Google Penguin Update

Google makes over 500 changes to their ranking algorithm every year. Many of these are very minor and almost invisible, but occasionally Google makes major algorithm updates or supplemental algorithms that have a major impact on rankings and can cause a well-ranking site to vanish from the top search engine results.

The most recent major change Google made is the Penguin update, which has sparked massive discussion and debate among SEOs and webmasters. Because Penguin seems to mostly target certain backlink strategies, it’s given rise to new concerns about the possible dangers of negative SEO.

Here are the details about how Google’s Panda update works, what it targets, and how to recover from Penguin  penalties. As always you can contact the Ecreative team for help with sustainable ranking help, including recovering from Penguin and building a strategy for longterm SEO success.

The Penguin Update

Google first launched the Penguin update on April 24, 2012 to target artificial linkbuilding tactics by SEOs and unwise site owners. Sites that fall victim to Penguin may see huge rankings drops for specific phrases or site-wide rankings drops. It’s important to stress that these rankings drops will be at least 30 places: a drop of a few or a dozen rankings is not a penalty from Penguin or any other source.

Google is also actively deindexing or discounting the kinds of low-quality sites that exist only to provide backlinks to other sites. When these sites are deindexed any value from those links goes away, which can cause rankings to drop. Many times SEOs or webmasters can confuse this with a penalty.

You can verify that Penguin  has affected you by using analytics to match the fall off of Google-specific search traffic with one of the dates that the Penguin update ran.

The Penguin update is still not as thoroughly understood as Panda, but the following characteristics seems to be what Penguin is targeting:

  • The primary trigger of Penguin is an excessive number of backlinks that use keyword-rich anchor text. A natural link profile with have most links using the site’s name or URL as the link anchor text as well as junk anchor text like “click here.” Penguin seems to also trigger on page-specific backlinks: thus if you have a deep page with most of the links using keyword anchor text, it can trigger a Penguin penalty even if the home page or the site at large has a more natural link profile.
  • Penguin is also suspected to trigger based on having a great deal of links from very low quality sources that are typically used for artificial linkbuilding, such as general directories, article directories, and link networks. It’s difficult to verify this trigger since these links are almost always built with keyword-rich anchor text, so it could be a correlation that has no causation.

Penguin is not a built-in part of Google’s ranking algorithm. Instead it is a separate algorithm that runs periodically. The advantage of this is that you can compare rankings drops to the last date Penguin ran to confirm if a rankings loss is due to Penguin. The downside is that even if you correct the problems overnight, you’ll have to wait a month or two for the next time Penguin runs to see the recovery from the penalty.

Penguin Recovery

If you think your site may have been hit by a Penguin penalty, the first step is to verify that it really is a Penguin-related penalty, and not another rankings drop. First check your Google Webmaster Tools for warnings from Google that might indicate another kind of penalty, including manual action. Then verify that the date of rankings or traffic drops lines up with a date that Penguin ran.

Because Penguin is triggered solely on backlinks, recovery is much more difficult than for other issues. One core thing to understand is that sites with a strong natural backlink profile, of organic, deserved links, is almost never hit by penalties associated with bad backlinks. The first priority is recovering from Penguin, but then you should try to build the kind of SEO strategy that makes your site immune to these kinds of algorithm changes.

To recover from Penguin, the first job is to do a serious analysis of all of your backlinks. For this you need to look at all the backlinks you can find, even the lowest quality ones, and examine the anchor text spread. The best tool for this is the Majestic link index. You are looking to see how much keyword anchor text you have compared to branded, URL, or junk anchor text. You want at least 60% of your anchor text to be branded/junk anchor text. Also look for specific pages of your site that have excessive keyword anchor text.

Once you have a clear picture of where the anchor text issues are coming from, you need to work at a combination of removing some of the suspicious anchor text link and building quality links from relevant sites. For removing links, your first target should be site-wide anchor text links – these are often a strong sign of paying for links. But don’t focus solely on removing links – be sure to build up those natural links at the same time you’re removing the unnatural ones. The goal is to build yourself into a natural (and ideally quality) backlink profile as quickly as possible, so that the next time Penguin runs your site can recover, rather than having to wait for the next Penguin update.

Another more drastic option that is as-yet not entirely proven may work for deep-links to specific landing pages (where you have a phrase penalty only, not a site-wide penalty). You can change the URL of the landing pages with the unnatural links, and 301 redirect the old URL to the new one. Historically 301 redirects have done well at removing backlink-related penalties; however, even if it does work you will also lose some of the link juice with every redirect. Even after the redirect, the penalty may follow next time Penguin runs unless you cleanup that link profile.