Overnight between May 22-23, Google unleashed what it calls “Penguin 2.0”. Some people call it Penguin 4.0, but its nomenclature hardly matters. What matters is that this is an admission that Penguin 1.0 – or Google’s initial attempt to clean up the web – didn’t really work.

First of All, What is it?

Penguin is an algorithmic update designed to penalise websites who have used manipulative linking practices. To understand ‘manipulative linking practices’, we have to go back to the ancient days of SEO, just 10 years ago, when search engines rewarded sites for having more links than their competitors.

So, the game involved getting lots of links. One way to get lots of links was to automatically submit your site to hundreds of directories. As web 2.0 developed, you could also submit your site to hundreds of social bookmarks. You could also write an article, and have a piece of software replace words within the article with synonyms, effectively creating thousands of ‘unique articles’ for submission to ‘article directories’ that nobody would ever visit. And you could comment on blogs, using keywords as your name, linked to your site.

Over time, these practices became less effective, to the point that they would carry almost zero weight. You could spam directories, if you wanted to, but you might as well try nailing jelly to a wall.

Penguin was the first time that Google admitted that manipulative linking practices could harm your site. They even changed their guidelines to suggest so, having previously insisted that bad links could not harm your rankings.

Penguin 1.0

Black Hat SEOs – i.e. those who like to break Google’s guidelines – were badly affected by the first Penguin release. That’s not to say that all of them were badly affected. Indeed, if you look at the Payday Loans market in the UK, their search engine practices were about as ethical as the payday loans practice itself. In other words, not at all.

However, Penguin crossed the line between black hat and grey hat. If black hat involved seriously manipulative practices such as cloaking and doorways (that’s for another discussion, let’s just assume that it’s really bad), then grey hat was the above-the-line manipulation of the link profile: directories, blog comments, article marketing, etc.

While some were hit with manual penalties, Penguin itself was an algorithmic one. No warnings, no messages in Webmaster Tools, just a bunch of red arrows on your ranking charts saying “you’re outta here”.

Penguin 2.0

This update supposedly goes deeper. In our initial analysis of sites affected overnight, those who have historic web directory links (even those from 2006) have suffered ranking drops for specific keywords. These are sites that had not been affected by the first wave of Penguin, so this implies that Google has gone further by penalising sites that still have a majority of “good links”.

There are winners, though. Those who have a significantly lower proportion of web directory links, and for whom those directory links are contextual (i.e. they’re from industry directories, for example), have done well overnight. Indeed, those with a higher proportion of in-paragraph links (avoiding excessive use of anchor text) have had particularly good increases in rank. That rewards content creators, and even good guest bloggers who blog for exposure as opposed to linking. Elsewhere, I discussed how even guest bloggers could expect penalties for manipulative practices…

There does appear to be some easing of penalty for those whose links are historic. Those sites who have committed spam offences more recently have suffered heavily. The Payday loans industry, notable for its unethical SEO practices, has seen page 1 almost wiped out, and replaced by websites that have no inbound links whatsoever.

The Immediate Impact for You

If your rankings have dropped overnight, you need to review your backlink profile. There are tools to help: LinkDetox is particularly good, Cognitive SEO have a range of tools that can help, and Sistrix is great for those who like to roll their sleeves up. LinkDetox, however, is the most automated tool for link analysis, and flags up anything it views as toxic or suspicious. Those links will be the ones that have affected your rankings overnight.

Collect a list of the sites you think are of poor quality, and that are not relevant to your site. Contact them to get the link removed, and if you still can’t get the link removed, have the site disavowed in Google Webmaster Tools.

Next, you’re going to have to re-think your SEO strategy. If your SEO provider has been building directory links or blog comments, then you need to ask them a) why, b) when are they going to stop, and c) what are they going to do next?

The Long-term Impact

Links still have an impact. Good links, that is. In-context links from sites that are on-topic, within paragraphs, citing fresh content from your website are the best kind of links you can get. They’re hard to come by, so if you’re used to receiving a report of 100 links per month, forget it. That practice stopped 5 years ago, anyway.

What’s changing is the perception of those links. Whereas two years ago, the quality of a link could be judged on a scale of, say nought to 100, today it is judged on a scale of -100 to 100 (figuratively speaking). Quality is hard to quantify, but that’s what Google is trying to do. In the long term, links will still matter, but it’s the perception of quality that is going to change. That will happen when Google develops its understanding of new metrics – social, notably.

Therefore, if you’re building links for the sake of links, then you’re getting it wrong. If you’re building links for traffic, then they’ll have more of an impact. Links from pages that are shared and viewed – and links that are clicked on – are of more value, and will grow in value as search engines start to better collect and understand that information. Equally, “brand mentions” without a technical link may start to come into the equation, especially if those brand mentions are accompanied by relevant, contextual keywords.

Penguin 2.0 is bound to have short-term collateral damage, with some small businesses suffering needlessly, and others who can only blame their SEO company for cheap and easy tactics. 

So, if you thought you got away with it last year, the Penguin has returned. And this time, it means business.