Serious Misconception About Penguin 2.1: Revisiting Negative Links

on under Search Engine Optimization.

Some SEO myths refuse to die, and the myth of the negative link is an especially powerful one. I've already dissected this myth, arriving at the conclusion that Google's algorithm probably never penalizes you for your inbound link profile. Yes, Google has a manual site-wide penalty for that, but if you think like Google, if you look at what they've said to us, and you look at the evidence, there's no reason to believe that Google will algorithmically punish sites for bad inbound links.

Let's take a look at how this plays out in the context of Penguin 2.1, and why this makes a huge difference in how you should respond to a Penguin demotion.

Maggie Sottero: Negative SEO? Maybe. Penguin 2.1? No

Andrew Pincock recently shared a case study about one of his clients: Maggie Sottero, a designer in the wedding dress industry that was recently penalized. Maggie Sottero has won several web awards and been an established offline business for quite some time, so the fact that it could be completely removed from the search results, even for its brand name, is more than a little disconcerting.

But it's not Penguin 2.1.

Pincock inexplicably draws a connection between Penguin 2.1 and the penalty that impacted his client, but there's no explanation for this link. The article went live on October 30th, and Pincock says that Maggie Sottero contacted him "a couple months ago." Penguin 2.1 went live on October 4th.

On top of that, Pincock explains that his client was manually penalized.

Perhaps Pincock was just trying to be topical with his mention of Penguin 2.1, and that's forgivable. Unfortunately, it's easy to read this the wrong way, implying that Penguin can somehow devastate your site, completely removing it from the search engines, due to your inbound link profile.

But Penguin probably doesn't work that way. Instead, it cuts value from your inbound link profile. It targets sites with spammy outbound links.

I don't want to downplay the threat of negative SEO. A quick look at Maggie Sottero's link profile in Open Site Explorer reveals that, in March of 2012, several spammy links were built from the comment section of various blogs. These comments linked to Maggie Sottero with the anchor text "wedding dresses." But they also link, several more times and with more specific anchor texts, to a now 404 site called minedress.net.

In other words, I don't believe this was negative SEO. This was somebody trying to rank with spammy links, and pointing links to an authoritative site to try and disguise their efforts.

That Google could miss this and hit a trusted brand with a site-wide penalty during a manual review is extremely irritating, and it highlights the problems with having such a powerful penalty given to manual reviewers working with incomplete knowledge.

But the fact remains, this isn't Penguin. This isn't Google's algorithm. This is a manual penalty. That's an entirely different beast, and we have enough SEOs making this unjustified claim that Penguin penalizes your site for its backlinks.

A Penguin One-Two Punch?

Glenn Gabe recently shared a few Penguin case studies at Search Engine Watch. First, a story of recovery in the wake of Penguin 2.1:

penguin 1

These are the kinds of "recoveries" we tend to see with Penguin. It's never anything dramatic, much like the "recoveries" we see after Google's partial penalties are removed. If links were actually inhibiting growth, we would expect to see a much more dramatic improvement.

See, this is what it looks like when a site recovers from an unnatural, site-wide, manual link penalty:

penguin 2

But stories of Penguin recovery, right on the date of the latest Penguin release, always look like the modest improvement seen above. Here's another, from a "recovery" discussed on Branded3:

penguin 3

I've never seen the kind of dramatic rebound you see after a site-wide, manual, inbound link penalty is revoked. With Penguin, it's always this worthwhile, but never dramatic, sort of improvement.

I'm not saying that you can't "recover" from Penguin. You can build and attract links, and do all of the SEO stuff that works for a normal website. But when it comes to recoveries on the exact date of a new Penguin release, this is the only kind of improvement you can expect to see.

It's typical to assign this kind of recovery to link removal, as if the inbound links were hurting your rankings. But if that were true, why are these recoveries so weak in comparison to the recoveries from site-wide penalties?

The answer is simple: it has nothing to do with the links you removed.

In the same article discussed above, Glenn Gabe pointed to a client that was hit by Penguin again with the next release. This happened even though they had been frantically removing links the whole time. Gabe blamed it on a few extra low quality links that showed up, but I'd be surprised if they had more spammy links after they did the cleanup than before.

The most likely story behind recoveries like these is simple. Either:

  1. Their competitors lost link value after sites that linked to them had their outbound link value reduced
  2. The sites that linked to the client gained outbound link value after they cleaned up their outbound link profiles
  3. Some combination of both of these propagating through the link graph of the entire web caused their rankings to improve

The link architecture of the web is extremely complex. SEOs are fooling themselves if they believe that a partial drop on or near the date of a Penguin release means that their site has been directly penalized, and that the links pointing toward them are somehow counting against their rankings. It's far more likely that some of the links pointing toward their site have lost some of their value, either because the sites linking to them have lost their outbound "link juice," or because these kinds of changes have propagated through the entire link graph.

Lost Value

Link Research Tools has been one of the best sources for Penguin case studies, and I've got to hand it to them for that. So let's go ahead and take a look at this example of how Penguin 2.1 influenced the SISTRIX "visibility curve" of a "make money online" site:

penguin 4

Isn't it interesting how, after Penguin 2.1 is released, the visibility of the site drops right back down to the level of visibility it had before it shot upward artificially? Same goes for the SEO Visibility score:

penguin 5

The visibility doesn't drop all the way to zero. It just goes right back to where it was before the rankings were inflated.

Now I'd like to turn attention toward Spencer Haws and his public affiliate site project, where we get to see some really meaningful data. I've got to say, Spencer Haws is one of the very few SEOs out there who still dumps so much helpful, data-driven knowledge on his followers, and I've got to thank him for putting all of this out there.

So, it's no secret that soon after his site was made public, it was almost immediately targeted with "negative SEO" links, something he's never dealt with before. Those are the risks of a public site in the SEO community, I suppose. In any case, as you can see, the spamming started near the beginning of April:

penguin 6

In the comment section of a previous post, Spencer told us on April 2nd that his traffic levels were hovering somewhere around 400 visitors per day. Now, watch what happens when his site gets hit by Penguin 2.1:

penguin 7

That looks awfully close to 400 visitors per day, doesn't it?

I don't want to speak with 100% certainty here, but I feel very confident that this is almost exactly what Spencer would have seen if he had managed to remove all of those spammy backlinks that started at the beginning of April.

I don't believe that what we're looking at is a penalty. I believe that we are seeing traffic levels return to "normal." This is where Spencer would be without the spammy backlinks. Far from hurting him, the negative SEOs who were flooding his site with backlinks were actually inflating his rankings. The trouble is, that inflation was temporary, leading to confusion about where his rankings "really" were, and possibly discouraging SEO activity that would have put him in a better place by now.

I can't stress enough how much this stuff matters.

Spencer is now talking about trying to remove all of these backlinks. This takes a massive amount of effort, and if it's true that the links have already been ignored by Google, it's also a massive waste of time.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. From the perspective of a Google engineer, it doesn't make sense to algorithmically penalize sites based on their inbound links. Google crawls the web forward, not backward. It follows links, it doesn't trace them backward to their source.

And the risk of a false positive is just too high.

The only course of action that makes sense from Google's perspective is to algorithmically find sites with spammy outbound link profiles and ignore those links. If Panda can identify low quality content, Penguin can sure as hell do that, and almost certainly is.

It's the optimal course of action, because all you have to do to is identify one site with a spammy outbound link profile in order to demote the 10, 100, or 1000 spammy domains that rely on that link to rank for uber-niche keywords. They know that this kind of action won't impact legitimate sites too much, because links like that shouldn't be contributing too much to their rankings in the first place.

Algorithmically penalizing a site for its inbound link profile is just plain stupid. SEOs have been saying that for years. What they don't seem to realize is that Google already knows this.

But yeah, I'll admit it. I could always be wrong. Maybe somebody here can show me a counter example. In the meantime, I'll continue to say that if you ever get hit by Penguin, any other algorithmic demotion, or the partial inbound link manual penalty, you shouldn't waste time removing backlinks, unless you're doing it for "political" reasons.

Instead, you should start thinking about how to earn them.

Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski

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  • It might not be Penguin but it is Google. All though if they do just pop spammy links to their site, they kind of deserve it.

    • Carter Bowles

      I want to make sure this is clear. What Maggie Sottero is dealing with is a manual, site-wide penalty. It IS actually counting against them, to the point that they aren't even ranking for their brand name. This is a perfect example of why I'm not so sure such a penalty should even exist, or at least that they need a much more rigorous process put in place before implementing it.

      But as far as I can tell, when it comes to the algorithm, or the partial inbound link penalty, this kind of thing doesn't happen. It's just links being "removed." That's totally legit and the smartest way for Google to do things.

  • Not sure I agree with you...even the head of Google spam has gone on record to say that they are concerned with negative seo, and that the Google disavow feature is one measure they've invented to counteract neg seo.

    • Carter Bowles

      Like I said, I could always be wrong, but to be as clear as possible here, negative SEO is absolutely, 100 percent possible. I just don't think Google's ALGORITHM has anything to do with it (at least not in the sense we usually think of, with truly negative links). It's Google's MANUAL penalties that make negative SEO possible (or perhaps other algorithmic penalties unrelated to links, something I haven't given much thought).

      As always, I'd be happy to see a counter example and I'm open to admitting I was wrong. To date, I've never seen compelling evidence that this kind of thing exists within the algorithm itself.

  • This is rather alarming...
    What stops my (or my client's) competition from posting a few thousand links to my website, and getting my website penalized? What's google's view on this? Do they support such corruption?