The Google Penguin update was first released in April 2012 with an aim to stop websites manipulating search results by paying for links on third-party sites or using link networks specifically built to improve organic search rankings.
Link building is generally considered a must for webmasters serious about raising the authority and visibility of their site, which is why we heartily recommend it as part of an integrated content marketing campaign, so long as you do it the right way and don’t fall foul of Google’s quality guidelines.
Essentially, Google search bots regard hyperlinks (citations from one website to another) as votes of confidence from the wider online community. So if hundreds of third-party websites link to you, the algorithm counts these ‘votes’ as endorsements and assumes you must have great content, resulting in your web pages ranking highly.
Ultimately, Google is on a mission to ensure it remains the ‘front page of the Internet’ – the first port of call for any search query. Thus, their algorithm is designed to display the very best content at the top of the SERPs, answering your search queries and delivering pages that meet your intent, which means you’ll keep coming back for more.
Giving weight to backlinks was viewed as a great way to judge the quality of any given website and formed an integral part of the early PageRank algorithm, but once people cottoned on, this practice was open to serious spamming in the form of unnatural, low-quality link building.
Hence, the introduction of the black and white Penguin update with its objective to overhaul this decidedly grey area of SEO.
Wisdom of the Penguin algorithm
While Google keeps its cards close to its chest as to the exact parameters of how search listings work, it’s clear that creating links with little to no editorial integrity (i.e. where you can publish content without oversight from others) is deemed unnatural. In other words, casting ‘votes’ for yourself isn’t a genuine reflection of how others regard your website.
In the past, aggressive link building on self-publishing directory sites and in the comments sections of online forums would work wonders, boosting your Google rankings over time. As such, this shortcut to success was widely adopted by less scrupulous SEO’s, but it inevitably led to many low-quality websites topping the SERPs, going against the Google mantra of creating the very best user experience.
Likewise, Private Blog Networks are a popular route for creating ‘fake editorial citations’ and have become more prominent in recent years, promising to boost your SEO with tonnes of links pointing your way (for a modest fee). However, in February 2017, PBN administrators complained how their results were nose diving, and this is thought to have been a result of Penguin once again getting better at discounting such paid-for links.
There really is no shortcut if you want to have a stable and secure position within the SERPs; you have to play by the rules and prioritise long-term quality over short-term gain.
Earning a link from a high-quality website with a large, engaged audience is obviously worth more than dozens of low-quality links, but they’re somewhat harder to come by, reliant upon you having an effective content marketing strategy that instinctively earns attention. Thus, unscrupulous marketers would bypass the hard yards and opt for the easy road of obtaining links from any possible source, but thanks to Penguin that’s all changed.
Google now ignores or actively discredits links from poor quality, unrelated websites with no discernible audience. If, for example, a wellington boot retailer in the UK had a portfolio of backlinks that ranged from an Indian site about SEO to an American site about pharmaceuticals, the algorithm can detect that these are most likely unnatural, and will discredit any perceived link value as a result.
<h3″>Vexed by anchor text
Another thing to be mindful of is anchor text, i.e. the wording of your links. For example, for this link to our social media marketing page, the anchor text is “social media marketing”. If we get a number of sites linking to this web page with the anchor text “social media marketing”, this will give Google a heads up that when people search for “social media marketing”, our page should show up as a relevant match to that search query.
Again, you can see how easily people might manipulate this facet of the algorithm, and they did so in large numbers. If the wellington boot company built multiple links with the anchor text “cheap wellington boots” they could effectively cheat the system to ensure they topped Google for their target phrase, no matter where the links came from.
However, Penguin will get in a flap if it spots an unnatural number of links with the same sales-focused anchor, as it looks somewhat suspicious to have multiple inbound links with exactly the same phrasing. It’s much more natural to have a variation in anchor text, such as “the perfect cheap wellies for festival-goers” and “fashionable wellington boots for grown-ups”.
If you’re conducting an outreach marketing campaign in the hope of generating a few Google-friendly backlinks, you should take care, where possible, to ensure you have good variation in the anchor text pointing to your content, otherwise you could be penalised. You can still weave your target keywords into the text, but long-tail phrases appear much more natural.
For example, this anchor cloud (courtesy of Majestic SEO) of the keywords pointing to our website illustrates the distribution of keywords throughout the anchor text of inbound links, clearly highlighting our brand name is the most frequently used, whereas ‘SEO’ or ‘content’ are far more discrete:
Penguin picks up on websites with surprisingly few inbound links containing branded terms, i.e. ‘Bespoke Digital’. Again, this looks somewhat unnatural as logic would dictate a healthy proportion of people linking to you would organically refer to your company name, so branded keyphrases should definitely form part of your backlink portfolio, as should your URL (www.bespoke-digital.co.uk) and terms such as ‘click here’ or ‘visit website’.
They say variety is the spice of life, so make sure your anchor text mixes it up and sends out the right signals.
A matter of trust
The Penguin algorithm update seems to rate the trustworthiness of links pointing your way, which in turn dictates how reliable and trustworthy your site is viewed in the eyes of search engine bots, affecting your rankings accordingly.
If a number of low-quality, untrustworthy sites link to you with short-tail, sales-driven anchor text, that’s a sure sign you’re playing the system and you could be in line for a Google penalty that diminishes your search presence.
It’s wise to be wary of Google’s guidelines on link schemes to ensure you steer clear of malpractice. If you’re concerned that you may have been adversely affected by poor quality link building in the past, you can use the disavow tool to formally request that Google disregards such links. However, this should really be used as a last resort, as many people have unwittingly done more harm than good, accidentally disavowing the wrong links, leaving your website in a perilous state.
It’s much better to manually request your bad links are removed by the offending websites; you can read more about this process in our guide to documenting and removing bad links. If you have any concerns about the quality of your backlink profile, get in touch today and we can audit your links and advise on the best course of action to get you back on track.
Once you’ve tidied up your link portfolio, it’s unlikely you’ll rocket up the rankings once again, as your previous search prowess was probably down to links that are now considered unnatural, so the only way to make an impact and recover any lost authority is to build quality links over time.
Fortunately, Penguin is now a real-time signal processed as part of the core search algorithm, whereas when it was first released in 2012 it operated as a standalone filter or a manual update. Previously, penalised sites had to wait (sometimes many months) until the next time Google updated and re-ran the algorithm. Today recovery can be quicker, yet there’s still no shortcut to the top; building a natural, authoritative backlink profile takes time and effort.
Play by the rules
The best way to naturally boost your online presence and gain traction in organic search is to create high-quality content that attracts the attention of your target audience, ensuring it’s spontaneously shared, referenced and linked to in the most natural way possible, extending your reach and boosting your SEO as a result.
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