The Definitive Guide to Penguin Friendly SEO

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On April 24, 2012, Google launched what was originally called simply the “webspam algorithm.” It’s impact was large enough in the SEO community that Google ultimately ended up giving it an official name: Penguin. It was likely chosen because of its similarity in name to another update that had massive impact on SEO: Panda.

So what’s Google’s Penguin update?

The purpose of the Penguin update was to demote sites that violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Sites that used manipulative techniques to improve their rankings, and some innocent sites that may have appeared manipulative to the algorithm, lost their high positions in the search results.

These manipulative techniques, referred to as “black hat,” include keyword stuffing, cloaking, participating in link schemes, deliberately using duplicate content for search engine benefit, and excessive use of exact-match keywords in links and content. Similar techniques also came under fire.

Whether you were hit by Penguin or just want a plan to boost rankings without concerns about future updates, here is your guide:

On-Site SEO:

Things to stop working on:

  • Putting a list of keywords in the page title instead of making it descriptive or using your brand name
  • Jamming keywords into the Meta Description instead of making it a call-to-action. The Meta Description is not used for rankings. It’s only benefit is that it displays below your link in the search results. This shouldn’t be surprising, but to some it is.
  • Using meta keywords. These have been useless for quite some time. They serve no purpose whatsoever. It’s still good practice to include a meta-keyword here or there for certain tools that may still use them, but the search engines don’t.
  • Including your primary Keywords in H1 tags and secondary keywords in H2, H3 and so on. Fit keywords into these tags if it makes sense, but don’t waste time trying to get them into every single page or especially every single subtitle. You should almost never plug a keyword directly into these tags without additional words for context and shareability.
  • Keywords in the alt tags of images. Use a descriptive alt tag or none at all.
  • Keyword-rich URL naming conventions. If your URL is a bunch of junky letters and numbers, this really doesn’t matter anymore.
  • Cloaking. Just don’t do it. If a page is optimized for today’s search engines, it should already look very nice for a human.
  • Stuffing keywords or using a specific “density” of keywords. Like the Meta Description, this has already been useless for many years. Just write about the keyword and you should be on the right track.
  • Low quality, poor, or duplicate content on your site.
  • Repeating navigational links in both the header and footer
  • Excessive internal linking using keywords as the anchor text
  • Updating your blog with ZERO value content
  • Building a website for search engines; not for users

Things to focus on:

Two months back, Rand Fishkin explained very nicely how to get On-Site SEO right in 2012 and beyond.

I won’t spend too much time on this since Rand has covered all the points. However, I will put up few important ones here:

  • SEO Friendly Website Architecture – Use all the new markup that is available to make your listings in the search result stand out like rel=author, and so on.
  • Use descriptive titles that consider branding and shareability. When a user sees your title they should be excited and want to click on it because it sounds interesting, not because they notice it has the same keyword that they typed.
  • Use a call-to-action in your meta description with close to no focus on keywords. Just as with the title, the meta description should be exciting and compel the reader to click through and find out more.
  • Write content for users; not for search engines. This should be a no-brainer at this point. The pages you build should be designed to solve the specific problem the users were searching for.
  • Use social badges so users can share your website socially and easily.
  • Consider UI, UX, and Accessibility as primary aspects when building your website and your pages.
  • Use calls-to-action and make it easy for visitors to connect with you. Focus on boosting your conversion rate.
  • Lower page loading time (here is a recently published infographic on How Load Time Affects Google Rankings)
  • Update your blog with content that should sound fresh, useful, and unique. Visitors should love to share with others
  • Use legitimate elements on the website – real address, phone number, and featured badges which make your visitors understand your business presence and legitimacy
  • Put real case studies, customers’ experiences, and video testimonials which help convert more visitors into customers and eventually help decrease the bounce rate

Off-Site SEO: (Link Building)

Link building easily took the biggest hit during the Penguin update. Since links are still one of the most important ranking factors for your page and your site as a whole, we have to pay close attention to the types of links that actually work, and the ones that can hurt us.

Things to stop working on:

  • Free Directories
  • Low Quality Social Bookmarking Websites
  • Free Articles Directories
  • Link exchanges
  • Paid/Sponsored links
  • Links from Spun content
  • Unnatural links (links from irrelevant websites)
  • Participating in link schemes
  • Links from duplicate content. (If scrapers link to you, no problem. If you go out of your way to rank using them: big problem.)
  • Links from banned/penalized websites
  • Excessive use of exact match keywords as anchor text
  • Any or every manipulative link building practice

Take a look at my previous post where I discussed links to avoid in the post-penguin era

Things to focus on:

  • Niche – Get links from sites that are relevant. The links don’t have to come from an extremely tight niche (in fact that’s often a sign of a low quality site), but the connection should make sense.
  • Advanced – Your link building techniques shouldn’t rely on something that anybody could do easily.
  • Legitimate – Your link building efforts should be justifiable as marketing alone even in the absence of search engines.
  • Vary keywords as anchor text – Tons of links with the exact same text is simply unnatural, even in your own marketing efforts. Focus on text that gets a click-through, not that uses a particular keyword.
  • Brand perspective – Your promotional efforts should fit with your brand.
  • Content marketing – Obviously this got huge this year. You should focus on producing content that is naturally shared and linked. In other words, link earning in addition to link building.
  • Getting citations – You should make it clear to the search engines what your brand name is so that the search engines can recognize when it is mentioned without a link. Google is using statistical data and co-citation to rank sites using off-site factors that go beyond links, so focus on creating buzz and getting discussions about your brand going.

Also take a look at my previous posts where I discussed links acquisition strategies post panda/penguin era, and uncommon & advanced links building strategies.


SEO is changing as the search engines become more advanced. Penguin will not be the last update to shake up the search results and we as marketers should be focusing on longevity and brand just as much as we should on rankings.

Can you think of more practices to guard against Penguin and future related updates? And of course, if you liked this, we’d appreciate it if you passed it along.

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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  • Nancy

    Thank you for sharing. Good information and useful to avoid the common meta tag pitfalls of SEO.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      You’re welcome Nancy. Glad to hear I could help!

  • Danielle Rodabaugh

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU…100 times thank you. Recovering from Penguin has taken its toll on many online marketers this past year. Unfortunately, we were one of the few who weren’t doing anything wrong at the time but got caught up in the maelstrom of Google rule changes nonetheless. I think the online marketing industry as a whole has learned the importance of putting the customer experience first every time, regardless of what exactly Google is/isn’t doing now or may/may not do in the future. Cheating the system should never again be considered a valid SEO strategy. The Google bots will only get better at distinguishing between high-quality and low-quality sites, so why risk it? This article is very reassuring to those of us working to develop legitimate SEO strategies.

    • Sahil

      That’s true Danielle. SEOs should focus on adding value to the brand, they have to stop using manipulative techniques just to rise higher in the search engine rankings for some time like how most affiliate marketers do, They have to rather focus on providing value additions and building good relationship with the user via social media and other ways. Focusing on quality viral marketing, content marketing, social media, removal of spam backlinks or spam techniques used on the site if any covers the major part of the seo for 2013.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Danielle, thanks for your detailed comment and I’m glad to hear you found this helpful 🙂

      When it comes to Google and defining SEO Strategies, we all need to keep a simple thing in mind. Google and Search will keep evolving, so we should as well.

      I come across to many folks who state that they’re still getting benefit with the same old school link building strategies, but the reality is, they’re playing with their clients business.

    • rico_suarez

      This is a great summary, but what really sucks is that for every website that follows these rules, you have two that don’t and still outrank the ones that follow the rules. What’s worse, it’s probably the same probability of both sites getting hit by the algo change…However, if we didn’t have greedy cheaters and sites that chase rankings no matter what, we probably wouldn’t have Panda and Penguin. Google is not to blame at for much, except for not being perfect in making difference between real cheaters and honest sites…

  • Wesley Picotte

    Pratik, good summary.

    You mentioned not repeating navigation in the header and footer, but this is basic user experience design that has been abused (in some cases) by SEOs. Removing this element from footers would be detrimental for users, which seems in contradiction to the intent of Penguin.

    I have not seen this previously in Penguin recommendations – are you referring to a site’s global navigation?

    • Danielle Rodabaugh

      It’s pretty obvious when websites are abusing header/footer design by stuffing the same keywords in both. He’s not saying don’t have both a header and a footer, but if the content is identical and full of obviously stuffed keywords, Google’s probably penalizing the site because that’s a TON of links (likely unnecessary to users) at both the top and bottom of every page (assuming you keep the headers and footers consistent site wide). We’ve found header navigation links are much more intuitive to the user experience than footer links.

      • Wesley Picotte

        I’m familiar with the abuse of navigational links (which more commonly occurs in the footer) as I mentioned in my comment, and assumed this to be Pratik’s meaning. However, that’s not how the post is worded.

        When you say that header links are more “intuitive” than footer links, the point is that not having them provides for poor UX. Obviously, main nav elements are used more often than nav elements in the footer.

      • Pratik Dholakiya

        Danielle, thanks for taking this forward and clarifying to Wesley.

        As header is the most important part, it is recommended to make the best use of header navigation as much as we can (May be Mega menu? ) instead of stuffing the footer with the links on your target keywords that goes to your target internal pages. For further, I’d recommend watching what Rand Fishkin had to say about the on page optimization –

        If we think we should also utilize the footer to improve the UX, then stuffing it with the keywords/all the services is not the right way. Instead, my suggestion would be to put down an “arrow” that directly take the user to the top and allow them to browse your services again.

        I hope this makes sense.

      • André Dubreuil

        “As header is the most important part, it is recommended to make the best use of header navigation as much as we can (May be Mega menu? )”

        Based on multiple UX test sessions on many different projects I wish that it was as easy as “making the best use of the header navigation”, the reality is you would be surprised how fast users will go tothe bottom of a page if they don’t catch a keyword at first glance elsewhere on the page.

        There is a difference between keyword stuffing and repeating some of the main menu linked items in a navigational footer which also acts as a partial sitemap for UX purposes where a “back to top” link sending the user back to the navigation he has just dismissed would not help.

        Would not a mega menu showing the same amount of linked keywords on every page be just as bad SEO-wise in the end though?

  • Prime Aque

    Thank you so much. This post really enlighten my mind… gradually, the used of the right SEO is clearer to me now! Meta description must be a call to action rather than writing a bunch of keywords. I will be more careful about article syndication too. How about paid article directories?

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      You’d probably not get any benefits through paid directory links. If you want to do the sponsorship anywhere and want to get the word out of your company, then the link to your website must be nofollow. (Just so you’re aware)

      • Michael

        Hello Pratik.
        To my mind It can be rather ruefully to know that you won’t be able to publish your own article at free or paid directory. It seems to me it wasn’t black technique when somebody did a job to write an article and after that wanted to place it at the directory which has a moderator with one or two links.
        But we have that we have.

        Thank you for your post!

  • Felix

    Very good article Patrick. I have bookmarked quite a few of the links you shared. Thanks!

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Sounds good 🙂 – Thanks for the comment.

  • Maikeru Sazushima

    Another BIG reason continuing to subscribe through RSS Search Engine Journal>>> Simple, Direct To The Point guides like this one. Mighty BIG GOOD Karma coming your way, Pratik. Big THANK YOU!

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Sounds good 🙂 thanks for the kind words.

  • Ravi kumar

    There are various rules came under this article to save yourself your penguin. I just consider that, Content Marketing has become the highest SEO tool for the time being. What SEO, every one used to do, that came under Black HAT. I personally suggest that make your internet safe place and reliable place. If your content is unique and informative, due to some black hat SEO, you are back in the Search Engine. It is not good.

    Now Google Penguin has been introduced to make internet safe place.

    Thanks for sharing this awesome post.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      You got it right Ravi. Glad to hear I could help.

  • Deepanker

    I was affected by the EMD update and till then I am trying to add good quality backlinks by guest posts. This article is great and must followed. I will take care of these things while creating quality backlinks for my blog

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      That’s good to hear. Keep creating good links and I hope you get recovered soon!

  • Sanjay Singh Rawat

    Hi Pratik! Thanks for providing this awesome ‘Penguin Friendly SEO Guide’. It is really helpful for many online marketers. But, in your article (Off-Site SEO section) you said about avoiding the working on free directories. Suppose I use some niche web directory like dmoz, gimpsy,, and other well known free directories. Then to make my campaign Penguin friendly; should I stop work completely on free directories?

  • Alain – BMC Internet Marketing

    Good article but really
    “Keyword-rich URL naming conventions. If your URL is a bunch of junky letters and numbers, this really doesn’t matter anymore.”
    I find that one hard to believe… And on the other hand there is more in life than SEO, think about your offline communication /23hese?dhecmc

  • Yashwant Naik

    Hi Pratik Dholakiya,

    Eye Opening post. It is observed by me that Google is having different parameters (algorithm) for each industry keyword (or u can say category). Currently I am doing SEO for travel portal – where i notice google dancing very frequent here. but when I was did seo for service industry where I have not experience such behavior.
    I guess for each category have different parameters set by Google…Big example is Viagra or health related keyword where penalty is more quick than service industry keyword.
    May be you too agree with this.

    And feel very proud that SEJ accepting inputs form Indian too. 🙂

  • Anna

    10 months passed since Google Penguin hit us, but still we can’t be sure that we know everything about it. Thanks for this article. It refreshed eerything I know about Penguin and gave me some new facts to think about.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Glad to hear this Anna, let me know if you need any help.

  • Sef Cruz

    The on-page and things to focus on are both helpful for everyone has been spending time in SEO. However, i noticed something in your off-site seo reminder although most of it are useful. I believe what we should look at when linking into another website is their domain authority. If a free article website like is an authoritative website, perhaps it should be fine linking our site to it. 🙂 It is much important to have link building case study in order to come up with more strategic link building guide and avoid getting hit by another Google algo.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      I think, if not now but in the future, the thinking has to be changed from links that are easy to earn, to links that are hard to earn as well as the ones that are potential.

  • Aj Singh

    Great points. Will keep them in mind as I develop my company site.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Sounds good. Feel free to ask if any help is needed.

  • Bhupendra Shekhawat

    Hey Pratik i m agree with you in terms of dont use your exact keyword in anchor text instead of use variety. using same keyword in anchor text many times will be a case of Google penalty .using call to action words in meta description also a good practice.

  • Curious

    Fabulous post. i have one stupid question – if a site has 100-200 pages and navigation to those pages are given on left and right sidebar and there is unique content on every page(say about 400 words).
    this means every page is 20-30% percentage similar to every other page(because of those 100-200 repeating navigation). Is this a duplicate content issue?. If yes, how this can be solved.

  • Saroj Nayak

    Great Post. Thanks for sharing.

  • Cedoo

    The problem with varying your anchor’s quite extensively, albeit neccessary, doesn’t quite get you ranking for those search terms that bring in the conversions.

    My take on this: yes, vary anchors, however, ensure that the juicy links contain your trigger happy anchor text!

    What say you…?

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      I agree but out of your entire link profile, I’d recommend to have only 10-15% of links as target exact keyword(s) and vary the rest % of link profile with different broad match keywords.

  • Jonathon

    Thanks for the great info here. SEO has really shifted from a bunch of spammy techniques, to real online marketing efforts, which is so much more reputable. It’s too many many clients still insist that you do things that are underhanded or spammy, because they read on a blog somewhere, that it still works. At least the industry is making some progress!

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Thanks for your comment Jonathon, glad to hear you enjoyed this one.

  • Scott McKirahan

    Ecommerce websites, especially, tend to have links to their main pages in two places (header & sidebar, for instance) and sometimes in the header, footer and sidebar.

    Do you actually believe that having navigational links in more than one place will hurt you? Although I’m sure it doesn’t help, SEO-wise, and likely never has, it seems a little crazy to me that Google would downgrade websites that made navigation easier for visitors. What’s next? Will people start saying that having more than one “Top of Page” link in your FAQ’s will hurt your website?

    I’m just not buying that one.

  • Holly Bentz

    Exceptional information. Online cross-pollination will be come increasingly paramount as SEO agencies and small businesses tire from trying to market according to Google rules. The bottom-line is that until Google offers its end user’s more privacy and unbiased results ; and alters its aggressive business tactics, it won’t be able to dominate the SE space.

  • Eilidh MacRae

    Great post! Penguin was a great update. It meant that those of us practicing good SEO may now have a chance against those practicing bad SEO.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      That’s correct, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Much appreciated.

  • Nick Othen

    Thanks for the advice, slowly getting back up the pages after penguin.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Good to hear this Nick, I hope you get fully recovered.

  • Andrew D.

    I’m new to seo and have been doing a lot of research on it. So far from what I’ve read is to use use some of these techniques that you say not to. New articles like this are telling me that those techniques are outdated.

  • Neil Mason

    I realize I am not the sharpest tool in the shed. However, I really do not understand the concept of proper links to enhance SEO. You stated that you should not use free directories or paid directories. Does this include things like Craigs list and Kijiji? If I want to advertise my services, why cant I use a directory? How do I get people to know about my services in the community if you are penalized for using local directories?

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      The mention about the free/paid directories is for the ones that are general. Promoting your business using Craigslist and Kijiji is not at all a harmful thing. Go ahead and get your business listed out there. My recommendation would be to use your Brand name as a title. Local directories are definitely helpful locally. (I haven’t written that local directories are going to penalize your website.)

      Hope this would help.

  • Propaline

    As a long time data driven seo marketer, I have a hard time swallowing a long list of best practices that are not supported by any case studies, tests, or evidence that suggests how the results will make an impact. While I don’t disagree with many of the recommendations, their value is not proven in this article, so I have no reason to believe them. We are overrun by preachers of “seo faith”, what we need more of is seo proof.


  • Saptarshi

    Indeed a great article and while all the points mentioned are equally valuable, the Penguin update is purely an update focused on unnatural link building and doesn’t really factor in the on page optimization points mentioned above , that is not to say that the points are not valid, they are extremely useful but not related to Penguin. The link building advice you provided towards the end is definitely helpful.

    I just wrote another article on similar topic – 10 Genuine Penguin Friendly Link building Technique, which is focussed more on actionable points that webmasters could do to get links. Thought sharing the link here ( ) would be good as it caters to the common interest of the readers.

  • Rahul

    I read the comments added by the experts. But how many of you are happy from the latest updates. Matt Cutts want to help small business to grow more by this strategy. He should think small business owner has no money in the pocket to buy blog post in the relevant blogs (guest posting). They cannot spend $500 to get contextual link from a reputed website. They have only free sources from where they can get backlinks like free directories, article sites and social bookmarkings. No one is talking about how people establish online business in just $1000. Only if google give chances to the millionaire/billionaire this is totally wrong. The big sites are already earning million dollars and who cares about penalty, ppc will give them money. Please do advice on my this topic. People everywhere only talking about the quality quality quality. But quality is very expensive for the business owner whose business only limited to small city. This is the strategy of google not to give you money without their commission. Why not people directly blog on google’s monopoly. Everyone is praising google. What is wrong if affiliate site coming on top in the search results. They also provide the option for user to buy a product. The battle ground must be open for all. Fight and get rank. But from last 1 year google made the search engine results only for the luxury class people. Its looking like five star hotel where only rich can go and enjoy all the services. Please read this, publish it and let people think about this and write their opinion. Few days ago, I saw only the results coming from tripadvisor in the search results with the city name and hotel/apartment. Only tripadvisor exists in the search results, what will rest of the hotel owner do. Except tripadvisor there are other websites around should be coming somewhere because they have also the products to sell.