Unnatural links and Penguin – part two

Jimmy McCann

Head of Digital Strategy

Technical SEO

This post is a follow on from my post on the Smart Insights blog. The previous post discussed the problems that have been thrown up by the recent Google updates concerning unnatural links and the bundle of changes known as the Penguin update.

This post focuses on helping you to prioritise to the most pressing issues first and then provides guidance on what to do to address those issues.

Firstly, you need to understand what happened? Why has your site seen negative movements in the SERP’s? Through a logical process of elimination you can try to understand what problem(s) were the most likely to have led to your negative movement.

There are two key questions you should ask yourself:

  • Was it the Penguin update or was it toxic links that harmed your site?…. Was it possibly both?
  • Was this a penalty applied at site level or at page level?


Diagnosing the Problem

Which update was responsible?

If traffic fell around the 24th April, then it’s likely to have been as a result of the Penguin update.

If you received the webmaster tools warning message and your traffic or positions fell but not around the 24th April – it’s likely to have been a symptom of having toxic links to your website.

If you received the webmaster tools warning message and your traffic fell on or around the 24th April – then it’s likely you have been hit with a double whammy!

Is it my entire site or at page level?

Try to find out which pages have been hit using Analytics. Overall you may have seen a noticeable dip in traffic but you can use Analytics to try and understand the situation more clearly. See if your entire site was harmed, if it was a single page or if it was a group of pages with a similar page template (e.g. a category page).

Below are a few tips you can use in Google Analytics, to understand how your site has been affected:

  • Many heavily SEO’d sites use the homepage to target their main terms, so look at non-branded organic traffic to your homepage only.
  • Filter out your homepage to see traffic to the rest of your site, using the regex string – ^/
  • Use strings common to certain page types e.g. landing page contains /’category’ or /’products’.
  • You should be able to garner a picture of the extent of the negative impact and which pages were affected.


Penguin Diagnosis & Recovery

This is for Penguin recovery only.

Step One – Audit Your Site

Identify and address the easy parts first. Look at your site and ask – Why you were hit and why not someone else? Try to be objective.

Alt Text, Title Attributes and Other Tags

Pre-Penguin you may have looked at your copy and felt it was well written. It may have been optimal for the keyword, without keyword spamming. Now you must pay closer attention; in particular look closely at alt text and the title attributes of links.

Optimising these elements is acceptable as long as it benefits the user, however overdoing this is definitely bad practice. For example, a website hit by Penguin had links to colour variants using just the colour as the anchor. However, the title attribute was using the colour and keyword combination as the title attribute. This is a classic example of ‘over-optimisation’, something Penguin will address, whereas previously this practice was overlooked.

I would also run through the following points to make sure you aren’t inadvertently ‘over-optimised’ on any other elements on-page:

  • Make sure you don’t have multiple H1’s.
  • Ensure titles, descriptions, headings, and alt text are all different and beneficial to the end user. For example, don’t just have all these as ‘target keyword‘.

Doorway Pages

Do not use doorway pages. If you have them you must remove them. Ask yourself the question – is this page here to benefit the usability of my website or is it here purely for SEO purposes? If it is present for the latter – you need to remove the page. More info on doorway pages can be found here.


Write unique and quality content – practices such as spinning are flawed (as mentioned by Matt Cutts). Google can detect poor use of language, which is common place in spun articles. Don’t spin articles.

Use of CSS

Question whether you are hiding sections of optimised content using a style sheet because you think it will help you to SEO your site? Either you should remove the content or you should display it permanently for users as well as search engines.


External Linking

Don’t link out in the following manner:

  • Out of context with your content and using optimised anchor text
  • To untrustworthy / poor quality sites

Step Two – Audit Your Links

Anchor Text Spamming

Use a tool such as Majestic SEO or Open Site Explorer to review your most frequently found anchor text. A natural profile will be predominantly brand / URL anchor text led, with a lot of variation in the words that are used.

There are a few ways to improve your anchor text keyword density:

1. Link Removal – WPMU recovered from Penguin by making their link profile cleaner (primarily by removal of 1,000’s of sitewide footer links with identical anchor text). I would also recommend removing links from article sites and poor quality directories.

2. Changing Anchor Text – You may have built some very good natural links through establishing good relationships with people over time. Use these existing relationships to request changes to anchor text to make it more varied (or even switch to brand term anchors).

3. Build new links with varied, natural anchor text.


Sitewide Links

An unnatural profile will consist of too many sitewide links. It’s best to remove this type of link. If this is by means of a plugin or theme based link then this could be done in one fell swoop, ala WPMU, but if not this must be done through manually getting in touch with webmasters.

There are cases of collateral damage, where sites have suffered who haven’t conducted a link building programme or intentionally gone out to get these types of links. But there must be a reason as to why Google has hit your site, understanding ‘why?’ is the first step to recovery.

Re-inclusion after Penguin

Penguin is an algorithm update which is run periodically; it is not a manual penalty. This means that submitting a re-inclusion request will not help your situation.

Providing you have addressed all the things that caused Penguin to demote your site, then next time Penguin runs you should be re-included.

Recovery from Unnatural Link Warning

As stated in the Penguin recovery steps, use link analysis tools to identify poor links to your site.

Look out for:

  • Links from sites with low authority – concentrate in particular on:

– Exact keyword match anchor text

– Site wide links

  • Identify article sites
  • Links from blog networks

– i.e. typically blog links from blogs with no community interaction / standard template

  • Links in footers

It is these links that must be removed. At very least efforts should be made to remove them, prior to requesting reconsideration.

Re-inclusion after Unnatural Link Warning

To come back from this penalty you must file for reconsideration with Google. You must ensure that you have removed all these unnatural or ‘toxic’ links that are pointing at your site or page.

Ensure you provide as much detail as possible, including details of any links you are not able to remove (along with details of unsuccessful efforts made to remove them).


It may be that both of these updates have harmed your site’s search engine visibility, in which case you must rigorously go through all of the said checks and changes.

This post is designed to help you understand why you were hit and subsequently what you should place your priority on, in order to recover your positions and traffic after a penalty.

However, it’s not just a case of fixing the individual issues you believe to be responsible for this negative impact. I cannot emphasise enough that it is important you look at all the issues discussed in this post and seek to address them all in turn. This is the best thing you can do to preserve the long term ranking of your website on Google.