Worried about Penguin 4.0? Here’s an action plan.

By Simon Ensor
SEO 01.01.2016

A step by step guide to analysing your backlink profiles and cleaning up any spam

The end of 2015 was supposed to be a time when the SEO world saw a much awaited update to Google’s notorious Penguin. Originally released into the wild in April 2012 to tackle the issue of linkspam, we have not seen a proper update to this part of Google’s search algorithm since October 2014 when they rolled out Penguin 3.0 over a number of months. The Penguin update can be especially frustrating for those who are penalised (lovingly referred to by many as a penguin slap) because they would have to wait until the next update to regain any rankings after a link clean up. However, this time around Gary Illyes from Google has already stated that the next Penguin Update (Penguin 4.0) will be ‘real time’ which brings the promise of more immediate effects from any measures taken by webmasters to recover from a linkspam penalty.

With the announcement of Penguin 3.0 a few weeks before its release in 2014 also came a stark realisation for those that were in violation of Google’s search guidelines, that even though the update had not rolled out at that time it was still too late for any hasty link removal to act as their get out of jail free card. In fact, any link removals for the 3 weeks previous would not prevent a penalty! The pessimists among you would argue that those who look to manipulate search results through spammy link building do not deserve any quarter, but in the interest of second chances, not being able to make amends for wrongdoing before the day of reckoning leaves many high and dry, some of which may not have actively engaged in spammy practices. This time though there is a window of opportunity to make extra sure that your backlink profile is not in contravention of Google’s guidelines as Gary Illyes has stated that there is still time to clean up your backlinks. Yes, this real time update will supposedly mean no more waiting for another update before regaining rankings but do you want to take that chance? Better to not get a penalty in the first place at all.

We have included steps below to help you audit your backlinks and evade any penalty:

Use multiple tools to find backlinks

The fact of the matter is that no backlink checker is perfect. None of them are able to display 100% of the links pointing to your site. Furthermore, paid tools are usually better than the free alternatives. Regardless of your budget though, you should use a number of tools in order to give yourself the best chance of identifying as many backlinks as possible. You can sign up for time limited free trials for the likes of SEMrush, Majestic SEO and ahrefs. Moz’s Opensite Explorer has a free version which limits the user to checking 3 domains per day and whilst Backlink Watch’s design leaves a lot to be desired and the amount of pop ups can be incredibly annoying it does seem to pick up a lot of links that are missed by the others. Finally, and possibly most importantly, using Google’s Search Console gives you a clear indication of the links that Google are picking up and costs nothing to use.

If you have been proactively link building, or have an SEO agency that has been running a link campaign for you it is highly advisable to dig up any reports that you may have received or trawl through emails to add to your list of backlinks.

It is essential that you use as many of the tools at your disposal so that you can create the most comprehensive view of your backlink profile.

Assess your backlinks

If you are worried about your backlink profile then this assessment should be conducted with brutal honesty. In fact, even if you aren’t worried it is still a useful exercise and should still be as cut throat as possible. As a rule of thumb, if you are genuinely worried about your backlinks then the likelihood is that there are probably a number of links there that you would rather Google’s Penguin did not sniff out! Scrutinise all of the links that you can find using a variety of tools and don’t let emotion get in the way. Conveniently ignoring a portion of ‘grey area’ links due to your desire to retain link juice is a recipe for disaster. Remember that this exercise is designed to prevent a penalty that may result in an extreme loss of rankings which could be disastrous for your business. Furthermore that any links that are not of the required standard (i.e relevant to your business and from an authoritative site) may already have been devalued by Google and may not be contributing to your current SERP ranking anyway. So be ruthless. Any minor loss in rankings is better than your website being penalised.

Here is a list of factors that should be taken into account when assessing your backlinks:

Does the website offer value?

To use a more widely used term – is it a quality website? We prefer to use value instead of quality because not all website have a domain authority of 92! Some are just starting out or may not be as popular as others. Just because a website does not have the same metrics as the BBC does not mean that it is spammy. However, if the website does not offer any value to the user then it may have been set up purely to provide a backlink (think spammy guest blogs) and may incur the wrath of Google’s Penguin.

Is the website and/or webpage relevant?

If it isn’t you should questions how useful the link is for the user and whether it is a website that you would want to be associated with.

Is the link offering additional value to the user, or is it purely for the search engines?

Links should be enhancing user experience. If the link offers not benefit for the user then there is very little point in it being there and would therefore fall into the realm of manipulative links. If under closer inspection the link has been built purely to provide link juice then it should be removed.

How relevant is the destination page of the link?

You should also take into account the relevancy of the link’s destination page. Put yourself into the shoes of the user. When clicking on a link, is the destination page what you were expecting from that link or do you then have to navigate to the correct page? Whilst not necessarily ‘spammy’ if the user has to navigate to the most relevant page on your website it will detract from their experience.

Use and distribution of Anchor Text

Excessive use of exact match or ‘money keyword’ anchor text has already been targeted by previous iterations of the Penguin Update. Don’t expect the upcoming one to be any different. External anchor text that has been used in a manipulative sense with lots of money keywords is the most likely to get you into trouble but it pays to be conscious of your internal anchor text usage as well. Your websites should have a healthy mix of anchor text types (see here for types) although exact match anchor text, especially with external links, should be a very small percentage. If you have been requesting certain exact match anchor text from external links then we advise auditing your backlinks, changing the exact match anchor text to more widely used and natural types such as branded anchor text.

Deep Linking

Do all of your links point to a particular page on your website leaving the rest of your webpages devoid of links? A website with no deep links, or with all of their links pointing to one particular page could be viewed as having an unnatural backlink portfolio.

Excessive use of one type of link

Not all links are the same type. A natural link profile will have a mixture of link types including editorial, brand mentions, referral and dare I say it guest posts and directories?! Social bookmarking sites, directories and spammy guest blogs have been hot topics for link spam and for good reason, these types of links were used excessively for manipulative purposes. High quality guest blogging that adds value is still a legitimate method of gaining links but if ALL of your links are from guest posts this would appear unnatural. Make sure that you have a nice mix of link types and if during your audit you find that one type is dominating then it may be worth removing some of them to avoid being red flagged.

There are a number of other factors to take into account including whether you have paid for links (a big no no), percentage of no follow links and also site wide links. It is important to try and take into account as many of these as possible when auditing your link profile, hopefully you will find that your site passes with flying colours but make sure to note down any links that contravene the points above. As an overriding question you should be asking yourself whether this link would have occurred naturally. If a webmaster knew of your website, would they have linked to that particular piece of content without the request? If the answer is no then it is likely to be a spammy link that has been set up purely to manipulate search engine results.

Let the cull commence!

At this point you should have a list of all of the backlinks that you have managed to find, which in turn has been segmented into a list of links that are good and will therefore will be left as is, and a list of links that may be considered spam and will therefore have to be removed. The next step is to get these links removed as soon as possible. Time is of the essence, Google have not given any specific dates as to when they will release the next Penguin Update so for all we know it could be next week! Following the process of manually contacting sites and then disavowing gives you every chance of removing these bad links before they are found.

Manual Removal

This should be your first step. Make a list of the contact details for all of the websites that have bad links pointing to your site and go through them methodically, requesting that all links to your website are removed, providing the URL of the webpage(s) that contains the link to prevent any confusion. Remember that accusing them of spammy behaviour or of having a poor quality site is unlikely to get you very far!

Unfortunately through our experience of cleaning up backlink portfolios it is often the case that these websites are run by the same company and do not have contact details on them. Furthermore, that if you do happen to get in touch they will be notoriously unresponsive or ask for payment in order to have the link removed.

Use the Disavow Tool

If you cannot get all of your links removed manually it is not the end of the world. Google introduce their disavow tool in late 2012 so that webmasters could notify Google of any links that they do not want to be counted. There are two sides to the coin here. Google claim that the disavow tool can be used by Webmasters to wipe the slate clean or who have identified links that they have no control over, whereas others are suspicious of using the disavow tool prior to any penalty because it could notify Google of spammy behaviour. Essentially, owning up to being naughty before actually being caught. Whichever side you may be on, if you have a spammy backlink profile you really have no choice. Google is getting better and better at finding spammy links and penalising the website that are associated with these bad neighbourhoods so it is only a matter of time before you are caught. Better to take the risk, repent and be forgiven than to be caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

Note that there is a judgement call to be made here. Google recommend this tool only be used by those with a considerable amount of poor quality links because they are able to devalue links to websites with only a small portion of poor quality links. However, Matt Cutts has also stated that Webmasters should feel free to disavow any links that they are concerned about.

Make a list of all the links that you want them to disavow and upload them via Google’s Search Console. Note that the document must be .txt and encoded in UTF-8 or ASCII – for more information see Google’s help page. We tend to disavow an entire domain to prevent any links on hidden pages that have not been detected in your audit from causing your site any harm. If you don’t want a backlink from a certain webpage then the likelihood is that the whole website either lack relevancy to your site or is simpmly spammy. For these reason we prefer not to take any risks and disavow the entire domain.

Great! So what now?

If you have followed this process you will have managed to get rid of a decent proportion of spammy links pointing to your site. However, taking into account that backlink tools are not perfect you may still have some undetected spammy links in your backlink profile. The best plan of action is to embark (or continue) on a high quality content creation campaign to earn links from relevant websites as well as a proactive link building campaign from high quality websites. These links should contribute towards a healthier backlink profile and therefore reduce any risk of penalisation.

We hope this helps and please do let us know if you have any questions! Google penalties carry with them serious consequences and as such if you have engaged in any spammy link building it is highly advisable that you look to clean up your backlink profile before the new updated Penguin is released from its digital cage.

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