Everything We Know About The Penguin Update – Part 2

Penguin update - Part 2Almost 5 months ago, I posted a timeline of events leading up to the first two Penguin updates. After it went live, I planned to write a follow-up as soon as the next Penguin update was released. So I waited… and waited… and well, you get the idea.

On October 5, Penguin 3 was finally released, and it had lots of friends (e.g., Panda 20, EMD 1, Top Heavy 2, etc.). In this post, I try to make sense of the chaos surrounding all of these updates by creating a new timeline that begins where the old one ended. This timeline includes important events (e.g., algorithm updates) as well as noteworthy posts, tweets, and videos that cover those events.

Now, let’s jump back in the DeLorean and relive one of the most “exciting” periods in the history of SEO…

June 5, 2012

During the “You & A with Matt Cutts” session at SMX Advanced, Matt Cutts makes it very clear that Penguin and Panda are not “penalties” because they do not involve manual action (i.e., they are algorithmic updates).

We have over 200 signals, and this is one of the signals.

Matt also announces that Google will eventually allow webmasters to disavow links “in a month or two or three.” (Or four.)

June 6, 2012

Danny Sullivan delivers a very memorable rant about links during the “Ask the SEOs” panel at SMX Advanced.

Here is the entire audio for the rant:

I’m not going to summarize the rant because it’s only 7 minutes long (just listen to it… you won’t be disappointed).

If you’re more of a visual person, Danny also explains his points in the following post: Link Building Means Earning “Hard Links” Not “Easy Links”.

I strongly encourage you to listen to the rant and/or read Danny’s post, but the following quote is the biggest take-away from both:

In much of life, the most valuable things are the things you have to work hardest to get. It’s no different with links. If you find an easy route to obtaining them, there’s an excellent chance you’ve found an easy route to obtaining links that either have, or will have, little to no value.

June 7, 2012

Tadeusz Szewczyk offers an important reminder that an effective SEO strategy extends well beyond just link building: You Want Link Building? You Need Something Else!

In the post, Tad emphasizes the importance of a more holistic approach to SEO (e.g., clean web design, linkable assets, a strong social media presence, and landing pages with compelling calls to action). Yes, links are important. But your site shouldn’t be awesome just to get links. Your site should get links because it’s awesome.

Daniel Tynski provides helpful update-related advice for business owners that extends beyond just the Penguin update: Want to Stay Ahead of Google’s Next Update? Change the Way You Think.

Daniel’s advice is presented as 6 tips, which are summarized below:

  1. Your Goals and Google’s Goals Can Be Aligned – As long as you strive to create true value for you visitors, you’ll be on the right track.
  2. Think Bigger – Search should only be one piece of your inbound strategy; expand your horizons, and learn to operate outside of search.
  3. Target Audiences, Not Link Profiles – Focus your efforts on audience building, and don’t seek links unless they are capable of sending relevant traffic to your site.
  4. Be Relevant to People, Not Robots – You want crawlers to visit your site, but you should focus your attention on pleasing your readers (i.e., the people that ultimately make your site a success).
  5. Concentrate on Overlooked Metrics – Look beyond search rankings, and focus on maximizing the value of every visitor to your site.
  6. Diversify Naturally – Focus on building a highly engaged audience, and the links will come… naturally.

June 8, 2012

Google quietly releases a Panda data refresh (i.e., Panda 3.7). A few days later, they officially announce it on Twitter:

June 10, 2012

TastyPlacement publishes an infographic based on a negative SEO case study: Testing Negative SEO.

Testing Negative SEO

As part of the study, the company launched a negative SEO attack against an internal property (Pool-Cleaning-Houston.com). Specifically, they paid $45 to build 45,000 comment links, 7,000 forum profile links, and 4,000 sitewide links (with money keywords in the anchor text) for a site they owned.

The links were built in phases (to monitor their impact), and not surprisingly, the sitewide links with overoptimized anchor text caused the most damage. In fact, these links effectively knocked the site out of the top 3 and completely off the first page of the search results. Consequently, this study serves as more evidence that negative SEO is possible.

June 11, 2012

Dr. Pete reports on an unconfirmed Google update (appropriately named “The Bigfoot Update”) that went live on June 4: The Bigfoot Update (AKA Dr. Pete Goes Crazy).

This post is extremely valuable for at least three reasons. First, it highlights an undisclosed update that created a significant amount of rankings fluctuations and lowered domain diversity by 2.6% (based on 1,000 monitored SERPs). The following graph illustrates this decline in domain diversity:

Declining Domain Diversity

Second, the post suggests that Panda 3.7 wasn’t the only major update released around June 8. The official announcement for Panda 3.7 claimed that the update only impacted less than 1% of queries. However, as the following graph shows, Panda 3.7 (and a mystery update) created more SERP fluctuations than the Bigfoot update (the purple bar) and the original Penguin update (not shown):

SERP Fluctuations

Finally, this post serves as a clear reminder that we cannot rely on Google to tell us what is important or what changes we should be monitoring. If you want to be successful, you have to make your own observations.

June 14, 2012

John Doherty provides a helpful guide for identifying and handling the Penguin update: Strategies for Diagnosing Penguin and Recovering.

In the post, John describes a 4 step process for diagnosing a potential Penguin attack:

  • Step 1 – Analytics: Compare important dates in your analytics data to determine if Penguin is responsible for an organic search traffic drop.
  • Step 2 – Which Keywords Dropped?: Really dig into your analytics data to identify which keywords (if any) lost the most traffic.
  • Step 3 – Download Anchor Text Data: Obtain the anchor text for your site’s backlinks using popular backlink monitoring services (e.g., OSE, MajesticSEO, Ahrefs, etc.).
  • Step 4 – Combine Data to Pull Out Learnings: Aggregate your observations from the previous steps to determine the appropriate next steps.

Matthew Taylor offers a link removal strategy to make your site’s backlink profile more Penguin-friendly: Post Penguin Recovery: Link Removal Strategy for Back Link Profile Clean Ups.

This post is actually a nice complement to John Doherty’s diagnosis post. After you follow John’s 4 step process, you might decide that you need to clean up your backlink profile. And if you fall into that category, Matthew provides a 5 step strategy for removing backlinks:

  1. Collect (and collate) all available backlink data – Be sure to include Google Webmaster Tools link data as well as data from popular backlink monitoring services (e.g., OSE, MajesticSEO, Ahrefs, etc.).
  2. Classify your backlink data – Put your backlinks into categories (e.g., sitewide links, image-based links, directory links, etc.), and gather as many contact details as possible (i.e., ways to reach out to a linking site’s webmaster).
  3. Identify high risk backlinks – Look for a high concentration of links coming from the same domain or IP address; look for links with low authority scores; look for links with over optimized anchor text.
  4. Document your outreach efforts – As you begin reaching out to webmasters to have high risk backlinks removed, keep track of every link you attempted to remove (as well as the response you received from the corresponding webmaster).
  5. Submit a thorough reconsideration request – After you’ve removed all of your high risk backlinks (or attempted to do so), submit a comprehensive reconsideration request that describes every detail of your link removal process.

June 18, 2012

Ryan Kent creates a helpful post about identifying link penalties in 2012.

Ryan begins the post by highlighting the 3 most important elements in a manual link-based penalty notification from Google: (1) “We’ve detected that…”, (2) “look for possibly artificial or unnatural links…”, and (3) “submit your site for reconsideration”.

Manual Google Penalty

Then, Ryan goes through the process of identifying overoptimized anchor text with two popular backlink monitoring services: OSE and Ahrefs.

June 19, 2012

Rae Hoffman publishes an excellent group interview about link building in the post Panda and Penguin world: Link Building With The Experts – 2012 Edition

The interview features 11 industry leaders (Aaron Wall, Dave Snyder, Debra Mastaler, Eric Ward, Julie Joyce, Justilien Gaspard, Michael Gray, Rae Hoffman-Dolan, Rand Fishkin, Roger Montti, and Todd Malicoat) and 13 insightful questions that cover a range of topics, including negative SEO, brand building, social media marketing, the long-term importance of links in Google’s algorithms, the evolution of link building techniques, and more.

June 20, 2012

BlueGlass posts an interesting interview with Aaron Wall: Unraveling Google’s Recent Updates.

In the interview, Aaron begins by identifying Panda and Penguin updates as “a subset of the general brand bias trend that has been in place for nearly a half decade.” His argument is that these changes are all meant to prevent small businesses from deploying a marketing strategy that exclusively relies on SEO.

Aaron goes on to list concrete examples of when Google’s business interests helped dictate the “relevancy” signals that were promoted in the search algorithms. And he advocates various Google alternatives (e.g., Bing, social media sites, niche community sites, etc.) for small businesses that are looking to overcome the brand bias.

Then, one of the interview’s most controversial predictions comes when Aaron discusses social signals:

After Google buys Twitter, they will start counting tweets as a relevancy signal, but so long as the social relevancy signals are owned by third party ad networks and are sold as ad units (Twitter sells followers and retweets, Facebook sells likes), I wouldn’t see Google putting too much weight on them.

This quote is interesting for at least two reasons. First, Aaron obviously assumes that Google is going to buy Twitter, which is an interesting conversation topic in and of itself. Second, Aaron does not believe Google is assigning much (if any) value to Twitter and Facebook social signals, and it also seems like he is discounting the importance of Google+ social signals (since he completely ignores the network’s existence).

Aaron finishes the interview by discussing the reality of negative SEO, explaining why Google hasn’t released a tool that allows webmasters to disavow links, and giving tips for how to do online marketing with a budget.

June 21, 2012

Ian Howells releases a short presentation that summarizes how to diagnose Penguin and how to recover or rebuild a site that’s been impacted by Penguin:

One of the most interesting observations from this presentation is found on Slide 13 (“My MFA Test”). Ian pasted the content from a penalized URL onto a new URL, and he was able to restore most of the content’s original organic search traffic.

June 22, 2012

BlueGlass posts a Q&A with the company’s president (Greg Boser) at their SEOpen House event: Your Post-Penguin Questions Answered.

The Q&A includes 5 videos (more than a half hour of content) as well as a textual description of Greg’s most important points. Here’s a summary of a few of those points:

  • To be safe from Penguin, you need high quality content that is supported by external links and an audience that is actively demanding even more content.
  • Greg predicts that penalties for over-optimized internal anchor text are coming down the pipeline.
  • Engagement is key. You need an active audience. You need social shares, and you need RSS subscribers!
  • High quality content marketing takes time… and money. Clients need to be educated on the expenses associated with creating great content.
  • Link development should be a byproduct of high quality content creation and not an autonomous activity.

June 25, 2012

Google releases another Panda data refresh (i.e., Panda 3.8) about 2 weeks after the previous one.

Ann Smarty publishes an alarming post about the legality of linking to other sites: Am I Not Allowed to Link (Legally)?

Ann received a cease and desist notice from her hosting provider because one of her websites linked to another site. Backlink removal requests have become quite common post-Penguin; however, the link in question is a legitimate editorial link (i.e., it is not manipulative or associated with any sort of negative SEO).

This post truly captures the Penguin-induced fear and hysteria associated with backlinks.

June 27, 2012

Bing (not Google) officially announces a Disavow Links tool in the following post: Disavow links you don’t trust & SEO Analyzer updates.

Bing's Disavow Links tool

For more information about the tool, check out Barry Schwartz’s coverage or Vanessa Fox’s coverage.

June 28, 2012

Jason Acidre provides a helpful guide for how to protect your site from negative SEO.

In the post, Jason provides a number of helpful tips for protecting your site against negative SEO attacks, including the following:

  • Start with the On-site Factors – Make sure your content is information-rich and remarkable (i.e., it compels others to comment on it and share it socially).
  • Beef up the homepage’s link profile to sustain link equity – To best defense against negative SEO is a strong backlink profile full of high-quality links from relevant, highly authoritative sources.
  • Build more positive signals around your site – Your backlink profile is just one signal of your site’s user engagement. Build your audience; become more active on the social Web; branch out into other types of content.
  • Authority Building – Focus on building your brand by publishing on top industry blogs.

July 3, 2012

Julie Joyce lists 131 (legitimate) link building strategies, which emphasize various best practices (e.g., content marketing, social media, etc.).

Here are just a few of Julie’s legitimate link building strategies:

  • When looking for potential link targets, always keep traffic in mind! You want links that will deliver relevant traffic to your site.
  • Create more than just textual posts. Experiment with comics and videos (and any other form of multimedia you can think of).
  • Interview someone. The interviewee typically links to the interview, and you get to learn more about someone in your industry.
  • If you guest blog, do NOT submit the same content to multiple sites. Only contribute high quality, unique content.
  • Don’t get complacent. The SEO landscape is constantly changing, and you need to evolve with it!

July 5, 2012

Ian Lurie makes an important observation about reconsideration requests in this post: How Google gave the spammers all the power.

Specifically, Ian argues that Google is being too strict with the reconsideration process, and as a result, legitimate sites are not being rewarded for their efforts to remove spammy backlinks unless every suspicious link is eliminated. Ian summarizes his point with this catchy phrase: “If any spammy links remain, your request goes down the drain.”

Finally, Ian begs Google to provide a “link disavow tool” (similar to what Bing released a few days earlier)… or to at least give site owners more credit for their link removal efforts.

July 9, 2012

Eric Enge publishes an interview: Matt Cutts and Eric Talk About What Makes a Quality Site.

During the interview, Matt expresses concern about infographics that employ spammy techniques (e.g., poorly researched information, deceptive linking practices, etc.).

I would not be surprised if at some point in the future we did not start to discount these infographic-type links to a degree.

Moving forward, your infographics need to be closely related to your business, and they need to avoid manipulative linking practices. Deceptive widgets were already targeted in previous iterations of the Penguin update, and it definitely sounds like deceptive infographics are next.

Matt ends the interview with generic advice that applies to all aspects of SEO:

The main thing is that people should avoid looking for shortcuts.

July 17, 2012

Google adds functionality to Google Webmaster Tools that allows webmasters to download their backlinks, sorted by date.

July 18, 2012

Jane Copland sends the following tweet:

The newsletter referenced in the above tweet is no longer available online, but here’s a screenshot:

Children's Furniture Company closing

As the newsletter explains, Children’s Furniture Company was forced out of business due to the Penguin update’s impact on their online sales.

Jane’s tweet compels numerous SEOs to reach out to the company in an effort to clean their backlink profile, but the company informs them that it’s too late to help. Consequently, Children’s Furniture Company becomes the most famous Penguin victim in the SEO community.

July 19, 2012

Google begins sending a new wave of unnatural links notices to webmasters. These notices appear to be identical to the ones that Google began sending back in March.

July 20, 2012

Matt Cutts explains that the most recent unnatural links notices are NOT the same as previous notices. Whereas the previous notices were sent when Google took action on a site as a whole, the new notices are being sent when Google distrusts individual links to a site. Here’s Matt’s explanation on Google+:

Matt Cutts on Google Plus

Danny Sullivan tries to make sense out of the confusion in this post: Insanity: Google Sends New Link Warnings, Then Says You Can Ignore Them.

July 23, 2012

Giuseppe Pastore posts a round table discussion about the importance of anchor text in a post Penguin world: Anchor text future according to 19 experts.

The discussion features 19 organic SEO experts (Gianluca Fiorelli, Julie Joyce, James Agate, Ian Howells, Mike Essex, Wiep Knol, Branko Rihtman, Jason Acidre, Peter Attia, Rishi Lakhani, Jon Cooper, Paddy Moogan, Annie Cushing, Stoney deGeyter, Ralph Tegtmeier, Hugo Guzman, Ann Smarty, IrishWonder, and Sean Revell), and although each expert expresses a unique opinion, the following observations emerge from the round table:

  • The general consensus is that the weight of anchor text will decrease over time (i.e., it will have a smaller impact on search rankings).
  • Almost everyone agrees that exact anchor text will be devalued as a search engine ranking signal.
  • Most of the participants believe that the weight of internal anchor text will decrease (or remain the same) in the future.
  • Many participants agree that search engines will give more weight to the text surrounding a link’s anchor text.
  • Everyone believes sidebar and footer anchor text will become less important, which is intuitive since Penguin explicitly targeted spammy links in these sitewide locations.

The discussion also includes recommendations for anchor text distribution as well as each expert’s unique advice about how to handle anchor text going forward.

July 24, 2012

Google releases another Panda data refresh (i.e., Panda 3.9).

July 26, 2012

Dr. Pete announces a new tool for monitoring fluctuations in the Google SERPs: Mozcast.


July 27, 2012

John Doherty posts a video about using more effective internal linking on your website: Smarter Internal Linking – Whiteboard Friday.

In the video, John explains the dangers associated with using sitewide footer links, and he proposes a few ways to improve internal linking strategies.

Matt Cutts writes a post to clarify Google’s new unnatural links notices: New notifications about inbound links.

Matt begins by reviewing the original unnatural links notices that Google started sending back in March. These messages notify site owners that their sites have been penalized for unnatural links, and they represent severe situations that require action (and ultimately a reconsideration request).

According to Matt, these new notices are for less severe situations where Google is distrusting specific links (and not an entire site).

The new messages make it clear that we are taking “targeted action on the unnatural links instead of your site as a whole.”

Next, he recommends that webmasters respond to these notices by checking their most recent backlinks (through Google Webmaster Tools) and cleaning up any links that appear to be “widgetbait, paid links, or serious linkspam.”

August 6, 2012

In response to people complaining about link building post-Penguin, Sujan Patel identifies 101 ways to link build in 2012.

Sujan’s list of 101 link building techniques is broken down into 9 categories, and here are a few of my favorites:

  • Add TYNT code to your site to generate a backlink when others copy and paste your site’s content.
  • Embrace other forms of media (e.g., presentations on SlideShare, videos on YouTube, etc.).
  • Give a presentation at your local college or university.
  • Get interviewed by the media (HARO is a great resource for this).
  • Give away lots of free stuff (we obviously subscribe to this philosophy with our free eBook, free SEO analysis tool, and free website badges).
  • Reclaim links to pages that return 404 HTTP status codes.

August 10, 2012

Google announces that they will begin incorporating “the number of valid copyright removal notices [they] receive for any given site” into their ranking algorithm: An update to our search algorithms.

Danny Sullivan analyzes this update in the following post: The Pirate Update: Google Will Penalize Sites Repeatedly Accused Of Copyright Infringement.

Google releases a list of their June and July algorithm changes: Search quality highlights: 86 changes for June and July.

For an analysis of these changes, please read Demystifying Google’s June & July Algorithm Changes.

August 15, 2012

Matt Cutts answers questions from the audience at SES San Francisco about a variety of topics. When asked about an upcoming Penguin update, he has this response:

You don’t want the next Penguin update… [the Google] engineers have been working hard.

He also predicts that the next wave of updates will be “jarring and jolting” for webmasters.

Not surprisingly, the SEO community freaks out (a common occurrence when Matt speaks publicly), and the interwebs are quickly filled with FUD about upcoming updates.

August 16, 2012

Matt clarifies his SES San Francisco comments to Barry Schwartz. In this clarification, Matt compares the current state of the Penguin update to the early days of the Panda update. The bottom line is that it will take time before the Penguin update becomes as consistent as the Panda update.

August 20, 2012

Google releases a Panda data refresh (i.e., Panda 3.9.1).

Dr. Pete documents SERP crowding and shrinkage in the following post: SERP Crowding & Shrinkage: It’s Not Your Imagination.

Using Mozcast data, he highlights 3 important events for domain diversity in the Google SERPs: (1) a decline after the original Penguin update, (2) a decline after the “Bigfoot” update, and (3) a slight improvement around August 14.

SERP crowding

Dr. Pete also identifies a large spike in the number of Google SERPs that contain exactly 7 results instead of the traditional 10 results. On August 13, 10.7% of the Mozcast data set contained these smaller SERPs, and on August 14, that number rose to 18.3%.

SERP shrinkage

For even more information about these SERP-related changes, you can also read Danny Sullivan’s coverage: 7 Is The New 10? Google Showing Fewer Results & More From Same Domain.

August 21, 2012

Jim Gianoglio explains how to use Google Analytics features to monitor Penguin updates: Monitoring Penguin Updates with Google Analytics.

In this post, Jim publishes custom reports, dashboards, segments, and alerts that you can import directly into your Google Analytics account to immediately begin monitoring your organic Google traffic.

August 30, 2012

Glenn Gabe provides an interesting case study about a client that had 3 domains impacted by Panda (1 of the domains was also hit by Penguin): March of the Penguins, Which Led to a Friendly Panda and Finally a Recovery.

Pandeguin traffic

Glenn helped the client make the same Panda-friendly changes to all 3 domains, but the domain that was hit by both Panda and Penguin updates (Glenn calls this “Pandeguin”) did not recover.

After months of investigation, Glenn and the client finally identified the domain’s spammy links (most of them were created before the client bought the domain). They removed as many of these links as possible, and then, they submitted a very thorough reconsideration request (even though the domain was affected by an algorithmic update — not a manual one).

On August 20, the Pandeguin domain recovered, which is interesting because it’s the same date that Panda 3.9.1 was released (see above).

Penguin recovery

This case study raises a number of interesting questions. Are the Panda and Penguin updates related? Was a Penguin update embedded in the Panda 3.9.1 update? Are Penguin updates secretly released without Google notifications? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are currently unknown.

September 3, 2012

Nick LeRoy details his experiences with Penguin 1.1 in the following post: How I Smacked Google Penguin In Its Ugly Little Beak.

First, Nick reveals that one of his personal websites lost around 75% of its search traffic after Penguin 1.1, and he identifies six possible culprits (e.g., spammy exact match domain, extremely low backlink anchor text diversity, templated content, etc.).

Nick systematically corrected many of the suspected culprits, but the site didn’t recover until he made the templated content unique (and noindexed the site’s remaining duplicate content). Nick doesn’t give an exact date for the recovery, but based on the following screenshot, the recovery appears to occur around August 20 (i.e., the same date Panda 3.9.1 was released, and the same date Glenn Gabe’s “Pandeguin” domain recovered):

Penguin traffic

If the recovery occurred on August 20, it raises the same questions as Glenn’s case study. Specifically, since Nick’s domain lost its traffic due to Penguin 1.1, why did it recover due to a Panda refresh? Are Panda and Penguin updates slowly morphing into a consolidated “Spam” update?

September 7, 2012

Anthony Tuite and the Barracuda Digital team release the Panguin Tool — a new Google Analytics overlay that illustrates the impact of Google’s updates (Panda, Penguin, etc.) on a site’s organic search traffic.


September 10, 2012

Ross Hudgens suggests that “term” anchor text might be a signal in future Penguin updates: Term Anchor Text – The Future of Penguin?

Ross begins this post by identifying the two link building practices that were hit the hardest by Penguin: (1) overusing “phrase” anchor text and (2) overusing sitewide links.

Obviously, if your site was impacted negatively by Penguin, you’ll want to clean up your backlink profile to avoid these practices. However, when modifying “phrase” anchor text to make it appear more natural, Ross cautions against ignoring “term” anchor text.

The idea behind “term” anchor text is simple. Take the anchor text distribution from your existing backlink profile, and convert it into an n-gram distribution. For example, if you have a backlink with “best link building” as its “phrase” anchor text, its 2-gram “term” anchor text is [“best link”, “link building”].

Moving forward, Ross believes you should strive for a natural “phrase” anchor text profile as well as a natural “term” anchor text profile.

September 18, 2012

Google releases another Panda data refresh (i.e., Panda 3.9.2).

September 27, 2012

Google secretly releases a major Panda update, which is eventually labeled Panda 20 (this is explained below on October 4).

September 28, 2012

Matt Cutts publicly announces the exact-match domain (EMD) algorithm update on Twitter:

According to Matt, this update is meant to reduce the number of low-quality EMDs that rank high in Google’s search results.

September 29, 2012

Dr. Pete posts his initial findings about the EMD update: Google’s EMD Algo Update – Early Data.

The most notable observation is a 24-hour drop in EMD influence from 3.58% to 3.21% (as measured by the Mozcast data set):

EMD influence drop

September 30, 2012

Gregory Smith has the following exchange with Matt Cutts on Twitter:

Read Matt’s response carefully. He admits that at least one other update rolled out at the same time as the EMD update.

October 4, 2012

Google releases a list of their August and September algorithm changes: Search quality highlights: 65 changes for August and September.

For an analysis of these changes, please read Demystifying Google’s August & September Algorithm Changes.

Barry Schwartz reports that Google released a major Panda update on September 27 (i.e., it was rolled out around the same time as the EMD update): 20th Google Panda Algorithm Update: Fairly Major.

According to Matt Cutts, the update was a Panda algorithm update (not just a data refresh), and it affected “about 2.4% of English queries to a degree that a regular user might notice.” To put things into perspective, that is the largest percentage announced since the first Penguin update back in April, which was announced to impact “about 3.1% of queries in English.”

To simplify update numbering, Danny Sullivan decides to label updates based on the total number of updates that have occurred. Thus, since this is the 20th Panda update, it’s called Panda 20.

October 5, 2012

Google releases a Penguin data refresh:

Following the new update numbering system (initiated by Danny Sullivan), this update is called Penguin 3. The most interesting aspect of this update is that it’s not particularly “jarring” or “jolting” (see the comments made by Matt Cutts on August 15).

For more information, check out Matt McGee’s coverage or Barry Schwartz’s coverage.

October 8, 2012

Ben Milleare publishes a study about the impact of the EMD update: Google’s EMD Update: The Numbers.

As part of the study, Ben analyzed Google’s UK SERPs for 5,000 keywords, and he identified domain rankings before and after the EMD update. Here is a summary of his findings:

  • The average exact-match domain ranking fell from #13.4 down to #26.6.
  • The average partial-match domain ranking fell from #39.7 down to #47.7.
  • 8% of the exact-match domains that began in the top 10 fell out of the top 100, and 5.7% of the partial-match domains followed the same pattern.

October 9, 2012

Google releases an update for their page layout algorithm (i.e., Top Heavy 2).

The purpose of this update is to devalue websites that don’t have sufficient content above-the-fold (i.e., they have an excessive amount of ads above-the-fold instead of visible content).

For more information, check out Danny Sullivan’s coverage or Barry Schwartz’s coverage.

Matt Cutts posts a video about Google’s view on guest blogging for links:

The short answer is that high quality blogging will keep you on Google’s good side. As long as you don’t abuse guest blogging (e.g., spinning articles, “turning the crank to get a massive number of links,” etc.), you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

October 15, 2012

James Norquay publishes an Interview with an EX-Member of Matt Cutts’s Search Quality team!

This interview with Andre Weyher covers a number of Google-related topics, including Google algorithm updates and link building. In the early part of the interview, Andre makes the important observation that Google is “fed up with people breaking the guidelines on an industrial scale and are coming down very hard on webmasters who do.” Then, he provides this insight about link building:

… getting a link from a high PR page used to always be valuable, today it’s more the relevance of the site’s theme in regards to yours, relevance is the new PR.

Andre also gives three link building tips:

  • Anything you can do automatically or at scale puts your website at risk.
  • Not all directories are bad. As long as you focus on high quality niche directories, you’ll be fine.
  • All of your link building efforts should focus on acquiring links from high quality websites.

Finally, one of his last comments is probably the most important:

… if you want to please Google with your SEO, then forget about SEO.

October 16, 2012

Matt Cutts announces Google’s Disavow Links tool at Pubcon. Shortly thereafter, Google posts an official announcement: A new tool to disavow links.

Google Disavow Links tool

For more information, check out Danny Sullivan’s coverage, Barry Schwartz’s coverage, or my post about the tool: 3 Conspiracy Theories About Google’s Disavow Links Tool.

October 17, 2012

Matt Cutts posts a video that briefly describes Google’s current thinking about specific link building strategies:

The important take-away from this video is that Google values “editorially chosen” links. Therefore, if you’re relying on link building techniques that force users to link to your site (e.g., widgets, theme-inserted links, etc.), you’re potentially putting your site at risk.

October 19, 2012

Rand Fishkin posts a video about The Death of Link Building and the Rebirth of Link Earning.

In this video, Rand makes the argument that Google’s latest updates are aimed at devaluing links that are “built” instead of “earned” (i.e., links that are artificially created instead of being acquired organically). He also advocates thinking about links the way we did before search engines existed: as vehicles that drive relevant traffic to your website.

With that in mind, Rand proposes link earning alternatives for 8 outdated (and potentially dangerous) link building techniques (e.g., link exchanges, article directory submissions, link networks, etc.).

October 24, 2012

The post you’re currently reading goes live 😉

Now, It’s Your Turn…

I would love to hear from you in the comments below. Which of these events had the biggest impact on SEO? What are your predictions for the upcoming months?


  1. says

    Hey Steve, great post, very detailed.

    It is going to be interesting to see what happens with the first true update to penguin and if we do get the “jolts” and just how they materialise.

    I know for a fact that many of the sectors we work in are still dominated or at least flooded with sites working on the back of spammy links and there are ways to work around the penguin thresholds so many sites are seemingly back on the grind and building up more links.

    All of this needs to be combined with a better effort to only reward truly relevant links and to do that well enough to stop the spammers who will always be there chasing the algorithm till it’s dying day.

    I had a look at what we know about Penguin and the thresholds for anchor text along with some general thoughts about link building and put together a set of conservative guidelines for link building which may be a useful addition to the article: http://www.bowlerhat.co.uk/blog/seo/anchor-text-ratios-and-link-building/

    Ultimately, the industry needs to concentrate on earning links with great content (like this post) and relevant outreach and Google needs to make sure the folks that play nice win over the folks that play dirty.

    As long as spam works, and link spam works, there will be spammers so we have to do better as SEO’s and content creators and Google has to do better at detecting and at least nullifying the effects of spam links.

    Anyhow, great read and one I shall refer back to and refer other people to for some time to come!


    • steve says


      Thanks for the comment! I’m really glad you enjoyed the post :-)

      I couldn’t agree with you more (on pretty much everything you said). The argument can be made that Matt’s “jarring and jolting” prediction came true with a collection of updates (e.g., Panda 20, EMD 1, Penguin 3, Top Heavy 2, etc.), but I definitely think a much more disruptive Penguin update is coming down the pipeline soon.

      I like your golden rules of anchor text, and I’m right there with you: we all need to do a better job of creating high quality content and generating genuine audience engagement. And hopefully, Google will start tracking down more manipulative links in the niches that are still being overrun with spam results.

      Thanks again for commenting!


  2. says

    Awesome roundup of Penguin. Going to see even more changes 3 weeks from now when all the disavows kick in.

    You should also check out the case study on Penguin 3 from Cemper – http://www.linkresearchtools.com/case-studies/google-penguin-3-update/

    They looked at a bunch of metrics for Penguin 3 winners and losers and found correlations that dealt with:

    high correlation: link velocity trend, domain popularity (backlinks)
    med correlation: deep link ratio, indexed pages
    (partial list, they tested 15 variables total)

    Lot of great incites from their report. I took away that this Penguin release focused on different components than the previous updates – trying to plug in the holes so to speak.


    • says

      Also, wanted to mention that anchor text wasn’t a big part of this update. In fact, the Penguin 3 winners (didn’t get hurt/improved rankings) actually had more money keywords than brand keywords while the losers were vice versa.

      This is the opposite of what we have seen in the previous updates.


      • steve says

        That’s definitely interesting. I need to spend some time investigating these winners because it seems counter-intuitive that the Penguin update would start allowing a higher percentage of money keywords. Obviously, other signals factor into this as well (e.g., niche, authority of the sites linking with money keywords, EMD/PMD considerations, etc.) so it’s difficult to completely isolate the true effects of anchor text.

    • steve says

      Thanks for the comment Oleg! I totally agree about the disavows, and I actually think the tool’s release foreshadows a much bigger update on the horizon.

      I just saw Cemper’s case study this morning so I still need to dig into it. Thanks for the overview :-)

      As always, I really appreciate your feedback!

  3. says

    Fantastic work Steve. I know how long it took to come up with such a timeline, and I know many people will appreciate adding some context to what they have been suffering.

    I do not see the part where it was leaked that Google uses manual means to do some of the “rating” work being done. http://searchengineland.com/google-search-quality-raters-instructions-gain-new-page-quality-guidelines-132436

    And it is this action that concerns me personally the most. I won’t say just yet, but it seems pretty clear there may be a lot of ethics issues here too. I can prove Google manually de-indexed our site in no uncertain terms, and that it took a personal set of emails to even have the situation looked at.

    In my mind, and of course I can be wrong too, Cutts and Google created a monumental circle jerk here, and all this updating is about CYA and optimizing what comes of all this. It will be interesting (and poetic) to see how many mom and pop businesses take the stand if and when Google gets their pants sued off.

    This who Panda affair reminds me of the BP oil spill, only worse. At least people understand oil coated pelicans, but Pandas are so foreign. Thanks to you guys for the SEO zoology lessons.


    • steve says

      Hi Phil,

      Thanks for your comment and your kind words :-)

      My apologies… I completely overlooked that SEL article. I’ll look through it and update the post accordingly.

      I’m sorry to hear that your site was de-indexed; hopefully, the review process you mentioned successfully corrected the situation.

      I completely agree with you: these updates have been terrible for many small businesses. But I don’t think the legal system is the answer. As Matt Cutts explained in June, the courts have consistently protected search engine rankings as free speech. Therefore, it’s unlikely that small business owners will receive retribution in the courtroom.

      A better solution is to build a diversified traffic generation strategy (i.e., don’t put all of your eggs in the Google basket). This is obviously easier said than done, but it’s the only way to truly protect your site against Google’s algorithm updates.

      Thanks again for commenting!


  4. says

    Awesome work Steve!

    The part 2 is also great like the first & I congratulate you for writing this awesome wiki describing panda & penguin. It seems google are working hard to eradicate spam from search but in the process they are forgetting that there are SMBs who are sweating a lot just make their business & will go down due to this update.

    Was sad to see that “The Children furniture company” closing down their business due to penguin & I hate that 7 search results instead of 10 on google. There are waves around the community that the next google target would be “Guest Blogging”.

    • says

      Thanks Hyderali!

      You’re absolutely right… A LOT has changed in the past few months, and it’s very difficult for the SEO community to stay on top of it all. It’s borderline impossible for SMBs to do the same because they’re focused on their own industries: not Google’s constant evolution.

      It’ll be interesting to see what Google goes after next. It could be guest blogging, infographics, or something completely unexpected. Obviously, we’ll all find out soon enough.

  5. says

    wow ! that was a big chunk of information. I actually had to read it twice :)
    Thanks Steve for a great timeline on zoo ! My personal view on what’s happening is that google chooses his favorites and disregards all others (even though they can be good websites). In our industry for very competitive generic terms there were big changes in domain diversity. As some of the keywords searched bring the same website on 1st page of SERP 3 times and 5 times on second page though there are pretty descent and even more relevant and trustworthy websites.
    I personally think favorites are chosen by 2 parameters:
    1. Adwords account history (money spent and time)
    2. If the website was caught on any of their previous updates (no matter which animal it is).

    P.S. Anchor text diversity still counts.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Suren! I’m really glad you enjoyed the post :-)

      Google has always maintained that paid and organic activities are treated separately so I sincerely hope that policy continues indefinitely. The line that differentiates organic and paid search has been blurring over the years as Google directly competes in more and more niches (e.g., shopping, travel, etc.), but I still believe (maybe naively) that Adwords participation is not explicitly factored into organic rankings.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Stuart! I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment… that’s my ultimate payment for the effort it takes to compile these posts :-)

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