Google Penguin Update: A Look at How the Algorithm Works

Our content is reader supported, which means when you buy from links you click on, we may earn a commission.

The Google Penguin update looks at a number of factors. But the main focus is on a site’s link profile. If you’ve been impacted by Penguin, you may want to consider who’s linking back to you.

Google’s algorithms have always looked at links as an indicator of popularity. But Penguin has added a level of sophistication to how they try to filter out links that essentially weren’t given by merit.

So although Google’s manual spam team has always trolled the search engine results pages for websites that don’t seem to warrant the top spot due to heavy manufacturing of links, Penguin was the first algorithm to attempt to automate this on a large scale.

Which I’m sure the folks at Google are just tickled pink over.

But many in the web community are pretty shaken and rightly so as Google seems to not only discount the links they don’t like, but they are even lowering a site’s rankings because of them.

The Penguin update was initially rolled out on April 24, 2012 and Penguin 2.0 was rolled out around May 22, 2013. There were a couple of other refreshes in between. You can tell if your site was impacted by this algorithm if you lost rankings on or about these dates or during a refresh (Oct 5, 2012 and May 25, 2012). Refer to the Moz Google algorithm history calendar for additional past and future updates.

What Exactly Does Penguin Look For?

The problem with SEO anymore is that a lot of link building techniques are so ingrained in how people believe they should promote a website that it’s hard for many to fully grasp what an actual, real link given by merit is.

But if you’ve seen a loss of rankings due to Penguin you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did you participate in what the Google Webmaster Guidelines considers link schemes?
  • Is your site really popular in your market? Do other sites in your market or in a related market link back to your site because it’s a good resource?
  • Were the links you’ve got given by merit? Or did you manufacture them so it looked like your site was popular to give it a boost in the search engines?

There’s a shift that must be made here for SEO’s and small business owners who’d like to get and keep high rankings.  I’m working hard to make it clear for others in my free and paid training programs as it’s going to make all the difference going forward.

Simply put here is why most people are losing rankings to Penguin …

They focused on manufacturing backlinks to their webpages. Penguin discredits these links and even penalizes your web pages for what I’m calling manufactured links.

What Exactly Does Penguin Look For?

We may not want to hear this, but it’s pretty much a fact of SEO now.

What Exactly are Manufactured Links?

If you have a link because another site wanted to share your content or a page on your site then that link was given by merit. Any other type of link probably fits in the manufactured category.

As mentioned before, Google would rather only count the links that are given by merit, not the one’s you manufactured yourself to get a higher ranking. And Penguin has gotten them much closer to that goal.

How Are They Figuring This Out?

The Penguin update likely looks at anchor text used in the backlinks of a site’s link profile.

SEO’s traditionally like getting links with keyphrases within them. And they like getting a lot of links with the keyphrase they’re trying to rank a page high for. Often a site owner will just target a single keyphrase for each page on their site. So all the links they’re manufacturing back to that page often has the same anchor text.

The algorithm likely has an anchor text threshold and if you cross it, it will look like you’re building the links yourself. That’s because you wouldn’t normally have so many keyword rich anchor text backlinks for a single keyphrase naturally.

For example, if my site started getting 100’s or more links with the anchor text ‘online business training’ to its home page (and no other variations) that’s going to look fishy.  The random webmaster who likes my site is probably not going to use that as the anchor text, let alone 100 random webmasters.

If I at least mixed it up a little that’s going to soften this and make it look more like the anchor text was chosen randomly. So if I at least targeted a variety of keyphrases in my anchor text I’d probably see fewer problems. For example, in addition to targeting ‘online business training’ I could have also gone after ‘internet business training courses’ and ‘online training for businesses’. This at least adds variety to the mix.

A Site Linking Back to You Based on Merit is One You Presumably Don’t Control

But in most cases, we do control the anchor text when it comes to the links we manufacture. And Google uses this against you in their algorithm.

A webmaster who links to your site because you’ve got something valuable on it will be more likely to use one of these variations as the anchor text … Business Bolts,, or

Here this image shows the current highest anchor text for this site is ‘’:

A Site Linking Back to You Based on Merit is One You Presumably Don't Control

Or maybe they’d use the title of your page as the anchor text like this, “SEO Tips From the Experts: 14 Industry Experts Share Their Strategies” as the anchor text. That’s the title of the page and that’s likely to happen naturally.

But if lots of people are linking back with the keyphrase ‘Online Business Training’ it’s not going to look natural.

So I’m sure that’s at least a part of how Google is figuring this out through their Penguin algorithm.

So does that mean we should all build links with anchor text like this? There are a lot of people saying that’s the key … just dilute your anchor text out with your URL and title tags or even random phrases.

The trouble is, that’s not going to fix the problem for you (at least not long term) because there’s another factor they’re also looking at.

And that’s the second part of this.

Where Are the Links Coming From?

Google’s got to have a growing database of sites that allow anyone to get (or manufacture) a link from them. I’ve thought this for years. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

There have been so many faulty ‘link building methods’ in the last few years that have come and gone that it’s very clear Google’s been working on this for a long time to come.

  • They’ve been successfully identifying and penalizing many sites offering paid links.
  • They’ve been successfully identifying and devaluing forum profile links.
  • They’ve been successfully identifying and devaluing links from low level article directories.

Google's got to have a growing database of sites

These are just a few examples. And this all happened long before Penguin, at least a couple of years before it ever rolled out.

So they’ve been working hard at this.

Any of these types of manufactured links can be identified through a database. This growing database (which could even pull data from the disavow tool that I’ll talk about later) would just need to be a listing of websites allowing manufactured links.

So if you’ve got a lot of links from sites like these then Penguin could pick up on that, devalue them, and possibly lower your rankings where you’ve crossed a line.

And if you don’t like the database idea, it’s possible that site links could be categorized (and potentially devalued) based on real-time criteria.

As an example, it’s pretty obvious when links are coming from blog comments.

disavow tool

I mean we can all see this in an instant when we land on a site. I’m sure Google’s algorithms could figure out a way to sort WordPress blog comments by looking at the the code that’s right before and after the comments section.  And if a link is coming from within that area of a site they could just discount it as one the website owner manufactured themselves.

That’s not going to be that hard for them to do considering that’s pretty much how people find all these sites to leave massive amounts of spam blog comments in the first place.  The technology behind doing this is fairly simple in the larger scale of things.

Pretty much any sites that allow manufactured links could be found and discredited like this. So I believe either through a database or a real-time system (or both), Google is getting better at figuring out the quality of a link based on the type of site it’s positioned on.  If the links are on a site or web page that allows links from anyone, the link is seen as manipulative.

In reality, both the anchor text percentages and where the links are coming from (whether they’re in a database or can be classified as manufactured links in real-time) is probably taken into consideration.

But if your link profile tips the scales now you’ve got a Penguin issue.

That’s at least how I’m guessing all this works.

Does Having These Links Result in a Lowering of Your Rankings or are They Just Not Being Counted?

If before a Penguin roll-out you were listed in spot #3 for “online business training” and after a roll-out you’re on page 3 it’s possible that may be because some of your links are no longer being counted.

This would explain why people who only had ‘bad links’ (those that they manufactured and didn’t earn by merit) in their link profile lost rankings.

But I’ve seen many cases now where a site had actual links based on merit (even really good ones) and they also had lot of ‘manufactured links’ and now they’re on page 5 or worse for certain keyphrases.

The fact that they are now ranking even lower than web pages with fewer overall links who happen to have no ‘manufactured links’ indicates there is an element of punishment going on here.

Even worse, the punishment factor (where your rankings are actually being lowered due to manufactured link building) is algorithmic which means it’s automatic. This used to happen only in cases where your site was manually reviewed by a member of the web spam team.

site was manually reviewed

Now Penguin can do it for them.

On the positive side I’ve noticed Penguin doesn’t seem to operate at a site wide level. If it were site wide if you manufactured links to the home page of your site then all your pages would be lowered in the search engine results.

And I don’t see this.

Instead I’ve seen drops only for the specific page with a high level of manufactured links especially if the links had a lot of the same keyword rich anchor text (which is often exactly the phrase that it’s dropped for).  But the rankings for other terms on other pages are still OK.

If you’ve noticed something different please let me know in the comments below.

OK How to Fix This.

Although it’s a lot of work, the basic idea behind it is pretty simple.

OK How to Fix This.

You need to get the manufactured links removed or at least tip the scales in the other direction so that you have enough links based on merit to overcome Penguin issues.

There are 3 ways to do this (and I suggest you use them together):

1. You can start getting more links based on merit from real webmasters.

Again, these cannot be manufactured links (or you’ll just dig yourself deeper into the same hole). You’ll need to make sure your content truly is valuable to get these links. The nice thing is although this is a lot of work, you can actually get traffic from these links and they’ll likely give your site a positive boost in the rankings for as long as search is around.

2. Go through your link profile and get as many of the manufactured links removed as you can.

Contact the owners of these sites and ask them to remove your link. If you’re in control of any of them, then remove or nofollow them. Manufactured links that are nofollowed are not followed by Google and they claim these won’t cause you any problems.

3. Go through your link profile and upload a disavow text file to your Google Webmaster Tools account including the manufactured links you could not get removed.

Google claims they will eventually consider disavowed links as nofollow. No one can tell you for sure how long it will take for this to improve your rankings.  The current thought is that Penguin needs to refresh or some internal event must happen for a disavow file to impact your rankings.

Although disavowing your links is the easiest of the three actions I put it last because you’ll be better off if you’re more proactive and spend your time on activities 1 and 2.

You can still disavow your links, but if the only thing you do is disavow them realize you’re at Google’s mercy here. They take their own sweet time doing anything with those disavow files.

disavow file

Plus when they finally disavow the links you’ll have far fewer links left in your backlink profile.

I believe that’s why so few people say they’ve seen a Penguin recovery.

The problem is they’re taking off the links (although from what I’ve seen people usually aren’t removing or disavowing anywhere near to all their bad links) which means they aren’t going to come back in the same spot.

They’ll come back lower than they were before Penguin hit them.  So it doesn’t really look like a recovery.  The only way to get a true recovery is to build links based on merit and remove the manufactured links. You’ve got to get some actual links based on merit to offset all this.

So those are the steps I recommend.

If you need more help overcoming a drop in rankings due to Google’s Penguin algorithm I’ve got an expanded Penguin report in the InlineSEO System training course with step-by-step instructions for you.  Plus there’s lots more in there on link building, keyword research, and on-site optimization you may find helpful.

I’ve tried to keep this straightforward. Obviously there are ethical issues with penalizing websites due to link building and I know many people believe Google’s crossed the line here, but unfortunately a discussion on that doesn’t really solve anything.

So I’ve tried to keep this article on task to help you understand what this algorithm is about, how Google may be figuring things out, and what you can do about it.

Lisa Parmley
Lisa Parmley

Lisa Parmley is the founder of After gaining a Master's degree, she worked in research for about seven years. She started a training company in 2001, offering a course helping people pass a professional exam. That course has earned multiple 7 figures. She created SEO and authority site building training around 2007 which went on to earn well into the 6-figure mark.

She has 22+ years of experience in the trenches creating and selling online courses. Get help starting and growing your online course business here.

Grow faster with free step-by-step training for online course founders.

Access Course Method Pro progress tracking and Strategic Planners
+ gain inspiration from successful course creators in weekly emails.

Unsubscribe at any time.