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Attack of the Penguin – Search Engine Optimization As We Know It Has Changed.

by John Oszajca on May 15, 2012

Killer Penguin represents the Google Penguin Update

Google's Penguin update has slaughtered many online businesses. Is this a good or a bad thing and what does it mean for musicians?

This is one of those things that I really hemmed and hawed over writing about here on the Music Marketing Manifesto blog. It’s something that is incredibly important, but I honestly don’t know how many musicians actually care…

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?

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Russell Alexander May 18, 2012 at 12:01 am

I’m a member of MMM. After reading this, I realized that I didn’t understand what “keyword anchor links” were. Now that I do, I’m wondering – most of the links on my home page are clickable graphics. Do the “alt” text terms count as keyword anchor links in that case?
Thanks!

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John Oszajca May 18, 2012 at 12:28 am

The alt tags do theoretically pass relevance to google about what your image is about. However the post-penguin consensus so far is that over optimized alt tags are probably bad. However anchor text is something that is pertains to your inbound links. Alt tags is something that more pertains to your sites on page optimization. Though theoretically it would seem logical that the alt text might have some off page relevance as well. The inbound relevance of an alt tag is honesty not something I have ever looked into.

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Michael Knight May 18, 2012 at 1:41 am

Yeah, that is exactly what I was commenting on before. I would hide text in my background because much of my website info was images and logos -(esp. the band name). Without the text word on the page it wouldn’t come up in a search. Appearently optimizing your site that way is frowned upon, now. But paying big bucks to be on the 1st page is OK, whether you have the info someone is searching for or not.

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John Oszajca May 18, 2012 at 1:48 am

Yeah, it’s a frustrating situation that seems to hurt the average Joe the most. You can optimize your images with alt tags, you just can’t “over optimize” them. So an alt tag is fine with a description that has your keyword in it (assuming it pertains to the image), but stuffing those tags is bad. You can also add an image meta description. But same rules apply, you don’t want to over do it. At least, per what Google and this update is suggesting.

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Robin May 17, 2012 at 4:49 am

Yikes! I’ve got 4 sites I care about, all are at or near the top of Google for their keywords, and all are still okay – phew! None of them are making money, but I care about them for other reasons. I’ve never done much linking to my sites – just from an old blog which has a reasonable page rank. Thanks for the info, John.

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 4:56 am

Glad to hear it Robin, the fact that you didn’t do any backlink building is probably what saved you. Though my guess is that you are not talking about competitive keywords either. This mostly hurt people in competitive markets.

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Robin May 17, 2012 at 6:18 am

Yes the old blog’s keywords aren’t commercially competitive – it is more a philosophical topic. But I did put a lot of work into making it successful in its day (on blog and topic registries, lots of comments and links from other blogs, blog carnivals etc etc). And I put links on the old blog to most other things I am doing now.

I hope things get sorted out with Google – it’s scary to think what they are doing to so many businesses.

Cheers John

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Daniel May 16, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Hey John,
Thanks for sharing your experience with panda. I think it’s worth noting that other search engines are still valuable sources of traffic. I think it’s worth while to keep track of your ranking on Bing along side Google. I’m sure google will do some correction eventually, but it looks like they are also getting ready to radically change how they display the results as well. It will be interesting to see if they can pull everybody along with them, or whether they’ll jump the shark Microsoft style.

Thanks for another great, thought provoking article!

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 4:44 am

Hey Daniel,

Agreed. I personally hope Google does fall. Their getting too big for my comfort level. And I really don’t think they are returning results that are all that valueble. I’m getting pretty tired of seeing ask.com, about.com, and ehow.com, and youtube pages ranking with amateur advice over professionals in the field. Oh wait, those sites are all displaying ads within Google’s ad network. Hmmmmm.

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Michael Knight May 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm

I’ve been using Bing more often for the simple fact that Google seems to be arranging my search results according to my digital profile. About 3 months ago I googled an image of Godzilla. Now, every search I do for images, a pic of Godzilla will come up along with the results: I google a Corvette image, about halfway down the page, pic of Godzilla. Is this just my imagination? or is this really happening?

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Yeah, I hate that. there is a personalized search setting that you can turn off. It’s hard to find and most people don’t know it’s there. Here’s instructions from Google: http://support.google.com/accounts/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=54048

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Michael Knight May 18, 2012 at 1:30 am

Wow, thanks. I didn’t know you can undo it. I don’t want a view of the world that is skewed to me. I want to know what is really happening, what people are really reading and what sites are really being looked at, when I do a search.

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Powlo Duabalo May 16, 2012 at 10:28 pm

The large multi nationals all piss in the same pot, including Google. So it comes as no surprise that they conspire to dominate the net with their presence and stub out the little man. This is another example of corporate elitism and unethical business practice. F@*K GOOGLE. Great post Jon :D

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 4:45 am

Thanks Powlo, glad you liked the post. be interesting to see if my site gets wiped out after this post :-)

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Powlo Duabalo May 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I can’t find yoo on Google any more…oops.. lol :D

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Michael Knight May 16, 2012 at 5:31 pm

From 1995 – 2005, I ran the site guitar2001.com The site had a directory of links that would interest aspiring guitar players. After a few years we had over 250 traded links with other guitar heavy sites and were always on the first page of search engines, along with the big guitar magazines, when someone searched for relative terms. I always expressed to everyone that traded links was the best way to get search engine optimization without having to pay money for your placement.
Another thing I would do is hide search engine terms in the background of the web-pages. I would type terms: guitar, guitar technique, guitar shredder, etc. on the page in the same color as the background, so you wouldn’t see it, but it was there. I know, sneaky, but I had no advertising funds and needed to get the word out about my print magazine and site. It is frustrating that big business tries to dominate the only place where, at one time, everything was equal.

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Steve Rodgers May 16, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Hiding keywords in the background is exactly the kind of thing google started cracking down on years ago. However, if your actual content was relevant to the keywords you were stuffing into your page, you may have gotten away with it.

Generally speaking though, hiding or stuffing keywords is something that google will not like. According to what John posted in this article, it looks like unusual amounts of keywords in any piece of content may hurt you too, even if the content is relevant.

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Michael Knight May 16, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Yeah, I never overdid it, just 3 or 4 words that would be the way someone would put it into a search engine rather than the way it would appear on the page, especially if I used a logo or text images instead of typed words. And it was always, all, relevent. But I can see how some deceitful webmasters would abuse it. For the most part this was before the age of massive internet advertising based on page hits. Why would I want someone who wasn’t into guitar playing to come to my site/page/etc. anyway?

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Robin May 17, 2012 at 4:31 am

Hi Michael – I think Steve might be right – back in 2005 when I was trying to learn to do websites I was struggling with getting rid of a word, and wanted to solve the problem by making it the same colour as the background, and heard somewhere that this could penalise the site (it was a design issue, nothing to do with keywords).

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 4:48 am

Yeah, unfortunately that kind of keyword stuffing has been frowned upon for years. Penguin really targeted any kind of over optimization so things are really changing out there. Starting to seem safer to create 1000 spam sites than 1 real site. Such a shame to hear about all these sites with thousands of pages of content being wiped out over night for no clear reason in many cases.

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MoonChild May 16, 2012 at 4:35 pm

thanks for keeping us up to date. u make it possible to for us to concentrate more on the creation of the music :) i am so optimistic about the net though, and the power that the masses have on it that i know that this whole threat of big business overshadowing will be fizzled out…or we will just find ourselves a new google.

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 4:50 am

Thanks Moonchild, I certainly hope your right. A new search engine is sounding good right about now. Bring back Alta Vista!

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Phil Johnson May 16, 2012 at 4:00 pm

I just started getting into this stuff in the last six months or so. Haven’t done it to my main music site until I learn the ropes a little better. But I have been working on a guitar education site. By early April I had it at #5 on Google. Post Penguin it’s dropped below 500. According to Market Samurai, 1/3 of my backlinks disappeared, so that’s the biggest problem. I hadn’t been doing anything shady either. All legit links. I’m rebuilding those as well as loosening up my on page optimization a bit.

I think we’ll see some quick changes again in the next month. Especially with the FTC breathing down their necks. An algorithm that hurts good authority sites can’t really last.

What’s your thoughts on article spinning/marketing? I mean legit spun rewrites. Not garbage spam articles. Is that going to get hit next?

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 4:55 am

Hey Phil,

I’d stay away from spinning for now. I personally feel that it will work if you spin to a high percentage of uniqueness, but I wouldn’t mess with it on anything that you care about until the dust settles on this. I’d focus on legit sites like web 2.0 properties, social media, press releases, guest blog posts, etc.

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Matthew Kocel May 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Hi John,

My site has at times shown up on Google’s page 1 under the search term “sound healing”, and was usually floating around page 2 or 3.
After reading your article I checked again… and stopped searching after page 15.
Thank you for the SEO advice. Good food for thought (and action!)

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 4:57 am

Hey Mathew, really sorry to hear. Glad the article could help. Hopefully some new updates come along and correct this thing.

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Chris Dorman May 16, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Every time I take the time to read one of your blogs I learn something. And not just something to memorize but something to help put the pieces together and better understand the way of the digital world.

Thanks,
Chris

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 4:57 am

Thanks Chris. That means a lot.

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Ken Rhodes May 16, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Cool article. I have been reading your blog for a few months now, and I’m finally taking the time to comment. I’m kind of a strange outlyer in that I used to keep up on all things computer, but not long after the world wide web came online I stopped paying attention and stopped building my own computers. So, although I work as a database administrator in my “day job”, website building and SEO are still largely unfamiliar to me, mostly from lack application practice. I appreciate how your articles provide relevance to the context of a music career.

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 4:59 am

Thanks Ken,

Glad you’re digging the blog. I really appreciate the comment as well. these comments make it all worth while. It’s great to hear from you guys and hear how folks are responding to the content. Hope to see you again.

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Thomas Lichtenstein May 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Great article!
I liked the internet better when there were a bunch of search engines competing and no one really knew which would come out on top. It was harder to find stuff, and Google still seems like a better search engine than anything out there, but it definitely has an evil aura about it now.

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 5:01 am

Yeah, it’s looking that way. I don’t actually know that I think Google returns better results. Search for some kind of real advice, or even a product on Bing and see if you think it’s actually less relevant. I see some weird stuff on Google these days. They seem to have filtered out more spam, but delivered less relevant results in the process. At least to my eye. Thanks for the comment.

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Matthew Sully May 16, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Thanks John for the great article. Because of your program I have branched out into building websites and Affiliate marketing. Just when I started getting my head around it and seeing some results, Penguin slapped a few of my sites. Ouch! Everyone seems to be scrambling to find out what it all means. I think there will be a bit of wait and see.
One thing I was reading about on Google’s webmaster forum was that sites were being penalized as quality issues for having casual links to other websites they might own. So for example, if you are in several bands or promoting several albums with different sites, you should make these casual links to your other sites No Follow links. Have you heard this? Do you think this is a good idea?

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Phil Johnson May 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm

I’m not working from a huge sample by any means. But the back links that did stay effective for me were the ones between my own sites.

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 5:04 am

This has been something that Google has said was a no no for some time. It’s a good idea to have your sites on different IPs if you are going to link them together. With that said, many did it, and often it seemed to pass on PR without issues. I’m guessing it was a percentage thing, but I really don’t know on this one. I’ve always separated my IPs to be safe. Kind of silly though because it;s natural that one person would want to link all their sites together.

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Will Black May 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Great article, John.

I had wondered what the fuss was about and you summed it up nicely. Thanks, man.

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John Oszajca May 17, 2012 at 5:04 am

Thanks Will, glad you liked the post. I appreciate the comment.

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