Google launched the update of its “Penguin” webspam algorithm on Wednesday afternoon (May 22), continuing its campaign against websites that violate Webmaster Guidelines, especially those that engage in link spam practices. Penguin 2.0, as the update is called, affected 2.3% of English-US language queries, and also rolled out for other languages worldwide.
The Biggest Losers of Penguin 2.0
As expected, Google focused on the worst offenders of link spam: websites that have a large percentage of low-quality inbound links. Gaming, business, blog, and pornography sites lead the Penguin 2.0 biggest losers list compiled by Searchmetrics. Some of the most trafficked websites of this “biggest losers” list include:
- fourlocations.com, a business listings and reviews website that competes with Yelp.com
- cheapoair.com, a popular airline tickets online marketplace
- dish.com, Dish Network satellite TV website
- lifed.com, lifestyle recommendations, tips, and entertainment articles
- pornhub.com and many other pornography websites
While not as visible in search engines, Salvationarmy.com is another recognizable name on the list. The site’s search engine visibility dropped 32% according to Searchmetrics, despite many favorable SEO metrics including links from a who’s who of authoritative sources. Upon further analysis, the site’s link portfolio stands out for its volume: nearly 417,000 external links from more than 11,000 domains (according to Open Site Explorer data). While Salvationarmy.com has many valuable links, it also appears to have thousands of links from low-quality websites, including directory websites like cbel.com. Also, it appears to have implemented a link building strategy from August 2009 to February 2011, during which time the site was gaining new external links at a clearly unnatural pace.
While having only a small portion of the quantity of inbound links of salvationarmy.org and cheopoair.com, Lifed.com’s link portfolio runs the gambit of spamdexing tactics, with plenty of examples of comment spam, low-quality directory listings, and article spam.
Article spam is a common “black hat” link-building tactic to gain keyword-rich inbound links that is likely a major reason for lifed.com’s 57% decline in search engine visibility following the Penguin 2.0 update. One such article awkwardly touts the health benefits of a lifestyle magazine while attempting to pass PageRank to lifed.com for the keywords “lifestyle” and “lifestyle magazine.”
The article then transitions to a final paragraph about iPad apps in order to link to link to a Life’d article on “50 must-have iPad apps.” The site where this article was published is a PHPLink directory that uses the tagline “ALL THE LINKS YOU CAN GET.”
Clearly this site isn’t created for the benefit of readers, but instead as a way to create multiple keyword-rich inbound links to other sites. Deliberately manipulating search engine results through black hat SEO techniques has long been commonplace, but until recently Google did a poor job of policing it. Google launched the Penguin webspam algorithm on April 24, 2012, just a few days after going live with its Panda algorithm, which targets low-quality content spam. 13 months later and most affected websites still haven’t recovered, as Google incrementally purges more offending sites from its search results.
- Google Penguin 1: April 24, 2012 (3.1% of search engine queries affected)
- Google Penguin 1.1: May 26, 2012 (less than 0.1% of queries affected)
- Google Penguin 1.2: Oct. 5, 2012 (0.3% of queries affected)
- Google Penguin 2.0: May 22, 2013 (2.3% of queries affected)
Google Penguin algorithm to get stricter over time
According to a study by Portent, an Internet Marketing company, Google is steadily reducing its tolerance for web spam. When Penguin was first launched, Google penalized sites with 80% or more suspicious links. Within two months it dropped the bar to 65%, then four months later dropped it down to 50%. Penguin 2.0 likely lowered Google’s tolerance for suspicious links even more. Portent analyzed 85,000 links pointing the top-50 sites on the 2012 Inc 5000 list, and concluded that Google is starting with outing the worst link spam offenders and working its way down. So if you survived Penguin 1.0, it doesn’t mean your site will be safe from Penguin 2.0 or any update after that. Google wants to do away with web spam, and that’s a good thing. It will improve the quality of search engine results and even the playing field for everyone by letting websites compete on content and real marketing, rather than which site can do a better job of gaming the system.
Will my website be affected by Penguin?
If you have a relatively new website and followed Google’s guidance for what constitutes ethical search engine optimization practices, each Penguin update will likely improve your search engine rankings as many sites get delisted or banished many pages deep into Google results. But if you have a longstanding website in a competitive industry, there’s a good chance you engaged the common strategy of “link building” to increase your website’s domain authority and improve your search engine rankings. Over the years, you’ve no doubt received countless spam emails or cold calls from people promising their work would help grow your Web presence. If you accepted their tempting offers, you probably enjoyed some search engine success. But that party is over and it’s time to take responsibility and clean up any past transgressions. Get rid of your unnatural or suspicious links and create a plan for building domain authority in acceptable ways.
How do I determine “suspicious” links?
While the Google “Panda” update targets sites with low quality and duplicate content, Penguin principally goes after sites with suspicious link portfolios. Google is getting better at determining which links to your site are natural and which are unnatural.
Unnatural links include:
- Links from low-quality pages that have lots of outgoing links
- A high percentage of keyword-rich inbound links
- A high percentage of links from website footers and blog comments
- Links from websites in a completely unrelated industry
- Links from articles about an unrelated topic
- Poor link diversity, ie., too many of the same types of links (directories, comments, footer links, blog rolls)
It’s expected that websites have some suspicious links; the key is that it be below the level that Google will tolerate. Google can make an educated guess at what maximum percentage of unnatural links a normal website should have and Penguin will entice webmasters to dump all suspicious links and try to get their link portfolios to an acceptable ratio. If you’ve never done any “link building” of the unnatural sort, you probably have no more than 5% to 10% of your site’s inbound links being potentially hazardous. But if you’ve paid someone for a link-building campaign, you may have 60%-80% or more of your links raising a red flag. That makes easy pickings for Google to penalize your site.
Black hat SEO has worked for a long time, and savvy webmasters are used to adapting and finding new ways to stay a step ahead of Google. The lure of being able to create a site and within weeks or months gain top search engine rankings and big profits brings many to try. If you have a business that is short-term in nature and needs immediate traction, a few weeks or months of top rankings could make it worthwhile for you. But Google’s latest efforts are making it much more difficult. If you have a long-term business, you don’t want to have to start all over with your SEO campaigns or maybe even have to change your website domain completely. Better to build up your branding and social media presence and create great content that will establish your expertise and quality of service. This will build your website domain authority for the long haul and create a business with long-term value. Unfortunately, too many long-term businesses are shortsighted in their thinking. Like high-risk investing, there can be a big short-term reward, but you may eventually lose everything. Learn about the black hat SEO techniques that could get you into trouble with Google.
How to recover from Penguin penalties
First, make sure your site did indeed suffer from Penguin. Was there a dropoff in traffic when Panda and Penguin first launched? How about now that Penguin 2.0 went live? Review your Google Analytics data and drill down into Google Organic visits. Set the timeframe from Apr. 1, 2012 to May 15, 2012 to determine if your site was hit by the initial release of Penguin and Panda. See where there is a significant drop in traffic from Google organic searches. If it is on 4/24/12 it is likely due to Penguin, but if it is on 4/19/12 and/or 4/27/12, it is likely due to Google’s Panda update. If you compare your dates to the previous period you should notice that the drop off was more than the normal ebb and flow of visits. To see if Penguin 2.0 affected your site, change the dates to a few days before and after May 22 and compare with the previous week. You can even drill down to particular keywords and see which ones dropped off most to learn which pages to concentrate your efforts. We won’t get into that here, but for more info, check out this article from Search Engine Journal. If any of the Penguin updates hurt your website’s Google rankings, you need to clean up your link portfolio as soon as possible. The next refresh of the algorithm is your chance to start regaining your lost search engine rankings.
Tools to see your link portfolio include:
- Google Webmaster Tools
- Bing Webmaster Tools
- Open Site Explorer
- Majestic SEO
- AHREFS Site Explorer
- Link Diagnosis (Firefox plugin)
You should export a spreadsheet with your list of inbound links and then judge (harshly) which ones are not genuine referrals for your business. Would you want these pages linking to your website if there were no search engine benefits? Any good link is something that has value even without search engines. Try to delete any links that you deem as unnatural and/or of low value and relevancy. If you had to create a profile and log in to create the links, delete them yourself. If you hired someone to do it for you, try to contact them and ask to delete the links. If you can’t delete them, log into Google Webmaster Tools and follow the instructions for disavowing links. Google will treat your disavowed links as no-follow links and you can once again start build up your domain authority with only relevant, upstanding inbound links. For best results, be strict when evaluating your link profile and getting rid of bad links. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Search Quality team, recommends you take a broad approach to disavowing suspicious links, even if it means you end up losing some legitimate ones.
“One common issue we see with disavow requests is people going through with a fine-toothed comb when they really need to do something more like a machete on the bad backlinks. For example, often it would help to use the “domain:” operator to disavow all bad backlinks from an entire domain rather than trying to use a scalpel to pick out the individual bad links. That’s one reason why we sometimes see it take a while to clean up those old, not-very-good links.”
-Matt Cutts, Head of Google Webspam Team
So, is link building dead?
Link building as we’ve traditionally known it and as thousands of SEOs practice it is on its deathbed. It’s actually just transforming so that it becomes a much better measure of a website’s importance. Social shares, links in the body text of related articles from authoritative and relevant sources, and even high-quality citations without links will be the new “link building.”
How do I build domain authority without suffering the wrath of Google?
Don’t do things for SEO purposes if it won’t help your website visitor’s experience on your site. Optimizing your page titles and URLs and creating engaging, relevant Meta descriptions to tell web users that you have the information they’re looking for improves usability. Embedding relevant videos, infographics, and other media to your web page keeps visitors engaged. And it also happens to help your SEO. Keep your site organized and easy to navigate by using a clear and easy-to-understand website structure. Set up a 301 redirect to send any old, outdated blog posts to your new ones on the same topic. Use a broken-link checker to find any dead links and clean them up. Make sure your pages have laser-focused targeted content that users love, and make it easy for them to read and share it. Use the Google authorship tag to build up your author rating and make your content rank better in Google.
Build relationships over links
Rather than focusing on gaining inbound links to help your SEO, try to build relationships with influential people and organizations in your industry or community. Find synergies and ways you can work together. Connect on social media and meet in person. These valuable relationships will give you referrals, social media shares, possibly get you featured in blog posts and news articles, and will generally help get you and your business more exposure. A few key relationships will go much farther than useless links from websites that no one visits.
What to expect in 2013 for Google SEO?
- Target “traditionally spammy” sectors: pay day loans, pornography, mail order pharmaceuticals, etc.
- Assure advertising is handled as such. Ads should be no-follow links. If you pay for an ad it should not pass along Page Rank and there should be clear disclosure that it is a paid ad.
- More sophisticated link analysis
- App websites: trying to detect them better and communicate better to webmasters
- Offer more help for webmasters who have been hacked and or want to clean up spammy links
- Determine who is authoritative for a particular sector and try to help them rank in those areas
- Soften the hit of sites that were hurt by Panda but have other good quality rankings
- Lessen instances of URL clustering from a single domain in search results
- Provide more ways to help Webmasters diagnose their sites
Did your website rankings significantly worsen or improve upon the launch of Penguin 2.0? Have you done link-building campaigns in the past and are worried that your website will be next to fall? Did you get hit with an earlier update of Penguin, then clean up your link portfolio and successfully regain your lost rankings? We’d love to hear from you. Please comment, share, and ask questions.