Google Webspam “Penguin” Over-Optimization Penalty Hits

Filed under: Internet Marketing — Brian

Google has confirmed that it has begun rolling out the over-optimization penalty that Matt Cutts first talked about in March. Now called the “Penguin” update, the goal of this is to target spammy SEO tactics, including keyword stuffing, excessive reciprocol linking, and selling links.

As always Google is not saying exactly what triggers the algorithm, but they did give us a couple of examples of pages that are considered spammy, including this one:

Google webspam example

This is the kind of spun article that you see a lot of on paid link networks and article directories. In the recent past Google has been manually shutting many of these networks down, but it looks like this is an algorithmic solution designed to help detect those and other sites with unnatural links in them.

SEO Danger Signs

In all likelihood this over-optimization penalty requires a mixture of several different signals, or going truly overboard in one area. Here are the possible over-optimization or webspam signals that SEOs and webmasters should be aware of. It’s worth noting that most of these factors also cause a poor user experience and reduce conversion rates as well.

Spammy Page Titles

This includes titles that are consistently too long (over 64 characters), that include multiple different keywords, or use the same keyword more than twice. Essentially titles that are clearly spammy looking and don’t read well. An example of a bad title would be “Buy Blue Widgets | Blue Widget Distributor | Wholesale Discount Blue Widgets – Acme, Inc” The ranking strength that titles give makes it a likely target for over-optimization and webspam.

Meta Keyword Tag Stuffing

The meta keyword tag no longer provides any SEO benefit to rankings; however, many of the spammiest sites still stuff this outdated tag with dozens of keywords, and sometimes the same dozens on every page of the site. This behavior is a pretty safe indication of over-SEO’d sites. There’s nothing wrong with using the meta keywords tag, but it should hold no more than 5 or so keywords, and the keyword selection should be different from page to page. It is also completely safe to not use this tag at all, as it does not help rankings.

Content Keyword Stuffing

Excessive keyword use in the body text of a page is one of the clearest overly-optimized signals on a page. There is a fine line between being sure to use your keywords often (which is good) and using them too often. In general once the text starts to read poorly it is too much.

An example of this would be “Buy your blue widgets here at Acme, Inc and get the blue widget that you want, and have your blue widget shipped out the same day. All of our blue widgets meet this highest widget standards, and are as blue as you can imagine any blue widget being.”

Keep in mind image alt text is included in the keyword density, and excessive bolding is a possible spam signal as well.

Excessive or Unnatural Internal Linking

Excessive inter-linking within the body content of your pages is another spam signal, especially when the same page or same anchor text is linked repeatedly. As a broad rule of thumb you usually don’t want to link more than twice in the content of your typical page (to different pages), and no inter-linking is just fine.

Keep in mind that Google only pays attention to the first anchor text of any given link, so if you’re linking to a page already linked in the global navigation, you’re probably giving minimal benefit anyway.

If you have the occasional page with a legitimate need to link out a lot, that’s not going to be a problem. But if you do so all the time or in ways that seem like you’re just spamming links, then you could be in trouble. If you really feel the need for this much inner linking on most pages, then you may want to reexamine your site’s navigation and find out why that isn’t serving the navigation needs of users.

Excessive Anchor Text in Backlinks

One of the purest signals of over-optimization or spam is very large numbers of backlinks that use exact match or partial exact match anchor text. This means that large percentages of backlinks from other sites are using link text like “Blue Widgets” or “Buy Blue Widgets” rather than the more common way of linking using the site’s name or URL. This has been widely reported as the most common trigger of the Penguin penalties.

As a broad rule of thumb, most sites with a natural link profile have over 50% of their links using the site’s name or URL, and no other single anchor text accounts for more than 10% of the backlinks.

This signal basically represents sites accumulating large numbers of paid links, and it’s very likely that this signal will only trigger in combination with another on-site signal.

Reciprocal Link Pages

If you have link pages – sometimes called resource pages – that link out to a bunch of other sites that in turn link to you, this is an over-optimization signal and once that Matt Cutts specifically mentioned. You can link out to other useful sites, but if they’re also linking back to your site somewhere, you’re probably better off not doing so. Reciprocol links are against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Again, there are exceptions, and these are usually found in specific niches in which all the authoritative sites in the niches link to each other as a matter of culture (usually this is blog niches, and those links are the name of the site they’re linking to, not anchor text).

Excessive Footer links

Too many footer links, and in particular abnormal types of footer links, is another likely signal. Most users never look at a site’s footer, so it’s become a popular place to stuff links just for the search engines. It’s normal to have links to locations, contact pages, sitemaps, privacy policies and credits in the footer. It’s not normal to repeat large sections of the site’s navigation in the footer, or to place the site’s navigation in the footer or link to dozens of pages, internal or external.

What Could Happen?

There are already thousands of webmasters complaining about this penalty, and it looks like in many cases the result is similar to the Panda algorithm: the entire site is penalized in rankings. Some of these penalties just keep a site from ranking in the first couple of pages, while others prevent the site from ranking in the top 100 for anything.

The downside of this algorithm is pretty large.

Should You Be Worried?

Keep in mind that most of the sites targeted by this algorithm take these approaches to the extreme, and it usually takes several different flags to trigger the penalty, or a truly over the top excess. That said, if your site makes use of any of these — or if your SEO provider has done these to your site, then you should probably be concerned.

Even if you escape the current version rolling out over the next several days, it’s likely that Google will continue to refine and rerun the algorithm just like they did with Panda, with new sites being hit each time.

If on the other hand your site is built reasonably for the users with no spammy on-page or off-page (linkbuilding) tactics, then you’ll be just fine.

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13 Comments | Leave a comment

  • The most recent over optimization update target quite a few things… my problem with the update is that many quality sites got hit for having too many keyword anchor text links. I wrote a post on it here
    http://www.seo-services.com/the-google-over-optimization-penalty/general/
    The issue is that very high quality sites often include keyword anchor text in the content they create. If there are too many keyword anchor text links this can set off a flag and cause the whole site to be penalized. The filter is set way to high right now, and has resulted in quality sites being penalized. This is my opinion on the causes. I hope they fix it soon.

    Comment by Brian Greenberg

  • Hi my site has fallen from position 1 to position 5 very quickly due to “penguin” and some internal pages have fared worse – The site home page is geared for first time visitors to amsterdam with a lot of external links to “google maps” featuring city landmarks/parks etc for vistors to visit – I feel that this is a legitimate use of external links and feel unfairly penalised for it – as aN SEO newbie I believe that I made an error in not adding “No follow” to these links which I have done now – hopefully this will make a difference – Unfortunately not sure how long penalty will last

    Comment by steve

  • sorry forget to mention that my site is http://www.thingstodoinamsterdam.co.uk in case anyone has a view – My errors may be greater than I thought – any advice very welcome

    Comment by steve

  • Dropping from 1 to 5 is not a penalty — that’s just a ranking change (penalties generally drop you at least 30 places).

    Linking out to Google maps is not going to hurt you at all, follow or nofollow. There are a couple things on your site that are a bit over-optimized and a little spammy, but I doubt they’re hurting you now (keyword-stuffed titles, that list of tiny text at the top of the page that, frankly, exists only for the search engines — I’d get rid of that fast).

    Comment by Brian

  • What is the opinion about e-commerce sites that have a bestsellers in category box (internal links to top selling items)or related items links (accessories for product being viewed). What limitations should be put on these?

    Comment by Greg

  • I really wouldn’t worry about them at all. These things are common to the majority of ecommerce sites and Google has to account for that footprint (or else we would have seen all the ecommerce sites hit by penguin).

    In general Google is able to tell the difference between different content blocks on a site. So it knows what part is your sidebars, your navigation, your ads, and your editorial content. It’s spamming tons of internal links in the internal content (and regularly) that is a likely spam signal.

    Comment by Brian

  • My site just hit by penjuin badly,Many of my keyword on first page of Google but now nowhere in Google,I have owned many site but i dont understand why my only one site is infected other are just fine.I apply same strategy to all of my sites so what what i can do to come back.

    Comment by george bil

  • In every instance I’ve seen of people demonstrably penalized by Penguin, they had bought links and done so somewhat unwisely, stuffing anchor text in almost all of the paid links.

    If you want to let us know the site that was penalized, I can take a quick look at it. But in general your first step is to get rid of as many of those paid links as you can.

    Another important step is to check your Google Webmaster Tools and look under messages to see if you received any kind of warning from Google.

    Comment by Brian

  • Can having too many test keywords cause my site to have its preview not show up. A little after testing with keywords packing on a page, that page and half of the pages on my site have no previews in Google. My ranking didn’t go back. Now after reading about key words stuffing I am remaking my site. But, I still need to know if this is what caused it.

    Comment by Daniel

  • I’m not sure what you mean by “test” keywords, but yes, keyword stuffing is absolutely something that can hurt your rankings (in fact, it could even before Penguin).

    Comment by Brian

  • So here is my situation.

    1) Homepage – Which had many spammy links and to much over optimized external links and fell off the chart.

    I totally understand. I am working on fixing that.

    2) All other high page ranks stayed the same. So it seems like it is not hitting the whole website it is actually just hitting pages.

    My question is for the homepage. I have a lot of blog comments which are no follow. They are not using the anchor keyword but using my name. So I might have like 100 links using my name.

    Since I cannot remove them would those links effect my homepage for the word I am trying to rank for?

    Comment by Brian

  • It depends on what your domain name is — there have been reports of companies using exact match or partial exact match domains (like buy-blue-widgets.info) being hit by Panda, because their “brand” is actually a keyword phrase.

    If that’s the case with your site, then yes, that anchor text is hurting you. Also, it’s possible that even without the anchor text, the low-quality spammy links are hurting you. What you need to do is focus on building high-quality links to the homepage (and genuine organic links, not just ones that might look organic) so that you have far more real links than fake ones.

    However, you’re in a fairly good spot, since the rest of your site is still ranking!

    Comment by Brian

  • Are the penguin algorithmic penalties permanent? I went from page 1 on google with 600-900 impressions a day to <10 impressions a day and I am ranked at about 400. I do have some paid links that i did when I first got started. I asked the company (Attracta)to remove them and they said they were permanant. They stated that none of their other clients were hit. All of the links they provided are keyword anchored and account for about 52 links on 3 domains. I have 103 other domains linking back. About 40 of these are from social bookmarking sites that also have keyword anchor text. I also have an exact keyword domain name (ChickenPaprikash.com). Most of my keyword anchors are chicken paprikash or chicken paprikash recipe, which is what I sell. I'm getting more links from product review blogs and asking them not to use these keywords as anchors. Since I am not able to remove the paid links will I ever recover from the penguin update?

    Comment by Rick

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