How to identify a Google Penguin Penalty

Launched on April 2012, the first generation of Google Penguin update was a disaster for a large percent of websites. The main purpose of this algorithm update was the identification of websites boosted in SERP by low quality and unnatural backlinks.

The main signals used by Google for the first generation of Penguin was the overusing of the anchor text in the backlink profile of the websites. Basically, the main purpose of the Google Penguin was to identify and penalize the websites involved in link schemes. These are used by spammers to artificially increase the positions of websites in SERP via a large quantity of backlinks.

Until the beginning of 2012, the anchor text of the backlinks was one of the most important signals for Google to identify the subject of the target page. For this reason, the algo signal was overused by spammers in their backlink profiles.

Another important change to this update is the search engine’s ability to identify the subject of the backlink’s source conected to the subject of the target page. Google is now able to locate other signals in the source pages and replace the classical anchor text used until that moment.

Another signal used for this update is the backlink’s location on the page. For example, some unnatural locations of these links are the footer, the sidebar or the comments form area.

With the new technical capabilities included in the algo, the first Google Penguin update was able to affect more than 3% of the searches; this is just for English websites. The next generations of Penguin, which were launched in 2012 and 2013, weren’t as strong as the first one in terms of percentage of affected queries.

How to know if your website was affected by this update

If your website has been suffering from sudden drops in ranking, it’s likely that it’s been affected by a Penguin update. To be sure that this is so, you must check the exact moment when the website’s ranking first dropped.

The history of this algo change is as follows:

  • Penguin 1 was launched on April 24, 2012;
  • Penguin 2 was launched on May 26, 2012;
  • Penguin 3 was launched on October 5, 2012;
  • Penguin 4 (the second generation of Penguin, also labelled 2.0) was launched on May 22, 2013;
  • Penguin 5 (also called Penguin 2.1) was launched on October 4, 2013.

If your website’s rankings suffered from important position changes around one of those dates, you’ve definitely been affected by a Google Penguin update.

If you don’t remember the moment when the positions changed, you must log in to your Google Analytics or your website’s stats account. Another method is to use the Panguin tool. To do that, you must have an active Google Analytics account to log in with. This tool is able to use your traffic details and compare them to the dates of Google updates.


A typical Google Penguin penalty will look in this way

Even so, Google is known to launch multiple algo changes on the same day. That’s why you can’t be sure if the website was affected by the Penguin update or a different one launched by Google at the same time.

Signals used by Penguin

The main signals of the Google Penguin update are related to the website’s backlinks profile. The unnatural patterns of this profile are responsible for the penalties triggered by this update.

For an advanced analysis of the link profile I recommend you these websites and tools: Bing and Google Webmaster ToolsMajestic SEO,, Open Site Explorer and SpyGlass by LinkAssistant.

What you should look for:

Sitewide backlinks with money keywords in the anchors


The sitewide backlinks can be a Google Penguin penalty trigger

These links are targeted by the Penguin and the websites with a large number of site-wide backlinks via “money keywords” in the anchors.

Unnatural link velocity

One of the most important improvements of the Google Penguin is its ability to detect unnatural link velocity. The backlinking campaigns usually have a nonlinear profile determined by the supplemental volume of backlinks pointing to the target site. If a website receives about 10 new backlinks / month and this value suddenly increase for a short period of time, a Penguin penalty can be triggered at the first roll-out of the update.


An unnatural link-building example

High percentage of money keywords in the anchors

One of the biggest mistakes of linkbuilders was to try and increase the percentage of money keywords in the anchors pointing to a website. Improved Google filters were introduced to the Penguin update and the sites promoted via this method were drastically affected.

Links networks

The private and public link networks was targeted separately by the manual actions of Google. However, Penguin is able to detect unnatural backlinks profile, including links networks. The signals that were probably used for the links networks detection were the domain IPs, website’s owners, design of the websites from the network and so on.


An obvious link network example. About 14 websites, hosted on the same IP and pointing to the target site.

Low quality backlinks sources

The low quality backlinks are generally represented by article directories, low quality bookmark websites and web directories. The link profile is usually affected and the website’s trust flow is very low.


Paid links

Paid links can have a negative effect if they’re posted on low quality sites; or if the backlinks appear on well-known link sellers. The Penguin update is now able to detect these paid links.


An example of paid links from the Matt Cutts blog

Unrelated backlinks

These links are generally inserted into some articles, even if the article’s subject is different to the target page. For example, a website about fishing receives a link from a page about motorcycles. Google’s internal analysis tools are now able to see that a link like this one is unnatural.


One of the most used methods of linkbuilding was, until the Penguin,  comment spamming. This method involves large scale comments posted on various websites and blogs to artificially increase link popularity for a website. With help from some dedicated tools, a lot of webmasters used this method for their websites.

Forum signatures 

Another important signal for the Google Penguin is backlinking using forum signatures. The method was overused a few years ago until the first Penguin update. However, some webmasters are still using


With a little guidance and attention you can easily identify a Google Penguin update. The recovery is possible if you are affected by this algorithm change. If the number of the backlinks isn’t high, you can recover your website’s position without much effort.

You must know that a recovery is possible if the cleanup is correctly performed. The penalty should be revoked when you next refresh the Penguin algo.

If you need supplemental info about this subject, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Catalin Nichita is the founder of project. Catalin has about 6 years of experience in SEO and is specialized in penalty removals and website audits.