How does the Google Penguin Update Affects SEO and Negative SEO?

Google Penguin Update

Over Optimization has been hitting websites like bowling pins – the score just keeps piling up. Google has now named this update the ‘Penguin’. I’m not entirely sure as to why. Sounds cute doesn’t it?

The Penguin update rolled out April 24, 2012 and started hitting some 3.1% of all English queries in Google Search. What is it really and what are the effects of the Penguin Update to SEO?

The Penguin Update increased the effectivity of Negative SEO

Negative SEO is what we can call ‘foul play’ among SEO specialists. This is a practice that some SEO specialists still implement in order to de-rank their competitors. With the Penguin update, Negative SEO’s effectivity was significantly increased. The Penguin Update takes three powerful factors into consideration for a penalty:

  • Ratio of Exact Match Anchor Text in Poor Quality Articles
  • Ratio of Bad Links coming from autoapprove, non-moderated blogs
  • Ratio of No real On-site Activity by any visitors compared to inbound links

There were Negative SEO tests conducted after the Penguin Update. These tests proved that Negative SEO can still be done – and more so now that the Penguin update is in effect. Rand Fishkin even had an entire Whiteboard Friday dedicated to Negative SEO due to the aroused Negative SEO buzz from the Penguin Update.

In a nutshell, negative SEO was applied to with the exact match anchor text ‘Dan Thies’. This was their rankings on March 22 before the negative SEO was applied:

  • dan thies – number 1
  • seo – number 11
  • seo service – number 34
  • seo book – number 3

This is was their method of applying Negative SEO:

  • 18th March – – blog posts started – anchor text “seo” “seo service” and “seo book”
  • 22th March – – 1 million scrapebox blast started – 100% anchor text “Dan Thies”
  • 26th March – Dan Thies posts in Twitter that he has received an unnatural links message.

This was their rankings on April 18th after the Negative SEO was applied:

  • dan thies – number 1 (still number 1)
  • seo – not in top 1000 (down from number 11)
  • seo service – not in top 1000 (down from number 34)
  • seo book – number 34 (down from number 3)

Negative SEO can be a very powerful SERP rank killer if done correctly. Then again, it is foul play and is generally frowned upon in the SEO community. The sad fact of the matter is, Negative SEO practitioners are not doing the SEO industry a favor.

The Penguin Update raised the bar for Black hat SEO

I think that black hat SEO practices are unfair and should get penalized by the search engines because it does not bring in value to anyone. However, the Penguin update has taken getting penalized a bit further. In my experience with my clients, some of those sites bring in value to their visitors and yet they got hit.

Over optimization deals with more than just value. It deals with an intangible balance between the site’s brand authority and its SEO. As such, the standard to being ‘clean and neat’ in Google’s eyes have just been raised. People who are not doing anything fishy with their site need not worry in any way.

The way I see it, over optimization can be categorized as the most minute black hat practice – because optimizing your website beyond the value it brings in beats the idea of Google being a user-centric search engine.

The Penguin Update made way for the need to have strong branding and brand links

Need for strong brand signals has never been this important. Brand signal links have skyrocketed in value because of the Penguin update. If your links have zero brand links, there is a high chance that you are one of the sites that were affected by the Penguin update.

If you are one of the websites that got hit, try building brand links to your website to build trust and authority. These brand links will leverage your ‘allowability’ to have non-brand links (example: Exact match anchor text links). It will also ‘future-proof’ your site’s SEO.

The Penguin Update and Panda Update works together

Google panda and penguin update

Image Credit:

I think there is a reason why the Panda update rolled out earlier than the Penguin update. It made way for the Penguin update to hit less sites. Panda hit more than 12% of all English queries while Penguin only hit around 3%. Don’t get me wrong, 3% is still big. But if Panda hadn’t rolled out earlier, this would have been much, much bigger.

Panda focuses on content. I think that content makes way for links to naturally come in. The way I see it, content creates linkable assets. Without real, solid, quality content, there should be little reason why you’re getting  a lot of exact-match anchor text (high quality) links. Hence, in Google’s eyes, there should be little reason why you should rank.

So how do you get back from the Penguin Update?

For me, it just all goes back to basics. Create only  what’s great. Great, unique, quality content. This can NEVER go wrong – especially by the way that Google is re-structuring the future of SEO. You have to think about future-proofing your SEO now. It’s not about how to rank high as fast as you can anymore. It’s about how to rank high and stay there.

Things are shifting in SEO. The focus has moved from competition and competitive linkbuilding into site’s development and user experience in a very short span of time. Google has been active now more than ever in their updates because SEO has been altering how websites rank in the Google SERPs in such a way that spam can take control if there is an extraordinary SEO specialist behind it.

Google will always be for the people because the money is where the people are. We should re-think our SEO strategies to go according to that simple fact.

Besides, more quality articles means more deep links – resulting to more social signals. I think this is the best way to go to recover your rankings if you got hit by the Penguin update.

I recently wrote an article about how you can recover from over optimization. You can check that out too.

Checking your Backlink Profile

I read a brilliant article from Cognitive SEO about how to identify low quality links – which I’m going to repost here for your reference. These tips are actionable and easy to understand. If you don’t have a cognitive SEO account, try it out now – it’s free!

Disclaimer: I am affiliated with Cognitive SEO as they are our backlink checking provider for SEO Hacker School

1. Link Networks

Over 90% of the Link Networks are easy to spot, both by the human eye and by the Google algorithm.

Most Link Networks have the following common patterns:

  • Architected from Blogs and Forums, because they are easy to automate and replicate.
  • Links try to look as natural as possible by being put inside the content of a blog post or forum thread.
  • The owner of a link network rarely puts the effort to generate links back to each of the generated blog posts. This means that each and every post has a probability of having 0 or a small number of backlinks pointing to them.
  • Each site from the link network, links out to at least 2 common money sites.

To find the links coming from link networks to your site you need to filter down the backlinks by blog posts and forum thread links, that are positioned in content, and have a low metric (Pagerank, Mozrank, ACrank etc) and a low number of incoming links to the actual backlink. The hardest part is to filter large lists of links by in Content and type of link (blog post, forum page etc). You can either do it by hand or use a tool that has the ability to make these classifications.

Quickly identify backlinks coming from Link Networks

Using cognitiveSEO go to the inBound Link Portfolio area, inside the inBound Link Analysis module, to view all the analyzed links. Apply the following filters:

  • Link Position = Blog Post or Forum Thread
  • Link Context = Content
  • Majestic AC Rank = none or very low
  • inBound Links = none or very few

Order ascending by Majestic AC Rank, so that you see the lowest quality pages first. Browse a bit through the links and use the link preview feature to quickly preview those pages. In our case we found 138 low quality links coming from different pages on various link networks.(17% of their entire backlink profile)


Any of the following types of links can be both natural or artificial. The difference is how they were acquired in terms of link velocity and link distribution over the entire backlink profile of a site.

To identify if your backlink profile is unnatural you should always compare your site to your competitors and check for major discrepancies between the backlink profiles of those sites. How I usually do it, is compare my site with the top 5 leaders in the industry and then compare my site with 5 other sites that are trying to break into the niche. There are always things that come up when doing such in-depth analysis. You should always compare metric distributions such Pagerank, mozRank or Majestic AC Rank. These are only the basic comparisons that you can make. The more advanced ones are when you start to compare links classified by webpage type, link type, in content versus not in content links, link position …
This was a short intro to the following type of links that we will analyze below.

2. Footer Links

Footer links are totally legit, when they appear in a natural number, correlated to the distribution of the visual positions on a page, of all your backlinks.

When these numbers tend to go up, and there is no other competing site in your niche that has stood the test of time in the same SERP positions, than this will raise a red flag to Google.

Usually footer links are aquired from sites that:

  • sell links
  • are involved in link exchange schemes
  • have widgets or plugins installed (usually for SERP manipulation)
  • “powered by” links ( ex : WordPress)
  • partners of your business
  • clients that link back to you

If you only find a few links compared to your entire backlink profile than there is no real problem here. If instead you get a long list of links, you might have a problem. There are situations when Google does not flag footer linksBUT … no one says that they are not discarded from Google’s ranking algorithm. One situation is for Godaddy, where they have almost 90% of their links coming from footer links. We checked their site with our tool after we saw the post by Yoast where he explained “GoDaddy’s spammy link building techniques”.

Quickly identify Footer Links

In the inBound Link Portfolio area apply the following filters:

  • Link Visibility = Footer
  • Link Context = Group of Links

This will select all the links that appear in blocks of links in the footer of the linking pages. We need to apply the “Group of Links” filter so that we do not have invalid results (links that appear in blog posts that are in the footer area of the page … ). For the site we analyzed we extracted 148 low quality footer links. (18% of their entire backlink profile)


3. Blogrolls & other Blocks of Links

Blogrolls were abused so much, that they tend to be very carefully analyzed by the Google algorithm nowadays…


This category includes both blogroll links and groups of links that do not fit into the blogroll pattern. Here is such an example that is used to abuse the search engines and is not a blogroll. These examples are widgets that are installed on various website and where webmasters get place their link. They might also be considered a “link network” but a public one with no exact control of who includes the widget on the site. Too many links that fit these patterns, might be viewed as unnatural by the Google algorithm and you might get penalized for them. Some of those links can be sitewide links or not.

Advanced link widget networks will be carefull to not have those links listed as site-wides, as they might get flaged faster. Like with all of the other types of links presented in this guide, it all comes down to how they integrate in your link profile.

Quickly identify Blogroll & Groups of Links

Apply the following filters:

  • Link Position = Blogroll, Group of Links, Group of Links and Images …
  • Link Visibility = Body
  • Majestic AC Rank = 0 to 3
  • inBound Links = 0 to 100

You will get another list of low quality links that might hurt your rankings. In our case we got another 231 low quality links. (28% of their entire backlink profile)


4. Site-wide Links

Site-wide links can hurt your rankings


Site-wide links are old news on the Google landscape. Site-wides are devalued and can hurt your rankings for quite some time now. If your domain does not have the necessary authority and receives a couple of site-wides from some low quality sites, your site will be likely to be penalized by Google.

The idea behind the site-wide links is quite simple. It is more important to have more root domains talk (link) about (to) your domain, than to have many links coming from fewer root domains that talk (link) about (to) your domain.

The exception that confirms the rule. Of course there are site-wide links that will not hurt your rankings, and it all depends on the site the site-wide is put on. If that site is considered an authority and that site-wide link is not correlated to other factors such as high link velocity, than that site-wide could help you.

Quickly identify Site-Wide links

Go to inBound Link Charts / Sitewide Chart.

You will  get  a chart with the distribution of  sitewide links. If it is a rather high number, click the pie and check those links individually. In our case we got 21% sitewide links.

Note: A site-wide link is considered to be a link that is automatically replicated across a large number of pages from the same site. Do not miss classify  a site-wide as 10 different link coming from 10 different articles on Techcrunch for example. Those are not considered site-wides. Our software has a built in algorithm that matches different patterns and concludes is a link is a TRUE SITE-WIDE or not.

5. Blog Comments

Blog comment spam evolved on the back of the search engines.


Comment spam is a form of spamdexing and it exists since the beginning of the internet. There are several tools that help the spammers post comments automatically with the final aim to reach higher rankings in the search engines. That is why most of the comments are marked as No-Follow by the blogging platforms, so that Google will not index them. Still spam commenting is a huge phenomenon and everyone that owns a blog knows the amount of comment spam they receive.

Quickly identify Blog comment links

Apply the following filter:

  • Link Position = Author name of a Blog comment, Content of a Blog comment

If you got mixed results you should also apply a metric filter, such as AC Rank between 0 and 3, to exclude higher quality pages. You could go even further and apply the Dofollow/Nofollow filter to see which blog comment links are followed. You can easily find both nofollow and dofollow links that are coming from blog comments.

6. Forum profile links & signatures

Forums are abused the same way blogs are.

forum_spamHaving people discuss around your site in forums is the most natural thing that can happen to a site. It means your site generated some buzz in its niche. If you are doing link building using fake forum profiles, signatures and posting content and links automatically on forums this will appear in your backlink profile and could hurt your ranking when Google will flag it. These kind of patterns can be easily identified by Google.

Quickly identify Forum links

Apply the following filters:

  • Webpage type = Forum
  • Link Position = Blog post or Forum thread.

This will identify links coming from forum threads. If you want to check signatures and profiles you should search for Link Position = Short Paragraph of Text, Group of Links.

7. Web Directory links

Forget Web Directory submission services that promise hundreds of directory registrations.


Having too many links coming from web directories is not always a good sign. This might raise a flag to the Google algorithm. You do not need hundreds of directories to be listed on, only a few quality ones that are well known in your niche. Doing hundreds of directory submissions, either manually or automatically, even if you do it on a longer period of time, so that it will not raise the link velocity flag, it will still ban you if those links are a big percentage of your backlink profile.

Quickly identify Webdirectory links

Apply the following filters:

  • Webpage Type = Webdirectory

If you get a long enough list and that represents a big percentage of your inbound link profile than this might signal a problem that you need to investigate even further. Demo filtering here.

8. Article Directory links

Avoid cheap content!


This is the best advice you could get. Having too many links from article directories is again a sign that something unnatural is going on. Article directories and the sites they linked to mostly, were already hit by Panda last year. Below is one way to find your article directory links so that you can further investigate them.

Quickly identify Article Directory links

Apply the following filters:

  • Webpage Type = Article Directory
  • Majestic AC Rank = none or very low
  • inBound Links = none or very few

9. Anchor Text Distribution

Over optimized anchor text does not look natural at all!

Anchor text is either:

  • brand keywords (domain name keywords or the actual brand name)
  • money keywords
  • navigational keywords (click here etc)

A natural distribution of anchor text would look like this.


An artificial anchor text distribution looks like this.


If your anchor text is over optimized, you are likely to be hit by Google.

I hope the tips above will help you identify the links that generated your problems with the Google Penguin update, but most importantly use these tactics to find those links and remove them before Google takes action and penalizes your site.

Tips for Keeps: If you got it, chances are you are doing something wrong. Check out your link profile using cognitive SEO or any other backlink checking tool, take away low quality links and build new, high quality ones. Support this strategy by creating great content and you’ll be fine.

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  • Torradowilliams

    Link building again is by far the most difficult part of getting hit by Penguin! I have been working on it for a while now to recover from getting hit, but have not seen a change in my rankings yet.

  • sidpeter

    Your tips are well enough to know about it for both new and old professionals. This information will be very helpful to me

  • Anon

    Hi Sean,
    First time I’ve come across SEO Hacker – nice blog
    Although its partly advertorial, I really enjoyed your guide to finding all the bad backlinks.
    It shows all the points that a budding negative-seo should focus on.
    However you do not explain how clients go about cleaning up the mess after you have identified it?

  • Linda

    This is awesome. The most important thing with SEO is to stay current, meaning we have to follow the tips above as we move forward with SEO.

  • superb and a detailed description of the steps to be implemented!! I really liked the way you brought the information beautifully using screenshots….

  • Shilpi

    Thanks for this great post and the name is so cute. Penguin is creating some buzz around and every one is just looking how much it is affecting their own sites.

  • umesh

    Really good information about the Google Penguin update. Kudos to you Sean!

  • Raghuvir

    Great Insight Sean! We have to keep this in mind and apply it in our site. Let’s see what happens.

  • Great post.

    I agree that Google is looking to reward positive (read unique and engaging content) over backlinked content. However i see that the trend is different depending on what part of the globe you are from.

    Our company based in NZ have dealt with several companies who were penalised in the penguin update. 3 were for keyword stuffing, the other had their links removed. Tellingly the backlink problem was from tlds.

    It seems that across Australasia the online industry it us filled with ‘keyword = good’ amateur webmasters. This has lead to poor quality sites and results, which makes justifying the good work SEO professionals do, that much harder.

    I hope that this update scares the “keyword = good’ mentality out of the industry, but im fearful for all those companies who have no idea about the ongoing management of their site and the penguin effects that they havent even noticed yet.

    Keep up the great work Sean!

    • Thanks Jeff. Sorry to hear that you’re having Penguin problems now. We can look at this as an open opportunity to gain new clients too y’know. Ones who have bad SEO practices implemented in their sites and who are open to change. Hope you get your clients back on track in the SERPs.

  • Defiantly! We see this as an opportunity to market our services further afield.

    Again, thanks for the great post!

  • Hi Sean, I like these “panda and penguin” updates. This will give us better quality search results and it will also be very good for user experience. Thank you for sharing! I’ve subscribe to you.

  • Alicia


    Have been affected by the penguin update.

    I have quite a lot of exact keyword anchors on decent article sites like ezine and go articles.

    As I can go in and edit these would this be ok to do all in one go or is this also unantural?

    Many Thanks.


    • Hi Alicia,
      You should go and edit these as soon as you can. I think editing them all in one go is natural if you edit them individually and put some thought as to what to replace the exact match anchor text with. Also, you should inform Google of the change and have them review your backlink profile manually so that you have a chance of getting your rankings back.
      Make sure you got hit by the Penguin and it’s not just Google dance, okay?

      • Alicia

        Hi Sean

        Thanks for the feedback!

        Defo Penguin as ranking dropped on 24 April.

        So you think after we need to do google reconsideration request? I thought that was just for penalties not algo changes which Penguin is right?

        Also on another site we have that hasnt been hit by Penguin I wish to be pro active and change some title tags that maybe a little spammy, so same question here, can I change them all the same day for instance?

        Hope to hear from you soon.


        • Hi Alicia,
          In my opinion if you change them altogether, it might also drastically change your SERP rankings. Just to be safe maybe for the title tags (on site optimization) you can change them little by little. A Google reconsideration request is just in case you got penalized for unnatural linking by the penguin update.

  • epodorvanova

    So having too much links with keywords in anchor text seems to be not good; so how should i build links for particular pages of my website?

    • Too much exact match keywords are the ones I’m pertaining to as ‘not good’. Otherwise, you can use phrase match anchor text.

  • Alicia

    Hi Sean

    The site that was penguined we lost rankings for every keyword, so I suppose we should get all the anchors fixed asap. Still not sure if penguin is a penalty or algo update?

    Thanks Alicia

    • Hi Alicia,
      It’s an algo update that penalizes unnatural linking patterns – I’m sure of that.

  • Very interesting points here Sean – so much to think about, I don’t know where to begin.


  • The recent Penguin update creates a major headache for some web masters and marketers online. The point here is creating links from quality sources and authority sites.

  • Just one question…I don’t know what’s the problem but from previous two days there is something wrong…..obviously Google has penalized me for what..Don’t know…Most probably for the Backlinks from some Irrelevant web directories and for some backlinks from spamming blogs/sites who are copying my content and have posted my URL there….When i searched for those URLs who are having my URL then i founded that there are lots of Blogs with my content and URL However first i though that i’ll ask each and every of them to remove my URL but after doing it for a while i realized that it’s an impossible task and i can’t do it as it’s time consuming and boring…..So the question is that Should i continue in the same condition and should work hard to recover from this or there is only one way to recover from it which is removing the URLs from all the irrelevant sites….

  • You mention the ratio of on site activity. What do you mean by that? Google doesn’t have access to what users are doing on your site.

    • Yes they do – if you have Google analytics code installed in your site – which almost all websites have.

  • nijinashok

    A very long article which describes complete updates of Penguin. I think Google is loving customers rather than owners. They love to provide best results in the first page. They want to avoid spammy links in their search results. So all updates from Google repeatedly giving hidden message to blog owners that “CONTENT IS KING”

  • I have seem many sites with many excact anchor text, abount 80%, but they where old sites (older thand 6 years) with a nice PR, but with few content, it seems that the Penguin is not affecting sites with high % of excact anchor when they are older sites…

    • That is very interesting Peter. Could you send me a screenshot of your anchor text distribution so that I can take a look?

  • Fox

    it is amazing. a while ago people were struggling with seo to increase their rankings,,,now that google released penguin the folks are using deceiving techniques like this negative seo. google should come up with a better update instead of leaving website owner contact all webmasters on earth

  • Vikesh Pithadiya

    Penguin update has affected many poor websites who try to push google with over optimization.

    • Yeah Google penguin definitely affected some sites but not as much as Panda did. I think penguin is a ‘lesser-degree’ algorithm. But the fact that it affects only sites without natural links says that this really aims to make the SERPs a better place for users.

  • Is it still safe to use profile linking in relevant sites after the google panda and penguind update, if it is, is it still effective?

    • Profile linking is quite useless and ineffective IMO even before the Panda and Penguin Update.

  • Ronilo Apin

    Thank you for sharing this entry Sean.The best thing we should do is to stay updated. Are there any latest updates from Google?

    • There are always updates from Google whether announced or discreet. I think the last one was a tweak on Panda.

  • sas

    Thank you for sharing this post Sean, I think your post can help me for build my blog againt , nice to read :D

  • vilsonkarl

    Hi Sean,
    Nice post, you are putting such nice tips here and this tips is really very help full for everyone. Thanks you so much for sharing with us.

  • Tom

    Very informative.

    I’m shocked you don’t know why they’re called Penguin/Panda updates

    They’re black and white animals! It’s all about seperating black hat SEO from white hat SEO


  • Great Article !! I had a problem that I think I over optimized the Anchor text of my website before and I’m beginning to change my strategy.
    The Article directory is also a problem because there’re just few websites for article submission with a Good PR, the rest are really looks like spammy, that why I do prefer depend on other methods.
    Thank you,
    Marc A. Donald

  • Collin

    You really give some great advice here. Thanks a lot! this will help business owners to improve their SEO work.

  • Scritty

    Negative SEO is being challegned as a concept, albeit an unexpected one. A petition is ongoing to ask Google outright to explain their part in a system which promotes the creation of spam (unwittingly perhaps to begin with – but in a very real and painful sense now – as my mail servers and spam filters will attest)

    Sign up today. It might achieve nothing. It might just make Google sit up.
    Why? Well, for starters I’ve got the BBC tech producer ringing me for more info next week. It might be a “quiet news day” radio interview. But it’s a start!

  • Hi Sean,
    The post was extremely helpful in knowing how penguin effects and are discovered and the ways which could me measured. some of the images seem to be broken please update them. Thanks!!

  • Boris

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  • Danny

    Wow this is really great content about penguin updates. Best I’ve seen so far, thanks for sharing