be – Matt Cutts says ‘maybe a month, or two, or three’. We will see.

We Need Help!!! Tell Us What You Would Like to See on this Site

This isn’t going to be a very long post because we are more interested in your input than what we have to say. We have decided to start adding tutorials to this website and it is important to us that we provide the information that you will find useful. After all there is no sense in us spending time providing lots of lovely content on something that you have no interest in.

These tutorials will be free to access and on subjects that you might need help in. We envisage that each of these tutorials will be self contained and very specific to a particular subject. In other words, you aren’t going to see tutorials on ‘how to make money online’ or ‘how to get traffic to my site’. Although those sorts of topics are relevant they are very broad and require a lot more than a simple tutorial to answer.

Instead, what we are after are tasks that you might have to perform in your day-to-day business online.

These are a few of the topics we had in mind but we would prefer your input:

  • How to add a plugin to WordPress
  • How to create a professional looking header for your WordPress blog
  • How to create a custom menu in WordPress
  • How to create a table in WordPress
  • How to find the number of backlinks to your site
  • How to use Google Analytics to find your top performing pages
  • Blog Commenting 101
  • How to install and use the TinyMCE Advanced plugin
  • How to align an image in WordPress
  • How to set up AWStats in Bluehost

Each of the tutorials that we add will in most cases include both a video and a written transcript. We realize that some people are visual and prefer a video but others prefer to read, so both options will be provided.

Since we have a diverse range of readers each with a differing skill base we expect that over time we will add a diverse range of topics from the very basic to the more advanced.

We also intend to add a beginners section for those who have never created a website and want to know how.

We will also be adding tutorials to our Affiliate Reviews HQ website and would like your input here as well. These will be specific product related tutorials on how to use some of the amazing affiliate tools available today. Here are a few examples of what we thought we might add:

  • How to set up the Flexsqueeze theme
  • How to create cool looking review pages with Flexsqueeze
  • How to use SEMRush for keyword research
  • How to create a custom home page using the Catalyst theme
  • How to create affiliate links using the Ninja Affiliate plugin
  • How to use ReviewAZON for creating manual Amazon product reviews

As you can imagine this will all take a bit of time but for starters we want to add the most requested tutorials so if you would like to see any of the above tutorials added or if you have any specific requests please let us know in the comments below.

UPDATE: We forgot to mention that these tutorials won’t be posted on to the main blog here. They will appear in a separate training section on this blog.

Help – Amazon Removed the Product!

[contentbox bgcolor=’f2f2f2′ border=’999999′ borderwidth=3 corners=10]This is a guest post written by Dawn Rotarangi.[/contentbox]

As you build more pages with links to Amazon products, inevitably, as either Amazon or the retailer withdraw or move products, some of the url addresses will either change or disappear.

The link will then go to an Amazon 404 – Document Not Found.

These links are leaking money from your web site!

On a small site with a few carefully tended pages this may never be a problem.  You’ll see what has happened and correct it immediately.

But on a large website with many unmonitored links this can become a nightmare if you do not know how to find these links that have been broken as a product is shifted or withdrawn.

Image links reveal when they are broken – text links do not.  They look just fine and you don’t realize that they are no longer bringing in money.

How to find if a link is going to an Amazon 404

I’ll use this site on Charm Bracelets as an example.  You can see it is a static website that sells charm jewellery.  It has hundreds, maybe thousands, of Amazon links.  Clearly it is not built according to the Amazonian Profit Plan, but is a trouble free little web site so long as the product links are kept updated.

Here is how to do that.

Each morning log in to your Amazon account.

Where it says Month to date click on Yesterday.

Underneath where it says Orders Summary click on View full report. Make sure you’re clicking on the View full report for the Orders Summary not the Earnings Summary.

This will show you a page something like this.

We all love to focus on the sales we have made – but below them there is a section called Items with no orders. Now don’t turn away from that in disappointment. That list is your friend.  You can learn a lot by seeing what people have clicked on but not bought.

However, for our purposes you can also see any links that are broken because an item has been shifted or removed from Amazon.

So click on that little downward pointing arrow beside the words Show all items.

This will show you a page something like this.

Now see those 3 items at the top of the list that are shown by their ASIN rather than the product name.

(Title not available) B003ZZXL7Q

(Title not available) B000GG0GUM

(Title not available) B0045EVGAA

Those are broken links.  Someone has clicked upon them and got the dreaded 404 – Document Not Found.  So up until that point you had a potential sale going down – suddenly you have nothing.

In fact, you have worse than nothing.  You have an annoyed shopper.  I know that when I follow links that don’t work or don’t take me to where they promised I feel annoyed and cheated and promptly leave.

So maybe your customer will take Amazon’s hint and go to the home page and continue looking.  But is your affiliate link still embedded?  I don’t know but I don’t want to take that chance.

And maybe they’ll return to your web site and continue shopping but again, I don’t want to take that chance.

What I want to do is fix that broken link just as quick as I can so that once again I have happy shoppers.  I’ve lost that potential sale but if I fix it now I won’t lose anymore.

If you’ve never looked in that Items with no orders list before, or if you’ve looked but did not understand the significance of these items listed under their ASIN numbers, it can be a bit of a shock.

If the link is “healthy” then Amazon list it under the title of the product.  If the link took your customer to the Amazon 404 then it is listed under its ASIN.

I’ve shared this secret with people who have discovered they had hundreds of non-functioning links!

Right – you’ve discovered these profit leaching links – now what to do about them

Simply change them for links to other products.  Do a keyword search and find a similar product that you can sell.  You will probably have to change some of the text on the page depending on if that page was written just for that one product.

On a shopping site, a page such as this one about Kabbalah Bracelets only needs to have a word or two changed, insert another link and it’s done.

On a page where you have carefully selected the product and written according to the Amazonian Plan you’ll need to make more extensive changes.

BUT if you change the words on the page to fit another model of the same product you get to keep all those back links that you’ve sweated blood, tears and midnight oil to get for this page.  Whichever model of Panasonic cordless drill (to use Paula and Wanda’s famous example) you write about, most of those back links will be great for any other model of Panasonic cordless drill.

In fact, many of those back links will be perfect for any model of drill.

And at the very worst – they’re still back links even if the anchor text isn’t exactly what you would choose.  How many of us have done the rounds of blog commenting where you end up with hundreds of backlinks anchored to your name?  So don’t discard the page even if you end up having to put a hedge trimmer on it. Change the Title of the page and keep the url with all those precious back links.

Not a perfect solution, I know, but this is real life in the affiliate world.  Retailers change links.  Retailers remove products.  There is nothing you can do about that.  Salvage what you can from the situation.

How to find that broken link on your own website

Now you may have spotted one flaw in what I’ve suggested.  The problem is that if you have a large site you have to actually find these links on your website.  If you have hundreds or thousands of pages spread over several websites this can be very time consuming.

Here is how to find them.  On the Amazon site request to see your orders by tracking ID.  See where it says Combined Reports?  Remove the tick and go through your various IDs until you find the ID where the product shows under its ASIN in the Items with no orders.  (I’m assuming you have a different tracking ID for each of your web sites.  If you haven’t, rectify that now.)

We’ve tracked it down to which website it is on – now we have to track it down to the page.

StatCounter is your friend, folks!

It can be added to any WordPress blog as a plugin and it will quickly and effortlessly lead you to the page you want. It can also be added to most other sites.

Over in your StatCounter interface you will see in the list of Statistics on the left of the page, one called Exit Links.

Click on that and you’ll see there are about a dozen pages of exit links there.  Go to the final page listed.  I say the final page because the links are listed according to how many clicks they have had so the problem link is amongst the ones that have only had one click on them (if you check them daily).  Work back, running your eye down the right hand side of the links until you find the one you want.

Click on that little downward pointing arrow and it will take you to the StatCounter drill down page.

On this page click on the magnifying glass to the left of the link and it will take you to the page that reveals all.

This page will tell you which of YOUR pages that link was on.

And although it might have taken you five minutes to read how to do this, one you’ve done it once or twice, you’ll find you can track these broken/changed urls very quickly.  Within a minute of discovering that a retailer has removed a product I know which page it was on and will be replacing it with another product.

One sale might have been lost but if you follow this tip you’ll never lose a second sale through a link that doesn’t go where you want.

How Free Content Wins Hearts and Opens Wallets

[contentbox bgcolor=’f2f2f2′ border=’999999′ borderwidth=3 corners=10]This is a Guest Post Written By: Chris The Traffic Blogger[/contentbox]

We’ve all been in the blogging slump before, and perhaps you’re in the same unfortunate situation yourself. When your readership counts grows at a rate that barely gives drying paint a run for its money and your daily routine seems stale and ordinary. If you are in this dreadful position, you can take comfort in knowing that the blogging slump is not only your biggest challenge, but also your greatest opportunity for success. The motivational surge you can create by taking a blog out of the slump and into stardom will send you to the keyboard making posts for years to come. It will definitely open up some wallets for you as well. So let’s get out of the slump, turn your site around and start creating something meaningful for your audience. By any chance, have you considered promoting your blog using free content?

Free Content Will:

-Create the Right Atmosphere

Free content puts you out there as a person of integrity; a person who is willing to aid your audience without expectation of anything in return. If the very first thing you offer to a new reader is free, experienced content which can aid them in solving their problems, well then you just transformed a random internet surfer into a long term customer. Consider the opposite, if you were to immediately ask them to open their wallets before you built any sort of relationship with them, do you think that they would comply? Of course not, free content allows you to start building a strong, positive relationship from the beginning.

-Test Value

Without value your content is useless, and free content is a great way to test the value of your ideas in front of a larger audience. By spreading your free content to other websites, blogging authors could potentially send your free ebook virally to all their subscribers which in turn would pass it on to their friends. Does your content inspire viral sharing or immediately deletion? Either way, you have to get it out there and test it before you will know for sure, so free content is a great way to run this experiment.

-Impress Your Audience

Your audience will be impressed by your free content if you make it delectable to the ears. Does it sound like your free ebook which requires an email subscription is the answer to what your customer is looking for? Does it sound like they cannot live without your precious information which also happens to be free? If people crave it, and you provide it for free, then you will have a feeding frenzy on your hands.

Don’t Just Give the Content

Free content is great in any form, whether that’s an ebook, a newsletter, video tutorial or just an extensive series of articles on your own blog. However, free content is online gold if you promote it correctly and use it to increase your subscription count. If you find that any of your free content is exceptionally well accepted by your audience then you should look to ask them to subscribe (for free obviously) in order to view it. You can easily take your top 10 posts on a single subject area, package them into a series of ebooks and then finally mail them out one day at a time with an autoresponder. This autoresponder would require an email address to work, so there you have another subscription for your site.

Offering free content in the form of seven emails over the course of seven days was how I took a blog from 2,400 readers to 10,200 in just six months. What’s more, I could then use email marketing to provide solutions to an audience which had come to depend on me for my free content, thus making it much easier to sell them products (which also helped them to achieve their goals). I opened their hearts and then they opened their wallets.

Do you offer free content in order to increase subscription numbers? If not, what’s stopping you?

To read more articles by Chris head over to The Traffic Blogger.