With the release of Google’s latest spam-fighting algorithm update, Penguin 2.1, many webmasters who have been bending the rules when building links to their websites received a ranking penalty. The latest update is more strict than ever and many webmasters are finding their sites penalized for shady link building tactics that they used months or even years in the past. A large number of websites that sailed through the previous Penguin updates were caught by this update.
The good news is that Google’s Penguin update entirely algorithmic. You will not need to submit your site for human review to begin ranking again. The bad news is that climbing out of this penalty is very slow and time consuming. Below, I will discuss exactly what Google’s Penguin update is, whether or not you should consider starting over with a new website, and the steps you should take to gain traffic and ultimately recover from the penalty.
About Google’s Penguin Update
Google’s Penguin update is a filter designed to catch websites that are trying to manipulate Google rankings via webspam (building links in large quantities, either on blog networks or websites that otherwise do not want them there). Sites affected by this filter will typically find the affected page no longer ranks for any relevant terms in Google’s search engine results. The page itself will not be deindexed as the result of Penguin.
Note that Penguin is page specific. If black hat link tactics are directed towards a particular page on a large site and the Penguin filter is tripped, only that particular page will fall down in rankings. Many webmasters report a large drop in sitewide traffic after a Penguin penalty, but this is a side effect of losing link credit rather than a sitewide penalty.
Imagine if a webmaster had a 200 page website and built large volumes of webspam to the homepage. The subpages on the site would increase in authority due to their proximity to the homepage of that website. If the homepage of the website suddenly lost all authority, those subpages would in turn lose authority as well, resulting in a significant decrease in visibility sitewide.
Contrast this with a large site like Squidoo.com that allows user created content. Users regularly create webspam to their Squidoo lenses in an effort to increase search engine ranks. If one of these lenses tripped the Penguin filter, traffic across Squidoo would not drop noticeably. Penguin will identify the specific pages (in this case lenses) being spammed and lower the visibility of those particular pages while leaving other pages completely unaffected.
Checking A Website for a Penguin Penalty
An easy way to check to see if the homepage is easy – just type the domain name minus extension into Google as if it was just one word. For example, if your website URL was “seotips4localbiz.com”, you could type “seotips4localbiz” into Google and hit enter. If seotips4localbiz.com was not the first result that would indicate a penguin penalty. This assumes that the site at least has a few backlinks and is indexed – a brand new site is not going to rank for anything regardless. It also assumes you do not share a domain name with another site of a different extension. Continuing with this example, if there was an seotips4localbiz.net that outranked the .com, this does not necessarily indicate a penalty for the .com.
Checking whether or not the subpage of a particular website has a Penguin penalty is a bit more difficult. If the page in question is well linked, search for the keyword the page is targeting (i.e. the keyword or keyphrase is in the title) and comb through the search results until you find the first result from that domain. If a less relevant page on the same website outranks the targeted page, there is a high probability of a Penguin-related penalty.
For example, let’s use the imaginary website “seotips4localbiz.com”. Imagine there was a page set up on the website set up to target the keyphrase “baltimore seo services” at seotips4localbiz.com/baltimore-seo-services. Now imagine we searched “baltimore seo services” in Google. Here are the possible results:
- If the highest ranked result from seotips4localbiz.com was the seotips4localbiz.com/baltimore-seo-services page, that would indicate no Penguin penalty.
- If the highest ranked result from seotips4localbiz.com was some other less relevant page, that would indicate the possibility of a Penguin penalty.
In the second scenario, it is possible that the more relevant ranking page is deeper in the site’s architecture, has less content, or has very little authority and as a result may be outranked by the other less relevant page based on those factors. However, if the page we are checking for penalty used to rank for the targeted keyphrase and suddenly loses ranks and is replaced by a less relevant subpage at a lower position in the search engine results, a Penguin penalty is the likely culprit.
What Causes Penguin Penalty
In an earlier post, I discussed in detail what seems to trigger the Penguin 2.1 penalty. To summarize, I have observed a strong correlation between having a low Trust Flow versus Citation Flow (MajesticSEO scores) as a predictor of penalty. In particular, you should strive to keep your Trust Flow as high as possible and never let it drop more than 10 points lower than your Citation Flow (i.e. a Trust Flow of 15 and a Citation Flow of 35 is strongly correlated with Penguin penalties).
I also believe that having many total backlinks from few referring domains is correlated with a penalty, but a much weaker correlation than the Trust Flow versus Citation Flow measure. In particular, sites with an average of 10 times (or more) of total backlinks compared to referring domains seemed to be more likely to receive a penalty with Penguin 2.1. Sitewide links and just creating many links on subpages of a particular domain lend themselves to this high total backlink to referring domain ratio. As a caveat, these sorts of links tend to be okay for sites with a lot of Trust Flow.
Earlier Penguin updates targeted anchor text, penalizing sites with an abnormally high percentage of anchor text. Many SEOs used to try and build as many links with the same anchor text as possible. This blatant manipulation was ultimately cleaned up by Penguin, so it is ideal to vary your anchor text and use some raw URL links to prevent penalties from being triggered.
Armed with this information, moving forward it is best to focus on acquiring high quality links from high trust domains with a large variety of anchor text.
Now that you know what actually causes a Penguin penalty, we can now discuss exactly how to go about reversing this penalty.
Decide if the Site is Worth Saving
Before you go about trying to fix a site that was hit by a penguin penalty, you should first decide on whether the site is actually worth the effort of digging out of the penalty hole. While it is a controversial position, I believe that not every website is worth saving. Sometimes, it is easier to just register a new domain name and start from scratch.
How do we know if a website is worth saving? Ask yourself the following three questions:
Is the penguin penalty the result of links built to the homepage or subpage(s)?
If no spam or low-quality links were built to the homepage, one easy way to remove all of these links is to just delete the affected pages and set up a 301 redirect from the affected pages to somewhere off-site. This will deflect large amounts of spam links that would be impossible to delete, remove, disavow, or otherwise clean up. If you do not have anywhere productive to point this 301, just register a new domain with a blank page and point all those 301s to that page. This may be a little blackhat for some, but these spam receptacles will rank well in Yahoo and Bing. Use that information how you will.
From here, you can just re-create the deleted pages on your old domain with fresh, improved content at a different slug (do not use the same URL as the deleted page). These pages will be free and clear of any Penguin penalty as long as you do not go back to your old ways of building crummy links.
Is the site still making a significant amount of money?
A penalized website that is still generating a significant income is still valuable. Any property that generates income is valuable by definition. For any website that is still bringing in some significant business, it is likely worthwhile to try and salvage the site. At the very least, you will not want to take it down or clone it (as recommended in the next step) given that it is still making money.
Even if you decide to start over with a fresh site, there is no harm in leaving the old site up as long as it is making money. You can use this money to help finance a new site that is free and clear of any penalty. If you go for this approach, remember that the new site needs unique content and a different structure than the old site to avoid any duplicate content issues.
Can the site be rebuilt for a few thousand dollars or less?
If the site is not making a significant income and can be recreated for a few thousand dollars or less, there is not a lot to lose by starting over fresh with a new domain. Clone your website over to a new domain and use Webmaster Tools to de-index your old domain. Once it falls out of the index, delete the old domain and all of its associated files, leaving only the new domain live. If you have wanted to re-design your site, this is a great time.
On the newly cloned site, rewrite and expand content on all the most popular pages on the new version of the website in order to improve rankings and index rates. Move over any high quality links under your control. If you had any great guest posts, e-mail the owner of the blog and let them know about the URL change. They will be happy to update the URL as they do not want to have the old guest post linking out to a dead page.
Steps for Google Penguin 2.1 Recovery
Below, you will find the 5 steps necessary to bring a site back from the dead after being hit by the penguin filter. Given the amount of effort required to follow through with these steps, I strongly recommend considering whether or not the site is worth saving. If you deem the site worth saving, only spend a day or two at a maximum on step #1. Focus more on steps 2-5 to make the most of your time.
Get Rid of Troublesome Links
The most difficult aspect of recovering from Penguin is getting rid of troublesome links. I encourage you not to spend too much time on this step, as if you have done any amount of automated link building (or have been paying people to do it), you will not be able to find every single link that is pointing to your site. Of the ones you can find, you will not be able to delete or change the vast majority of these links – disavow will be your only option.
When identifying problematic links, I would encourage you to look for low quality web 2.0 links, profile links, automated blog comments, and blog posts on low quality sites or blog networks. Additionally, check MajesticSEO for high Citation Flow / low Trust Flow links. Links which pass zero trust flow can be problematic in large number. Meanwhile, while something like a guest post is technically a gamed link, if the link the blog is coming from is a high quality blog, I would not recommend deleting it.
The easiest way to get rid of large quantities of low quality links is to just delete the subpages where most of these links are pointing. You can then set up a 301 redirect to somewhere offsite to deflect them from your domain. As mentioned earlier, if you have nowhere productive to point these links, register a new domain and point all of these spam links to that domain.
After that, you can try to delete as many of the links that you control and disavow the ones you do not. In order to get a disavow list, you should sign up for MajesticSEO, Ahrefs, and Google Webmaster Tools. Extract the link lists from all 3 services and add them to an Excel sheet. Use the filter function to delete any duplicate URLs. Next, manually go through and delete the good links of the list. The remaining “bad links” can be submitted through the disavow tool as described here.
However, there is not much evidence that suggests disavowing links actually works (there are even some rumors that it does nothing at all). Even if disavowing does work, the main problem is that there is not a good way to find every single spam link that is linking to your website. Google does not provide this information to website owners. Even by combining MajesticSEO, Ahrefs, and Webmaster Tools link reports, you will only end up with 25%-50% of your total links.
Acquire High Trust Flow Links
While you are not going to be able to delete, deflect, or disavow every link to your site, you can help drown out those low quality links by acquiring good links. Penguin is not an all-or-nothing filter but rather looks at the overall link profile of a particular page and the trust of the domain and its subpages. If a page has 1000 links and 900 are low quality (i.e. citation flow but little to no trust flow), odds are it is going to be hit with a Penguin penalty.
Trust Flow (as rated by MajesticSEO) is a measure used to calculate how trustworthy a link from a particular site should be based on the link profile of the linking site. A high trust link comes from a page that has is linked either directly or within a few clicks from a set of high trust sites (i.e. Wikipedia, New York Times, CNN, Google, and so on).
I have noted time and time again that sites affected by Penguin 2.1 tend to have low trust flow and high citation flow. Build up the trust flow to your site by gathering high trust flow links. Google is willing to overlook a certain amount of low quality links as long as the page has a good trust score.
Subpages on high trust domains (i.e. YouTube, Amazon, and so on) are able to soak up a lot more low quality links than less trusted domains. If you do not believe me, see what happens when 1000 low quality links are built to an Amazon page or a YouTube video compared to a subpage on a new 30 page website. The Amazon page or YouTube video will remain unaffected or increase in rank, whereas the subpage on the 30 page new website will likely get hit with a penalty. I believe this is the result of trust flow passing from the top level domain (Amazon and YouTube in this case) flowing down to the subpages on that website and protecting these subpages from spam. Protect your own pages by acquiring high trust links of your own to build up your domain’s trust flow.
Establish and Maintain Social Sites
One great way to improve the trust flow of your website is to create and maintain active profiles on social sites. In particular, focus on your Google+ Profile page, your YouTube or Vimeo channel, your Twitter account, and your Facebook page. When active with regular postings and a large number of subscribers, these social profile sites seem to pass large amounts of trust flow to the websites these social sites are set up to complement.
As an added bonus, Google has mentioned that they are looking to give more weight to social signals in their ranking algorithm in the future. By setting up and maintaining these profiles now, you will be ahead of the game when social signals get more weight in search engine rankings.
Rewrite Content on Static Pages
Now more than ever, Google’s algorithm favors fresh and lengthy content when ranking webpages. If you recently lost a lot of traffic due to Penguin 2.1, try re-writing and expanding the content on your old static pages to gain more visibility. Update any “last updated” dates to the date you edit the content. While this is not directly related to the Penguin penalty, it will help old pages rank higher and help you regain what you lost: traffic. This step is particularly important if you decide to clone your domain and start over with a new site.
Add Fresh Content
Penguin is page specific. By adding new pages, you can create new pages which are free of a Penguin penalty.
How do we know new pages escape the Penguin penalty? Once again we can use Squidoo as an example. Many affiliate marketers will create subpages on websites like Squidoo.com and then proceed to spam these subpages with links. Subpages on sites like Squidoo will rank easier with webspam since they borrow some authority from the authoritative top-level domain. However, the Penguin filter targets trust in particular, and trust decreases significantly with each click the subpage is from the homepage. As a result, a new page on Squidoo often has little to no trust given how deep it is in the site’s architecture.
With Penguin 2.1, many of these formely well-ranked spammed pages on Squidoo ended up losing their rank. Did honest pages on Squidoo suffer a penalty? Not as a direct result of Penguin 2.1. Google has adjusted the authority of various web 2.0 sites in the past, but not explicitly with the Penguin update. Squidoo may have appeared to suffer a large loss of traffic with Penguin 2.1, but that was only because there was a large number of well-ranked pages on the site that were ranking with spam links.
The take-home message here is that even if you built too many low-quality links to a particular page, your new pages will not be affected. If you have an authoritative and popular domain, go on a new content spree and keep adding large quantities of high quality content to your website. This is a much more effective use of your time than spending more than a day trying to disavow and delete every junk link ever built to your website. Even if it takes ages for the Penguin penalty to lift off of your affected pages, in the mean time you can take your website to new records in traffic if you add more content then you had originally before the penalty hit.
If you were hit by Penguin 2.1, rather than bemoan your fate, think of the increasing sophistication of the Penguin spam filter as an opportunity for legitimate SEO tactics to become a viable option. With each update, webspam is becoming less effective and more expensive to its users. It is finally coming to a point where white hat versus black hat is not just a moral discussion, but an economical one as well.
Moving forward, I suggest focusing on the acquirement of a few quality links rather than many low quality links. I hear what you are saying – all off-page activity is technically against Google guidelines in theory, but in practice, Google is not likely to ever penalize a website for getting a guest post on a highly authoritative and moderated blog. In a way, a guest post link is an editorial link as the owner of the authoritative blog is vouching for the guest poster.
To stay ahead of the curve, I would recommend adding fresh, high quality content that will naturally get shared on social networks. Additionally, update and flesh out older, high traffic pages and make sure it is easy to share these pages. The next logical step for the next evolution of Penguin is to use social signals in the way that the current Penguin uses trust. A page created after 2010 with many links but few social shares is a statistical anomaly and likely a gamed result. Protect yourself from any future changes by making sure your ranking pages are of high quality and easily shareable.