How I Smacked Google Penguin In Its Ugly Little Beak
Posted on September 3rd, 2012. Written by Nick LeRoy.
I have access to a lot of website between my full time SEO gig and my personal websites. I never had an issue with Google Panda or Penguin updates until one dreaded day. May 24th AKA Penguin 1.1 release. Here’s my story, full of panic, failed attempts to “fix” the site and a “recovery” from one of the little fury creatures.
So It Begins:
Let me tell you a little something… it seems that anytime I go on a vacation where i’m completely removed from the internet there is always some sort of algorithm change. Most of the time they seem to benefit me but this time I nearly dropped my iPhone as I saw an extreme drop in Adsense revenue from one particular website that was making between $100-$150 a month on average (100% passive BTW). Upon getting home I jump on Google Analytics to see this sharp drop in traffic… shitty.
Identifying The Culprit:
As much as I would like to claim ignorance I knew this site was built fairly aggressively for both Adsense and rankings. So I pretty easily made a list of what I believed could be an issue with the website.
- The domain was an exact match domain that included FOUR dashes.
- Exact match internal anchor text was used heavily in a “list” format at the bottom of deep pages to related content.
- The website used a slightly modified version of the default WordPress 2011 theme.
- Inbound links were heavily optimized for the domain name which was exact match (with hyphens). Anchor text was 90% exact match for the domain name or the URL itself. 10% random “here” or other generic anchor.
- A single paid link.
- Every internal page used a content template that only required each page to be slightly modified in order to rank for that variation of the keyword.
Now that I had a list of possibly culprits I had to tackle each one individually. It would end up taking me 3 months of casually fixing up components of the website before it came back (kinda – i’ll explain later).
Exact Match Domain With Four Dashes
I knew the domain was spammy when I registered it but I wanted an exact match domain for the “natural” URL link benefit. I ranked extremely well (top 3 for main keyword) before and didn’t see a reason to get rid of it just yet. Though I will admit it was tempting to throw the entire site on a new domain I kept the domain.
Heavily Optimized Internal Links
Each internal page of the website had a small list of 4-5 internal links that were heavily optimized for the keyword phrase I was targeting. This was the very first culprit I tackled. When I changed the anchor text of these links I saw a very small uptick in traffic but nothing to ensure I had recovered.
Using Default WordPress 2011 Theme
I never truly thought this was the issue but it was a good excuse to take some of the money the site made and invest it back into the site. I found a designer/developer on oDesk.com and after a torturous relationship I was able to get something half-assed up. There are still issues with the design but nothing that accounts for the drop in traffic. The design is what I continue to call a work in progress.
Lack of Anchor Text Variety
I had assumed because I had the exact match domain (despite using FOUR dashes) I was safer than usual for over optimized anchor text. 90% of my links were exact anchor text or utilized the URL. Once the website tanked I did very little link building (which you will see hurt me even in my “recovery” later.)
My one attempt at link building was writing an eBook and publishing a press release. The press release was a failure as it didn’t secure me any decent links. I do however have a legitimate resource to do manual link outreach in the future. Though getting e-mail responses in this niche I have found to be very difficult.
A Poorly Purchased Link
I have never been afraid to buy links if they are purchased correctly. However, there was a time where I stupidly bought a link based off a sites PR and because I was an “early” buyer so the site has yet to be spammed to death. Of course over the months this had changed. As I became more knowledgeable I had noticed this site was a dropped domain (why the PR was so high) and of course other link buyers had bought links as well so my link was sitting next to a bunch of spammy unrelated links. I had attempted to reach out to the seller months before the drop in traffic to get the link removed without any luck. With that said, I moved forward not thinking anything more of it. Fortunately the link was temporary and the seller came back looking for a renewal… I was happy to tell him to remove it, which he did shortly after. Unfortunately for me my rankings and subsequent traffic stayed the same.
Templated Content With Minor Changes — THE CULPRIT!!!
This website has over 50 pages utilizing a content template where 90% of the content is the same with roughly 10% being absolutely unique. While it was a lazy decision (and cost sensitive) the content was still valid for visitors and helped me increase my rankings for 50+ additional keyword phrases. This was the whole purpose of Panda & Penguin taking effect but I had convinced myself I was immune due to my site not being hit by the first iteration of Penguin.
Slowly but surely I started to rewrite each of the 50 pages of content. Still the same type of content but simply “unique” from one another. Page after page I updated and it would get indexed in Google without any recovery signs. You can imagine after about 35 pages being rewritten without any benefits I got frustrated. Instead of finishing the remaining pages I decided to simply no-index / no-follow the pages that had the old templated content.
In about a weeks time, Google had returned to the site and removed the templated pages from there index. I immediately saw a large improvement in my rankings. Post penguin I was ranking third/fourth page for my exact match keyword and after these pages were removed I jumped to the bottom of page one. I also saw the same pattern for the internal pages and their targeted keywords. I had recovered! Kinda.
Recovery Yet Still Not The Same
My site was practically invisible for about three months. Outside of the single PRWEB Press Release I didn’t build many links. As most SEOs know there are very few websites that sustain rankings without manually or “naturally” acquiring links. So, while I had recovered from the ugly Penguin my ranking still were lower then before. My competition had multiple months of link building and content generation while I pounded out fix after fix. By the time I had recovered they had overtaken my previously held rankings. Looking at my Analytics you can see the recovery but it’s not nearly as impressive as some previously reported recoveries. The results are more so in individual keyword rankings.
To this day most of my main keywords are at the bottom of the first page or the top of the second page within Google. Because of this my Adsense revenue has still taken a hit but is still above what it was for the three months I was non-existent.
Lessons Learned + Notes
The biggest lesson I learned was that I need to check my SEO ego at the door. I’m not talking about caring what other people think of my techniques or abilities but my own personal thoughts. I can’t even tell you how many hours I spent making these fixes and upgrades to a website that makes less than $200.00 a month. I couldn’t let it go, I wanted to know that if I wanted to I could get back in the game and still make this site profitable. In the end, I likely spent most of the money that I made from it outsourcing design, development and logo upgrades. I also spent countless hours tweaking elements of the site and re-writing content.
While I know the rankings will come back in addition to the Adsense revenue the biggest lesson I would share with other SEOs is to figure out when it’s best to simply cut the cord. I have other projects that I should have spent time and money on instead of fixing this website… LIKE MY NEW EBOOK! My ego simply couldn’t handle it. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.
I also am a firm believer that Google hates domains that use multiple dashes… but that’s a different post.
UPDATE – Penguin Update Occurring?
last night I checked Google Analytics for this site and noticed a 50% increase in search traffic. Barry Schwartz has yet to confirm with Google that an update is underway but speculation can be read here: http://www.seroundtable.com/google-update-september-15664.html