Hit By Penguin? Take the Red Pen Test

Like a lot of folks in the SEO world, I’ve been analyzing, dissecting, and pondering the significant changes that Google made in April 2012 – from Panda to Penguin and a lot of little things in between.

Leslie and I have the good fortune to work with hundreds of clients in our training and coaching programs, which provides us with access to detailed Analytics data on a large number of websites.

Within that group, we’ve now identified over two dozen cases of “confirmed” Penguin hits.
The analysis of those sites has proven to be very interesting indeed.

While much of the Penguin reporting to date has focused on inbound links as a potential issue, we’ve struggled to find many cases within our customer base who fit the bill for “unnatural” linking – possibly because many of our clients don’t really do traditional “link building” at all.

We have, however, in *every* case, found significant on-site issues that could be contributing to issues with the Penguin update, which Google described as targeting “webspam.”

“In the pursuit of higher rankings or traffic, a few sites use techniques that don’t benefit users, where the intent is to look for shortcuts or loopholes that would rank pages higher than they deserve to be ranked. We see all sorts of webspam techniques every day, from keyword stuffing to link schemes that attempt to propel sites higher in rankings.”

Source: Google Inside Search Blog

So how do you respond to this? Well, if you’ve gone nuts building unnatural links, I would encourage you to at least consider making some changes to your link building practices. However, if you are working with a site that has been affected by the Penguin update, now would be a very good time to look at potential on-site issues as well.

Take The “Red Pen” Test

Here’s a little exercise we’ve been having our clients do for a while. The purpose of the exercise is to identify potential “excessive” SEO on your website, and help you improve the site’s design to serve users better, convert better, and consistently rank better through algorithm changes in search engines.

What you will need:

  1. A couple of highlighters – I like to use green and yellow, but any two colors will do.
  2. A nice big fat red marker – the kind your mean old teachers used in school to grade papers.
  3. An open mind – you can lie to me, but don’t lie to yourself, because it’s bad for you.

Step 1: Print Out a Copy of Your Home Page

For many sites, you can simply print it out “as is” – but by doing so you may actually *miss* some things like hidden text, duplicated text, and links that are “concealed” by styling them to look exactly like the surrounding text. If you know how to disable CSS, you can print the page with all styles disabled, and get a pretty good printout to work with.

Most folks will find it just easier to use the text-only version of Google’s cached copy of the page. To find this, use the following procedure:

  1. From www.google.com or a Google search box in your browser, search for cache:URL or cache:www.domain.com
  2. For example, you can type cache:seomoz.org in a Google search box to get the cached copy of the SEOMoz home page.
  3. Click the little link that says “Text Only version” and print that out.

Not so pretty, is it? But this is a lot more like what your pages look like to spiders!

Step 2: Highlight the “SEO Keywords” on the Page

Okay – grab the printout, and pick up one of your highlighters. Start at the top of the page, and highlight every use of a “keyword” on the page, that isn’t absolutely required to let human visitors do one of three things:

  • Figure Out Where They Are: Am I on the right web site? Where am I within the web site? (Keywords rarely help with this)
  • Figure Out What To Do Next: Where do I click to find the women’s shoes? How do I sign up? (Keywords sometimes help)
  • Whatever Else The Page Is For: Are there any other things the page is supposed to accomplish? (Aside from “rank #1 in Google”)

Now, before you finish this task, open your mind, and think. If you sell “pool supplies,” and it’s obvious to your visitors that this is all you do, would the links to the “pool chemicals” category page *really* need to say any more than “Chemicals” in the anchor text? No, they wouldn’t – so go back with your highlighter and finish the job.

The point here is to uncover how many times you’re using keywords for the benefit of both you and your users, and how many times they’re really just there to “check a box” for SEO purposes.

That doesn’t mean you won’t ever use keywords in your copy, if it’s the right word to persuade a user to take action. However, if you didn’t need to use a keyword to say it, you probably want to highlight it.

It can be helpful to have your website open in a browser while you do this exercise – it can be amazing how many times you discover that someone stuffed every keyword you have into the alt attribute of an image, for example.

Step 3: Highlight the Excess Links on the Page

For the next step, switch highlighters, and start at the bottom of the page. Highlight every link on the page, that fits the following criteria:

  • Useless: Examples – a link to the designer’s site, to an “articles” section that people aren’t intended to read, etc. Does the link help your visitors accomplish one of the three obectives listed in step 2? If not, it had better be “required by law” or it gets highlighted.
  • Redundant: Links that already exist somewhere higher on the page, or links to redundant categories/pages that only exist to cover extra keywords with the same content.
  • Hidden/Concealed: You can see a blue underlined link on the “text only” printout, but you can’t actually see the link on the website in your browser.

If you use visitor analytics tools like CrazyEgg, you’ll find that a lot of the links you have highlighted during this step actually don’t get clicked at all.

Step 4: Time for the Red Pen Test (optional)

At this point you will have a page with, well, either a little bit of highlighter on it, or a lot. Scan, photograph, or copy the highlighted page for future reference… then grab the red marker, and run it over all of the highlighted text on the page. Stand back and admire your work.

Many of our clients have pointed out that this step is not strictly neccessary – with comments like “okay, I get it I get it” often occuring before they’ve even finished with the first highlighter – but there is a point to using the red pen.

Step 5: Analyzing Your Results

Of course, this exercise is probably worth repeating (at least mentally) with other pages on your site – maybe even all of them.

If you have more than a little bit of red ink on the page, there’s a very good chance that the following statements are true:

  1. You have been “doing SEO” on your site for a long time, and adding more keywords to more places helps you feel like you are “doing something” to rank better. You can find a lot of great tips and advice on SEO, different things that could help you rank better, but you’re not meant to do all of it – just enough to get the job done.
  2. Adding more keywords to more places is not actually helping you to rank better, and never has been. I’ve “owned” top positions in many markets for years, with a standing rule to never allow more than two exact occurences of a target keyword in on-page copy. In fact, I’ve got plenty of pages that have ranked for years with zero (0) occurences of the exact keyword in the copy, and no “unnatural” links either.
  3. You’ve been hit by Penguin, and/or Panda, and/or the new “keyword stuffing filters,” etc. – and you’re ready to make a change.

The truth is what it is: a lot of people have been going way, way, way, over the top with on page and on site SEO – even if they haven’t gone nuts with their link building. At this point, these practices are very likely to be hurting your rankings. If you’ve been able to rank in spite of these practices for a while, that’s great – but you knew it couldn’t last forever, right?

Consider the Following:

Panda, Penguin and the less-publicized “keyword stuffing” update from April are all based on document classifiers. Their job is to look at a document (your web page), and use a set of signals to determine whether it should, or should not, be identified as “low” or “high” quality, “webspam,” “stuffed with keywords,” etc.

The “red pen” test gives you some idea what the result is going to look like, and how they’re going to get there – because the job of these document classifiers, in a sense, is to simulate the outcome of a human being performing such an exercise.

If your home page came back covered in red ink, and you’ve been “slapped by Google,” now might be a really good time to turn the “on page SEO” all the way back to the bare minimum that is required for users, and work forward from there, with litttle changes that hint at ranking, instead of wholesale keyword stuffing on every page of your site.

If you have pages on your site – or entire sections of your content, that are solely devoted to stuffing in more internal keyword links for ranking purposes, now would be a good time – while you’re at “rock bottom” – to clean that mess up.

And if your business is going to survive, it might also be a good time to start thinking about redesigning your website from the ground up, with human uses and human intentions in mind. That’s another exercise (and another post…) for another day, but it starts with asking these questions about your visitors:

  • Identity: Who are they? How would they identify themselves?
  • Motivation: Why are they here? What do they care about right now?
  • Framing: How did they get here? Where did they come from?
  • Purpose: What specifically are they trying to accomplish?

The better each page of your site does at addressing these things, the better you’ll do in the long run. Let’s talk about that soon, okay?

Disclaimer: Author is not responsible for you ruining your pants or furniture due to leakage, seepage, or dripping of red ink from an ink-soaked printout of your home page. If your site is primarliy designed for keywords and not for humans, wear appropriate protective garb before performing this exercise.

This post was orginally from Dan Thies of SEO BRAINTRUST

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