What Google Says About Penguin, Panda and Other Penalties

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Among SEOs, there’s an enduring myth that Google doesn’t give much away in regards to its penalty processes. But although Google remains guarded over its ‘secret sauce’, it has provided useful statements about its webspam penalties on numerous occasions. In this post, digital account manager Jordan Moxham collects six of Google’s most enlightening quotes…

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On Google’s Web Spam Philosophy:

“If you really want to stop spam, […] what you want to do, is sort of break their spirits.”

This quote comes from Google’s head of web spam Matt Cutts, speaking as a panellist on the This Week in Google webcast, December 2013.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a penalty, you’ll know it’s easy to feel like Google is picking on you.

That’s because they are.

Google’s end goal, the ideal that it’s continually working towards, is to provide a quality, spam-free search experience for users.

The easiest way to do this is to make life difficult for spammers. To deny them traffic and revenue. Or as Matt Cutts says in the same webcast: “If you want to stop spam, the most straightforward way to do it is to deny people money.”

That’s why Google penalties can be so heart-wrenchingly frustrating. Google wants to ensure that going black hat is unprofitable and unpleasant in the long run.

Matt Cutts, again, says: “There are lots of Google algorithms specifically designed to frustrate spammers.”

[One] of the things we do is give people a hint their site will drop, and then a week or two later, their site actually does drop. So they get a little bit more frustrated.”

“So hopefully, and we’ve seen this happen, people step away from the dark side and say: ‘You know what, that was so much pain and anguish and frustration. Let’s just stay on the high road from now on.’”

On the Duration of Penalties:

“They can go pretty far. For total horribleness, the penalty can stay until the domain expires.”

Another quote from Matt Cutts. This time, he was speaking at Search Marketing Expo in June 2013.

This is quite a frank statement from Cutts. On other occasions, he has spoken of a softer approach to penalty durations.

For example, back in 2011, he released a video titled When are penalties lifted, in which he laid down Google’s approach to lifting penalties.

On the subject of algorithmic penalties, he said:

“So if your site is affected by an algorithm, for the most part, when you change your site […], then after we’ve re-crawled and re-indexed the page, and some period after that when we’ve reprocessed that in our algorithms, for the most part, your site should be able to pop back up, or increase in its rankings.

And speaking of manual actions, he remarked:

“For the vast majority of the time[…] we try to have a ‘time out’. So if it’s hidden text, you might have a penalty for having hidden text, and then after, say, 30 days that would expire. And if you’re doing something more severe […] that will last for a longer period of time, but eventually that will also expire.”

We have to consider this video is nearly four years old. And four years in the world of SEO is a Very Long Time. Since this video was released, Panda and Penguin have hit the world of search, and Google has taken a much stronger stance on webspam penalties.

By the time of Cutts’ statement at Search Marketing Expo, he had dropped the ‘softly, softly’ language and was going straight for the jugular. His mention of “total horibbleness” chimes with Cutts’ “break their spirits” statement on webspam, also from 2013.

But even then, Cutts’ choice of language shows that Google was reserving the right to implement stronger penalties. Although his overall message is ‘soft’ by today’s standards, he made sure to caveat most of his statements with phrases like “for the vast majority of the time” and “for the most part”.

The first Panda algorithm would roll out just nine days after Cutts' video was published.

On the Current State of Penguin:

“Penguin is shifting to more continuous updates. The idea is to keep optimizing as we go now.”

This statement was made by a Google spokesperson this week, in response to queries from Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz.

Schwartz had noticed semi-regular ranking fluctuations that seemed to be caused by updates to the Penguin algorithm.

Google had previously said Penguin 3.0 would have a “slow worldwide rollout”. But the latest ranking fluctuation was on Saturday, December 6 – more than seven weeks after the initial rollout on October 17. This is far longer than the usual time it takes for an update to bed in.

Google’s statement confirms that Google is no longer pushing out updates on a specific date, but is rather making changes as it goes along.

Interestingly, this means Google could have integrated Penguin with its live ranking system – rather than making changes offline, and then uploading them in a big batch.

It’s also interesting that Google’s new approach goes against previous statements the company has made regarding pushing out updates during the holiday period. Previously, ‘no holiday updates’ has been something of an unwritten rule for Google.

For example, in 2013, Matt Cutts tweeted this in response to a user question:

And in 2011, Google’s official Twitter account published the following tweet:

At the time of writing, this is a developing story. So we still don’t know whether webmasters will be able to recover rankings after these more-regular updates, or whether they’ll have to wait until Penguin 4.0 drops.

On Link Building in 2014:

“Link building’s not dead. There’s a lot of mileage left in links.”

Matt Cutts shared these words of wisdom earlier this year while speaking at SMX advanced in Seattle.

The statement was given in response to a frank question from Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, who asked: “Is link building dead?”

It’s no secret that Google still relies on links as an indicator of the quality of the page. What’s changed, Cutt says, is that it’s becoming much harder to use link building “shortcuts” in order to gain good rankings.

Or as Cutts puts it: “It’s easier to be real, than to fake being real.”

The solution? According to Cutts, the best way to build links in the Penguin era is to create quality content. To provide users with unique material that they can’t find anywhere else.

From the same interview:

If you do enough excellent, interesting, useful, funny, compelling stuff, usually your reputation – or your links, however you want to think of it – takes care of itself.”

On Avoiding Panda Penalties:

“If you think you might be affected by Panda, the overall writing [..] goal is to try to make sure you’ve got high-quality content.”

Noticed a trend? This is yet another Cutts quote, this time from a video titled What should a site owner do if they think they might be affected by Panda?, uploaded in September 2013.

The Penguin and Panda algorithms do quite different things. Although they both tackle webspam, Penguin is geared towards link spam, and Panda is very much focussed on issues with content.

However, the best way to avoid either penalty, according to Cutts, is to focus on creating great content.

In Cutts’ words, the kind of content you should be creating is:

The sort of content that people really enjoy, that’s compelling. The sort of thing that they’ll love to read, that you might see in a magazine or in a book. That people would refer back to, or send friends to.”

In fact, he goes further than this, saying: “Since Panda is now integrated with indexing, that remains the goal of our entire indexing system.”

On reconsideration requests:

“We have pretty good tools internally, so don’t try to fool us.”

To finish up, here’s a quote from a video titled Tips on requesting reconsideration, published in April 2009.

So the video is a little outdated. But the advice still stands.

In the video, Brian White – a member of Google’s search quality team – reiterates that you should put time and effort into your reconsideration requests. If you want a manual action penalty removed, you should provide as much information to Google as possible, so it can make an informed decision about whether you’ve taken the necessary steps to make your site compliant with its Webmaster Guidelines.

And under no circumstances should you try to ‘fool’ Google:

There are actual people […] looking at your reports. If you intentionally pass along bad or misleading information, we will disregard that request for reconsideration.”

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