How to Recover From Google Penalty (Penguin) Using Only Free Tools
I spent the second week of May writing an in-depth article on how to prepare for Google’s Penguin 2.0 (also known as Penguin 4) update. Of course, the update had to arrive the moment I finished the article.
Anyways, a better article came to mind – let’s instead look at how you can attempt a Penguin recovery using only free tools.
Most bloggers, web designers and freelancers in general don’t want – nor need – to pay expensive monthly subscriptions for SEO software. That’s not to say that using paid tools would make it that much easier anyway. The Penguin update is notoriously hard to bounce back from.
Many webmasters are still assessing the damage (or windfall) to their Google rankings. We’re in the early days and Google is far from finished. It still has yet to devalue upstream links from link spammers (tiered link builders, take note), which I personally think will be a game changer, especially for competitive niches.
Matt Cutts and the Webspam team are also actively evaluating feedback, so expect more movement in the search engine results page (SERPs) soon. As reports start coming in in the next few months, we will truly see how “jarring and jolting” this update has been (although an early report by the always-insightful Dr Pete of SEOmoz suggests 2.0 had less impact than its predecessor). It is expected to affect 2.3% of English (US) queries to a significant extent.
Why Penguin Was Unleashed
Google’s Penguin first waddled into view in April 2012. Penguin is a filter that sits on top of the regular algorithm and tries to catch webspam or more specifically, link spam. Many people get confused about the differences between the Panda and Penguin updates. Here’s a quick explanation:
- Panda penalizes you for publishing thin and duplicate content
- Penguin penalizes you when other websites with thin, duplicate or irrelevant content link to you
For example, Penguin will penalize you if your links come from a page that looks like this:
As you can see, the content has been spun beyond recognition and the anchor text is completely unrelated to the rest of the copy. It is an exaggerated example, but it serves to drive the point home.
At the time of the first coming, Penguin affected around 3.1% of search queries. There have been several refreshes over the past year as Google continues to refine its algorithm.
Here are what sites hit by Penguin 1.0 have in common:
- Over-optimized anchor text
- Links to and from ‘bad neighbourhoods’
- Too many links from irrelevant sites
- Black or grey hat tactics such as comment spam, links from spun content, guest posts from questionable sites etc
The best ways to determine if you have been affected by any previous Penguin updates is to check your rankings immediately after an update or to correlate any drops of traffic with known release dates (you can use Barracuda’s Panguin Tool).
And Then There Was Penguin 2.0
Penguin 2.0 is more comprehensive and goes much deeper. While Penguin 1.0 only looks at the links to your Home page, Penguin 2.0 will look at links to your internal pages as well.
If what we’re reading all over the Internet is correct, Google is trying to reduce its reliance on anchor text as a relevancy factor. Instead, it seems Google wants to give the relevancy of the content of the site linking to your website more weightage (which is a step forward in our book).
We expect a lot of SERP movement in Malaysia, where the go-to SEO tactics (for companies at least) are directory link building and press release syndication.
Google also released the Penguin spam report form. If you’re seeing spammy websites ranking in your niche, you can send them a report. They seem to be acting on it (and quite quickly) so now is a good time to send one.
What To Do If You Have Been Hit
Like we have said before, it’s early days yet so a lot of it is still speculation. We won’t know for sure until there has been a case study of an actual Penguin 2.0 recovery (and that will probably take months). Even then, it may or may not work for you – Penguin recoveries seem to be few and far between.
But if you have been hit, there are certain steps you can take to try to recover. These are:
- Performing a Link Profile Analysis
- Removing Suspicious Links
- Building Penguin-Safe Links
We have to warn you though, it’s not a quick fix.
1. Performing a Link Analysis
The first step is to conduct a thorough backlink analysis. This involves having a look at all the links pointing to your website, both in its entirety (i.e. your backlink profile) and individually, to determine what might be harming you.
Before you start your analysis, we suggest you create a spreadsheet with the following headers:
- Website Name
- Website URL
- Anchor Text
- Contact Date #1
- Contact Date #2
- Contact Date #3
As you go along, you can start collecting the contact information for the webmasters you need to contact to remove the links you don’t want. In order to conduct your link analysis, you have to use a backlink analysis tool. While the best ones so far are paid, there are several free tools out there you can use as well.
Here are the tools that we will be using today:
- Google Webmaster Tools and /or Bing Webmaster Tools (both free)
- Ahrefs (limited free use and paid)
- Netpeak Checker (free)
Don’t expect to get comprehensive data with any of these tools, even if you do decide to shell out money for them. Each has its own limitations and will never provide you with the same quality of data that Google has at its fingertips. Your good judgement and experience will come into play as you analyze your links.
Is Your Anchor Text Over-Optimized?
The first thing you’re going to do is to determine if you have been punished for over-optimizing your anchor texts. This means that the majority of the links pointing back to you are using your targeted keywords as the anchor text.
But how much is too much? While there isn’t a global number, it seems that most SEO thought leaders believe 60% of your anchor text should be branded while only 20% should contain the keywords you want to rank for.
- 60% branded anchor text (e.g. Cloudrock)
- 20% exact anchor text (e.g. seo)
- 20% miscellaneous anchor text (e.g. click here)
However, this will differ from one vertical to the next. Examine the links of the top results for your particular niche. What are their percentages of branded keywords and money keywords (the keywords they are targeting)? That’s a good way to find out the threshold for your niche.
Check Anchor Text Over-Optimization (Ahref)
Next, we are going to use ahrefs’ Backlink Checker (the free account) to quickly show you how to do a (limited) backlink analysis. If you like the product, you should consider subscribing for the paid version.
- Go to ahrefs.com.
- Register for a free account. You get more searches if you register.
- Enter your URL.
- You will see the results page below. Take a moment to study your backlinks. Every analysis you do will count towards your daily limit.
- You then click on the ‘Anchors’ tab to have a look at your anchor text distribution.
- Sort your anchor texts in descending order.
This quick analysis will help you determine if you have a problem with your anchor text distribution.
There are other backlinks analysis tools you can use of course, such as Link Diagnosis (free) and Majestic SEO (limited free use). The data you get will differ. That’s not a problem for our purposes because we just want to gauge the relative weights of the anchor texts to see if we have a problem.
You can then start removing low-quality links with exact match anchor texts while building higher quality ones with more diverse anchor texts (from a variety of sources, of course).
2. Identifying Harmful Links
Now that you’re done looking at your link profile, it’s time to find out which particular links might be harming you. Here are some warning signs:
- Is the link coming from an inappropriate website (for example, an adult site)?
- Is the link coming from a link farm (a site created just for SEO)?
- Is the link coming from an irrelevant site?
- Did the link result from your participation in a link scheme or link wheel?
- Did you pay for the links (for example, advertorials)?
- Is it a site-wide link (footer or side bar links)?
We will also be looking at the toolbar PageRank (TPR) to gauge if the link is a good one. Just remember that the TPR is updated only once every few months. This means you won’t know if the site has been penalized by Penguin 2.0 until the next PageRank update, expected to be sometime in June.
It’s fine if you have some links coming in from unrelated sites or niches. Just make sure they don’t make up the majority of your backlinks.
Finding Suspicious and Harmful Links
- Download and install Netpeak Checker.
- Go to your Google Webmaster Tools accounts and log in.
- Click on Traffic > Links to Your Site
- Under the ‘Who Links the Most’ section, click on More. Click on Download this Table.
- Now, open up Netpeak Checker and select the options as the screenshot below. We will explain the options in a bit.
- Click Load; copy and paste the domains you downloaded from Google Webmaster Tools into the box that pops up.
- Click Save and then the Start Check button on the bottom left corner.
Netpeak Checker Parameters
Okay, so now about the parameters you chose for Netpeak Checker:
As of this writing, the last Toolbar PageRank update was on 4 February 2013. If a website has a PageRank of 0 and was created after that, it means that it’s a new website and hasn’t had its TPR updated yet. If it has been around for years and still has no PageRank, then that might be a sign that it’s a low quality site.
A solid sign that it’s a bad link is if it has no pages indexed in Google. This means that it has been de-indexed, and you really do not want a de-indexed site pointing back to you (or vice versa). Now, go through each domain and try to determine which links might be harming you. Add those into your spreadsheet.
The Netpeak Checker has a few other useful metrics you could use but I’ll leave that to you to check it out.
Let’s say you want to have a look at the exact page on the domain where you link occurs. You can use the following Google operator:
- site:exampledomain.com link:yourlinkedurl.com/page
Theoretically, you can use the link: operator to find all the sites linking back to you. But it doesn’t work for us. Let us know if it does for you.
3. Removing Suspicious Links
At this point, you have looked at your link profile and identified the links you need to remove. So let’s get them off your website! There’s an easy way, and a hard way.
Contact Webmasters to Remove Unwanted Links
Once you’ve identified the links you think may harm you, your next step would be contacting the respective webmasters and requesting them to remove those links.
- Create a Gmail account specifically for this link removal
- Create a canned email template to save time
- Start contacting the webmasters to remove those links
Some webmasters do not have their contact details on the website. You can look up the domain info using Domain Tools. If that yields no results, well, you could outright guess – firstname.lastname@example.org is a popular webmaster email address.
Wait a week for a response before you send a reminder. Remember to be polite; there’s no motivation for them to remove the link other than to be helpful (or sympathetic). You might even come across some webmasters who will request you pay a ‘processing fee’ to remove those links.
Never ever pay! Seriously.
You can disavow those links in the next step. And report those webmasters to Google, of course.
Use the Google Disavow Tool as a Last Resort
Google released the Disavow Tool sometime last year after many complaints about the initial Penguin update. What the tool does is to tell Google that you don’t want any of those links counted.
Try to avoid using Google’s Disavow Tool until you have exhausted all other options.
There will be times when you want to use a machete instead of a scalpel i.e. remove all links from an entire domain instead of individually. You can then use the domain: operator.
There are many guides out there that will teach you how to use the Disavow Tool. Here is a great one:
A Note on Footer and Other Site-wide Links
I’m sure there are many web designers here who have placed a site-wide footer links on their clients’ websites. These are a great source of referral traffic. You might have used your company name as the anchor text or you might have used a keyword-rich one such as “Web Design Malaysia”.
As Matt Cutts explains in one of his videos, Google’s algorithm does a good job of discounting such site-wide links. For example, a footer link that appears on every page of a 1,000-page website might be counted as only one link from that website to yours. However, problems might occur if your client’s website is under review and you are using a keyword-rich anchor text.
I would advise you to employ a branded anchor text and use the nofollow tag on such footer links. The nofollow tag tells Google not to pass any PageRank through the link. You still get that all-important traffic without the risks. Besides, site-wide links aren’t really much help in getting you better rankings anyway.
4. Building Penguin-Safe Links
Hongkiat.com already has a great beginner’s guide on link building so I won’t go into too much detail here. The important thing to remember about building links in a post-Penguin world is that you have to have a natural (or natural-looking) link profile.
The key to having a natural link profile is diversity.
- Domain Diversity – Get links from many different domains, preferably with different TLDs, rather than a lot of links from a few domains
- Link Type Diversity – Get different types of links (Web 2.0s, in-content, blog comments etc)
- Social Signals – Get social signals back to your site (+1s, Likes, Stumbles etc)
Ensure that your anchor texts are also diverse. Use a mix of these types of anchor texts:
- Branded (Domain name)
- Naked (www.domain-name.com)
- Miscellaneous (visit our website, click here)
- Mixed (Learn more about SEO at Domain Name)
Of course, the creation of unique, relevant and useful content should be the foundation of any good link building campaign. But that’s another topic on its own.
So Now, Just Wait…
Alright, you have done all you can do for now. That is, unless you want to send in a reconsideration request as well. However, note that the Penguin penalty is an algorithmic penalty. That means you will only be able to see an improvement when the next Penguin update rolls around.
This is unlike a manual penalty, where sending in a reconsideration request is a must. Here’s the link though if you would like to send one anyway. If you do decide to send one, remember to be as detailed as possible and outline all the steps you have taken.
Will you recover your previous rankings? Probably not. This is because your previous rankings were artificially inflated by those spammy links. But it does give you back your ability to rank again.
In the meantime, let us know in the comments how you’ve done for Penguin 2.0. Did your rankings increase or decrease? Are you seeing spammy or otherwise unworthy sites ranking for your niche? Don’t forget you can submit a Penguin spam report here. It’s still early, so any information you can provide would help all of us understand the implications of this update better.