Google’s Penguin 2.1 update – what did it change and how to adapt

Google’s search algorithm updates have become a common thing in the past few years, and whereas initially they were kept a secret and left webmasters wondering whether they did something wrong or not, today pretty much every update is announced quite a bit ahead of its actual implementation, even though the actual details aren’t released.

Google’s Penguin 2.0 and 2.1 were the most significant updates of 2013

The biggest update yet was last year’s Penguin 2.0, which was a significant rewrite of the ranking algorithm and aimed to further reduce the amount of web spam in Google’s search results. The update practically decimated thin affiliate websites (i.e. landing page blogs with little content and many ads, affiliate links and/or opt-in forms), and penalized link directories, article directories, websites that aggregate search results, websites with multiple low quality backlinks and more.

Several months after Penguin 2.0, Google also announced the Hummingbird and Penguin 2.1 updates – the former being a whole new algorithm that focuses on semantic analysis and “conversational search”, which improves the way Google handles direct questions like “How many feet are there in a mile?” or “How many calories in a pineapple” – it basically shows answers directly instead of just the relevant search results.

Many people talk about Hummingbird, and very few mention Penguin 2.1, which is quite a bit more important than its name would suggest. It only affected a small percentage of search queries, but the few changes it brought in website ranking are pretty significant.

What the Penguin 2.1 update has changed

It penalizes optimized anchor text patterns. Anchor text is the text used for backlinks from other websites, and over time, webmasters have found and settled on several patterns that provided the best results for the rankings. These patterns include using the keywords you want to rank for as the anchor text, not using nofollow (which is a rather big red flag nowadays), and having multiple backlinks with the exact same anchor text directing to the same pages.

This is pretty significant because it has been the mainstay of SEO for years, and even though the effect has been diminished lately, you could easily get your website ranking for the keywords you used in the backlinks’ anchor text.

I’m surprised it took so long to fix this, because it’s been long known that normal people don’t use specific keywords for anchor text (instead just posting a link or using common words and phrases such as “here”, “read”, “see it here”, “here’s the article”, “great overview” and so on), and the chance of a single article getting multiple links (more than 5-10) with the exact same anchor text is nearly impossible, unless they’re paid links or guest posts.

Google put 2 and 2 together and finally drove the last nail in the coffin for this loophole with Penguin 2.1. The sites that contain these kinds of links and the sites that are being linked to will both be penalized.

It penalizes the lack of internal linking. Internal linking has been a rather unimportant, but useful part of proper SEO for several years now, but with Penguin 2.1, its importance has risen significantly. Now, websites that have many incoming links to their homepage or several specific articles and lack a good internal linking structure are at a high risk of being penalized.

Google’s reasoning is clear: normal bloggers will always link to their other related articles or simply older articles that they think deserve to be read. A lack of internal linking is therefore a red flag, especially when the homepage and a few specific posts (which many SEO experts call a blog’s “pillar content”) get a lot of backlinks.

It increased the impact of negative SEO. This is pretty much a side effect of targeting optimized anchor text patterns, but it’s very bad for pretty much anyone who has a high ranking website, especially in a very competitive niche. Since Penguin 2.1 penalizes overly optimized and repeating anchor text, anyone doing negative SEO can get a competitor penalized simply by buying multiple of these links for them.

Negative SEO has always been a problem, but it was usually pretty hard to pull off – any links did more good rather than bad, and you needed to have a seriously large number of them from bad websites to get penalized. With Penguin 2.1, a few dozen backlinks with the same anchor text going to the same page are enough to get it penalized – and indeed, many website owners have already seen this happen.

How can you adapt to Penguin 2.1 and avoid being penalized

Pay attention to internal linking. It’s a rather basic and easy thing to do, and now it matters more than ever. You should create good internal linking for any website, link related articles to each other (and not just by using a “Related Posts” plugin) and make sure all your articles get a similar exposition to the users. If you have 50 articles and yet only 5 of them get all the attention, that is a red flag.

Have a more diversified linking strategy. When acquiring backlinks, don’t focus solely on the pages you want ranked – spread the links for all of your site’s pages. Sure, you don’t want to get an equal amount of links to each article, but you definitely should not ignore most of them in favor of a select few – with Penguin 2.1, that would be a big risk.

I’d say that after Penguin 2.1, nofollow links are actually better than the clean ones – Google kind of fell into their own trap here, since nofollow is now everywhere and they have no choice but consider them as good as the links without that tag. It’s still a good thing to get clean links, but they should be very rare – one in ~10 nofollow links should suffice.

Obviously, the content should be as good as possible so that any backlinks are justified – people usually don’t link to articles that are poorly written or not interesting, so any backlinks would look suspicious in that case.

Use more natural anchor text. While keywords in the anchor text are great for rankings, you will have to scale them back a lot – mostly use common words as the anchor text, as well as the link itself, because that’s how most natural links are created. You should definitely still use keywords that you need your pages to rank for, but use them extremely sparsely. Use our SEO tool to keep your anchor keywords distribution in check (see Using Linkody to Monitor Anchor Text and Avoid Penalties).

Also, you should update the anchor text for your current links if possible – it might not do much if your site was already penalized, but it can’t hurt and will definitely be useful in the future.

Penguin 2.1 is small, but very important

As you can see, the Penguin 2.1 update might not be that big, but it certainly is important – much more so than Hummingbird, in fact. The amount of search queries affected is also very small (under 2%), but the queries themselves are likely to be some of the most competitive. If you have a website in a competitive niche ranking high, you should definitely update your SEO strategy, even (or especially) if you’ve already been hit by the algorithm update.

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