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Unraveling SEO: Impact of Google's Penguin Update on Link Building Practices
Learn about the seismic shift in SEO strategies caused by Google's Penguin update. Understand how it changed link building, and how to adjust in light of these transformations.

Post Penguin: Our Ever-Changing SEO Landscape

While Google algorithm updates have a history of altering the SEO landscape, the release of Penguin and subsequent Penguin updates introduced drastic changes to the industry and historically common SEO practices. The latest on Google and using AI for SEO: https://fruition.net/blog/ai-seo-for-ai-search-engines

Nearly 10 years ago Penguin Rolled Out

At Fruition we just so happened to have hired two new SEO services analyst the day penguin rolled out. What a baptism by fire for them. One of them quit within a few weeks ("it was too much stress") the other turned into a phenomenal director of marketing. Sylvia, said "Within one hour of my arrival, the entire office was buzzing and running around about a huge new update from Google that was affecting websites, rushing to check all client sites to see who was impacted. Welcome Penguin 1.0. While the team was running around and analyzing all the information, I was left with my head spinning trying to wrap my head around all the new developments. However, I knew that same day I had made the wise choice choosing Fruition (from 3 job offers) in seeing that we were very minimally affected by the update and that most clients remained steady in rankings and traffic."

Penguin Google Update

Penguin 1.0 and its subsequent updates have gradually become a major source of anxiety for many SEO firms and really has shaken up the industry. Given its impact, adapting your strategy and updating your website and approach is unavoidable. Although it’s all but impossible to truly understand Google’s algorithms and predict changes entirely, there are often hints of what is to come.

Penguin hit link building

At the core of all Penguin updates is link building. In order to understand just how this traditional SEO practice of networking was affected, let’s take a look at the importance of links, what they do, and how each Penguin update specifically impacted the Internet landscape.

The Importance of Link Profiles

Establishing a link profile, or “link building,” is a broad term that means different things to different people. Ultimately it takes the traditional marketing-based practice of networking and injects it into the Internet marketplace. To put it in other terms, if the Internet were a reality television show, your link relationships would be your strategic alliances.

The Purpose of Establishing a Link Profile

Forming friendships and developing business relationships with others is important in establishing your brand. It takes groundwork. In the Internet world, links are the foundation of your website’s reach. The more links you have, the more popular you are. The more popular you are, the more visible you are to potential customers. A site without links is like a storefront in the middle of nowhere with virtually no access roads for potential customers to find you.

The Bad Side of Link Building

Networking, establishing link profiles and link building aren't inherently bad. In fact, link building makes sense—particularly if you are a new site. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t with links or link building. The problem is with those who abuse the system. Once link building was established as a means of networking and promotion, some sites began to abuse the system. Links appeared in unrelated keywords or on directory sites. Demand for links not only affected link quality, but also made link building a business with sites requiring payments for links without disclosure. This is cheating, but not strictly “illegal” in the eyes of Google—at least in the past.

Enter Penguin 1.0 (April 2012)

As link profiles became increasingly shady, Google took an aggressive stance against it. Each update went one step further in sending a very clear message. Upon Penguin’s release, Google took aim at the practice of link building as a primary form of SEO. While there were two subsequent installments of Penguin (1.1 and 1.2), the updates looked at three main issues.

  • Over-optimized anchor text
  • Links to (and from) bad neighborhoods
  • Irrelevant inbound links

The first Penguin installment all but broke the Internet, but it only touched the surface of what was to come.

Enter Penguin 2.0 (May 2013)

A little over a year later, Penguin 2.0 was released. Penguin 2.0 built upon 1.0, taking the fight against dodgy links a step further. It crawled beyond the homepage, delving inside a website’s inner workings to investigate its link profile. Penguin 2.0 penalized sites, evaluating links in relation to three issues.

  • Contextual links
  • Article spinning
  • Tiered link building (micro-sites using an established parent site’s link profile).

All contextual links in internal content needed to be relevant to the article and your site. Article spinning was also targeted. This is a common practice that often leads to bad quality content and subpar grammar (at best). Another trick of the trade, so to speak, that was targeted in 2.0 updates is the practice of tiered link building, where microsites use an established parent site’s link profile in order to provide instant ranking.

Reactions and Fallout

Each Penguin update has resulted in many sites being penalized. This leads to a drop in traffic (sometimes drastic), which then results in a loss of revenue. You can clean things up, resubmit to Google, but it can take a few weeks or more to get your site back in Google-approved order. The hit your site takes directly depends on its organic site traffic, ultimately making it harder to grow your business. Unfortunately, many websites were unaware of the issues. And since 2.0 went beyond the homepage, a website’s past practices could easily come back to haunt them.

Advertising and Disclosure

Advertising drives traffic to your site. Some of this is in the form of paid links. You advertise because you want to drive traffic to your site. Advertising is not intended to directly drive organic traffic. There are certain rules in place about advertising and sponsored posts that simply require sites to mark paid links as “no follow” links. It is still a link that drives traffic to your site, but by marking it appropriately Google does not factor that traffic into its ranking. Google has no problem with you making money off of your site; it is the under-the-table deals that try to undermine its system Google takes issue with.

What This Means for the Future

Google is serious about fair play online. Each penalty rollout, in their eyes, forces site owners to recognize and pay close attention to the rules. Until Penguin was released, sites often relied on creative ways to get around the rules; some even profited from this. Google sees this as unethical and has vowed to stop the practice of link building as a form of SEO. If you haven't used Fruition's Google Penalty Checker get setup and check your website against both Penguin and Panda updates (over 100 updates). It's the fastest, most accurate, and easiest, way to see how your website was impacted by Google's algorithm changes. Each Penguin update has further emphasized this point, quickly reacting to new threats and doubling down on their own. The times have changed, yet in some ways, the Internet landscape has come full circle. Just as in life, building your site takes hard work and patience. Organic links should be just that. It’s not an easy task, but your site is your business. “Get rich quick” schemes do not work, ultimately fail, and overnight link building will get you penalized. In this business, you have to work hard to ensure continued success. I love telling the story of my 'crazy' first day at Fruition and have been asked several times "How did you choose to come back and why did you stay in the industry?" The answer is simple: I love working in this challenging and ever-changing industry where we are always learning and adapting strategies to best serve clients. The success of helping clients excel in their business combined with choosing to work at a quality company like Fruition that employs white-hat SEO best practices and has a true passion in helping clients keeps me coming back to work every day – with a big smile on my face and ready for the next challenge!

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