Penguin is an algorithm from Google that judges the quality of links that you have pointing to your site. Inbound links, sometimes called “backlinks,” to your website are one of the factors that Google’s algorithms use to rank websites in its search results. Google uses the Penguin algorithm (or filter) to punish link profiles that it sees as low-quality (coming from untrustworthy sites) or unnatural. This is a response to linking practices used in the early days of search marketing, and still employed by some vendors, to show clients’ quick success.
In the early days of the Web and SEO, the sheer volume of links (and linking domains) to a website helped its rankings in Google Search results. Many early SEO companies prospered by buying and selling links, creating directories and setting up other sites for the sheer purpose of creating content and supplying links. This was an exploit used for years by almost every search marketing vendor to gain rankings for their clients. Since April of 2012, Google has used Penguin to dissuade webmasters from this practice for fear of losing all rankings for their websites.
As Google crawls the Web and finds a link to your site, it places them in a particular database of known links. If you are bored, you can read through the original paper by Sergei Brin and Larry Page. Penguin is a separate algorithm that is run periodically to parse through this database of links pointing to your site to check against known spam sites and known manipulative techniques.
In an explanation of Penguin 3.0 for Forbes magazine, Jayson DeMyers says Penguin “rewards sites that have natural, valuable, authoritative, relevant links.” It penalizes sites that have built manipulative links solely for the purpose of increasing rankings, or links that do not appear natural.
Penguin was introduced in April 2012 and updated twice that year with versions 1.1 and 1.2. Penguin 2.0 came out in May 2013 and an October update (2.1) had a fairly wide affect, causing Google ranking changes in about 1 percent of sites.
Penguin 3.0 was released in mid-October in what Google said could be a slow rollout. For some websites, Google said, it could be a few weeks until Penguin 3.0 had an effect, which would be about the time of publishing this article.
Here are the top 3 takeaways from the first days of Penguin 3.0:
1. Penguin 3.0 may have little impact on quality websites.
Upon its introduction of Penguin 3.0, Google said: “(W)e started rolling out a Penguin refresh affecting fewer than 1 percent of queries in U.S. English search results. This refresh helps sites that have already cleaned up the Web spam signals discovered in the previous Penguin iteration, and demotes sites with newly discovered spam.”
This indicates that Penguin 3.0 will adjust rankings for sites that were adversely affected by earlier versions of the Penguin algorithm, but have since cleaned up offensive links.
But, if your site is still plagued by low-quality links, Penguin 3.0 will have an effect on you, and the impact – “demotes sites with newly discovered spam” – should be in line with earlier iterations of Penguin. The word to note here (bolded) is that Google’s Pierre Far, called this a refresh, intimating that no new signals were added to this release.
2. Penguin 3.0 means you need to evaluate your links.
To avoid a penalty via Penguin 3.0 or to recover from it if Google has already penalized your site, you need to make sure you are not adding bad links that will hurt your site. You also need to rid your site of bad links pointing to it.
To avoid Penguin penalties, you want to review the type of links pointing to your site. This can easily be done in Web Master Tools by using their tool to download a list of Sample and Latest links to your site. Some of the items to look for are:
- Links from foreign domains (ie. walre.co.pl)
- Links sites that contain many hyphens (ie. best-personal-injury-lawyers-us.com)
- Sites that are obviously off-topic (ie. a site about fishing would not normally link to an attorney’s site)
- Large quantities of links from a particular domain.
- Large percentages of commercial anchor text in the links pointing to your site. (If you see anchor text that you would love to rank for in Google, then it is commercial. Commercial should not make up more than about 10% of your anchor text.)
Removing bad links can be tedious and tricky. First you have to identify them and then you have to figure out how to get them taken down. You can simply contact the site that hosts them (if you can find a contact) and ask for it to be removed. Google also provides a “disavow tool,” by which you can ask Google not to take into account certain links when assessing your site.
But Google’s disavow tool come with two warnings: 1) “You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough.” And deeper on Google’s Webmaster tools site, 2) “This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results.”
3. If you’ve invested in a search marketing campaign, you need to know how your provider is obtaining links to your site.
Building links to your site cannot just be something you expect your marketing provider to do. How it is done can ultimately affect your business, and could adversely impact your overall revenue if your website is penalized by the latest Penguin update or by future Penguin updates.
The biggest takeaway from all Penguin updates is that you need to know how your vendor, your provider, is getting links for you. If they are not working directly with you, then it is likely a scaled process, meaning that their tactics are low quality and potentially harmful.
Instead, your vendor should be working to obtain links from sites that represent highly regarded authorities in your field. In addition to direct outreach to request backlinks, which may have limited cost effectiveness, firms may build links by community outreach, such as sponsoring organizations or public events in the community, which would publicize the firm. Or establishing a scholarship for local students and promoting it to area schools and school systems, which would link to scholarship information on your site. If a member of a law firm teaches at a local college or sits on a corporate or non-profit organization’s board, those organization’s sites may link back to that individual’s profile on your site.
Obtaining high quality backlinks is not always the easiest road, but it is the road well worth traveling, especially in the post-Penguin era.