How to Protect your Site and Recover from Google Penguin Penalties


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This is a detailed backlink audit, detaling various metrics to compare in order to identify problems leading to Penguin penalties. I also outline a strategy to recover your site from Penguin.

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How to Protect your Site and Recover from Google Penguin Penalties

  1. 1. A Step by Step Guide toProtecting Your Site FromPenguin: A Case Study onElearners.comIntroductionPenguin 2.0 hit hard for those who didn’t know how to protect their site from was one of those sites.According to SEOlytics, in the aftermath of Penguin 2.0, Elearners lost close to 60% oftheir traffic.For all intents and purposes, should have NOT been hit by a penaltywhen Google updated to Penguin 2.0. Taking a superficial look at their metrics, theyhad all the right elements: high PR/authority links with a large number of unique C classlinks, including .edu and .gov sites. So why did they suffer a Penguin penalty? Andwhat can you learn from their mistakes to protect your own site?Penguin penalties are preventable—if you know what you’re looking for and how toprotect yourself.
  2. 2. By using, I’ve undertaken a deep, step-by-step analysis intovarious backlink metrics, revealing numerous red flags that—seen from Google’sperspective—created unnatural ratios resulting in a harsh penalty.In this case study, I will lay out a step by step strategy that you can follow to analyzeyour backlink profile, identify potential landmines, and change your ratios to normalizeyour profile with that of your competitors.Don’t follow in Elearners footsteps. By paying attention to the metrics analyzed below,you can know what behaviors to avoid to keep your site safe from the next dreadedPenguin update.Step 1: Identify your Competitors (SEMrush)Start by identifying the main competitors in the spaceStep 2: Quick ComparisonBacklinks Overview (BLP)How many total backlinks, and how many from unique C classes?
  3. 3. Elearner has 44,271 links found, out of which 7538 are from unique C classes. Thismeans they have a total of 17% of their links from unique C classes.Quick Domain Compare (QDC)How does your site compare to your competitors?When the total backlinks, including links to subdomains, are analyzed, you can see thatthere are over 2 million backlinks, much higher than the other domains in thespace. This is an instant red flag.
  4. 4. Quick Competitive Overview (CLA)How does your site compare to your competitors in terms of Power and Trust?Elearners has the highest Cemper Power Trust, yet it doesn’t have the highest numberof root domains, indicating there are too many links from domains with high power orhigh trust.
  5. 5. Link Stats Comparison (Juice Tool)How do various link factors compare?Elearners is ranked #4 in terms of the number of unique C class links. Power and Trustis similar for all of their competitors (minus, which wasnt analyzed further).Elearners has a normal distribution of Power and Trust.
  6. 6. Elearners also has over 14k keywords ranking in the top 20 according to SEMrush,making it #3 in this list. This should be an indicator of trust, yet you can see the steepdecline in traffic.You see in the chart below that Elearners has a very high ratio of sitewide links. This isanother definite red flag.How do various link factors compare?
  7. 7. In terms of Age, ACrank, PR, and Indexed pages, Elearners has a strong profile, similarto it’s competitors. Although the TitleRank isn’t that low, the fact that it isn’t #1 is adefinite sign of a Google Penalty.In all of these stats, Elearners is comparable, in fact it’s even stronger than most of theother sites.Could a lack of social signals have been a factor in Elearners penalty? Even thoughElearners has fewer than average Facebook likes, shares and comments, this isntenough to prove significant. Strong social signals didnt prevent the site from contractinga penalty.
  8. 8. SummarySummary of Findings from Quick ComparisonsAt a quick glance, looking at these various factors yielded no significant findings.Elearners might have been a little off-balance in a couple of metrics, but there wasnothing immediately visible to give us a concrete indication of why it suffered a Penguin2.0 penalty.Step 3: Detailed Competitive AnalysisLink Status (CLA)Are most links followed, nofollowed, or redirected?Elearners has the highest percentage of follow links, which is often—especially from Google’spoint of view—evidence of contrived links.
  9. 9. Link Status (CLA)How are the links coded?Looking at the Link Type metrics you can quickly see that Elearners has a majorpercentage of links from iframes. Why are there so many links in frames? Moreimportantly, why is this number so high compared to their competitors?This is something that definitely needs to be investigated as part of this link audit.Deep Links Ratio (CLA)How many of the links point to home vs internal pages?Elearners has a higher deep links ratio than it’s competitors. Even though 5% is hardlysignificant, it stands out enough to call to question why this site is above average ascompared to others in the niche.Sitewide Links Ratio (CLA)
  10. 10. What is the sitewide links ratio of the inbound links?Overall Elearners has a similar sitewide links ratio profile as other competitors, with theexception of a slightly elevated number of linking sites with 1-10 inbound links. Thisdoesnt give us any conclusive information, however.Referring Class C (CLA)What is the distribution of the link popularity of the inbound links?Here we see that Elearners has an unnatural ratio of links with more than 100K inboundlinks. While the average is 4%, Elearners has double that with an average of 8% oftheir links on sites with over 100K links.Moz Domain Authority (CLA)What is the distribution of the Domain Authority of the backlinks?Elearners has a similar profile as other sites in the niche for Domain Authority.
  11. 11. Google Page Rank (CLA)What is the PageRank distribution of the backlinks?Elearners has an average PR distribution. They have 520 N/A links, one of the lowestof the group, as well as only 70 PR0 backlinks. On the high PR spectrum, they have 2PR8 links, and 1 PR7 link, which is on the higher end of the average.Link Velocity Trends (CLA)How quickly are the sites building backlinks?Elearners’ backlinks have a similar LVT as other competitors in the space.
  12. 12. By Retweets (CLA)How active are the sites on Twitter?Elearners seems to have a similar social profile to other competitors. No unnaturalactivity is apparent.By Google +1s (CLA)How active are the sites on Google Plus?Again, Elearners seems to have a similar social profile to other competitors, and nounnatural activity is apparent.
  13. 13. TitleRank Home Page (CLA)How are backlink sites ranking for their home page title?Elearners has the lowest number of backlinks ranking #1. AT 669, they are only at 52%,compared to the total average of 63%. Elearners also has the highest number of sitesthat are not ranking in the top 30 results (31% where the average is 19%). This isanother red flag.LP By PR & AC Rank (BLP)What is the PR and AC rank of the inbound links?Elearners has too many inbound links from sites that are not indexed in Google or havea PR or AC rank of 0. This is disproportionate to other backlinks as well as to othercompetitors.
  14. 14. SummaryDid Detailed Comparisons yield Red Flags?We found significant findings in the following areas:● Too many links in iframes● Deep links ratio is higher than competitors● Many of their inbound links have more than 100K inbound links● High number of high PR links. Both of these indicate high Power in their backlinkprofile as compared to other domains.● They have the lowest number of sites ranking #1 for their home page title● Social Signals dont give us any conclusive information● They have a very high number of inbound links from sites that are not indexed inGoogle, but the number isnt significant when compared to competitors
  15. 15. Step 4: Anchor Text AnalysisKeyword (CLA)What is the breakdown between Money terms vs others?To begin, we have to categorize the keywords into Brand, Compound, Money, andOther. This step can be time consuming but it is essential to the process.Keyword (CLA)What is the percentage of Money Terms in the Anchor Text Profile? has the highest % for money, and lowest for Brand. This is a major redflag, for reasons we can identify when we look at the anchor text distribution ofElearners as well as some of its biggest competitors.
  16. 16. Anchor Text: Elearners (BLP)What is the Anchor Text Distribution?Looking at anchor text distribution we can quickly see that they has toomany money keywords in anchor text—the top 4, 5, and 6 keywords are moneyterms. This is an instant red flag that this is a contrived link profile with active anchortext manipulation. None of the densities are too high, but the overall density for"Money" terms is too high.
  17. 17. Anchor Text: Devry (QBL)What is the Anchor Text Distribution of their competitors?In comparison we have Notice their word map and how varied it is, focusingmostly on brand terms. None of the money terms show up in the top of the list foranchor density. This appears to be a very natural profile.Anchor Text: Kaplan (QBL)What is the Anchor Text Distribution?
  18. 18. Kaplan, on the other hand, also has money terms at the top of their anchor text profile.In fact, Kaplan is probably worse because the actual densities are higher. If this wasthye only major issue for Elearners, then Kaplan wouldve gone down too. However,Kaplan is stronger than ever after Penguin 2.0.Why didnt Kaplan get hit by Penguin 2.0?Anchor Text: Kaplan (BLP)Why is Kaplan not penalized by Penguin?I started by categorizing Kaplans backlinks and performing a detailed link analysis.Although Kaplan has money terms in the anchor distribution and the anchor density ishigh, the distribution between brand and money terms is greatly normalized— 64% of Kaplan’s backlinks are Brand links, as opposed to 34% forElearners. By having a greater variety and variations of Brand terms in their backlinkprofile, they are protected from algorithmic penalties. A quick analysis into theirbacklinks also shows a great number of natural, unpaid links.
  19. 19. Anchor Text: Phoenix (BLP)What is the Anchor Text Distribution?Phoenix has the most natural looking profile, with lots of brand, click here, and organicterms. Its obvious that theres been little done to contrive this backlink profile.Anchor Text: Capella (QBL)What is the Anchor Text Distribution?
  20. 20. As with Phoenix, Capella has a natural and diverse backlink profile.SummaryWhat did Anchor Text Data Reveal?● Too many Money terms in the Anchor Text profile● Competitors that have high anchor text density were not penalized, possiblybecause of high Brand term density● Anchor text word map looks very contrived for Elearners, with the smallestpercentage of Brand TermsStep 5: Link Detox & Detailed Link AnalysisLink Detox Overview (LD)What is the Average Link Detox Risk?
  21. 21. According to the system, Elearners has a very low risk of penalty or bad links. Thismeans that the bad links have been very well disguised in order to avoid detection. Yet,since we already know the site has been penalized, how did Google pick up on theselinks? What are these links hiding that could give us insights into this penalty?Link Detox Overview (LD)Do any of the links stand out?Even though only 1% of the links are perceived to be “toxic,” we still have 36% of thelinks that are considered suspicious. These suspicious links may be where the problemis hidden. Now well take a look at some of these links individually for furtherinformation.Scan Combined Backlinks (CLA)Does anything jump out when you sort and scan through the backlinks of the group?Download the CLA spreadsheet to Excel, and start scanning the backlinks.
  22. 22. I found a PR 8 to Elearners from StudyAbroad, and noticed that its a"Partners link" atthe footer. This is a footer link thats sitewide and available on every page of those 4sites.This is an indication of a potential network, leading to negative interlinkage.Looking at other competitor backlinks, many look natural. However, Elearners hasmany educational sites with keywords in the URL, which look unnatural.Link Detox Overview (LD)Network alert! Network alert!When further analyzing these links in the detailed link report, we can instantly see thatmany of these domains are owned by the same person, creating a link network. This isa HUGE red flag.
  23. 23. Link Detox Overview (LD)Identical sites on different domainsWe also noticed that many of the sites are almost exactly the same, with identicaltemplates and content, but with different domains and color schemes. There are othersites that are not quite as obvious but are still part of the same network.
  24. 24. Backlinks (BLP)If you spot test the links, do they seem clean/natural, or are theyacquired/contrived?First I sorted by PR, deleted all of the N/As (of which there are a lot!!), and started spot-testing the high quality links. Here are a few examples of my findings:Download the CLA spreadsheet to Excel, and start scanning the backlinks.I found a PR 8 to Elearners from StudyAbroad, and noticed that its a"Partners link" atthe footer. This is a footer link thats sitewide and available on every page of those 4sites.This is an indication of a potential network, leading to negative interlinkage.This appears to be a paid contextual link.
  25. 25. All of the links end up at Elearners, which is obviously another site that is part of this linknetwork.So far, all of the high PR backlinks that Ive spot tested are either purchased or part oftheir own network!Paid Links on USAToday?!Even a link on USAtoday, which mightve been editorial, is purchased! You can see atthe top of the page, the link to
  26. 26. SummaryWhy did the Link Profile look healthy?Elearners hid their toxic links very well behind high profile / high quality paid links andlink networks.How can Link Detox identify very healthy, high quality sites as toxic linksalgorithmically? This is, and has been, Google’s biggest conundrum when it comes toalgorithmically fighting spam manipulation. Healthy links that affect pagerank andrankings are hard to identify without manual intervention.So the question is, what can they do algorithmically to identify manipulated links? Lookfor unnatural ratios!These unnatural ratios can trigger red flags and, when enough of the red flags aretriggered, then an algorithmic penalty or a manual review can follow.So what gave Elearners away, and caused the Penguin 2.0 penalty?Take a look at this summary of my findings:
  27. 27. The Xs are the number of strikes. Could it be that after a certain amount of strikes asite automatically incurs a penalty? Or could it trigger a manual evaluation, resulting in aslap?If this hypothesis is correct, all you have to do is watch your ratios and keep them withinthe same range of your competitors in order to stay undetected.ConclusionsSo why did get a Penguin 2.0 penalty?Too Many Unnatural RatiosAfter analyzing about 20 factors, we found red flags in about 10 of the different items.Too many links with Money Terms in their Anchor TextTheir anchor text profile shows a large number of money terms, higher than othercompetitors in the space. Simultaneously, the number of Brand terms is lower thanother competitors in the niche. Looking at their anchor density word map also showsthat there are few "noise" keywords, thus showing a contrived backlink profile.Too Many Paid Links
  28. 28. Given that many of their high PR links are paid links, these may have been identified bythe algorithm or a manual review, resulting in the penalty. By penalizing Text Link Adsand their network, Google is making it clear that they have no tolerance for peoplebuying or selling links. Spot testing their backlinks shows many paid links, with just afew examples
  29. 29. is part of a Link NetworkMany of their inbound links are part of the same network, many registered by the sameperson, others hidden behind different registrars, even more hidden behind privateregistrars. Upon inspection its fairly obvious that theyre owned by the samecompany.Its likely the network started years ago with them buying high PR links, which earnedthem visibility. This visibility led to some natural links, including links from some .govand .edu sites. From this authority and pagerank, they continued to create more sites tocreate a large link network of sites, all interlinked or randomly linked.This network includes hundreds of niche sites, each focusing on specific degrees. Bylinking within the network using footer links or iframes, all of those sites gained highpagerank.By looking at the BLP backlinks and investigating each of these network links, many ofthem retain pagerank, titlerank, and SEMrush keywords, therefore the entire networkhasnt yet been popped. Many of the sites continue to thrive and feed the main site,Elearners.comProtect your site Against Penguin!So what does this Penalty tell us about Penguin 2.0?
  30. 30. Watch your Ratios!As evidenced by this study, it is vital to keep an eye on all of your ratios. If too manyof your ratios look unnatural as compared to others in your niche, these red flags mayresult in a manual review or automatic penalty.Watch the number of Money Terms in your Anchor TextIts not enough to just watch your anchor density—you also have to watch thepercentage of money terms in your anchor text. Study other competitors that havehealthy, natural link profiles and emulate them. Or, better yet, follow their same tacticsto acquire natural links with natural anchor text.Use Brand and Noise Terms in your Anchor TextTry working on link building without contriving your anchor text. Allow people tolink to you however they want, to result in natural looking links.Dont Buy Links!Buying links worked for years, but Google knows this is a weakness in their algorithm.By using Penguin with a combination of manual reviews, they are now able to penalizesites that are buying links.You may buy links and get away with it for a time, but eventually its possible that yourlink buying may trigger a penalty, causing your site to tank in the rankings. And, asmany people know by now, once you have a Penguin penalty its very difficult, almostimpossible, to recover.Avoid Link NetworksIts very tempting to buy into a link network, or to create your own network of niche sites.Many people do it by buying expired domains, or by finding established networks andjoining. This may work for a time, but eventually some of these ratios will be triggered,and the network will be found. Once you catch the tail of a network, exposing the rest isfairly easy.Network builders try hard, but there are always footprints left to find, and with thesophistication of Googles algorithms, you better believe the network will be identifiedand penalized.
  31. 31. Don’t Procrastinate! Do your Link Research!To algorithmically monitor for spam, Google looks at your site as compared to yourcompetitors. If your site sticks out with many metrics outside of the norm, it may be acall out towards a penalty. One trigger is not enough—as we saw with the comparisonto Kaplan and its high density of anchor texts. One signal didn’t lead to a penalty;having many unnatural ratios can. Ratios are increasingly important as Google looksdeeper into unnatural link building and controlling spam.What does this mean for your site? If you’ve already been penalized, run an audit withLink Research Tools and look at your link ratios to see what you can normalize. Watchyour rankings and traffic from Google to see if it normalizing helps your site recover andperform better.If you haven’t yet been penalized, protect your site by continuously running thesereports to keep your ratios safe. Be extra-vigilant in your optimization efforts to makesure that you are not triggering red flags. If you are prepared and avoiding triggeringlinking behaviors, you won’t have to worry when the next Google Penguin updatecomes around.