What The Hell Did Penguin Do?

So Penguin rolled out 2 weeks ago, I posted some early thoughts over on the Branded3 blog, and since then I have been trying to work out exactly what Penguin actually did, because being 100% honest, there are a lot of sites I expected to get hit that didn’t get touched!

What the hell did penguin do? By the way, if anyone genuinely knows please say so in the comments.

A few of things we did see were 1) a definitive boost for perceived authority domains, 2) some kind of adjustment to the freshness algorithm and 3) a drop in authority for sites that had used the disavow tool extensively.

None of this has been confirmed, but here are a few examples of the kind of thing we have been seeing:

Authority sites

In the legal sector we saw huge gains for high authority websites like advice guide and the law society. However, when I search ‘injury claims’ am I really looking to read a long piece of boring text? Or do I actually want to make a claim?

Injury claims serps

Let’s presume I want to make a claim, if so 3 of the top 5 results are fairly useless. Let’s hope Google’s return to search algorithm deals with this.


Now, you may have seen an increase in high authority newspapers ranking for what seem like irrelevant queries:

Buy a coat serps

When looking to buy a coat I always run straight to the daily mail and telegraph…

However, it’s not just news sites that seem to have had a boost, it’s also any pages that are displaying dates, check this supplement result out:

ds craze serp

The site in 5th has a date in the snippet, this actually relates to a review that has the date within a h tag. Close monitoring of product pages on this site seems to show some correlation between a new review being left, and a temporary boost in rankings. It also seems to be more prominent since the last penguin update.

Disavowed Links

We probably have more experience than any other agency using the disavow tool, and in preparation for Penguin we audited all client links and disavowed any that weren’t 100% natural. In most cases this meant we had very few issues after the update, in fact we saw some great results. However, there were one or two which left us puzzled.

I disavowed over 1200 domains to SEOwizz (dodgy article directories from 2008), all I have left is 300 – 400 domains still linking, all from great websites (including the great and powerful moz and even Google themselves). I disavowed them nearly 5 months ago with no impact on traffic or visibility.

SEOwizz searchmetrics

Then penguin hits, my site loses all visibility and traffic drops from 3000 – 1800 a week… thankfully I don’t rely on the site commercially.

….and this isn’t a one off, we have seen this trend on 4 – 5 different sites who all disavowed links anticipating penguin.

Cyrus published his thoughts on this over on SEOmoz (now moz :) ) last week, he disavowed all his links as a test, nothing happened (the disavow tool doesn’t work right?), then penguin hit and it died!

cyrus searchmetrics

So as you can see, there are still a lot of question marks around the most recent update, please, if you have any insight leave it below or drop me a line. Also, if anyone has recovered when Penguin rolled out please share :)

SEO for Ecommerce – Google and People

On Wednesday I attempted to make my way down to the Internet World Expo, unfortunately due to a delayed train I was unable to make it and therefore unable to present on SEO for ecommerce websites.

I am planning on running a webinar in the near future, however I thought it would also be good to put up a post detailing some of the advice and tips I was going to share in the presentation, plus I don’t think I have published anything on SEOwizz in nearly 3 months, apologies for that.

In Summary

The running theme throughout the presentation was that ecommerce site owners had to start thinking about people, and not just appeasing Google, this should be common in all SEO campaigns, however for ecommerce sites it’s even more important for them to get this. Ecommerce sites are ‘usually’ heavily lead by products (as you might expect), however simply having a site full of products does not, and should not, make you engaging, trusted, or (and probably most importantly) link/share worthy. In order to compete in today’s ecommerce market you have to think about people, how you catch them throughout the user journey, what you give them outside of a product and a price, and how you make your site generally interesting and link worthy. If you don’t do this your SEO strategy will fall down (if it hasn’t already), if all you want to do is sell products then all Google has for you is PPC, if you want to engage and add value, then there is huge organic opportunity.

Google & People

Having made that grand statement, there are still technical issues many ecommerce sites will come across, and when it comes to technical issues, you have to please Google. If you don’t people won’t find your site. In the presentation, I thought it would be beneficial to run through a few of the common issues faced by ecommerce owners and come potential ways to deal with it.

Duplicate Content

You may think it makes sense to:

– Copy your product descriptions from other sites
– Give hundreds of affiliate’s content to place on their sites
– Add T&C’s and delivery information to every product page

You’re creating masses of duplicate content on your site and around the web, not a great quality signal. Unless you have the authority of Amazon or EBay, then I would make every piece of content on your website unique, yes even if you have 10,000 products, it is one of the most worthwhile investments you can make.

What is Google’s Panda algorithm looking to kill? Sites that don’t add value. If your site is a list of products then you’re not adding value.


There are a few different ways of dealing with Pagination, none of them seem to make that much sense and all of them aimed at helping Google understand what it is.

– View all page

Canonical link all your component pages back to the view all page. This would effectively mean your view all page was your new category/landing page, Google think this is what users want, I’m not too sure. If your view all pages are fairly small, then maybe it’s a good option, if they are huge the page speed issues alone are enough to put you off.

view all pagination

– Rel Prev & Next

Probably the better option in my opinion, simply mark up your pagination with the prev/next tags, allowing Google which pages are component pages.

prev next pagination

– No index

Many would say this is a last resort, but I think it’s quite a clean way of dealing with pagination. No index all your pagination other than view all and your top level category. The risk with this is that Google stop crawling after you have requested 20 pages before to be no indexed.(Remember just no index, not no index/no follow, this will stop all your pagination pages from being crawled and hence your products).

The purpose of helping Google understand where you have pagination is twofold:

– Helps prevent any duplicate content issues occurring
– Ensures the correct crawling of products deep within the pagination, or only on the view all pages.

Rich Snippets

This is such a missed area for so many websites, and it can have dramatic effects on your click through rate.

Do you have reviews? Mark them up

Do you have videos? Mark them up

Authors? Mark them up

I could do a whole post on rich snippets covering tons of opportunities, but you’re best reading about it here and here.

Link Building

OK, let’s get this out of the way, you can’t and won’t compete with amazon, not unless you have 20 million to pump into SEO, and even then you’re struggling.

Your aim is not to build links to every single product/category page; it’s not natural and will lead to problems later down the line.

What you need to do is simple, ask yourself, what do I have that makes me worth linking to, or what do I have on a page that makes it worth linking to. If your answer is nothing, you need to think ‘asset creation’ instead of ‘link building’.

Everybody should have something to leverage in order to start earning links into the homepage of their websites, natural, brand based links that help build the authority of your domain, rather than trying to target specific pages because ‘you sell a lot of product’.

If you do have a product you would like to do well organically, what value are you adding? Unique reviews, perspective, videos, tips?? It can’t just be a picture and a description.


Google wants to understand people, and what they want to see from a set of search results. They want to understand why you and me would trust, use and endorse a website over another. They’re not perfect, but they’re getting there. So, in order to build a strategy with genuine longevity, you need to build a campaign around people.


Do you know which channels are helping to generate revenue? Remember, revenue is rarely generated just because someone found your site and decided to buy; they have usually interacted with your brand/website through other channels. A pretty typical conversion path is:

PPC > Organic > Direct > Purchase

Or even

Organic > PPC > Facebook > Direct > Purchase

How much is each channel really worth? Yes focus on the last interaction before purchase, but don’t ignore those channels that assist in moving the customer down the conversion funnel. Understanding assisted conversions is really important, and something you can setup and use within Google analytics.

Again, I could do a whole post on this, but you’re better reading here and here.

You need to know what you are giving the customer/user at all these different touch points, and you can better influence them at each stage.

More on Content

As stated previously in the post, ecommerce websites are historically product focussed, “here are my products and this is where you pay”! Everything is focussed on that last action, not considering that the average customer will want to read or see 4 – 5 pieces of information before making a decision to purchase.

– Why do they want this product?
– What are the benefits?
– Where else can they get it from?
– How much does it cost?
– When will they receive it?
– What are the alternatives?

All these questions lead to more questions, and unless you have a content strategy to deal with it, you’re allowing other websites and competitors to influence your target audience, your potential customers!! Not having a content strategy is absolutely bonkers.

This might be a big shift in mind-set for many online stores who have historically been focussed on getting people on the site and through the basket. Google wants those business models to use PPC, if you want to keep benefiting from organic traffic then you have to add value, you have to think about people, what they want and the questions they have. Becoming useful and interesting is the only way to future proof your efforts and build genuine, natural links.

Here are the slides if you missed them.

Google Disavow Tool: 10 Insights from 4 months of Testing

We have been testing the disavow tool for nearly 4 months, we have always been an advocate of it after achieving some quick wins immediately after it was launched. However, after months of testing we have found out a lot more about how the tool works, what kind of results are possible and what risks are involved.

In the last year we have worked with over 20 sites to diagnose and remedy link penalties, out of all the sites we have worked with there are only a couple we have not yet managed to lift a penalty for, and we expect these to recover very soon.

Working with these sites has given us some solid insight into the disavow tool and link penalties, I posted on some of these back in October last year, the post did pretty well generating over 100 comments, plus around 50 follow up emails! Because of the interest in link penalties and particularly the disavow tool, I thought it would be helpful to post a follow up, addressing some of the issues people are having with the process of recovery.

So below are my 10 insights, I’ve tried to address most of the questions I have been asked since my last post, however I’m sure there will be more so please leave them in the comments.

Being Honest About Your Links!

So many people have approached me over the past few months, unable to understand why their penalties have not been revoked. It only takes 2 mins in OSE to see links that haven’t been removed/disavowed, when I ask why the site owner will often use the following excuses:

“That’s a high PR site”

“I rank OK for that keyword”

“The site is very relevant”

The fact is if your link is not editorial then its advertising, and as much as we may love a link, if it’s advertising Google doesn’t want to count it. If you have had the unnatural links message, then it means Google knows about your bad links. There is no point making excuses for obvious bought or manipulated links, just get them down, the chances are they aren’t helping you anyway.

If you got the message and have since been hit, be absolutely brutal with your disavows/removals.

Refresh Your Data

If you have been doing ‘SEO’ type link building for the last few years then you have a lot of work to do, there will be a lot of links that you won’t find in WMT, OSE or Majestic (Despite what Google say). This means you will have to refresh your data each month, adding new links to the disavow tool and/or removing them. You may have to run through a refresh/disavow/recon request 5 or 6 times before you have cleaned up enough links, but you will get there.

Anchor Text

If you have been struggling to get a penalty revoked and there are obvious keywords you no longer rank for, remove or disavow every single link with that anchor text, it will not be helping you. Who links with commercial anchor text anyway?


Typically you will get a response after a reconsideration within 2 weeks, if you are successful and have a penalty revoked you may have up to 4 weeks to wait before any rankings come back. However, I have noticed things are taking a little longer than they did last year, I am guessing this is due to an increase in reconsideration requests.

Link Profile Valuation

When you submit a reconsideration request after submitting a disavow file, Google will almost immediately crawl all your links according to any removals and disavows you have made, totally re-evaluating your link profile and making a decision as to whether you have done enough to recover. You can see this clearly if you check your crawl stats in WMT:

Recon Request Spikes

This follows suit with every reconsideration request we have ever worked on.

A Word of Warning

If you haven’t had an unnatural links message, you need to be very careful when using the disavow and reconsideration process. If you haven’t had the warning it likely means Google haven’t found your bad links and are still counting them, disavowing and sending in a reconsideration request will cause a full valuation of your profile and you may have added links that still count into the disavow tool.

Of course you will need to remove all bad links eventually, but maybe replace them first.

Negative Signals

There seems to be a genuine fear of using this tool around the SEO community, however if you have had the unnatural links message you really shouldn’t worry, I have yet to see even one negative consequence when using the tool to remedy an unnatural links message. Likewise, I have yet to see any negative results through the submission of multiple reconsideration requests. If you have had a manual penalty you simply need to go through with this process, don’t worry about another penalty hitting through being transparent.

Site wide Links

We have found consistently that the removal of site wide links along with a thorough disavow file works really well, especially if the site wide links have commercial anchor text.

Reconsideration Requests

Even though I would still recommend sending in a detailed reconsideration, I am 95% sure Google are not reading them, or delving into any Google docs sent. However, I would continue to write a good reconsideration request and send all data, just to show willing.

Start Again?

I know there have been various posts published over the last month or so suggesting there is a time to just give up and start again, and even though I understand the frustration in dealing with these penalties, I’ve yet to come across a hopeless case. We have had sites where we have had to remove over 5000 linking domains and still managed to secure a positive result.

I really believe recovering from this penalty is a numbers game, and unless you have enough links removed or disavowed you’re not going to recover. It’s almost like Google have a blacklist of domains, you’re profile is run against this list and unless you tip the threshold, you simply fail the reconsideration request.

Keep refreshing your link data, keep your disavow file updated and don’t be afraid to submit multiple reconsideration requests, you will get there.

We really have learnt a lot over the past 4 months, and I really can’t take any credit, we have a fantastic team at Branded3, collecting data and optimising the recovery process. In my opinion they are the best in the business when it comes to penalty diagnosis and recovery. Hopefully they will get involved in any questions in the comments.

I’ll be down at Brighton SEO running the penalty recovery workshop, hopefully I will see some of you there.