The Latest Google Algorithm Update: Google Penguin Explained

Louise Armstrong
by Louise Armstrong on August 2, 2013 in Visibility
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Forget lions, tigers and bears. In the SEO world right now, the most feared creature is a penguin

Penguin is the name given by Google engineers to one of their search ranking algorithms. It was first rolled out last year, in April 2012, and Penguin 2.0 was implemented in late May of this year.

How Penguin Works

Though most people think about the process of search engine rankings in the positive sense—i.e., that Google adds up positive signals and calculates how highly a site should be ranked—Penguin actually does the opposite. Penguin's sole purpose is to penalize sites and lower the rankings of those who engage in what Google sees as black hat SEO tactics.

Specifically, Penguin is designed to combat webspam, or sites that try to trick Google into ranking them higher. Though "webspam" has a pretty broad definition, in practice Penguin appears to focus mainly on one thing: unnatural links. The algorithm is designed to identify backlink profiles that almost certainly could not have been developed organically, and which appear to have been manipulated in an attempt to fool search engines.

The signals that Penguin uses to identify unnatural link profiles include:

  • Over-optimized anchor text. It is natural (and beneficial) for some of the links back to your site to use keywords as the clickable anchor text. But only some of the links. If a high number of your backlinks use the exact same keywords, it is likely that those links were created with the intent of making your site rank highly for those search terms.  
  • Incoherent or irrelevant links. If the links don't relate to the content of the page, or the content itself does not make sense, that is often a sign that it has been generated by an automated webspam program.
  • Comment links. This is a common way to build spam links: including them in comments posted on many other pages. Again, it is an unnatural quantity (a suspiciously large number) or quality (over-optimized anchor text, or comments unrelated to the page content) of links that will get you in trouble; some comment links are natural.
  • Too many links from one source. This would usually indicate that either the links are paid for, or that the referring site was built specifically to provide backlinks and influence search rankings. 
  • Links from low-quality sites. These would include directory or bookmarking sites, as well as sites that contain malware.

Penguin 1.0 focused on links that directed to homepages; version 2.0 looks for the same things, but applies it to all the pages on a site.

Getting Hit by Penguin

In a way, the very existence of Penguin is an acknowledgement that link spam efforts have been effective in the past. Google is now trying to remedy that situation by punishing the sites that may have previously benefited from such link tactics.

If your site traffic has been hit by the Penguin updates, you can start to remedy the problem by removing suspicious backlinks. If you are unsuccessful at getting some links removed, Google's Matt Cutts has confirmed that you can use the company's disavow tool to help overcome Penguin problems.

As Google continues to update and expand Penguin, the loopholes through which spammers operate will continue to close. The long-term method to avoiding the wrath of Penguin is to use link-building strategies that produce a natural link profile. Or you can enlist the help of SEO experts.

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Louise Armstrong

Louise Armstrong

Louise is a Senior Digital Strategist at Bonafide. A pop-culture addict with a passion for all things digital. She's Scottish by birth, but don't ask if she likes haggis...