The Coming Penguin Update: Should You Reevaluate Your Link Building Strategy?

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A couple weeks back, Google’s head of web spam Matt Cutts said that there will be a massive update to Penguin sometime this year, and that he expects it to be one of the most talked-about updates this year. So strap in and buckle up, if you haven’t been adjusting your strategy, there’s a good chance you’ll be in for a bumpy ride.

What Can We Expect From the Update?

I don’t want to play fortune teller here, so I’m not going to speculate too much about individual aspects of the coming update. Instead, I’ll remind you of the things that Penguin has targeted in the past:

  • Too many exact match anchor text links
  • Too much focus on anchor text in general
  • Anything that could be considered “black hat”
  • Links from “low quality” sources
  • Links that are “unnatural” (They were created manually or algorithmically, not editorially.)
  • Any participation in link schemes like link trading, buying, and so on
  • Links created using duplicate content
  • Links from web directories, article directories, and social bookmarking sites
  • Links designed to manipulate PageRank
  • Links from automated content, and content that doesn’t serve the end user

I have a hunch that if I just state these examples without any explanation, that a lot of you are going to get hung up on the details. So, to be clear, Penguin is designed to target manipulative links. It’s not so much a question of what type of link you’re acquiring as how you’re acquiring it.

There are three tiers of links, and, if the new Penguin update accomplishes what it’s supposed to, these are the results you can expect from them.

  1. Editorial links: links that you had little or no direct influence over, that were created simply because your content, tools, and community are worth talking about. These links are air-tight and will almost certainly never lose their value.
  2. Promotional links: links that you created manually through guest posts, collaboration, and outreach. These links are okay and can be great if they also help build exposure, referral traffic, and reputation for your brand. They are most useful as a way of building exposure that leads to secondary links. If the quality is questionable, they may lose value, but it is unlikely that they will actually count against you.
  3. Spam/manipulative links: links you have full control over and that exist strictly to boost search engine rankings. These links are high risk and are very likely to lose their value. In some circumstances they will actually count against you.

Evaluating Link Opportunities With Penguin in Mind

The most important question to ask yourself whenever you build a link is “would I build this link if it was no-follow?” If it fails that test, than you should be aware that your link is at risk of losing value in the future. If there’s only one thing you do to future-proof your strategy, this should be it.

Some might call that overkill, but it’s the only way to be honest about the future of link building. A link that you wouldn’t pursue if it were no-follow is a link that’s worth earning, but it’s not really a link that’s worth building. Understand that search engines are interested in links because they indicate popularity, shareability, and authority. If the links you build don’t send that message, they will not be sending the right messages in the long haul.

We have reason to believe that the major Penguin update Cutts is talking about will either expand beyond spam, or broaden the definition of spam. This has been the trend with every Google update designed to improve search quality. It’s not safe to presume that the next update will merely target what has been targeted before.

Why do I choose “would I build this link if it was no-follow?” as my primary test? Besides the fact that it fits Google’s Terms of Service perfectly, it is a sound marketing strategy. I believe the focus of SEO should be on growing your online presence even in the absence of search engine benefits. This is the foolproof strategy for growth and the only one worth pursuing if you are serious about being visible to your audience. Excessive reliance on Google’s algorithm is unsafe, and sends the wrong message to clients.

The second question to ask is “how easily could a newcomer copy my link building strategy?” Yes, anything can be copied, but how easily, and by who? No content strategy should be easy to copy without at least a year of serious writing experience. No outreach strategy should be simple without at least a year of experience contacting people online for marketing purposes.

It’s not that “easy” or “simple” are bad. Sometimes it’s important to strip away the complexity and focus on mastering the most effective skills, which are often the basics. No, it’s that “mechanical” and “linear” are bad. They are bad because even somebody who hasn’t learned the basics can handle something that’s mechanical and linear. And Google doesn’t want amateurs at the top of its search results.

To get into some of the specifics, focus on modern anchor text strategies that are concerned just as much with click-through-rate, branding, and conversions as they are with search engines. Take a look at our list of links to avoid, and some alternatives, over at SEJ. We’d also recommend our definitive guide to Penguin-friendly SEO on the same site.

What do you expect from the coming Penguin update?

Pratik Dholakiya

Pratik Dholakiya

Co-Founder at E2M
Pratik Dholakiya is the Co-Founder of E2M, a digital marketing agency and, an executive branding & content marketing agency. Pratik has been featured on... Read Full Bio
Pratik Dholakiya
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  • Sanjay Nandy

    Thanks Pratik for your valuable post. But what should we do except directory, article or bookmarking submission? Guest post, collaboration, and outreach is the ultimate link building? Should I not use twitter, facebook and youtube promotion? Day by day SEO is going to harder and harder.

    Anyway keep update us with your valiable concept and knowledge. Thanks.

    • Venchito Tampon

      Can I answer your questions? I have some thoughts here.

      Guest post, collaboration, and outreach are vital to achieve success in branding. Yes. they are ultimate link building strategies.

      You could still promote your posts using social networks so as to get tons of traffic. Be careful only on how you promote them. Make sure you’re not spammy.

      • Jim

        unless of course you know what you’re doing to protect yourself…

        or of course there’s always the disposable site method which is practically a necessary life insurance these days…. i have over 200 domains in my nice (yes lots of emds! oh gosh the horror) and several hundred in use with at least 10-20 as quality ranking ones at any time always building more…

        that’s the way to excel normally, now its just required for practical live or die type reasons.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      You can focus on creating great content for the users and get it posted either on your blog or use it to do guest posting. The only thing is, Guest Blogging is becoming more of a demanding these days, so make sure you chose the platforms to guest post on which are highly relevant and valuable. Otherwise you might just waste your content.

      Social media is definitely a great source of getting visibility.

    • Dennis

      Nice Informative Article

    • Sahil

      Hey Sanjay! Its not you have to stop using Facebook, Twitter or some other stuff. Its all about being on the right track a lot, you have to move towards earning the links and not building them. Your content should get more eye balls naturally and should be engaging for people to share with their peers. Complete dominance of editorial links in the link profile means a lot to Google and mainly to the visitors of your site to gain trust and credibility over your site.

  • Steven

    Do you work at Google?

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      No, haven’t been given an opportunity yet 😉

  • Aidan

    Great article, personally I’m looking forward to the next Penguin to see what happens next and I suspect your ideas are going to be close to the mark. I still see lots of sites ranking by virtue of EMD and crappy backlinks which I’d love to see Google kick back at.

    • Jim

      Just curious about what is inherently wrong with using EMDs or moreso ‘crappy backlinks’ (i will agree that a few methods like blog comment spam have a morally negative aspect to them) but for many many methods questioned by google what’s the big deal?

      My point is it is site quality and content quality that matter – and if it takes a lot of manipulative link building to rank – as it does in google’s system for many niches (and does still work as well as ever if done with a real grey/black/blue hat skillset… admittedly rare but far from non existent (its us who do dominate niches but not with crap actually ranking… its why the black/white hat question is and always has been a stupid one. which was eli’s point with the bluehat name)…. google made the system, it doesnt work all that well, i dont expect that to change too soon (it hasnt really changed – the biggest change has been from psychological scare tactics that got a lot of people out of the way so that now its actually as many doing things well – and i dont endorse illegal seo, but breaking google’s TOS is thankfully not against the law! its not even a moral question in most cases … though it feels like they have made it seem like one through framing the question in a very skillful way…. but i assure you many techniques that were done properly do work did work and will work after next penguin update.)

      i agree ranking crap is not cool. but using any means that works to rank quality isn’t evil, its just doing business…. and white hat socalled purists – please go ahead and explain to me how tediously collecting emails, essentially politely spamming them (sorry, prospecting i think is the nice term) and rubbing their ego to acquire links is somehow less manipulating the search results… the only natural seo is not doing seo (other than on page)

      so in my view, all is fair in ….

      (though i dont work for clients… i would go insane as an seo for hire these days… but i wish people would stop making it sound like a moral question when it really is a junk argument)

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Thanks Aidan! Let’s wait and see what happens in the next Google update.

  • Mariya

    It is going to be the biggest update as Cutts said. I am looking forward for this update to remove all sites having crappy backlinks. Thanks for sharing these ideas with us, it will definitely work.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Thanks for commenting Mariya.

  • Matt Coffy

    Thanks for this very informative and insightful post, Pratik. My mind’s getting a work out right now! These are valuable points you’ve shared with us, and to highlight “A link that you wouldn’t pursue if it were no-follow is a link that’s worth earning, but it’s not really a link that’s worth building.” – I believe I’ve found a new area to explore and dedicate more time for my own strategies. Thanks again!

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      You’re welcome Matt, glad to hear this post has turned into a helpful resource for you. Let me know if I could help in anyway. Cheers!

  • Georege

    Hey Pratik – Nice Post! I have questions….

    Do you think anyone is going to actually recover with this next refresh? We suffered manual penalty on April 24th, a whole year ago. Since then we removed our manual penalty but still do not show in the SERP’s for many of our pages. We have been working diligantly to get our site back into good standings. I am very concerned that the new refresh is only going to target new spammers and not help others recover. As you know Google states “starting over”…..
    What are your thoughts? Is recovery possible?

  • Shahar

    I frankly don’t know what google wants from us – clearly it wants everybody to switch to Adwords but, come on, there’s still the SERP which means that Google simply wants to confuse us with new rules everytime.
    Google is building a huge sand box for the kids to play – But, the kids have grown up and much more smarter than that and will always find new ways to outsmart the nanny.

  • Aryan Kapoor

    Thanks for the sharing useful article.

  • Richard Bloomfield

    Thanks for the post… I love the idea/test of ‘would I build the link if it is no-follow?’ – actually a good balance of no-follows in your link profile helps keep things looking natural as of course does the move away from the ‘obvious’ anchor text links. I think we can of course expect from the Penguin updates more focus on authorship…

  • Chirag

    Hey Pratik,

    Your subject is really very interesting because all are waiting for new updates of Penguin. Now I just want to add few things in promotional links. I agree with current trend of link building are guest posts, collaboration, and outreach. But we make it sure that our links which we already created from good article content or blogging and else, which will not be die. We should maintain old links too. It should be linking to other activities, we can say link wheel. It’s also very important to live our all backlinks and yes Google must be index all.

  • Dhana Seelan

    Thanks for sharing a very insightful and informative article. It was a Great Read. And I will incorporate and adapt this link building tips when I write my next blog. Thanks again!!

  • anum

    Thanks Aidan!

  • Hussain

    Thanks For this informative post but i don’t think Links from web directories, article directories, and social bookmarking sites are count to give some bad impact for website these all are classic SEO and working Fine but we use these techniques in limits.

  • Derek Fischer

    Links are always going to be an important part of SEO just because the search engines rely on them to judge the quality of the content on websites. The only way to future proof the links on a website are to only use genuine links that point to quality sources of information. If you are unacquainted with a person that contacts you it will be necessary to check them out to vet them before using their links. It really is simple; if you are in doubt, don’t use the link.

  • Arun Singth

    Thanks for the valuable information Prateek.. I really like your post and tried to read on regular basis. Apart of it can to mention it when will be Penguin 2.0 updated.

  • Sam

    Hi Patik,
    Thanks for your valuable information !! As per the Google updates for the past few months SEO has become more harder, you have explained about the content and guest posting for the relevant categories and in what way i should keep my websites ranking in top positions.

    With Regards

    • Sam

      Hi Pratik,
      Thanks for your valuable information !! As per the Google updates for the past few months SEO has become more harder, you have explained about the content and guest posting for the relevant categories and in what way i should keep my websites ranking in top positions.

      With Regards