Love it or loathe it, Google's search algorithm updates are a fact of life.
[Learn more about SEO: 6 Essential Small Business SEO Tips]
Many webmasters and search engine optimization (SEO) experts relish the notion of formulating new content and website management strategies. Typical small business owners, on the other hand, are generally concerned about how any change will affect their website's search engine rankings.
Google Updates Its Penguin Algorithm
Last month, Google rolled out a major update to its Penguin algorithm, which weeds out so-called webspam tactics like keyword stuffing and sketchy link tactics. Like Panda, a companion algorithm that rewards websites with high-quality content, Penguin helps Google to improve the quality of its search results and thus help people find precisely the information they're looking for faster.
Now at version 4.0, the biggest change affecting the Penguin algorithm is that it now operates in real-time. Gary Illyes, a Google webmaster trends analyst, explains the change in a blog post:
"Historically, the list of sites affected by Penguin was periodically refreshed at the same time. Once a webmaster considerably improved their site and its presence on the Internet, many of Google's algorithms would take that into consideration very fast, but others, like Penguin, needed to be refreshed. With this change, Penguin's data is refreshed in real time, so changes will be visible much faster, typically taking effect shortly after we re-crawl and re-index a page."
Now that Penguin can adjust search rankings practically on-the-fly, what does it mean for small business owners and webmasters? Small Business Computing spoke with Michael Bertini, search strategist and an expert on Google's algorithm at iQuanti, a digital marketing and advertising firm.
Here's what you need to know.
Real-Time SEO Innovation (with Some Reservations)
Now that there's little-to-no-wait between the time Penguin evaluates and ranks websites, unintentionally bad links are less likely to hurt a site's ranking for prolonged periods of time, said Bertini.
If a webmaster or SEO specialist "works with hundreds, thousands—or even hundreds of thousands—of links, it becomes difficult to vet every link," he added. Penguin's new up-to-the-minute focus "allows you to make a change to your link profile and see how Google responds in real-time." That gives website owners a lot more leeway to hone their linking strategies.
But with this newfound leeway comes the potential for misdeeds.
"I don't see this as a beneficial change for small businesses and quality SEO," said Bertini. "I can see how it will be great for blackhat SEOs, because it gives them more freedom to test shady backlinks and to see how Google responds as they create them."
Avoid Google's Penalty Box
Bertini suggests hiring a link-building analyst to vet a website's link profile. "Many businesses have—and are completely unaware of—bad links pointing to their sites," he said. "Just remember link clean-up is a surgical process so be careful. When in doubt don't disavow."
And if you do end up in the penalty box, carefully review the list of referring domains and analyze their quality. One way to do this is to evaluate domains from Google's vantage point and to pull up a suspect's site keyword rankings.
"If a site linking to you has a domain rating of 49+ and it only ranks for 20 terms, chances are they are doing something that Google doesn't like," Bertini cautioned. "If you have a high DA [Domain Authority] and no rankings, chances are Google just sees you as a site with spammy links pointing [toward your site]. Keep in mind that there are many other signals that contribute to a bad link."
Stay SEO Vigilant
Though based on cold machine logic, the Penguin algorithm may prove maddeningly fickle or outright spiteful for webmasters that are caught unaware.
"Focus on quality sites when you want to get or keep links," Bertini suggested as a way to avoid Penguin's wrath. "While some sites might seem kosher now, that might not always be the case."
If anything, experience has taught him that there's no such thing as "set-it-and-forget-it" when it comes to SEO. "I've seen many sites that go for years without being penalized for having horrific links; one day they get caught, and it's all downhill from there. Don't wait until the last minute, be proactive."
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Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.
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