Google's Penguin 2.0 Algorithm: The Definitive Guide

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In April 2012, Google released one of its biggest algorithm changes to date. Penguin 1.0 targeted sites that featured questionable link profiles, low quality backlinks, and anchor text that was too keyword rich or overly optimized for a single term. As a result of the sweeping and significant impacts of Penguin 1.0, anticipation surrounded the release of Penguin 2.0, which officially rolled out May 22.

While a lot of the specifics of the update are still shaking out, there's a great deal of information already emerging. Here's a closer look at what we know, how Penguin 2.0 is affecting sites, and what to do if your site has been impacted.

The History of Penguin

Google's updates tend to be thematic. Each change to the search algorithm is done with a single goal in mind: to serve up better, more relevant search results to people using Google to find information.

As you consider the internet, it's easy to see why this is necessary. Webmasters and SEOs develop techniques to manipulate the rankings; as a result, less relevant sites sometimes land on the first page of Google for specific queries. It becomes an endless circle of sites working to rank better and search engines working to weed out web spam.

One of Google's most feared (and effective) algorithm updates was Panda. Panda focused on eliminating sites that didn't have enough quality content, and were more geared at moneymaking than providing useful content. This led in part to the current proliferation that we see around the discussion of content strategy.

The Penguin updates focused on a different issue. The problem that was being addressed here was unnatural, manipulative inbound link profiles. What makes a bad link profile? Google focused on links that were:

  • Coming from poor quality sites
  • On sites that aren't topically relevant to your niche or business
  • Paid links
  • Keyword rich links
  • Links where the anchor text is overly optimized (i.e., exact-match anchor text)

Penguin 2.0: an Inside Look

A great deal of speculation has focused on whether Penguin 2.0 targeted the same thing. As previously mentioned, we're still in the early days since its release. But here's a preliminary look at reports from around the web.

Google's chief resource for fighting spam, Matt Cutts, has said that Penguin focused on penalizing sites that use black-hat techniques and rewarding sites that are offering a great visitor experience.

Translation: if you've done dubious activities such as buying mass links, spamming low quality directory sites with your links, or paying an intern to leave hundreds of comments on blogs, there's a good chance your site was affected. At the same time, smaller businesses that have engaged in developing quality content, building ethical links, and avoided sketchy techniques that would yield short-term gains should have received a boost in the overall search rankings.

Additionally, Cutts has stated that Penguin 2.0 drilled deeper into websites to look for spam; analyzing internal pages as opposed to just the homepage of websites. This was actually a pretty interesting revelation, because it wasn't previously known to the SEO community that Penguin 1.0 only analyzed inbound link profiles of domain homepages. The fact that internal pages are now analyzed means that black-hat webspam tactics such as manipulative link building to internal pages won't escape Google's ever-seeing eye.

Moz estimates that about 2.1 percent of English queries were impacted by Penguin 2.0. Many of the results that were impacted included those where multiple results from the same site dominated the first page. Other analysts have noted that queries associated with spammy results (e.g., "Payday Loans", gaming and adult sites, and some thin sites without a good SEO foundation) have also seen a drop in the rankings.

A Roadmap to Solid Rankings

There are a number of important steps to take when building your SEO initiative, from developing a solid volume of high-quality onsite content to engaging on social media channels to capture social signals. I like to refer to the steps as the Three Pillars of SEO.

For the purpose of this article, we'll just focus on what's related specifically to Penguin. Recovering from a Penguin 2.0 penalty primarily requires understanding and cleaning up your link profile. Let's start at the beginning.

Step 1: Knowing What to Look For

Several factors come into play with Penguin updates. But translating that into your specific analysis and recovery strategy can be challenging. Before you dive into conducting a site link profile audit on your website, here are some things to keep in mind:

What is the Quality of Sites Linking?

One of the biggest giveaways for a Penguin penalty is a bunch of links for poor quality sites. One way to evaluate site quality is to look at the PageRank or Domain Authority for a specific domain. A PageRank of 4 or a Domain Authority of at least 30 is the typical minimum threshold I look for.

These measures of quality give you one quick and easy view of the aggregate analysis of a site. It's also helpful to evaluate other factors. Is the design reasonably high quality? Is the content well-written and authoritative? Do they have active comments on posts and a reasonable presence on social media? Trust your gut and look at the full profile of a site if you have any hesitation.

How Relevant are the Links?

Relevancy is everything. Links from sites that aren't relevant to your specific topic probably won't help your site very much. In fact, they can actually hurt you, with the release of Penguin 2.0.

Instead of posting on unrelated sites, focus on sites that already discuss topics in your niche. If you're posting to a site that's general, make sure that you're posting materials to a category that's relevant to your message. For example, The Huffington Post covers a great deal of material, but a blog post about SEO would be housed in their "Tech" or "Business" section.

How Quickly Were Your Links Acquired?

Were your links developed organically over time? If you experienced any kind of unnatural spike in links over a very short period of time – aside from those that could be gained from a piece of content that went viral – it's possible that Google could discount their value after determining that they were unnaturally obtained. Some of the biggest offenders include paid links delivered in a short period that number in the hundreds or thousands per day.

The concept of rate of link acquisition is known as link velocity, and is an important signal that helps Google figure out which links to trust as credible and natural, and which links not to trust. Acquire too many links that Google deems untrustworthy and you could be affected by Penguin.

Step 2: Take an Active Look at Your Site Profile

Once you understand what you're looking for, it's helpful to dive in and take a closer look at your link profile. This kind of analysis requires getting a list of every link pointing to your site and then evaluating them for quality. Luckily, while this may sound like a daunting task, it's actually relatively straightforward – although time-consuming.

One option is to download all the links from your Google Webmaster interface. Once you've created that spreadsheet, you can either run a query using a tool like Scrapebox to help you analyze the data, or review it manually, line by line. The feasibility of this approach depends on the number of links.

If you're unsure of where to begin, hire a professional to conduct a site link audit. They'll be able to develop a comprehensive profile for you, and then lead you through a discussion of which links to keep and which to get rid of.

For the DIY type, a variety of tools exist such as MySEOTool and Majestic SEO. These tools analyze both your current performance and your site's history. The ongoing tracking helps you see changes in your results over time, and is a great way to measure, refine, and reinforce a strategy you've been working on.

Step 3: Pay Special Attention to Anchor Text

Another aspect of your site's profile that you want to take a look at is the anchor text distribution. It's common when conducting an SEO campaign to focus on building links for a specific phrase. For example, if you're trying to rank for the term "children's bedding," the majority of the links that you're building probably feature that in the text copy of the article on which the link resides.

Anchor text goes awry (and can trigger a Penguin flag/penalty) when your anchor text is too keyword intensive. This stands out as an obvious marketing ploy, rather than organic. For a detailed look at the different types of anchor text, see my article here.

Even if many links point to the same exact content or page on your website, it's just not natural for very many of those links to include the same anchor text. However, link builders often attempt to extract the most value out of every link by using the same anchor text again and again (which is almost always the keyword they want that page to rank for, or some close variation of it).

In a natural link profile, you're likely to see a wide variety of anchor text. Take our bedding example above. Natural links could be "Kid's bedding," "children's sheets," "twin comforters" and more. Make sure that your anchor text is diverse. If it isn't, proceed to step 4 below.

Step 4: Disavow or Remove the Offending Links

Simply stated, the best way to recover your rankings is to get rid of any questionable links to your site. After you've used DIY tools or consulted a professional to map out a plan of action, you can begin the link removal process. There are a couple of ways to do this.

If you're trying to address an anchor text problem, consider reaching out to webmasters and asking them to change the anchor text. While the percentage of people who will do so is small (I've found it to be between 5-10 percent), it can be a worthwhile investment of time nonetheless.

For links (or entire domains) you simply want to remove from your link profile (and, thus, from Google's consideration), it's time to use Google's disavow tool. Requests are submitted via Google's Webmaster Tools. Once your requests have been submitted, give it some time for your site to be re-crawled and re-indexed.

You can also submit a reconsideration request to Google; just make sure to systematically and carefully outline what steps you've taken to remove bad links and improve the overall quality of your site. Be professional, direct, and take responsibility if you've engaged in any questionable practices in the past.

Step 5: Focus on Building Great Links

The final step is to start reshaping your link profile with high quality links. A variety of options exist, from creating and disseminating infographics to proposing guest posts on relevant, high-quality sites.

The most important thing is to keep the principles of good links in mind – links should be on relevant, high quality sites that are acquired over time and feature diverse anchor text.

Summary

Google's ongoing efforts to tighten up the search engine results are primarily geared at sites that have used bad SEO tactics in the past. If you've found yourself on the receiving end of a penalty, you'll be happy to know that it's possible to reverse the situation and put yourself on a path to good rankings.

Remember to be patient. Rebuilding a good reputation can take time, but ultimately your site will be resilient and unaffected by future updates.