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What we need to learn from how Google fought spam

By Stephen Kenwright, head of search

May 9, 2016 | 5 min read

Google has published a report into webspam trends in 2015, detailing how its search quality team responded to manipulative tactics used to influence search rankings.

Typically, 'manipulative tactics' in the context of the search quality team has meant unnatural link building and poor quality content; although the report into 2015 trends showed a 180 per cent increase in websites being hacked. The search engine rolled out an update to its algorithm in October specifically designed to tackle hacked spam which affected up to 5 per cent of queries – a bigger impact than a refresh of the Panda or Penguin algorithms. The report stated that the vast majority of webspam was dealt with algorithmically – despite the fact that Google didn’t update its Penguin algorithm once in 2015.

Despite fewer high-profile casualties than in recent years, more than 4.3m manual actions were applied (an average of 500 every hour). The report states that Google acted on 65 per cent of the 400,000 spam reports it received over the course of the year.

The Penguin algorithm hasn’t been updated since 3.0 in October 2014 – which is incredibly frustrating both for those brands waiting to recover and for those that operate in industries which are plagued with spam. I’ve certainly experienced an increase in the frequency I’m having a conversation about why a brand shouldn’t be emulating competitors who are using manipulative tactics and I’ve no doubt that Google is publishing this report as a reminder that unnatural link building will not be tolerated.

The major positive from Google’s announcement is confirmation that reporting sites who are competing for traffic due to spam tactics will result in action around two thirds of the time (the search engine also stated that it agreed with a further 15 per cent of spam reports but probably acted on these algorithmically).

The 4.3m manual actions include some new penalties to navigate which is likely to become more difficult now that the search engine seems to be penalising bloggers who are giving followed links through product reviews as well as the brands being reviewed. Historically a large number of highly publicised messages from the search quality team for a specific practice have been a precursor for sites showing obvious signs of those tactics experiencing difficulties algorithmically too – so it’s extremely likely that brands that have been reliant on product reviews to gain followed links will lose a significant amount of traffic when the Penguin algorithm does update in the coming months unless measures are taken to clean up.

In addition to new penalties for bloggers, Search Engine Land reported last week that Google is taking action against websites using redirects to show unexpected websites – particularly on mobile devices.

Though Google clarified that this is an old message, it’s timely for two reasons.

1. The internet became (more) aware last week that links with the target=”_blank” attribute (ie almost any link designed to open in a new window instead of the current tab when clicked) can be used to hijack surfers and send them to pretty much any web page instead of the one the user is expecting to see.

2. Google did announce in March that it would be dialling up the impact of its (previously disappointing) mobile friendly update in May. Though the search engine noted that sites already labelled as mobile friendly will not have to do anything different to benefit from the update (and websites not marked mobile friendly are likely to automatically suffer further), there have been a couple of new additions to the list of requirements for a website to pass the mobile-friendly test – notably that websites using overly prominent interstitials to push users to download the mobile app were no longer considered mobile friendly in November. Perhaps sites using redirects to send users somewhere unexpected will lose their mobile friendly label too.

Whether the messages are new or not, it’s clear that Mountain View’s clean-up efforts are already underway in mobile search results as well as on desktop. Highly public announcements like those above are usually precursors for bigger things so the SEO industry should be expecting significant shifts when Penguin 4.0 finally does roll out.

Stephen Kenwright is director of search at Branded3. You can follow him on Twitter at @stekenwright

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