Penguin Penalty

On April 24th 2012, the world of organic search changed as one of Google’s most impactful algorithms to date, Penguin, was first released.

This guide is written to help you understand what a Penguin Penalty is, how Google Penguin works, and how to identify whether you have been negatively affected by the algorithm.

What is a Penguin Penalty?

Penguin was launched to help improve the organic results that Google returns when users submit search queries. Through Penguin, Google began punishing webmasters who were using underhand – or black hat – techniques to get their sites to rank highly.

In particular, Penguin targets the following issues:

  • Low quality backlink profiles: websites with a large percentage of links from poor quality, low authority and irrelevant domains

  • Keyword stuffed anchor text: overuse of exact match anchor text within backlinks

While backlinks remain an important ranking factor within SEO, Google is keen to ensure that only natural, earned, relevant and authoritative links are rewarded and that webmasters who have attempted to unnaturally inflate their backlink profiles are penalised. Penguin targets the websites which appear to have bought links, acquired links on poor quality sites or who have generally tried to manufacture their link profile to manipulate search results in some respect.

What will be the effect on my site's performance?

As with any algorithmic penalty, a Penguin Penalty results in a sharp loss in SEO visibility for a website, leading to a drop in its rankings, organic traffic and performance. Unfortunately, recovery is often slow, lasting many months and involving considerable time, resource and expertise. Full recovery may not occur until the next Penguin update happens.


Google Penguin update history

Penguin 1.0 – 24th April 2012

Penguin 1.1 – 26th May 2012

Penguin 1.2 – 5th October 2012

Penguin 2.0 – 22nd May 2013

Penguin 2.1 – 4th October 2013

Penguin 3.0 – 17th October 2014

Impact of Google Penguin on organic search queries

The impact of each Penguin update is very different, as some updates involved changes to the Penguin algorithm itself and how it detects unnatural linking patterns, while smaller updates or “data refreshes” simple re-run the algorithm to identify sites with manipulative backlink profiles.

  • Penguin 1.0 and Penguin 2.0 are considered major updates, as they involved changes to the algorithm. They impacted 3.1% and 2.3% of search queries respectively.

  • Penguin 1.1 and 1.2 are considered to be more minor data updates, or refreshes, that impacted 0.1% and 0.3% of queries respectively.

  • Penguin 2.1 falls in between the two. It was a moderately large update, which was reportedly mainly a data refresh, impacting around 1% of queries.

  • Penguin 3 was a refresh that affected 1% of English search queries. This means no new signals were added to the algorithm, but sites that cleaned up their act since the last update were likely to see some recovery.

How does Penguin work?

The Google Penguin algorithm processes data separately from the main search index. As a result, a site penalised by Penguin may not show visible signs of recovery, despite taking corrective action, until the next time Google reprocesses the data. This happens when the next algorithm update (or refresh) occurs.

Key factors

Penguin looks out for a number of factors when it decides to penalise or reward a domain, most of which are directly related to the website’s backlink profile.

Quality of links

If a site is receiving links from a slew of low quality domains then this is a red flag. For search engines to consider your website to be useful and relevant, it needs links from quality domains.

Quality, followed links from quality domains are votes of trust and authority. These links are hard to attain, and can almost never be bought (advertising/paid content links should be nofollow, according to Webmaster Guidelines). Generally they are earned through the creation and promotion of informative or entertaining content.


Relevancy of links

Google Penguin also rewards the relevancy of links. If a DIY site, for example, is getting lots of links from other DIY or home maintenance domains, this implies that it is trusted and acknowledged by others in the same field. On the other hand, if it is getting a lot of links from florist or gambling websites, Google may find that quite strange. As such, websites that do not necessarily have the biggest backlink profiles can still rank well for target terms if they have highly relevant and authoritative links.

Use of paid links and link farms

If, for a fee, a webmaster is willing to put a followed link on one of his webpages to another website, this is seen as an attempt to game Google’s system and is penalised as such.

Link farming is a similar process that involves networks of websites offering reciprocal links to domains, irrespective of relevancy or quality. It is a method of manipulating the size of a website’s backlink profile in a bid to rank higher in the organic SERPs. While link farming may have been effective in the past, the Penguin algorithm now easily detects it, making this practice very risky indeed.


Keyword stuffed anchor text

Before the release of Penguin, the excessive use of exact match anchors within backlinks was a trick used by SEO practitioners to promote higher organic rankings for desired keywords.

For example, an online shoe may create 100 links to their site using the anchor text ‘black shoes online’. Years ago this anchor text relevance could significantly influence search results, and the shoe site would likely see a significant spike in visibility for the search term ‘black shoes online’, sometimes outperforming competitor sites of greater quality.

This black hat technique became rife and highly abused. As such, one of the features of the Penguin algorithm is to identify an overuse of exact match links and penalise it accordingly.

How SEO changed post-Penguin

Post-Penguin, linkbuilding techniques changed significantly and quality has outstripped quantity. It’s just not possible to game Google in the way it once was, so webmasters should seek to establish healthy backlink profiles that include non-paid, naturally-acquired links from a range of relevant, authoritative websites in order to be considered ‘Penguin friendly’.

As the Penguin algorithm has evolved, the value of links from certain types of sites, often those associated with unnatural link building, has been downgraded. The first to be targeted were poor quality web directories followed by guest blogging sites and more recently press release sites

Modern link acquisition should also avoid attempts to manipulate anchor texts. A high proportion of exact match anchors that contain target keywords appears very suspicious to Google. As such, brand anchors are often considered more natural and less likely to trigger a penalty.

The key to managing an SEO campaign in a post-Penguin world is to maintain a diverse and natural-looking backlink profile.

Identifying a Penguin Algorithmic Penalty

How do you spot a website that has incurred a Penguin Penalty? Here are some valuable questions that might lead you in the right direction:

  • Has the site shown a significant drop in SEO visibility or natural search rankings that coincides with the release of a known Penguin algorithm update?

  • Does the site have a balanced backlink profile?

  • Has any recent link building activity been undertaken towards the website and, if so, has a white hat approach been employed?

  • Is there a high percentage of exact match anchor text present within the backlink profile?

Removing a Penguin Penalty

Site owners who are unfortunate enough to have received a Penguin Penalty will be under no illusions as to the damage it can do to their site’s organic performance. Traffic, conversions, leads and enquiries are often severely impacted and, what’s more, removing a Penguin Penalty is a notoriously difficult and time-consuming process, often requiring several attempts. 

However don’t despair – there is good news! While the speed of your Penguin Penalty recovery process will largely depend on the methodology and experience of your website’s SEO practitioners, there are specific actions that can be taken to improve your success rate and reduce timescales.

Get in touch today to see how you can remove a Penguin Penalty

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