Taming the Savage Penguin

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Wesley Warren
Wesley Warren
Taming the Savage Penguin

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=’’>xxxxxxxxxxxxx </a> directory.
Featured in <a href=””>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 ... [Read full bio]