In April of 2012, Google released an update they called “Penguin”. The goal of the Penguin update was to identify (and punish) sites with “unnatural” link profiles. If your site experienced a significant decrease in organic search traffic on or immediately surrounding the following dates, you may have been hit by the Penguin update.
- Penguin 1.0 (Penguin #1) | 04/24/2012
- Penguin 1.1 (Penguin #2) | 05/25/2012
- Penguin 1.2 (Penguin #3) | 10/05/2012
- Penguin 2.0 (Penguin #4) | 05/22/2013
- Penguin 2.1 (Penguin #5) | 10/04/2013
- Penguin 3.0 (Penguin #6) | 10/17/2014 | Multi-week roll out
- Penguin Refresh & Real-Time Scoring (Penguin #7) | 09/23/16
What are unnatural links?
To Google, any link that exists solely for the sake of increasing your search engine rankings is considered an unnatural link.
Do you have a link on a website that nobody reads, that never sends you traffic, with cherry picked anchor text? And did you only cultivate that link in an attempt to rise higher in Google’s search results? Then Google considers that an unnatural link.
But let’s face it. All sites have some unnatural links in their backlink profile. So why did you get hit while competitors remained intact? It’s often all about the percentages.
When we talk about building links, we often refer to a “natural backlink profile.” Websites that do “true” marketing have links in a variety of forms, from a variety of sources and get linked to using a variety of anchors.
If your backlinks consist of 90% guest posts and 10% directories, you have an unnatural link profile. It’s not about the hard numbers. It’s about what percentage of your overall backlink profile those links account for.
“I didn’t get a manual action notification from Google. Could I still be caught in Penguin?”
Yes. There are two types of unnatural link penalties in the post-Penguin era. Those that receive manual action notifications via Google Search Console (usually those who have done some seriously aggressive link building and have received manual spam actions from Google). And those who don’t and are merely caught up in the Penguin filter – which is a completely automated part of the algorithm.
While getting the manual action lifted typically takes less time than recovering from Penguin, getting a manual action makes recovering your original rankings from the link related penalty extremely difficult after the penalty has been lifted. If you’re merely caught up in the algorithmic filter, the road to recovery is a little less scrutinized (though not simple by any means).
“So, if I identify and fix the ‘bad links’ I’ll get my rankings back?”
Yes and no. When Penguin hits your site, you’ll have to remove and disavow links – including some that were helping you rank in your pre-Penguin positions.
While affected by Penguin, you get knocked to the point of near invisibility in the search results. When you recover from Penguin, you “break free” of the penalty, but will not be restored to your original rankings – until you get new, clean, legitimate links to replace the “gamed” ones.
Let’s say you used to rank #2 on your primary keyword. When you escape Penguin, you’ll likely go from nowhere to page 2 or 3 of the search results and have to begin to work your way back up from there. In some cases, we’ve seen clients restored to the first page, but never to the exact ranks they had before taking the hit.
“After I remove the bad links, do I need to submit a reconsideration request?”
If you were hit by Penguin and did not receive a manual action notice from Google in your Google Search Console account you won’t be able to submit a reconsideration request. Google made that option exclusive to sites with manual penalties a while back.
The Penguin filter is automated. You simply (and unfortunately) have to make the changes and fixes needed and see if your attempt to break free was successful once Google has discovered your changes and factored them into how they score your site from a Penguin perspective.
As of September 23rd, 2016, the Penguin algorithm is real-time. That means that you no longer have to wait for Google to refresh Penguin calculations manually. Google says this change will result in Penguin calculations updating “much faster” and “typically taking effect shortly after [they] recrawl and reindex a page.”
If you received the manual action notification (which is different than being caught up in the Penguin filter), then you will need to do a reconsideration request. And because those are reviewed by humans and not an algorithm, in most cases you’ll need to get rid of more links than you want to. Links that are helpful to your rankings and not ones the algorithm would identify as unnatural. But since a human would view those links as unnatural they’ll need to be removed to attain Google’s forgiveness.
Whether the hit is algorithmic or manual, identifying which backlinks could be causing issues and removing them (or disavowing them) is the most critical factor in recovering from Penguin.
“How do I figure out which links Google is punishing me for?”
You have to do an audit of your entire backlink profile – looking at the types and various characteristics of the links you have – and identify those that may be hurting your site overall by tipping the unnatural scale. Then you need to get the ones raising red flags removed or disavowed – all while building new, clean links to even out your backlink profile.
Need help recovering from Penguin?
We do backlink audits to research your overall backlink profile, pinpoint areas of concern and help identify links that may be causing you to get caught up in Google’s Penguin filter. In cases of Penguin penalties, we will advise you on how to attempt to get any harmful links removed. We’ll also help you create a disavow file to disavow any links you don’t want and were unable to have removed. Contact us to get a quote.