Google Penguin: Why External Links Aren't All You Should Look At

Google Penguin: Why External Links Aren’t All You Should Look At


Ever since April 24th, when Google launched it’s newest Google Penguin update which resulted in hundreds of thousands of websites being penalized and experiencing dramatic drops in Google rankings and organic search engine traffic, webmasters and SEO’ers all over the world have been trying to figure out exactly what they were doing wrong to end up in Google’s doghouse, and how they can fix the problem and get their websites and businesses back on track.

It’s not uncommon for small businesses, including law firms, to outsource their SEO efforts to contractors or SEO firms. Hiring a dedicated in-house SEO’er can be expensive, and good, local, reliable SEO talent isn’t exactly easy to find unless you’re willing to spend some pretty major dough. This usually results in multiple freelancers and/or firms working on the link building and on-page optimization of a website over a period of time, and if one of those freelancers or firms were performing any type of black-hat SEO tactics which are now resulting in your website being a victim of Google’s recent Penguin update, then it’s going to be difficult not only to identify which of these tactics are causing the problem, but it may also be difficult to correct the issue now that a significant amount of time has passed.

One of the most commonly discussed issues when it comes to what causes a website to receive a Google Penguin penalty is the quality of inbound links that a website has, as well as the anchor text distribution of those inbound links.

Before The Penguin…

Prior to Google Penguin, it was a pretty common SEO tactic to build multiple inbound links to a website and to use a keyword that the webmaster/SEO’er wanted that website to rank for as the anchor text of that link. A big part of Google’s algorithm over the years when it came to which websites ranked highest for a particular keyword was the quality and quantity of the inbound links that a website had, and how many of these links included that keyword (or variations of it) in the anchor text of those links. So if a law firm wanted to rank number one on Google for “New York personal injury lawyer”, then whoever handled the SEO for that website would work on building links to the website from other websites and blogs and the anchor text of those links would be “New York personal injury lawyer”, “New York personal injury attorneys”, “New York personal injury lawyer in Brooklyn”, etc.

And Then….

Google Penguin Penalty

But ever since Google Penguin, anchor-text-heavy inbound links have been identified by many in the SEO industry as the main issue why a website might have been penalized, and the process of link pruning (where whoever now handles SEO for that website will identify inbound links which are potentially causing negative SEO issues and contact the websites where those links are located to request that they be removed) has been recommended as a tactic to be used to recover from the penalty.

Another popular reason for why a website might experience a drop in rankings and traffic as a result of a Google Penguin penalty is site-wide links from other websites, where a website agrees to link to another website in it’s site-wide (meaning it’s on every page of the website) footer or sidebar, resulting in a significant number of inbound links to the website it is linking to.

While we acknowledge that anchor-text-heavy links and site-wide external links are likely two of the main issues for why a website is being penalized by Google Penguin, we also believe that there are other issues that are less frequently discussed as potential issues- one of them being internal site-wide links- and we now have some data to prove it.

Site-Wide Internal Links and Why They Might be Penguin Bait

Google Penguin Food- internal links

One of our client’s websites started to experience a drop in search engine rankings and organic search engine traffic ever since Google Penguin launched on April 24th, and after we did some link pruning and cleaning up their inbound links (which were built by past providers) and what anchor text was used, as well as making sure the client didn’t have any site-wide external links which may have been causing the issue, we still didn’t see too much improvement.

We decided to take the main practice area pages of the client’s website (since these were the preferred landing pages for the keywords that we were working on, and the pages which were focused on from a link building perspective) and compare everything about them- number of external links to those particular pages, number of internal links, number of followed internal and external links, number of linking domains, etc.- with competing websites which were still ranking well for those particular keywords.

One thing we noticed was that our client’s website had a higher internal links (internal pages linking to each other) to external inbound links (links from other websites) ratio than the competitor websites that we analyzed, with this being a result of the client’s practice area pages being linked to from every page on the website via the site-wide sidebar of the website.

We decided to re-code the sidebar of the client’s website so that the practice area pages, as a result, now have less internal links coming to them from other internal pages, and we’ve seen (in as little as a week) some dramatic improvements.

Penguin be Gone?

Many of the more competitive keywords that we were working on for this client, which were not in Google’s top 50 on the organic side (they were always ranking #1, 2, or 3 on Google Places so they were still maintaining a presence above the fold of Google), are now in the top 5, the practice area pages which removed from the site-wide sidebar have experienced an increase in organic visits, and the overall quality of organic search visits (pages per visit, average time on site, and bounce rate) have also improved.

Granted, it has only been a week since we’ve made the change, but seeing as sixty-three of the client’s keywords went from being outside of the top 50 to within the top 50 (with many of them now being on page one and a good percentage of those being in the top 3 organic spots) in less than a week, and with this being the only significant change that we’ve made in the past 2 weeks, we feel pretty confident thus far that the site-wide internal links to the client’s practice areas were causing an issue in how Google determined how much authority those pages had.

Fish (internal links) Are Still Good For You…

Are we saying that it’s bad to link pages of your website together?

Of course not.

But we are saying that it’s possible that site-wide internal links (the dead fish in the picture above that Penguin smelled from a mile away) may cause an issue with how much authority Google assigns to those particular pages, and seeing as Google considers how much authority a website’s interior pages has as a factor in determining how much overall authority a website has, you may want to re-evaluate what pages are linked to and from where on your website.

And FYI- dead fish are usually found in a website’s sidebar and footer- so be sure to check them to see if they smell funny.