The complete guide to the Google Penguin Update.
Both Panda and Penguin are algorithm changes rolled out by Google in order to reward high quality sites and to keep low quality sites from ranking well and receiving a lot of search traffic. The difference between the two algorithm changes is that Panda focuses primarily on the on site quality and Penguin focuses on the quality of your backlink profile. One of the main goals of the Penguin update was to take away the advantage of sites that used tricks and loopholes in order to rank higher on a Google search.
On April 24, 2012, The Google Webmaster Blog released an article entitled, “Another Step to Reward High Quality Sites”1. In this article they announced an algorithm change that was to affect about 3% of English search queries. They stated that the goal was to reward sites that abided by the Quality Guidelines2. (See below for tips on figuring out if you have gone against the Quality Guidelines.)
(Before taking these steps to see if you have been hit with Penguin, it is a good idea to check your Google Webmaster Tools for any unnatural links warnings. The cleanup is similar, but if you know that you have an unnatural links warning, then you don’t need to go through the following steps.)
Sometimes a Penguin diagnosis is very obvious. Some sites that were hit by Penguin received a very obvious decline in traffic that coincides with the date of a Penguin update:
- April 24, 2012
- May 25, 2012
- October 5, 2012
There is some belief now that a site can be affected by Penguin on any date…not just immediately after a Penguin refresh5. If you have recently built a number of links to your site and have noticed a traffic drop in the following days or weeks then this still can be due to Penguin. (Interestingly, it looks like even though a site can be affected by Penguin on any day, it can likely only recover after a Penguin refresh.)
Sometimes, the decline in traffic to a “Penguinized” site is not as obvious as the chart above. With a Panda hit, the decline in traffic is site-wide. But, with Penguin, the decline can affect only certain keywords. So, another way to diagnose a Penguin hit is to look for a decline in traffic for certain keywords. If you have been building anchor texted links geared towards a particular keyword, then this is a good place to start looking.
How to check for a traffic drop for a particular keyword:
- Open up your Google Analytics dashboard.
- In the upper right corner, select a date range that will let us see the traffic during the time of known Penguin rollouts. If you select April 1-June 1 you will be able to see the timepoints of April 24, 2012 and May 25, 2012 which are known Penguin rollout dates.
- On the left sidebar menu click on Traffic Sources, then Search, then Organic. This will give you a list of keywords to choose from.
- Click on each keyword to see a traffic graph.
- Look for a dramatic traffic drop that coincides with a known Penguin update
Some confusing things when diagnosing Penguin.
Sometimes it can look like your site has been hit by Penguin, but there may be other factors. Here are a few things that can be confusing when trying to diagnose a Penguin hit on your site:
- There was a Panda refresh on April 19th and April 27th. If you had a sitewide traffic drop following one of these dates, you may have a Panda issue rather than Penguin. Remember that Panda is more about on-site quality (as opposed to backlink quality). See here for more information on the Panda algorithm.
- Sometime in May, it was discovered that Google had deindexed many directories3,4. If your site had links from some of these directories then a traffic drop late in May may be related to a loss of directory link juice rather than a Penguin hit. However, if the drop was immediately after May 25, 2012 it is still most likely a Penguin thing.
- It’s possible that it wasn’t your site that was affected by Penguin, but rather sites that link to you that were hit. If you had backlinks from highly ranked sites and then those sites were devalued, then the link equity coming from those sites will be greatly reduced and your site is going to suffer as a result.
- There are many other things that can cause a drop in traffic. Again, if the drop was dramatic and followed either a known Penguin update, (or happened within a few weeks of a potentially spammy linkbuilding campain), then you are likely hit by Penguin. However, it’s not a bad idea to have a look at this article about other reasons for traffic drops.
- There was a Panda refresh on September 27, 2012, which was very close to the Penguin refresh of October 5. Be careful not to confuse the two! Just to confuse matters more, the EMD (exact match domain) update happened on September 28.
At this point, it is difficult to give exact instructions on how to recover from Penguin because we have not seen many sites claim recovery. But, you can take the following steps to aid in your site’s recovery.
It is important to know that you WILL NOT recover from Penguin until there is another Penguin refresh.
So far there has been a refresh on May 25, 2012 and also October 5, 2012. There have not been very many well documented cases of recovery.
Most SEO’s agree that the key to recovering from Penguin is to clean up your backlink profile. The problem is, that it can be difficult to know how to do that. Removing links may be necessary, but if you remove links unnecessarily you may actual suffer a loss in rankings. So, how do you know what to clean up? Here are a few ideas:
- Look to see if you have obvious anchor text spam. To do so, look at your site in the SEOmoz Open Site Explorer. Once you have entered your url, click on the tab that allows you to order your backlinks according to the most popular anchor text:
A natural link profile will usually have your url, or perhaps your brand as the most common anchor text. But, if you have a keyword that you have been building backlinks for as one or more of your top anchor texts, then you know where to start.
- If you are suffering rankings for a particular keyword, look for places where you can get your backlinks either changed or removed. Some SEOs believe that you should remove as much backlink spam as possible. Other SEOs advocate not to remove the link, but to get the anchor text changed so that it contains your url (i.e. www.example.com or your brand name).
- Some places to consider a change or removal of an anchor texted link include:
- Look for places where you have violated the Google Quality Guidelines.
- There are ways to potentially recover a Penguin hit site that don’t involve removal of backlinks. If you have certain pages that have been affected by Penguin (that are not the home page) it is possible to remove this page from the Google index and start fresh with a new page. There are even ways to do something similar if your home page has been affected. However, doing this is complicated. If you want to attempt this method of Penguin recovery I would recommend contacting an SEO professional.
- From this point on, focus on EARNING links rather than building links. The whole point of the Penguin algorithm changes is to stop sites from being able to rank on tricks, but instead to rank sites well because they have truly earned natural links.
- Some SEO’s believe that it is the percentage of unnatural links that can trigger a Penguin demotion. Therefore, you may be able to get out of the penalty without removing links, but by simply earning good quality, natural links.
- Matt Cutts (head of the Webspam team at Google) did mention that for some websites it may not be possible to recover (i.e. if there is too much unnatural linkbuilding). He suggested that for some sites it would be better to cut your losses and start fresh with a new website.
-Directories that exist solely to pass PR to your site.
-Purchased links (i.e. from a blog network).
-Comment spam (i.e. leaving your keyword as an anchor texted name in a blog comment.)
-Widespread article syndication. (i.e. you published an article with an anchor texted link back to your site and circulated it around the web.)
-Footer links. For example, let’s say you are a web design company and you have placed, “New York Web Design” at the bottom of every client’s page, and now you have lost your rankings for “New York Web Design”.
-Any other links that were created for the purpose of improving your Google rankings.
Important point: If you know you have some bad backlinks, but you don’t know which links you should be removing, it may be worthwhile to hire an SEO professional to help you determine which links to remove and how to do that!
Sometimes, not all of these links will need to be removed. You could end up removing links that are actually helping your site!
Another important note: After the October 5, 2012 refresh of Penguin there have not been any credible cases of recovery reported. Some webmasters have claimed recovery but no one has come forth with data to this point. What this means is that we don’t know if removing links will help or not.
Added October, 2012: John Mueller, a Google employee has suggested that the new disavow tool may be helpful for Penguin recovery. More info here: Using the disavow tool for Penguin recovery.
Important! If your site has been affected by Penguin, it will not help to file a reconsideration request with Google. These requests are only for sites who have been hit with a manual penalty. You cannot recover from Penguin until there is a refresh of the Penguin algorithm.