Matt Cutts – head of Google’s search quality team (and as a colleague commented the other day – one of the most powerful people on the planet) has made a new video. This outlines in his usual friendly, noncommittal manner what Google is doing in the next few months as far as the hugely influential search algorithm goes. (Google seldom pre-announces anything!)

In other words…

Things are about to get very rocky in the website sea!

Hold on to your hats everyone!

Google has “pre-announced” a number of areas where they are going to seek out and punish sites that are using “black hat” SEO techniques to artificially push sites up Google’s search results. Again.

The unfortunate thing is that your site might very well fall into this category without you even being aware of it.

We do have sympathy for the cause…

No one likes cheats and no one likes lazy people gaining big returns for very little effort (or if you are Black Hat – being smart enough and entrepreneurial enough and technically brilliant enough to subvert the biggest business in the world to make money)

The problem with black hat is that it is not a long term business proposition. Awesome for quick buck hacks but scary for real businesses and reputations.

To be honest I think it is amusing that these guys think they are smarter than a couple of hundred of the world’s top engineers…

But, back to the impending Google updates.

The importance of the Penguin Update

No one expected the first Penguin update to be as game-changing as it was.

The SEO world shifted on its axis – any manipulative “link building” was suddenly at best almost worthless and at worst a huge detriment to a client website and business.

I won’t go into Penguin 1.0 detail here as it has been very well covered elsewhere.

But the major outcome from our perspective has been the elimination of a huge number of cheap, automated, low quality SEO services offering the world’s riches for tuppence.

And there have been real benefits for great websites that are technically sound, that offer great user experience, that have high quality, well structured content, that have a commitment to fresh, high value information and a social sharing strategy.

And true to his word Penguin 2.0 has just been rolled out. It is too early to make any judgements around whether it has been more effective, more punitive and whether the desired outcome has been achieved.

We will track this closely as the next days and weeks pass.

I am sure there are a lot of very nervous people out there right about now…

Before I digress further let’s get right down to what Mr Cutts is promising in the next few months.

Here’s the video:

And for those of you (like me) who are way to impatient to wait for a video to slowly roll out here is a helpful transcript.

So what are the big takeaways from the announcement?

My first thought is that like an iceberg only a small portion will ever be visible above the surface. Google seldom gives a warning of impending action and if it does you can guarantee it will be big!

Forget the platitudes and forget the cuddly Matt Cutts persona.

This will be a rocky road for many.

Impending Google updates and what you need to do

Penguin 2.0 – Now live

In my opinion this is the biggie. This has been telegraphed as far back as SMX West in early March and it has been built up as an update to be deeply concerned about if you have ever strayed across the line.

To quote Matt Cutts “this one is a little more comprehensive than Penguin 1.0 and we expect it to go a little bit deeper and have a little bit more of an impact than the original version of Penguin”

My problem with this and this is one that is shared by many people who work in the search field is that there will be a lot of collateral damage.

The first Penguin hit a lot of sites that seriously deserved it.

But there is a lot of evidence that it actually led to a new industry based on negative SEO (or building low quality links to competitors sites so they get penalised)

There has been a shift in what we do in the last six months. Analysing new client link profiles and addressing poor quality links has become a lot more important than it was a year ago.

Our focus is still on building quality content and focusing on technical compliance but sometimes there now has to be budget allocated to clean up someone else’s mess.

We certainly do not want to become known as the Google penalty fix-it guys. That is a tough and un-rewarding task. Imagine how cool it must be (not!) to send an analytics report to a client after 12 months of work stating that you had recovered 70% of their previous year’s traffic? No thanks.

But the reality is that a couple of years ago you could go to some smart tech geek who knew how to hack the algorithm using tools like SENuke or Xrumer to gain tens of thousands of links and your business could rank pretty well for your target keywords.

Back in the real world we had to convince our clients that there were no quick riches. We had to convince them that slowly building influence and authority while mimicking the signals large brands sent out was a long term solution (engagement, popularity, advocacy, large amounts of content).

But many listened to those constant emails telling them they were not ranking on Google for their prime keywords (you know the ones – Google receives them as well… seriously!)

And so they took a gamble and paid for instant Google success.

With no knowledge of how search algorithms work and armed with only a rudimentary idea that if you rank well in Google you will make a ton of money a large number of small-medium businesses took the risk and gambled that Charles Atlas/sea monkeys postage stamp and bought SEO services.

Enough of the rant.

What do you need to do?

If you do not have Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools verified on your site install them pronto.

Watch the data from both these tools very closely over the next few days and weeks (or make sure your agency tracks the data closely)

Any sudden drops in traffic from Google organic and any sudden drops in impressions and page positions in Webmaster Tools need to be looked at.

Look out for any unnatural link warnings in Webmaster Tools messages.

Did your site drop suddenly and you cannot hold your hand on your heart and say ” I did not have SEO relations with that low cost SEO company”?

Then there is only one option.

Seek help.

Paid advertising links

Also known as advertorials.

These have been going on for as long as the press has been around. Pay a sum of money and a newspaper will publish your self-promotional piece. It will of course be featured in a special section which the sales team will have targeted local businesses to fill in their particular niche. And a different niche will be featured each week parading as some sort of altruistic, community spirited gift.

Not particularly transparent in the offline publishing world.

Add into this cloudy mess the fact that a link from a highly ranked newspaper in an article is worth gold in SEO terms then all of a sudden you have this great opportunity to artificially inflate website authority with links from news services. Too good to resist right?

And so it was for Interflora UK who were dumped from search completely for 11 days for paying for these links. (Interflora is NOT a small company)

Add into this chaos the fact that every online newspaper that ran these paid advertisements (that passed PageRank i.e. did not have the rel=”nofollow” attribute used for advertising) immediately had their PageRank reduced to zero.

If you have paid for advertorials with anchor text links – even if they are just your brand name – then you are definitely in the cross-hairs.

What do you need to do?

There are only two choices here.

One: contact any website that you have paid to include a link to your website within an article and ask them to nofollow the link. (this sends a message to search engine spiders that no PageRank should be passed to the destination URL and that they should not follow it)

Two: contact any website as above and ask them to either remove the link to your site completely or delete the infringing article.

This is hard work if you have hundreds of them to follow up and you will be frustrated by the lack of response from many of the sites.

Link networks:

This is an ongoing seek and destroy process for Google.

Google penalised all sites linked to from BuildMyRank and several other networks last year and now it looks like SAPE is the latest casualty.

Again, link networks are a short cut authority building strategy and you would be well advised to ensure that your suppliers do not use blog networks or link networks for your website. I am still seeing SEO practitioners (I use the term loosely) who openly speak on their sites about spinning articles and placing them on their private blog networks with PageRank sites of between 2 and 4.

I certainly wouldn’t feel very safe.

The crazy thing about these strategies is that the “solutions” are openly marketed on…

Yes, you guessed it – Google!

How amazingly smart is that? Get your landing page ranked for “How to beat Google’s algorithm in 3 days using the Massive Link Exploder” and expect to remain unnoticed. Then if you are really stupid sell it on Warrior Forum or one of the hacker sites Google monitors.

As you have seen in the video or transcript, Google will attempt to eliminate these blog networks and the penalties are severe.

Expect to disappear from the results pages if you or your providers have used this technique.

What to do about it?

If you are the one responsible then you will know who you are paying that monthly fee to.

Contact the admins and get all articles associated with your website removed. It isn’t good enough to just cut the payment, you will have to request removal.

If they refuse or attempt to charge you more to remove the posts then you need to look at the Google disavow tool.

If you suspect that a previous agency has used these strategies then it would be worthwhile getting a full backlink audit done so you know what you are facing.

Panda Update relief:

Matt Cutts also talks about a few changes to Panda which may help good quality sites regain ground lost as a result of previous Panda updates.

There are a large number of quality sites which have fallen foul of some of the webspam indicators that Panda looks for. In our experience duplicate content, no matter how accidental or seemingly trivial, is a big problem thanks to this update. Ecommerce sites in particular have to be very careful – it is so easy to have duplicate titles or descriptions and if the various ways your visitors search for products on your site offer more duplicate content then your site will not be performing as well as it could be.

Even an SEO friendly CMS like WordPress has multiple duplication issues which need to be ironed out. WordPress SEO by Yoast will take care of most of these so if you use WordPress it is worth installing and working through this tutorial.

Panda also targets thin or low quality content and was initially designed to target “content farms” or sites with a massive number of pages with poor content. I remember a particular “internet marketing” writer who had more than 23,000 articles published on one article site. High quality content? Really?

What the Panda easing means for you?

Probably not too much unless your site was one of the unfortunate ones that were inadvertently penalised. If this is the case I’d be watching analytics very closely looking for some sign of improvement and crossing my fingers.

I’d also keep an eye on this update service to see when Panda is run through so you can track analytics to see if there is any obvious change to organic traffic.

The other Google announcements:

Other announced changes are around the following:

  • authority will be measured more effectively and industry leading brands or individuals will be rewarded based on more sophisticated co-citation signals and other indicators
  • domain clusters – Google says no more multiple page one results for one domain. I will watch this one closely as they have promised this many times and have not been able to deliver so far
  • upstream – following the paths that spammers leave to eliminate any advantages. Hopefully this will go some way toward reducing the insane amount of pointless SEO comment spam we all have to endure at present. If I never have to read “you are a good writer and I am going to bookmark” or “your site is not showing correctly in Opera” again I will be very happy!
  • Improving communication with Webmasters – if you do not have Google Webmaster Tools installed you will not have any idea if there are technical or link issues with your site. Webmaster Tools should be compulsory with any new website. If your developer does not mention this then you should ensure it is added to the scope. Google is saying that there will be even more information and probably more messages in GWT.
  • Hacked sites – Google is improving its ability to identify and remove hacked sites and also improve the notification of webmasters when this happens.
  • Matt Cutts also intimated that certain languages that are largely associated with spam will take a bigger hit from Penguin 2.0. This is interesting and I know from analysing a particularly nasty link profile which was the result of negative SEO that there are a couple of languages that featured strongly among the Viagra, Casino, Porn links. If my site was in Russian in particular I would be watching my stats very closely.

Keep calm and carry on!

Fortunately the majority of people reading this will not have engaged cut-price SEO, will not have paid for or sold links, will not have used article spinners or comment spam software, will not have paid a company to submit to thousands of low quality directories.

Most businesses have rightly tried to make their sites as informative as possible, will have done the hard yards in developing a social media presence, will have created a content marketing strategy and will have built relationships within their industries.

If this is you then you will probably see an improvement over the next few months while many cry foul and blame Google the monster for their demise.

There will be a lot of noise over the coming months and Google will be alternately painted the greedy, monopolistic villain or the hero of hard working, legitimate, content publishing businesses everywhere.

I’ll post an update once the Penguin dust settles.