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Penguin 3.0: What Got Hurt, What Didn’t, and 3 Things You Need to Know to Remain Relevant

Penguin 3.0: What Got Hurt, What Didn’t, and 3 Things You Need to Know to Remain Relevant

Since our last Penguin Post a lot of things have changed, but the panic and uncertainty around Google updates have remained the same. Every time an update comes around people are still asking the same question:

What Did This Update Do and How Do I Recover? (By Reading This Post. Duh!)

With an increasingly large amount of rank tracking data (we track millions and millions of pages every single day) we have a huge trove of information that we’ve been able to sort through since the Penguin Update started. With misinformation and anecdotes thrown around like they are facts, we wanted to step back in and give you a look at what is going on with this Google Penguin update, backed by real data. We’ve mined through all of this data, and we think these results will show you exactly what got punished by Penguin and what you need to do in the future to continue to rank websites.

I’m Ready – Give Me Data!

This time around, we were able to dive even deeper with our analysis than we were last time. Since the Penguin update is a “web spam” update we wanted to look at exactly what Google was looking at – the backlinks themselves! So for each site in our dataset we took the top 50 backlinks and analyzed them both for their footprint and for their level of quality. The results we got were not unexpected at all:

Microsite Masters Backlink Distribution Non Penalized Sites

Microsite Masters Backlink Distribution Penalized Sites

A quick aside: I’m sure after seeing these graphs some of you are curious what a “high quality” post is and what a “low quality” post is. We considered a low quality post to be any post on a very thin website/subdomain (under five pages), any post that didn’t match the niche of the site it was hosted on, and any site that scored very highly on a custom webspam classifier that was provided to us by Cortx. We disregarded any links whose footprint did not neatly fit into of these categories. After spending countless hours manually analyzing this data we can say that it is over 99% accurate in determining what is a high quality article and what is not.

The results should not be that surprising; sites that were not hit by Penguin were more likely to have backlinks from high quality articles and high quality citations. Meanwhile, sites that were hit by Penguin were more likely to have backlinks from low quality articles and spammy social bookmarks and blog comments. When we saw this we were a little disappointed, as we were hoping for something more unexpected.

So we decided to take a look at the data in a slightly different way. Instead of looking at the average link distribution, we instead looked at what percentage of sites had at least one high quality backlink and what percentage of sites had at least one low quality backlink. This gave us a slightly different story:

Microsite Masters One Good Link

At a glance these numbers might not seem that interesting. Nearly 100% of non penalized sites had at least one good backlink and nearly 100% of penalized sites had at least one obviously spammy backlink, which is what you might expect. However if you look closer, nearly every site that was not penalized also had at least one spammy backlink. What this means is that bad links by themselves did not cause sites to get hit by Penguin.

We decided to take a look at our original backlink distribution graphs above and split them up so that we were only comparing the high quality posts and the low quality posts:

Microsite Masters Penguin Backlink Quality Distribution

This graph shows once again that bad links are not the problem – nearly 50% of all contextual links going towards sites not penalized by Penguin were considered to be spammy. But even more important is the statistic for penalized sites. For sites that were penalized, under 5% of their links were considered to be high quality. This indicates that bad links had very little to do with the update. Instead the Penguin update is targeting sites that do not have enough good links!

What Does That Mean for Me?

This means that Penguin is not punishing sites for bad links, but is instead “erasing” the value of bad links. When writing our first Penguin Post we did not find this to be nearly as much the case, and Google has commented that “the newer generation of Penguin goes much deeper and has a really big impact in small areas” and Matt Cutts has recently commented that Google is closing several negative SEO loopholes.

So our conclusion from this data is that when each Penguin refresh happens, Google is removing the juice from those bad links, leaving only the better links left. The sites that have a solid foundation of high quality links will continue to prosper and the sites that were built entirely on lower quality links will see their rankings fall.

I think I understand how Google’s Penguin Update works, but what about those 3 things I need to know!


high quality links

1. If You Are Penalized (or Not), Build Some High Quality Links!

This is the most important thing to take away from our information: high quality links reign supreme. Do whatever you can to get links from authorative sites in your industry. Write high quality blog posts (our favorite method). Make tier 1 websites that are high enough quality to also function as their own stand-alone websites; we like to call them microsites.

Create Youtube videos and tutorials – although we didn’t include this footprint in our chart (due to a relatively smaller amount of data), sites that were not affected by Penguin were twice as likely to have Youtube links in their backlink profile.

Lastly, if you are a local plumber who is wondering how in the world you can write engaging and inspiring content about plumbing, at the very least get high quality local citations.


microsite masters google penguin filter

2. Do Not Worry About Blackhat Links or Negative SEO

Our data shows that this refresh was almost entirely a “link devaluation” instead of a “link penalty.” This means that if you are doing whitehat SEO you should not have to worry about negative SEO; your good quality links will still keep your site ranking and any low quality links are just noise that you can filter out.

The important thing to remember is that the road to recovery does not come from obsessively worrying about disavowing or removing bad links. Instead the road to recovery, no matter what hat you are wearing, comes from getting more high quality sites to link to you.


private blog networks

3. High Quality Private Blog Networks Still Work

In our last Penguin update we talked about how blog networks still work, but that they need to be done in a high quality way. Although we found many SEOers took to heart some of our more obvious suggestions (like varying anchor text), the overall implementation of many of the blog networks we saw were still often very lazy and very sloppy.

For the low quality posts we still saw ridiculous things like links that didn’t make any sense within the flow of the article, links from blogs with only one post, and links from blogs with posts about “garcinia combogia”, “e cigs”, and “payday loans” all side by side (I’m sure that will make Google instantly fall in love with your site).

Black and grey hat SEOers also often forget the “private” part of a private blog network. Google has made it very clear that they are going after blog networks, so if you are buying your blog network links from a slick sounding sales page, it will only be a matter of time before Google catches on. Any blog network where anyone can purchase links should not be considered a “private” blog network, no matter what the owner promises regarding footprints or security.

Stick to high quality private blog networks that are either operated entirely by you, or by a small exclusive circle of friends or business partners. Avoid free-for-all “public private” blog networks which are great for churn and burn but not much else.

That’s All For Now!

It’s been a long two years since we last published a blog post, and we hope it was worth the wait. We have been working on some great experiments here at Microsite Masters and we won’t keep you waiting that long next time!

Penguin Analysis: SEO Isn’t Dead, But You Need to Act Smarter (And 5 Easy Ways to Do So!)

Penguin Analysis: SEO Isn’t Dead, But You Need to Act Smarter (And 5 Easy Ways to Do So!)

The new Google Penguin update was a big change that has been very unsettling to SEO’ers, both blackhats and whitehats. It seems that everywhere you go, people who had previously considered themselves to be “professionals”, are now dumbfounded as their stable authority sites have moved from ranking in the top 5 for competitive keywords, to not ranking at all.

There has never been more whispers (both jokingly and not), that SEO is dead. Which leads me to…

The Number One Question People Are Asking:

What Did This Update Do and How Do I Recover? (By Reading This Post. Duh!)

Microsite Masters is in a unique position as we operate as a rank tracker; we have historical ranking data for thousands of websites. We have data on sites that are still doing great, and we have data on sites where rankings have tanked. We’ve decided to mine through all of this data (giving us a nice large sample size), and the results we found, although not unexpected by us, should give you a clear indication as to exactly how you should build and rank sites moving forward.

Ok, Now On To What You Really Care About. What Did We Find Out?

Link over-optimization is one of the most thrown around concepts in the SEO community now, so it was naturally where we decided to look first. We took a look at the sites that tanked and the sites that didn’t, and for both we looked at what their anchor text distribution was.

More specifically, we were interested in seeing what percentage of those links had anchor text for keywords that the site was trying to optimize SERP visibility for (such as “blue widgets”) versus any other type of anchor text (this could be “”, “blue widgets | the number one widget site”, “click here”, or anything that wasn’t a keyword containing measurable search volume).

What does this mean? It means that every single site we looked at which got negatively hit by the Penguin Update had a “money keyword” as its anchor text for over 60% of its incoming links. On the other hand, the sites that were not hit by the update had much more random percentages. Having over 60% of your anchor text being a money keyword did not guarantee that your site would be hit by the penalty (many of the sites not affected had numbers just as bad), but if under 50% of your anchor text for incoming links were “money keywords” it’s all but guaranteed you weren’t affected by this update.

Taking a look at the above information we compiled says much of the same. The graph above shows that only 5% of the sites affected by the update had a URL structure (ex: as 2 or more of their 5 most common anchor texts. On the other hand, nearly half of the sites not affected had the same. What does this mean? Most of you will say that this is a clear example that Google has issued a link over-optimization penalty (or at the very least over-optimization link devaluation), and that is absolutely correct.

However, that’s only half of what we uncovered (in fact, it’s the least important half!)

If This Update Isn’t Just About Over-Optimization, What Else Is Factored?

In the recent post made by Matt Cutts, he specifically called out pages that were trying to fake relevancy (or just weren’t relevant at all), and gave an exaggerated example of what to avoid.

Although his example is a little extreme, it gives insight into what Google is going after: links that are not relevant (and therefore not likely to be created naturally). This should come as no surprise to anybody that Google wants to avoid this. After all, how can a “citation” or “recommendation” (which is how the concept of link “valuation” first came to be) be valid if the citation or link has absolutely nothing to do with the page or site that it is on?

We decided to test this by taking a look at the top links for all of the sites contained in our study to see how many of those links came from sites that are in the same, similar, or related niches.

This data shows something very important: penalized sites generally had very little links coming from domains and websites in the same niche. The numbers obviously show that it’s OK, and probably beneficial to have links coming from nonrelevant sites, however it’s important to supplement those links with links coming from sites relevant to the subject matter of your site.

Conclusion: What Is Google Doing?

We just demonstrated the “actions” Google is taking by evaluating one of the best data sets in existence to conduct a case study of this nature, so it should be obvious that Google is trying to prevent over-optimization of links in terms of anchor text use and valuating links from relevant sites higher than links from non-relevant sites in terms of SERP visibility for the promoted site.

If you take a look at those two facts separately, you get two separate things you should be doing.

However, if you take a look at those two results together, a juicier piece of info comes out:

Google is trying to replace or devalue “anchor text” use with “niche/content relevancy of linking sites” as a primary link relevancy, (or “quality”) signal.

Anchor text, has been proven by SEO’ers for the past 10 years as easy to manipulate. However, obtaining links from websites or pages in a similar niches and with relevant content to the keyword you’re trying to rank for is generally much harder to manipulate. This reality and ease of the manipulation obviously prompted Google to create this update.

Furthermore, unlike 2 or 3 years ago, the technology to determine the niche of a domain or webpage is becoming much easier and much cheaper to use (I know this because I’ve internalized and use this technology). That means reliance on anchor text is not nearly as big of a “ranking factor” as it was before when it was much harder to determine content relevancy on a large scale.

That’s Some Great Info! But What Exactly Should I Be Doing?

(I’m Lazy and Don’t Care About Google Updates. I Just Want to Rank!)

Method #1: Create Microsites 

What are those? Besides being important enough to SEO that we decided to use that as one of the words in our company name, they have been a great way to rank sites in the past, and continue to be even after this update. Microsites are small(ish) topic-focused sites that provide useful content relative to your niche, and make sure to cite your main site as a primary source. Google wants the Internet to be filled with sites that provides users what they are looking for, and give authority to sites that are relevant to what the user is looking for. By creating smaller sites of “higher quality”, you get to expand your presence in your niche, and use that expanded visibility and send relevant and authoritative positive ranking signals towards your main site.

Method #2: High Quality Blog Networks 

This might be the most “black hat” solution, but it’s still effective. Recently ALN and BMR have proven that low quality networks which seemed to good to be true, are too good to be true.

It’s no longer enough to have private networks with small amounts of content, anchor text that is poorly placed within the context of the article, no (or very little) accountability in the area of content quality, and other gaping network-wide footprints and general low quality attributes.

A completely internalized niche blog network (which in reality is really a group of microsites) is as effective as it ever was and generally more selective than large public blog networks to ensure proper quality control and avoid footprints. More on that later!

Method #3: Diversify Anchor Text

If you are building links yourself, you have probably reached a decision where you could spend X (whether in time or dollars) with the anchor text of “a term I want to rank for” or “a term that appears naturally but I’m not trying to rank for”. Although you are consciously aware that you need a natural mix of both, each time an SEO’er is faced with that decision they tend to usually pick the first option because, well… it’s no fun to spend time and money building links that will probably not directly help you rank! Stop doing that and make sure that over 50% of your links contain anchor text that isn’t a keyword you are trying to rank for.

What anchor text should you be using? From the data we’ve evaluated, “”, “MySiteDomain”, “”, “”, “The Title of My Website”, “here”, and “the title of one of my H1’s (that isn’t a keyword I’m trying to rank for)”, were generally used as anchors on sites that were not affected by the most recent Google update and are probably a good starting point to consider using moving forward.

Method #4: Play Google’s Game

Get completely legitimate whitehat links! All of the previous points are ways to emulate a “natural” backlink profile. Meaning, ways to make your site look like it’s whitehat, despite possibly taking some shortcuts. The other (often forgotten) thing you can do, is actually use whitehat strategies!

Write legitimate guest posts on niche sites, find ways to get media coverage (HARO is probably one of the easiest ways to find news stories related to your niche). Last, as we’ve talked about before, viral marketing not only provides lots of visitors, but a ton of legitimate link power.

Method #5: Run Your SEO Sites Like a Real Business

One of the biggest things I noticed when pouring through our massive amounts of data is that sites that portrayed themselves as a “business” fared a lot better than sites which viewed themselves as a way to obtain and leverage traffic from Google in order to monetize.

What does this mean? A lot of things, but one of them is to look at other traffic sources besides Google. Not only will that make you less reliant on Google, and their seemingly fickle SERP shuffles, but those other traffic sources will almost certainly indirectly help your site rank better on Google.

Bonus Method: Keep Checking This Blog! 

Each of the points above are worth an entire post, and over the next couple of weeks we’ll be doing exactly that. So come back often to see each of those 5 points fleshed out as its own full blog post!

I’m Too Lazy To Even Read Bullet Points. Give Me The Cliff Notes!

SEO is getting harder, but it’s still possible (and  still relatively easy) to make money with it. Stop being lazy, and a good way to do that is to not rely on these cliff notes and actually read the article!

Case Study: How I Lost My Link Bait Virginity To The Montauk Monster

Case Study: How I Lost My Link Bait Virginity To The Montauk Monster

My love affair with the Montauk Monster started in July of 2008 when I first saw the pictures of the bloated beast circulating the Interwebz. Was it a dead dog? Was it a turtle without a shell? Was it a genetic experiment from Plum Island gone horribly wrong?

Regardless of what it was… it definitely caught my eye and got my attention.

If you haven’t heard of the Montauk Monster it was an unidentified creature that washed up on the shore of a Long Island beach located in Montauk, New York on several occasions.

From the moment pictures of the beast were posted online it was an instant viral sensation that left many people wondering…    WTF IS THIS MUTANT CREATURE THING?

Romance that summer smelled like a mix of “low-tide and rotten garbage”, but that didn’t stop me from making the Montauk Monster mine. Forget love, it was nothing but LINKS at first sight.

You may be thinking that yours truly (Nicky Papers) might have a necrophilia fetish or an obsession with rotting carcasses, be assured the only thing that got me off was the WEB TRAFFIC.

Whoa, Nelly! The Montauk Monster only wanted me for my LINK JUICE? Not my LINK JUICE !?!?

We Didn’t Take It Slow

The secret to running a successful link bait campaign requires taking immediate action, selecting the right “trend” to exploit, and most important of all….. A GIANT SET OF SWINGING BALLS.

That’s right, you heard it right. MASSIVE NUTZZZZZ. Running a campaign covered globally as a result of “throwing gasoline on the fire” is not for the faint of heart or passive marketer. Think big!

Is Foreplay Really That Important?

If you’re not pre-heating the oven, stay the hell out of the kitchen. Prior to creating a phenomenal Link Bait campaign it’s important to recognize if the opportunity is worth your time to pursue.

1:) Does the story have mass appeal?
2:) Can you easily capture the attention of millions of people?
3:) Are there any risks associated with promoting the campaign?
4:) Will the campaign make money? You’re not running a charity. Profit first, notoriety second.
5:) What’s the exit strategy? How can your campaign be parlayed into your next venture?

Kissing And Telling

Let’s skip the appetizers and dive into the meat and potatoes. Nobody likes a “look at me story” but if you’ve made it this far you’re probably wondering HOW I POPPED MY LINK BAIT CHERRY ?

The first step was registering the domain The non-hyphenated version was taken so this was the best choice for buying an exact-match domain. Next, I installed WordPress and took the stance of a “concerned Long Island citizen” intrigued by the hype of the story.

Organic traffic was strong out of the gate as interest in “Beastie” escalated. As the media cycle started to wind down, I needed to give the people what they want… A LOGICAL EXPLANATION!

Next, I took video content and “over-analyzed” it in the form of a blog post to influence readers that the girls who originally found the carcass might be withholding certain truths about their discovery.

My readership was strong as a result of crafting compelling content offering a realistic “conclusion” to the unknown. With blog comments piling THICKER THAN KARDASHIAN BOOTY spreading the love on other sites featuring the Montauk Monster was necessary. Parasite SEO? I HAZ DAT.

I hit forums, blogs, wiki’s, social networks, and article sites to drop links promoting I registered accounts manually, developed online personalities, emailed webmasters, and “sockpuppeted” threads. I gave the story what it needed to spread: MOAR EXPOSURE.

The rest came easy after establishing an audience. Proposing that the Montauk Monster was a movie prop after creating a “mysterious microsite” was the next argument that I encouraged readers to consider. Suggesting it was a marketing ploy, was the marketing ploy. After my “theories” were posted on, traffic and interest surged as more speculation and hype was created.

The Honeymoon Phase

The Montauk Monster was a household name for the rest of 2008. What’s not to love about “Beastie”? Fans continued to show their love for the weird and bizarre. Highlights Include:

2008 was a great year for the Montauk Monster! was positioned as the “voice” of the story where journalists and fans embraced the community and visited for updates.

Additionally, keep in mind there was still NO CONCLUSION TO THE STORY AT THIS TIME.

The Boy Who Cried Monster

Just when you least expected it….It’s BAAACK. “Beastie” makes it’s triumphant return in the most recognized fabricated link-bait campaign of all time. Fabricated? Wait….Say What?!?!?

A couple from Southold, NY reached out through the contact form on claiming that they found a dead carcass resembling the Montauk Monster. FO’ REALZZZ?

The “shot heard ’round the world” blog post reached global audiences May 14th 2009 where it was featured on the front page of AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! simultaneously. CHAAA-CHING!!! served over 500,000 impressions before 11:30 AM EST that morning before crashing servers. Not bad for a basic looking WordPress blog and not spending a dime in traffic.

Watching the search term “Montauk Monster” reach #2 on Google Trends was one of the most exhilarating experiences in my career as SEO specializing in organic promotion.

Link building wasn’t automated. Content wasn’t spun. No paid links. PURE F’ING WHITEHAT.

To enhance the user experience, I posted a Blair Witch-style video on YouTube capturing my encounter with the carcass which quickly racked up over 1,000,000 views after it was released. Clear domain watermarkings, links in the right places, this effort was intentional my friends.

I still have no idea what the Montauk Monster is. It was probably a dead dog, or raccoon, or something. Who knows? I’m not a Marine Biologist, I’m a Marketer. This was business as usual.

Turning A Trick Into A Treat

Dr. Dre said it best, “you can’t make a hoe a housewife”. The same applies for viral campaigns. Income can be generated and web assets can be created, but these types of campaigns won’t generate sustainable revenue after the buzz dies down. Simply put, it ain’t a long-term biz model.

Hoe is short for honey, but how does this make you $$$ MONEY $$$ ???

1:) Paid Advertising: This is a no-brainer. Google AdSense, Banner Networks, etc.

2:) Mail Your List: Subtly push “offers” creatively via e-mail. (i.e. Don’t be a FAT and BLOATED carcass at the beach. Reduce unwanted belly fat in 72 HOURS GUARANTEEEEED!)

Use humor and references to the subject to add value. Who said Affiliate Marketing was dead?

3:) Licensing: Own proprietary content? LICENSE THEM BITCHEZZZ. Example above.

4:) Exploit Traffic: Zip submit pop-up ads asking the question “Is The Montauk Monster Real?” appeal to all demographics. Source cheap traffic, ride the trend, and send em’ down a co-reg path.

5:) Leverage Link Weight: was once a PR 6 domain where blogroll links were worth their weight in gold. Promote other sites from the bi-product of inflated link authority.

6:) Consulting Opportunities: Can you make lighting strike twice? With great power comes great responsibility. Creative agencies will pay $$$ for out-of-the-box thinking. Get Money, Get Paid.

7:) Sell The Assets: Selling the website might be in your best interest if you can find a buyer. Cash your chips in and don’t look back. It’s not your baby, it’s BIZZZNESS. On to the next one!

Cool Story Bro. What Next?

Running Link Bait or Parasite SEO campaigns? Taking on Reputation Management clients?

Then you ABSOLUTELY NEED to use Microsite Masters to manage organic campaigns.

The Montauk Monster is an example of a campaign that was managed the old fashioned way.

– I tracked rankings using public proxies or checking manually.
– I relied on EXCEL SPREADSHEETS to keep track of the actions performed.
– I used the same spreadsheets to track dozens of link building targets.
– I knew one day I’d help create a solution to manage SOPHISTICATED SEO campaigns.

Behold The Power Of Microsite Masters

Let’s use our organic campaign as an example!

We’re tracking 237 keywords across 19 domains. Not complicated, but not amateur-like either.

By using the EXPANDED VIEW feature you can now see the entire campaign in one view where you can sort by Website, Keyword, Country, Search Volume, Rankings, and SERP Position Changes.

The example above shows the view where ranking data is sorted by positive SERP movements within the last 24-hours. That’s right. You read it correctly. We are a DAILY RANK TRACKER.

The term “SERP Tracker” corresponding to our WickedFire Sales Thread URL reached front page territory on Google by increasing 18 Positions overnight. This is interesting…. How? Why?

We used WickedFire in addition to our own site to promote the service and increase visibility in the SERP’s. The link weight behind WickedFire responded well to the links created to promote the thread.

More importantly, Microsite Masters tracked the cause and effect of our promotional efforts by noting the vendors sourced and services we used, associated costs, and the SERP impacts realized.

BUT WAIT….There’s More!

Well, actually not. Just kidding guys!

However, the management team behind Microsite Masters is one of the hardest working, talented, most innovative, and just plain BRILLIANT group of individuals in the SEO Industry.

SEO is our livelihood. Creating intelligent solutions is our passion. Adding value is our purpose.

Simply put, Microsite Masters is a DOWN AND DIRTY RANK TRACKER run by a team that lives, breathes, eats, and sleeps all things SEO.

We’ve got GIGANTIC TESTICLES and we’re obviously not afraid to push the limit.

Own a website? Want to track your search engine rankings? Need accurate results?


Kind Regards,

Nicky Papers

P.S. Do you really think I’m that sleazy to leave a post script message?

P.P.S. I’d rather profit from posting pics of dead animals. (inb4 PETA THROWS A BITCH FIT!)

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