Google Penguin was a search algorithm update Google introduced in April 2012. Along with Google Panda, the Penguin update was a major initiative intended by Google to fight low-quality content and black hat SEO link building tactics. Penguin has been refreshed several times since its introduction, and in 2016 became part of Google’s core algorithm.
Whereas Panda dealt primarily with content quality, Penguin was aimed at manipulative link building practices — techniques used to artificially inflate the quantity and nature of links pointing back to an organization’s website. Perhaps no Google update has been more misunderstood than Penguin.
What Is Google Penguin — History and Target Offenders
Like most effective SEO techniques, link building was corrupted over time by overuse and misuse. Well before 2012, it was common knowledge that inbound links were a huge ranking factor in Google’s algorithm. Google saw links as a strong indicator of a web page’s value — if the page was good enough for other websites to link to, then the content must be good enough for Google’s search engine users.
This estimation of value was a sound concept until SEOs began creating massive numbers of links using questionable tactics, and often compounding the manipulation of the algorithm by packing the anchor text of those links with the same or very similar keywords. Among the problems Google sought to address with Penguin:
- Low-quality, “link farm” websites were thriving — websites whose only purpose was to place links or sell links. Links were becoming an end in themselves rather than a naturally developing means of moving up in organic rankings.
- Links were being built by bots or tools, and thus provided no indication that humans found the target web page’s content useful.
- Rather than links developing naturally over time, Google was seeing enormous spikes in links, a clear sign of manipulation.
- Companies were writing off-site articles and press releases of dubious quality a mile a minute, simply to acquire links and with no intention of actually helping a reader understand a topic more clearly.
- Websites were entering into reciprocal or group link exchange programs, again designed strictly to build the volume of links for the members.
- Once reputable forums and blogs were having their quality diminished by commenters whose only interest in commenting was to insert a link.
- Various on-site practices were spiraling out of control. The most obvious problem was the trend of setting up footer links to most or all of a site’s internal pages — this practice created a lot of links, but got in the way of a user experience.
The Penguin update was introduced to identify these practices and stop rewarding sites that used them with higher rankings.
It’s important to note that Google Penguin was not a penalty; web pages snagged by Penguin were simply ignored or lowered in Google’s ranking calculations.
What Is Google Penguin — SEO Industry Response
When Penguin was introduced — with a lot of noise from Google — the SEO industry and webmasters reacted as usual, by overreacting. This overreaction was partly due to the misconception that Penguin was a penalty, something that could result in a site being banished from Google.
Suddenly, all links with keyword-rich anchor text were considered taboo. Blogs, even the most reputable ones, stopped inserting backlinks in guest posts or stopped accepting guest posts altogether. SEOs were in mad rush to remove bad links and rewrite anchor text on links that incorporated keywords.
In many cases, these types of vigorous responses were not really needed. Google was after big websites building bad links in a big way. Google was not out to destroy blogs that offered genuinely useful content or websites that had used a lot of keyword-rich anchor text in its off-site content, because that was standard practice for many years leading up to Penguin’s introduction in 2012.
Nevertheless, it was good for the SEO industry and search engine users that many of the link building issues noted earlier were corrected or stopped. Google users are interested in discovering content that humans find useful, not content that SEO wizards have manipulated to the top of the SERPs (search engine results pages).
Going Forward With Google Penguin
Today, article marketing and guest blog posts are generally described as components of a “content marketing” campaign that may or may not have an SEO objective. Guest posts, press releases and other off-site content still have a role in SEO campaigns, but much more attention is now paid to quality writing and reader value.
Anchor text, as far as SEO best practices are concerned, is varied — sometime using keywords, and other times using a URL, a web address or some other text. The idea that keyword-rich anchor text should never be used is still prevalent, but data from SEO campaigns strongly suggests keyword-rich anchor text is still fine as long as it is not overused. Cleaning your inbound link profile makes sense, but it is not a do-or-die activity. A handful of dubious links will not destroy your rankings, as long as you have a high percentage of inbound links of good quality. Formally disavowing links with Google’s Disavow tool is an effort that’s probably not worth the time and effort, but asking websites to remove links that are clearly bad is worth doing.
A perfectly clean inbound link profile is a great goal, but Google is not expecting perfection. Google knows that certain link building techniques were acceptable and in wide use prior to Penguin — all websites that engaged in SEO prior to 2012 are bound to have some bad links, so as long as your number of bad links isn’t excessively greater than that of others in your niche, Google probably doesn’t view it as a problem. Furthermore, Google recognizes that the quality an organization’s inbound link profile isn’t totally within its control. Links can be created to the organization’s site without the organization knowing about it; requests an organization makes to have a bad link removed or updated are not always (or even often) granted.
Taking all of this into account, the best approach is to systematically review your link problems and make a reasonable attempt to fix glaring problems immediately, and less severe problems as time and SEO budget allow.
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