Penguin and negative SEO

20 September 2012

If your friends and acquaintances have started to mutter darkly into their beer about pandas and penguins, then the chances are that they run, manage or are responsible for search engine rankings of websites, and they have not developed a sudden, slightly disturbing and intense dislike of all cute creatures black and white, for Panda and Penguin are the code names given to the algorithmic changes introduced by Google in its method to rank websites in the index. I hazard a guess that most searchers are oblivious to the mighty storm caused by these changes in the relatively large teacup of webmasters and SEOs (search engine optimizers): sometimes people may notice that a website that used to be at the top of Google search results is no longer there, and may wonder why, but that would probably be the extent of the interest. It, however, matters greatly for website owners, therefore businesses, as more and more customers are finding their products and services via the internet, and that often means potential customers typing in a few words related to the products and services in search engines. Appearing as close to the top is important. Ask yourself: when was the last time that you clicked through to the third page of the search results to find the thing you wanted?

There are many interested parties in getting the search engine results right: there are the searchers who are looking for something, Google and other search engines that wish to provide the results that the searchers would find most useful, website owners who wish to gain custom, and SEOs who work on behalf of the website owners to make the site appear as high as possible in the search results. Search engines will naturally put the interests and desires of the searchers first, since dissatisfied searchers may use other search engines. Site owners and SEOs wish their sites to appear as high as possible in the search results. For this reason, the relationship between search engines and SEOs has not always been harmonious, especially when SEOs attempt to influence the search results by various dubious tricks of the trade, rather than helping the website owners get the most out of their sites.

I am not an expert in SEO (this time: search engine optimization), but an interested observer, and from what I have read and understood, Panda primarily addresses the issues of the overall quality of the website, not individual pages within websites, and changed the rankings of the site accordingly. The effect is severe, since the website is seen as of low quality, and all pages therein are punished, and pushed lower in the search results. However, most of the issues are on-site, in other words, they would be something that the site owners can attempt to rectify.

Penguin addresses issues that are closely related to over-optimization, or using less-than-wholesome means, tricks and techniques (black-hat SEO) to increase the rankings on Google search results, and a part of which had been based on garnering links from other sites. Links were treated as votes of confidence, as it were, and putting it in an extremely simplistic manner, the more links there were pointing to a page, the higher that page ranked. Links were never the sole the factor, but they were the easiest to create in volume and easy to quantify: I think it would be fair to say that anyone who runs a blog or a site has received spam e-mails for links, whether reciprocal, 3-way, 4-way, or Ponzi schemes, as well as unsolicited e-mails telling how the blog or the site is underperforming and employing the services of the senders of these junk e-mails will make it rank far higher, even number 1.

Basically an unregulated profession, people can put themselves forward as experts without being experts, and operate from boiler rooms. Unfortunately, the irresponsible actions of the untrained have stained the reputation of the whole sector. This is a shame, since a good SEO is invaluable and indispensable for businesses, and a good SEO takes what may be termed a holistic approach in improving the site’s ranking, rather than deploying the techniques to rank the site better regardless of its quality. Some business owners, it seems, understand the importance of the web, even if ignorant of how it works, yet reluctant to do research or pay appropriate sums, but trust that the cheapest bidder to do a proper job. There are also DIY SEOs, who will trust and implement whatever tricks they find on blogs. Anyway, for too long, there were SEOs who saw themselves as pure link builders, and proudly advertised themselves as such, and went forth to spam links in all sorts of places, such as footers or blog comments.

Penguin took aim, among others, at links that were not genuine, i.e. links that were placed artificially by the webmasters or the SEOs they hired with the primary intent of pushing up the rankings of a site. There are two competing schools of thoughts about bad links and how Penguin affects the sites with bad links: it centres on the question, whether Google punishes dodgy links or merely ignores them. In other words, does Google not only discount the inflated effects of the bad links which had hitherto given positive weight, but also impose punitive measures in addition, which results in the site ranking much lower than merely the loss of the weight the bad links once had? Or, does it simply disregard the inflated effects? If the former, then it raises the possibility of negative SEO: because anyone can post links to another site, and if ‘bad’ links lead to punitive measures by Google, then it would be possible to lower the ranks of the competition by creating lots of bad links to the competitors’ sites. At least that’s the theory. If the latter – that Penguin merely disregards the ‘bad’ links – then negative SEO does not exist. It would also mean that there is no scope for ‘recovery’ as such, because there is no punitive element to recover from, and the sites that ‘suffered’ from Penguin now rank where they always ought to have ranked. It was just Google could not distinguish good links from the bad before, but it could do so now. As a third possibility, Penguin might be both, in that sometimes Penguin can be punitive, especially when the problem is on the site thus under the control of and rectifiable by the website owner, and not at other times: only Google knows.

In addition to algorithmic changes, of which there are many others aside from Panda and Penguin, Google takes manual actions on certain sites, and these are, it is reckoned, punitive measures that can be pretty severe. The really interesting and possibly unanswerable question is: how intertwined are Penguin and manual penalty? In other words: can Penguin in any way induce a manual penalty? If so, negative SEO may still be a possibility, even if Penguin does not have a punitive element.

If negative SEO were successful to the degree that some people think or like to believe, thereby portraying themselves as victims of injustice, then there would be a war of attrition and mutual destruction, and it would be a subject in academic papers based on game theory and brinkmanship, as victims seek retaliation. There is something deeply unsettling about negative SEO as a theory, and those who seek to conduct a negative SEO campaign. There is a huge difference between employing underhanded methods to push up one’s own results, and actually intending and doing harm to others’ rankings. It is without a doubt ethically wrong, but perhaps legally too. There is real financial damage to the victim, and intended as such by the perpetrator. Lawyers are very good at seeing but also creating problems so as to profit from them, and perhaps there is a case lurking in it. Somewhat farcically, someone can hire an inept SEO to do link building with the intention of harming a competitor: the hired SEO does link building, believing in good faith, that that is what the client wishes.

Negative SEO may well not exist and the debate will continue, but the fear of negative SEO does, and it is quite pervasive. There does seem to be a number of operators playing on this fear, and selling various services. But I suppose it is still true to say that rather than worrying or blaming what others are doing or might be doing, webmasters’ and SEOs’ time is probably better spent on what they can do.