Sticking a Fork in Link Schemes: Penguin, Guest Posts and the Impact on Link Building


A recent article discussed the Google Panda update and how it impacted content creation. What many did not realize at the time was that Panda signaled the beginning of a new, more aggressive strategy by Google to improve the performance of the search engine and to minimize the number of poor results that ranked quite high on SERPs.

A little more than a year after first introducing the Panda update, Google introduced Penguin – a webspam algorithm update. Panda specifically targeted sites and pages with low-quality content, while Penguin was designed to target pages that were boosting their rankings by spamming Google. Popular techniques included:

  • Keyword stuffing,
  • Link schemes,
  • Cloaking,
  • Sly redirects,
  • Doorway pages, and
  • Intentional duplicate content

All of these are black hat SEO techniques that most website owners and operators generally avoid, and this is evidenced by the fact that only around 3 percent of search results were affected. However, it is quite easy for even the most diligent site operators to make mistakes relating to unnatural links and keywords occasionally.

What are unnatural links and keywords?

Keyword stuffing is the use of excessive keywords or numbers as a means to rank higher for those specific words or numbers. It results in text that is awkward and unnatural to read, impacting user experience. Keyword stuffing is found in both the regular text content and the anchor text in links and is, therefore, closely related to unnatural links.

Link schemes, as covered by Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, are actually much broader than mere participation in link exchanges and automated link creation. Though some of the techniques discussed there are purpose-driven, it is possible that your website includes unnatural links without you even being aware. Having your site listed in low-quality directories and bookmarking sites can negatively impact you, as can having excessive links in the footers and widgets of your site. The same applies to low-quality websites linking unnaturally to your website and even certain types of advertisements without the relevant attributes in place.

Penguin’s Effect on Link Building

Creating a mass of inbound links was always an important part of any website strategy since, traditionally, links were one the most important signals for search engines. The number of inbound links largely determines your website’s importance and ranking. Thankfully, the science behind search engines is advancing quite rapidly, and Google alone now monitors 200 ranking factors, not only the number of inbound links.

Once Google started penalizing sites for unnatural link building through low-quality directories, link exchanges, and automated link creation, black hat SEOs resorted to article marketing and guest blogging as a way to unnaturally boost their site’s ranking. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, spoke about the risks of guest blogging as early as 2012, discussing when it is a good practice and when it goes too far. Despite this, and perhaps driven by Google’s initial lack of action against it, guest blogging purely for SEO purposes increased dramatically during 2013. Finally, in January 2014, Matt wrote on his blog:

So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy. In general, I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well. Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a link building strategy.

Reactions have been sharply divided from those who saw it as a good response to many somewhat less enthusiastic comments on Matt’s blog. But it isn’t a bad response at all. It is a necessary response to a problem that bloggers themselves created. Not all guest blogging is “done,” and if the guest posts you have allowed on your website have been purely about providing the very best information and ideas to your audience, you probably don’t have anything to be concerned about. If, however, your guest posts have been low-quality and poorly disguised excuses for link-building and shady SEO practices, then it is time for you to clean up.

How to Avoid Penguin Penalties

As previously discussed, the easiest way to ensure your site is not affected by algorithm updates, both past, current, and future, is always to use white hat SEO techniques and to follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines. This includes:

  • Never buy or sell links. Offering payment, services, or products in exchange for links is never acceptable, and while this practice is still quite common, Google is aware of most schemes. Recent penalties applied to Expedia show that Google is not above punishing large companies and websites for bad behavior.

Image Source: SearchMetrics

Image Source: Quantcast

  • Be very careful with guest posting. High-quality guest contributions that are for your reader’s benefit are fine, but avoid posting anything that you aren’t comfortable with. Accept guest posts from a small pool of trusted contributors who aren’t looking for links and whose articles add real value. Use the “nofollow” attribute on any links to your contributor’s websites.
  • Using trustworthy advertising partners, ensuring that all advertisements and affiliate marketing links are “nofollow.”
  • Use natural language in your anchor text, avoiding overly optimized and keyword-rich anchor text where possible.
  • Having your site removed from low-quality directories and low-quality sites that are linking to your site unnaturally. If the site operators do not want to remove links to your site, you can use the Google Disavow Links tool to prevent any penalties from being applied to your site.
  • Avoid links to websites and pages that are not in the same language as your website. This is not specifically linked to Penguin, but it can affect your ranking.

Recovering From a Penalty

Fixing any mistakes that result in a Google penalty is relatively easy. Most of the time, Google will notify you via the Google Webmaster Tools message center of any spam activity involving your website. Their message will give details on all activities that they have flagged as spam, making it easier for you to fix the errors instead of first having to try and identify them.

Develop a habit of doing a quarterly backlink audit where you not only identify who links to you but also determine the quality of the link. This can be done via Google Webmaster Tools or a comprehensive SEO suite such as Positionly.


The cost of a penalty, in terms of traffic and possibly revenue, is just too high for you ever to consider black hat SEO techniques. Google algorithm updates are being made on much shorter cycles than in the past, making Google even more efficient at picking up on unethical practices used to boost ranking and traffic.

Always maintain a high-quality website that closely follows the Google Webmaster Guidelines, and you will probably never be affected by any algorithm changes.