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?

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Pratik Dholakiya

Pratik Dholakiya

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