Google Webspam “Penguin” Over-Optimization Penalty Hits

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meta keyword tag no longer provides any SEO benefit to rankings; however, many of the spammiest sites still stuff this outdated tag with dozens of keywords, and sometimes the same dozens on every page of the site.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.