If you were around for the first few iterations of Google’s Penguin update, you know just how much of an impact it had on the world of link building and search marketing. For months, Penguin refreshes served as follow-up attacks to Google’s initial release, and search marketers were kept on edge, trying desperately to stay ahead of the curve.
Now, it’s been quiet on the Penguin front since late 2013, and many search marketers believe we’re long overdue for a new update, or at least a refresh. With the recent release of Panda 4.1 marking a quarterly rhythm for the search giant back in September, experts suspect a Penguin refresh could be right around the corner. If you incorporate link building as part of your offsite SEO strategy, it’s vital that you take immediate measures to protect yourself against the inevitable refresh.
First, we’ll take a look into the chain of events that led to the most recent Penguin release, and why so many webmasters were hit with ranking penalties in the first place. Penguin 1.0 was first rolled out in April of 2012, designed as a complement and a follow-up to its predecessor in 2011, Panda. While the Panda update was created to penalize websites with low-quality or keyword-stuffed content, Penguin was created to penalize sites with low-quality or keyword-dense backlinks. It was a one-two punch that sent both onsite and offsite black-hat SEO practitioners scrambling.
While Penguin 1.0 only affected around three percent of all search queries, the long-term impact it had on the world of link building was tremendous. Link builders could no longer build large quantities of keyword-stuffed, irrelevant links wherever they pleased. Instead, links had to be on-topic, posted in a relevant forum, and had to appear as a valuable and realistic part of the conversation.
Between May and October of 2012, various refreshes of the Penguin update hit on an almost monthly basis, rolling out new penalties to link schemers who might have otherwise survived Penguin 1.0 without a penalty. In May of 2013, Penguin 2.0 was released, introducing even more sophisticated changes to Google’s ranking algorithm and affecting another 2.3 percent of all search queries.
A handful of refreshes came between May and October, repeating the same pattern as 1.0. It led many to believe that Penguin 3.0 would hit in May of 2014, following the pattern, but it never did. Here we are in October, a year after the last known Penguin refresh, and we still haven’t seen an update.
There are two reasons to expect a new update. First, we’re overdue for one. It’s been more than a year now without any follow-up from Google, and it’s highly likely that they’ve developed some new sophisticated tricks to catch link schemers and penalize irrelevant links by now. Second, Panda 4.1 hit last month, just four months after the second latest major Google update. This may indicate a new, almost quarterly pattern for the search engine giant’s updates, putting a new Penguin update anytime between now and December.
The next Penguin update could be a simple refresh—a new addition of data that Google then uses to distribute penalties or change ranks for sites whose backlink profiles have changed since the last refresh. The update could also be a major overhaul, the long-awaited Penguin 3.0, which would change some of the criteria for how backlinks are viewed, analyzed, and determined to calculate page rank.
Either way, the update could affect your site’s rank if you aren’t up to speed with Google’s best practices for user experience and link building.
It’s impossible to tell whether the update will be a refresh or a major overhaul, but any update will require you to reevaluate your link building strategy, and proactively eliminate any questionable practices that could put you in jeopardy of getting a penalty.
We’ve put together a step-by-step guide to help you do just that:
Step One: Hunt Down and Disavow Any Questionable Links
Your first step should actually be a part of your regular link building process. Once a month or so, it’s a good idea to go through your existing links and weed out any that might look suspicious, or ones that you haven’t built yourself. You can use a free tool, like Moz’s so-called “search engine for links, Open Site Explorer. Don’t judge too harshly, but if you do see a link that stands out from the rest, consider it for removal. First, try and delete the link yourself. If you cannot, contact the webmaster in charge of the site—you can usually find this contact information through a contact page or through the domain registrar. If the webmaster refuses to take the link down, you can file a request for disavowal with Google directly.
Step Two: Review Your Sources and Timing
Next, review the totality of your current strategy. Take a look at your “usual suspects” of link sources, and weed out any that might be considered irrelevant, spammy, or of low authority. Examples of bad sources include article directories, link building schemes, or blogs and forums not directly related to your industry. Replace these sources with higher quality sites like news affiliates and relevant forums. You’ll also want to review how many links you’re building, and how often you’re building them. Posting too many links too quickly could send a red flag to Google.
Step Three: Increase Your Brand Mentions and Nofollow Links
It may sound counterintuitive, but your link building strategy shouldn’t be solely reliant on traditional links. Instead of posting nothing but links, work more brand mentions and nofollow links into your strategy. Google’s algorithm detects non-linked brand mentions—that is to say, mentions of your company name, product names, etc.—and treats them as similar to links. Posting more brand mentions and fewer traditional links will give you a similar increase in domain authority without putting you at risk of a penalty. Nofollow links, which are links marked with a rel=nofollow tag, will not affect your rank at all, but will allow you to post links to your site without seeming spammy.
Step Four: Encourage More Natural Link Building
Finally, establish more avenues for natural link building. Your goal shouldn’t be to make your links appear more natural. It should be to make more natural links. You can do this by posting more relevant, engaging, amusing, or insightful forms of content such as infographics, videos, and detailed blog posts. Syndicate these through your social media channels, and if your content catches the public eye, you’ll easily attract hundreds of new links—and you’ll never have to worry about any of them triggering a penalty.
Take the time to review and adjust your link building strategy—even if the next Penguin refresh doesn’t hit this year, you’ll still receive the benefits of the extra offsite authority, and reduce your chances of a future penalty.