Don't let Penguin leave your brand out in the cold

If the past few years are anything to go by, the next update of Google’s algorithm is due any time now. How can brands prepare for the changes?

There’s no easy way of saying this so we might as well get it out there – if the past two main iterations of Google’s Penguin update are anything to go by, the next big revision will be due any time during March or April.

Even if history doesn’t repeat itself – the last two have been around this time of year – it would pay brands and their agencies to have a thorough revision of how they create that all-important SEO currency of link equity.

The reason being, if you’re not looking ship-shape today, chances are you could get hit with a major slap in the face in the form of a search penalty. Just ask Interflora. Just ahead of last year’s Valentine’s Day rush the brand went on a content marketing outreach programme that built thousands of links based around specific terms that kept it nailed to the top of page one natural results, until it disappeared overnight for a couple of weeks.

Google suspected the links had been gathered through freebies, giveaways and undeclared advertorials and, to be perfectly blunt, hung them out to dry. Now every brand’s aim should be to avoid being the name on everyone’s Twitter feed come the next revision.
“It’s coming soon, everyone will turn up to work to suddenly see Twitter exploding with people talking about the brands that have disappeared from search results,” says Matt Barby, digital strategist at Wyatt International.

“People will be logging in to webmaster tools to see if they’ve got a penalty. It’s a very nerve-wracking time so the simplest thing you can do is base your content marketing and blogger outreach programmes around getting natural results. You’ve got to earn links rather than just go out and buy them and you’ve got to make sure the ‘anchor text’ which is hyperlinked back to your site is natural looking.”

Sweat and tears

In other words, Google’s SEO algorithm may be tweaked but the basic premise remains the same. In the long run, hard work and natural results will outweigh quick wins and shady practices, such as paying for links or dressing up advertorial as editorial.

“My advice is to be very active in blogger outreach and in your pr but don’t go around specifically asking for, or paying for, links back from the same anchor text,” continues Barby. “If you’re a business card producer and Google sees that you’ve got virtually no generic branded links back to you but instead nearly all your links sound salesy, like ‘cheap business cards’ or ‘free delivery business cards’ you’re going to arouse suspicion.

“You just need to remember that diversity is the absolute key word. Don’t force anchor text on people, get them interested in you enough to link back to you naturally.”

Links still key?

So, if links can get you in to trouble, are they best avoided? Is it really worth the bother? Ask most specialists and the resounding answer would be a ‘yes’, particularly for the right ones because, as Adam Bunn from SEO agency Greenlight, explains, they’re the main way Google understands what is popular.

“Links are going to remain central to SEO because Google recently confirmed it had tested a version of its algorithm that didn’t use them as a ranking factor and found the results to be far worse than when it did,” he says. “A large pool of links, though, now matters less, and potentially not at all for ranking purposes, and those are the unnatural ones that Google has learned about.  But that just means that a shrinking pool of good quality links is shouldering all the burden for determining ranks, so correspondingly you could say that those links matter much more.”

Follow or not?

There is still room for conjecture here, particularly around the fail-safe of a ‘no follow’ link. For the uninitiated these involve a small piece of code being added to a link which tells Google not to consider it for SEO purposes. In other words, it may well send you traffic but it will not help you out on the SEO front. There is a discussion as to whether it can have a positive impact if enough people click on it, though the general rule is that it contributes nothing or next to nothing to Google’s decision where a brand appears.

For Gareth Owen, head of performance media at 360i, the whole debate is a moot point, or at least is headed that way. In September Google unveiled Hummingbird, so called because it is a fast, efficient and entirely new engine rather than just an update to a component. Since then, the search giant has been looking to incorporate a better understanding of words and meaning. The semantic web relies more on your brand, products and services being talked about online than past algorithms.

“We’ve been finding over the past few months that our best successes have not come solely through link building programmes but simply around letting people know about our clients’ offers,” Owen says. “A case in point has been the Post Office which launched the country’s most competitive mortgage rate. This took them from sixteenth to fourth with long spells in positions two and three for mortgage queries. We just got word out there, we didn’t insist on links. The product was so good it got covered and people were talking about it and that’s the big difference we’ve seen.

“I’d have no hesitation in saying people should just put ‘no follow’ tags on links and not worry about the SEO implications because they’re less important now than actually getting people in good blogs and sites talking about your products naturally.”

So links remain important for the very obvious reason they build bridges to your site, even if they are ‘no follow’ as far as Google is concerned.

What is very clear, though, is that anchor text diversity is key. Google has always maintained there are no short cuts or cheats to getting top listings and it now seems to be delivering on the promise to very publicly bring down brands who try to disguise advertorials and link buying practices.

It is the simplest rule going – produce great content people want to link to, and you’ll be fine. But like all things simple, that can actually involve an awful lot of hard work.

So, as Easter approaches and Penguin is due an upgrade, be prepared with a diverse set of anchor texts for honestly earned links and you will be fine. The alternative is to be one of the names everyone will be gossiping about on tweets and SEO blogs when the axe next falls.

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