Once upon a time, unscrupulous digital marketers tried to rank their websites by blasting backlinks on other blogs. But then a search engine decided to make their lives much more difficult by releasing the Google Penguin update.
That happened in 2012. Since then, there have been several revisions.
To this day, the Penguin update prevents cheaters from gaining an easy first-page rank with backlink spam. It’s the bane of blackhat practitioners everywhere.
In this article, we’ll go over the history of the Penguin update and explain how you can avoid running afoul of Google’s rules regarding webspam.
Google Penguin Update, Penguin is an Algorithm
The first thing you need to know about Penguin is that it’s an algorithm. That means it’s software.
Google uses several algorithms to determine where your web pages should rank for a given keyword. The Penguin algorithm takes a look at your backlink profile to determine if there’s any effort to manipulate the search results with link spam.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “link spam” (or “webspam”), it’s a blackhat technique to gain rank by posting backlinks on other (usually low-quality) web properties. Sometimes, those links occur in blog posts but they can also appear in comments.
When Penguin determines that a website is guilty of link spam, it prevents the site from gaining rank. As a result, it nullifies the blackhat efforts.
Gaming the System with the Google Penguin Update
Prior to the advent of Penguin, blackhat SEOs would rank a website quickly for a specific keyword by spamming backlinks all over cyberspace.
They did that with the aid of tools that automated backlink placements on other websites. They also used tools to rewrite online articles so they could produce their own 800-word blog posts in a matter of seconds.
The whole process was completely automated.
Of course, it was unfair to legitimate webmasters who were trying to rank their sites by playing according to the rules.
Backlink spam also created an unpleasant user experience for Google users. They were seeing search results that were little more than marketing messages rather than articles relevant to their queries.
When Google saw what was happening, the company decided to take action.
In the Beginning…
Penguin was born on April 24, 2012.
As a result, sites that practiced shady backlinking techniques saw a noticeable decline in their rankings. Many fell precipitously off the first page to a much lower rank.
The sites that played by the rules, on the other hand, saw a nice pop in rank.
But Penguin wasn’t “done” on April of 2012. Since then, it’s been updated several times.
Penguin Update 1.1 (March, 2012)
This first update didn’t change the algorithm. It was a data refresh.
The net effect: sites that had been affected by the initial rollout of Penguin and subsequently cleaned up their backlink profiles saw some rank improvement.
Other cheating sites, that got missed by the first version, saw their rankings plummet.
Penguin Update 1.2 (October, 2012)
This update was also a data refresh.
The big change here is that the new version didn’t just affect English search results, but other languages as well.
According to Matt Cutts, who was leading Google’s anti-webspam efforts at the time, the data refresh only affected .3% of all English queries.
Weather report: Penguin data refresh coming today. 0.3% of English queries noticeably affected. Details: http://t.co/Esbi2ilX
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) October 5, 2012
Penguin Update 2.0 (May, 2013)
This time, the update changed the algorithm itself.
Penguin 2.0 was the first time that the algorithm looked beyond a website home page and top-level category pages for evidence of link spam.
The update affected about 2.3% of English queries. Other languages were proportionally affected as well.
Penguin Update 2.1 (October, 2013)
The Penguin 2.1 update was another data refresh. It affected an additional 1% of queries.
According to some private research, though, there’s evidence that the new version led Penguin to crawl even deeper into websites to find evidence of link spam.
Penguin 2.1 launching today. Affects ~1% of searches to a noticeable degree. More info on Penguin: http://t.co/4YSh4sfZQj
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) October 4, 2013
Penguin Update 3.0 (October, 2014)
Although it’s number makes it look like a major algorithm upgrade, the Penguin 3.0 update was really just another data refresh.
Its purpose was twofold: 1) to allow webmasters who had cleaned up their backlink profiles to recover and 2) to penalize cheating websites that were missed in earlier versions of Penguin.
The update affected less than 1% of English search queries.
Penguin Update 4.0 (September, 2016)
The biggest change with the release of Penguin 4.0 was that Google’s spam-busting algorithm had become part of the core algorithm.
That was important because with previous versions webmasters who fixed their webspam problems had to wait for a Penguin update to see their sites achieve a decent rank again.
With this release, webmasters who eliminated backlink spam saw more immediate results.
It was also with this release that Penguin started devaluing backlinks themselves. That means instead of punishing misbehaving sites, Google simply didn’t reward them with anything positive.
In previous versions, Google actively demoted sites that tried to rank with webspam.
Some SEOs maintain, though, that penalties from backlink spam still exist.
Redirecting Didn’t Help Penguin
It’s been said that as long as there are codes, there will be codebreakers. Along those lines, you can be sure that as long as there are Google algorithms, there will be blackhat SEOs who try to manipulate those algorithms to their advantage.
Penguin was no exception.
Some webmasters, in an attempt to get around Panda’s anti-webspam algorithm, tried a redirect. They would simply change one domain and redirect it to another one.
Unfortunately (for them), those types of 301 or 302 redirects didn’t help.
Google’s John Mueller once confirmed in a Google Webmaster’s forum that such redirects could also cause complications.
“In general, we recommend not using meta-refresh type redirects, as this can cause confusion with users (and search engine crawlers, who might mistake that for an attempted redirect),” he said.
How Did Webmasters Recover After Penuin Update?
After the Penguin rollout, some webmasters chose to make nice with the Big G by cleaning up their backlink profile.
But what does it mean to “clean up” a backlink profile?
Prior to 4.0, it meant that webmasters would disavow their bad backlinks. They would do that by uploading a list of those links to the Search Console.
After a while, Google would disregard the links in its effort to determine page rank. Then, when the next Penguin update rolled out, the site would (hopefully) appear in a top spot in the search results.
It should be noted, though, that Google recommends using the disavow tool as a last resort.
But What About After Penguin Update 4.0?
So how did webmasters who used link spam recover after Penguin 4.0?
Well, in a nutshell, they didn’t have to.
Recall one of the fundamental changes in the 4.0 update: Google started devaluing bad backlinks rather than punishing sites that used them.
That’s a distinction with a huge difference.
Google stopped demoting sites with that release and simply disregarded any pagerank passed by spammy links. The end result was that garbage links were just like no links at all.
It’s likely that Google updated Penguin with that change because some particularly vicious webmasters were pointing backlink spam at their competitors’ websites. As a result, those websites were pushed off the top of the results list.
Those days are gone now.
How to Keep Your Site Penguin-Compliant
Now that you know a little bit more about Penguin and what it does, you might be asking yourself: “How do I make sure that the links pointing to my site are all good links?”
That’s a great question. We’ll answer it in the next few sections.
Choose Quality Over Quantity
First of all, keep in mind that it’s best to have a few good links from high-quality sites rather than lots of links from low-quality sites.
But how can you tell the difference?
As a rule of thumb, adult-themed sites and foreign sites are generally considered low quality. It’s especially true that foreign sites you’ve never heard about are probably low quality.
You can always use a tool to check on the quality of a site. Majestic offers an excellent tool for that purpose.
Just plug the home page of the website into Majestic and look at the results. Specifically, make a note of the Trust Flow and Citation Flow metrics.
Both of those metrics are measured on a scale of 0-100, with 100 being the best. If you’re seeing single-digit numbers for both metrics, then that website isn’t highly regarded.
On the other hand, if you’re seeing numbers north of 20 for both metrics, then it’s a website that’s at least moderately respected.
So here’s the first thing to look at: if you find that a lot of your backlinks come from websites that have very low Trust Flow and Citation Flow metrics, you need to improve your backlink profile.
Check Your Anchor Text (Big for the Google Penguin Update)
Another thing you need to do is check your anchor text. That’s the text that’s in the clickable part of a hyperlink on a web page.
Why is it important to check the anchor text? To answer that, we’ll have to revisit the “good ole days.”
In the past, blackhat SEOs would try to manipulate the search engines so that their websites ranked for a specific keyword. One of the ways they did that, of course, was by using that keyword in the anchor text when they spammed links all over the Internet.
When Google saw that blackhatters loved to stuff the anchor text with a keyword, they updated their algorithm to punish sites that use the same keyword in a significant number of their backlinks.
Their rationale was as follows: if a link is occurring naturally, then it’s not likely that it’s always going to use the same text every time. So, if an anchor text to a specific URL is always the same, that’s evidence of link spam.
If you thought you could manipulate the search results by putting your keyword in the anchor text in all your legitimate backlinks, you could face problems in terms of rank.
Bottom line: diversify your anchor text. That will ensure that your backlink profile looks “real” according to Google’s algorithm.
Don’t Buy Links
You can visit just about any blackhat forum online and see countless ads for backlinks.
Run, don’t walk, away from any of those services.
Why? There are several reasons.
For starters, if you can find those ads then so can Google. That means Google can take corrective action to prevent the websites used in those services from passing pagerank.
Second, there’s no guarantee that your link will be there a year from now. Those services are run by people who aren’t professional, ethical entrepreneurs. They’re run by people who are simply trying to make a quick buck.
Third, they’re part of the blackhat movement. That means, by definition, they’re already unscrupulous. Are they really the kind of people you want to do business with?
Fourth, even if you do manage to land a decent rank as a result of one of those services, it’s likely that Google will get wise to the practice and neutralize it eventually. If the history of SEO has taught us anything, it’s that Google is always looking to stop cheaters.
Avoid the Use of Tools
If there’s any place where marketing automation is a bad thing, it’s when it comes to building a backlink profile.
You can search around online and find tools that will automatically build backlinks to your website. They aren’t worth your money.
If you opt to use a backlink tool, you’ll end up with a bunch of out-of-context links on low-quality sites pointing back to your own website. That’s a very noticeable red flag for Penguin.
This is one area where you simply can’t take shortcuts. Invest the time and effort necessary to build a healthy backlink profile so that Google rewards you with a great rank.
Wrapping Up The Penguin Update
Google’s Penguin algorithm will notice if you try to manipulate the search results with link spam. Instead of doing that, give your site some quality backlinks with one or more favorite white hat SEO tactics:
- Posting content on the blogs of non-competitors
- Producing viral content that earns backlinks from high-profile websites
- Connecting with key influencers who will link to your site on their blogs
- Adding context-relevant links on online forums
Do that and you’ll find that you won’t run afoul of Google’s terms of service.