Tuesday, August 21, 2012

SEO - Panda and the Penguins

I am now at this point 2 weeks into my position based in San Francisco and am finding myself in need of expressing my deepest concerns with how the SEO industry has been representing itself. During my first week on the job I found several questionable SEO strategies implemented on the main site that I was hired to work on. In addition, I have found very aggressive techniques for link building provided by the agency hired roughly a year ago. I'm not going to name the name's of the people or agency involved to spare them, but I will get into some detail of what was done so that we can all learn from the experience.

Panda and Penguin

To precursor what I am about to discuss, there have been some fairly recent massive updates to the Google algorithms that have caused cries heard around the world by SEO's. Those updates would be what is now known as Panda and Penguin. To help you get a better idea of what Panda and Penguin mean for SEO (no they aren't the cute bear or birds we know from the Discover Channel), check out the High-quality sites algorithm goes global, incorporates user feedback post on April 11, 2011 by Amit Singhal to the Google Webmaster Blog, and Another step to reward high-quality sites posted by Matt Cutts on April 24, 2012 (nearly one year later).  In general, what the updates themselves are about is to target websites that are "optimizing" content for the sole purpose of getting rankings, and apply techniques in link building that focus just on links, rather than quality content referring to their website.

Findings

The company I work for has hired the esteemed Laura Lippay (in addition to the agency) to bring another level of expertise to the very important SEO that drives a very large percentage of revenue to the site. In Laura's evaluation she found many odd links pointing to the website, and more specifically a large amount to lower level pages within the site. There is also a numerous amount of links from one page to the next, and content that seems to be fairly cookie cutter that doesn't quite make sense to the user. The links in particular Laura had asked about several times, with little to no response from the agency. Given that there was a lot more to be done with the site, Laura decided to focus on more important efforts.

Enter SEOGoddess...

Laura showed me what she had found in her early days working with the company and I began to dig a bit further. As she was showing me, I noticed that the content linking from random sites that had absolutely nothing to do with the site they were linking to (for example: a hair advice website linking to a data processing website - note: example has nothing to do with the site I am working on, but is a similar scenario) all seemed to be very much in the same. Each and every one of the pages of content also had a standard last paragraph with a couple of sentences containing 2 links with the most aggressive key terms in them. hmmmm (I thought).. Laura copied the first couple of sentences and searched for them in Google. One of the hundreds of results looked like an article submission domain. We clicked to it, and looked around. Lo and behold, it was an article submission site, and the article that was submitted (among several others) was represented by our company's website brand. The articles were submitted around the time the agency was hired to work on SEO.  Laura grabbed the screenshots for me to email to the agency. While Laura was talking with another staff with the company I went to the agency's website to see if I could get a better idea of how they approach SEO. From the home page I clicked "What We DO" in their navigation and proceeded to the "Link Building" section of their website. From there they listed an article "Five Surefire Ways to Build Links and Increase Traffic to Your Website or Blog" - in the article the #1 surefire way: "Article Marketing" which then lists out websites they submit articles to, including the one Laura and I had found. I went to my desk and emailed the agency. Not asking if they knew anything about the article submission, but I simply showed them what I found, how I found it, and then cited the article on their website leaving them no room to neither deny, or to not respond.

Getting Help from a Friend

While drafting up the email to the agency, I wanted to make sure I was approaching the issue the best way possible. I know that Bruce Clay had talked about Link Cleanup that he has done for his clients while he was at my Search and Social Hawaii last September 2011. Bruce had advised one of our attendees in an open forum discussion that his staff would ask the websites to remove the links. In some cases he was having to pay them to remove the links, and some were just outright difficult to deal with. While I am in the process of restructuring the website I thought "Why not 404 the URLs that the sites are linking to, while I change the URL structure?" But before I go down the road (well not so easy considering some of them have good quality links, and determining which ones could stay and which would go would be a chore all its own.) I asked Bruce what he thought our best strategy would be. He of course replied with recommending that we evaluate the links pointing to the site, and which pages.

His words exactly:
How important is the target landing page?
If home page you may be stuck.
If a sub-page, then an article in our newsletter on link pruning... http://www.bruceclay.com/newsletter/volume102/link-pruning-procedure.htmIt is hard, tedious work, especially since many junk sites are easily offended by de-link requests.

After my response, he mentioned that we could add the pages that we no longer cared about to the robots.txt and Google would then make the appropriate adjustments (in short). Perhaps I should write another blog post on link removal strategy and best practices.

Inspired Blog Posts and Conversations

Bruce Clay

 on May 24, 2012 inspired by the email discussion he and I had gone through as a result of the work the agency had done. After he shared it to the SEO Group on Facebook it sparked quite a lot of comments around how our industry should be policing themselves to use better strategies.
Bruce mentions in his blog post:
I believe that SEOs who openly engage in a practice that was always doomed are intentionally harming their clients, and this is grossly unethical. bottom: 0px; padding-left: 0px; padding-right: 0px; padding-top: 0px; text-align: left; vertical-align: baseline;"> What’s even more unfortunate for site owners is that the repair on their sites with paid links usually costs more than the original damage. If a site owner spent $200 per month to buy links, they’ll likely spend 10 times that to correct damage bad links have caused, plus the loss of business until it’s fixed. The easy way out has led to a long, hard road to repair. The demand for an SEO penalty audit service is very high now, and the cost is significant – perhaps hundreds of hours (we happen to know; we offer a cleanup service ourselves). For example, if you are a well-known brand and your site has sufficient value, the repair can begin with just link pruning. However, if your site was based solely on paid links, it’s also very likely you won’t have enough quality content to rank even after fixing the link damage.
The Facebook post by Bruce sparked many 'Like's and over 75 comments. The discussion even started questioning and debating SEMPO's involvement in ensuring that agencies stay on the up-and-up.

Laura Lippay

On June 1, 2012 Laura Lippay posted her blog post "Is Your SEO Putting Your Company at Risk of Losing Everything? Take the quiz." in response to the article posting we had found. In her post she listed out a few questions to ask your agency to ensure they are on the up-and-up:
Does your SEO:
  1. Build content for the purpose of attracting search engines? [yes] [no]
  2. Report primarily on keyword rankings? [yes] [no] 
  3. Seem to always only have good news (but are eerily quiet when search traffic dips)? [yes] [no]
  4. Engage in massive linking campaigns, building gobs of meaningless links to your content from splogs and directories that no one really visits (especially your target audiences)? [yes] [no]
  5. Sending traffic to your pages by any means necessary? [yes] [no] [no idea (most people don't)]
If you said yes to any of those I’m going to ask you to think real hard about this for a second: Would you rather fire your agency or lay off your staff?

I had shared Laura's post to the same SEO Group on Facebook that Bruce had posted to and once again, the comments flew.  This time the discussion went in a different direction, instead of going after SEMPO the discussion seemed to go into the direction of name dropping and a bit of a back and forth banter between Adam John Humphreys and John S. Britsios.  The comments on what group members are seeing from SEO's is almost discouraging (though at this point I'm nearly out of shock).

Keep checking the group to see what SEO's are saying, or even post a comment yourself.

In conclusion

What the agency did for our website wasn't entirely a bad thing at the time. Of course it is now with the Panda and Penguin updates knocking all these linking strategy SEO's off their perch, but if you look at any Agency I guarantee you will find that each and every one of them have "Link Building" (or the like) listed as one of their services. In fact - if I do a search on Google right now (not logged in) I see a list of paid search results in which the first links to an agency that lists "link Building" right there on the landing page. The second is another agency that lists out "Directory Listings", "Link Acquisitions", "Press Releases", and "Link Bait" as part of the strategy they provide for SEO.  
In fact moz.org (a trusted resource for all SEO's) even recommends directory submissions as a way to obtain links in their "Professional Guide to Link Building" Copyrighted in 2010 (just 2 years ago) Stating:
Directories
Directories can be a great way to obtain links. There are a large number of directories out there, and they may or may not require money in order to obtain a listing. Examples of high quality directories that are free include:
   Librarian's Internet Index
   Open Directory Project (aka DMOZ)
Examples of high quality directories which require a fee are:
   Yahoo! Directory
   Business.com
   Best of the Web
A more comprehensive list of directories is available from Strongest Links.

As I explained to my boss and our General Manager the agency was doing what they felt was a good SEO strategy. They were acting on what every SEO agency, respected leaders, and common practice that our industry has been allowing for many years. They hadn't done anything wrong really. 
I had even told the agency that I don't care who did it or why it was done, what I care about is that we get it cleaned up and move forward from here.

A Shift in Thinking

What we need to do now is shift our thinking back to what SEO was originally about before SEO's started finding ways to get quick results. Create a website that is user friendly and present your product or service to your audience in a way that makes sense to them. Don't only give them what they are searching for, but simply follow the rules that ensure the site will get crawled, that your key terms are available in an easily digestible manner, and your website is organized and structured so that every page is easily crawled. (of course there is so much more than that - but you get the general idea).
When people ask me "Can I do X to my site to generate rankings?" My answer is more often than not; "If you are thinking of doing something with the sole purpose to generate rankings... Then don't do it."

The Future of SEO

As a result of the Panda and Penguin updates I am sure we will start to see agencies list "Linking Cleanup" as a service they provide. Heck, Bruce Clay himself offers an "SEO Penalty Assessment Service" in which he evaluates and offers linking cleanup for clients (which is why I asked him for the advice in the first place). 
My hope is that we start to see less spamming of comments to our blogs, less random directories showing up in search results, and more quality content when we search for that special item we want to buy, or continue to do research online.