On October 4th, Google unveiled Penguin 2.1.   Penguin is the code name for a Google algorithm update that first appeared on April 24th 2011.   The update aimed to penalize sites that had violated Google’s webmaster guidelines in regards to linking practices.   That first update squashed the worst abusers, sites that had used private BLOG networks to artificially inflate the number of high page rank links they were getting.   This update was huge in that it was the first time Google addressed off site linking in a systematic way.   It has been reported that Google sent notices of unnatural link patterns to over 1 million webmasters.

Google had always maintained that links should occur naturally and that it was a violation of their guidelines to manipulate the number of links for ranking purposes.   However, aggressive linking schemes became the norm and in many competitive industries it was required in order to be able to rank on the top of Google search results.

As someone who had been selling link packages for years (first with a major legal website company and then my own company) the first Penguin update was a jarring event.   To me it was clear that Google was taking an important step in evening out the battlefield.   Prior to Penguin it was common to see the top legal websites in a competitive area have 20,000 links coming to it.   Despite Google’s stated  goal, adding lots of contextual links clearly worked for a long period of time.

Who Got Hit in Penguin 2.1
It is clear that websites with low quality backlinksin their profile were casualties of Penguin 2.1   This includes low quality directories that were created solely for ranking purposes and provide no actual value to the web.  Additionally, blogroll spam, comment spam and other low quality links were targeted quite effectively by this update.     It could be argued that in order to increase your web presence, a webmaster should make you visible in as many web directories as possible – particularly if the directory was relevant to the law.   The problem was that thousands of these directories were created with the sole purpose of adding links.  Additionally, many of these sites lowered the quality of their directories overtime so what may have been a respectable directory turned into a site that allowed submissions to any and every site that applied to be listed.   Unlike authoritative legal directories like www.avvo.com, www.lawyers.com, www.findlaw.com that actually had an audience and try to provide a great user experience, directories like www.urlshack.com or  http://www.listintodirectory.com/ have no other purpose other than to add links to your site.

The issue is compounded when the links from these directories contain keywords as the title of their listing as opposed to the actual name of the company.   This is a clear sign that the use of these directories was to manipulate SEO and are unnatural

Here is an example of an attorney who was penalized for the existence of these types of links.   As you can see 5% of their links contained the phrase “Arizona Estate Planning Attorney” and were mostly from these junk directories.

The firm above had done SEO with a major legal website firm for several years – to great success.   While they stopped this type of SEO more than a year ago, their junky link profile has caught up with them and the results have been disastrous to their ranking.

While these types of links have been devalued by Google for well over a year – the latest Penguin update actually penalized them for it.

How Do you Know if you were affected by Penguin?
The Penguin updates are pretty easy to spot.   If you see sharp drops in traffic or ranking that correspond to the 5 major Penguin updates you are likely affected.   ALSO if you used a “Search engine optimization” firm that promised a certain amount of links every month – you are likely going to be in big trouble.   From my experience this will likely be huge SEO companies that needed to scale SEO across thousands of sites or very small SEO companies that don’t have the resources to help you build links naturally.

Are You Safe
There are some sites that I know that employed these tactics that have not been penalized YET.   This does not mean they are safe – just that they weren’t caught in this latest update.    For example two firms with the exact same linking package from the same SEO company – may have seriously different link profiles.    Firm A may have gotten 95% percent of their total number of links from those directory submissions, which would make their link profile look incredibly spammy.  The other firm may have the same spammy directory links, its just that their link profile is more balanced, with a lot more quality links to counter act the affects.   That said we recommend that anyone with these links remove them immediately as you can count on Google to try an penalize sites that rely on low quality links to rank high in their search results.

Moving Forward
This latest update has some serious implications.   For one Google is holding sites accountable for past transgressions.   If you were affected by this or other Penguin updates, your site has lost a lot of trust with Google.   There are two ways you can help regain that trust:

1)  Remove your Links and replace low quality links with links trusted by Google
2)  Produce “linkworthy” content that will attract strong natural links because the content is so good.

 Removing Bad Links
The first step in removing links is to figure which links are bad and which ones are good.   Google still relies on evaluating trusted links as part of their ranking algorithm so it is imperative that you don’t take down links that are helping you.   So the most important step here is to perform a thorough link analysis.   This is where a credible SEO company goes through every link and determines which ones need to be removed.

Once you have identified which links need to go, you then need to hire a link removal company.   A link removal company will attempt to contact the webmasters from the sites that are sending you bad links.   A credible removal company will typically send 3 emails to each webmaster.   This of course does not mean they will come down.  Often these directories are no longer managed or the emails are ignored.  Only after you have made a good faith effort to remove, should you then employ Google’s Link Disavow tool.   However, it’s important to understand that using the Disavow tool is not a “get out of jail free” card and will not automatically restore your rankings.  At this point there is no timetable for recovery and that is why so many businesses are choosing to start fresh with a new domain.   That may be the smartest option for you depending on your overall link profile.

Link Worthy Content
Some will say that changes like Penguin 2.1 point to the downfall of SEO.  Not so!  Great SEO, the type we practice at iLawyermarketing, remains very important.   In fact if your site has lost trust from Google it is imperative that your site begins to regain trust by attracting great links from authoritative sites.   So how do you do that?    Quite simply you need to build great content that is truly link worthy – that is, content that will make people want to link to your site.  After that it takes “outreach” to make other people aware of the great content you created.

For example, we created a July 4th Safety infographic for one of our SEO clients.   This visually stunning and easy to read infographic was picked up by social media and numerous important websites.   People actually wanted to read this and share with others.  The resultant links they gained had a huge effect on the ranking of their site.   Of course creating amazing content pieces that people will want to link too takes an enormous amount of hard work, creativity and public outreach.   This is exactly why I came to iLawyermarketing.   For 8 years, ilawyermarketing has been doing SEO the right way.   They never outsourced SEO or used automated link building services and most importantly they always tried to adhere to Google’s guidelines.   Put simply our SEO approach is to create beautiful websites that (look better than your competitors) and also contain “link worthy” content. Then we outreach month in and month out to make others aware of that content so it can be linked to or shared socially by other websites. While this method of SEO sometimes takes longer than the techniques used by companies using automated link building tactics, it often pays off with the high rankings that almost all of our clients have on Google. Our SEO campaigns that are geared to withstand any future Google Penguin updates because we build links the right way. While many companies fear updates like Google Penguin, iLawyerMarketing looks forward to them because it often means improved rankings for our clients.

I feel terrible that this latest update will negatively affect so many attorneys.   As I mentioned, I sold “link packages” to attorneys for several years at another company because that was what was recommended by our so called SEO experts.   Relative to what many of our competitors were doing, I felt adding directory links was a down right conservative SEO technique and essential to keep up with the competition.    (a family lawyer who once dominated in Phoenix had well over 5 million links!)   Well today it is clear that Google will no longer tolerate this type of aggressive link building and attorneys should definitely take heed.