I’m going to write a few articles about the history and background a a few of Google’s more serious updates, starting with Google penguin. These are designed to give website owners an idea of Google’s philosophy and strategy as well as a broader understanding of the tactics and techniques Google employs when considering the value of your content.
Penguin in effect meant Google went to war on a massive scale with webspam. While at Stanford University Sergey Brin Wrote a document entitled ‘The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine‘, this document provided the blueprint for the creation of Google and outlined how he and Larry Page would engineer a ranking system for web pages. It’s explicitly stated within that links and the anchor text of those links would play a part in how Google went about ranking web pages referring to this process as backrub, at that time a link from one page to another was an endorsement for its quality, one person recommending a piece of content or information; almost like votes.
Ergo Pagerank worked on the theory that the more votes a page got, the safer it was to infer the relevance of the page (which was true at the time). Furthermore, they went on to analyse the anchor text of those links and treat them as votes for that content to be relevant to the text of that link. Over time online marketers got wise to how they could create fake links going from one page to another to make their content appear to have more authority than it actually has and the the principals by which Google had created their algorithm were not as sound as when they were first written, they needed to change in order to protect the integrity of their search results. Over time Google introduced other ranking factors to try and improve and maintain their quality with varying degrees of success, alongside this they moved to try and engage with website owners more and convey the message that things should be done correctly by creating Google’s webmaster guidelines. The guidelines would state that selling links is forbidden and websites found to be selling links would face punishment for doing so. Unfortunately for Google they didn’t really follow this strategy up with any real passion and website owners and online marketers saw no real change in the relatively quick and easy tactics used by unscrupulous marketing companies breaking these rules and seeing no real punishment. During this time there was real resentment by those using “white hat” techniques (within Google’s guidelines) towards those using “black hat” techniques as they were getting better results despite breaking the rules laid out by Google.
Google’s penguin update was designed to shift this battle once and for all by using the data Google had about the links going into a site to make a judgement on whether those links were natural (put there by users) or unnatural (put there by the website owner). If the links were judged to be unnatural then that would lead to a punishment (penalty) for that website owner ranging from lowering their ranking to removing their site from Google altogether. The problem many people felt with this is it was a radical departure in strategy (punishing the buyer) and many website owners were unprepared for this shift. Many businesses found their website suddenly dropping in Google having no idea why. They may have perhaps used a poor quality marketing company in the past who used bad practices and left them with a penalty they neither knew about or understood. There was also initially very little chance to appeal or get any information about what was wrong and how to put it right, this has largely changed now with Google providing data via Google webmaster tools that can largely assist any investigation into a Google penalty. For the future there is also the question of manipulation of this strategy, what is to prevent dishonest online marketers from deliberately pointing unnatural links at competitors and sabotaging their sites?
In general I believe that penguin provided more questions than answers but in a broad sense it did stop a proportion of unnatural link building, although it hardly protects the small business man who doesn’t really understand the web and is told buying links is the way to go. What I do think has changed as a result of penguin is that its now fundamental for any business that wants to have an online presence to have a degree of knowledge about search, innocence is no protection and no defence and so without understanding the work that’s being carried out (either by yourself or by another party) any website owner runs the risk of causing real damage to their Google rankings.