Penguin 2.0: Your Roadmap to Recovery

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As an SEO, I’m actually a counselor, a life coach, and a depression recovery expert. Here’s what I see in my inbox on a daily basis:

Email 1

And the terror-stricken pleas for help:

Email 2

I get it. People’s livelihood depends on the variances of the algorithm. When Penguin 1.0 and 2.0 hit, it caused a more drastic impact upon individuals than did the financial meltdown of 2008.

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So what do you do? Is there life after Penguin 2.0? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Is it worth it to make a go of it in the web world? Can you recover?

I’m optimistic. Penguin 2.0 is still very new, and there’s still much to be learned about what has changed. But if we learned anything from Penguin 1.0, it’s that the Penguin targets webspam. Most often, that webspam is in the form of unnatural or manipulative inbound links. With that knowledge, here’s my best guess at how to dig yourself out if you’ve been hit; my four-step recovery plan for rising up from the doldrums of an algorithm change, and succeeding in this new, Penguin 2.0 world.

Please note that as new data becomes available and the SEO community learns more about Penguin 2.0 collectively, this information may become outdated; I’ll do my best to keep this post updated appropriately.

1.  Get a grip.

The counselor part of my job has to say it. Penguin causes panic attacks, and I completely understand why. It’s appropriate to feel the heart-stopping crush of fear when you gaze in disbelief at your tanking rankings. That’s okay.

But it’s also important to get a grip and keep your head up. Decisions made in desperation are rarely good ones. As I’ll discuss below, a long-term approach is vital to success.

One of the reasons why so many sites have gone belly-up is because they depended upon black-hat strategies. Black-hat strategies sometimes work, but they only work for a short time. In time, the algorithm catches up, and the site goes kaput.

If you refuse to capitulate to desperation, you’ve gained the weapon of sound mind that will keep you stable through any algorithm upset. When other sites are throwing up their hands and giving in, you’re staying steady — building authority, maintaining integrity, and establishing your reputation in the niche. It sounds cliche, but in the world of SEO, slow and steady wins the race.

Okay, psychotherapy session over. Let’s get some SEO advice on the table.

2.  Adopt a longview strategy.

If you want your Internet business to pay your kids’ way through college, to build an inheritance for your grandchildren, or simply to take you through to retirement, you need to have a longview.

  1. Do things right. The longview is built upon a sound SEO strategy, one that bases its progress on slow gains over the long term, and integrates each of the 3 pillars of SEO. The longview strategy is one that adheres to Google’s Webmaster Rules, and settles in for the gradual climb of success.
  2. Be willing to change. Because the Internet changes, because algorithms change, and because your competitors change, so must you. Part of business in an Internet culture is the constant environment of change. Keep your ear to the ground for things such as the next Penguin, the dominance of mobile search, the importance of social signals, etc. These are the factors that will have a bottom-line impact upon your business. Know these factors, and adapt accordingly.

Your long term strategy should have four key components:

  1. Publish impeccable content. The quality of site content is the single most important key to a successful website. Matt Cutts often sounds like a track on repeat, when he discusses the value of great sites with solid content. In the ensuing discussion from his Penguin 2.0 video, he wrote:Cutts 1
  2. Gain reputable, credible, and authoritative inbound links. Links have been and will be important for the foreseeable future. Links are the great battleground of the search engine algorithm changes. Why? Some SEOs, in an effort to boost a page’s presence on the SERPs, would build thousands of spammy backlinks. The more links, the better, right? Wrong. The algorithms figured out which sites don’t deserve credibility, and distinguishes them from the ones that are truly valuable. Now, sites that are spammed with shoddy links are getting hit hard by penalties. Whether you’re guest blogging or consulting with an SEO agency that provides link building services, insist on only the highest quality links for your site.
  3. Maintain activity on social networks. Social signals are growing in importance. Your business depends on the very people that are active on the social networks. Be there for them.
  4. Ensure perfect onsite SEO best practices. Insist on perfection as far as your website is concerned — everything from your robots.txt to your keyword saturation need to be in order. If you need help on this, consult with an SEO expert.

3.  Fire your SEO.

This, admittedly, is a harsh measure to take, but it may be necessary. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have that go something like this:

Webmaster:  Our rankings are dropping! I don’t know what’s going on! We need help! What’s happening?!

Me [looking at their analytics and rankings on my computer]:  Hmm. Have you ever worked with another SEO firm?

Webmaster [Eyes dropping, head-dropping, fidgeting nervously]:  “Yes…yes we have. May the Google gods forgive me. We hired a company to do some link building. They were really cheap. They said that they could build 2,000 links in two weeks, and get us on the first page of Google. I thought that….

Me:  Fire them.

Why do I take such a hard-nosed approach? Is it because I’m a cutthroat businessperson who despises competitors? No. It’s because some SEO agencies are not enhancing sites; they are ruining them.

There are highly reputable SEO agencies out there. I hope you are one or are working with one. But, regretfully, there are still some SEO agencies that rely on black-hat techniques for short-term gains. One way to spot these black-hat practitioners is to simply look at their pricing. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Run as far as you can from the SEOs (or agencies) that have done the damage, and seek refuge from a company that can provide an ethical and effective SEO service.

But the damage is done. What do you do now?

 4.  Bring out the machete.

Sounds violent, right? It is, sort of. Let me explain.

Once your site has been inflicted by the damage of unscrupulous SEO practices, it’s in serious need of emergency services. It’s time to scrutinize your link profile, and do your best to remove any links that could be causing your website to be affected by Penguin 2.0. Here’s how the process works, described simply:

Step 1. Download a list of your site’s inbound links; you can do this via Google Webmaster Tools. The number of links could range from a few dozen to tens of thousands.

Step 2. Determine which ones are spammy, and isolate them. Here’s how to do that. You may need to review each one manually to determine whether it comes from a spammy website. Alternatively, if you’d rather have a professional do it for you, I recommend looking into a link profile audit.

Step 3. Request the link source site to remove the link. They will honor this request roughly 5-10% of the time.

Step 4. Perform disavow requests on all the bad backlinks via Google Webmaster Tools. You should disavow all the bad links (even the ones you successfully get removed) only after completing your removal requests.

Step 5. Resubmit your site to Google for reconsideration.

Step 6. Learn and understand the 3 pillars of SEO (content, links, and social media), and ensure your SEO initiative incorporates all three pillars going forward. Focus only on quality and building value for your readers.

Sometimes, in an effort to preserve all the backlinks possible, a webmaster will tentatively tiptoe through a disavow process, only picking a few to get rid of.

This isn’t the right approach.

Matt Cutts describes the right approach:

Cutts 2

When doing these disavows, get rid of anything suspicious. Anything. As long as you have shoddy backlinks, you’ll have a shoddy site. The faster you get rid of these, the sooner you’ll rise.

Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to enjoy the arid airs of success. But a final caution is in order. Be patient. Your site first has to be recrawled and reindexed before it will regain rankings. This process could take several months. After the process is complete, it’s time to get with a reputable SEO agency to begin building links, growing authority, and enhancing your content. Recovery is possible, even from something as cataclysmic as Penguin 2.0.

Jayson DeMers
Jayson DeMers is the founder & CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based content marketing & social media agency. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or... Read Full Bio
Jayson DeMers
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  • Johan Bengtsson

    Removing bad links could also be a dangerous path to go. Something google actually does not consider that link to be bad for you and you just removed something that was increasing your ranking…

    • dobrisa

      For sure, however recently I notice that some websites with very small amount of back-links rank better than websites that have substantial back-link portfolio. It is more and more obvious that Google is taking unrelated back-links as a possible negative signal.

    • Jayson DeMers

      Yes, it’s risky. But you wouldn’t be doing it if your website wasn’t already in the tank anyway, right? So, if that’s the case, what do you have to lose?

      • Cody Cahill

        You could lose a lot of time that could better be spent building quality links, or rebuilding your site from scratch and trying again… the right way this time.

        Because as logical as the steps you laid out here are — and despite the fact that this piece has gotten Matt Cutts’ stamp of approval — there STILL are virtually no verifiable case studies of websites getting out from under the heavy hand of Penguin. Furthermore, there are ZERO demonstrable examples of disavow being of any use in Penguin recovery.

    • Jake Bohall

      If you are going to go through the reconsideration request process, then you are going to have someone manually reviewing your backlink profile. At that point, someone is going to be looking at all of your links, regardless of what the algorithm automatically devalued.. This is why it has been reiterated time and again by MC that you must clean up your backlink profile before trying to use disavow…

      It is a “dangerous” path if you are clinging to links that are putting you at risk. If you clean up all the bad backlinks and start a process of good/natural linking strategies.. then you are on the appropriate path.

      • Daniel Lee

        A reconsideration request should always be a last resort. Even removal of links is something that should only be done after building some good quality links and seeing if that has any positive effects on your results.

        I wonder how many people have seen drops in rankings completely unrelated to Penguin and then got paranoid and ended up removing links and making reconsideration requests.

  • Sahil

    An SEO has to initially contact the webmaster of the site to remove the backlinks or remove them if he has access to do it, else he has to use disavow link tool, it won’t work well as long as you don’t give it a try for manually removing them initially. Its important to follow Google webmaster guidelines to avoid a manual or an algorithmic penguin penalty.

  • Jens

    I think in step 6 you mentioned everything people need to know.
    If you provide value for your readers, there is no way you get penalised by google if you don’t use blackhat techniques. It’s not that hard actually, and i think if you followed the guidelines from the previous penguin update, i don’t think you need to worry about anything with this one.

    • Jayson DeMers

      Thanks for your comment!

    • Jayson DeMers

      Thanks for your comment, Jens! You’re right, it’s all about providing value for readers.

  • Glen Craig

    You talk about using the Disavow and then submitting a reconsideration request, but what if you haven’t gotten any warnings in GWT? But you know your rankings have been affected? Should you still disavow links and submit a reconsideration request?

    • Jake Bohall

      If you haven’t received a notice, then there may be something else at play… I would still recommend cleaning up your backlink profile (if it looks dodgy) and putting in efforts for a natural link strategy in hopes that you will recover with time. It also puts you ahead of the game if things don’t recover and you want the validation (through a RR) that no manual action is in place against your site.

  • Tahmid

    Thanks. I learn many thing here. But when I go to webmaster, it says there is no inbound links. But Open Site Explorer says I have 128 inbound links!!!
    Can you please tell me where is the problem?

    • Paresh Shrimali

      We can define spam links as our link is on non relevant keyword or non relevant content or using duplicate content or use law quality content. i think every webmaster do it well to remove spam links.

  • Paresh Shrimali

    After updates of Penguin 2.0, we must use disavow tool for removing spam link, As above describe by author for removing spam links by step by step. it will mutt be beneficial for our website as well as we can maintain SEO quality. after do it we can get positive results for keyword rankings.

    • vishal shah

      is there any consideration that which links we have to remove from disavow tool? see, my website is affected panguin since last update. I have downloaded 10,000 links from Google webmaster. And one more thing that I could not get any message in webmaster that my site is affected. Still. should I have to remove those links? is it beneficial as well?

      • Paresh Shrimali

        Every SEO person must have this question. you can get more help form below video URL

        also read textual info for removing spam links
        Google also provide the information about spam links. we can identify it and remove from Google disavow tool.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    “Be willing to change. ”

    So simple, yet so hard for many site owners to do. No one likes to be told their way is now the wrong way, especially when it used to work so well. But as you mentioned the times change and your SEO program has to evolve with it or risk getting caught up in the next update.

  • Marjan

    Agree, but the question that you asked yourself still stands, should we do it, or just throw away the domain and start again? Saying that it could take months, and we will never really be sure, if it is going to work, there is a lot that I can do on a new site in 6 months, and I still see the scraping the old domain strategy as a better one. It of course does depend, there are limits, some people can’t just scrap their domain, it’s their copyrighted name etc… But still. Waiting to be un-banned is a long shot.

  • Neha

    hi Jayson DeMers, ya you are right now after penguin 2.o update i think i want to use manually link building and remove spammy links from webmaster tool. thanks for other tips also.

  • Mahesh Mohan

    Do they send Webmaster Notifications for these Penguin penalties? If not.. can we use the reconsideration request for these algorithmic updates as well?

    • Nandita B.

      Hi Mahesh,

      Google never sends webmaster notification for Penguin HIT. And you can’t use the reconsideration request either.

      They send notification for manual penalties only. BTW, Penguin is an algorithmic update.

      Nice to see you here.

  • keyword removed

    Number 3 is a classic and it always amazes me that most business owners don’t put 2 and 2 together and realise their “cheap” backlink agency is the cause of the problem

  • Michael

    How can you tell if a backlink is a bad one though? Like Craig says, if you’ve received no warnings could you be silently penalised?

  • Anand

    Now as per Google latest algorithm update, you should remove links from the irrelevant sources and try to get the links only from the high PR & most relevant sources.

    Best thing is – put your keywords on each section of link building page….like title, description, keywords and all…

  • Christian

    “Step 5. Resubmit your site to Google for reconsideration.”

    Why do you recommend submitting a reconsideration request for an algorithmic filter, as far as I know this wont help or even be considered at all.

    • dobrisa

      Because algorithm can penalize your website, sending your page down the SERP, however only human can revoke that penalty after reconsideration request.

      • Christian

        Yes but you are cought in an algorythmic filter, a good employee will not scan your site and then remove the filter as they would basically say “dont apply penguin to this domain” which they dont do. So all you can do is clean up and hope for a datarefresh (unless they do it more or less realtime now) but a recon in my opinion is a waste of time for both google and the person submitting it.

    • Jake Bohall

      They are considered, we have successfully recovered for many clients by going this route. Just be prepared to have to actually do a lot of work in getting links removed and showing the due diligence.

  • Morshed

    Hi Jayson! Thanks for writing on such kind of important issue. For the people who are depending on blog sites for their career, Google penguin updates are really panic to them. Lots of damages can be done with it,specially for SEO sector. Your tips and roadmaps to recovery from this is really helpful.

  • Arun Singh

    It is really true and me too facing some issues coz of penguin 2.0. I was ranking good for my all websites and suddenly i went down. I m trying to recover and get my ranking back. Hopefully your post will help to get better ranking and recover. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us.

  • Nick

    Im interested to know if you think removing links and the disavow process needs to be followed if you have NOT had a penalty message in webmaster tools after 2.0 but the website has been bumped from page 1 to pages 2 to 5 for all related keywords?
    Is it a case of still go through the full clean up process?

  • Christian


    Penguin is algorithmic and you will NOT get a message, even if you are cought by penguin. The Author has not yet clarified my question but I think its bullshit, you dont need to submit a recon to google, as they wont bother reading it because it makes no sense to do so. Anyway, if you got cought with penguin id relax a week or two and see what happens, I would do a Linkanalysis and see what you got.

  • Jason

    I had the same question as the others on the subject of resubmission. Either Penguin 2.0 is an algorithm or it is a penalty. I am not sure how it can be both.

    Incidentally. one of my financial sites was fine after Penguin 1.0 but dropped 20-25% traffic on Penguin 2.0. But the interesting thing is I have done no” link building” myself nor asked anyone else to in over a year. If any links have been created in that period they are entirely organic. So I do think whatever the case webmasters are going to have monitor links regularly because even if you are not building links some else maybe and you may get caught up in something. Food for thought.

    • Jake Bohall

      Unfortunately, it does not appear that the Penguin updates discriminate based upon when you built the links. We have companies that come to us that haven’t built links since the good ‘ol reciprocal linking days.. and they have issues now.

      If you do the work of cleaning up your profile and submitting all of the documentation with your reconsideration request, you will get a response.

  • Greg Falken

    We are a web development company and we habitually add a link to our own site to the footer of the websites that we build. These sites comprise a high number of our inbound links. Can these links be hurting us if the client site is unrelated to ours? Thanks for all the helpful info in this article.

  • keyword removed

    An SEO has to initially contact the webmaster of the site to remove the backlinks or remove them if he has access to do it, else he has to use disavow link tool, it won’t work well as long as you don’t give it a try for manually removing them initially. Its important to follow Google webmaster guidelines to avoid a manual or an algorithmic penguin penalty.

  • Asif faridi

    Once, we have filtered all bad links, we try to remove them by send removal request manually. To submit in Disavow Tools take more cautions.

  • Sebastian Palmer

    Hi Jayson,

    Nice post. I have one question for you. As blog commenting is somehow restricted today, do you think a link from a blog comment on a SearchEngineJournal might harm? Even if the site is authority, related (we are also in the SEO business), and nofollow? We got hit by Penguin 2.0 because we had enough links from blog comments from SEJ and another big SEO blog (we don’t have many other links). I think this is not normal, still, because of what I said upper.

    And for some reason the editors from SEJ didn’t respond to my link removal email. As they are engaged into the SEO industry, they should be more responsive to this kind of requests.


  • Carlos

    Two questions:

    1. If a backlink was created 5 years ago, could it still be harmful?

    2. If Webmaster finds a spammy link from a URL that no longer exists, should that backlink still be removed?

  • RJ Tayaban

    I think one good suggestion to be added on your list is “to do nothing” whenever Google is doing an update – even when your website “seems” to be penalized. I don’t know but one of our client’s website suddenly disappeared in the search results after Matt Cutts announced that Penguin 2.0 has been completed. I’m quite sure we didn’t do anything that might risk our client’s website for being penalized so I was initially baffled. I decided not to do anything even when our client was panicking. Around 10 days after, our client’s rankings returned back – in fact, a couple of the rankings have improved.

  • Anna Bottner

    These tips seem like real common sense to me. The idea of asking for links to be disavowed if you havent already had a “bad links” note from Google is something I would only attempt if my website really was hurt badly by an update.
    What does concern me is the low rate that web-masters will remove bad links for you. 5% -10% seems very low and I wonder given the disavow process whether this is really worth it. The hours spent finding this information out might be best spent writing good content and creating first class links and letting the disavow process work on all of them.
    The last issue is from a site that was placed right above this when I was searching for a solution to Penguin.
    I’ve read here
    That Penguin 2 is an “iterative process” and that it is still running. From last years I do seem to remember that it took a good few days if not a couple of weeks for the dust to settle. Are we (as this post suggests) drawing conclusions from a process that hasn’t yet concluded?

  • Manny Zarate

    I agree with a lot of the points made on this article and on the comments, but the only thing I want you to think about is this other approach; instead of removing links, test this, concentrate on creating great quality content and get some good links from related sites.

    I am not saying what others are suggesting does not work, but what I have seem in my testing is that if you leave the “bad links” alone and concentrate on producing great content and links then your site rank well. I would like to know if anyone else has seen this in their testing?

    The idea of spending many hours or days/weeks trying to remove links is something that bothers me, I know that is what Google suggest but Google has suggested many things that does not help SEOs in the past, they are not in the business of helping an SEO. May be they suggest you remove the links so they can save some money by not visiting these pages? 😉 anyway, please test and share your results, I am only sharing what I have seen in my own testings.

  • Jake Bohall

    I definitely agree with you in part, and in theory. While it is always a recommendation to build great quality content and get good links from related sites… this hasn’t proven itself to be THE solution for Penguin.

    I have worked with companies in an effort to build a larger number of great links in an effort to dilute the bad links and show good faith that the client has turned a new leaf in link development tactics. Unfortunately, this is yet to work with recovering from Penguin, and subsequent reconsideration requests still received the standard reply: “you still have unnatural links pointing to your site”…. with a few examples cited.

    The only strategy that has been consistently successful is a combination of removing bad links, disavowing bad links that cannot be removed, and building links the “approved” way.

  • Sean Hecking

    Great post Jayson. Much of the panic that results from a big Penguin update is fueled buy these cheap SEO companies who promise #1 rankings for $300 a month. To a business owner this appears to be very low risk but is a BIG risk and very costly to recover from these black hat practices. Business owners get angry at Google or the cheap SEO they hired when something goes wrong. In reality, their own bad decision to hire a cheap SEO or hand over their SEO to an intern is likely the cause. Business owners should look at optimization as any other marketing expense. Good marketing isn’t cheap and never was.

  • James

    The penguin update seems to differ depending on your niche. For example exact match anchor higher % seems to be OK on search terms such as “life insurance” where as other niche’s like you cant really get away with hardly any at all. I seem to go quite a lot by the linkreseachtools ethos that you need to fit in within your niche and be natural. So I suppose my point is don’t stick out like a sore thumb within your niche. Just fit in and be a little better.