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Penalties vs. Algorithm Changes: What’s Next? #semrushchat

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Penalties vs. Algorithm Changes: What’s Next? #semrushchat

Becky Shindell
Penalties vs. Algorithm Changes: What’s Next? #semrushchat

Google penalties and algorithm changes remain one of the hot topics in search marketing, and even though there is a popular believe that Panda and Penguin are penalties, they're not. It is true, however, that these Google algorithm changes can have a significant effect on your website’s performance. In order to get a deep dive into penalties and algorithm changes, we knew we needed a true expert, which is why we invited Marie Haynes, a Google penalty expert and algorithm analyst, to be our SEMrush Chat special guest. Marie is the founder of Marie Haynes Consulting Inc (fka HIS Web Marketing).

Here is how to track the SERP changes, the mistakes that can get your site penalized, how to recover your rankings from Google penalties, and more:  

Q1. Do you track the SERP changes? If yes, how often and what tools you use?

Analyzing SERP changes is an important part of web marketing. By keeping track of how your ranking changes in response to internal and external updates, you can gain a better understanding of the amount of organic traffic your website generates and use all of this data to improve your conversions.

Luckily, there are multiple tracking tools on the web. You can try out the following helpful tracking tools that our chat guests named:

Most of our chat participants said they track their rankings on a regular basis. However, some of them also pointed out that since SEO is a long-term investment, and that there is no need to analyze SERP changes too frequently:

Reva Minkoff‏ @revaminkoff shared an interesting point that the principles of SEO have yet to change, and it may be more useful to keep an eye on the visual differences like organic listings, maps, and ads.

As Google continues to experiment with its SERP layout, more marketers realize the need to adjust their strategies according to these changes. It's important to keep in mind that SERPs are now different for different users on various searches.

Special thanks to the following chat participants whose tweets helped us make the list of valuable tracking tools: @R8chel_Marie, @dannyraylima, @fighto, @cubilizer, @writingforseo, @DigiDonDraper, @viabledigital, @SnowWrite, @rsj8000.  

SEMrush Chat Recap Q1

Do you use any tools to react immediately and derive an SEO strategy based on the changes to the Google SERP changes? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Q2. What is the most stupid mistake beginners make that is likely to get them penalized?

Google wants to provide its users with access to accurate and complete information. Therefore, it continues to improve its algorithms to make sure that the best and unique content gets the exposure it deserves.

Unfortunately, there is the other side of the coin. If you don’t keep up with Google’s best practices and still use old-fashioned techniques, your website can get penalized. To get you off on the right track, our chat guests shared four dumb things that can get your site penalized.

1. Low-quality link building

Low-quality link building, such as buying links, can be seen by the search engine as an attempt to manipulate PageRank. You should never purchase links because this is a violation of Google policies. You need to earn them naturally by using valid acquisition techniques and smart strategies.

2. Keyword stuffed content

A very high keyword density is a red flag for poorly written content. There’s no correct answer to how often Google penalizes websites for keyword stuffing, but, using this technique means that you are walking on thin ice. If the search engine detects a strangely high number of key terms and phrases in a page, it may penalize your site.

3. Hidden text

When stuffing content with keywords, some webmasters use the black hat SEO tactic of hiding the text that users don’t want to see. For example, they use the same color for the text and a page’s background. Search engines don’t like if you try to hide something, so make sure that you don’t use style, fonts, or display: none to hide any elements of your text.

4. Thin or shallow content

As early as in February 2011, Google announced an update to its search algorithm called Panda. At first, it was targeted primarily at content farms, which are the sites with a huge amount of content written for the mere purpose of gaining traffic and ranking well in search. However, it then switched to websites with “thin” content, which means content with little or no added value.

The Panda update was aimed at giving better rankings to websites with relevant, useful content and penalizing sites that have this “thin” content. In Google’s opinion, using this kind of content is violating its quality guidelines. If your page has little text with massive amounts of duplicate content, your content doesn’t match what you promise in the page title and meta description, or it doesn’t offer an answer to your user’s question, there’s a possibility that you can receive a thin content warning from Google or even get penalized.

The bottom line is that to avoid the scenario of getting your site penalized, you need to abandon all black hat SEO techniques once and for all. “The worst mistake is using black hat SEO practices done intentionally or not,” said Debi Norton‏ @BRAVOMedia1.

SEMrush Chat Recap Q2

Q3. Has your approach to link building changed in 2017? And has the Penguin algorithm being real-time affected it at all?

In 2016, Google announced that its Penguin 4.0 update, making it a core part of the search engine’s algorithm. In its report, Google explained that Penguin has become real-time and more granular.

The key element of a successful link earning strategy is crafting great content that offers something fresh and valuable to your audience. Truly good content will naturally bring you a lot of quality links:

Modern digital marketers have a solid grasp in different areas, such as search, analytics, content, creativity, and PR. Today all these elements are highly intertwined in practice. PR is sometimes called the new link building, because it helps you to expand your company’s reach, gain publicity, build up your brand, and, thus, earn referral traffic to your website. By developing strong media and distributing content, PR specialists can successfully generate quality links.

Even though Marie Haynes‏ @Marie_Haynes pointed out that she has always been a proponent of link earning versus building, she also said that you don’t have to completely give up on link building:

She and our other chat participants mentioned that some people are afraid to ask for links, because of the fear of a penalty or some other reason. Nevertheless, the truth is that today more digital marketers and SEO specialists realize that pursuing short-term profits can have very negative consequences. But this doesn’t mean that you should ignore links and avoid asking for them.

You can search for journalists, bloggers, PR specialists, members of online communities, and other people who work in your niche and try to build relationships with them. You can start by following their social media accounts, subscribing to their blogs, and engaging with them (i.e, on social media, in their blog comments section, or even directly via email). Then, you can create something that will be useful to them and make them know about it. At this point, they will be eager to share truly valuable content, especially when it comes from a person who has built strong connections with them.

SEMrush Chat Recap Q3

You need to create content that offers value to your audience and answers their questions and invest your time and efforts into smart outreach.

Q4. What are the steps an SEO should take to recover their website’s rankings if the reason for the penalty is unclear?

Imagine this: one day, you notice that every single page of your website disappears from Google without any warning. Has this situation ever happened to you? The worst part of getting your site penalized most like is not knowing the reason, so what is the best way a site owner can handle this scenario? These several ways can help to determine if your site has been penalized and recover from the penalty:

1. Check out for manual penalties in Google Search Console

Manual penalties are easier to identify because they are generally accompanied by a message within your Google Search Console account. This happens when Google’s spam algorithm is signaled by something suspicious on your website and the search engine decides to apply a manual penalty on your site.

To check out for any manual penalty, you need to login to your account on Google Search Console. Simply click on “All Messages” and you’re able to see all messages about a penalty. If the reasoning as to why your site has been penalized is unclear, it’s not a manual action.

2. Start an analysis to find out what happened

If the penalty occurred, don’t panic - you can figure it out! The first step is to understand what happened to your site, there’s no point in changing something until you know the exact reason for the penalty.

Perform a full site audit to check for duplicate content and site structure problems. Panda can penalize your site for multiple reasons:

  • poorly written content

  • shallow content (too brief to be useful for your readers)

  • duplicate content (copied either from other sites or other pages of your own site)

  • content that offers no real value

Even if there is only a small number of pages with these kinds of issues, your entire site can be affected.

3. See what may hinder user experience

Marie Haynes‏ @Marie_Haynes recommends looking for issues that may frustrate your site visitors. Today, user behavior on your site is one of the most important factors for the search engines. If users leave your pages as soon as they land on your site, it can mean that the user experience is frustrating.

Marie also suggests checking out Webmaster Central Blog, where you can find information on how to build high-quality websites and a list of questions that can help you to better understand how Google accesses any website.

4. Check if there were any industry-wide changes

The truth is, no one but Google knows when the next major algorithm update will happen. If your site has been penalized, and you're unsure why it happened, you can check if there were any changes in the industry that you may not know about. 

Although these tips are not the ultimate guide to fixing any Google penalty, these essential steps will help you set the right course for detecting and solving the problem.

SEMrush Chat Recap Q4

If your site has been penalized, it's the end all be all. Penalties are a part of SEO, so your next steps should be figuring out what you need to do to understand how to identify and fix them.

Q5. Which technique has really made a positive change to you/your client’s rankings?

Finally, we asked our chat guests to share some helpful techniques that have made a positive change to their or their client’s rankings:

  • Reverse engineering

In any industry, there are a few competitors’ websites that are performing well. Sometimes there is no need to reinvent the wheel because you can analyze what your rivals are doing and use this information to insure your own success. This is called a reverse engineering strategy. Reverse engineering is the process of extracting knowledge from anything that has been already made and reproducing it based on this extracted information.

In the SEO world, reverse engineering means analyzing your winning competitors, including their site structure, link building techniques, content strategies, etc., and then reusing their approach to duplicate their success. Knowledge is power. Nevertheless, to achieve the desired results, you still need a good product and a clear messaging.

To find out more on the topic, you can check out these 16 ways to reverse-engineer your competitors’ SEO strategy posted on Search Engine Watch.

  • Using unlinked brand mentions for link earning

This tactic is not new, but it's extremely useful and can help you to build a large amount of genuine links and give your site a powerful SEO boost. This strategy requires advanced searching for unlinked brand mentions, which are simply when someone has mentioned your website or your brand within a piece of content or a web page, and not applied a link back to your site. Rohit Palit provides a guide to searching for unlinked mentions of your site, your name, or your brand name and then turning them into quality links.

  • Fixing issues

Fixing technical SEO issues can do magic and checking for some of the most common errors and fixing them can save you a lot of time and efforts in the long run. Oversimplified? Maybe. But it’s exactly what Google and other search engines want you to do.

Do you know what on-page SEO issues websites face most often? Check out our study that covers the most common on-site problems and how many sites these issues affect.

Also, make sure to apply these timeless techniques that our special guest shared: “Remove or beef up thin content, focus on high-quality link acquisition, and better customer experience.”

SEMrush Chat Recap Q5

The SEO landscape is continuously changing. However, if you keep providing your audience with real value and great experience, it means you are on the right track.

Best of luck with your SEO efforts!

Huge thanks to our special guest and our chat participants for their awesome tips!

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Becky Shindell is the US Social Media Manager at SEMrush and host of the weekly #SEMrushchat. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter. You can find Becky at many of the US Digital Marketing Conferences, feel free to say hi!
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Erez Elias
Excellent post.
Jeannie Hill
Great post, Becky Shindell! When it comes to AMP, schema, and more advanced SEO, technical correctness seems to be more important than ever. Part of offering digital audiences real value and great experiences is adhering closely to Google's SEO guidelines and implementing the latest strategies correctly.
Becky Shindell
Jeannie Hill
Great point, Jeannie! So happy that you found this article useful!
Tom van Leeuwen
Thanks Becky for your informative article.
You're offering a great overview of all the structural errors on witch Panda is based. The main problem is that Panda tries to offer a one-size-fits-all solution. The truth is much more complicated.
For example, my sites are business directories. Not exactly a type of site visitors will read and investigate for a prolonged period of time. They look for a phone number or an email address, they find it and leave. It would be a failure if a visitor spends more time and opens more than 2 or 3 pages.

It's like a phonebook. You won't be reading a phonebook for hours or even minutes.

Another point is duplicated content. One of the advantages of on online directory compared to a printed one is that the same information can be presented at various pages.
One visitor might search for "dentists" while the other one searches "dental clinics" and they will end up at different pages. But both are served best if "Dentist X" is listed on the page they visit. So in this case it improves the user experience when content is duplicated.
The same goes for "thin and shallow content". If a visitor looks for a dentist in a tiny village, the content for his/her search result page must be thin or shallow as there might be just one dentist or even no dentist at all. It would be confusing or even incorrect to display more information than the information the visitor is looking for.

Panda is based on the assumption that all sites are filled with articles and that site quality can be measured by the time a visitor spends reading it or by the number of pages he/she opens. And that assumption does not hold for sites like a business directory.

Tom van Leeuwen (tom@tomvanleeuwen.com)
Becky Shindell
Tom van Leeuwen
Hey Tom-

Thanks so much for the feedback and for reading the article! You definitely bring up a lot of great points and this is certainly stuff that I could have mentioned in here! -Becky
Tom van Leeuwen
Becky Shindell
Thanks Becky,
Please feel free to use these thoughts for a future article on this subject. Also, please contact me if you need additional information, thoughts, ideas...
Best regards, Tom.