It’s been about two weeks since Google launched its Penguin Update. Google’s happy the new spam-fighting algorithm is improving things as intended. But some hurt by it are still wondering how to recover, and there remain concerns about “negative SEO” as a threat. I caught up with Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s web spam team, on these and some related questions.
Penguin: “A Success”
The goal of any algorithm update is to improve search results. So how’s Penguin been for Google?
“It’s been a success from our standpoint,” Cutts said.
What About Those Weird Results?
Of course, soon after Penguin was released, people quickly started citing examples of odd results. The official Viagra site wasn’t listed, while hacked sites were. An empty web site was listed for “make money online,” and there were reports of other empty sites ranking well. Scraper sites were reported outranking the sites they scraped.
How could Penguin be a success with these types of things happening?
Cutts said that many of these issues existed before Penguin launched and were not caused by the new spam-fighting algorithm.
Indeed, the Viagra issue, which has now been fixed, was a problem before Penguin hit. Penguin didn’t cause it.
False Positives? A Few Cases
How about false positives, people who feel they’ve been unfairly hit by Penguin when they weren’t doing any spam?
“We’ve seen a few cases where we might want to investigate more, but this change hasn’t had the same impact as Panda or Florida,” Cutts said.
The Panda Update was Google’s big update that targeted low-quality spam last year. The Florida Update was a major Google update in 2003 intended to improve its search quality.
I’d agree that both of those seemed to have impacted more sites than Penguin has, based on having watched reactions to all these updates. Not everyone will agree with me, of course. It’s also worth the regular reminder that for any site that “lost” in the rankings, someone gained. You rarely hear from those who gain.
Bottom line, Google seems pretty confident that the Penguin Update is indeed catching people who were spamming, as was intended.
Why Spam Still Gets Through
Certainly when I’ve looked into reports, I’ve often found spam at the core of why someone dropped. But if Penguin is working, why are some sites that are clearly spamming still getting through?
“No algorithm is perfect. While we’d like to achieve perfection, our litmus test is, ‘Do things get better than before?’,” Cutts said.
Cutts also explained that Penguin was designed to be quite precise, to act against pages when there was an extremely high-confidence of spam being involved. The downside is that some spam might get through, but the upside is that you have fewer false positives.
How Can You Recover?
One of the most difficult things with this update is telling people how to recover. Anyone hit by Penguin was deemed to be spamming Google.
In the past, if you spammed Google, you were told to file a reconsideration request. However, Google’s specifically said that reconsideration requests won’t help those hit by Penguin. They’ll recover naturally, Google says, if they clean the spam up.
However, one of the main reasons I’ve seen when looking at sites hit by Penguin seems to be bad linking practices. People have used sponsored WordPress themes, or poor quality reciprocal linking, have purchased links or participated in linking networks, such as those recently targeted by Google.
How do people pull themselves out of these link networks, if perhaps they don’t have control over those links now?
“It is possible to clean things up,” Cutts said, and he suggested people review two videos he’s done on this topic:
“The bottom line is, try to resolve what you can,” Cutts said.
Waiting On Penguin To Update Again
If you do clean things up, how will you know? Ideally, you’ll see your traffic from Google recover, the next time Penguin is updated.
That leads to another important point. Penguin, like Panda, is a filter that gets refreshed from time-to-time. Penguin is not constantly running but rather is used to tag things as spam above-and-beyond Google’s regular spam filtering on a periodic basis.
Is Penguin a site-wide penalty like Panda or page-specific? Cutts wouldn’t say. But given that Panda has site-wide impacts, I think it’s a fair assumption that Penguin works the same.
What that means is that if some of your site is deemed Penguin-like, all of it may suffer. Again, recovery means cleaning up the spam. If you’ve cleaned and still don’t recover, ultimately, you might need to start all over with a fresh site, Cutts said.
New Concerns Over Negative SEO
Before Penguin, talk of “negative SEO” had been ramping up. Since then, it seems to have gotten worse in some places. I’ve seen post-after-post making it sound as if anyone is now in serious danger that some competitor can harm them.
At the core of these fears seems to be a perfect storm of assumptions. Google recently targeted some linking schemes. That caused some people to lose traffic. Google also sent out warnings about sites with “artificial” or “unnatural” links. That generated further concerns in some quarters. Then the Penguin Update hit, which caused more people to lose traffic as they were either hit for link spam or no longer benefited from link spam that was wiped out.
These things made it ripe for people to assume that pointing bad links at a site can hurt it. But as I wrote before, negative SEO concerns aren’t new. They’ve been around for years. Despite this, we’ve not seen it become a major concern.
Google has said it’s difficult for others to harm a site, and that’s indeed seemed to be the case. In particular, pointing bad links at a good site with many other good signals seems to be like trying to infect it with a disease that it has antibodies to. The good stuff outweighs the bad.
Cutts stressed again that negative SEO is rare and hard. “We have done a huge amount of work to try to make sure one person can’t hurt another person,” he said.
Cutts also stressed again what Google said before. Most of the those 700,000 messages to publishers that Google sent out earlier this year were not about bad link networks. Nor were they all suddenly done on the same day. Rather, many sites have had both manual and algorithmic penalties attached to them over time but which were never revealed. Google recently decided to open up about these.
After Negative SEO Campaign, A Link Warning
Of course, new messages do go out, which leads to the case of Dan Thies. His site was targeted by some trying to show that negative SEO works. He received an unnatural link warning after this happened. He also lost some rankings. Is this the proof that negative SEO really works?
Thies told me that his lost rankings were likely due to changes he made himself, when he removed a link across all pages on his site that led back to his home page. After restoring that, he told me, he regained his rankings.
His overall traffic, he said, never got worse. That tends to go against the concerns that negative SEO is a lurking threat, because if it had worked enough to tag his site as part of the Penguin Update, he should have seen a huge drop.
Still, what about link warning? Thies did believe that came because of the negative SEO attempt. That’s scary stuff. He also said he filed three reconsideration requests, which each time returned messages saying that there were no spam actions found. Was he hit with a warning but not one that was also associated with a penalty?
I asked Cutts about the case, but he declined to comment on Thies’s particular situation. He did say that typically a link warning is a precursor to a ranking drop. If the site fixes the problem and does a reconsideration request quickly enough, that might prevent a drop.
Solving The Concerns
I expect we’ll continue to see discussions of negative SEO, with a strong belief by some that it’s a major concern for anyone. I was involved in one discussion over at SEO Book about this that’s well worth a read.
When it’s cheaper to buy links than ever, it’s easy to see why there are concerns. Stories like what happened to Thies or this person, who got a warning after 24,000 links appeared pointing at his site in one day, are worrisome.
Then again, the person’s warning came after he apparently dropped in rankings because of Penguin. So did these negative SEO links actually cause the drop, or was it something else? As is common, it’s hard to tell, because the actual site isn’t provided.
To further confuse matters, some who lost traffic because of Penguin might not be victims of a penalty at all. Rather, Google may have stopped allowing some links to pass credit, if they were deemed to be part of some attempt to just manipulate rankings. If sites were heavily dependent on these artificial links, they’d see a drop just because the link credit was pulled, not because they were hit with a penalty.
I’ve seen a number of people now publicly wishing for a way to “disvow” links pointing at them. Google had no comment about adding such a feature at this time, when I asked about this. I certainly wouldn’t wait around for it now, if you know you were hit by Penguin. I’d do what you can to clean things up.
One good suggestion out of the SEO Book discussion was that Google not penalize sites for bad links pointing at them. Ignore the links, don’t let the links pass credit, but don’t penalize the site. That’s an excellent suggestion for defusing negative SEO concerns, I’d say.
I’d also stress again that from what I’ve seen, negative SEO isn’t really what most hit by Penguin should probably be concerned about. It seems far more likely they were hit by spam they were somehow actively involved in, rather than something a competitor did.
Recovering From Penguin
Our Google Penguin Update Recovery Tips & Advice post from two weeks ago gave some initial advice about dealing with Penguin, and that still holds up. In summary, if you know that you were hit by Penguin (because your traffic dropped on April 24):
- Clean up on-page spam you know you’ve done
- Clean up bad links you know you’re been involved with, as best you can
- Wait for news of a future Penguin Update and see if you recover after it happens
- If it doesn’t, try further cleaning or consider starting over with a fresh site
- If you really believe you were a false positive, file a report as explained here
- Just in, by the way, a list of WordPress plug-ins that apparently insert hidden links. If you use some of these, and they have inserted hidden links, that could have caused a penalty.
I’d also say again, take a hard look at your own site. When I’ve looked at sites, it’s painfully easy to find bad link networks they’ve been part of. That doesn’t mean that there’s not spam that’s getting past Penguin. But complaining about what wasn’t caught isn’t a solution to improving your own situation, if you were hit.