If you’ve been hit by Penguin 2.0, also known as Penguin 4, I’m guessing you’re feeling a little silly right now, like this guy:
The latest Penguin update, the imaginatively titled “Penguin 4” utilising spam-busting 2.0 technology is designed to carry on where the last series of Penguin updates left off.
In other words, it was a whole 1.0 better than the original in working out your dodgy link building tactics, and then giving you the wet, fishy slap you probably deserve.
Penguin first forced its way onto the scene in April last year, and has arguably done more to improve the quality of search results pages than any other update previously. Penguin looks at your backlink profile and is pretty effective at working out those who’ve obtained good, natural links, and those who’ve spent their time accumulating bad ones, with the aim of manipulating their position within Google.
So did Penguin 2.0 affect many sites?
The original Penguin update and its follow ups certainly made an impact most SEOs will never forget, but according to Google, only about 2.3% of English queries would have been affected (less than Penguin 1.0 and 1.1 updates combined).
At Receptional HQ we’ve only seen our clients – both in the US and UK – improve both in the US and UK search landscape. Every time Google unleashed the previous updates our clients benefitted. That’s because we only ever use ethical techniques, so our clients can trust that they won’t be left smarting from a nasty penguin, or any other mammal-named algorithm, bite.
But that’s not to say that other sites haven’t been affected in a negative way, in order for us to experience such a positive lift in traffic levels.
We can put our success in the link building team down to the fact that our link building has always been very brand and traffic focused, and we’ve never ventured into the shady realms of black hat link building.
How to tell whether you’ve been hit by Penguin 2.0
Penguin updates have been rolled out on the following dates:
April 24th 2012
May 25th 2012
October 5th 2012
May 22nd 2013
Checking your traffic levels around these times should give you a pretty good indication of if you have been hit: you’re looking for very sharp drops in traffic on or shortly after these dates.
If you’ve been actively targeting specific keywords, do a quick search for these terms and see where you appear. If you’re suddenly nowhere, then perhaps you’ve been hit because of over optimization of anchor text, or bad link building practices.
Check out your Google Webmaster Tools and load up the impressions vs. clicks graph. Again, you’re looking for sharp drops around the latest update (you can’t access data past 2 months in WMT).
What to do if you’ve been hit
Look for a short term solution to recover your traffic. This might mean turning on a PPC campaign for your converting terms, or looking at running some social activity to keep a steady flow of referrals into your site.
Run a Majestic SEO domain level report and look at your anchor text. Have you built too many links with the same anchors? If this is the case, then download a list of all the links within this anchor text bracket and start reviewing these against your other links. You might need to remove or change some to readdress the balance, or you might need to work at building new (probably brand name) links to tip the scales back in your favour.
If it isn’t looking like an anchor text issue, it might be that some of your links violate Google quality guidelines. If you haven’t knowingly indulged in these black hat link building strategies, then you will probably have to do a full manual review of your backlink profile, to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
What types of links does this Penguin update attack?
In all likelihood, the following list of links is probably pretty comprehensive in the types of link spam that Penguin 4 is designed to tackle.
Paid directories and “search engines” that give you a followed link
Social Bookmarking and other automated link building services
Thin Content / Article Syndication
Obviously Paid links
Anything else that violates Google Search Quality Guidelines
Looking at each in turn, here are some quick ways to identify these links, and what to do when you’ve found them.
Paid Directories with a Followed link
Once upon a time, the directory was the staple of any link building campaign. Mostly because it was easy, resulted in large volumes of links and could be repeated and repeated, as long as new directories sprung up to sell more links. Eventually, this gave way to automated services (disguised as “Manual Submissions”) which did all the leg work for you (if you were into this sort of dodgy stuff).
Many directories offered different levels of service. This could be a free submission, a paid submission and a free “with reciprocal link” submission, or alternatively some offered submissions priced against a “review period” usually of 24hrs, 48hrs and then a ridiculous “6 months”.
Generally, there was (is) little difference between each of these types of submissions and all links look the same in the end to Google, which is where the main problem is. If you pay for a link, Googles says you must have it marked as a nofollowed link, so they understand that the link was paid for.
The problem with these directories is that in order to make money, they have to sell followed links, because nofollowed links pass no page rank benefit to the target site. So the paid (and free) submissions for these directories, all result in the same followed links, and there is nothing for Google to tell the difference between the two types of submissions at all.
If you’re in any of these directories, then maybe you should look at removing yourself (unless they clearly mark paid and free links for search engines to understand). These types of directories are sometimes pretty easy to spot from a Majestic report, as they usually have any combination of the following terms in the domain name:
Any number of different colours or animals
So a domain name like freeseofriendlylinks.com is probably going to be a bit dodgy. Some do have more generic domain names, and so to make sure you don’t miss any, you might need to do a manual review of your backlinks.
Sometimes, contact information can be pretty hard to get for these types of sites, but often, one webmaster will own many sites, and once you’ve tracked their contact details down using whois.domaintools.com, you might find that you can get 50 or 100 links removed in one go (if necessary).
Don’t let webmasters blackmail you or demand money. There is a disavow tool that can give Search Engines the heads up on links you couldn’t remove, and tells them to ignore their effect, positive or negative.
Long ago, in a galaxy far away someone convinced the world (for about 10 minutes) that “Social Bookmarking” was a great link building strategy. Although for a brief period you could get a temporary lift in rankings using Social Bookmarks, but if you were smart, you’d know that filling your backlink profile up with these would eventually lead to trouble. Well, that time has come. Social bookmarks are now one of my prime suspects on the penalty list, for the following reasons:
There’s little or no context to the link, only the 2 lines of text that
you get (if you’re lucky) so relevance becomes an issue
There’s no real quality control on what other sites appear alongside your link
The link moves down the homepage so fast that Google finds it on page 2, page 3, page 4 etc and then gives up tracking it, giving the illusion of multiple links that disappear as quickly as they reappear
There is little to no link juice flowing to the page the link is hosted on, due to the vast number of outbound links on every page (especially the homepage)
No one ever clicks on them
Because many bookmarking sites are part of automated networks, over optimisation of anchor text is easy, and identifiable patterns quickly emerge that reek of “manipulation” and paid links – this is just begging Google to give you a penalty these days!
Spun and Spam Articles
Right up until a couple of years ago, a commonly employed link building tactic was to commission articles en masse and then post these to article directories. However, the quality of these articles was extremely poor – afterall, the content writers were hardly going to be experts on your niche and tended to follow pretty similar templates and interchangable formats, like “The importance of [your product] for [target market].
Some content “writers” even went to other article sites and copied articles from there, sabotaging the efforts of link builders from the beginning. Many link builders wouldn’t have thought to check that commissioned content wasn’t plagiarised, and happily posted these to article directories and pay per post sites.
These articles might send a little link juice through, but mostly relied on volume to get any real lift in SERPs, and in all but one or two isolated cases, have never generated any traffic or business for a client.
After a while, link builders realised that they could save time and money by not having the articles written by a third party, but instead to commission a single article and then run it through “spinning” software in order to create more and more “unique” versions. The problem with this is that for a while, it was able to fool search engines into thinking that each article (and link) was unique and worth passing good link juice through, but Google quickly caught up with the practice and can identify spun content very easily (after all, most of it is next to unreadable anyway).
Both of these tactics were becoming obsolete towards the end of 2011, as a single quality guest post (written by an expert) on an authority site, could have vastly more impact that hundreds of poor quality articles on sites that link out to hundreds of thousands of irrelevant websites.
In a nutshell, article submission had many of the same faults as both social bookmarks and directory sites:
The website itself has little or no relevance to your market sector
The website will be linking out to other unrelated and undesirable third parties
The spelling and grammar of these types of articles is normally very bad and reflected in the price you paid to have them written
The same articles are submitted across many sites, meaning duplicated content and the obvious paid attempts at manipulation
If you’ve used spinning software, you’ll eventually end up with articles that make no sense whatsoever, and Google will be quick to recognise this, and act accordingly
Articles are scraped and reproduced elsewhere, outside the link builder’s control
If you’ve relied heavily on this sort of link building in the past, then you have a mammouth task ahead of you.
Imagine this: You’re busy searching the net for anything relevant to your market niche when you find an article that mentions your target keyword or product in passing. You contact them and offer them money in exchange for turning that keyword into a link to your site.
Unfortuanately, the webmaster is pretty savvy to this kind of scheme and loves to make money selling text links, and so they’ve also linked out many times to other third parties, irrelevant to the context of the original articles and irrelevant to your site. They’ve also given out followed links, because at this time; no one is going to pay for a nofollowed link as they want the page rank benefit a followed link provides. Money changes hands and your link to “Cat Litter” goes live in an article primarily about the blogger’s weekend having their car fixed.
The chances of anyone seeing that link, whilst looking for cat litter, and clicking on it, is going to be extremely, extremely small. It is obvious to search engines that the link has been bought for anchor text and page rank benefit only.
If you’ve paid for a link, then it must be nofollowed, to clearly mark it to Google as having been paid for. The only reason to ever buy a nofollowed link would be for click through and traffic benefit, not for increasing visibility in SERPs, and so the patterns left by paid links are pretty obvious sometimes, especially if they don’t appear within any contextual text at all.
Paid links are usually bought for an agreed amount of time, so as long as you haven’t bought a link for the indefinite future, these can often die out on their own, saving you the trouble of identifying them.
Some link builders still buy sidebar links. Google had already made steps to understand sidebar and footer links more thoroughly, and the differences between genuine relationships, navigation and those that have been bought to pass page rank and anchor text benefit. Google has made further steps to understand when and how webmasters are linking out to third parties for money, and the same general principles apply as with Paid Links.
Banner ads normally fit into this category. If you’ve bought lots of banner real estate, but haven’t had these “nofollowed”, then you really should do, especially if these banners are driving you traffic.
If they don’t give you any traffic, and you’ve actually paid for them, then grounds for penalisation just adds insult to injury. Get rid of those links now.
A link can be hidden on a website in a number of ways, the most common is to do white text on a white background, or carefully configure the CSS to put objects over the top of your link. Hiding links is strictly against Google guidelines as it is displaying something different to users and search engines, and also often for the purpose of manipulating page rank.
Hidden links seem thoroughly pointless to me, although there are instances when they occur:
You’ve created a hidden link on a website you control, because the authority of the website will mean that the link is good and beneficial to your target site. However, the link would look out of place and irrelevant in context, so you hide it from the visitor, but not from the search engine.
You’ve hacked a range of good sites and hidden your link in for the same reasons as above, only you also don’t want the site owner to see the link.
You’ve placed a series of links with bad anchor text on sites you might, or might not control. The purpose is to flag your competitors in Google for either manipulative linking practices, or attempt to crash their rankings for specific anchors.
Overall, your efforts are better spent in improving your own site. If you’re the victim of a negative SEO attack (and they can happen) then contact the websites that the hidden links are on, and if they’re unresponsive, contact their hosting providers and ask them to take action for you.
How to Futureproof your Link Building
Put quite simply, don’t build links that break the rules.
Additionally, it doesn’t take the same volumes of links that it used to in order to rank well for competitive terms, so there is no excuse for not spending time obtaining the best links you can. You certainly shouldn’t forget that the main purpose of a link is for naviga
tion, so build links that drive you traffic and don’t focus on those keywords.
Build links for the long and short term, but make sure they are as naturally obtained as possible, either through brand buzz, news stories, events, PR stunts, quality content, social interaction.
Whatever is going to get people talking about you, will get them linking to you. How you do generate that interest is up to you, but if you need a hand Receptional have a team of experienced link builders that would love to hear from you.
James heads up our Natural Search team and is a shareholder in the business.
He has worked across a broad range of sectors, including gaming, publishing and retail. During his time at Receptional, James has acted in a training capacity for one of the UKs largest high street & online retailers, as well as a consultant for “Magic Circle” law firms.
When not planning SEO campaigns, James enjoys board games with his two brothers, wife and three children.