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In April 2012 Google launched Penguin to catch – and punish – pages seen to be benefiting from illegitimate search results. It was a change designed to minimize spamming and its cryptic practices, like “keyword stuffing” or “cloaking”, which contravene the Google Webmaster Guidelines. Each time an update to the Penguin algorithm has been released, site rankings have changed according to the detected level of disapproved activity, or the actions sites have taken to limit said activity by removing bad links.

The implementation was not without controversy, however, as one site’s ranking might be adversely affected through no known fault of its owners. Incidences of “false positives”, sites caught by accident, have not been unheard of. Naturally some were found frustrated as, once nabbed by the algorithm, your site’s visibility on search results might remain so changed until the next update acknowledged your corrective efforts.

The next Penguin update, version 4.0, has been long slated to release in 2015. And with roughly thirty days remaining in 2015 there’s a growing suspicion that release is imminent. One reason this update is widely anticipated is this is the real-time version. That means no long gaps between changes from now on – the algorithm will continuously update. So as Google detects spammy links on a site, the site’s rankings will sink. Likewise, when a webmaster takes anti-spam measures, their site’s rankings will – in real time – no longer be impacted by Penguin. This promises to accelerate recovery from Penguin at the same time as accelerating one’s potential capture.

Each update brings victories and losses for those in the business of search engine optimization. Knowing this one will too, and being aware that its real-time nature is going to change the game somewhat, it’s a great time to review ways of ensuring the Penguin’s watchful gaze catches you on your best behaviour. But remember: as a point of principle, it’s never a bad time to audit your link profile. Spam could be happening, even if you aren’t aware, and Penguin sympathises not with your ignorance of the guidelines. Here are a few friendly tips and reminders for getting prepared.

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Review Anchor Text:
You’re probably well aware of this by now, but not all of your links should include exact-match anchor text. Make sure your external links vary by brand, URL, non-descriptive and long-tail keywords – although remember there’s no magic number when it comes to their distribution. Generally, you should make sure yours is the most branded anchor text, since that’s how most searchers would prefer to find you.

Observe Sudden Spikes in Referrals:
You want to keep an eye out for any anomalies in the form of very sudden or dramatic spikes on your line graphs. A graph never tells the entire story, of course, but any rapid increase or decrease in metrics should be analysed. If it looks like one of your referring domains has a spike in activity, they may be using site-wide links to send traffic your way, a clear sign of dodgy practice in the Penguin’s eyes.

Link Disavowal:
In the SEO community there’s some ambivalence as to the benefits of disavowing links. In our view, though, it just makes sense to indicate clearly to Google that you had no hand in any spammy links pointing to your site. On the other hand, disavowal is no substitute for removing the links manually, which might be your preferred course of action before bringing questionable links to your site to Google’s attention.

Optimize Internal Links:
External links tend to take priority when it comes to Penguin, but you’re giving out a lot of signals to Google through the organisation of your internal links. They might not massively affect your rankings, but they do impact upon how your site is understood by search engines.

This is one area where you have power of control, so why not better inform search engines which of your pages are most important, relevant and thematically related? Ensure your anchor text is varied with non-descriptive text not just exact-match keywords; maintain a strong, clear hierarchy; match your consumer-facing links to your XML sitemap and link those related pages together. That way lies a clean internal link profile.

Tools of the Trade:
It’s important not to forget you aren’t alone in this industry where several tools exist to save your from tricky, manual endeavours. For a quick look at trended backlinks, try Ahrefs. To have broken links automatically detected, try the Chrome extension Check My Links. To ensure your raw data is accurate, use a crawler such as Deep Crawl. SERPs Volatility comes highly recommended for spotting patterns in rankings and your industry.

We hope this goes some way to getting you ready for the impending change to Penguin. If you have any questions about SEO, feel free to get in touch. We are always happy to help.