Google Penguin for non-SEOs

Ian Lurie
when penguins go bad

They were cute until Google got to 'em

If I say ‘Google Penguin’ to an SEO pro, they shudder. In the SEO world, Google’s Penguin update is the nastiest, scariest update since, I dunno, Florida?

Here’s an explainer for all the marketers who are wondering what the hell just happened to their traffic:

What’s an update?

The engineers at Google constantly tune their search software to provide (hopefully) more accurate results. Most of these tune-ups are pretty small, and go unnoticed by anyone except us hardcore search geeks. They’re like thunderstorms: You don’t name them.

Every now and then, though, Google rolls out a humungous change that throws the search world into a state of meteorological higgledy-piggledy (that’s a lot of Gs). Those are named updates. Panda was one. Penguin’s another.

Google rolled out the Penguin update April 24th. It appears to target artificial link acquisition, or ‘link spam’.

What’s link spam?

Link spam is any attempt to acquire lots of links by buying them, trading them, or building your own ‘link network’. The easiest way to describe link spam to talk money: You can go out and earn money by creating something of value, or providing a valuable service. Or, you can print or steal it.

Link spam is the whole printing/stealing thing: Go to a link broker or service, for example, and for a fee you can acquire anywhere from one to thousands of links with a click. Or, launch one hundred blogs, fill them with stolen content or gibberish, and then link them in a network that funnels authority to your own site. It’s a lot easier than writing amazing content, or doing good PR, or (I dunno) marketing or something.

I’m sounding judgmental, I know. The truth is, I don’t see anything morally wrong with link spam. It’s another marketing tactic that taken too far can really screw things up. But compare it to plagiarism on the Evil Scale it barely moves the needle.

Link spam has always been a bad long-term SEO strategy. Google and Bing have fought it for years, and they catch the site networks and companies that use it all the time.

Penguin, though, took it to a whole new level.

What did Penguin do?

It’s hard to know for certain, since Google doesn’t reveal details. But a few things are clear:

  • Penguin actively penalizes sites that Google believes engaged in link spam. This is new. Until now, Google generally took away ill-gotten link authority and penalized sites that were selling links. The big G rarely punished sites for acquiring spam links.
  • Penalized sites generally plunge out of the top ten for their own brand names, as well as any other meaningful terms.
  • Links that are part of artificial link networks will trigger a penalty. Check out this great SEOMOZ article to learn how to detect link networks.
  • If a huge percentage of your links use the same, commodity-related anchor text, you’re in trouble. So, if you sell toilet paper, and 75% of the links pointing at your site have the link text ‘toilet paper’, Google will get suspicious. Don’t act surprised. I’ve been warning about this for a couple of years.
  • If a huge percentage of your links come from blog comments, forums or site footers (all common places for spammy links), again, Google gets suspicious.
  • Google sent out warnings to some, but not all, Penguin-targeted sites.

Penguin focused on offsite factors. Panda, the update that came before, focused more on site quality and onsite factors.

How do I know if I’ve been Penguinized?

If your search traffic suddenly dropped after April 24th, and you got a warning from Google about unnatural links pointing at your site, and you no longer rank in the top 10 for your own brand name, you probably got a Penguin penalty.

Otherwise, though, let your conscience be your guide. If you know you’ve got a lot of link spam pointing at your site, clean it up. Even if you didn’t get penalized under Penguin, chances are you’re due. Fix it before you get hammered.

And, fix it a little bit at a time. Go out and get higher-quality links while removing the spammy ones. Read the SEOMOZ article for info on how to remove spammy links.

Most sites I’ve seen got hit by a combination of factors: Penguin (offsite) plus Panda (onsite) or a screw-up around a site re-launch or similar.

I say this because it’s important that, in the initial Penguin Panic, you still pay attention to SEO best practices: Visibility, authority, relevance. Make sure all three are in good shape.

Other places to go look

If you think you’ve been hit by Penguin, and can’t/won’t hire someone, do some reading. These articles are a great place to start:

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Great article, Ian, but I beg to differ on your opening. White hats have been complaining for years that spammy links brought dishonor and dismay upon our craft. Those who refused to buy or otherwise acquire these spammy links were thought to be naive or ineffective, and those who caved resigned themselves to a life of gray hat self-denial.
    While there are probably a lot of SEOs that were Penguinized in a bad way, what about all the white hats with awesome content that saw an increase in rankings and traffic starting on 4/24? I for one welcome our new Penguin overlords and what it means for the future of our trade.

    1. Hi Josh – I totally agree. I hate link spam. It drives me nuts. But morally wrong? I doubt it. It’s an annoyance, like the SEO who makes promises you can’t QUITE call out, but you know are a bunch of B.S.
      And, I sympathize with the business owners who’ve bought the bill of goods for so many years. It’s not their fault Google took a decade to crack down on link spam.

  2. Seems like it’s the niche sites that got hit the hardest. Any blogger worth his salt should have gone unaffected.
    I’ve seen a number of studies done on this “big bad” penguin, and they are all pretty much in line with what you said here. The bottom line seems to mainly be overdone anchor text and to many backlinks from un-relevant sites.
    Yeah some innocent (ignorant) bystanders got hit, but I think for the most part people got what they had coming to them.
    As far as I am concerned, all Google did was thin the herd, leaving less competition for me.
    I just don’t get why people are shocked by this. SEO is constantly changing and Google is neck deep in this unending war on spam. (kinda like the war on drugs lol) This wasn’t the first update and it won’t be the last.

  3. Hi Ian
    Our web development site got hit because we havr links to it in the footer of most templates we made.
    Would setting these links to nofollow be enough to fix this, or do we need to remove them totaly?

    1. You’ll need to remove them, at the very least. If you’re placing the links in your own footers, then you’ve created a whole link network that probably set off alarms at Google. You need to dismantle the entire network.

  4. I am actually very excited about the Penguin. I’ve been running against unfair competition in my SEO efforts and now finally we will have a clean playing field until somehow the black hat SEO guys figure out how to rig the system again.
    We all knew this was coming sooner or later. SO, there you have it. Why is anybody surprised in the first place?
    Thanks for the great article.

  5. Google’s been slowly cracking down on link spam for years. First they lowered the amount of influence link spam has in the overall site rank, I think that was back before Caffeine, now it just sounds like they have removed it entirely from the ranking formula. It is doubtable that they are punishing sites though, probably just removing link spam from their formula will be punishment enough.

  6. Ian, have been pouring myself over your material.
    I’m an analysisparalysis type that seeks to study everything before he blinks. So, have read lots and lots about blogs, online marketing, social media and the like.
    I’m tuning in. Ready to find out. And, then, maybe do something.
    But my main point here, and the reason for my comment, is that you stand heads and shoulders above most of the “experts” I’ve encountered.
    Your blogging style is engaging, informative and humorous. And at least to this onlinemoron, you’re knowledge rocks.
    Glad I found this site.

  7. Hi Ian,
    Very informative article and I learned alot from it! On the other hand, change is the only constant variable so valuable content is still the way to go 🙂

  8. Penguin is a win for SEO’s that have been taking a long-term approach. None of my websites have taken a hit from Penguin and some of them have seen a *slight* increase in traffic.
    Best line of the post:
    “It’s a lot easier than writing amazing content, or doing good PR, or (I dunno) marketing or something.”

  9. I don’t agree with some of the comments – I had a lot of spam sites in the past when i was learning about seo – ALL of them have now started to rank on page one, with number one on the page itself – and my authority sites were not affected.
    I dont see any other major change besides that. Nothing makes sense now – at least in terms with how to rank. And no, its not about quality content, tired of hearing that.

  10. Thanks for the help, seem there is a sad side effect to the penguin though in my opinion. Google search has become fairly useless as most of the sites it likes seem to be fragmented you have to go through so many pages to find choice. I can’t even tell for sure that i have been punished. Where I was on page one I am now on page 1-3 all different parts of my site and if I was on page 3-4 I am now on page 11-14 also fragmented as are most of the sites that were ahead of me. Searching on Bing is easier at the moment as you have more choice for less effort. All that time I spent getting what I thought were very relevant link exchanges (Accommodation for Accommodation) wasted.

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