Prior to the latest release of Penguin last week, there had been several big hints from Google that we should expect a potentially SEO game-changing algo update. It was widely predicted that Google would once again redefine our notion of what ‘bad links’ are – and many seemed to feel that clearly ‘built’ link profiles would suffer.  What happened was more of a little yap than a bite… so far.

Although we were pre-warned, the timing of the latest incarnation of Penguin took many people by surprise. To borrow a term from the greatest football manager of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson, (no bias here – just look at his record) this initiated “squeaky bum time” for some in the SEO industry.

“Boo!” – The Surprise Announcement

Countless gallons of coffee are simultaneously spat onto computer screens.  Cue frantic ranking updates: nothing yet.  Regular checking of Analytics data: nope, nothing there either.  Hmm if I didn’t know any better, I’d say not much has changed.  What’s all this “2.0” business about, then?

Regardless of whether you want to call it Penguin “4”, “2.0” or just “Steve”, the impact has been pretty tame.  Only 2.3% of English search results were affected by 4, 2.0, Steve… the new Penguin.  There was no repeat of last year’s reams of panicky forum posts from website owners wondering (i) where their traffic has gone and (ii) how they should react to a link-spam notification in Webmaster Tools.

So after all the hype, the reality of Penguin 2.0 is that it seems like the first small push. Perhaps we’re all getting paranoid, but one senses that foundations may have been laid for bigger things to come.  I predicted in January that 2013 wouldn’t be as dramatic as 2012. Easy to say this now. but for the most part I stand by that (once again, because keyword anchor text links and, to a great extent, article spinning were so widely used and so effective that it was always going to cause a hurricane if they were smashed).

So What Are Google Going to Do Next?

Only a fool would bet against Google rolling out further and more impactful updates in the coming weeks or months.  Cutts suggested that the new Penguin would incorporate a more sophisticated link analysis, that would “be much better at understanding links”.  But other than speculation and guess work, none of us know exactly what this means, yet.  We don’t even know if Google will target links beyond the obvious spam techniques, which they harmed last year, but did not eradicate entirely. However, there seems to be a wide assumption within the SEO industry that Google are seeking to become more effective in identifying where a link has been ‘placed’ as opposed to ‘earned’.  Hence, there has been a great deal of chatter predicting the death of guest posting and crafted backlink profiles.

This got me thinking about what Google might think spam actually is.  Let’s take it as given that article spinning, paid links, advertorials, excessive link exchanges, extreme anchor text manipulation, links from irrelevant sites, links from sites with the sole purpose of passing PR, and so on, are all spam.  Some of these techniques might still work, but most people will know the risks attached.

The question is: what kind of links might be devalued or labelled as spam next?  A year ago, after the massive algorithm updates of early 2012, there was an enormous amount of content out there with the message: if you want to get the right links in order to rank, you need to be doing things like guest posting and infographics in order to build the kind of links that Google want.  Fast forward a year, now it seems that many expect Google to smash these sooner rather than later.

“Building Links” – Inherently Grey or Black Hat?

Hang on a minute, before you start typing your furious reply.  This is not yet another post denouncing SEO as a game played by dishonest tricksters; nor will I be saying that link building is dead.  We are not; and it is not.

But let’s remind ourselves, at the highest level, what Google really wants.  To deliver the highest quality, most relevant, accurate and original content to their users, on sites that offer the best user experience.  They like fresh content, of course – but we should also strive to create content that has long-term value.

What don’t Google want?  For low quality websites with poor user experience, thin, inaccurate, unoriginal, out-of-date and/or less relevant content to be de delivered to their users.  That’s why users keep on coming back to Google.  So far, they have been more successful at doing that than Bing, Yahoo or any of the competition – and it’s made them a hell of a lot of money.

To take the definition of what Google wants a step further, they want sites that genuinely deserve to rank on the first page.  They want sites that are so fantastic in their niche that recommendations come naturally.  Links are a massively important part of this – and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

But, if a link is built, requested or however you want to put it, then perhaps one could argue that it’s not a natural endorsement, is not based on a comparison between one property and the alternatives, and thus it distorts a website’s genuine worth.  Our guest posts might be of the highest standard and placed on the most relevant and powerful sites in our niche, but would we be doing that if we weren’t after the links?  Yeah we might drive some traffic and it might raise our profile, but let’s be honest – the answer is “probably not to the same degree”.  As SEOs, we go where the links are.  Because search engine visibility is so driven by links, why the hell would we not do that?

And what’s wrong with it?

Sculpted Backlink Profiles

There was an excellent blog on Moz (RIP SEOmoz – thanks for the memories) by James Finlayson (see link below images), which explored the possibility of Google looking at the spread of Domain Authority across backlink profiles for evidence of a weighting towards ‘created’ rather than ‘earned’ links.  The article looked at how a sculpted backlink profile might look compared to a natural backline profile.  Link builders typically target links above a certain DA (in order to ensure higher quality links) and below a certain DA (because some links are much harder to get).

Natural Backlink Profile Graph

How a typical natural backlink profile might look – DA is spread.

 

Unnatural Backlink Profile Graph

How an unnatural backlink profile might look – DA is congested.

 

Images source – Moz.com

Should Google Want to Kill SEO Full Stop?

Google made themselves pretty clear last year – they want to kill the side of SEO that deals with poor quality, irrelevant, spammy content on sites that real human beings never visit.  The great thing about 2012 was that many of the shadier SEOs started to realise that cramming the internet full of rubbish wasn’t going to get them results for much longer.  So, there has been a shift from talking about how to trick the algorithm towards a discussion on how we can give Google what they want – valuable content that gives us just rewards.

Isn’t that what Google wants?  For SEOs to be promoting and contributing to the creation of high quality content that offers something of value to users?

If you are guest posting on the quality sites, offering decent content, and helping to enrich the internet – why should that be a bad thing?  And what if you re-hash the same content on different sites?  As a rule, we’d probably all shake our heads at that notion.  But consider the fact that websites have different audiences – so why not share a similar message with each audience?  News websites all cover the same stories, because they each have different audiences – and there’s nothing wrong with spreading your message as far and wide as you can.

And why should Google devalue links from infographics en mass?  Matt Cutts hinted many months ago that infographics may not be a genuine endorsement of a website, because the links are often embedded and thus ‘trick’ website owners into linking.  In my opinion, if another website uses something you have created, they saw worth in it and so the link is fully deserved.  Is it Google’s job to moderate the internet?  There’s a tonne of inaccurate information on Wikipedia, but that doesn’t seem to bother them.

OK so perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, as Wikipedia is a phenomenal resource that I use on a near daily basis.  And I’m not saying that incorrect information or below-par content, be that infographics or otherwise, should be tolerated and allowed to pass on value.  But my point is that Google can’t devalue guest posting or infographics unless they get really clever about spotting the genuinely crap from the average to high quality.  If they start along that path, soon we’ll find ourselves in a position where only links from the BBC or the White House count.

As for crafted backlink profiles, a-la the second graph image above: let’s not hide the fact that we are building links.  If we manage to get links (i) from valuable content/sites and (ii) pointing towards valuable content/sites, who cares whether we’ve ignored the lower quality and hard-to-get links?  Who cares whether high value content was created because people wanted the links?  It’s like a charity saying, we don’t want your money; you ran that marathon because it made you feel good.

The question should not be: “has this link been built?”  It should be: “is the content valuable and is the linked-to resource genuinely high quality?”

Am I Making Excuses for Link Building?

Firstly, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that Google have almost all of the power in this relationship. If they decide that ‘building’ links distorts reality, we can’t deny that they do have an argument to some degree. But I believe that this is no less honest than a fashion company paying a celebrity to wear their clothes. So long as it’s the right celebrity and the clothes are high quality, what’s wrong with it?

Should I be defending those of us who are building links, rather than waiting for or encouraging the links to build themselves?  Would Google be right to clamp down on perceived artificial backlink profiles containing links that have been built purposely to drive Domain Authority… even if the content is of decent quality?

And as the biggest brand in SEO loses the term “SEO” from their name (yeah because they do more than that now… but come on), are even the leading people within the industry starting to realise that ‘SEO’ is being engulfed by more standard marketing and PR?  After all, isn’t that why SEOmoz started doing other things before they lost the ‘SEO’?

What do you think?  Let’s get a discussion going…

Image References: Flickr and Wikimedia Commons