According to Google, Penguin 2.0 only affected 2.3% of English-US queries. That sounds like a low number, but in the scheme of algorithm rollouts, it was the third largest to date. It wasn’t just queries that received a jolt. The unleashing of Penguin 2.0 impacted web traffic of thousands of sites. Webmasters reported reductions in traffic of up to 90%, which basically crippled businesses and halted online revenues.
Today, we may be on the verge of another major algorithm upset: Penguin 3.0.
But don’t worry, I’m here to share some news about what’s going on with Penguin and to show you how you can prepare yourself.
What number Penguin is this?
Talking about Penguin is confusing. How many Penguins are there, and which number is the new one?
Some of the confusion is due to the difference in numbering between Google and some SEOs. Danny Sullivan and those at Search Engine Land chose to use integers to number the Penguin updates. They numbered each update as 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Matt Cutts, on the other hand, used a decimal numbering system in order to indicate which of the updates were big and which were small.
Regardless of what numbering system you prefer, there have been four Penguin updates. Two have been big. Two have been small. The fifth Penguin update, not yet a reality, is supposed to be another big one.
Let me give you a quick history of the Penguin updates, using the more widely accepted numbering system by Google.
Penguin 1, The Original Penguin – April 24, 2012
This algorithm change, the biggest in Google’s history, was the grand leveler. It put an end to over-optimization gimmicks.
Penguin 1.1 – May 25, 2012
This first update refreshed the original Penguin, but it hardly caused a ripple.
Penguin 1.2 – October 5, 2012
The fall 2012 update of Penguin was an additional refining of the algorithm to better reward high quality sites. This time, 0.3% of the English language queries were impacted by the update.
Penguin 2.0 – May 22, 2013
Penguin 2.0 was the big one. A lot of queries were impacted, and a lot of sites were affected. This time, the algorithm got smarter at sniffing out low-quality backlinks and, more importantly, over-optimized anchor text.
Penguin 2.1 – October 4, 2013
Some webmasters said this update wasn’t that big of a deal. But others, who probably flew under the radar during the 2.0 explosion, finally got hit by 2.1.
Now, we’re at the edge of the Penguin cliff again. Is there going to be a Penguin 3.0? If so, what’s going to happen?
What’s the point of Penguin?
The grand goal of virtually every algorithm update is to return more relevant search results and to fight spam.
Penguin 2.0 was no exception. Google originally called it the “Webspam Update” until the Penguin moniker became sticky enough to stay. So, Penguin targets webspam, but what did it really have in its crosshairs?
- Spammy backlinks – one of the most notable targets of Penguin 2.0 were toxic or spammy backlinks. Any and all inbound links from low quality sites were a target.
- Exact match anchor text – anchor text that matched the name of the page was targeted too. For example, the anchor “cheap cell phones” going to example.com/cheap-cell-phones received a devaluation as a result of Penguin 2.0.
- Optimized anchor texts – similarly, any anchor text with keywords — particularly competitive long tails, short anchors, or head terms — was a victim of Penguin 2.0. Short anchors like “top cell phones” or “best smartphone” were considered over-optimized.
- Paid links – like with Penguin 1.0, Google tightened the noose around paid links with Penguin 2.0. Links that looked overtly sponsored — even some that seemed discrete — were punished.
- Irrelevant links – although most high-authority inbound links tend to strengthen a link profile, Google began to be more discerning about the topical relevance of a backlink. A website about accounting software receiving a link from a pet food site could trigger a Penguin penalty alert.
What will Penguin 3.0 target?
The next major Penguin rollout will most likely increase the severity of punishment of Penguin 2.0 targets. Here are my best guesses at what Penguin 3.0 will focus on:
- Any optimized anchors – we know that the days of exact match and keyword-rich anchor text are over. This is going to be more important than ever in the era of Penguin 3.0. I strongly suggest avoiding any optimization of anchors whatsoever. Intuitive SEOs have been predicting for some time that anchors will eventually have a limited impact (if any) on search. The trend towards co-citation and co-occurrence and the rise of a more social web means that backlinks just don’t have the same level of clout. In keeping with this shift, it’s not just useless to optimize your anchors; it’s downright dangerous.
- Any low-quality backlinks – a backlink from any bad neighborhood is not the kind of backlink you want. A suspicious site that sends a backlink to a legitimate site immediately gives the legitimate site an aura of suspicion. If you have any level of control over the backlinks to your site, make sure they come from sites with an equal or higher domain authority level.
- Any link from a guest blogging network – Google is obviously on a rampage against article networks like PostJoint or MyBlogGuest. Matt Cutts wasn’t kidding when he promised to nail guest blogging networks. He already has, and he will continue to do so. And this time, it’s going to be built right into the algorithm.
How do you know if you’re at risk?
Penguin 2.0 didn’t affect every site, and neither will Penguin 3.0. To play it safe, you should always be auditing your content and link profile. To find out if you’re at risk for Penguin 3.0, first find out if you were affected by Penguin 2.0.
In order to do so, use this tool.
This site takes your analytics data and places it on a timeline overlaid with the algorithm update. If your site has a traffic drop off coinciding with the update, you can assume that you were affected by the update. And, if you were affected by Penguin 2.0 and didn’t do anything about it, then you will probably be affected by Penguin 3.0 as well.
Once you plug your site into the tool, you should see a graph that looks something like this:
Toggle the algorithm update on the right-hand side to view only Penguin updates. The site below was not noticeably affected by Penguin 2.0 on May 22 nor the refresh in October.
If your site was affected by any previous Penguin update, then you are at risk for Penguin 3.0. It’s time to take preventive action.
What should you do?
Now that you have an understanding of Penguin’s target and your site, it’s time to take action.
I recommend that you conduct a link profile audit. If Penguin 3.0 rolls out and you get penalized, you will be forced to conduct a thorough audit. The results of a manual penalty are long lasting. It is far better to be proactive and audit your link profile now than suffer the long-term consequences of a penalty action.
Here is an overview of the areas your audit should focus on.
Remove all links from guest blogging networks
If you’ve used a guest blogging network at any point in the past, please remove the links from this service as soon as possible. Use the records from your guest blogging network account, or records that you have kept yourself, to find out what sites sent you links.
If you have control over these links, remove them immediately. If you do not have control over them, contact the site owner or webmaster and have them removed.
Remove all links from spam sites
You may be surprised at how many spam sites are sending links to your website. Even a casual audit will reveal dozens of low-quality sites, link directories, and off-topic sites that you probably weren’t aware of. These should be removed as soon as possible since they could be a source of a serious penalty of any future algorithm update.
Be brutal here. It’s not important that you try to save any possible legitimate link. It is important that you find and get rid of everything that could be spammy. Err on the side of getting rid of too many links versus leaving bad links behind. You can always add great backlinks later. But if you get stuck with a manual penalty, you will regret not being more brutal with your backlink removal process.
Remove all exact match anchor links
Next, you should get rid of the exact match anchors. You probably have lots of URL anchors. These are not exact match. An exact match anchor occurs when the non-URL title of the page corresponds to the anchor text. In the example mentioned above, “cheap cell phones” is going to example.com/cheap-cell-phones. This is an example of a link that should be removed.
Remove all optimized anchor links
The next type of links to remove or disavow is from optimized anchors. If you have anchors that seem overly optimized, remove them as well. The process seems painful — removing links that appear to be adding value. However, this is an important part of presenting to Google a healthy link profile.
Nofollow guest post links
If you’ve built tons of links in the past through guest posts, especially for the purpose of search manipulation, you should go back and hit up all of the sites you guest-posted on. Request that those sites nofollow the links back to your site. Let’s hope you didn’t use rich anchor text throughout your guest posts as it will increase your chances of getting caught by Penguin 3.0.
If you are lucky enough to have author accounts, you can always log into those blogs you guest-posted on and add nofollows to the links yourself.
Avoiding Penguin 3.0 is just like avoiding the consequences of any other penalty. The only twist is that you tilt your remediation to be especially defensive regarding the historic targets of Penguin updates.
Even if you don’t think you’re at risk, performing these actions will help your link profile. There’s never any harm in taking action to clean up your website. It won’t hurt, and it definitely might help.
What are your thoughts about Penguin 3.0? Is it coming?