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Google Penguin Update Continues Assault on Black Hat SEO



Forever in pursuit of improving the quality of its users’ search experience by refining the value and relevancy of its search results, Google has launched another significant update to its ranking algorithm.  On April 24th Google introduced the Penguin update [2], designed to penalize pages that have been scamming Google for rankings through black hat “webspam [3]” tactics.  The change does not target low-quality pages, but rather those that employ keyword stuffing, intentionally duplicate content, and have “unusual linking patterns,” such as links from spun content with unrelated anchor texts.  This distinguishes Penguin from the Panda Updates [4] and Google’s other over-optimization penalties, which target pages containing low-quality content or practicing other black hat SEO tactics.  Penguin is estimated to impact roughly 12 percent of search queries across all languages.  Google expects the algorithm to affect about 3.1 percent of all English language queries.  The change was completely live as of April 27th.

How do I know if my site was hit?

To date, there’s no way to determine you’ve been hit by the Penguin update from within Google Webmaster Tools.  One good indication is if you’ve received warnings from Google in the past about spam activity.  If you haven’t received any formal spam notifications from Google, but are worried about having been impacted, compare your traffic reports from the week before and after the update.  If you’ve seen a sharp drop in traffic on Google, then you’ve probably been affected.  You should also review the following data points to determine whether the Penguin update hit you:

–        Compare the change in traffic on Google to Yahoo! and Bing.  If you don’t see the same drop in traffic, there’s a good chance you were hit.

–        Review the last 5 months of updates to your sites.

–        Check for any abnormal crawling behavior.

–        Analyze the top drops in impressions and traffic for your keywords within Google Webmaster Tools.

It should also be noted that shortly after Google announced its Penguin update, Matt Cutts announced that it had performed a data refresh on the Panda update a few days prior.   According to Cutts, the Panda refresh was implemented on April 19th.  The Penguin update was released on April 24th, but the original announcement specified that the update could take a few days to go live.  This of course makes it difficult to confirm you’ve been hit by the Penguin update. To determine whether it was the Panda or Penguin update that hit you, analyze your Google referrals data and review whether they dropped before or after April 24th.

Why did I get hit? Direct vs. Indirect effects

The Penguin update does not represent a reformation of how Google calculates its organic rankings.  It’s rather a reinforcement of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines [5], which have long been in place. “The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines,” explains Cutts in his blog announcement on Google’s Webmaster Central Blog [2]. “We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content. While we can’t divulge specific signals because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high quality sites that create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods instead of engaging in aggressive webspam tactics.”

In the majority of cases, if you’ve been impacted by the Penguin update, it will be the result of a direct penalty to your site.  If you have been stuffing keywords into your content, purposefully duplicating on- and off-page content, cloaking your site, or employing manipulative linking tactics, you’ve been violating Google’s guidelines. The primary reason, however, are unusual linking patterns.  This means that you could be penalized for link schemes within your site or indirectly by low-quality, scammy links from your link partner network.  In its announcement, Google gave the following example of a page where the outgoing links and on page content were completely unrelated:


Other manipulative link tactics targeted by Penguin include:

–        Paid text links using exact match anchor text- Buying links from other websites is a direct violation of Google’s Webmaster guidelines, as Google views paid links as a manipulative tactic for driving rankings.

–        On-page comment spam- Penguin penalizes sites with on page comment spam.  This comes in two forms. When individuals attempt to drive rankings for a particular keyword by using exact match anchor text for those keywords in their comment signatures.  Or when people create “scammy” user names with exact match text.   

–        Links from low-quality guest posts- Sites attacked by Penguin have had inbound links from low-quality guest post articles, focused on manipulating Google with anchor texts rather than providing valuable content.

–        Spammy inbound links- Everything could be fine on your site, but you could be getting hurt indirectly from the inbound links to your site.  Check your partner network.  If you have a number of inbound links from link exchanges or other “spammy” sites, this could indirectly lead to a penalty.

How can I stay out of trouble?

Although the Penguin Update does represent a significant change to Google’s ranking algorithm, it’s important to remember that Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm.  And the common thread in all of Google’s algorithm updates has been to improve the quality and relevance of its search results, by making it increasingly difficult for site owners to manipulate its algorithms to drive rankings.  The best way to prepare your site for future Google updates is to follow Google’s Webmaster Guidelines for helping Google find, crawl, and index your site.  If you are following Google’s guidelines, most of these updates will not affect your site.  And if anything, they will be beneficial by further penalizing your competition that has strayed off course.

If you site was hit by Penguin, it’s time to start focusing on creating quality content that provides value to your customers, and organically drive rankings.  The Penguin update hasn’t introduced any new SEO rules.  It has merely improved Google’s ability to detect when its algorithm is being manipulated.

You can find Google’s complete Webmaster Guidelines here:

http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769 [5]

Essential SEO best practices going forward include:

–        Quality Content- Provide your visitors a high-quality on-site experience with writing that’s targeted to them, not the search engines.  Content should be engaging, educational, and optimized across all channels, e.g., images, video, social media, etc.

–        Review Existing Content Best Practices- When was the last time you did a little onsite house cleaning? The SEO best practices of yesteryear are no longer applicable today.  Make sure to review your existing content to determine which pages are core to your marketing strategy, which pages were written purely to target a keyword phrase, and which pages are truly beneficial to your visitors.

–        Review Existing Links

–        Examine Meta-Data and Title Tags- Have you been stuffing your meta-data and title tags with keywords or duplicating content?

–        Review Social Profile- Although social media wasn’t explicitly referenced in this update, we should expect it to be included in an upcoming algorithm update. Make sure your social profile doesn’t appear over-optimized.  Are all your likes/friends coming from one group? Have you purchased “Likes” or Facebook friends in the past?  These practices could get you flagged.


Ultimately, the Penguin update did not change anything Google didn’t already deem unacceptable in its Webmaster Guidelines.  Google has been preaching the same themes—valuable on- and off-page content, a logical site architecture, and naturally acquired links—for over a year.  The Penguin update is a case of Google really enforcing the rules that are already in place and closing the loopholes webmasters have employed to manipulate their algorithm.  Going forward, it’s crucial for you to understand Google’s guidelines and follow them devoutly.  As always, make sure your site architecture is sound so that search engines can quickly and effectively crawl your site, write content for readers, not search engines, include outbound links that are contextually relevant, and create content that’s engaging, easy to share, and valuable.


About Mark Fillmore

Mark Fillmore is a Group Account Director at The Search Agency. His past experience includes owning and operating several successful Internet start-ups including ConcertTickets.com, which was recently acquired by a private company. He has worked in the SEO field for over 8 years, with his primary focus being Website Development, Architecture and Strategy. Mark also has broad IT management experience running teams of developers and designers while filling the role of Director of Website Development for a Los Angeles marketing company and a Wireless Software design company.