A quick disclaimer: While this post is based on an analysis of data from a client that recently joined us, they are still in the process of recovery, and we naturally can’t share the raw data. We plan to share this information in the future.
If you’ve heard of Penguin, you probably already know that it’s an update to Google’s algorithm intended to keep spam out of the search engines. Google recently unleashed their 5th Penguin update, Penguin 2.1. Inevitably, any time Google releases an update, initial responses can rely on nothing more than what Google is telling us about the update, and pure speculation. Solving the “mystery” of how the new algorithm works (to an extent), is a huge part of recovery.
Upon analyzing our client’s data, one of the first things we unearthed was how aggressively the new algorithm targets internal pages. Prior to Penguin 2.0, Penguin only targeted links that affected the homepage of websites. (The fact that nobody publicly said this until Google told us is testament to just how little SEOs really know about the algorithm). After 2.0, the algorithm targeted “deep linked” pages.
The latest update, 2.1, appears to be targeting these deep links more aggressively.
With our client, we also found that over-optimized and exact-match anchor text are no longer crucial to Penguin. While the earlier iterations of Penguin primarily targeted link profiles with excessive exact match or partial match links, our client has fairly diverse anchor text, much more diverse than we’ve seen in previous cases.
While we can’t claim to know for sure which negative signals could be playing a part, here are some of the types of links we saw that could be playing a part in the Penguin “attack:”
- Naked URLs placed on platforms that weren’t relevant
- Placing an excessive number of links on the same platform (even with multiple anchor texts)
- Placing multiple links to the same page from the same guest post (even with multiple anchor texts)
- An excessive number of short blog posts (400 to 500 words) used to link back to the target page (or pages)
- Unnecessary pages created for the sole purpose of putting more content on the site and creating more internal links
- Various other link patterns that stand out as obvious in a human review
- Links from low quality domains (that were clearly acquired intentionally, rather than granted naturally)
- Do-follow links from sponsored posts (these are considered paid links)
- An excessive proportion of Do-follow links. Natural link profiles tend to have relatively high proportions of no-follow links.
- Continuing to acquire links from directories, social bookmarking sites, blog comments, and forums that have already been spammed to death by others
- Too much emphasis on anchor text strategy in general, leaving patterns that suggest search engine manipulation, rather than natural brand promotion
Understanding the “Mind” of Penguin
If you’re still under the impression that Penguin was launched to downgrade exact match anchor text and over-optimization strategies, you might want to revisit that assumption. Google never hesitates to tell us that any link intended to manipulate PageRank, that any activity intended to manipulate search results, may be considered a violation of their guidelines.
This applies to all of Google’s updates and the algorithm as a whole, whether we’re talking about Penguin, Panda, EMD, or a manual unnatural link penalty.
Somewhere around 2,000 PhDs are working at Google. A good portion of them are working on the search engine and the anti-spam team. It’s not their job to keep pages with a certain kind of link profile in the search results. Their job is to keep users in their SERPs where they will see advertisements and click on them. While you certainly should avoid creating a link profile with a high proportion of exact match links, this is not going to guarantee that you are safe from Penguin or any future update.
Algorithms may be automatic, but they are increasingly informed by machine learning and other advanced techniques. If your website’s business model conflicts with Google’s business model, you can expect a dramatic drop in the search results or a penalty at some point in the future.
While the first Penguin updates only targeted links on the homepage of sites, Penguin 2.0 expanded to include internal pages, and Penguin 2.1 appears to have expanded beyond some of the more obvious link patterns (like anchor text).
Websites that were hit by the earlier Penguin updates are in an especially precarious position right now. After 17 months, it’s harder than ever to recover.
Notes on Recovery from Penguin Updates
Before we dive into strategy, it’s important to make sure that you’re actually dealing with Penguin. Take a look at when your traffic levels dropped, and see if they coincide with one of these Penguin updates:
- April 24, 2012
- May 25, 2012
- October 5, 2012
- May 22, 2013
- Oct 4, 2013
If your traffic dropped on or near these days, there’s a good chance you’re looking at Penguin. If it occurred on a different day, it very well may be something else.
In any case, when you are hit by an update, it’s important to analyze your data and make an effort to determine if the penalty is link-based, or if it is caused by content or something similar. If you believe it is link-based, the following steps should be helpful for you, even if it wasn’t Penguin. Keep in mind, though, that this could be a waste of resources if you aren’t sure.
1. Balance Your Anchor Text
While Penguin has become more advanced and focuses on factors other than anchor text, this is still a big part of the problem, and it’s one we see very often in penalized sites.
Prior to Penguin, a good portion of SEOs advised their clients to use anchor text including the exact keyword they were trying to rank for. These efforts need to be corrected. You have two ways of fixing this problem: remove the links or edit them.
In most circumstances, the first option is typically the right one. Most links containing exact match anchor text are acquired from sites with relatively low quality standards. Those sites have a fairly simple business model. In some form, they rely on SEOs building links from them in order to make money. Google despises sites with that kind of business model, and there is very little chance many of them will recover from Penguin without completely changing the core purpose of their site.
A quick explanation if any of you are confused here. Penguin typically doesn’t attack link acquirers directly. In general, Google targets the sites with the outbound links. Link acquirers are typically impacted indirectly, in the sense that their inbound links no longer help them rank. There is some nuance here, however. Google does have manual penalties for link acquirers, and there are most likely provisions within Penguin that create a similar effect.
Another common issue is the fact that too many of these links associate you with a “bad neighborhood” on the web. This means that the other links you acquire will be viewed with more “skepticism” by Google. In essence, the more bad links you acquire, the weaker your strong links become. If you cut out the bad links, the rest of your inbound links are viewed more favorably.
Using OpenSiteExplorer, Majestic SEO, or Ahrefs, you can find your most common anchor texts, and where those links are coming from. From there, it’s relatively easy to find out which links need to be removed.
As we said, it’s usually best to remove the exact match links, but editing them is an option. In general, the only ones you will want to keep will be the ones sending at least some referral traffic. The number of referrals doesn’t need to be large, but it should be there.
2. Identify and Remove Low Quality Links
As we said, Penguin isn’t just about exact match anchor text. There are a couple reasons for this:
- As we said, the sites that are typically hit directly are the ones providing the links. Even if your anchor text looks natural, if the link is coming from a site loaded with exact match outbound links, that site will still get penalized, and you will still lose the value of that link. The link will also likely tie you to a bad neighborhood, decreasing the value of your other inbound links.
- Google’s algorithms are increasingly advanced, and are capable of identifying hubs for spam links based on the content of the linked pages, regardless of what the anchor text looks like.
For these reasons, it’s important to remove as many low quality links as possible. The quality of the link isn’t just determined by its anchor text. It’s primarily determined by where the link is coming from. If it’s coming from a site loaded with low quality content, and/or links to low quality sites, it is a low quality link. It’s relatively easy to decide whether or not a link is worth keeping. Just ask yourself a few simple questions:
- Assuming you hired an agency or an in house SEO, would you have bothered building this link yourself?
- Would this link be worth acquiring if it were no-follow (for referral traffic, brand impressions, or reputability)?
- Does the link match Google’s link guidelines?
If you answer “no” to these, you should eliminate the link. With an algorithmic penalty, there’s no way to know for sure whether your links have been devalued, or they are actually counting against you. If they are counting against you, they will hinder your promotional efforts and make recovery difficult or impossible. Even when they aren’t counting against you directly, they still tie you to bad neighborhoods, which have a cumulative negative effect.
I’d like to emphasize, however, that this primarily applies to links that you have built. Many natural links are relatively low in quality. I don’t advise removing these, unless they look somehow suspicious, and create the appearance that you are trying to manipulate search results.
The best tool for accomplishing this is Link Detox by Link Research Tools. This dramatically simplifies the process of finding and removing low quality links. If it’s difficult for you to tell the difference between a spammy link and a natural one, or if you don’t have the resources to do this alone, we advise you to get in touch with an experienced professional who can help guide you through the process.
3. Don’t Use the Disavow Tool Unless You Know How to Use it Properly
In the past, we’ve been contacted by clients who were penalized, and then attempted to resolve the problem by submitting all of their negative links through the disavow tool. Doing this makes recovery very difficult. Google is very explicit about making an effort to remove as many links as possible before using the disavow tool. Webmasters who ignore this advice end up making a very bad impression on Google, and recovery becomes very difficult.
Penguin is an algorithm, not technically a penalty, so the situation is somewhat different. That said, if Google ever gets manually involved with your site, your immediate choice to use the disavow tool is not going to reflect well on your future. To avoid this problem, you need to eliminate as many links as possible before resorting to the disavow tool.
4. Kill Unnecessary Pages On Your Site
It may seem odd to say this in a post about Penguin, not Panda, but there is a relationship between the two.
Now that Penguin targets deep links, not just the home page, there is a good chance it analyzes internal links in much the same way it analyzes external links. For example, one tactic that is frequently used by novice and “grey hat” SEOs is that of creating a large number of low quality pages, and using them to link to an internal target page. This can sometimes have the effect of helping this target page rank.
Such internal link networks are frowned upon by Google, especially when they are made up of low quality content. There has never been any compelling evidence to suggest that Google’s algorithm treats external and internal links differently (with the exception that domain diversity is an important part of the value of a link). Now that Penguin looks at internal pages, it’s likely that these kinds of internal networks could be penalized in much the same way as external link networks.
5. Build Authoritative, Branded Backlinks
I want to emphasize that this is where the “real” work is done.
As we’ve pointed out throughout this article, Penguin primarily penalizes outbound links. Most of your loss in traffic is accounted for by the fact that your inbound links no longer pass any value. Granted, in some cases, the links can actually count against you, and they do tie you to bad neighborhoods that can hinder future promotion. So yes, it’s important to remove the bad links, but removing bad links alone will not lead to recovery.
From this point forward, it’s all about legitimate brand building. In other words, while you want to be conscious of how your actions will impact your search results, your strategy must also be justifiable in the absence of search engine benefit. In other words, a good SEO strategy should be designed to afford you with positive ROI even if you didn’t see improvements in organic traffic.
We recently shared a case study, explaining in detail how we helped a client fully recover from a Penguin penalty.
An enormous part of our strategy was purely promotional. (In fact, the client volunteered to work on removing the backlinks, while we focused primarily on a promotional strategy). For example:
- We posted guest posts on top industry blogs for traffic, brand impressions, and reputation
- We reached out to top tier blogs that don’t publicly ask for guest posts
- We promoted them on top small and medium business platforms
When we say that the links should focus on your brand name, we’re not saying that the anchor text should consist exactly of your brand name or that you should always put your brand name in the link. Instead, we are saying that your links should be “branded” in the sense that it’s clear where the link is pointing, that it’s helping you gain exposure, and that it counts as reputable marketing outside of pure SEO.
As for anchor text, we advise optimizing your backlinks for click-through rate. In other words, your links should go beyond keywords altogether (including your brand name). Emphasize maximal referrals, rather than maximal SEO benefit. (These days, the two are essentially the same anyway.) The context of the link plays a big part here as well. This is where you really need to start thinking like a conversion rate optimizer.
6. Shift Toward Audience Acquisition and Retention
It takes quite a while to recover from Penguin. In the previous example, we were able to recover our client within 8 months. That’s what a very swift, successful recovery looks like. Needless to say, many businesses can’t invest that long without any ROI to show for it. This is why, in the meantime, you must alter your site’s business model so that it is profitable in the absence of Google’s good graces.
At this point, I would strongly advise you to read our guide: The Art of Blogging to Acquire Customers and Promote Business. Keep the following in mind:
- It’s all about your “two audiences:” a core audience, and the mainstream.
- You need a core audience that keeps coming back, or any gains you make will be lost. In the absence of search engines and paid traffic, growth is impossible without a repeat audience. If, on the other hand, you do retain an audience, exponential growth is a genuine possibility. If you retain the audience, your traffic levels will grow like compound interest each time you post.
- You need a mainstream audience of continuously new visitors. Without mainstream appeal, you will saturate your niche within a relatively short period of time. You need to reach the people who don’t frequent the industry blogs and forums, and who aren’t connected to people who do.
- To get and keep a core audience, you need to post frequently on top industry blogs, contribute value on forums and comment sections, dominate your niche of Quora, and bribe those visitors to provide their email address in exchange for something of value. Ideally, you will leverage all of this to build a solid community on your own platform.
- To reach a mainstream audience, you need to find ways to obtain occasional exposure on large, mainstream media outlets. You will also need to package your content appropriately for outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Don’t simply post links to your content. Use captioned images, Twitter cards, and “instructographics” to reach the mainstream. Think 9gag, imgur, and SomeEcards. Be funny, be actionable, be surprising, be visual, and be brief. If you do that, you will dominate social media. Just remember, social followership is a “light” commitment. It doesn’t compare with email in terms of conversions or retention. This is where your mainstream followers are, so treat the platform as such.
7. Content Marketing is Not SEO
These terms are getting more and more conflated, but they’re not the same thing. I believe that content marketing is a crucial part of successful SEO, and basically a necessity if you want to recover from Penguin, but it’s not SEO. A strategy that relies exclusively on search engines is not content marketing.
Remember: content marketing is about exchanging value for audience attention. You capture attention by being funny, visual, surprising, and brief. You keep attention by being in-depth, helpful, and unique. That is the essence of content marketing.
Once you master that, the SEO part gets easy. Earning guest posts on top blogs gets easy. Outreach gets easy. Natural, automatic links get easy.
8. Master the Art of the Linkable Asset
Speaking of making SEO and recovery easy, linkable assets really are the key to the web. For some depth on this, you can take a look at our post on SEJ about Creating and Promoting Linkable Assets. A few key points here:
- What is a linkable asset? It’s more appropriately thought of as a resource than as a piece of content. It’s useful enough to get mentioned in at least one major industry publication. It’s interactive in some sense of the word, meaning that it somehow encourages users to act, rather than passively absorb content. It has an intense emotional impact, most effectively if that impact is one of awe. Finally, linkable assets tend to take a stance, appeal to certain subcultures, and make you or your business more “relatable.”
- If you look at the Moz top 500, you’ll see that a huge proportion of the most successful sites on the web are either tools, or sites that would lose all value without their tools.
- The most linkable sites on the web also leverage crowdsourcing in the extreme. Give your readers something to do, and they will have an experience. Experiences are more memorable than “content.”
- Videos can be especially link-worthy, assuming you do them right. It’s generally better to do something simple correctly than to try for something big and end up with a hokey imitation. Focus on being useful and relatable. You might consider working with somebody who has had success on YouTube or Vimeo before.
- Work together with an influencer.
- Original research is another powerful kind of linkable asset. The media loves to comment on surveys and studies, and if you approach them with the right level of academic scrutiny, they can be a great way to earn respect and prestige in your niche.
Recovery is Possible
While it can take months or more, we have successfully helped clients recover from Penguin penalties. Everything we have advised here is rooted in experience. Recovery, and SEO in general, is a process that demands both technical and creative skills. If you’re having trouble deciding how to move forward, we’re always here to talk. If you have anything to add, let us know in the comments.
Thanks so much for reading.