The changes that Google made over the past year - particularly the Penguin update rolled out in May 2013, and to a lesser extent the introduction of Hummingbird - has confirmed once again that marketers and SEO's should avoid questionable link-building tactics if they want to rank well. As a site owner, you need to focus on building your site's link profile using "white hat" practices and strategies that focus on high-quality content creation. Developing unique, valuable content that is good for both users and search engines is a long-term solution that will insulate your website from any future algorithmic updates.
As it stands, there are a few proactive steps you can take to mitigate any risk to your website right away.
1. Pay Attention
It's important to stay on top of any and all algorithmic updates. Keep up with the Penguin updates yourself, or hire a well-regarded digital marketing company to do it on your behalf. If you fail to understand the factors at play in each update, it will be near impossible to take the proper course of action and adjust your marketing plan.
2. Get A Link Audit
Even if you haven't been impacted by the changes resulting from Penguin or Hummingbird's implementation, it doesn't mean that your website is completely safe from being hit in the future. Worrying about if and when you will be penalized is pointless; rather, employ an SEO company or use an online tool to have a Link Audit conducted. Such an audit can put your mind at rest or provide you with a detailed understanding of how and why your website may be at risk. If you can identify potential issues, you will have the chance to correct them prior to the next update.
3. Stop Targeting Low Quality Links
The Penguin update aimed primarily at a number of link variables. Thus, if you are engaging in questionable link practices - like targeting low quality links as part of your marketing strategy - you're putting your website at serious risk. If you're knowingly using practices that target low-quality links, you should stop immediately.
4. Build Content
Google's new website guidelines clearly signals that the search engine considers sites that get discussed, used and shared to be indicators of popularity, and therefore deserving of rankings. Good content earns natural links, which will help protect your website from future Google updates. Furthermore, valuable content can be promoted after its initial release through outreach, which in turn will drive more traffic, generate good quality links and build your site's authority. Focusing on quality content creation is simply the smart move; useful, unique content will never be penalized.
It may be the case that your website has been penalized by Google, or maybe you're just airing on the side of caution. If you fall in the latter category, these steps are a way to proactively guard your website against the changes that will come with future updates; if you are in the former, they offer basic advice on how you can gradually improve the health of your site. Either way, the steps described above are best practices given Google's existing quality guidelines and recent indication that content plays a pivotal role in search rankings.