Is your website the unknowing target of a nefarious plot by an evil supervillain?
Like the Penguin in “Batman Returns,” Google’s Penguin algorithm is out to get you.
Penguin wants to drag your organic search rankings down into the sewers, never to be heard from again.
Okay, it’s really not that dramatic.
Google’s famous Penguin update is actually a good thing for most site owners (Batman included).
It first launched in April 2012 to combat the growing trend of spammy websites using shady tactics to get higher search rankings, like keyword stuffing and buying backlinks.
Penguin has grown even more sophisticated over the years.
Wondering what Penguin is looking for nowadays?
Read on to discover how to avoid getting hit with a Google Penguin penalty, and how to tell if you already have been.
What Is Google Penguin?
Take a mental trip back to 2012.
Encyclopedia Britannica stopped printing their paper encyclopedias. Everybody was dancing to “Gangnam Style.” NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars.
And, spam was making it to Page 1 of Google.
Google needed to do something about it.
Not because they’re a caped hero dedicated to fighting the forces of spam. Like most things in life, it comes down to money.
If spam stayed in charge, it’d be difficult to convince companies to keep spending money on paid Google products, like AdWords.
And, hard to get consumers to keep using it for their over 3.5 billion searches per day.
If Google couldn’t solve this, would people go back to using Yahoo? (Luckily, we know things didn’t work out this way.)
From 2012 to 2016, Google unleashed 10 confirmed updates to Penguin that refined its ability to detect spammy sites. But, the results only happened on the rollout dates—like a lawnmower coming in and chopping all the grass down.
Once they got hit, websites found it nearly impossible to recover from the penalty. At least until the next update.
As of September 2016, Penguin folded into the core Google algorithm.
It now runs in real time with every web search. Another huge change is that it now doesn’t permanently penalize sites it deems “spammy.”
Penguin now devalues spam backlinks. Meaning, it excludes that one link from having any impact on rankings, instead of penalizing the entire website.
This has allowed some websites who were mistakenly hit to recover some of their traffic. However, the road to recovery from a Google Penguin penalty is long and winding.
There’s only one guaranteed way to avoid getting penalized: Don’t do anything shady!
That’s easier said than done. So, here’s what to watch out for.
How to Avoid the Google Penguin Penalty Waiting for You
Never Ever, Ever Buy Links
Never pay for a link anywhere for any reason!
It’s not worth the risk.
Some SEO experts say it is, depending on the circumstances. SEO Mark says buying a few high-quality links from websites relevant to yours can sometimes be a good investment.
But I disagree.
Stay away from paid links with a ten foot pole. They’ll catch up with you eventually and the payback is a big ol’ B.
Instead, focus your time and money on obtaining backlinks naturally.
Here are a few ways to do that.
Do organic outreach instead
So if you can’t pay someone for a backlink, how are you supposed to get them, right?
Think back to a time before the internet…
That’s right, when you had to actually talk to other human beings and form a real connection with them.
That’s exactly what you should do on the internet, too.
Don’t forget about old school networking techniques. They work! The key is to connect with the right people.
Making friends online means you’ll get natural backlinks, like Amanda from I Am Baker who mentions her fellow blogger friend in a recent post:
You want to connect with other site owners who are:
- Related to your niche or topic.
- Complementary to your product or service (or, simply have something in common with them without being competitive).
- Not spammy.
By “not spammy,” I mean choose websites that aren’t the kind Penguin is designed to penalize in the first place. Make sure it’s not cluttered with ads or other links, or full of nonsensical content with bad spelling/grammar.
Honestly, you know one of these sites when you see it.
Keep a spreadsheet listing potential sites to reach out to for a backlink. Start off with a list of 10-20 sites you want to reach out to.
So how do you actually reach out to them, you ask?
Reaching out via email is the most effective way. If you can’t find their email address, you can try filling out their contact form or messaging them on one of their social media platforms.
The key is to form a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship with these site owners.
You don’t want to send a message like, “Hey, I like your site and it’s related to mine. Want to exchange links? Thanks!” and that’s it.
Nope. That will get you filed into the trash bin ASAP.
Start off with an email that doesn’t ask for anything in return. Just pay the site owner a compliment, or ask for their opinion.
Something like this:
If they don’t reply, follow up in about a week.
This is why you want to keep track of this stuff in a spreadsheet. It’s easy to lose track of who to email when.
In the next email, mention something else about their site you like, and then make a soft ask for a link.
Don’t be annoying about it. You should actually care about this person and want to get to know them better, not just be after their link juice!
I received this email from a contact a few months back. We’d exchanged some emails before and the article he mentioned was actually very useful, so I was happy to link over to it.
Other ways to connect with them are to comment on their recent blog posts and follow them on social media.
Remember, building quality backlinks is a long-term game, so make long-term friends.
Encourage product reviews from bloggers
This strategy works well for SaaS or software companies with a product to sell. Your product should have a free trial option for this to be most effective.
Having a blogger write a review about your product exposes it to a new audience of people. And, it gets you those juicy backlinks.
Here’s an example from business blogger Melyssa Griffin about landing page software LeadPages:
In her post, she described eight ways bloggers can use LeadPages to grow traffic and subscribers.
It’s effective for LeadPages because it’s a real user telling her followers how she uses their product, with real examples from her own website, like this:
That adds credibility with users who want to see your product in action, but may not necessarily trust your website to deliver that.
They want real proof that someone like them is using your product and loves it.
There are a few ways you can encourage reviews:
- Feature review posts from bloggers on your own website and share them on social media. This lets bloggers know you love seeing new reviews.
- Start an affiliate program to allow bloggers who write about your product to receive a commission if any of their readers buys from their link.
Write guest posts
Guest posts are articles you write for other websites that get published under your name.
You can also try to land a guest post on a site that’s well-known to your target market.
Each site will have their own rules for the types of guest posts they accept. If you can’t find a page about submitting an article on a site, a handy trick is to Google “website name + guest post” or “website name + contribute.”
If you still can’t find anything on guest posting, email the editor or site owner a quick pitch of your article idea and see if they’re open to publishing it.
Guest posts shouldn’t just be all about you or your product. They need to provide real value to the reader and also to the site it’s featured on. It needs to be worth their time and investment in posting it.
But, most sites will let you include one or two links back to your own website within your post, as long as you’re not being overly salesy.
This goes a long way toward building high-quality backlinks to your site and bringing in new traffic.
Evaluate Your Backlinks Regularly
Besides building new backlinks, you also need to be keeping on top of your existing ones.
Remember: Having spammy backlinks could leave you with a fierce Google Penguin penalty.
We’ll cover how to get rid of any negative backlinks in the next section, but first you need to find them.
Check your backlinks at least once a month. Sometimes, evaluating a link is mostly subjective.
Visit the site. Does it look spammy? Is it full of ads and misspelled junk? That’s a pretty easy tell that you don’t want that site linking to you.
But it can be harder to tell when the credibility of a site isn’t so obvious.
Monitor Backlinks goes beyond just a site’s content and digs into its real statistics.
It’ll tell you right away if a link is bad news or not, based on metrics like a site’s domain authority, traffic, any previous penalties received and more.
The Your Links tab shows all your current links and information about them. Any links that may potentially be bad for your SEO are indicated with a warning sign.
You can do this with Monitor Backlinks, too!
On the Competitor Links tab, you can add your competitors by domain and the software will automatically monitor their links.
Clicking on the competitor shows you all their backlinks. Look them over and ask yourself:
- Do they have more backlinks than you?
- Are these links of good quality?
- Are they acquiring new backlinks? (Check the “Date” column.)
Look at the “Trust Flow” and “Citation Flow” columns when evaluating your competitors’ links. Red means it’s not a very beneficial link, blue means it’s okay and green means it’s a high-quality link to have.
If a link has the “Common Backlink” tag, it means you also have a backlink from the same domain.
Trust and Citation Flow are terms invented by Majestic SEO to measure the impact of backlinks. They’re each a number between 0 and 100.
Trust Flow is a measure of how trustworthy a page is (shocking, I know). It takes a number of factors into account, but it’s based around the idea that good sites link to other good sites.
Therefore, if a lot of trustworthy sites link to you, your Trust Flow score goes up.
For Citation Flow, this is a measure of how influential a page could be for SEO rankings. This is based on how many backlinks that page has.
So, it’s like the link juice passed on from your backlink’s backlinks. Try saying that 10 times fast!
The higher the Trust Flow and Citation Flow score, the more value that link has for your competitor’s SEO.
And you know what that means? It would also have value for you.
Hint hint: This is a great way of compiling a list of sites to go after for link building.
Get Rid of Your Bad Links ASAP
Now you know how to evaluate your backlinks, but if you find a bad one, what should you do?
Disavowing a link means you’re telling Google you don’t want to be associated with that domain linking to you. You’re saying, “Don’t count this one.”
Disavowing any negative links should be part of your regular maintenance plan when you review your backlinks.
In Monitor Backlinks, this is as easy as checking the box on the left for any backlinks you want to disavow.
Then, click on the “Disavow” button at the top.
You have the option of disavowing the domain or just the URL.
Use these options with caution!
Disavowing the domain does exactly what it sounds like. That means any future links you get from that domain won’t count either.
Make sure you use this feature wisely and only disavow domains that would never be a good backlink source.
Disavowing a URL is the most common option you’ll want to use. If you have a link from domain1.com/page-1 and a link from domain1.com/page-2, you can choose to exclude one of those while keeping the other.
You can then download the text file from Monitor Backlinks and head over to Google’s disavow tool in Search Console. Choose the domain you want to work with, if you have multiple.
If you’re creating a disavow file manually, you can use TextEdit on Mac or Notepad on Windows.
Include one link per line. If you want to disavow all links from a domain, enter “domain:ignorethis.com.”
Here’s an example of a valid file. I’m disavowing all links from the domain “spamcentral.com” and disavowing only the URLs mentioned below for the other two sites.
Once you have your file ready, save it and upload it to Google’s disavow tool. Press “Submit.”
An important thing to remember is that every time you upload a new text file here, it overwrites the old one.
Keep your text file of disavowed links on your computer and add to it every time you need to, then upload the entire text file each time to Google.
Or, save yourself about a million hours and just get Monitor Backlinks instead.
How to Tell If You’ve Been Hit with a Google Penguin Penalty
There are two main ways to tell if you’ve been thwarted by Penguin:
- A sudden dip in organic traffic.
- Significant rankings drops for keywords you used to rank well for.
Check out your traffic in Google Analytics. Notice any major dips lately?
You can see a high-level view of this on the main Audience Overview page. Do you average 300 visitors a day and now suddenly you’re averaging less than 50 per day?
It may not be because of Google Penguin, but you’ll definitely want to investigate the cause.
As for keyword rankings, Monitor Backlinks automatically keeps track of any major changes in them.
This makes it easy to notice when something’s wrong and your rankings have plummeted out of nowhere—a common Penguin symptom.
Watch out for any keywords that are out of your normal ranking position range.
You can also use a free tool like SERPs.com to check your keyword ranking history, though you have to manually enter in each keyword you want to check.
Even if you don’t notice anything out of the ordinary in Google Analytics or your keyword rankings, you should still disavow bad links regularly.
Leaving any bad links untouched puts you at risk of a Google Penguin penalty at any time.
Final Thoughts on Avoiding the Google Penguin Penalty
The short version of this post is: Don’t do shady stuff!
If you stay away from buying links and keyword stuffing, you’ll be fine. You won’t ever have to worry about Google Penguin coming to get you.
However, you need to watch out for scams.
If you trade links with another site owner, even without getting paid for it, that could still put you in hot water if the site linking to you is involved in bad SEO practices.
The best approach is to check any links you’re thinking of obtaining with Monitor Backlinks first. Then you’ll know if they’re going to help or hurt your SEO before it happens.
Maintenance is key, too. Don’t set and forget your links.
Check in on them at least once a month and update your disavow list as needed. This will keep you free and clear of any negative SEO consequences.
There are no shortcuts to success when it comes to link building for SEO!
It takes time, energy and hard work to build up a solid backlink portfolio and manage it well.
When it comes to SEO, you are who you associate yourself with.
Make sure if you saw one of your backlinks walking toward you in real life, you wouldn’t want to cross the street to avoid having to say hello.