Taming the Savage Penguin

SMS Text

I recently came across a great article about Penguin recovery by Gary Viray where he detailed his work to get some client’s over optimization penalties from the Google Penguin update lifted. I run a site that took a major hit by the April 24th Penguin update, and have been working for months trying to improve my site and get my rankings back. My organic traffic dropped by 50% and my site has been dropped from the SERPs for some very key terms. Some sections still do very well, while others are nowhere to be found.

Gary cited an article by John Doherty about diagnosing and recovering from Penguin, following the advice in this article I downloaded the latest links through webmaster tools and started going through my inbound links line by line. This is no easy feat since the site in question has been around since 1997 and there are currently 198,141 links to the site, this is down from over 500,000 since I started working on my penguin recovery and asking people to remove links!

The mistake I made in the past, before reading these articles, was that I was primarily focusing on the top of the list of “Who links to you the most” in Google Webmaster Tools. Yesterday I actually downloaded the full list, which gives you the entire url of each link, not just the domain name. I did not know that data was available. I assumed (ass-u-me? Just me in this case…) the download link would just be the same information as is in webmaster tools, it is much more granular and shows individual links with the full URL as well as the discovery date.

Link Spam Attack!

Negative SEO is real.

Reviewing my links, to my horror and disbelief, I discovered a ton of spam links to my site. The worst links came from a network of 20 domains. All of these sites consist of scraped articles with random words and phrases linked to many sites. Viewing the source I found links to Microsoft, CNN, the USO, Gucci and a lot of other weird sites, as well as many other spam link sites. The homepages of all these 20 sites have the same offer: 1000 permanent links for $29.95! There is a Paypal button that links to a closed account.


I think this was done by a competitor to try and hurt my rankings using negative SEO tactics. The pages are obviously all garbage, and my site was ranking very well for a lot of competitive keywords before the Penguin update, and had been for several years. My site is in a very competitive space but I never really thought that negative SEO attacks could affect me, and they seemed to be somewhat of an urban legend. Now that Google has created the Disavow Links tool, it seems that the speculation was correct.

I emailed the webmaster of these spam sites because I would like to find out who paid for it, but I doubt they will respond. I added all the domains to the Disavow File and uploaded it to Google, I also reported the sites using the Google Web Spam Form (sites selling links) and told them that I did not buy the links! Additionally I submitted a reconsideration request, even though I submitted one a few months ago and received a response saying there were no manual spam actions against my site, I still thought it was a good idea to let them know I was working to clean up my link profile and keep in good standing with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

I also tried calling the number listed under who is for the main domain, but the person who answered said I had the wrong number. I doubt the people who made the site even used their real names so trying to reach them is probably pointless. At any rate, I am hoping the Disavow tool will help me in this case because I do not think these guys will be removing my links anytime soon.

Cloak and Dagger

The other thing I found, which is interesting and also quite irritating, is that many people who were linking to my site were using HIDDEN links! I couldn’t believe it! Black links on Black text, or CSS hidden link tags, to top it off the hidden links were on every page of the site, I found literally thousands of these hidden links to my site.

Here is a sample of one of the many hidden links I discovered. This user had also hidden links to other directories here also:

<span class=”hidden”>
<br>Featured in the XXXXXXX
<a href=’http://www.xxxxxxxxxxx.com/’>xxxxxxxxxxxxx </a> directory.
Featured in <a href=”http://www.XXXXXXXXXXXX.com”>XXXXXXXXXX</A> Directory

Full disclosure, the site I am working on is a directory. Now before you write it off entirely, let me elaborate. This is a very specific localized niche directory with strict rules about content and membership. It was started in 1997, it’s not some garbage free link directory. Each member creates a profile and can upload portfolio items and add content to their profile pages. We do ask our members to link back to the directory if they want a link on their profile. So, they can create a listing and a profile without linking to the directory, but if they want a clickable link on their profile they either need to link back to us or pay a small annual fee ($60).

Seeing all these hidden links, I realize that these users decided they would link back so they could get a link in their listing, but they didn’t really want to so they hide the link. Our system spiders the page to check for the link but it doesn’t have the ability to check if the user has used some cloaking technique such as CSS display:none.

There really is no reason for people to do this. The link we ask them to put on their site links directly to their profile, so there no reason not to use it properly. If they do not feel the site is worth linking to, they wouldn’t feel it was worth having a listing in either. So they are just trying to get away with gaming the system.

This can’t look very good to Google. I already have about 8 hours into this and I am only 10% through my list of links. I have emailed about 10 webmasters so far asking them to please remove the hidden or just plain excessive links. I have had two responses so far, both cooperating, but I can see that this is going to be a major project and probably eat up the next few weeks (months?) of my time.

So this brings me to my beef with Google.

Dear Google,

I can appreciate the fight against link spam, I understand why you do it and that you are trying to deliver the best search results to your users. However, this creates a complex and difficult situation for me and many other people that have legitimate popular sites.

The Penguin update basically flags my site as guilty until proven innocent. I have no control over who links to my website or how they link to my website. So because of the actions of other ignorant or unscrupulous webmasters, I am forced to go through thousands of links manually to see if the people linking to my site are legitimate.

This should be pretty straightforward, but the more I look, the more I am unsure. Some are blatantly obvious spam sites. But what do I do when I come across a Blogger site that has added a link to my site in their links widget (you know Blogger, that blog site you own?) and they are linking with a search term. One eager blogger might have 4000 or more pages on their site, all linked with the same keyword text. This sure seems like it would be grounds for an over-optimization penalty! But wait, this is a valid blog, on the same topic as my site, linking to my site with their blog widget.

Do I ask these webmasters not to link to my site? Do I ask them to change the link text because it may be penalizing my site? This seems like I am asking them to change their content for the Search Engines not for a better user experience, so there is a conundrum.

This is just one of the issues I am dealing with. I have a list of backlinks that will easily take me weeks to go through and manually check.

Instead of just ignoring these worthless links, I am being penalized because people have linked to me in a way that is against Google’s guidelines. From what I have seen so far, some of these links are due to people not understanding how to properly add a link to their site, others have linked in deceptive ways or just plain malign intentions.

Some were clearly created to have a negative SEO affect on my site. I have mixed feelings about this.

One the one hand I am glad that I am now aware of this, it is better that I know that there are people out there that are actively trying to sabotage my company. I had no idea until I started researching my drop in traffic.

On the other hand, I can’t believe it worked. Some black-hat malicious competitor has actually succeeded in hurting my website with negative SEO. Now I am left trying to pick up the pieces, disavowing links and trying to contact people who clearly have no interest in helping me (I’m referring to the Blackhat’s, not you Google).

While I do not expect an answer, I do feel better voicing my frustration with having to go clean up the web. It’s a lot of work and I don’t really have much of a choice, I have to do the work if I want to try and save my business.

Thanks for listening,
– Bewildered Penguin Attack Victim

Chasing The Penguin

So where does that leave me and many other webmasters in the post penguin world? I guess with a lot of work on our hands, and it will not be a one time thing, it will be a constant vigil. Once this mess is cleaned up it only takes one dedicated spammer an hour to plaster bad links across a thousand crap sites and kill me once again.

I guess I will have to slot in another regular maintenance issue. Every month (every week?) check my latest links in GWT and make sure some hack hasn’t linked to my site in some devious manner that I have to disavow.

Seems like this could get out of hand.

Wesley Warren

Wesley Warren

I has been a web developer for over 18 years, I run a handful of targeted niche directories related to design and the design lead service DesignQuote.net. I recently moved to the San Francisco Bay Area from Atlanta, and I do consulting and programming through my company Cerulean Consulting. You can find me on G+ and Linkedin.
Wesley Warren
Wesley Warren

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  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    Your requirement for a return link (in exchange for a link on a profile page) violates Google’s guidelines. That you were able to succeed in Google’s SERPs with that policy for over a decade doesn’t change the fact that their guidelines forbid this kind of requirement. What may be your saving grace (if Google has ever reviewed the policy in the past) is that it is up to the user to decide whether they will give you the link.

    However, now that you have filed a reconsideration request your site will be evaluated and you may have to review your policy. I would not do anything about it NOW — wait and see what Google says. But remember that Penguin is algorithmic. The reconsideration request is not really necessary for Penguin.

    • Wesley Warren

      Google already responded with the standard “No manual spam actions found” reply. I did get the “unnatural links” violation warning in July of 2012, and I found some very spammy links and got them removed, filed a reconsideration request along with details of what I did, and they revoked the penalty a few weeks after I filed the request. Unfortunately I didn’t dig deep enough in July or I would have found these new ones that I think were a negative SEO attack.

      They are very tricky because unlike many spammers who have 500,000 pages on their site, this network limited each site to a few hundred pages, so they are way down on the list of who link to you most.

      Thanks for commenting, I am getting ready to redesign the site (it’s long overdue) and I am going to also change the policy on linking, still working out the logistics on that one.

  • http://www.webthesmartway.com Siegfried

    I am sorry but i dont believe someone to the trouble of trying to hurt someone elses business – i think it’s just case of someone trying to get the links fast and cheap 😀

    • Wesley Warren

      That’s understandable 🙂 but I would have never purchased links from a site like the one I found. I have spent time in the past link building, but I never used those FFA link boards and crappy directories, my site isn’t listed in any of them. The directories I do find myself listed in seem to be showing DMOZ results or some search results, and in reviewing all my IBLs, I have found many of them out there, the good thing is that the links are all nofollow so I am hoping those aren’t hurting me, I may add them to my disavow list just to be on the safe side.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    I won’t try to judge the specific site in question but I know from past experience that there are a lot of dirty schemers out there trying to bulldoze other people’s Websites. It costs them almost nothing to create the spammy links.

    • Wesley Warren

      The industry I am in is very very competitive and there are a lot of sketchy looking sites that compete directly with me. Although I think it is possible that the spam site might have randomly picked my site to seed their pages. Not that my site is anywhere near the level of other sites that are listed like CNN, MS, USO – but I doubt those companies bought links, I think they threw a bunch of legit links in the content to give the appearance of validity.

      I’m sure I will never know, but it’s not like there is much I can do about it. The sites are disavowed so I am hoping that is good enough.

  • http://www.hiswebmarketing.com Marie Haynes

    Thanks for the interesting writeup. I wanted to add a few of my thoughts.

    When you asked people to link back to your directory for free inclusion, did you ask for specific anchor text? If so, then it may not be a negative SEO thing but rather a valid case of the Penguin algorithm devaluing a site that is abusing anchor texted links.

    Next, the whole procedure of contacting webmasters and getting links removed is really meant for sites with a manual unnatural links penalty as opposed to an algorithmic issue like Penguin. If you believe that you’ve been negative SEO’d then simply disavowing those links should be enough. However, you likely need to wait till Penguin refreshes to see a recovery. And, if my first point is correct and you have built anchor texted links yourself you still may not recover.

    Another thought I had was that for a site like yours, you could have been affected by Penguin for secondary reasons as well. Sites that linked to you were sites that sought out directory listings. These are sites that have possibly been hit by Penguin. So, on April 24 you could have lost a major amount of link juice as pages that linked to you got affected by Penguin.

    And finally, have you looked at your “download latest links” in WMT to see when Google discovered these links that you feel could be negative SEO? Was it prior to April 24? If not, then they may not be the reason for your drop.

    I hope you do well when Penguin refreshes!

    • Wesley Warren


      Thanks for the comments, the links we suggested to users did use specific anchor text, but it was changed periodically, it wasn’t the same exact anchor text. Luckily many of our members have been happy to change their links. I sent out an email to all our members with some news about some new features that were added, and also asked them to update their links, which now just use the domain name as anchor text.

      As far as the sites that link to me, as I have been pouring over spreadsheets and link list, I am pretty happy to find that most of our links are from quality businesses. In fact I have found that it is a very small percentage of sites that are SPLOGs and landing pages. I think the Penguin penalty was definitely a mix of too many anchor specific links as well as links from spammy sites (which have been disavowed).

      The SPLOGS are the worst, as they create several thousand links from horrible pages, but, I think adding those to my disavow list will help quite a bit.

      I just hope I can get enough cleaned up before the next update, and that the next update isn’t too far away! I would be nice to see some improvement in the next few weeks. Even if I do not make a full recovery, if I saw some progress I would know my efforts weren’t in vain and it would give me some encouragement to carry on.

      But from what I have read, I can’t seem to tell if a Penguin penalty is an “All or Nothing” type filter. Is it possible to make a partial recovery, then eventually improve it until there is no effect, or is it a threshold that imparts the penalty either on or off. It would seem to me that it would be a weighted penalty since it’s algorithmic. Hopefully I will see some kind of change when the next refresh happens.

      • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

        For what it is worth, I have not seen any claims of “partial recovery from Penguin”. It seems to be “all or nothing” but I would not take that as a hard fact.