Penguin 2.0 was released on May 22 and while I have seen many articles written about the type of sites and the types of backlinks that were affected, I have not seen many recovery stories.  Because this was the first Penguin update since the advent of the disavow tool, most SEOs really felt that sites would be able to recover by disavowing the majority of their spammy backlinks.  I am sure that there are thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands of sites that have used the disavow tool in hopes of recovering from Penguin, but judging by the lack of "YAY! WE RECOVERED" posts, there may not have been many recoveries.

Related: Is Penguin Recovery Possible?

Some interesting graphs

I thought I would share with you some images of impression data from Webmaster Tools for several sites with which I have worked.  For privacy reasons, I will not name the sites, but I will give a little bit of information of what was done, and why I think the traffic went either up or down on May 22, the date of Penguin 2.0.

But first, I would like to state that I am not an expert on Penguin recovery.  I believe that very few people are!  I am completely obsessed with Penguin and would like to think that I know a lot about why sites get affected by Penguin.  But, I have not actively done Penguin recovery work.  I will explain why at the end of this article.  However, if you need help removing a manual unnatural links penalty, then I can definitely help you there.

Site #1 - Lots of links disavowed

This site was given to me as a test site.  It was severely affected by Penguin 1.0.  The site had many keyword rich anchor texted links pointing to it as a result of embeddable widgets that were circulated across the web.  As a test, we disavowed every link that contained a keyword as anchor text.  We did not remove any links.  This was done months ago and no improvements were seen.  No linkbuilding has been done for quite some time, and the site has remained untouched for many months now.  Here are the site's impressions in Webmaster Tools (WMT):

It is pretty obvious that the site benefitted from the Penguin update on May 22.  However, the site has seen no additional search traffic.  I believe this is because the improvements that the site saw in rankings still did not put them on the first page for most queries.

Site #2 - Unnatural Links Penalty Site

This site was given an unnatural links penalty in March of 2012.  We do not know whether Penguin 1.0 affected the site because the rankings were already severely affected by the manual penalty.  In order to remove the penalty, we removed a massive number of links and also disavowed a large number as well.  We managed to get the penalty removed, but the site saw no improvement in rankings or traffic.  However, when Penguin 2.0 updated on May 22, here is what happened to this site's impressions:

The site received some benefit from the Penguin update.  The graph looks impressive, but this site is in a competitive niche and an increase from 100 daily impressions to 200 daily impressions is not enough to have an impact in traffic.  Still...I think it is important to note that Penguin 2.0 did have a slight positive effect on this site.


Site #3 - Unnatural Links Penalty Site

This site has a very similar story to the last.  It received an unnatural links penalty in March of 2012 and traffic decreased sharply.  There was a further decrease in traffic that was evident on April 24, 2012, the day that Penguin 1.0 was released.  We removed this site's manual penalty by removing a large number of reciprocal links as well as directory links using keyword rich anchor text.  We managed to get this site's penalty revoked prior to the disavow tool being available.  However, there was no recovery seen.  This was most likely because the site was still under the effects of Penguin.  When the disavow tool was released we disavowed the remaining unnatural links.  When Penguin finally was updated on May 22, here is what the site saw:


Again, Penguin gave a slight benefit to this site, but the increase in 250 impressions a day was not enough to see a significant traffic increase.


Site #4 - Penguin prevention?

A site owner came to me worried that their site would be affected by Penguin.  After auditing their links it was quite clear that many of them were putting the site at risk for Penguin.  As a prevention (or so we thought) of Penguin we decided to disavow every link from low quality sources that contained keyword rich anchor text.  It was interesting to note that after doing so, no loss in rankings was seen.  However, this is what happened when Penguin updated on May 22:

There was a significant drop in impressions for this site that coincides with Penguin.  This site used to hold a #1 organic ranking (above the maps listings) for several of its main keywords as well as good local pack listings as well.  On May 22 this site lost its organic rankings for its main keywords.  The local ranking has not changed.  It appears that disavowing links did not completely prevent the site from a Penguin hit.  Who knows...perhaps the site would have fared worse if the disavow had not been filed?  It's also possible that Penguin 2.0 affected more than just keyword rich anchor text.  For this site we did not disavow low quality links that were anchored with the site's url.

Added on May 31:  I initially did not include this example because it is a confusing one.  However, as this post has attracted attention and generated some discussion I thought it was worthwhile to add this strange case.

Site #5 - Unnatural Links (from Blackhat blog networks) Penalty Site

This site belongs to an upstanding business.  They were performing relatively well in the search engines and then hired an SEO Company to help them to do even better.  Unfortunately they hired a company that used blackhat methods by building keyword rich anchor texted links within completely nonsense articles and posting those articles on private blog networks and autogenerated web 2.0 sites (like Blogspot and WordPress subdomains.)  We spent a long time classifying which links were natural and which were not and then asked for reconsideration before removing any links.  Two days prior to this, we disavowed every single domain containing unnatural links to the site.  We told Google our plan which involved trying to get some of these spam sites removed by reporting them to their host, but explained that it would be close to impossible to get webmasters to individually remove links.  Much to our surprise, we got a "manual spam action revoked" message without ever removing a link!

Weeks went by and the site showed no recovery.  I assumed that this was because the site was still under the influence of the Penguin algorithm.  I was certain that the site would improve once Penguin updated, but instead, here is what happened on May 22, 2013:

I have no explanation for this drop in rankings.  I feel very confident that the only links still remaining to this site (that aren't disavowed) are completely natural.  I am also confident that our disavow file was in the right format.  Penguin should not have affected this site.

My theories:

I can't draw any concrete conclusions from this small amount of data.  However, I have a few theories.

Does the disavow tool work?

I have heard some SEOs theorize that the disavow tool will only work if you are concurrently filing a reconsideration request.  Google is quite clear that filing a reconsideration request will not be helpful if you have an algorithmic issue like Penguin.  However, the documentation for the disavow tool says the following:

Q: Should I create a links file as a preventative measure even if I haven’t gotten a notification about unnatural links to my site?
A: If your site was affected by the Penguin algorithm update and you believe it might be because you built spammy or low-quality links to your site, you may want to look at your site's backlinks and disavow links that are the result of link schemes that violate Google's guidelines.

To me, this sounds like the disavow tool should be used for Penguin hit sites.

In my first example above, no links were removed but many links were disavowed.  When Penguin finally updated there was some improvement.  Now, we can't draw conclusions from just one site's experience, but I do believe that the disavow tool can be helpful when trying to recover from Penguin.

Can you recover from Penguin without there being a Penguin refresh?

I asked John Mueller (a Google employee) this a while back and his answer was kind of vague:

+Marie Haynes theoretically, in an artificial situation where there’s only one algorithm (which is, in practice, never the case), if a site is affected by a specific algorithm, then the data for that algorithm needs to be updated before it would see changes. In practice, while some elements might be very strong depending on what was done in the past, there are always a lot of factors involved, so significantly improving the site will result in noticeable changes over time, as we recrawl & reindex the site and it’s dependencies, as well as reprocess the associated signals. So yes, you’d need to wait for the algorithm to update if it were the only thing involved, but in practice it’s never the only thing involved so you’re not limited to waiting.

Also keep in mind that for long-running processes (be it algorithm updates like this, or other higher-level elements in our algorithms), it’s never a good idea to limit yourself to small, incremental improvements; waiting to see if “it’s enough” can take a while, so I’d recommend working to take a very good look at the issues you’ve run across, and working to make very significant improvements that will be more than enough (which users will appreciate as well, so there’s that win too).

I do believe that there are ways that a site can recover from Penguin without the algorithm refreshing, but to do so likely involves being able to 404 affected pages and also to attract a good number of natural links.  (Note: I have not tested this.)  But, it does seem that Penguin places some type of flag on a site until the algorithm updates.  All of the sites I mentioned above had link removal/disavowal work done prior to Penguin updating but did not see improvement (or decline) until the algorithm updated.

Why are we not seeing any major Penguin 2.0 recoveries?

I believe that for a site to recover from Penguin, two things need to happen:

  • The bad links need to be cleaned up.  Perhaps disavowing them is enough, but maybe removing the majority is necessary.  Site #1 in my examples did see an improvement without removing any links so it is possible that just disavowing links is enough.
  • New links must be earned. The key word here is "earned".  And THIS is likely why we have not seen major recoveries.  Most sites that were hit by Penguin were previously ranking on the power of self made links that were anchored with the site's main keywords.  If a Green Widget website was previously ranking on the power of blog comments, bookmarks, blogroll links and spun articles all linking using the keywords "Green Widgets", then how likely is it that that site is going to be able to get natural links to replace those?  A truly natural link is one that is an earned link.  While it does occasionally happen that a site links to another site using a keyword as anchor, it is not likely to happen on a large enough scale to make a difference.

This last point is why I have not taken on Penguin recovery clients to date.  I feel very comfortable auditing, removing and disavowing links, but this is only one part of Penguin recovery.  As my company does not currently take on monthly SEO contracts, I can't devote time to transforming a site to one that can attract links on a scale that is large enough to make a difference.  I do believe though that if the sites mentioned above were able to attract good, natural links they should now be able to see not only recoveries but probably increases in traffic.

Your thoughts?

I debated on whether to publish this post.  It is not meant to be a guide to recovery by any means.  But, Barry Schwartz recently wrote the following:

The interesting thing, with Penguin 2.0, I barely saw anyone claim a recovery from Penguin 1.0. I've seen a ton of SEOs and webmasters complain they were hit but I don't think I've seen anyone claim a recovery.

The sites that I wrote about here have not really seen recoveries because they are not seeing increases in traffic.  But, many did see an improvement in impressions.  Perhaps the information that I have provided will help us learn more about Penguin.  I believe that the more concrete data we have the better.

Comments are welcome!