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Was Target Hit By Penguin?

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Was Target hit by Penguin?

Is it possible Target.com was smacked flapped by Google’s Penguin update? It’s certainly possible (although unlikely), and while only conjecture, one piece of evidence indicates Target has experienced a dramatic loss in traffic tightly timed with the Penguin update.

Why We Think This

When the first versions of Panda hit, Mark Ballard analyzed PPC partner traffic and found obvious trends in the types of sites suffering traffic loss (e.g. content mills). His analysis also lined up with the public discussion of specific sites hit by the update.

As it turns out, Target.com is a very large Google search partner, and dramatic drops in search network clicks are meaningful here, especially when the timing coincides so tightly with Penguin.

Note the sharp drop in clicks for Target.com on 4/25. Penguin was announced and released on 4/24. Target was the only top 50 search partner to see PPC clicks fall through the floor.

Again, while this is an indirect way to determine who may have been hit by Penguin, doing the same with Panda did seem to fit with the intent of that update and what others were saying at the time.

Why Could This Happen?

When looking at Target’s website, there isn’t anything obvious that Penguin (or Panda) would penalize. Sure, the global navigation is a bit excessive, and there are rich anchor text links well below the fold that appear solely for SEO. But there isn’t any reason why these things would cause an issue, by themselves, and they aren’t out of the norm of what you might see on a large, competitive ecommerce site. Internal footer links like this aren’t usually a reason for concern:

Target image of footer links

There is an inordinate amount of nofollow being used internally. If we were advising them on SEO, we would certainly want to evaluate why this has been implemented and help recommend some other strategies.

Image of Target's global navigation

Nofollow is highlighted in pink.

Off-page metrics show just what you’d expect of Target: a massive link profile with a predominance of branded anchor text. It’s a very natural looking profile, save a few odd entries. Digging deeply into the historical index with Majestic SEO, we discovered some oddities around at least three anchor text matches: electronics, baby, and toys. Looking at the link distribution for these exact match anchors showed a pattern.

Like other large brands and sites, there are many domains redirecting to Target.com. However, Majestic shows us that at some point in time (possibly several months or several years ago) Target had rich anchor text from these domains pointing at the landing pages for electronics, baby and toys (and possibly others). Looking at those URLs and anchors today show straight 301s to the home page. There are probably less than 100 of these redirects in place, at most, so it’s nothing alarming.

It may be that Target had many, many duplicate sites for non-SEO reasons – for example brand ownership of misspellings. Are these now hurting their SEO? I would be surprised, but this kind of thing is not unheard of in SEO.

Another possibility is that these sites, as duplicates, linked to target.com for SEO purposes and were then mass redirected. However, that seems much less likely.

Finally, an edge scenario we found were a few duplicate domains hanging out there with Target’s content but links pointing to the canonical target.com homepage. It seems obvious enough that these are either spam sites or anomalies. One domain worth mentioning, however, is targetmobilestore.com which links to the target.com URLs in breadcrumbs, potentially creating confusing signals.

Conclusions

Other than the concerning search network click trends, there isn’t an obvious reason to believe Target has been hit by Penguin. Admittedly this was only a 30 minute exercise and much more investigative work would need to be conducted.  However, with PPC clicks as an indicator, one that has validated Panda penalties in the past, we can see no other clear explanation for Target’s dramatic loss in traffic.

MB Postscript: We have noticed a sharp increase in search network traffic from Google’s googleadservices.com domain, but the timing and scale of that increase does not fit neatly with the traffic patterns we’ve seen from Target.com.  The two may still be related though.

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  • Adam Audette
    Adam Audette is the Chief Knowledge Officer of RKG.
  • Mark Ballard
    Mark Ballard is Director of Research at RKG.
  • Comments
    11 Responses to “Was Target Hit By Penguin?”
    1. Mike Gracen says:

      Target just stopped selling Kindle and sees Amazon as one of their biggest competitors. Amazon just recently catapulted to the top of the SERPS for just about every English language term in the universe. Google like Amazon. Google no like Target. Get out your tinfoil hats! :-)

    2. ALan Bleiweiss says:

      Whether it was Penguin, the “anchor bug fix” update they did in April, or nothing at all to do with these, the best line in the whole article is “global navigation is a bit excessive”.

      I am really impressed with how restrained you were in that statement. Because when I see navigation like they’ve got, I want to puke. But that’s just me. :-)

    3. Chase Sagum says:

      Could that drop-off been purely PPC? Maybe they shut down a majority of their PPC campaigns for a short time for some internal strategic purposes?

    4. Kevin Gamache says:

      Interesting find guys but I am having a hard time connecting the dots between the data and the Penguin update, other than the date correlation. I could potentially see that if Target was relying mostly on the Content Network for PPC and the sites within the Content Network had lost rank and traffic then the associated PPC clicks would drop drastically. However, within the search network it would seem that it would not rely as heavily on what the Penquin update was mainly targeting which was devaluing spammy links. I think there is a secondary factor (budget tightening possibly) that led to that severe drop. Just my quick impression of it.

    5. Adam Audette Adam Audette says:

      @Alan – I have to admit that I threw up a little in my mouth when I first saw their global nav. But then I realized that sometimes there are pieces of a big site that, as an SEO, you don’t end up controlling. The Zappos footer was that way for us.

      @Chase – Could be, but it doesn’t look like they’ve stopped running Adsense on the site. May have decreased it, but doesn’t look that way from spot-checks.

      @Kevin – Target.com is the one running Adsense. These are paid clicks on Target’s own website.

    6. Mark Ballard Mark Ballard says:

      Kevin, to clarify, these numbers are the traffic levels our clients are receiving from the Target.com domain via the Search Network. The idea being that if Target is suddenly less visible on Google SERP’s, they would get less traffic to their site and thus send our clients less traffic. To Chase’s point, if Target saw a traffic drop for another reason, like cutting their own PPC spend, we would see a similar effect.

      Admittedly, the connection to Penguin here is tenuous and based almost entirely on the date correlation. Penguin could be the cause or we may have just stumbled on something else happening at a coincidental moment.

    7. Kevin Gamache says:

      Ahh! Sorry I misunderstood the data we were looking at. This is not Target advertising via PPC this is the clicks on their site from AdSense dropping dramatically. Gotcha! Now I am seeing where the correlation lies beyond the date range. It would be great to compare this to any other sites that have been hit that also get adsense traffic.

    8. Russ Offord says:

      Maybe one of the credit cards linked to one of their Google Adwords campaigns expired ;) ;P hahah.

    9. dan barker says:

      While not perfect, I always take a look at ‘Google Site Trends’ to validate things like this.

      Here’s Target.com last 12 months: http://trends.google.com/websites?q=target.com&geo=US&date=ytd&sort=0
      & Here’s Target.com last 30 days: http://trends.google.com/websites?q=target.com&geo=US&date=mtd&sort=0

      As said, these are by no means perfect, but absolutely zero change there makes me think this post may have jumped to conclusions a bit fast.

      dan

    10. Jason Diller says:

      They really got hit hard. I would hate to be in that room.

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