Demystifying the Google Algorithm Updates of 2012

By Houston

Last year, Google rolled out a number of very significant algorithm updates that effectively changed the face of SEO practices forever. As a result, a large number of sites were penalized. However, due to the sheer number of possible algorithm updates, some webmasters are having trouble identifying which update their sites were penalized under.

Due to the vast amount of misinformation circling the Web about this topic, we put together this blog post to openly discuss each of the updates rolled out in 2012, including the scope of their effect.

That said, if your website has been penalized in 2012, then your website was most likely hit by one of the following three types of updates.

 

 

Domain Level – The Exact Match Domain Update

On September 28, 2012, Matt Cutts announced a Google algorithm update specifically targeting sites with exact match domains (EMDs) (sites named after keywords instead of brands). For the most part, sites affected by this algorithm update weren’t penalized. Instead, they lost much of the SEO benefit that was intrinsic to having an exact match keyword as their website’s name.

However, that’s not to say everyone affected by the EMD update was hit equally. If your site was also over-optimized for the keyword your site was named after, the update would have hit you significantly harder than those whose only foible was their EMD.

In this case, the effect on rankings would have ultimately felt much more like a penalty.

If your website was among those hit hardest by the EMD update, your best road to recovery starts by auditing your content for anything that is low-quality, a duplicate, or keyword stuffed, along with an audit of your backlink profile for links en masse containing exact match keywords.

Note: The EMD update has no relation to either the Panda or Penguin updates as evidenced here:

Content Level – The Panda Updates

If your site has been penalized under one of the Panda updates – the first of which was released in February 2011 and the last of which was released September 18, 2012 – then the majority of your focus should be on your on-site content.

The Panda updates were rolled out to target sites propped up on content that is low-quality, duplicated, or both; sites commonly referred to as “thin” sites. If any of the aforementioned describes your site, then your best road to recovery must start with the removal or replacement of any content that is redundant, written poorly, or doesn’t necessarily solve the problems of those visiting your site.

That said, the Panda updates do not directly attack sites because of their links, but they can still indirectly affect them. Even if your site has only high-quality content, the Panda updates can still negatively affect you if a large percentage of the links pointing to your site come from sites that only contain low-quality content; sites that would’ve been directly attacked by the Panda updates and whose external links were subsequently devalued.

Links Level – The Penguin Update

The Penguin update is the alias of the former webspam algorithm update. All in all, this update targets sites that are unabashedly spamming any way possible in an effort to game the Google algorithm and is more or less completely eradicating them from the search results entirely.

Despite the above, the Penguin update leaves some room to be impacted by it without being completely eradicated from the search results. To illustrate this, if your site is linked to by spammers but you are not a spammer yourself, you will indirectly be impacted by the Penguin update.

That said, how do you go about checking whether or not you’ve been hit by either a Penguin or unnatural links penalty?

1. Unnatural Links

This is by far the easiest indication of whether or not you’ve been hit by an unnatural link penalty. As of today, Google has sent in excess of 1 million notifications to webmasters stating that their backlink profile is unnatural. If you are one of the webmasters to have received this notification via Google Webmaster Tools, there is really no question that you were hit by an unnatural links penalty.

2. The Penguin Update

If you experienced a dramatic drop in traffic on or close to April 24, May 25, or October 5 of 2012, you were most likely affected by the Penguin update.

That said, you were penalized due to:

  • Links to your site coming from sites Google deemed untrustworthy;
  • The over-optimization of your links’ anchor texts; or
  • Your links appear to have been purchased

If your site is penalized because of links but you don’t receive any notification from Google, this is because an algorithm update like Penguin.

If you still aren’t certain of whether or not you’ve been hit by the Penguin update over an unnatural links penalty – although a dramatic drop in traffic on the aforementioned dates should be enough to convince you of such – the absence of a notification from Google regarding unnatural links via Google Webmasters Tool alongside a dramatic drop in traffic is more than enough evidence of the former.

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