SEO After Hummingbird, Penguin, & Panda: How Link Building & Content Marketing Are Really Changing


At this point, the word “change” is pretty much passé in the SEO community. Every year, we proclaim that SEO is changing. Some of those changes don’t play out. Others take us by surprise. Sometimes those changes are overstated. Other times, we find agencies burying their heads in the sand.

We’d like to use this time to take an honest look back, and forward, at the state of SEO. How has this industry really changed? Where is it headed? What can we expect from the twin kings of link building and content marketing?

Let’s dive in.

What is Really and Truly Dead?

It usually takes about five minutes between the time Matt Cutts or somebody from Google says something, and the time a blog post pops up somewhere on the web saying that a particular SEO tactic is “dead.”

In this section of the post, I’m not interested in what is risky or against Google’s terms of service: I’m interested in tactics that are dead as a doornail. By this I mean that in all but a few extreme and short-lived cases, the tactic just doesn’t work in any meaningful way.

Article Spinning

This one is completely dead, folks.

For those too young to the industry to remember, article spinning was the process of automatically generating “rewritten” versions of an article and submitting them to as many low quality article directories as possible. It actually worked surprisingly well before Panda, and even for a while after that when done “correctly.”

But as far as I can tell, this one just doesn’t work at all anymore.

After doing a Google image search for “article spinning” and looking at results over the past year, I found exactly one site (SubmitProWith.Us, not giving them a link) that posted any evidence of improved rankings with article spinning. And all of their proof was dated to 2012.

Exact Match Anchor Text

Once again, I failed to find a single site that advocated building exact match anchor text that posted any evidence of it working. All I could find were examples of websites that had been hit by Penguin or a manual penalty, most likely because of the exact match anchor text, at least in part.

What Can Still Work, But isn’t Worth it for Brands?

Buying Links

The whole Interflora fiasco is both proof that buying links can still inflate your rankings, and proof that it isn’t worth if for brands to take the risk.

The fact of the matter is Google’s algorithms just aren’t smart enough to identify link buying in every single circumstance. How could it be? Not even humans are that smart.

The real reason this isn’t worth it for brands is because it’s actually more costly to buy links than to attract them naturally. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Link sellers are, understandably, very likely to sell links to others who may not be as discrete as you are.
  • The content has to be just as good as if you were doing it completely above-board, or over time it will become obvious that you are buying the links.
  • It is more cost-effective to use the money to pay an influencer to write something on your blog than to pay a link dealer, likely with less influence, to host a link on their site.

Site Hacking

It’s sad that I have to put this in this category, but unfortunately it is true that sites can still rank by hacking sites and placing links. In July last year, Majestic shared a case study, examining a site that managed to rank, even with zero content, simply by pumping up its link velocity with hacked links.

Needless to say, brands shouldn’t get involved in things like this, and not just because they’re, well, illegal. From this and other case studies, it’s immediately obvious that the results don’t last very long.

Still, I think it’s important to point out studies like this to get a sense for where Google’s algorithm really is in terms of spotting things. It’s certainly gotten smarter about spotting low quality content and links, but pages can slip through the cracks if some of their other ranking factors are out of control.

Private Link Networks

A cleverly designed private link network, made up of several sites you bought up to link to yourself, is more or less invisible to Google at the moment. Black hats seem to love this tactic. Assuming the quality level of the sites is high enough, this is likely to go unnoticed.

However, once again, it simply isn’t worth the effort for brands. The cost of either buying sites with high quality content or creating high quality content to put on cheap sites simply isn’t worth it. This, of course, is why the black hats simply skip this part, and expose themselves to risks that inevitably get them caught.

Pratik Dholakiya

Pratik Dholakiya

Co-Founder & VP of Marketing at E2M
Pratik Dholakiya is the Co-Founder and VP of Marketing of E2M, a digital marketing agency and, a mobile apps development company. Pratik has been featured on sites like Forbes, Moz, SEW, SEJ, KISSmetrics, Entrepreneur and FastCompany to name a few. Hit him up on Twitter @DholakiyaPratik for a quick chat.
Pratik Dholakiya

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15 thoughts on “SEO After Hummingbird, Penguin, & Panda: How Link Building & Content Marketing Are Really Changing

  1. I believe site-wide links are more dangerous than you describe. Google has just put manual actions on my website for „unnatural side-wide links” though I didn’t acquire any of those myself, meaning they were all natural…

    1. Hi Bramka, I do agree with you, site wide links cause problems in ranking last time i read a case study on this, it was effected negatively, even though all links were natural, as per my experience excessive site wide links cause problems. You better use disavow tool to reduce the count, at least for some links which you feel low quality.

  2. Thanks Pratik, here are my views, for what they’re worth;

    Article spinning never agreed with me – churning out a load of garbled gibberish that no human reader could stomach – glad it’s over.

    I don’t think using exact match anchor text is quite so cut and dry – just by writing about a topic it can be hard to avoid the temptation to shove the odd matched text link in, as long as its only a two or three word phrase.

    Private link networks are all the rage but need time and concentration to work whilst not getting caught out – they’ll keep growing until Google make some new miracle auto-detection algorithm change.

    Content is still king – great content will attract visitors, they share it socially through Twitter, facebook, Google+, Google likes this, voila, SERPs boosted.
    Content is likely to drift away from long articles the more that people prefer other mediums, likely winner, video.

  3. I’m confused. We have a competitor that ranked higher than us in a particular keyword that we target. But when I checked their link profile, majority of their backlinks are sitewide. o.O

  4. Interesting insights Pratik, thank you. I’d love to see some examples of the applications and/or interactive experiences you refer to in the article. Anything we can view?


  5. “That said, Google is currently dead set on ranking pages based on behavioral data, as well as machine learning algorithms that have been trained on datasets of quality content.”

    Yeah all evidence is pointing to this. This is why you have to stop chasing tactics for SEO purposes and start chasing people. You need real people to create real signals. The days of artificially inflating signals are numbered.

  6. Thanks for the article!

    It’s always interesting to read peoples perspectives on building authority/links/SEO but I think without a clear message on what it takes to build a strong website (A, B, C etc) from scratch. In fact I found this article following it from a forum where someone was freaking out about how to actually build good SEO in 2014.

    I think that its easy to try things and get links/authority when you’re an established site, but it’s becoming harder to launch a new site because the old techniques are dead that the authoritative sites used and it’s a little vague nowadays to know how to start.

    I know things are always changing but it seems people are focusing on all the things not to do and the things which might not be good to do…. rather than things which are great to do. As the article says the PR Stunts are good examples of creative ways to build buzz and traffic, but most people starting out would really struggle with that. Even if you did come up with a great idea, who’s going to come to your website? (Speaking as a solopreneur rather than a large brand!).


  7. Pratik,

    You put together a very nice post and I completely understand the meaning behind your title. However, I strongly believe that all these “changes” are not due to the algorithm changes rather how the industry evolved as a reflection of the learning curve Google dictates. We at Dynamic Search never did article spinning (and some other things mentioned here) simply because it never worked to achieve our clients’ marketing goals.


  8. I think private link/blog networks are good when launching a new site/brand. They can give the boost a brand needs while the brand is building out its online presence and authority. Then the brand can spend time developing a strong link profile naturally.

    It is also good because if something goes wrong, you can just pull all the links from the network down to fix the issue.

  9. “Google’s internal quality guidelines seem to indicate that quality content is content that serves a purpose for users, and serves it well” Well said xD ..btw thanks for the infos and, Yes im new to industry and this info seems to be a gold mine to me for now ^_^