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Google Penguin Update: A Look at How the Algorithm Works

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.

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 businessbolts.com 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, https://coursemethod.com, www.businessbolts.com or BusinessBolts.com.

Here this image shows the current highest anchor text for this site is ‘businessbolts.com':

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

But feel free to vent in the comments below and let us know your thoughts on the Penguin update or how it's impacted your site's rankings.

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This Post Has 42 Comments

  1. Lisa Stein

    This is really helpful Lisa. Thanks for being so thorough.

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Thanks Lisa, I was hoping this would be helpful. Just let me know when you’d like to do the interview!

      1. Lisa Stein

        Thanks Lisa! Soon. I will be doing a “case study” with one individual from my community and I’m working on the format. I think it would be better to interview you for this, given your expertise. I’ll give you more details shortly. Thanks so much! I really appreciate you.
        By the way, glad you are totally recovered and back at it.

  2. david

    Thanks for posting this Lisa. Is there a good, free tool to use that will go through your link profile? If not free, what paid one do you suggest?


    1. Lisa Parmley

      Hi David, you can use Google Webmaster Tools or LinkDiagnosis.com. There are also paid tools like ahrefs.com, but some offer free accounts with limited access and those may be enough. Those tools will help you find out who links to you. You’ll have to go through your profile and sort it on your own unless you pay someone to do it.

    2. olaf shiel

      Checkout rank tracker’s free trial. Part of the “seo powersuite.”

      1. Lisa Parmley

        Olaf, thanks for letting us know.

  3. Steve

    Excellent article. Most authors don’t include an action list, but you did.
    Webmasters that are willing to take the time and effort to improve their link profile will reap the benefits.

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Steve, thanks, yes I agree, unfortunately it seems it will only become more important.

  4. John

    Great article! You seem to have discussed all the major topics on this subject aside from one… Negative SEO. Any suggestions on how to protect yourself from competitors buying thousands of low quality links pointing to your site from somewhere like fiverr.com?

    It seems to me that Google’s penalization policies have just forced more businesses into using adwords for consistent rankings rather than improving the search engine results. Wouldn’t you prefer to be shown sites that have the best quality content rather than the most “organic” link profile?

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Hi John, yeah, penalizing for linking is not a good thing and it sure doesn’t always reflect on the best site. There are many people out there with valuable content who just found it easier to go out and build links for themselves.

      So now they’re ranking lower than those who didn’t. Plus stuff like having your link in article directories used to actually bring you traffic. Now it doesn’t, but for people who built those links back then it’s hard to figure out how this makes sense. You can just go in and nofollow those links, but it’s still a hassle.

      The only ideas I have for protecting yourself are to put valuable content on your site and promote it so that you end up with as many links by merit as possible. You’ll end up with good rankings and some traffic outside Google plus it will also be harder for someone to tip your link profile to the bad side.

      The only other thing I can come up with would be to watch your backlinks and I suppose you could proactively disavow if someone link spammed you. Not sure about that, but those are my best ideas for now. Also complain in the Google Webmaster Forum! Maybe someone from the web spam team can actually help out and give us a few more ideas. It’s a waste of everyone’s time to have to monitor their backlinks from negative SEO.

  5. olaf shiel

    Thanks for the article, many people are confused as to what going on at the moment. Your right in pretty much in most of what you say. Google is putting much more emphasis on contextual links, that is links from sites in the same niche. i.e. if a site about shoes links to an site about fruit, it wont hold near so much weight as an established site about shoes linking to a site about brown shoes.
    There is a way around it tho and it works well for me. I build my own authority web 2.0 sites with 15-20 pages on my niche with ONE link to my site and other links to authority sites. These sites offer real information to readers and have a high quality of content.
    This way, I have total control of all my tier-1 sites/links and whatever changes google makes to it’s algorithms, these sites can be tweaked to suit.

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Olaf, that’s one way to do it, glad it’s working for you and thanks for sharing for those who want to go that way.

  6. Garth

    Link penalties are counter productive. The best content will be created by the webmaster who spends his or her time on the content, not on ferreting out “bad” links and begging webmasters to remove or nofollow links, and compiling lists of links to beg Google to disavow.

    So all I’ve got to do to rise in the SERPS is crank up SENuke and throw volumes of links at the page above me? Google fail.

    Eventually, this will just create a link bomb war and the SERPS will be horrible. Then we can go find an SE that doesn’t penalize based on links, just ignores “bad” links, and webmasters can go back to spending time on creating valuable content again.

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Garth, I agree it’s pretty bad. I think it would make better sense for Google to just ignore the links they don’t like.

      There are a ton of people out there who will need to go through all the link issues, but it’s hopefully only something they’ll have to do once and it can be done in about a week (then they’ll have to wait for Google to process it though). It’s usually only for people who used programs like SENuke in the past, but yes, how does Google know if you did that to yourself or someone else did it to you? They don’t. So it’s a problem.

      Like you said it’s best to focus on your content and building a valuable site. If you do and are able to promote it and get quality links you’ll at least have a buffer between you and someone with SENuke or a bunch of Fivver workers. At least that’s the hope … the more quality links you’ve got the harder it would be to take down your site. Plus with good content you should be able to get traffic from outside the search engines so it’s kind of a win-win to just go that way (which was probably Google’s point, but they’ve sure gone about it in a really lame way).

  7. Rui

    thank you for your information. I do have a question on your post: how do I identify which links should I disavow?

    1. Lisa Parmley

      It’s up to you how aggressive you want to disavow if you’ve got a Penguin issue (first make sure you really do). If so then all the manufactured links you couldn’t get removed by asking the website owner is best.

  8. Katrina

    Thank you for your excellent article Lisa.
    I believe that a big issue of SEO moving forward is the amount of time, and therefore expense involved in exercising good SEO techniques. The amount of effort involved in creating unique content , written or video, when you don’t even know for sure if the link will be of any value for rankings, can be difficult to explain to your clients, especially when most of them don’t understand how it works, but simply expect results.

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Hi Katrina,

      Yes explaining things to clients can be tricky. I believe it’s best to create valuable content for your own site, not for someone else’s unless you know you’re going to get a lot of traffic from it.

  9. Curt Roese

    Thanks Lisa, as usual awesome content. I own the inline seo program, did you do a more recent update specifically dealing with this issue?

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Hi Curt,

      There’s an additional 22-page PDF report that has more tips of dealing with Penguin issues. It’s in the portal under the Bonus section.

  10. Charles

    This was a very informative article Lisa. I’ll have to look into Google Webmaster’s Tools and also LinkDiagnosis.com. I put a dozen of my sites into Google’s Webmaster Tools, but haven’t checked to see exactly what Google offers there.

    Thanks again.


    1. Lisa Parmley

      Hi Charles, glad you find it useful. The list of links is under ‘Traffic’ and then ‘Links to your site’ in Google Webmaster Tools. You can download an Excel file of it and that makes it easier to look through. All the best … Lisa

  11. Kamal Keswani

    Thanks Lisa, for you input, and keeping us updated on every direction.

    Really appreciate you efforts and time.


    1. Lisa Parmley

      Thanks Kamal, it’s nice to hear you found the article helpful.

  12. Paul Warner

    Hello Lisa
    A very well written informative blog post with a lot to absorb as to Google’s moves to narrow down those following or not following the criteria required to get a website ranked, or to take down those who they deem not abiding within a clean fair playing field, which I have to assume there are many, otherwise there would be no need for Google algorythms, and penquins this and penquins that. On one side of the coin it is very worrisome that Google has this kind of power, which is to literally nearly destroy people’s lives, on the other side these are issue that really have to be controlled because there will always be those who cheat and it never ends, and will it ever end as there will always be those looking for the loopholes to get a leg up on everybody and on Google. It is really ashame but thankfully not a situation that cannot be overcome.
    One thing I would love for you to do is to really explain anchor text, because I see that it does play a role in all of this and it is very confusing to me, what it actually is, how to use it properly, and when is it not being used properly, and can it lead to a site being more credible. This would be very valuable information and I know for at least myself it would clear up a lot of misunderstandings about it.
    Thank you again for another great piece of literature pertaining to our businesses. Paul

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Hi Paul,

      I’d be happy to explain what the term ‘anchor text’ means. It’s just the word or words you use to link back to a page. So here Business Bolts <-- that's my link and the words I use in the linked part of this sentence are called the anchor text. So my anchor text for that link is 'Business Bolts'. It's best at this point to use the words that will help your visitors figure out what the link is to in the anchor text. So when you're building your site you may want to include keyphrases your trying to rank high for in your anchor text, but not spam. Just don't go overboard and include other words, pretty much do what your visitors would appreciate. As far as link building on other sites Google doesn't want to count any links you built to make your site look more popular. So in theory, if you're not building your own links on other sites you don't control the anchor text at all and don't need to worry about it. And if you're going to build your own links anyway then you'll want to try to make it look natural or that's going to be a tip off that you're building them yourself (but that's not the only way they can figure this out). I hope that helps. Also, don't give Google the power to destroy your business. Make sure you've got traffic coming from other sources; your email list, paid traffic, affiliates, direct traffic from other sites linking to you, referral traffic, etc ... All the best ... Lisa

      1. Paul Warner

        Thank you Lisa that is a help, and of course I thoroughly agree as to traffic from other sources… Paul

  13. zooel

    Hi Lisa,
    i am very happy to your article i am just searching this type post for seo related work.
    I want to know do you know what site would be reliable to buy seo Blog-commenting backlinks software?
    if can plz let me know!

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Hi Zooel, glad you found the article helpful, but I don’t recommend blog commenting software.

      All the best … Lisa

  14. Leiif

    Hi Lisa,

    I heard of another key to the disavow file that has caused many people to be denied. When making the disavow file it is VERY important that the text file be saved in UTF-8 format or Google will not be able to read it. That is in the instructions somewhere but it is an easy detail to miss and will render all your efforts useless.

    Thanks for another good article,

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Leiif, thanks for the tip. Yes, this does need to be in UTF-8 format, but I encourage people to read the directions there because it’s possible they’ll change it and I don’t want to give out the wrong advice. So please read the directions from Google before you use the disavow tool. They can change at any time.

      If you’ve never done this, Notepad can be used to make UTF-8 files. When you go to ‘save as’ there’s an option at the very bottom of my version that says ‘encoding’. Change that to UTF-8 which is the last one (on my version of Notepad). Then save it and you’re set.

      I wish they had a way to let you know if your file is OK or not right as you upload it. It’s hard for people to load it, see no impact for weeks and have no idea if the file was even uploaded correctly. I have seen that Google will give you a summary of what was uploaded a few weeks later so that’s at least some help. With this they are currently letting you know how many domains and how many URLs you are trying to disavow. So that’s soemthing. Thanks again Leiif, it’s a great tip and is important like you said. Lisa

  15. Dennis

    How do you think Google sees the backlinks you get when you check your domain information from a site like Alexa? A while ago, I did something and it created about a 1000 of those links pointing to my site. I might just have to buy a new domain name and transfer everything over. LOL

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Dennis, well they better not throw a fit over those links! I wouldn’t worry about it although I’m not 100% sure what you’re talking about. But I would think a lot of people have those links too.

  16. Jen Becht

    If bad links can harm your website, can someone deliberately send you bad links to lower your ranking? 2 pages from my site were penalized. I checked some of the backlinks, and I got many links from porn sites. Recently, I also had people trying to log into my wordpress account. Unfortunately, they are unsuccessful.

    1. Lisa Parmley

      Jen, unfortunately yes, someone may be successful at lowering your rankings. The best way to help keep this from happening is attract as many links by merit that you can and I suppose you can watch your backlink profile and disavow some of those bad links. Those are the only ideas I have at tha moment. I hope your rankings come back. Sometimes they do just fluctuate when Google updates. All the best … Lisa

  17. Jen Becht

    If deliberately sending bad links can harm a website, then google is getting unfair. Anyone wishing to get on page one ranking can send their competitors nasty spam links and destroy their business. How is that fair for EVERYONE? I do not understand Google.

    1. Lisa Parmley

      I think we all agree with you on that. You’ve got to have more traffic than what just comes from the search engines (which is mostly google).

  18. Rayzel Lam

    thanks for sharing your information…correct me if im wrong..i had a SEO friend..base on what she said..back link helps your site to gain rankings…i mean…it help your ranking to go up…

    1. Lisa Parmley

      It depends on the back link, lower quality back links will do nothing or possibly lower your rankings.

  19. Brian

    Thanks so much for your post. There really is so much mis-information around about SEO and it is pleasing to find someone who can explain the detail in a simple to understand way. I am looking forward to purchasing your full Inline SEO training as soon as possible as I love your style of communication and have finally found someone who’s opinions and knowledge I know I can trust.

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