On Friday, October 4th, Matt Cutts announced the release of Penguin 2.1. Based on the amount of Penguin work I do, that meant one thing. Matt just threw a serious wrench into my Friday night (and weekend plans). Similar to previous Penguin updates, I began heavily analyzing websites hit by Penguin 2.1 to identify new findings and insights.
Needless to say, the past two and a half weeks have been fascinating, as I’ve now dug into 36 sites hit by Penguin 2.1. This latest update has definitely left a path of destruction across both large and small websites, from around the world.
A Tale of 3 Penguin Victims
This post is designed to give you a peek behind the curtains, into the world of Penguin. I will focus on three different websites, with three different outcomes.
The first story is a happy one, as I’ll explain more about a company that recovered during Penguin 2.1. The second company unfortunately took it on the chin, and twice. They were first hit by Penguin 2.0, only to get hit harder by 2.1. The third represents an all-too-common example of a company not understanding what its SEO agency was doing, and was blindsided by a Penguin 2.1 hit. Let’s begin.
1. Penguin 2.1 Brings Recovery
I know there are a lot of people that don’t believe websites can recover from Penguin. But they can; I’ve written several case studies about those recoveries in case you want to learn more. Once Penguin 2.1 hit, I quickly started reviewing the reporting of previous Penguin victims to see if there was any impact from our refreshed, icy friend.
During this most recent update, two websites I’ve been helping with Penguin hits recovered. I’ll focus on one of those sites in this post. While analyzing the site’s reporting, I saw a distinct bump in Google organic traffic starting on Friday, October 4th and increasing during the weekend. Note, this was a client with multiple issues, and was hit by both Panda and Penguin (historically). That’s actually a common scenario for a number of the companies contacting me. For this company in particular, I helped them identify technical problems, content issues, and link problems, and they have worked hard to rectify their issues.
A Penguin Recovery During the 2.1 Update:
The company was originally hit by a previous Penguin update, but delayed tackling their link issues as they worked on technical problems and content issues. If you know how I feel about the gray area of Panda or Penguin, I always feel you should move as quickly as possible while maintaining focus in order to recover from algorithm hits. The reality, though, is that not every company can move at light speed.
This company was no different. They had seen improvements from technical fixes and content work, and finally started to address Penguin over the past few months (after Penguin 2.0 rolled out). Unfortunately, Penguin was inhibiting their growth, even if they had showed signs of progress based on other SEO work.
During late spring and summer, unnatural links were removed as much as possible, while links that could not be manually removed were disavowed. By the way, that’s the approach I recommend. I’m not a big fan of disavowing all bad links, and I never have been.
Based on links downloaded from Google Webmaster Tools, Majestic SEO, and Open Site Explorer, the company tackled its unnatural link situation the best it could. Now they just needed another algorithm update to see if their hard work paid off. I recommend to any company hit by an algorithm update that they should keep driving forward as if they weren’t hit. Keep producing great content, keep leveraging social to get the word out, keep building natural links, etc.
When October 4th arrived, a spike in organic search traffic followed. The site’s Google organic traffic was up 43 percent following Penguin 2.1 (and up 67 percent to the specific landing pages that had been impacted heavily by the previous Penguin hit). The filter had been lifted and the site was being rewarded for its recovery work.
- Move quickly and keep a strong focus on what you need to tackle link-wise. Although this company recovered, it delayed its Penguin work for some time (and the negative impact remained).
- Be thorough. Don’t miss links you need to nuke. Penguin is algorithmic and there is a threshold you need to pass.
- Remove as many unnatural links as you can manually, and then disavow the rest. Avoid the knee-jerk reaction to disavow all of them.
After your Penguin work has been completed, keep your head down and drive forward. Act as if you aren’t being impacted by Penguin. You’ll send the right signals to Google throughout the downturn in traffic.
2. A Penguin 2.0 and 2.1 Combination Punch
The second example I wanted to explain was an unfortunate one-two punch from Penguin. You wouldn’t think a Penguin can pack a combination punch, but it has in several situations I’ve analyzed recently (where companies reached out to me complaining of a Penguin 2.1 hit, after a Penguin 2.0 hit.) And worse, this was after thinking they addressed their unnatural link problem thoroughly.
After getting pummeled by Penguin 2.0 on May 22nd, the company gathered its troops, thought they identified all of their unnatural links, and worked hard on removing them. After what seemed to be a thorough cleanup, they eagerly awaited another Penguin update. When Penguin 2.1 was announced by Matt Cutts, they watched their reporting with intense focus, only to be thoroughly disappointed with the outcome. They got hit even worse.
The Initial Penguin 2.0 Hit:
The Second Penguin Hit on Oct 4th:
So what happened? Quickly reviewing the site’s link profile revealed a problem: companies put a stake in the ground and remove as many unnatural links as they can at a given point in time. They don’t continue analyzing their links to see if more unnatural links pop up and that’s a dangerous mistake. I saw many unnatural links in their profile that were first found during the summer and fall of 2013. Many showed up after their Penguin work had been completed. Those links are what got them hit by Penguin 2.1.
Fresh Unnatural Links Caused the Penguin 2.1 Hit:
The combination punch I mentioned above is a strong reminder that Penguin never sleeps. Don’t assume you are done with your link removals because you have a spreadsheet from a few months ago. You need to continually review your link profile to identify potential problems. If this company had done that, they would have picked up many additional unnatural links showing up this summer and fall, and dealt with them accordingly. I believe if they did, they could have avoided the nasty one-two punch of Penguin.
- Your Penguin work is ongoing. Don’t drop the ball.
- Have your SEO continually monitor your link profile for unnatural links (whether that’s an internal SEO, agency, or consultant).
- The one-two punch of Penguin is killer (and can be backbreaking). Avoid multiple algorithm hits. They aren’t fun to live through.
Unnatural links have an uncanny way of replicating across low-quality sites and networks. I have clearly seen this during my Penguin analyses. Beware.
3. A Fresh Hit, Care of a “Trusted” Third Party
In April, I wrote a column titled Racing Penguin, where I explained an unnatural links situation that looked like negative SEO. However, it ended up being a “trusted” third party that was assisting a company with its marketing efforts. Unfortunately, that situation is all too common, as businesses outsource SEO and aren’t tracking what those third parties are doing.
After Penguin 2.1 was released, I received a call from a business owner blindsided by the latest update. After showing the business owner many of the unnatural links impacting the website, he was blown away. He made it very clear that he never set up those links.
I took him through a process I normally take blindsided Penguin victims through to try and determine how the links were set up. I also explained that I’ve been contacted about negative SEO many times since Penguin 1.0, but it almost always ends up not being negative SEO. The trail typically leads to someone connected to the company (and a high percentage of those people had the right intentions, but the wrong execution).
A Penguin Hit Timeline Can Bring Answers:
That was the case for this business owner. He contacted several people who had helped him in various capacities over the past few years, but one vendor came back with a quick and affirmative response. As it turns out, the business owner hired an agency to help with SEO and they began a linkbuilding campaign. They built links all right… just not the ones a business owner wants to build. The links were Penguin food, plain and simple.
The business owner was left trying to clean up the Penguin mess. Instead of running his business, he’s dealing with link exports from various tools, contacting webmasters, and getting familiar with the disavow tool. Yes, this business owner is getting a Masters Degree in Penguin Sciences.
How to avoid this situation? My advice is the same as it’s always been. Know who you are hiring and what they will be doing; get it in writing and make sure you know what has been completed. Ask hard questions, get clear answers, and keep the pulse of your website. Algorithms like Penguin and Panda can cause serious damage to your business, as Google organic traffic can plummet overnight. Then you’ll have months of hard recovery work ahead. Avoid this situation at all costs.
- Thoroughly vet the SEO agency or consultant you are planning to hire. Don’t get caught hiring a company that makes your situation worse. That’s not the point.
- Know what your agency or consultant will be completing for you, and get that in writing.
- Communicate with your SEO agency or consultant on a regular basis to receive updates on the projects being completed. Ask for written updates, screenshots and examples as the projects continue. Don’t get caught at the end of the project with lingering questions.
- When you see an increase in rankings, ask why that’s happening. Try to understand the tactics being used to impact SEO. Unfortunately, there are some tactics that cause short-term gains only to cause serious, long-term problems.
Take the initiative to review your own SEO reporting to better understand what’s going on. Learn your way around Google Webmaster Tools, Google Analytics, and link analysis tools like Majestic SEO and Open Site Explorer. You might be able to nip serious SEO problems in the bud.
Summary: Penguin 2.1 Bringeth and Taketh Away
I hope these three examples provided a view into the world of Penguin. In my opinion, Penguin 2.1 was bigger and badder than Penguin 2.0. The good news is that not every site was impacted negatively. There were recoveries. Though they’re often overshadowed by the destruction, it’s important to know that Penguin victims can recover. It just takes a lot of hard work for that to happen.
If you’ve been impacted by Penguin 2.1, you need to download and analyze your inbound links, flag unnatural links, remove as many as you can manually, and then disavow what you can’t remove. As I mentioned in the second case above, don’t stop analyzing your links once the initial phase has been completed. Continually monitor your link profile to make sure additional unnatural links don’t appear. Remember, another Penguin update might be right around the corner. Good luck.