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!

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

  1. Excellent post, one of my niche site got hit it was a EMD and i had a combination of Low Quality and High Quality links not the ones that were created using any software.

    However, my site was also penalized earlier 4-5 months ago and at that time it seemed liked a Neg SEO campaign the links were creating using SER and mostly korean links. I decided to submit a Disavow request and the site started to recover slowly and it was back on 1st page and in Top #3 not this penguin update has again dropped the site in SERP’s not entirely but partially the main keyword is on still dancing between 5-6th page right now.

    While some keywords went down and some still have good standing so i’m assuming the ones that were badly hit were the ones that had the highest % of anchor usage.

    Now i’m not entirely sure what caused the drop this time because i have another site that has links from the same sources but it’s still stable wasn’t affected at all.

  2. Great post and appreciate the analysis. My site got hit during this algo change and its good to know what steps I need to undertake to get back up in the SERPs. I will definitely be building some good video and citation links soon. Thanks again.

  3. This correlates exactly with what I’m seeing from my sites.

    I recently started investing in hiring writers that publish articles to some seriously authoritative sites. These sites haven’t been hit but the rankings have increased significantly.

    PBNs are also working like a charm as long as you don’t build spammy backlinks to them, sell them and avoid the basic footprints.

    Great post, I didn’t even know you guys had a blog.

    I expect this article to go viral.

  4. I think it is about time Google did this the right way. Smacking sites for links that they may or may not have control over (negative seo) created a business for slimeball “marketers”. Instead of getting their customers ranked because they deserve it they would instead pummel innocent hard working small business owner’s websites with shabby links until they got them spanked by Google. All along all Google had to do was what they have been doing for a while judging backlinks and ignoring all but the good ones from authoritative sites so this is long overdue IMHO. Thanks for the great post!

  5. Nice thanks a lot for the info, for me I will just concentrate on trying to make viral content that gets some natural links and hopefully some will be high quality. If that fails or I need a boost then maybe a private network will come in hand 😉

  6. I had been hit with a link penalty earlier this year and finally got it resolved. I lost ALL of my rankings (I went from SERP 10 to SERP 250) on all of my keyowrds. I read and reread all of the “potential” issues this update may cause so I made sure to cut out even remotely suspicious links. I also updated my copy. Well the penalty was lifted, the update has dropped and I have seen ZERO movement of my SERPs in the past week. Frustration seems to be my newest friend!

  7. It is good to hear that the high quality back-link to authoritative website is a good SEO/SERP measure.
    This points to the update from Penguin 3.0, Google recent algorithm.
    Content providers have to build relational links on a larger measure.
    I am a writer. I am recently aspiring to create a good level of website visibility and mailing list.
    I believe I should keep on writing high quality post and make functional linkage with the relevant website of professional cadre.
    Good post and analysis.

  8. Nice post, its good to see that things are at about a 50/50 split on those links. Honestly speaking it only makes sense that Google works it that way. I mean if we did nothing but sit back and only get links the natural way by people linking to your quality content than you have no control over who links and who doesn’t. Some will come from quality sites, and some won’t. For Google to do anything to far from a middle split than they would be asking for the impossible now wouldn’t they? Good job, thanks for a quality read.

  9. Great post. It’s nice to get some info about the update from some real data. There’s a lot of ‘opinions’ flying around about this update not based on any actual test data. What I’ve seen with my sites backs up your analysis of Penguin 3.0. I think this is a good update on Google’s part.

  10. You do not really believe all that do you ? There are plenty of sites ranking right at the top using nothing but GSA spam, SAPE or anything else you can think of. Penguin, as it happened last year, did nothing but make the pockets of Google’s share holders bigger. If you think other wise your sadly mistaken. You can put all the graphs up you want. Good clean white hat sites got hit and spam sites too. If you build a link that is not “natural” to Google’s eyes then your always going to be at risk.

    – What is a “high quality link” now a days ?
    – PBN’s, done properly, with only YOUR link on it, does work like crazy. Def agree on that
    – Negative SEO is a real thing so people should worry about it. Give me a website of yours and you let me know if Neg SEO is a real threat or not.

    Very good post though. IMO But would love to hear a response to what I had to say..

    1. I would argue that Google is not perfect and in instances where you see blackhat sites at the top it is because Google mistakenly believes some of those links are high quality (or that the domain it is on is high quality). As long as Google doesn’t do a perfect job determining what types of links are good and what type of links are bad it will always be possible for blackhat sites to rank.

      > Give me a website of yours and you let me know if Neg SEO is a real threat or not.
      You’re posting on one of them 😉

  11. Great article! I agree with almost everything.

    I was hit with a three phase negative SEO attack, which diluted all my earned links. As a result I was affected by Penguin 3.0 and my rankings dropped significantly. I’m trying to do the best I can to recover. The website has a lot of time and love put into it and I’m won’t give up on it. I was not quite aware it was happening as I don’t monitor my links, only traffic.

    I don’t create “viral” content so to speak, the things I write are quite specific and for a smaller audience. Earning a tonne of quality links to outweigh links sent to me as spam is difficult.

    In my opinion, the little guys really did loose here, and it has become quite clear when a new update will be released; if you monitor the stock market.

  12. I think some people may jump to the conclusion that if they don’t have any good links, their site will be penalized. That is not true at all. I have a number of sites with zero quality links that rank on page one for numerous fairly competitive phrases. Of course, those sites have zero bad links, too! I think the bottom line here is that if you have some low quality links, you better get some high quality ones to offset them.

  13. Given that every other Penguin release could be shown to hit sites with a certain % of keyword anchor text from dofollow sites, why didn’t you include anchor text in this study? Wouldn’t that be the natural place to start?

    Exact anchor text can come from any type of link source so, if you could prove or disprove that the majority of sites that got hit had X%+ keyword heavy anchor texts, then the results in this post would be correlations and not causes.

    After Penguin 2.1 one of my clients got hit badly, about 25/100(ish) of his local rental sites. We did extensive investigation and found that the only difference was that the 25 sites that got hit all had 30% (down from about 45% from previous Penguins) or more total inbound links with keyword anchor texts (including all variations up to 5 words long, and excluding nofollow). Even more interesting was that ALL of his sites used the exact same link sources, a large portion of which were what you would consider low quality; spun press releases, various profiles, wikis, web 2.0 blogs, a few PBN sites.

    I have never seen any evidence that Penguin has ever discriminated about link sources, it’s just that people who over-optimise anchor text tend to also use low quality link sources.

    I have seen plenty of sites hit by previous Penguin updates that only used high quality link sources but abused anchor text. And, after this update I have plenty of sites ranking with manipulative ‘low quality’ links that have very well planned natural anchor texts on ‘spammy’ link sources.

    If you could prove that there is no correlation between the sites in this post that got hit and the % of inbound keyword anchors then I think this post would be conclusive.

    However, in your first two pie charts if just half of the sites in the orange portions had keyword anchors then that would show that on the sites that got hit had 30%+ keyword anchors and the sites that didn’t had much less. That would be a much more sensible place to start before presuming that Penguin has completely changed to look at link source rather than anchor usage.

    If that was the case then this Penguin would be a completely new animal.

    I do agree with the de-valuation rather than penalisation though, that seems to be a trend with a lot of sites dropping rather than getting totally bombed.

    1. Hi Patch, you may have missed it, but our previous Penguin analysis ( that I wrote was the very first post written about Penguin possibly being about anchor text spam. We didn’t include that in this study because we didn’t feel we had anything extra to add that our older post didn’t already cover.

      It is my personal opinion, having written both Penguin case studies, that both are likely a factor. For instance in our original study we also saw that links being in the same niche highly correlated with whether a site got hit by Penguin which indicates Penguin is not exclusively about anchor text. Google is likely using hundreds or thousands of different factors for Penguin so we are trying to explore all possibilities.

      1. Hey Alex,

        I remember that post very well, and it’s a piece of art! And Nicholas Kneuper who made a YouTube video from that data and took it further needs a shout out too.

        However, 🙂

        “For instance in our original study we also saw that links being in the same niche highly correlated with whether a site got hit by Penguin which indicates Penguin is not exclusively about anchor text.”

        It doesn’t really indicate that, if you take into consideration that most people abusing anchor text are using generic link sources and most people that attract links from relevant websites get linked to with non-keyword anchors (esp. at the time you posted that before niche PBNs were popular).

        I just feel like you’re guilty of over-complicating Penguin.

        Also there’s the fact that Google have said this was just a refresh and not an update. So there should be no new signals in this ‘refresh’.

        Don’t get me wrong, I have maximum respect for your data-based posts, there’s not enough of it in the SEO world. I just think that this post backs up speculation about link sources being a factor of penguin like “yeah this penguin now goes after web 2.0 links”. I think that’s a pretty ridiculous statement.

        I run a wholesale link building company, so I see what people (‘SEOs’) order. I know that even people who are aware of Penguin don’t understand how to properly diversify their anchor texts. Specifically, they don’t understand that long tail keyword anchors are still keywords anchors. And if 90% of your backlink profile is URL anchors but they all come from nofollow press release sites, you still have a very high % keyword anchor text of your dofollow link profile. Those are the very same clients that disregard my advice and then come back crying when there’s a Penguin update or refresh.

        You said it yourself in this post “What this means is that bad links by themselves did not cause sites to get hit by Penguin.”

        If you just broke it down a little bit further I think you would have found that EVERY site that got penalized had at least X% of keyword anchor texts.

        My guess is that number would be exactly what I found on the last penguin in my own case study which was around 30% (because this was a refresh not an update, or ‘re-release’). You would find sites in there that have 30%+ and didn’t get penalised, but then if you break down the nofollow/dofollow (nofollow links are discounted and therefore can’t hurt your website) the numbers would suggest it’s just about anchor texts.

        I could be wrong, but I only base my theories on the data I see, and from all the client link profiles I’ve analysed and from all the case studies I found online Penguin always boils down to anchor text.

        Send this data to Nicholas Kneuper again, see what he makes of this one 🙂

        1. I find it is very unlikely that Penguin is just an anchor text penalty. Even in our original post we also noted other factors, such as niche relevancy.

          In fact the graphs from our first Penguin post definitely indicate it was not just anchor text. Although nearly every site hit had very high percentage of anchor text being used, if you looked at the sites that didn’t get hit, some of them also had low anchor text diversity, so it is clear Google is looking at other factors as well (otherwise those sites would have also all been hit.)

          We know that Google is looking at hundreds of different factors for Penguin (this is very clear to us just from our own knowledge of artificial intelligence and how a Penguin classifier would realistically function), so we wanted to look at what those other factors might be as well.

  14. Thanks for the insight, I was just wondering if a link to my site on a blog with only one or two comments would be worth it for me – doesn’t sound too good…What if the content is relevant to my site?

    1. We didn’t really differentiate whether a comment was “high quality” or “low quality” but anecdotally I can say that the sites that weren’t hit tended to have higher quality blog comments and less auto approved garbage. Considering the main conclusion we ran into from this post is that getting good links is more important than worrying about bad links I would comment in any place where you think it is relevant or helpful and not worry too much.

  15. As of the officials, the penguin 3.0 update is still going on! But Thank god my blog getting a regular traffic, though it’s not penalized yet! Even, it can’t be !

  16. Thank you for the post, I still remember your first post after penguin update in 2012. Your conclusion is very convincing. We all know we should get good quality links to make our site rank. The question is how to find these high quality links? Can you share some tips on this?

  17. I wanted to be clear by what you meant by “sites that were not affected by Penguin were twice as likely to have Youtube links in their backlink profile”. Do you mean links from the descriptions of videos hosted on YouTube?

    Would that be from videos hosted on your own YouTube profile?

    Or is that from video descriptions on other peoples YouTube profiles?

  18. Seems saturation of over optimized anchors would be a larger contributing factor as well these days. As for a good PBN, Alexa has answered. Don’t rely completely on second tier crap IBL’s.

  19. Good write up. Always nice seeing numbers backing up people’s claims. Quality wins and it is nice to see Google getting better at determining what quality really is. Sure there is still a ton of web spam out there and lots of sites ranking with nothing but spam links but these sites will not last. It is a constant battle and some people are content with the burn and churn style of sites.

  20. So are you saying that if these bad backlinks have created a crazy, ridiculous backlink ratio, then they won’t hurt the rankings? In other words, if these spammy backlinks have given the client 25% anchor text ratio for his money keywords, that doesn’t hurt him?

  21. Great research So You Mean Quality Links Still work it’s time to Focus on Quality Links but What About relevant Quality sites Links If i take link on Home Page is this good idea or not is homepage , or blogroll work or not.

  22. @Alex – Thank you for the great write up and perspective!

    You said: “…recovery does not come from obsessively worrying about disavowing or removing bad links” rather “getting more high quality sites to link to you”.

    – I 100% agree that getting more high quality links is critical but…

    Question I have is:

    How much time (if any) should be spent towards link detox via disavow of the spammy backlinks?


    1. My personal thoughts are that it is ok to do, but I would be to not spend much time on it. Our data shows that Google is essentially “disavowing” (as opposed to penalizing) your links themselves, and we generally don’t like the disavow tool because we think Google might use the data from that tool to uncover blog networks (although that might not be so bad for you if you plan on never using that link source ever again). On the other hand disavowing links is almost certainly not going to harm you.

      Since there is little harm to disavowing links and there is a potential gain, my opinion is this: Do it if you were hit by Penguin, you see obviously spammy links in your backlink profile, and you recognize and are ok with the fact that each link you disavow is the equivalent of e-mailing Matt Cutts and telling him that you think that this link is a low quality link that future updates should devalue. However, I would not waste hours and hours and hours combing through every backlink you’ve ever built. Based on our data, Google is devaluing and not punishing these links anyways, so there are probably much better things you could be doing with your time.

      Hope that helps!

  23. Late comment, I know, but this blog post was archived in my “to read” folder and I finally got around to it, LOL. 🙂 Thanks for a great post – you guys should send these out more often. I was getting ready to disavow a bunch of spammy links that were created by the company I hired to create my site, but after reading this, I don’t think I will bother with the disavow tool. Instead I plan to manually build high quality links myself as suggested in your post, and hope that once I have enough of them my poor site will return to a better SERP position. I also plan to add more quality content to the site, as I suddenly realized after reading the above, that it might be viewed as “thin” at under 10 pages total.

    How about silo’ing? Once I have enough content to warrant it, should I restructure my site with multiple articles in different categories, linking each group of articles in series within each category? I have read that on-page SEO does play a substantial role in rankings.

    Thanks again for the great info!

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