You may or may not be aware of the fact that Google released a massive update to their search engine algorithm a few weeks ago. It’s been dubbed the “Penguin” update and it has sent businesses of all types into a tizzy.
So if you are driving traffic to your site via Google (which you should be), this absolutely effects you. Therefore I thought I couldn’t just ignore what is ultimately such a major event in the world of online marketing.
First, a little background on how search engine optimization works…
Google’s goal is to deliver you relevant and high quality results when you type a keyword into a search engine. Because it would be impossible for them to manually manage the billions of conceivable keyword phrases and competing web pages, they have created an algorithm which looks for various signals and prioritizes pages accordingly.
While the keywords you use on your site and within your site’s various tags and descriptions are one part of the equation (this is called on page optimization), it actually only accounts for a very small percentage of what Google is actually looking at.
In reality it is the number of sites that link back to your site, and the nature of those links, that determines whether or not a particular page will rank for a given keyword. We call these Backlinks.
In the simplest of terms, a link is viewed as a vote. And the site with the most votes wins. HOWEVER, all votes are not equal. A single link from a government site would almost certainly out weigh 1000 low quality links from pages with no authority.
And while the links themselves pass on authority to your site, it’s the anchor text that gives your site relevance. if you’re not familiar with the term, “anchor text” is simply the actual words used in the link itself. In other words, in this example (click here), the words “click here” are the anchor text. By linking with these words you are sending a signal to Google that the content you are linking to is relevant to the phrase “click here”
Note* To see an interesting example of how this works, Google the words “click here”. Adobe comes up as number one, regardless of the fact that the phrase “click here” doesn’t actually appear anywhere on the ranking page. It’s simply a result of so many sites containing the words “click here to download adobe”.
But here’s where it gets tricky…
Understanding that this is what Google is looking for, millions of businesses try to improve their search engine rankings by artificially creating the patterns that Google favors. Virtually every business does this.
The rule of thumb has always been that slow and steady link building from quality sources, using original content as the source of the link was the way to go. However the reality has also been that large quantities of low quality links (as long as they were somewhat diverse) usually worked just as well, often better. This meant that even well intentioned businesses needed to sometimes play dirty if they were going to compete.
Over the years this has led to a constantly evolving game of cat and mouse in which Google tries to filter out artificial link building while every online business tries to evade detection while improving their ranking.
For the most part this has worked relatively well, at least in my opinion. Google seemed to constantly be updating their algorithm to devalue links from low quality sources, and de-index pages that amounted to little more than search engine spam. I think this has been a good thing and for the most part it really did serve the honest business or individual who was creating quality content.
But then came the Penguin… Stupid penguin.
On April 24th Google unleashed what has been dubbed, the Penguin Update. This update was unlike any other updates that I have seen in my nearly 5 years online, and it is not only hurting many honest individuals, but it’s also giving frightening preferential treatment to big businesses, and surprise-surprise, Google’s own properties such as YouTube and Blogger. Furthermore, the hit that so many above board authority sites took on the 24th seems to have created the consensus view that it is safer to engage in large scale spam strategies (to diversify your risk), than it is to create large scale authority sites.
Traditionally (and for the most part), when Google discovered a link pattern it did not like, it simply discounted the links it deemed to be unnatural. This would cause your site to drop in the rankings. But for the first time ever we are seeing them severely penalize sites that contain what they consider to be unnaturally linking patterns.
Why is this bad? Because it means that any competitor with a grudge can simply turn to fiverr and have somebody blast 20,000 links at your site for a mere $5. In fact it’s so ridiculous that I doubt it will last. But for the time being it’s what we’re looking at. In fact services are actually cropping up that promise to knock out your competition by building vast amounts of unnatural links. Kinda scary.
But that’s just the beginning. More on why it’s F’d up in a sec. First…
…Here’s what the Penguin Update Did.
First off, I want to be clear… Google’s algorithm is completely top secret. All SEO statements are statements based on belief, not fact. It’s believed that even statements directly from Google are sometimes deliberately contain misinformation when it comes to their algorithm. And with that, everything I’m stating here is just based on personal opinion and experience and the personal opinion and experience of the SEO community as I’ve interpreted it. That’s important to know. The reality is that until the SEO community at large has many months of experimenting under it’s belt, everything is just conjecture. With that said, there do seem to be some consistencies popping up in the wake of the post-penguin analysis.
So here’s what the Penguin update seems to have done…
1. It targeted unnatural link sources such as blog networks and links that were obviously purchased. This isn’t something all that new, and it’s not something likely to effect most musicians engaged in casual SEO. But they do seem to have added some aggressive components to their filtering process and many sites were affected by this.
2. It targeted “over optimized” sites. In other words if you created a site that used your target keyword a little too perfectly (in the title tags, the description, the meta tags, and with too much density within your content, you stood a good chance of being effected. This is odd to many because on-page keyword optimization is not in itself a violation of any logical principle. But for whatever reason, content that is more loosely targeted seems to be doing much better than precisely targeted content post penguin. Particularly regarding the title tags of the page.
3. It targeted sites with backlinks that possessed unnatural anchor text ratios. Meaning that if you had a site that had 1000 backlinks and the anchor text on 70% of those links was your primary keyword then you stood a good chance of being effected. This was a big one for many businesses, both those that played by Google’s rules and those that didn’t.
4. Oddly I seem to be hearing more reports from people who saw legitimate authority sites effected by this update then less than reputable sites. In fact I am hearing from many people who saw boosts in their rankings of their poor quality sites and drops in the rankings of their huge authority sites. This is certainly confusing, and it’s something that will require more time and more data to get to the bottom of. It’s also very likely that Google will be modifying the algorithm as time goes by, and I suspect correcting it a somewhat.
Conspiracy Theorist Says What?
There is another popular opinion about this update which seems to have a ring of truth to it (at least in my opinion), and that is that Google may just be manipulating things so that large brands (who are already spending money on advertising) can dominate the market place, while everyone else is forced to turn to Google’s paid ad network if they want a piece of the Google’s much coveted traffic pie.
All of this comes at a time when Google is under investigation by the FTC for manipulating search results in it’s own favor. Hmmmmm.
I had several sites that saw a drop in rankings post-penguin. Rather than being blasted off the search engine map, they were instead supplanted by less relevant results. For example I had top 3 rankings for a number of competitive keywords that brought me hundreds of visitors every day. I’m still ranking on the first page of Google, but suddenly less relevant pages have shown up in front of me. What were these pages? Surprise-surprise, YouTube videos that were far less relevant to the keywords in question. In one case a large news site that had nothing to do with the subject but simply had a coincidentally keyword rich URL jumped in front of me. That’s hardly “helping the consumer”.
The frightening possibility here is that in the name of eliminating search engine spam and creating more accurate results, all they seem to have done is to create an incentive to avoid putting years of work into one big authority site and instead go out and create throw away sites with much less value and which require much more search engine spam to support.
Worse yet, they have made it harder for the little guy with a good product or message to be heard, and made it easier for giant corporations to dominate what is supposed to be the “information super highway”.
For a company who’s slogan is “Don’t Be Evil”, they seem to be doing a lot of weird things in the name of improving their search engine.
What does this mean for the average musician?
Well, as I’ve been saying for years now, the internet offers musicians an amazing opportunity to build their fan base and sell music without the expense of touring. That is still 100% true, and creating content that ranks in Google is still ABSOLUTELY the way to do it.
With that said, a few cautionary steps would probably serve anyone who is engaging in SEO right now, or at least until the dust settles on these recent changes.
1. Avoid building links through low quality sources. Instead focus on things like guest blogging, press releases, genuine blog comments on relevant sites (avoid using keyword rich usernames), legitimate music directories and sharing sites, web 2.0 properties such as Squidoo, Blogger, Hub Pages, YouTube, etc, and private link exchanges on relevant sites. My personal belief is that social media sharing links really count for a lot right now as well. Such as when someone clicks on a Facebook, Twitter, or Google + button like those at the bottom of this post (hint, hint).
2. Vary your anchor text quite a bit. Here is an anchor text recommendation from Chris Rempel from the Lazy Marketer that I happen to think sounds pretty dead on. Chris is a friend and a really brilliant dude when it comes to this stuff.
30% – Naked links (the URL itself is the anchor text).
30% – Primary keyword that your site is targeting.
30% – A DIVERSE MIX of keyword anchor links. At least 10 variations per target (site, page, etc.)
10% – Misc/random (images, “click here”, etc.)
3. Diversify. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to Google. If you make children’s music don’t just create one huge site that is targeting the keyword “children’s music”. I’m not saying authority sites are dead, they absolutely are not. But with things going the way they have been, you’ll be better off spreading your interests around the web as much as possible, or at least a bit.
4. And this has nothing to do with SEO… Focus on creating a sales funnel that is profitable to the point that you don’t need Google. Search engine traffic is the s@#t. It’s free and there is plenty of it. But you will always be vulnerable to these kinds of changes and they WILL keep coming. But if you can profit with paid advertising, then you have a REAL business. All you need to do at that point is take your money over to Facebook and use their ad network Don’t even get me started on Google’s Adwords network. Talk about authoritarian… Sheeez!
That’s about it folks. SEO is a huge topic and one that I am well aware is beyond the interest of many musicians. Still, the events of the last few weeks have been pretty massive in the world of online marketing and I just couldn’t ignore them.
While you may be the minority, I know that some of you (not surprisingly it’s some of the more successful of you) are in fact engaging in SEO and ranking for specific genre related keywords. Good on ya!
If you saw a drop in traffic following the 24th of April then you were most likely effected. Hopefully that is not the case. Because music is a much less competitive vertical, I suspect that the impact will be minimal for musicians. Still, this is all important stuff to be aware of going forward.
So what do you think? Have you been hit by the Penguin? Do you even care about search engine optimization? More importantly, how do you feel about Google’s behavior recently?