Google’s Penguin update: prevention and recovery

Back in March 2012, some website owners started receiving unnatural links warnings via Google Webmaster Tools. Often, their website’s rank in Google search results would plummet shortly after. Naturally, these people – and many other website owners who weren’t affected – freaked out. (Exhibit A: The 100+ comments on my post about it back then.)

In March, Google began cracking down on link networks like BuildMyRank. People who used these link-building sites probably didn’t realize that paying for or exchanging links is perilous and often goes directly against Google’s guidelines.

Then on April 24, 2012, Google’s Penguin update was rolled out. The Big G said:

“In the next few days, we’re launching an important algorithm change targeted at webspam. The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s quality guidelines. This algorithm represents another step in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content.”

“…this algorithm affects about 3.1% of queries in English to a degree that a regular user might notice.”

Penguin is primarily about penalizing web pages with inbound links that violate Google’s quality guidelines – including links that pass PageRank (links without a rel=nofollow attribute) that Google thinks were paid for, as well as link schemes like link exchanges.

According to SearchEngineLand, Penguin is also trying to target sites using spammy techniques like keyword stuffing and purposefully publishing duplicate content, as well as doing shady things like cloaking, sneaky redirects and “doorway” pages. (You can find definitions of each of these in Google’s webmaster guidelines.)

You might have a Penguin problem if...

You might have a Penguin problem if…

  • You noticed the number of visitors to your site from Google search results or your Google rankings dropped on April 24th (or May 25th or October 5th – the two Penguin refresh dates).
  • Anchor text for links pointing to your site are mostly perfect keywords. A “natural” link profile should have a lot of links with anchor text such as your business name, your website address and “click here.” An unnatural link profile would be mostly inbound links with anchor text such as “adirondack chairs” – and linking on these keyword terms looks odd or inappropriate.
  • Your home page and awesome blog posts have fewer inbound links than your product or service pages. People are much more likely to link to your home page or interesting content than any sales-y pages…unless they’re paid to.
  • You have very few links coming from sites in your industry or niche. Check out the graphs and analysis here.
  • You have links to your site from every page of a number of other websites – and they all have keywords as anchor text. These sitewide links can be legitimate – for example, some web design companies put a link to their own site on every page of the sites they build. But if these links are keyword-rich, they can get the web design company in trouble.

To look at the links to your website:

  • Use, a free tool up to a certain amount of usage. It will show you which website URLs link to your site, the anchor text they used, and the page and domain authority (similar to PageRank) of the linking web page and website.
  • Look in the “Links To Your Site” section of Google Webmaster Tools, and you’ll find a list of the domains that link to your site, along with the number of links that point your way from each domain.

How can a website recover from or prevent a Penguin smackdown?

Ben Lloyd presented the three Ds at a great SEMpdx event earlier this month:

1.) Delete bad links… if possible.  You can spend a lot of time crafting an email message and then finding contact info for each website that has shady links to your site.  Many sites won’t list any contact info, so your next option is to go to theirwhois record.  Unfortunately, some webmasters make their information private, or list contact info they don’t check anymore.  And once you get the emails sent off, who knows if the website owners will get the message, or do anything about it…

2.) Destroy

  • If most of the bad links are pointing to an internal page or pages – and not your home page – deleting those pages so they produce a 404 error can help you start fresh, and avoid the penalty for those bad links.
  • If you have many bad links pointing to your home page, it may be time to consider completely ditching your current website and domain name, and starting over somewhere else.  If you need help ripping the Band-Aid off, Ben reminds us: A website is not your business – it’s a tool for your business.

3.) Dilute your bad links by getting more good natural links.

This will admittedly be a lot of time-consuming work because legitimate content marketing and link building is never easy.

Ben made it clear that people should not just go out and use the same black hat link-building tactics, and buy natural-looking anchor text like their business’s name, instead of a nice juicy keyword phrase.

Check out the video (pardon the language) that Ben turned me on to for great tips on white hat link building techniques.

Since Ben’s presentation, Google has introduced a link disavowal tool. So here’s a new option for recovering from Penguin:

4.) Disavow (verb: deny any responsibility or support for)

Matt Cutts of Google told the SEO world in June that Google was considering a tool that would allow website owners to tell Google which links to their site they were unable to get removed, and that they don’t want counted either in their favor or against them.

On October 16, 2012, the Big G launched the Disavow Links tool, but made it very clear that it should be used with caution and only after you’ve tried – and failed – to get iffy links removed at the source.  For more information, read our post.

When to know if you’ve recovered from Penguin:

If you make changes that you think should get you back on the straight and narrow in Google’s eyes, you will have to wait until the next Penguin data refresh to see if you have recovered.

Penguin data refreshes have happened on May 25th and October 5th so far, following the initial Penguin launch on April 24th, 2012.   You can check a site like or Google Webmaster Tools’ Twitter account religiously to see if a new update has been announced. Then check your Google Analytics to see if your organic Google search traffic improved after that date.

As always, the best advice is to stick to white hat SEO techniques and put out great content – the kind that people naturally want to share with their friends and colleagues. That should help you weather just about any Google update.

  • Only hire SEO companies/employees you really trust to not get you in trouble. Don’t pay for any service that promises to get you on the first page of Google. If they’re making that promise, odds are they’re either lying or using black hat SEO techniques that will eventually get you in trouble with Google.
  • Don’t chase the algorithms like a crazy person. If your goal is to stay one step ahead of Google, you may succeed for a while – but it’s going to be stressful, a lot of work, and one day your site may be dead in the water.
  • Focus your energy on what Google will always want: good interesting content.  If you write excellent content on your website that real people want to share,  you’re golden.
  • Don’t get stuck in an SEO time warp. It’s easy to stick to the gray or black hat things that worked for you before, like buying links, keyword stuffing, sending link exchange requests, or submitting articles to directories. All of these are outdated now, and Google will continue to try to shut down these artificial methods for trying to look authoritative.
  • Embrace social media. It has so many benefits in its own right, and odds are search engines will continue to give social mentions plenty of weight when determining rankings.