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The Google Penguin Update

The Google Penguin algorithm update was initially released on May 25, 2012. The algorithm has been refreshed periodically since its first release. In effect, the Penguin filter would run from time to time and penalize sites that Google considered were using spammy link building techniques. Those sites would remain penalized even if they removed those spammy techniques until the next time the filter was refreshed, which could take years. For instance, the last Penguin update, Penguin 3.0, happened on October 17, 2014. This meant that any sites hit by the update have waited almost two years for the penalty to be removed.

In September 2016, Google announced that the update now runs in real time as part of their core algorithm as opposed to being refreshed on a periodic basis. This means that webmasters won’t have to wait for a refresh for the penalty to be removed as was the case in the past. Instead, as Google recrawls and reindexes pages, those pages will be assessed in real time by the Penguin filter. Pages can be penalized or have their penalty removed by Penguin as part of this process.

As Google stated in their release:

As Google said in its post:

With this change, Penguin’s data is refreshed in real time, so changes will be visible much faster, typically taking effect shortly after we recrawl and reindex a page.

Sites Penalized By Penguin

Penguin’s main target are sites that are adjudged by the algorithm to have spammy, manufactured backlink profiles. Other black hat SEO techniques targeted by the Penguin update include keyword stuffing, forced anchor text, cloaking, article or content spinning, link bombing, unnatural linking, over-optimization of web page elements and anchor text and deliberate creation of duplicate content to gain top search engine rankings.

Google Penguin and Negative SEO

Negative SEO typically involves using a variety of link building tools to point thousands of low quality, manipulative backlinks from link farms at their targeted sites within a very short period of time. A site that suddenly acquires thousands of low-quality links overnight gives the impression of being engaged in webspam, leading to a Penguin penalty.

Before Penguin 4.0, you used to be able to overcome negative SEO with the newly released disavow link tool. Some industry experts have taken this to mean that you technically no longer need to use the disavow file to help fix your negative SEO issues. However, Google’s Gary Illyes said that Google’s recommendation for using the disavow file has not changed. In other words, you should still use the disavow file to help recover from Penguin issues. He did go on to say however, that “specifically there’s less need” to use the disavow file for Penguin.

Gary Illyes also added “you can help us help you by using it.” Adding that “also, manual actions are still there, so if we see that someone is systematically trying to spam, the manual actions team might take a harsher action against the site.

From what Google has stated, it seems Google Penguin no longer penalizes sites or specific pages but rather ignores the spammy links and adjusts rankings accordingly. However, if it appears to Google that a website is deliberately trying to manipulate its way to a high organic search ranking, it will be targeted by the algorithm.

Sites Targeted By Google Penguin

Sites that have been targeted by Google Penguin include sites using the following techniques:

  • Paid Links: Sites suspected of buying or selling links were a major target of the update.
  • Anchor text over-optimization: Sites with too many backlinks exact match keywords in the anchor text were hit hard by Penguin. When legitimately done, inserting contextual links in anchor text is a legitimate and very effective way to generate traffic to a site. However, when exact keyword anchors are forced into content, the Penguin update dismisses the value of the page as it appears to focus on keywords rather than the content.
  • Comment spam: Keyword stuffing in article comments.
  • Unnatural inks from spammy private blog networks – Links on sites obviously built for link building were targeted by Penguin.
  • Site-wide links: Site-wide links located in the header or footer of found on every page of a website. Site-wide links are considered toxic and untrusted by Google and other search engines.
  • The practice of creating hundreds of forum posts with a site’s main keywords as anchor text in the forum signature.
  • Sites that embed backlinks into free products displayed across the web (such as blog templates with their back link in the bottom).
  • Purchasing vast amounts of low value links on poorly ranked sites using exact match keywords.
  • Over-optimization of web page elements such as the Page title.
  • Creation of private blog networks for the express purpose of getting backlinks.

Keeping the Penguin at Bay

Here’s are effective strategies that can be used to protect your site from being affected by future Penguin updates:

A Natural and Diverse Link Profile.

Generally speaking, your backlink profile is just a list of all of the backlinks that are currently pointing to various pages on your site.  When analyzing your site, the algorithm will use the quantity and quality of your link profile to determine the authority and importance of your website.

Building organic links is still one of the most important steps in improving your site’s ranking in Google search results. Some tactics that were once effective are now easily identified and penalized by Google. Nevertheless, link building remains absolutely essential for success in search.

However, it is essential that you have a natural and diverse link profile. A natural link profile will include many types of sources of links, and it is this diversity that helps to naturalize your link profile and insulate your site rankings from algorithm changes or link devaluation. If the overwhelming majority of your links come from just blogs or just forums or just directories with all of them linking to your site with virtually the same anchor text, your link profile will be viewed as manufactured.

Elements of a Strong, Natural Link Profile

  • High domain diversity with links from quality blogs, niche directories,  news sites, etc.
  • High link type diversity (i.e., web 2.0 sites, editorial links in articles, blog comments, forums, etc.).
  • Anchor text diversity.
  • Links from sites in the same TLD as your domain.
  • Social signals (i.e., Tweets, Facebook likes, social bookmarks, G+1’s, Diggs, Stumbles, etc.).
  • Relevant links from related websites.
  • Nofollow links.
  • User engagement (Comments, shares, and brand mentions).
  • Links from domains that are hosted on different IP addresses.
  • A diverse range of links from pages with varying PageRank values.
  • Deep links to specific interior pages.
  • Small number of reciprocal links.

Rate of Acquisition of Links

A natural link profile accumulates links over a period of time and will have diversity in the age of the links. Unless you have purchased an aged domain name with a strong link profile, it is crucial that every domain start with zero links and it’s usually necessary to start out slowly. Aim to build between 100 and 300 backlinks every month (approximately 10 links per day), which is the optimum pace in order to maximize your gain without any chance of being black listed from any search engine.

In the strategic planning stage of a link building campaign, it is important to calculate what level of velocity will be considered “normal”, taking into account the topical niche and other factors. If you have an accounting Website that suddenly acquires 3000 links in one month, its going to get the attention of the search engines, because that is not normal for that industry. However, bear in mind that it is normal for some sites involved in brand awareness campaigns, online press/media attention or social buzz to grow links more rapidly without raising eyebrows with the search engines.

Anchor Text Diversification

With the Penguin update, Google now looks at the keywords in anchor text pointing to your website. If too many inbound links to a page contain exactly the same anchor text, it is often a sign that the links weren’t acquired naturally.

Sites that were affected by the Penguin update had an unbalanced percentage of anchor text for “optimization” or “money” keywords (i.e., whatever term you’re trying to rank No. 1 for) as opposed to more natural-looking mix of linking anchor text (e.g., website’s page title, domain name (e.g., www.microsoft.com or microsoft.com),  “click here”, “read more”, ”more info“, “this blog post”, etc.). Conversely, sites that weren’t penalized by Penguin had a much more natural looking backlink profile. If a certain percentage of your top 10 links show the same or very similar anchor text, that is a warning sign of a very unnatural link profile.

In order to maintain a natural linking profile, it is necessary to link to your websites with a wide variety of seemingly random anchor text. Here are some examples:

Naked URLs

Naked URLs are the strongest signal to Google of a “natural” inbound link profile, and they typically comprise the majority percentage of anchor text distribution in healthy websites. Examples include: seoeducation.org.uk, http:// www.ppceducation.co.uk, and www.ppceducation.co.uk.

Brand/Keyword Anchor Text

Brand keywords are keywords with your brand names. They are comprised of some variation of the brand name for the destination website. Examples include “Nike shoes”, “Dell laptop”, “Rayban aviator sunglasses”, “I’m on Twitter” “Prada loafers”.

Exact Match Anchor Text

Exact match anchor text are anchor text that contain the keywords you are trying to generate more visibility for in the search engines. These are typically your money words. Examples include “leather shoes”, “greeting card”, “gold chain”, etc. These are the types of anchor text that the Penguin algorithm was focused on, and they can really hurt your site. In fact studies indicate that they should form no more than 5% (or less) of your link profile depending on the age of your site. To help build up keyword anchor text links, consider using them for internal site linking only, because that is where keyword-rich anchor text links become natural as they clearly help your visitors find their way around your site.

Partial Match Anchor Text

A partial match anchor text is generally more specific than exact match anchor text. This type of anchor text includes one or more of the keywords you are trying to generate more visibility for, in addition to other words. So, if your most valuable keyword phrase was “leather jackets”, these would all count as partial match anchor texts: “black leather jackets” “black leather jackets for men”; “leather jackets for men with gold buttons; “gorgeous leather jackets for men”. These type of anchor text should form no more than 5% of your link profile.

Zero Match Anchor Text

This type of anchor text doesn’t include any mention of the keyword you are trying to generate more visibility for. Examples include terms such as “click here”, learn more, more info, read more here, this website, etc. It is natural to have a lot of these types of anchor text in your link profile, because people tend to use these types of words when linking.

It is important for your backlink profile to look as authoritative as possible. It should contain each of the anchors listed above. The most natural anchor texts to use for any link to a page on your site are the page title, naked URLs and brand anchors.

Google updated their link schemes document specifically citing three new topics:

(1) Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.

(2) Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank.

(3) Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.

A natural link profile consists mostly of branded anchor texts (some of which may naturally contain keywords), secondarily on broad/partial match keyword anchor texts and other anchor texts (i.e. click here, website, etc.), with very few exact match keyword anchor text thrown in the mix.

The study concludes the following as best practices for building a natural anchor text profile:

  1. 60% brand, URL, brand+keyword, and non-targeted anchor texts
  2. 35% partial, phrase, and zero match keyword anchor texts
  3. 5% exact match anchor texts

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