Mounting Evidence Penguin 3.0 Doesn't Work How You Think

on under Search Engine Optimization.

angry penguinThe evidence continues to mount for an alternative theory that Penguin doesn't work how you think it does.

The standard theory goes something like this: if your inbound link profile looks spammy (however that may be defined), you get penalized.

My theory?

If your outbound link profile looks spammy, it either gets ignored, or in extreme cases, Penguin penalizes you.

Why do I suspect this is the case, and where's my evidence? Let's start with the evidence.

The Penguin 3.0 Recovery Case Studies

The strongest case for what makes Penguin tick is not what the site looks like, or what its link profile looks like, when it gets penalized. The strongest case is to take a look at changes that were made that led to a recovery.

As I've pointed out before, most Penguin "recoveries" look something like this:

penguin 1

They are gradual, and they don't happen on the date of a Penguin update. You can't claim that a Penguin penalty has been "lifted" if it's not on the date of a Penguin release. That kind of "recovery" is what happens when you just start building legitimate links, generating legitimately positive user behavior, and reaching a wider variety of queries by improving the amount of content on your site. Your link removal requests have got nothing to do with it. It's just SEO.

I believe that the majority of sites that have been negatively impacted by Penguin are not being directly penalized. Instead, they have had their link value removed. I've previously pointed to Spencer Haws site. The site had roughly 400 visitors per month before it started getting hit with negative SEO. The negative SEO links actually improved traffic for a while. Then his site was "hit" by Penguin. But the end result was that he had about 400 visitors per month:

penguin 7

This is, in my opinion, simply an example of link value being lost. There's no evidence that his site was actually directly penalized. Spencer has since redirected the site, so there is no way to know for sure what would have happened to his site with the Penguin 3.0 update. I would suspect, however, that all of his link removal would have been pointless, and that the site would have continued to receive the same level of traffic.

Occasional stark recoveries on the date of a Penguin release do happen occasionally, however. As I shared in a previous blog post, in at least one case, this seemed to be the result of removing a distrusted link from the sidebar. That's right, removing an outbound link:

penguin recovery 03

In this example, the guy did tons of link removal and disavowing after getting hit by Penguin 1.0. No luck after doing that. He sat through 3 more Penguin updates and saw no improvement. Then, suddenly, he recovers with Penguin 2.1. After reviewing his site in the WayBack Machine, however, I noticed that he removed a link from his sidebar to experts-exchange.com, a site that has an established negative reputation with Google. I believe that removing this link is what caused his site to recover with the next Penguin update.

So the question is, are we seeing similar stories with Penguin 3.0?

Investigating the Cognitive SEO Recovery Stories

As usual, there aren't many public stories about Penguin recovery that actually share which site is involved, but a few are available. Cognitive SEO published a blog post drawing attention to a few sites that were hit by Penguin 3.0, as well as a few recovery stories. The first recovery story is for a site that currently redirects to a Facebook page, and that was actually unavailable when it was supposedly hit by the previous Penguin update, so it doesn't make for a very good case study.

Next up, however, we have xtremediesel.com.

penguin 3-9

Looking at the site in the WayBack Machine, here is what the site looked like on Sep 25, 2013, not long before the previous Penguin update. Take a look at the footer:

penguin 3-5

Now, look closer:

penguin 3-6

So, what we have here are hidden links. I don't believe these links were hidden intentionally. Most of these are navigational. A couple of them technically link to external websites, however. One to Facebook, and more importantly, one to their blog: blog.xdp.com. It's clearly owned by the same company, but it is on an entirely different domain. Combine that with hidden links and you've got yourself a false positive: Penguin thinks you're selling spammy links and hiding them in your footer by coloring them the same as the background.

This problem was corrected on or before December 6, 2013. It's my belief that correcting this issue is the reason that they experienced a stark recovery with the release of Penguin 3.0.

This is backed up by the fact that Cognitive SEO doesn't see very many suspicious inbound links to the site at all:

penguin 3-7

Only 5% of their inbound links are marked "unnatural" and only another 5% are marked "suspect." I find it difficult to believe that a site is being directly penalized by Penguin because a maximum of 10% of its inbound links are "unnatural."

I can't find any evidence that the next site in Cognitive SEO's blog post was placing any outbound links that could be interpreted as spammy, but it also didn't experience what I would call a stark recovery:

penguin 3-8

A modest recovery like this is characteristic of other sites getting hit by Penguin 3.0, giving itshot.com a slight boost as a result. It does not look like a Penguin penalty has been lifted. The same goes for their next example, roundgames.com.

But then we have shopworldkitchen.com:

penguin 3-10

Well, here's what that site's header looked like on September 25, 2013:

penguin 3-12

Can you guess what this header looks like if I select it with the cursor?

penguin 3-13

Seeing a pattern? I sure am.

In this case, none of these links appear to be external. It may be that Penguin doesn't care. Google may believe that any hidden link, intentional or not, external or internal, is a sign of a site that doesn't deserve to rank.

This problem was corrected on or before November 15, 2013. Again, I believe it was fixing this problem that caused the site to experience a full recovery with the release of Penguin 3.0.

Continuing down Cognitive SEO's blog post, we see another moderate "recovery" I'm not interested in investigating, and then a final example, watchcartoononline.com:

penguin 3-14

Watchcartoononline.com seems to have had a notorious pop-up ad problem according to reviews at mywot.com. A visit to the site in the WayBack Machine before the previous Penguin update suggests that clicking on any link anywhere on the site produced a pop-up ad. While the site still shows pop ups when clicking on the videos, as well as displays ads in various places throughout the site, it no longer pops up an ad every time you click a link anywhere on the site. There is a good possibility that this was the culprit, since deceptive or cloaked links are against Google's terms of service.

Geeks2You.net

I have massive respect for Marc Enzor, founder of Geeks2You, for publicly sharing that his site had been hit by Penguin, and for announcing it's recovery with the Penguin 3.0 update:

penguin 3-15

The site was hit all the way back in May of 2012 by Penguin 1.1. Marc doesn't share any dates on when he started or finished his link removal and disavow process, but I doubt he waited until after Penguin 2.1, in October of 2013, to begin this process. Nevertheless, he didn't see a recovery until Penguin 3.0. Did the work just get missed by the other 3 Penguin updates? Did he not do enough of the removal beforehand?

Maybe, but I have another theory.

Before the Penguin 1.1 update, Geeks2You had a "links" page which listed 6 affiliate links. All of those links were "dofollow." Those links were still "dofollow" after the Penguin 2.1 update. But on October 13, 2014, not long before the release of Penguin 3.0, one of those links had been removed, and the rest were properly labeled as advertisements with the rel="nofollow" tag.

Still Think Penguin's Algorithm is Based on "Negative PageRank?"

I'll admit it. When I first started discussing this issue, my language was a bit more crass. I have more evidence today to back up my theory than ever before, but, ironically, I'm more willing to accept that I could be wrong. Experience has tempered my ambition.

But I have to say, every site I've looked at that's gone through a stark and sudden Penguin recovery so far has a similar story. At the time they were first hit by Penguin, they had on site issues such as hidden links, followed ad links, cloaked links, or links to distrusted websites. Those that experienced multiple Penguin updates before seeing a recovery did not fix their on site issues until before the final update, and they continued to remain penalized until that final update, despite massive link profile cleanup efforts. Some of these sites even seemed to have almost squeaky clean link profiles at the time they were penalized.

Sites that were "penalized" without on site issues like these likely weren't penalized directly. I believe they merely lost their inbound link value. It was cut out from under their feet because the sites that were selling links or allowing easy spam were either penalized, or had their outbound link value removed. Sites that recover from this kind of "penalty" very rarely see their "recovery" on the date of a Penguin release. The recovery is usually very gradual and appears to be the result of new links and content. If "negative PageRank" or direct penalties were hindering these sites, we would expect to see more dramatic recoveries with the release of a new Penguin update. At best, we see very modest recoveries for these types of sites, which are more easily explained by other sites getting penalized or negatively impacted by Penguin.

In previous posts, I've gone on at length for reasons why it doesn't make sense for Google to penalize sites for their inbound link profiles:

  • Google crawls the web forward, not backward.
  • It does not make sense to punish one site and not another if they both receive a spammy link from the same page.
  • Policing efforts always work best when they punish the seller, not the buyer. History has born this out.
  • All of Google's most effective and most publicized manual efforts against spam have targeted sites that were doing the "selling": MyBlogGuest, BuildMyRank, content farms, and other networks.
  • When Matt Cutts warns against link transactions, he's almost always warning webmasters not to sell links.
  • Matt Cutts has specifically said that, in most cases, if a site gets penalized and it links to you, it doesn't suppress your ability to rank, you simply lose some or all of the value of that link. While he clearly left room in his language for exceptions, to me it strongly suggests that the algorithm does not incorporate anything like "negative PageRank." The room for exceptions that he left I am quite sure was for manual penalties.
  • Penguin can affect more sites more quickly by penalizing a single page with a large number of outbound spammy links than by targeting each of them individually.
  • The risk of false positives is much lower when analyzing pages for spammy outbound links than spammy inbound links. This can't be done through negative SEO except in cases where the site is hacked or left vulnerable to easy link grabbing. Google has already made it clear that they are willing to penalize sites that have been hacked or that have left their sites open to spammy comments, etc.
  • Google has no incentive to admit that Penguin doesn't penalize inbound link profiles or that it penalizes spammy outbound links.
  • It is easy for a webmaster to control things like anchor text and avoid using anchor text that appears spammy. It is not easy and often impossible for a webmaster to keep link sellers from revealing themselves.
  • Preventing PageRank from being passed forward harms link spammers without harming sites with relatively clean link profiles.

I'm open to alternative theories. The evidence I've accumulated so far could be coincidence, or subconsciously cherry-picked. If one of our clients were hit by Penguin, we would undoubtedly do some link removal and disavowal, even if just to guard against future manual penalties. But, as things stand, I strongly believe that if there is such a thing as "negative PageRank" anywhere in Google's algorithm, it can't be an especially strong signal, or we would be seeing more evidence for its existence. Likewise, I believe that if your inbound link profile was the problem, you should be focusing the lion's share of your resources on building reputable links and a sustainable marketing strategy, with only a small percentage of your efforts going towards link removal. I've never seen a case study encouraging enough to suggest anything different.

And finally, if you were hit by Penguin 3.0, I would say the very first place to look would be for anything onsite that could be interpreted as spammy. Penguin's promise always was to eliminate web spam. It was the SEO community who got link profile myopia.

Image credit: Chris Pearson

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  • Ralph Tegtmeier aka fantomaste

    Interesting observations and conclusions. Could be it's pretty much a mix, i. e. bad inlinking CAN hurt somewhat, but as anyone who's been seriously into negative SEO, simply throwing tons of bad links at some site doesn't do squat in terms of hurting their rankings - it's far more complex than that.

    Not sure that ALL sites hit by Penguin (3 or less) had the same or similar on site issues but it's certainly worth more thorough and/or renewed investigation esp. in the light of your article.

    Very good read - thanks for which!

    • Carter Bowles

      Glad you liked it. I agree, the possibility for "negative PageRank" or something to that effect remains. But the evidence I've seen indicates that it's either not a very strong signal or it's a rare occurrence. I haven't seen any case studies where a site with only link profile issues saw a stark recovery on the date of a penguin release. Could be that those minor blips we see are the result of negative PageRank or a direct penalty being lifted, but at this point I'm not convinced. Either way, the evidence definitely points toward link building and content creation as the best recovery strategy, with link removal being a small part of recovery at best.

      • Everybody are mentioning links (kind of obvious) but at the same time "Negative SEO" is possible even without creating spammy links.

        Can't say from AtoZ but will give you a hint...target website has to use one of the Google services and negative impact is almost guaranteed.

      • Thanks Carter, brilliantly timed post on whats happening with Penguin. It's good to hear what other SEO consultants are experiencing here a few weeks later.

  • Good article but in situation when penguin penalize only referring domains, why targeting site can't rank if still collected a new links? keywords are frozen for this site between updates.

    • Carter Bowles

      If this is true I haven't seen any evidence for it. As I mentioned in the post, there are several case studies available showing sites "recovering" from Penguin in between updates. Those counterexamples make it hard for me to believe this theory. Those "recoveries" are gradual and look just like normal site growth as a result of SEO. If Penguin was holding them back I doubt we would be seeing this. You might be confusing Penguin for manual penalties, in which case your site can definitely be held back from recovery. Then again there's always the possibility that there's more going on.

  • Dan Shure

    Well done, very nice article. In the case of the kitchen store: https://web.archive.org/web/20130925201811/http://www.shopworldkitchen.com/ I would suspect the hidden menu is an artifact of an incomplete capture on the wayback's part? I see incomplete pages quite often.

    Regardless, I too agree many SEOs way over-focused on off-site factors. I certainly felt from the beginning on-site factors played a role as well.

    • Carter Bowles

      Certainly a possibility Dan, and thanks for commenting. I would suspect, however, that if this is what the WayBack Machine saw, it's probably what Google's crawlers saw as well, even if users saw something different. Looking at the code available in the WayBack Machine at least, the menu links and background are coded the same color.

  • Whether Google crawls the web forward or reverse wouldn't the end result still be an index of web pages and hyperlinks?

    Look at how many sites that offer free profiles made their links nofollow after Penguin came into existence. Prior to this it was easy to create hundreds of profiles that contain a dofollow link. This is an indicator that many big websites such as social networks put forth effort to eliminate outbound link spam.

    • Carter Bowles

      Granted, that short bullet point doesn't really do this subject justice.

      The end result is of course an index of web pages and hyperlinks connecting them. My point is that it doesn't make sense from Google's perspective to analyze each sites' backlink profile individually. It is much less computationally intensive to analyze pages for signs of outbound spammy links than to work backwards and analyze each page's backlink profile, which is going to result in a lot of duplicated analysis.

      Big sites do make an effort to prevent outbound link spam, as you mention, which of course makes the sites that do allow outbound link spam better targets from Google's perspective.

      • Negative SEO is possible without creating any links...see my reply to Carter's first comment...if you care

  • Who knew there were so many stock photos of angry-looking penguins available.

  • I agree with your point that Google has no incentive to admit how Penguin works. In fact, the current assumption of bad inbound links to your site as the cause for Penguin penalization is probably exactly what Google wants. Site owners scrambling to clean up their incoming links certainly helps Google do its job better.

  • Hahaha I feel like penguin burgers NOW! But in all honest facts thanks Carter

    • Carter Bowles

      No problem, glad you liked it.

  • "And finally, if you were hit by Penguin 3.0, I would say the very first place to look would be for anything onsite that could be interpreted as spammy."
    - makes sense... however I'd also look at an over preponderance of commercial keyword anchor text back links, as well as spammy/very low quality backlinks. Penguin make work a number of different ways.

    • Carter Bowles

      It's certainly possible that, as others have suggested, it's a mixed bag. However, since I've never see more than a very minor recovery as a result of link removal and disavowal alone, I think at best "negative PageRank" is a very week signal, and the majority of your efforts should go into improving the links you earn, rather than removing the links you have. (Although, as I said, if we had a client that got hit by Penguin, we would certainly invest some of our efforts in link removal to cover all of our bases.)

      • I wouldn't suggest "link removal and disavowal alone" to anyone; it has to be accompanied by building new, quality links 'as well' :-)

  • Danny Molt

    I like your theory, but we have a site hit by penguin and it has NO outgoing links to any sites other than 'healthy' social network pages. So the idea that negative seo or old bad seo practices providing poor quality links pointing at us is still the only plausible reason for a drop in SERPs.

    • Kristine S

      Remember Penguin was not just a links algo, but also a general webspam and while links has seemed to be the focus, they never retracted the other.

    • Carter Bowles

      A site can certainly get hit by Penguin, even if it has no outboud links at all. What I'm arguing is that, in cases like yours, I see no evidence to suggest that the spammy links are actually counting against you. It's possible, but I believe a more plausible explanation is simply that you've lost the value of those backlinks and you're back to square one.

      • Groot

        It's very easy to prove they do. Try building site A with the one keyword variation and site B with 100% naked URLs for an easy keyword while keeping both sites topically relevant. Site B will always rank higher because it is not over optimized regardless of the type of link you build and whether it contains targeted anchor text.

        • Carter Bowles

          I'm not denying what you're saying and I would be very interested in seeing a series of case studies demonstrating this effect. However, even in that case, there's no evidence that the spammy links are actually hindering rankings, just that the spammy links are less valuable. Also, it's not related to Penguin unless it occurs on the date of a Penguin release.

          • Groot

            I'll pull up some case studies these week. The spammy links if they contain keyword rich anchor text will over optimize your off page SEO and crush your rankings. Their is no way for Google to tell who placed them there hence why negative SEO works. The only way to counteract that is too have greater page authority and link diversity. This is why authority sites like CNN, Wikipedia, etc, are essentially immune.

  • Serious onpage issues can also attract pinguin. I think your theory is brilliant and absolut correct!

  • This may be a basic question for some but is there a tool that can show me all of my external links?

    • All of them? Not that I'm aware of. Many of them: Ahrefs.com, Moz, Majestic, Google Webmaster Tools and now BuzzSumo, to name a few.

      If you meant outbound links, my apologies. You can use Screaming Frog for that.

      • Yes my bad, I meant outbound links. I have done EVERYTHING in an effort to get back to my previous traffic prior to Penguin and after reading this perhaps I should look at my outbound links.

        • Groot

          Anchor text density is far more important. I have already fully recovered several sites since Penguin 3.0 was unleashed by adjusting rations to the acceptable norms in my industry. This requires a full audit of all your links to be successful.

  • Thanks for the write up Carter..

    Very interesting. Gives us something different to think about. Although I was not hit by Penguin, I am definitely going to make sure my OBL are all good quality. Hard to disagree with you with the facts that you showed.

  • Mohn Jueller

    First let me say I respect your post and thought process and definitely respect your openness to alternative explanations. While it's an interesting angle to take and there might certainly some truth to it, Penguin 100% -no doubt about it- strongly impacts inbound links. I'm not trying to sound arrogant but to me doubting about is is like doubting about wether water is wet or wether the sun radiates heat.

    Two words: negative SEO. It's VERY EFFECTIVE and has never worked so well as of right now. Don't believe me? Give me your average website and I'll teach you the hard way ;-)

    Also, I literally know hundreds of sites who have no outgoing links and where caught by Penguin. In fact, they only have 1 common denominator: spammy inbound links and/or terrible anchor text ratios.

    Again, I'm not saying your outgoing links aren't a potential ranking factor, but it's definitely not a strong explanation for MANY, MANY sites. Just my $0.02

    • Carter Bowles

      I want to be 100% clear about this. NEGATIVE SEO IS 100% POSSIBLE, NO DOUBT ABOUT IT. Sorry for the caps, I think a lot of people are under the impression that I'm denying negative SEO exists. I'm not.

      Now, two things.

      I doubt anybody who takes negative SEO seriously is actually banking on a Penguin update, seeing as how it can clearly take a year for a new release. If you can take down a site with spammy links whenever you want, you're not talking about Penguin, you're talking about manual penalties, and that's not what this discussion is about.

      Also, I'm sure that the vast majority of sites that are negatively impacted by Penguin are impacted because they had spammy inbound links, and I'm sure you're not lying about seeing 100s of sites that were impacted in this way.

      What I'm arguing is that you have no evidence that the spammy links are actually hindering those sites' ability to rank. There are many case studies in place already demonstrating recoveries IN BETWEEN Penguin updates, as a result of building solid links. How is this possible if spammy links are actually hindering rankings?

      Furthermore, I have never seen a site experience a stark recovery on the date of a Penguin release strictly as a result of link removal. If spammy links are hindering rankings, removing them should cause a recovery.

      We have seen minor upward blips on the date of Penguin releases supposedly as a result of removing links. I think a more likely explanation is that other sites were simply hit by Penguin, causing those sites to experience a slight boost. I'm sure there are countless of unpublished case studies of sites that were hit by Penguin and after tons of link removal, never saw any recovery at all.

      It is possible that those minor blips are in reality the result of removing spammy links, but if so, it means that the "negative Pagerank" factor is weak, and that the majority of the impact is the result of simply removing the link value.

      In either case, while link removal is a good idea, investing in solid link building and marketing practices is a more important part of the equation and if you can only do one, you should build/attract reputable links.

      • Mohn Jueller

        I have all the anectodal evidence in the world for penalties caused by inbound links, but obviously that doesn't say anything without the data to back it up. Just do your own experiment and start up a copy of your GSA or Xrumer and blast away forum comments and trackbacks at your average site without real authority. Within a few weeks it'll tank. 100 % guaranteed. You see this is why I'm absolutely certain about it. I experience it myself everyday. In fact you can keep all other factors the same and tank a site manually if you have a list of the spammiest link directories out there. You can do it in one afternoon easily.

        And I am talking about Penguin. The overwhelming majority of these penalties are algorithmic. I really don't understand your argument about building strong links and gaining in rankings. Well duh! It's not like those spammy links prevent you from ranking no matter what (although I can assure you can throw away your site after a good Negative SEO campaign). Let's say those spammy links hold a negative value of -10. If your solid links hold a value of +20 you'll still gain in rankings. Simple as that. Unless you cross a certain treeshold it's still possible to get reasonble rankings. Think about it. every site has some spammy backlinks no matter what.

        Sorry, but I really have the feeling you're more of an theoretical guy instead of someone who's out in the trenches like me. Nothing wrong with it but in the SEO world you can't really form an opinion if you haven't tested it YOURSELF.

        • Carter Bowles

          SEO and inbound marketing are my full time job, just so we're clear.

          Let me start by saying, again, that I could be wrong, but I don't think the evidence is there to support the theory of negative links in the algorithm. Not saying they don't exist, just saying the SEO community seems to have blind faith in them. Now, a few things.

          If a site tanks or recovers and there's no Penguin release on that date, it's not Penguin.

          If you don't have access to the site's Webmaster Tools, you have no idea if it's algorithmic or a manual penalty. If it takes several weeks, my money's on a manual penalty.

          If a site has very little real authority, there are circumstances where adding a bunch of spammy links could result in the previous links being ignored afterward. I explain this scenario at the end of this blog post:

          https://northcutt.com/blog/2014/04/why-penguin-comes-in-different-degrees-a-myth-persists/

          Again, it is perfectly reasonable to think that this is how Penguin and similar algorithms work: by identifying sites with potentially spammy outbound links by looking at a combination of on-page factors and patterns on the sites that they link to, then either penalizing those sites/pages or denying their forward PageRank. I argue that it's the more likely scenario, since if one spammy site can get a backlink from a certain page, so can any other spammy site, and Google has no reason to let *anybody* enjoy rankings as a result of those links.

          It's possible that in addition to removing the link value, it also adds some "negative PageRank" but the evidence isn't compelling, and if it exists based on these case studies, the impact is small, roughly -0.1 to -0.25 the PageRank the link would otherwise have. I'm basing this on the size of the recoveries where spammy backlinks are the only apparent issue. In my opinion these recovery stories are cherry picked examples of sites that saw minor recoveries as a result of other pages getting hit by Penguin, since there are countless examples of sites that did plenty of link removal and never saw a recovery.

          I bring up the argument about strong links because investing too much in link removal is an opportunity cost, even if negative links do exist in the algorithm.

  • Groot

    Your conclusions are highly speculative with incomplete data reporting. Not convinced.

    • Carter Bowles

      Hey Groot, I worked with the data that was available in the public record. You're right, of course, a site won't rank without good links in place. I hope I never implied otherwise.

  • I believe that having Pop up ads are the problem. Especially if the are being crawl by the searching(do-follow), placed above the fold and they are overly/Voken .

  • Now I am even more confused !? :-)
    My 15 year old African information and safari site got hit by the latest up-date, yet before it was doing fine through all the other updates.

    Have not build any links to it for a long while, as natural linking occur from .edu and quality sites, AND not wanting to rock the boat.

    Haven't got any notice from Google on any link problems, so thought it might be duplicate content issues (was cleaning out directories, SEO pages.

    My site was originally build with FrontPage ( yeah I know!...do not laugh!) this is in Africa, tech comes slowly this way!! Slowly going responsive now :-)

    Well, if any-one out there feel to give me an idea on what I should look at, it would really be appreciated by this Game Ranger, as SEO is a matter of "see button, push button" for me.

    Kind regards and do have an brilliant day!

    • Might sound odd, but if your code is that dated (like, FrontPage-era dated), I might first see if you can scrub it up to pass the W3 validator (or if very likely easier, just re-skin it with a good, clean HTML5 theme).

      Good code is little talked about in the SEO blogging universe, but many a real world application has shown it to mean the world in certain instances for our consultants.

  • Hmmm, I donno. All the sites you highlighted have pretty thin content imo. I think Google just wants to weed out really thin content sites, or just rank them lower. Seems pretty basic no?

  • Sam

    Very interesting. Couple of sites have been hit (and never recovered) have do follow clocked affiliate links. Will remove the cloaking and no follow them and see what happens in the next update

    • Carter Bowles

      I'd be very interested to see the results.

      • Sam

        Unfortunately no noticeable stats. Slight increase over Christmas but due to be expected for the niche of this site.

        The particular site most likely hit due to over exposure to a private blog network which was more or less destroyed by Google during the panda/penguin era!

      • Sam

        No positive results on my end. Think a great effect was occurring.

  • Good read. I suspect that this is highly multi factorial and we have worked with penalised sites with very tidy sites but who have been sold down the river by a link building company - these are not seeing recoveries. I like the follow forward thinking though - that seems to make perfect sense and is perfectly aligned with

    I also think Penguin 1.0 did not work as expected and as such this is an attempt to answer those problems. The punishing of the spammy sites and slow loss of link equity would seem to map to the fact that there is no big, stark sudden drops as with previous updates.

    Interesting to see how this pans out and whether a refresh is still needed for folks that clean up their act or deal with unfortunate technical issues.

    I wonder how the fetch and render tool plays into this - we had a few clients with problems after that and subsequently have reviewed sites of all folks we work with and it's surprising how much of a page Google is not rendering due to some seemingly innocuous blocking in robots.txt.

    Certainly getting all the on site quality signals 100% dialled in is absolutely essential going forwards.

    First good Penguin article I have read in about 2 years in what has become a tiresome subject - really good and thought provoking read. :)

    • Carter Bowles

      Glad to help Marcus. I think the fact that the penalised sites who had been "sold down the river by a link building company" are not seeing recoveries is a good example of what I'm talking about. Link removal should be helping those sites if backlinks were actually hindering their ability to rank.

      • Sure, totally agree. Or, maybe the equity from these links is falling away slowly now rather than some mass cull as with previous updates / recoveries. I think this update is going to take some time to reveal it's true payload.

        Overall we have seen very little change - that is in sites we expected to get slapped and sites we expected to recover.

  • bharathpapercupmachine

    I am SEO novice, Got a clear evidence with conclusion. I think both onpage and offpage both issues concerned with penguin. Thanks for the relevant post. Very helpful monitor.

  • Hmmm...would the recently popular phrase, "don't do stupid stuff" apply here?

    In other words, don't knowingly have bad/spammy outbound, nor inbound links (when you can help it.)

    Interesting read that just got added to my Twitter queue.

  • Kyle Risley

    Outgoing links are a Panda signal (especially followed affiliate links) and Panda refreshed as Penguin refreshed. It's quite possible you're getting signals mixed here.

    http://moz.com/blog/the-danger-of-crossing-algorithms-panda-update-during-penguin-3

    • Carter Bowles

      These recovery stories follow sites that were hit by previous Penguin updates on the correct date, so Panda can't be the reason they recovered. Also, keep in mind Panda is now in constant refresh, there are no meaningful Panda release dates anymore.

  • Question, when the site owner removed the link in the sidebar to experts exchange, how long after did he see his site improve? Was it a few days, weeks?

    • Carter Bowles

      It was on the date of the next Penguin release. Now that Penguin is on continuous update mode, though, it's really hard to say how long these kinds of things will take now.

  • Derek Jansen

    Interesting post Carter - certainly a possibility (likely a mix of both). It's worth noting that the Wayback Machine often mixes up the CSS, resulting in those "hidden link" occurrences. Of course its always possible that there were in fact hidden links, but just worth mentioning.

  • "since deceptive or cloaked links are against Google's terms of service."

    Now we have to obey Google's "terms of service" to have a website on the internet? You must been "against Google's quality guide". Google doesn't decide what we can and cannot do online.

    • Carter Bowles

      It certainly doesn't. But it does decide what it does and doesn't do with it's index, and we can either respond accordingly or not, depending on our business model.

  • Glad I found this Carter! Have just come up with a client who appears to have taken a heavy hit on October 18th (P3 it looks like). He had recently parted company with another SEO operation whose public copy pays lip service to: best quality practices and only building links from the very best sources!!
    However investigation of the link profile suggests that they ran out of steam trying to obtain good links and have started to use repeated low quality links from a limited number of easy to access sites.
    The on site copy is of decent quality, there is some duplication of category text with the CMS substituting car manufacturer labels into the standard spiel. An issue with Title tag duplicates seems to have been addressed before my involvement, while there is still a lack of individual meta descriptions. There is a regular turnover of new offers on this car leasing set up but a lack of fresh "related" content.

    Having read your article I ploughed through a good chunk of the website looking for anything spammy that was outbound. So far I have only found a widget from FreeIndex which is set up as No Follow and a logo link to the Institute of the Motor Industry which is "follow" "target = blank". These appear on most of the lease category pages.

    As such; nothing overtly spammy. My inclination is to remove the FreeIndex widget as it is a distraction but I cannot see any harm in the IMI link - other than its repetition on many pages.

    This client left the previous SEO guys on less than good terms despit their assurance that there was no contractual tie in.

    So I would be glad of any guidance from you guys who are more experienced than myself as to whether you think this loss of traffic from the client's site sound like:
    genuine Penguin 3 issue
    quality issues on site
    something dastardly by the previous SEO provider?

    I know it's difficult when I haven't disclosed the site but I am still trying to draw up a plan of action before quoting for taking over his SEO work. This article has given me real pause for thought.

    Many thanks for the spanner in the works Carter ;-)

    • Carter Bowles

      The way I see it, there are 4 possibilities:

      - My hypothesis is correct and Penguin only penalizes and/or removes outbound link value from sites with spammy on-site content or spammy outbound links. In this case, your client either A) has on-site spam (or something that looks like it to Google) or B) the site had spammy inbound links which have now lost their value, and the only way to recover is to rebuild the site's authority with Google.

      - My hypothesis is incorrect and Penguin does pass some amount of "negative PageRank" which the data tells us has to be a much smaller signal than the lost link value alone. In this case, your client either A) has on-site spam issues as above, B) The side had spammy inbound links which have lost their value, and pass a smaller amount of "negative PageRank" which also makes new links less value. Nevertheless, if you can only do one thing, you should build quality, since you can offset the negative PageRank faster this way than by removing the links. If you can invest in removing links, it should still be a relatively small part of your strategy.

      To be cautious, as with our own clients, I would assume that spammy inbound links have passed some negative PageRank, and in any circumstance, it's better to have those links removed, but you should keep in mind that the negative value of those links has to be minimal based on what we've seen from public case studies (much smaller than -1x the PageRank of the link). I wouldn't devote more than 10% of your resources toward link removal, the rest should go to building authority in legitimate ways.

      Hope that helps.

      • Thanks for taking the time to answer Carter, I'll try and digest this a bit more once the Christmas shenanigans are over! You have a good one!

  • The information is very update, That's Great information, I really enjoyed, I would like more information about this, Thanks for sharing.

  • I also think Penguin 1.0 did not work as expected and as such this is an attempt to answer those problems. Swing The punishing of the spammy sites and slow loss of link equity would seem to map to the fact that there is no big, stark sudden drops as with previous updates.

  • This is exactly what the SEO industry needs. Investigative minds, trying to gather tangible evidence as much as possible.

    I have doubts about penguin being solely based on OnSite factors, but I'm not adverse (especially a bit of evidence) to those same onsite factors acting as additional triggers or flags, 'hand in hand' with more general spam signals around the update times.

    As with all SEO there is a balancing act going on between all the algorithms, and so I can imagine that the types of OnSite stuff you talk about tipping the balance (the wrong way) on the penguin penalty seems like the likely culprit.

    Keep it up!

  • Interesting text really think what is affecting is SPAM
    Adriano Santos
    CEO - Visual Communication - Impressão UV

    São Paulo - SP

  • Tim Richardson

    Consider saying hypothesis instead of theory when you are discussing ideas not yet proven.

    • Emanuel Hochstädt

      The history of modern science teaches us that no theory is proven either, only temporarily corroborated

  • Emanuel Hochstädt

    The reason why Penguin 3.0 doesn't work how people think is that Google does not not work as people, including experienced SEO workers, think.

    Contrary to popular belief, if your page is ranked # 4 for a given search query, it is not Google, or its algorithms, that have caused or intended it to be ranked # 4! To understand this, one has to go back to the early history and terminology of information management, as I did 16 years ago.

    The simplest model of information management describes a finite set of documents, a method for calculating the relevance score of each document for one or more key phrases, and a simple way to sort all documents that have a relevance score higher than 0 for a given key phrase and present them to the user by their descending order of their relevance score. Consequently, if a given document was ranked # 4, it only meant that there are no more than 3 documents with a higher relevance score.

    By this model, which still represents how Google works, if your page has fallen from # 4 to # 5, it shows that someone working on modifying another page has managed to increase its relevance score, which is now higher than yours, and Google has no choice but show it at # 4 and yours at # 5. It could also mean that Google has changed its method of calculating the relevance score or "penalized" your page.

    But to "penalize" search results it is sufficient for Google to lower the value of one of the partial scores for parameters that are combined into the consolidated relevance score (note that the relevance score has no upper limit) of some or all search results. And, hence, there's no difference between "penalty" due to many "unnatural links" and the "devalue" of those links.

    However, the removal of a "penalty" (by "Disavow") is confused in popular belief with the idea of giving a parole and sending the prisoner back to freedom (his former ranking). According to the way Google really works, this cannot happen because the value of the now missing links is still not included in the relevance scores of that page, and one has to invest work on other ways of sufficiently increasing the relevance scores of the page, to bring it back to its previous rankings (and traffic volume). This fact has been predicted by me a few years ago and has been shown since by empirical results. And considering the fact that Google is gradually replacing its links-based method of calculating relevance scores, there's no positive ROI for links-removal work, unless it is continued with work that increases relevance scores by the new method ("In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by creating high-quality sites that users will want to use and share" - see my comment in https://northcutt.com/blog/2015/02/john-mueller-says-dont-build-links-confuses-everybody ).