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Some businesses not ready for Google’s incoming search algorithm change

February 8, 2016

(This article was first published by Andrew Schiestel of tbk Creative in The London Free Press on January 22, 2016)

According to a BrightEdge study, organic search engine traffic drove 51% of all website traffic to businesses in 2014. In several instances, I’ve witnessed small companies (under 50 employees) generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue annually from organic search.

Because Google has roughly 80% of the search engine market share in Canada, when they tinker with their algorithm, businesses and the digital marketing industry tend to take notice.

In 2015, the search engine goliath publicly announced (which they don’t always do) that they will revise their algorithm soon and unveil the latest version of an ongoing series of updates they’ve named “Penguin.” On January 19, 2016, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, Gary Illyes, announced that the company is aiming to release the update in the current quarter (Q1) of this year.

What’s expected to be the main change? It’s anticipated that the algorithm will target companies who have produced backlinks that may not be credible or backlink profiles that appear unnatural.

To understand what this means, it’s important to know how Google chooses to rank websites in the first place.

When it comes to a website ranking well, at a basic level, there are two aspects to consider:

First, what’s on the website. The age of the domain, keywords used, URL structure, title tags, whether the site is mobile responsive etc. are all signals that Google uses to determine how relevant a website is and what ranking it should obtain in a search result.

Second, the greater world wide web. Google pays attention to third party websites and will log each time a third party website is providing a hyperlink to your website. Google has publicly stated that, “In general, a link from a site is regarded as a vote for the quality of your site.” In the digital marketing industry, a hyperlink pointing to your website is known as a backlink. In Google’s review, they will look at the credibility of the hyperlink pointing to your website. They do this because, as the theory goes, a credible website will generally link to other credible websites. They use this theory so that they can automate the process of figuring out which websites are legitimate and authoritative and which aren’t.

Years ago, as a result of the direct impact of links on search rankings, many digital marketers started offering backlink building programs as a strategy to help companies rank better. At this time, major search engines weren’t as incisive as they are today at recognizing credible websites from non-credible websites. What the industry was largely committed to was the sheer quantity of backlinks, which in many cases made their clients’ rankings soar.

This strategy doesn’t align with Google’s mission for its search engine. When a company can artificially rank higher through spammy link-building tactics, they may rank well for a search query despite being a poor match. In the Long-term, this hurts Google’s search users because their queries aren’t being matched with the most appropriate websites. And if it hurts the users of Google, it will also hurt Google, as less people will use and trust the search engine.

For over 10 years, Google has been penalizing companies who have practiced non-credible backlink building schemes. Perhaps the most infamous, as covered by the New York Times, was in 2011 when JC Penny’s Google rankings dropped for purportedly having a large quantity of suspicious, non-credible backlinks.

Google will continue its mission to ensure that their search engine results pages (SERP) reward companies who have built an authoritative presence in a legitimate way. While the exact release date remains undisclosed, the latest Penguin update will be available sometime in 2016 and will target poor quality links.

If you see your rankings fall after the update has been released, here are some steps you can take:

1. Have your search engine optimization (SEO) specialist or digital marketing agency check Google Search Console for any manual penalties. At times, Google will manually penalize a website and report it to the company through its Search Console.

2. A no-cost way to view your backlinks is to have your digital marketing agency use Search Console to download the list. If you notice any backlinks that don’t appear legitimate (e.g., you’re a law firm and you see a review for your website on a shady looking travel blog), try to have this backlink removed. You can do this yourself if the website has a login portal or by contacting the website directly and requesting the link be removed. Google has publicly stated that, “First and foremost, we recommend that you remove as many spammy or low-quality links from the web as possible.”

3. Google Search Console, although a free and important tool, has been known not to list all backlinks in every instance. There are paid tools that are more thorough such as Ahrefs, Majestic and Moz’s OpenSite Explorer. Again as noted in #2, once you identify backlinks that you think could be hindering your ranking, go through the process of trying to remove them.

4. If you are unsuccessful in having non-credible backlinks removed, you may use a process Google provides called Disavow. This is a process where you can notify Google directly of specific backlinks that you wish to no longer have associated with your website.

Are you in a position where your website hasn’t been penalized but you know there’s a slew of poor quality backlinks coming into your website? Approach this scenario with caution as there are over 200 signals that affect a website’s ranking in Google’s search engine. If you go tinkering with things when there’s no identified problem, you could create one.

If your website is penalized when the new update comes out, there is a silver lining. According to Google, this new version of Penguin will be the first to correct rankings in real time. With the new Penguin update, if you make changes to fix link quality issues, any restored rankings should take effect in real time (or close to) – a change from previous revisions where websites that were penalized had to wait until the next Google update to have their rankings restored.