The two biggest names in search penalties for the last several years are Panda and Penguin. These normally-kindly animals see the Internet in black and white; they have rules they follow, and if you break them, your ranking goes kaput.
It’s happened to thousands of sites before, and it will keep happening to sites in the future. Each time Google updates their algorithm to advance Panda or Penguin by a step, every site that skirted the line, doing the barest minimum to pass by unnoticed, will be taken down a notch or ten. It’s the horror story of any webmaster; logging in to Google Analytics and seeing your traffic tank overnight.
If you’ve been affected by Penguin or Panda recently, how can you take action? How can you identify the penalty, fix the issue and restore your ranking?
Identify the Penalty
Before you can even begin to figure out what’s wrong with your site and how to fix it, you need to know what penalty hit it. You have, essentially, three options we’re discussing here.
1. A Google Panda penalty.
2. A Google Penguin penalty.
3. An unrelated penalty.
So, you’re going to need to diagnose if it was a penalty that hit you, and if so, what penalty. First, you need to log in to Google Analytics and dig into your traffic sources. Sort to show only organic Google traffic. Did it drop abruptly, or has it been on a slow decline? If the decline is slow, you weren’t hit by a penalty. Penalties are characterized by an abrupt, cliff-like drop from the rankings.
Now, was it a Panda penalty, a Penguin penalty, or some other penalty? One thing you can do is check a site like Moz or Matt Cutts’ Twitter account, to see if Google released an update the same day as your traffic drop. If they did, this will tell you which penalty hit you. If Panda updated the same day, well, you have a Panda penalty. It’s simple.
If you don’t have data or can’t find supporting algorithm updates, you can check a few warning signs of each of the penalty types.
• Panda hates duplicate content, thin content and low quality content. Log in to Google’s webmaster tools and check the HTML improvements menu. This will show you, for example, if you have a selection of duplicate titles across your site. It’s possible this is the case even if you don’t realize it; some e-commerce suites are terrible at managing titles. This is a Panda Penalty symptom.
• Penguin hates unnatural links, overly optimized anchor text and links from bad domains. You can diagnose this in a few ways, from Fruition’s tool to Ahrefs. If you have ever purchased links from Fiverr or another site, it’s probably that you were hit by a Penguin penalty.
The Fruition tool will help diagnose Panda penalties as well, but it’s prone to false positives. Essentially, it’s comparing the rises and falls in your traffic with known dates for algorithm updates, and will show you if there’s a correlation. If, for example, you had a significant dip in traffic when Panda updated, it might mean you had a Panda penalty, or it might mean your traffic was dipping anyway and the shakeup in the rankings pushed your site down enough to affect it indirectly. Take the results with a grain of salt.
Fixing a Panda Penalty
As mentioned above, Panda is targeting content duplication and content quality. First, identify any issues you have with duplicate content.
In some cases, something in your site configuration is creating and indexing duplicate pages. For example, if your site stores a user session ID in the URL, every unique session ID would be treated as a new page with duplicate content. This includes every time the Googlebot visits your page. This isn’t a common issue, but it shows you what to look for. Run a site search for your website, “site:www.example.com” and see how many pages come up. If you have a small site and thousands of pages are showing up, you have an issue.
You will need to identify why those duplicates are being generated. This is often an issue with a setting in the way URLs are handled. You can talk with your site developer about the issue; they should know how to fix it. Whenever possible, implement a canonical URL for any page that generates duplicates. This essentially tells Google that you realize your site is generating duplicate URLs for the same page, but they’re really all X page, don’t worry about it.
Thin content is a bit harder to diagnose. It’s usually found in ecommerce pages, where product descriptions are short and provide little of value. That’s why many webshops today have long descriptions, banks of images, deep option selection menus and user reviews all on the same page.
Another common offender is if you have a long FAQ set up on your site, with each question and answer pair residing on their own URL. No single question and answer is going to be deep and detailed enough – most of the time – to count as valuable content. Google doesn’t consider the FAQ as a whole, when it’s spread across many pages.
To fix thin content, you need to examine each page and determine how best to make that information more valuable. In some cases, you can roll the page in with other pages, and redirect the old URL via 301 redirect. In other cases, you will be able to add information to the existing page. In some rare cases you will be best off deleting the page and redirecting to your homepage.
Fixing a Penguin Penalty
As mentioned, Penguin hates bad and unnatural links. The first step to solving this problem is to identify if you have unnatural links. A tool like Ahrefs, which pulls your entire backlink profile, will give you a solid list of links. You can see quality estimations of those links, but you’re going to have to go through the profile manually. If you have a few hundred links, this is tedious but not too bad. If you have thousands of backlinks, it’s going to be a problem.
Ideally, you’ll want to export your backlinks into a table you can work with. Any URL you know is a legitimate site, strip from the database; those links are okay to keep. After that, start visiting links. Any legitimate page, pull from your database to keep. Any page that is obviously spam, note down.
Once you’re done with this process, you’ll be left with a document full of all of your poor quality incoming links. You’re going to want to run this list through Google’s Disavow Links tool. This tells Google that you don’t endorse those links and that they shouldn’t count against you.
You can also work to get those links removed, by contacting webmasters, but this is generally a futile endeavor. Spam webmasters aren’t likely to care about your pleas for a good link profile.