What is Google Penguin and How Does It Affect Your Website

Published: 14 December 2015

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What is Google Penguin and How Does It Affect Your Website

This month Google announced that the eagerly awaited Penguin 4.0 update won't be released until 2016. If you're not a seasoned SEO expert, Google's Penguin is probably a mystery - if you've heard of it at all - but this little algorithm could have a big effect on the number of new prospects that find your website.

Penguin is nothing new. It's been around since 2012 and from its launch some online publishers have seen their once-healthy search rankings in Google plummet or, worse still, disappear off Google search completely.

There is plenty of information out there on Penguin, but if you're not a techy, it can be baffling to understand exactly what it is, let alone know how to ensure it doesn't affect you. Here we give you the lowdown on Penguin in layman's terms; how it could affect your business and what to do if you get caught out.

What is Penguin?

Penguin is an update Google made to the way it calculates where to place or rank a website in a search. Its aim is to stop the spammers; those that use 'black hat' SEO techniques to artificially increase where their sites rank on Google.

Back links (links from other websites to your site) have been an important part of legitimate search engine optimisation ('white hat') for many years. Back links are considered an indication of the quality and relevancy of a site, an endorsement of your content by others.

The Penguin update was intended to catch those that buy back links or obtain them through link networks to artificially boost the number of links to their site - penalising these publishers and making way for legitimate sites that contain quality, relevant content.

But publishers acting legitimately have also been caught by Penguin, seeing their site suddenly drop in the rankings or disappear off the search network altogether.

And while penalised publishers rushed to fix the problems with their websites and remove the links causing the problems, they were often waiting months or even years for their previous ranking to return because the changes they made were often only recognised the next time a new Penguin update was released.

If you rely on gaining new prospects who find your website from a search, a drop in where you website ranks on Google could have a dramatic affect on the number of visitors finding your site and seeing the properties you have to offer.

What will Penguin 4.0 do?

Originally planned for 2015 but now delayed until 2016, the new release is believed to bring in a 'real-time' element to Penguin, effectively meaning that Google will be detecting both suspect sites and fixes made to penalised sites much more quickly. This is good news for anyone who does fall foul to a Google penalty as it means that their ranking position will recover far sooner.

However, it does also mean that penalties for websites will occur much more regularly and rather than happening en-masse after an update is released, they could occur at any time.

How to know if you've been caught by Penguin?

When Google releases its 4.0 update to Penguin it could become more of a challenge to see if you have been affected because of the fact websites will receive penalties at any time rather than just when an update is released.

If the number of visitors to your website has taken a nose dive, compared to a few days before and the drop in numbers is from visitors arriving at your site from Google search, your website could have been hit by Penguin.

You'll be able to see this in your website's analytics tools. If you don't already use any, Google Analytics is a free and effective way to see what's going on with your website's traffic. Where are the visitors coming from? What do they do when they arrive at your website?

If you think you have been affected, look through your site for anything that could look like spam. Check to see if you have received any messages from Google directly, informing you of spam detected on your site.

You can find out who is linking to your site by using the Google Search Console (formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools) by viewing 'Links to your site' under 'Search Traffic'.

How to remove back links from your site?

If you think you have been hit by a Penguin penalty and you think it has been caused by an external link to your site, you should approach whoever is linking to your site and ask them to remove the link in the first instance.

While 'negative SEO', the act of certain publishers purposely spamming links to a website to negatively affect where it ranks in a search, is a possibility it isn't a commonly reported problem.

However, if you cannot get spammy links removed from your site you do have another option: Google's Disavow tool. Sounds technical, but put simply it allows you to send Google a list of links you do not want to be considered when it decides where to rank your site.

Once Google 'disavows' these links, they will be of no benefit in boosting your search engine optimisation but neither will they work against you and negatively affect your ranking.

How to avoid getting a penalty in the first place?

Of course the easiest way to deal with Penguin penalties is to ensure you don't get one in the first place.

The best way you can do this is to ensure any efforts to optimise your website's search engine rankings are natural. Create strong original content that people will naturally want to link to, attracting high quality links back to your site.

Be relevant

If you create a blog post with the intention of linking back to your website, make sure the content you write about in the blog is relevant to the links you include. For example, a blog on life in a particular city would lend itself well to links about news articles you've covered on the area or a piece you have created on house prices and demand in that location.

Commenting on other posts and including a link to content on your site can boost your rankings but only if that link is relevant to the content of the original post. Try to shoehorn your link into comments that aren't relevant and you're likely to appear on Google's spam radar.

Mix it up

Vary the platforms your links come from. Links from different platforms, such as social media, business directories and blog comments can help to improve your 'link profile' but remember a link from social to your site will not be viewed with as much importance than a link from content, such as a blog.

Build your links gradually

Another element Google looks out for is the speed at which your back links grow. If it sees a sudden spike in the number of links to your site it's likely to see it as a spammy technique. And, whether intentional or not, if an element appears to be spammy it could land you with a penalty. If you're trying to build the number of links to your site, make sure you do it gradually.

Of course, links to your site are only one piece of the jigsaw when it comes to search engine optimisation. Read our 5 Essential SEO Techniques to Boost Your Search Ranking for more tips on getting your website seen on search.

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