The last time Google released a Penguin update – at least, the last time they confirmed that a Penguin update had taken place – was in October of 2013. SEO monitors labeled it Penguin 5, as the fifth major update to the Penguin algorithm. Google labeled it Penguin 2.1, indicating that it was primarily an update to the database Penguin uses to alter rankings, not a change to the algorithm itself. It debuted to relatively minor traffic disruption.
Remind Me: What is Penguin?
Penguin is probably the second most feared name in Google’s search algorithm updates, after Panda. It focused entirely on search spam, with a focus on link misuse. Sites that buy links from link directories or other sites would be flagged for a search penalty. Sites that paid for thousands of links in order to create a backlink profile instantly would find those links suddenly worthless.
Penguin hits spammy backlinks, unnatural link profiles, over-optimized link text and a host of other bad link tricks.
Where it’s Heading
Penguin’s last update was primarily a data update. This is distinct from the much more widespread algorithm updates. It has been a long time since the last time Penguin had an algorithm update. For that matter, it’s been a long time since the last Penguin update of any sort. The world is overdue for another arctic waterfowl rampage.
So where does the question in the title come from? The answer here is Matt Cutts and a little inference. Back in January, Matt Cutts posted an article on his blog about how guest posting has simply become too spammy to allow to maintain its current value.
See, for a long time, webmasters have been encouraging guest posts as a way to get natural-looking links from one site to another. The problem comes with the hyphen there; natural-looking. They aren’t natural. All too often, guest blog posts were uploaded in exchange for payment of some kind.
Cutts does hurry to clarify that guest blogging as a whole isn’t going to be a penalized offense. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to post an article from another site author. For that matter, it can be difficult to determine the difference between a guest post as a post by a visiting author or infrequent contributor.
Google has slowly been diminishing the effect of links in general, and will very likely be targeting guest posts in particular very soon. There will always be the quality factor to consider; webmasters looking to guest post will have to provide a high level of quality in their posts to avoid the spam label. This will likely diminish the number of blogs willing to accept guest posts, and raise the bar for the posts that are accepted.
The Influence of Negative SEO
There’s one interesting aspect of Penguin and unnatural links that may also play into the upcoming inevitable release of a Penguin 3 (or 6, depending on whose numbering you count) update. Negative SEO essentially thrives on Penguin. A strict penalty for unnatural links means more effective negative SEO attacks. A lessened penalty would mean it’s easier to get away with spammy guest blogging, but negative SEO would be less effective.
Google has faced quite a bit of criticism from users who fear or have experienced negative SEO. Penguin penalties are automatic; there’s no reconsideration form you can use to get out from under a negative SEO attack penalty. The only tool Google released is the disavow links tool, which is inconsistent at best and ineffective at worst.
It’s entirely possible that a large part of the delay in releasing a new Penguin update is that Google is testing and experimenting with ways to combat negative SEO without compromising the integrity of the penalties that cause it.
Being proactive is the best way to safeguard your site against a future Penguin penalty. There are a number of things you can do, primarily centering around a link audit. Analyze all incoming links and determine if they trip any of the red flags Penguin monitors:
• Too many links too quickly is a red flag for buying links.
• Too many links sharing the same exact anchor text is a red flag.
• Too many links from spam or unranked domains is a red flag.
• Too many links of a given type when other types should be more prevalent in organic link building.
• Too many links that don’t have any clicks; dead links that may have been put there just for the link, not for value.
• Links in unnatural positions in a page, such as hidden in a header or footer.
To take care of these issues, you need to take a number of steps.
• Identify the specific links, domains and webmasters linking to you with bad links.
• Contact webmasters whenever possible and ask them to remove toxic links. This can take quite a bit of time and you very likely won’t hear back in many cases. In some few cases, the webmaster may attempt to extort money to remove the link. Obviously, never pay. Document your efforts for submission to Google.
• Any remaining links, plug into the disavow links tool. This tool is not efficient or effective, but it’s the best you have. Google will process your disavow request and may or may not actually honor it; it’s hard to say, and reports are mixed.
• If you want, submit a reconsideration request through Google Webmaster tools. Penguin is not a manual action so you do not technically need to submit a reconsideration request, but it won’t hurt you to do so. Provide documentation to show Google you’ve been trying to deal with the problem yourself.
From there, the only way you can safeguard your site is to build a robust, organic backlink profile that outweighs the negatives Penguin sees. Penguin measures a wide range of link-based metrics, and it’s only when too many of them have issues that you receive a penalty.
Work to grow your social signals and links from social profiles. Links from infographics and blog posts are still safe. Links from competitors, industry authorities and .gov/.edu sites are generally beneficial. Links from contests are perfectly acceptable. Guest blog links are alright, so long as the content is valuable and the link adds to the post.
Penguin may very well be targeting low-quality guest blog links in the near future; take steps to protect yourself now, rather than struggle to recover from a penalty later.