Penguins Just Gotta Be Me

One penguin in a crowd singing "I just gotta be me!"

Credit – Gary Larson

Google’s Penguin came out and a lot of people got hammered, hard, by the changes. Penguin is the name of their new/updated algorithm, and it seems to have a lot to do with backlinks.

Backlinks are when other people link to you. Pretty straightforward, but now it appears that people are being penalized for backlinks. Is this true? Yes and no. Google used to credit you for all sites that linked back to you, so the more popular you were, the more referral credit you got, the higher you were ranked, and that seems fair. Now, Google’s no longer passing through backlinks from spammers, so your referrals are dropping and people are being ‘penalized.’ But not really. That’s almost like saying you’re getting fewer phone calls after all the telemarketers stopped calling. Yes, you are, but you’re now not getting junk calls, and the ones you are getting are higher quality. The theory here is that everyone is now being judged fairly again, and by omitting the bad people from giving credit, you’ve leveled the playing field. Nice theory. It still feels pretty horrible to find your rankings dropped.

How do you find what happened to your rankings? Search Engine Journal has a lengthy explanation, but it boils down to looking at your Google Organic traffic and see if you have noticable drops on April 19th, 25th and 27th. That covers both Panda and Penguin.

But what caused it? Is it legit drops or unfair ones? That’s really something easily argued in multiple directions. The basic reason is something in your site, or in your site’s backlinks, has been determined to be spam. It sure feels unfair, because how can you be expected to do anything about what other people are doing! They’re the spammers, not you, why are you punished? Again, tis the great equalizer. If you remove all the bad links, what you’re left with may be a lower ranking, but it’s possibly a more honest and accurate one. I say possibly because I’m not able to see behind the Google curtain.

Few of my sites were impacted, though I generally get traffic from Twitter and Google Plus, because that’s where I advertise. Once in a while, a post gets picked up by another WordPress blog or email list like WP Mail or Matt Mullenweg, and I get 600% traffic. But most of the time I’m pretty steady, increasing slowly and naturally. In part this is because this is my hobby. Certainly I take pride in what I do, but this is not going to make or break me. That’s lent itself to a very odd thing. I’ve managed to follow every single one of Google’s ‘do this!’ suggestions, without ever thinking about it.

What are these rules? They’re obvious and I’ve touted them many times before.

  1. Write good content.
  2. Don’t spam.
  3. Link naturally.

The first two are easy, the last one is a bit weird.

Natural linking is like what I did when linking to Search Engine Journal. I saw a URL, I copied it in, and I put my own description. In addition, I don’t have a massive collection of links anywhere. I link to people and posts in-line, when they come up, and send you around to them in a way like I would if we were talking. In that way, I’m always making backlinks that are valuable for the next guy.

But like I mentioned before, you can’t control other people’s backlinks to you. If you write WordPress themes and plugins, you maybe getting hit by this, and there is something you can do. It’s just that you won’t like it. See one of the things spammers do is use the same link, with the same URL and href attributes, over and over. What happens when you have an attribution link in your theme or plugin? It’s the same link. Over and over. At first glance, that seems horrible, because a theme would be penalized for having a link credit (like I have here) back to their sites. Some people seem to feel this is exactly what’s happening and the current feeling is that putting in the link as nofollow would be a solution.

Sidebar: Yes, I’m aware of the debacle with WPMUDev getting hammered by Google Penguin. Of interest to me was that once they removed EduBlogs (a site they run) from having links back to them, the issue seemed to be resolved. A working theory of mine is that Google saw the hundreds of thousands of ‘self’ backlinks from these sites to the parent and it was felt to be gaming the system. This would explain why WordPress, who runs a gazillion number of sites, didn’t get hit, and why not all themes are getting slaughtered. Personally a better move would have been for Google to just throw those results out the window, but…

Emperor PenguinPlugins, on the other hand, run by different rules. One of the plugin guidelines is no powered by links at all unless the user actively opts-in. 1 Having too many links out to the same place would be a problem for your SEO, and a plugin that linked multiple times would hurt you. We already know that Google knows how to check your js for hidden links. Back in 2007/2008 they added in the ability to pase onClick events, and it’s only improved since then. So while in 2008 Matt Cuts said it was safe to put a link in your JavaScript if you didn’t want it searched, that seems to no longer be the case. I’ve spot-checked on a couple sites, comparing them before and after, and studying their configurations, and many that have JS controlled ‘powered by’ links are being hurt.

One major takeaway here is that Google screwed some things up, big time. A day-zero search on Viagra was buck wild and all wrong. It’s fine now, but there’s no way a spammer should have been ranked first on a Viagra search. I’ve complained about how Google prioritizes before, and back in 2009 I declared that Google’s Blog Search was Irrelevant. You couldn’t get a single decent result on anything. With Penguin and Panda, they’ve decided to treat everyone the same, and if a lot of terrible people are using your products, and you have a backlink, you’ll get dinged.

What does all this mean? Well go Google for ‘panda google wordpress’ and you’ll see a lot of people shouting that they’re being penalized, and the ‘nofollow’ fix is hardly a fix at all. More are shouting that those ‘share this’ plugins, which show up multiple times on one page, are causing rankings to drop because the exact same link shows up multiple times. And right now, we don’t know. Like the Viagra problem, Google is fixing a lot of this on the fly. Google says ‘No algorithm is perfect!’ and that is certainly true, but if Google really is just equalizing things, then why were these bad sites so highly ranked to begin with?

If you’re a plugin/theme/designer, I’d put in nofollow to my works for now. First, the link-juice didn’t matter anyway if it was in javascript, and second, what you want is people coming to your site and downloading the perfect theme or plugin. They’re going to shop around, and that will, eventually, lead to more sales. Pushing people is a sales technique that falls flat. There are so many options for themes and plugins, a hard-sell will lose you people. So will stuffing your plugin with every SEO trick you know.

There’s no great answer, and screaming at Google (or WordPress) isn’t going to help. They’re going to do what they want. The best you can do right now is weigh your options between attribution and abuse. Are you really making things better for the users, or are you just doing this for yourself?

Notes:

  1. Themes are permitted one in the footer, or an optional one. In part this is because you only ever have one theme at a time, but you can have multiple plugins.
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Comments

  1. For what it’s worth, I would prefer to see Themes move to the same guidelines as Plugins WRT credit links: user-configurable, and disabled by default. But, I’m in the minority in this regard. :)

    • I’m okay with credit links on themes (as you can see by my footer here and on ipstenu.org) but usually because when I look at a site and think ‘That’s cool!’ I look for a link to find the theme ;) (or view source). Still, it’s becuase it’s what I want.

      A default WP ‘credit’ page would be kind of neat. I think someone made that… Aha. http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/plugins-list/ It may need an update for 3.4, but that’s a nice idea. List everything, make it no-follow.

      There needs to be a balance between the great unknown and spam. Google swung too far, they’ll come back around.

  2. My understanding was that the spam links themselves were not harmful, it was just that you were receiving an unfair amount of credit for them previously, and therefore site rankings dropped accordingly due to the Penguin update. Or at least that’s my understanding of it. I haven’t look into it in tremendous detail.

    • True, by ‘harmful’ we mean to the theme dev, though :) They’re the ones getting ‘hurt’ more by the … unearned backlinks.

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