When Google launched the Penguin algorithm April 24, 2012, many sites who had relied strongly on low-quality link building were severely affected. I regularly hear stories from business owners who were hit hard over two years ago and haven't been able to recover.
In many cases the stories are tragic ones of small business owners who hired an SEO firm or consultant to help them improve their rankings, not knowing that the work that was being done was going against Google's quality guidelines. And now, many of these small businesses are having to cut staff and losing a lot of money because they can't find a way to recover their Google presence.
While Penguin recovery is possible, it's difficult. Here are five reasons why your site isn't recovering from Penguin.
Reason 1: You Haven't Done a Thorough Enough Link Cleanup
If you were adversely affected by Penguin, it's because you have unnatural links pointing to your site. We know that there can be factors other than links that can contribute to a Penguin hit, but bad links are by far the most important cause.
The Penguin algorithm was created in order to catch websites that are cheating in order to get higher Google rankings. If the algorithm determines that a high number of your links are unnatural, then this lowers the amount of trust that Google puts in your site. As a result, your entire site, (not just the pages to which you have built unnatural links,) can struggle:
The most important part of recovering from Penguin is to do a thorough cleanup of your unnatural links. It is debatable whether it is better to physically remove links or whether disavowing is enough.
If you have a manual penalty, which is different than an algorithmic issue like Penguin, then yes, you need to try to physically remove as many of your unnatural links as possible. But, this may not be the case for Penguin.
In this Webmaster Central Hangout with Google's John Mueller, when asked whether disavowing was equivalent to removing links in the eyes of Penguin, he responded:
"From a theoretical point of view, using the disavow tool is enough...from a practical point of view it almost always makes sense to still delete those links as much as possible.
My current philosophy when it comes to doing Penguin cleanup is to physically remove any links that are under my control or easy for me to remove and then disavow the rest. I don't do email link removal outreach when trying to clean up a site hit by Penguin.
When you're cleaning up your links to escape Penguin, it's important to be extremely thorough. One of the common reasons for sites to not recover from Penguin is because they've tried to keep too many links.
In most cases, if you paid for the link or made the link yourself, it's unnatural and it needs to go! There can be some exceptions such as locally relevant directories. But, the vast majority of the time, a self-made link is an unnatural link.
If you try to play a game and guess which of your unnatural links Google is upset with and which ones could possibly still be helping you, you're likely going to end up keeping links that Penguin is looking at unfavorably. You need to be cut-throat in your disavow decisions if you want to succeed.
The only sites that I've seen recover from Penguin are ones that did an extremely thorough link cleanup. In many cases, these sites may have disavowed some links that could have potentially been good links, but in my mind it's better to err on the side of caution if it gives you a better chance of getting all of the links that is causing the Penguin algorithm to distrust your site.
Reason 2: Improper Disavowing
In almost every case, if you're going to disavow a link, disavow it on the domain level. If you're disavowing http://www.example.com/article.html you may be missing links that come from pages like:
...and so on.
It used to be that you could run into problems by uploading the wrong type of file for your disavow that it wouldn't work (and you would get no notification of this) but now you will get an error message if you upload an improper file type. For example, if you tried to upload a .csv instead of a .txt file you'll get something like this:
Pay close attention to errors that display once you have uploaded your file such as the one below:
Even if your disavow file has been uploaded properly, it might be useless because of text editing software errors that cause something like the following to happen:
Text editing software displays it as:
This type of thing can happen when you try to convert a non-UTF8 file to UTF8. The entry would be accepted by the disavow file, but most likely Google wouldn't disavow example.com properly.
Here is more information on some important things you should know about the disavow tool.
Reason 3: You Need to Wait for a Penguin Refresh
This seems to be a hard concept for many people to grasp. You won't see the benefits of your hard work until a Penguin refresh happens.
As the last refresh was October 4 (longer than 8 months now), there are many people who are waiting anxiously for this to happen. I can't tell you how often I get an email from someone who wants to give up on their Penguin hit site because they have done everything they can think of doing and have not seen recovery. Again, recovery isn't going to happen until Google refreshes the algorithm and decides whether your link profile is once again trustworthy.
And here is some hard news to swallow: Some sites will need to see two Penguin refreshes before recovery happens. The reason for this is that in some cases, it can take up to six months for your disavow file to be completely processed.
When you file your disavow, it starts working right away. What happens is that when Google visits a URL and sees that that URL is on your disavow list they will apply an invisible nofollow tag to links pointing to your site. But, if there are URLs in your disavow file that are on pages that are rarely crawled by Google, then it could take months and months for that crawl to happen and for the disavow to be applied.
So, if you filed a disavow in late September and didn't see a Penguin recovery when Penguin refreshed on October 4, it may be that not enough URLs in your disavow file had been recrawled. If this is the case, then good things will hopefully happen when Google finally refreshes Penguin again.
This isn't always the case, though. One of my clients who filed a disavow in September saw a nice Penguin recovery after the October 4 refresh.
For this particular site, the majority of their unnatural links were paid links on high PR sites that probably got crawled regularly. If most of your links are on spammy directories and low quality article sites then it certainly is possible that it will take several months for your disavow to fully be processed. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing when Google has revisited a link and applied your disavow.
Reason 4: Your Site Doesn't Have Enough Good Links to Rank Well
In many cases the only reason why a site was ranking well in the past was because of the power of links that Google is now able to recognize as unnatural. If this is the case, then removing and disavowing all of your bad links is not going to be enough to see you make a dramatic recovery.
Google is working harder and harder to get to the point where the only links that count toward a site are ones that truly are earned votes for that site.
You used to be able to take any site and build enough links to it and it could outrank all of its competitors. But those days are gone. If your site has very few truly natural links, then even if you do a thorough link cleanup, there may be nothing there to support rankings once Penguin refreshes.
Reason 5: Other Factors Are Holding Your Site Back
Penguin may not be the only thing that is holding your site back from ranking well. I've seen numerous sites that were dealing with both Penguin and Panda problems.
Panda is a filter of trust similar to Penguin, but deals primarily with on-page quality rather than links. If the Panda algorithm is affecting your site then you're going to have to deal with your on-page issues in order to recover. Here's more information on the Panda algorithm.
It's also possible that there is some type of technical issue that is holding you back, such as accidental noindexing of pages, blocking by robots.txt or malware issues. Here is a fairly thorough list of things that could cause your site to have ranking issues that aren't due to a Google penalty or algorithm change.
It is possible to recover from Penguin, but it isn't easy. You need to do an extremely thorough cleanup of your links, your disavow file needs to be fully processed, you need to wait for Penguin to refresh, and you need to have a site that is worthy of ranking well even without the power of unnatural links.
Here's an example of a site that saw not only a complete recovery with Penguin, but once Google started trusting their links again they were able to see the benefit of the new good links that they had obtained while they were under Penguin's thumb.
This type of dramatic full recovery is not as common as a partial recovery, as seen here:
If you're working hard on cleaning up a site hit by Google's Penguin algorithm, don't despair! Hopefully Google will refresh Penguin soon and your hard work will be rewarded.
Have I missed anything? Can you think of other reasons why a site may not recover from Penguin? If so, please leave a comment below.