Can You Escape Penguin Simply by Getting Good Links?

Can you escape the grip of Google’s Penguin algorithm by getting enough good links? Recently, in a Webmaster Central Help Hangout, Google employee John Mueller made a statement that implied that this could be possible. He was asked about a hypothetical situation in which a website was negatively affected by Penguin, and then was able to obtain enough new good links so that the weight of the good links was greater than those of the bad. Could this website possibly recover from Penguin even if they didn’t disavow or remove the bad links?

Mueller said that the new links would “definitely help.” He said that Google’s algorithms take into account whether things are changing and heading in the right direction. He then said, “In the hypothetical situation of someone who doesn’t know about any of this [my note: doesn’t know their site is affected by Penguin and that they should be cleaning up their links] and they realized that they did something wrong in the past and they’re working to improve that in the future, then that’s something that our algorithms will pick up on and we’ll be able to use as well.”

In other words, if Penguin sees that the good signals start to outweigh the bad ones, then things can start to improve.

In fairness, Mueller did go on to say that anyone who has bad links should be using the disavow tool and not just relying on getting new links. But, it really did sound like he was saying that, in theory, Penguin issues can be made better if a site was able to attract new links.

In my opinion, escaping Penguin without doing a link cleanup would be a very uncommon scenario. I’d like to share with you two examples of sites that attracted a large number of natural links while under the grip of Penguin. As this is a small sample size, I am not setting out to prove anything definitively, but I do think that we can make some interesting observations by looking at these examples.

Example #1

The first site is a nationally recognized brand. They have a great product and people will often mention their product and link to their website. A few years ago, the company got involved in some link purchasing that got them into trouble when Penguin first came out in April of 2012. They stopped building their own links, but the site continued to get a good number of new links that were completely natural. You can see by looking at this analytics snapshot of their organic traffic, that things stayed pretty flat despite the new links that they were attracting. In fact, when Penguin hit again in May of 2013, they suffered more loss:

penguin-no-improvement

We started working with this company in the summer of 2013. We did an extensive link cleanup for them. Then, on October 4, 2013, we saw a nice improvement with the launch of Penguin 2.1:

penguin-recovery-oct-2013

This company has continued to see improvement since getting released from Penguin in October of 2013. While the gaining of new links probably helped their site to look better in the eyes of Penguin, I do not believe that these new links alone would have been recognized by Penguin had we not also done a thorough link cleanup.

Example #2:

This next example is a really neat story. The site owner, Karl, has given me permission to share about his struggle with Penguin. Karl’s site was hit heavily by Penguin in April of 2012. He did a very extensive link cleanup, but as with the previous example, Penguin suppressed his traffic so that he never seemed to be able to climb above what I call “The Penguin Ceiling”:

penguin-hits

In July of 2014, Karl suddenly saw a massive increase in traffic to his site. He thought that Penguin had refreshed and he had finally escaped. But, what really happened was that his business received some fantastic press. His company is a wholesale liquidator and he had received a shipment of misprinted mugs. The story is actually quite comical. The mugs were supposed to have the image of British Soccer player Chris Smalling on them, but mistakenly were printed with U. S. President Barack Obama’s photo! Oops!

This resulted in a flood of links to Karl’s site including followed links from the BBC, NBC, and the Globe and Mail. We worked with Karl to help him leverage the situation to get even more links. This, by the way, is a great way to get truly natural links: Do something worthy of press and then spread the word so that more and more people want to talk about your company!

Did these links help Karl? Check out the analytics. There was a spike in organic traffic, mostly for people searching for his business after reading about it in the press, and then, despite the fact that he had gained some great links, things went right back down to Penguin suppressed levels:

penguin-with-organic-spike

You would think that those new links would help. He did something good and people were naturally mentioning his website. But nothing happened…until Penguin 3.0 hit on October 17, 2014. At this point, Karl’s hard work in cleaning up links, combined with the benefit of the new good links finally paid off:

penguin3-recovery

He did not recover to pre-Penguin levels, but he was able to break free from the “Penguin ceiling” that suppressed him for so long. And since then, he has been able to gain ground, which is something that hasn’t happened since April of 2012.

Conclusions

Can we conclude from this data that getting new links is not enough to help a site recover from Penguin? Well no. But, I think that a case where a site could recover from Penguin without doing any link cleanup would be quite uncommon.

Did you know that some sites can be only mildly affected by Penguin? In these cases, an influx of new, natural links could possibly tip the scales enough so that the site escapes the Penguin filter. Many people believe that if Penguin affects a site, the only possible outcome is for Penguin to have a dramatic negative effect. But, some time ago, Matt Cutts tweeted to tell a site owner that he had a “very mild case of Penguin”:

matt-cutts-slight-case-penguin

Later on in the Twitter conversation, someone asked about their site and Cutts’ response was interesting:

matt-cutts-stronger-penguin

The two examples I wrote about in this article definitely had “strong cases” of Penguin. But, I do believe that a site with a very mild case of Penguin could possibly see improvement by gaining natural links even if they didn’t do a link cleanup. However, I don’t believe that this means that we should forgo link cleanup and just concentrate on getting new links. Link cleanup is vitally important to Penguin recovery. (By the way, if you are trying to decide whether to remove links or just disavow for Penguin recovery, you can read my thoughts here.

I also want to caution people that when I talk about getting new links I’m talking about getting truly natural mentions and not making your own links.

I do think that in the two examples I wrote about, the natural links that they earned played an important part in their ability to escape the Penguin filter. While I have seen sites who have been able to escape Penguin by just doing a link cleanup, it does appear that the most dramatic Penguin recoveries come from sites that, along with doing a thorough cleanup, have been able to demonstrate to Google that they do have quality content that people want to link to and mention.

In conclusion, I think that gaining new links is important when it comes to Penguin recovery. But, don’t use this as your ONLY recovery strategy. You cannot link-build your way out of Penguin!

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