How to Check if You’ve Been Hit by Penguin 4

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how to check if you've been hit by penguin 4

In the wake of a fourth Penguin installment, utilizing new “Penguin 2.0” technology, around 2.3% of all English search queries will have been affected. The Penguin update is designed to combat manipulative (spammy) link building practices, and punish those who’ve indulged in the darker side of link building by throwing them down the rankings. This includes using automated link building services and submission software.

Hopefully, this article will give you an overview of how to tell if you’re affected by Penguin and what to do about it!

Have you been hit by Penguin?

If you know you’ve been using dodgy link building tactics, or suspect that you might be a target for Penguin, then your first port of call is to check your analytics for a sudden drop in traffic. If you can clearly see a plummet, then you’ve probably been hit.

sudden drop in analytics

If you monitor rankings, check these carefully, and be sure to turn off any location settings and personalization by adding “&pws=0” to the end of the query string in the address bar, to get as true a result as possible.


Look to see if you’ve dropped off for any specific keywords. Penguin operates at page level, so checking your home page might not be enough. You can check your analytics and webmaster tools accounts to see if you’ve lost any traffic or impressions for certain keywords.

search queries

If you think you’ve been hit, then run a full Majestic SEO report and take a look through your backlinks.

What types of links caused the penalty?

If you’ve been hit for a specific keyword, then check all the links that used that anchor text. You’re specifically looking for:

  • Paid directories & “search engines”
  • Social Bookmarking
  • Thin Content / Article Syndication
  • Paid links
  • Site-wide links
  • Hidden links
  • Anything that violates Google Search Quality Guidelines

I’ll go into detail on the three most common of these link types, so you can identify them yourself and take appropriate action.

Paid Directories – what’s the problem?

A lot of directories will have several options for inclusion. These are usually a “featured” and “regular” listing or “express” and “3 month” review time. The problem is that if you buy a link, then that link must be marked with the “nofollow” attribute, to prevent that link from passing any SEO benefit. Most of these types of directories do not use this attribute when they sell links. In fact, they rarely distinguish between a paid listing and a free listing at all.

If you’re linked to from these kinds of directories, then make a note of them and be prepared to undertake a link removal campaign. It’s easier said than done. Many webmasters of these directories will attempt to blackmail you into paying through the nose to take your link down (there’s no guarantee they’ll actually do it!).

Social Bookmarking – asking for trouble!

Social Bookmarking was all the rage once. (One lunch time, for about 10 minutes, about 3 years ago). You could buy 1,000 social bookmarks with one or two different anchor texts and you could achieve a slight (but very temporary) boost in SERP’s for those terms. The whole premise was riddled with danger from the word get go. Since the links carried so little weight, you would had to buy in thousands to get any real movement. Even then, you risked over optimising (which was eventually ground for penalization last year).

Identifying these types of links is easy. They all follow a typical format like the one below. The linking URL and domain name are a giveaway.

watch the expendables movie

These are likely to be penalised because of the speed with which they are built, the volumes they appear in, and the relatively little variation in anchor texts that link builders tend to choose. Many of these social bookmarking sites are parts of spam networks, or paid heavily by submission services.

Removal of these tends to be less tricky, but links can be difficult to track down due to the speed at with which they move through the site.

Articles – quality, not quantity

As with the other types of links I’ve detailed in this blog post, article syndication (article duplication) was commonplace a few years ago, and some link builders were slow to find alternative (and more creative) alternatives. Whilst a lot of article submission websites were penalised by the Panda updates, even more have been reduced to nothing by Penguin.

Articles are easy to spot and once you’ve found one, copying and pasting some of the body of text into a search will reveal duplicate versions of the article. Article submissions are penalised because they are generally of low quality (“the importance of owning red shoes”) and are very easy to obtain. These sites are thin on quality content, riddled with outbound links to all manner of other websites, and lack quality inbound links.

How to avoid future Penguin updates

Eventually, Penguin will become a part of the Google Algorithm, just like its predecessor, Panda. In order to future proof your website, it is well worth spending some time auditing your backlinks and working to remove anything that violates Google quality guidelines, such as paid directory submissions (with followed links), mass social bookmarks and article syndication. If you’re thinking of buying any of these as “packages” from SEO agencies, then don’t!

Build good, high quality links from authoritative sources and you can’t go wrong. Don’t over optimise your anchor text and make sure that your SEO agency only does manual and ethical link building.

James Newhouse

James Newhouse

Head of Link Building at Receptional
James joined the Receptional Link Building team at the start of 2012 after managing SEO projects for local, national and international brands. James specializes in... Read Full Bio
James Newhouse
James Newhouse
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  • Zain Shah

    Hi James,

    Great article. I do disagree about building social bookmarks. Social bookmarks in themselves are not questionable as long as they are created properly. Now if you were to build 100′ of social bookmarks every day with exact match or closely matching your anchor text, then yes, it is certainly going to get your site into trouble. The example you provided is very questionable. The title of the social bookmark is clearly keyword rich to high heavens. I use social bookmarks with other links building techniques and have not seen any harm as yet.

    • Patrick

      I still don’t know what the point of a social bookmark is or when anyone would need an “article directory.” Not saying I haven’t used them, it just doesn’t seem natural.

      • Yugam

        Hi Patrick,

        I totally agree with Zain Shah. I’m also doing bookmarking for my site and also for my clients but yes limited not in quantity. According to me, in SEO if you are making too many links in a day whether bookmarking, articles, link exchange and etc. Definitely it will affect you.

        I believe always make quality links and you will get the results.


    • Sahil

      SEO is definitely all about Content, Usability, building relationships and Personalization. SEO is all about being good, helpful and informative for users which helps a brand build trust, create awareness, get positive reviews and be well known or authoritative in what they do.

  • Charles Crawford


    This is such a great article. Thank you very much for sharing this. I have learned something new today, thanks to your post. Yes, I agree. Don’t over optimise your anchor text and make sure that your SEO agency only does manual and ethical link building.


  • Stephen Moyers

    Hi James,
    What a fabulous post you have shared! It’s truly informative and helpful for the webmasters. We should really avoid dodgy link building tactics in order to avoid triggering penalty for the site. I truly agree with you you that auditing of backlinks is really important and if we are not able to remove spammy links manually then we need to disavow such links. Really quality backlinks from authority sites are helpful to your site in every manner. I think social media sharing is also important for your brand.


  • Randy

    Hey, dear James
    Wonderful article indeed! You know how to add “&pws=0” to the end of the address of a link base on zen-cart system?

    • James Newhouse

      Hi Randy,

      I’m not sure I understand your question.

      &pws=0 is a parameter added to the end of the query string in Google search results, in order to turn off personalisation. It is similar to adding &tbs=li:1 to toggle Verbatim, for instance – it is not something you add to the URLs on your website, but a way of modifying what Google shows you by fiddling with the query string on a Google search results page.

      Glad you enjoyed the article

      Best regards,

  • Aditya

    Hello James,
    Is penguin crawl our website in every three months,,?

    Regards Aditya

  • Mukesh

    now hit by penguin 2.1 any recovery method.