The Google Penguin Algorithm Update

Google’s algorithm update codenamed Penguin was released on May 25, 2012, and is still very much in play today.

Note however, that since Google launched the real-time version of Penguin in 2016, Google Penguin no longer penalizes sites or specific pages but rather ignores/devalues spammy links.

The majority of websites hit the hardest by Penguin back in 2012 were adjudged by the algorithm to have manufactured backlink profiles that were either paid links, or of low quality in terms of relevance to the linking site and websites with over-optimized, keyword-rich anchor text.

The Penguin update penalizes websites that use a variety of black-hat SEO techniques such as 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.

The sites that were hit hardest by Google Penguin back then included sites with the following issues:

  • Paid Links: Sites that buy or sell links were a major target of the update.
  • Low quality mass linking: These are spammy links acquired through the use of automated link building software. 
  • Anchor text over-optimization: Sites with backlinks that had a high percentage of exact match keywords in the anchor text of articles, blog comments, forums and any other format that would allow you to post a hyperlink 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: Poor grammar as well as keyword stuffing in article comments were also a common factor amongst Penguin affected sites.
  • Links from dangerous sites – Links on sites flagged for malware, excessive pop-ups or other spammy issues were an instant Penguin target.
  • Site-wide links: Site-wide links are typically inbound links found in a footer or header of a website that appears on every page on the website. These links are considered untrustworthy by Google since they are typically from company-owned domains (not a true third-party referral) or paid link relationships.

Although it appears that Penguin heavily targeted unrelated and unnatural inbound links, the algorithmic change does not appear to penalize websites with certain irrelevant links that it does not notify you about through your GWT account. What it appears to do is to remove any credit it had previously given for these links.

For example, if a website was ranking on the 1st page of the search results because it had 50 natural links and 1500 manufactured links, the drop in rankings would have been attributed to the update removing any value that the website may have been gaining from the 1500 artificial links.

For the types of links in your link profile that can actually attract a Google penalty, Google uses terms ‘like unnatural links’ or ‘inorganic links’ (meaning links that were more or less manufactured). If you are having problems removing any of these troublesome links from your link profile, you can use the newly released Google disavow tool to get them removed.

Following are black hat techniques that are targeted by Google Penguin:

  • 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.
  • Article or content spinning.
  • Deliberate creation of duplicate content to gain top search engine rankings.
  • Creation of 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.

Here’s Moz’s Rand Fishkin on Google Penguin 4.0:

An overview of the Google over-optimization penalty.

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