Imagine more than half of your website traffic disappearing overnight. This nightmare scenario happened recently to numerous websites, thanks to a powerful new Google search algorithm update implemented in late April, code-named “Penguin.”

Altitude Marketing loves the new Penguin

Fred Zarahdnik (Manager, Digital Marketing) and Andrew Stanten (President) love the new Google Penguin.

Penguin inflicts hefty search ranking penalties on websites that cheat in the search rankings game. This is not new ground for Google, as they are continually fiddling with their search algorithms to deliver increasingly more accurate and relevant search results. But the Penguin update really sticks it to sites that use “black hat” SEO tactics to trick Google and its users.

The good news is, if you’ve been playing nicely by “white hat” SEO rules, your website could actually come out ahead as the gimmicked sites fall off the search rankings. But if you’ve been trying to fool the system, you could end up being pecked to death by a Penguin.

How to tell if Penguin has penalized your site

Look at your website traffic starting April 25, 2012. If it has gone down noticeably compared to previous months, you may be getting penalized. If your traffic is holding steady, you are safe from being penalized by this update. And if traffic has actually increased (as it has on some of the sites we’ve developed), congratulations! Your hard work is being rewarded as the schemers fall by the wayside.

“We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and [Penguin] represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content,” Google wrote on its Webmaster Central blog on April 24. “While we can’t divulge specific signals because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high quality sites that create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods instead of engaging in aggressive webspam tactics.”

Playing by the SEO rules takes more thought, planning and effort, but it’s the only way to keep website traffic on a positive track. And it’s the right thing to do – for both you and your clients.

Key targets of the Penguin update

We found a number of good sources that have conducted in-depth research and deduced what Penguin’s been doing – and how to best manage sites according to the rules of effective SEO. Dr. Peter Meyers of the leading SEO site SEOmoz has identified three primary black hat tactics most affected by Penguin.

Artificially high numbers of inbound links to your site, including identical anchor text. For example, if you sell blue widgets, and there are thousands of links coming into your site – and/or multiple links from individual pages within your site – that use the words “blue widgets” as the linked text, your site is at risk.

Overuse of exact-match domains. If you are using multiple domain names that contain common search terms – such as blue-widgets-now.com, blue-widgets-pa.com, cheap-blue-widgets.com – to publish sites with low-quality content and link-heavy copy, your site is at risk.

Low-quality article marketing and blog spam. If you subscribe to an outsource service or a black hat SEO company that places hundreds of low-quality “articles” around the web that include spammy links back to your site, your site is at risk.

How to optimize for search without getting penalized

First, if you feel that your site has been unfairly penalized by Google, you may complete a reconsideration form posted by Google at goo.gl/klCZG.

Also, be sure to check with the technical expert who manages your website. Google significantly stepped up its warnings to webmasters preceding Penguin. If your tech team has Google warnings on file, you should know about them and their contents.

As a good starting point, consider Google’s own quality guidelines:

Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users, or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as “cloaking.”

Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. Every business owner has been tempted by unscrupulous shortcuts, and search engine ranking is no different. You’ll be wooed by many a black hat SEO company promising you first-page rankings and skyrocketing traffic – but at what cost? You may get more traffic, but much of it will be unqualified – a complete waste of your time. But more importantly, the web isn’t the Wild West any more. Today it’s a full-fledged society with rules, checks and balances. Ask yourself, “Would I operate my business this way if search engines didn’t exist?”

Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.

Don’t use unauthorized computer programs to submit pages, check rankings, etc. Such programs consume computing resources and violate Google’s terms of service.

At Altitude Marketing, we’ve long been believers in doing SEO right. We are proponents of an integrated approach to SEO that builds search rank based on useful content, strong media relations work, quality inbound links from partners and other affinity sites. It takes more thought, planning and effort, but it’s the only way to keep website traffic on a positive track. And it’s the right thing to do – for our own clients, and for our client’s prospects and customers.