Penguin 2.0 “recoveries” – Graphs of WMT impression data.

Penguin 2.0 was released on May 22 and while I have seen many articles written about the type of sites and the types of backlinks that were affected, I have not seen many recovery stories.  Because this was the first Penguin update since the advent of the disavow tool, most SEOs really felt that sites would be able to recover by disavowing the majority of their spammy backlinks.  I am sure that there are thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands of sites that have used the disavow tool in hopes of recovering from Penguin, but judging by the lack of “YAY! WE RECOVERED” posts, there may not have been many recoveries.

Related: Is Penguin Recovery Possible?

Some interesting graphs

I thought I would share with you some images of impression data from Webmaster Tools for several sites with which I have worked.  For privacy reasons, I will not name the sites, but I will give a little bit of information of what was done, and why I think the traffic went either up or down on May 22, the date of Penguin 2.0.

But first, I would like to state that I am not an expert on Penguin recovery.  I believe that very few people are!  I am completely obsessed with Penguin and would like to think that I know a lot about why sites get affected by Penguin.  But, I have not actively done Penguin recovery work.  I will explain why at the end of this article.  However, if you need help removing a manual unnatural links penalty, then I can definitely help you there.

Site #1 – Lots of links disavowed

This site was given to me as a test site.  It was severely affected by Penguin 1.0.  The site had many keyword rich anchor texted links pointing to it as a result of embeddable widgets that were circulated across the web.  As a test, we disavowed every link that contained a keyword as anchor text.  We did not remove any links.  This was done months ago and no improvements were seen.  No linkbuilding has been done for quite some time, and the site has remained untouched for many months now.  Here are the site’s impressions in Webmaster Tools (WMT):

Penguin Recovery?

It is pretty obvious that the site benefitted from the Penguin update on May 22.  However, the site has seen no additional search traffic.  I believe this is because the improvements that the site saw in rankings still did not put them on the first page for most queries.


Site #2 – Unnatural Links Penalty Site

This site was given an unnatural links penalty in March of 2012.  We do not know whether Penguin 1.0 affected the site because the rankings were already severely affected by the manual penalty.  In order to remove the penalty, we removed a massive number of links and also disavowed a large number as well.  We managed to get the penalty removed, but the site saw no improvement in rankings or traffic.  However, when Penguin 2.0 updated on May 22, here is what happened to this site’s impressions:

Penguin recovery site

The site received some benefit from the Penguin update.  The graph looks impressive, but this site is in a competitive niche and an increase from 100 daily impressions to 200 daily impressions is not enough to have an impact in traffic.  Still…I think it is important to note that Penguin 2.0 did have a slight positive effect on this site.


Site #3 – Unnatural Links Penalty Site

This site has a very similar story to the last.  It received an unnatural links penalty in March of 2012 and traffic decreased sharply.  There was a further decrease in traffic that was evident on April 24, 2012, the day that Penguin 1.0 was released.  We removed this site’s manual penalty by removing a large number of reciprocal links as well as directory links using keyword rich anchor text.  We managed to get this site’s penalty revoked prior to the disavow tool being available.  However, there was no recovery seen.  This was most likely because the site was still under the effects of Penguin.  When the disavow tool was released we disavowed the remaining unnatural links.  When Penguin finally was updated on May 22, here is what the site saw:

Penguin recovery?


Again, Penguin gave a slight benefit to this site, but the increase in 250 impressions a day was not enough to see a significant traffic increase.


Site #4 – Penguin prevention?

A site owner came to me worried that their site would be affected by Penguin.  After auditing their links it was quite clear that many of them were putting the site at risk for Penguin.  As a prevention (or so we thought) of Penguin we decided to disavow every link from low quality sources that contained keyword rich anchor text.  It was interesting to note that after doing so, no loss in rankings was seen.  However, this is what happened when Penguin updated on May 22:

Penguin hit

There was a significant drop in impressions for this site that coincides with Penguin.  This site used to hold a #1 organic ranking (above the maps listings) for several of its main keywords as well as good local pack listings as well.  On May 22 this site lost its organic rankings for its main keywords.  The local ranking has not changed.  It appears that disavowing links did not completely prevent the site from a Penguin hit.  Who knows…perhaps the site would have fared worse if the disavow had not been filed?  It’s also possible that Penguin 2.0 affected more than just keyword rich anchor text.  For this site we did not disavow low quality links that were anchored with the site’s url.

Added on May 31:  I initially did not include this example because it is a confusing one.  However, as this post has attracted attention and generated some discussion I thought it was worthwhile to add this strange case.

Site #5 – Unnatural Links (from Blackhat blog networks) Penalty Site

This site belongs to an upstanding business.  They were performing relatively well in the search engines and then hired an SEO Company to help them to do even better.  Unfortunately they hired a company that used blackhat methods by building keyword rich anchor texted links within completely nonsense articles and posting those articles on private blog networks and autogenerated web 2.0 sites (like Blogspot and WordPress subdomains.)  We spent a long time classifying which links were natural and which were not and then asked for reconsideration before removing any links.  Two days prior to this, we disavowed every single domain containing unnatural links to the site.  We told Google our plan which involved trying to get some of these spam sites removed by reporting them to their host, but explained that it would be close to impossible to get webmasters to individually remove links.  Much to our surprise, we got a “manual spam action revoked” message without ever removing a link!

Weeks went by and the site showed no recovery.  I assumed that this was because the site was still under the influence of the Penguin algorithm.  I was certain that the site would improve once Penguin updated, but instead, here is what happened on May 22, 2013:

Penguin hit after unnatural links penalty removed

I have no explanation for this drop in rankings.  I feel very confident that the only links still remaining to this site (that aren’t disavowed) are completely natural.  I am also confident that our disavow file was in the right format.  Penguin should not have affected this site.

My theories:

I can’t draw any concrete conclusions from this small amount of data.  However, I have a few theories.

Does the disavow tool work?

I have heard some SEOs theorize that the disavow tool will only work if you are concurrently filing a reconsideration request.  Google is quite clear that filing a reconsideration request will not be helpful if you have an algorithmic issue like Penguin.  However, the documentation for the disavow tool says the following:

Q: Should I create a links file as a preventative measure even if I haven’t gotten a notification about unnatural links to my site?
A: If your site was affected by the Penguin algorithm update and you believe it might be because you built spammy or low-quality links to your site, you may want to look at your site’s backlinks and disavow links that are the result of link schemes that violate Google’s guidelines.

To me, this sounds like the disavow tool should be used for Penguin hit sites.

In my first example above, no links were removed but many links were disavowed.  When Penguin finally updated there was some improvement.  Now, we can’t draw conclusions from just one site’s experience, but I do believe that the disavow tool can be helpful when trying to recover from Penguin.

Can you recover from Penguin without there being a Penguin refresh?

I asked John Mueller (a Google employee) this a while back and his answer was kind of vague:

+Marie Haynes theoretically, in an artificial situation where there’s only one algorithm (which is, in practice, never the case), if a site is affected by a specific algorithm, then the data for that algorithm needs to be updated before it would see changes. In practice, while some elements might be very strong depending on what was done in the past, there are always a lot of factors involved, so significantly improving the site will result in noticeable changes over time, as we recrawl & reindex the site and it’s dependencies, as well as reprocess the associated signals. So yes, you’d need to wait for the algorithm to update if it were the only thing involved, but in practice it’s never the only thing involved so you’re not limited to waiting.

Also keep in mind that for long-running processes (be it algorithm updates like this, or other higher-level elements in our algorithms), it’s never a good idea to limit yourself to small, incremental improvements; waiting to see if “it’s enough” can take a while, so I’d recommend working to take a very good look at the issues you’ve run across, and working to make very significant improvements that will be more than enough (which users will appreciate as well, so there’s that win too :) ).

I do believe that there are ways that a site can recover from Penguin without the algorithm refreshing, but to do so likely involves being able to 404 affected pages and also to attract a good number of natural links.  (Note: I have not tested this.)  But, it does seem that Penguin places some type of flag on a site until the algorithm updates.  All of the sites I mentioned above had link removal/disavowal work done prior to Penguin updating but did not see improvement (or decline) until the algorithm updated.

Why are we not seeing any major Penguin 2.0 recoveries?

I believe that for a site to recover from Penguin, two things need to happen:

  • The bad links need to be cleaned up.  Perhaps disavowing them is enough, but maybe removing the majority is necessary.  Site #1 in my examples did see an improvement without removing any links so it is possible that just disavowing links is enough.
  • New links must be earned. The key word here is “earned”.  And THIS is likely why we have not seen major recoveries.  Most sites that were hit by Penguin were previously ranking on the power of self made links that were anchored with the site’s main keywords.  If a Green Widget website was previously ranking on the power of blog comments, bookmarks, blogroll links and spun articles all linking using the keywords “Green Widgets”, then how likely is it that that site is going to be able to get natural links to replace those?  A truly natural link is one that is an earned link.  While it does occasionally happen that a site links to another site using a keyword as anchor, it is not likely to happen on a large enough scale to make a difference.

This last point is why I have not taken on Penguin recovery clients to date.  I feel very comfortable auditing, removing and disavowing links, but this is only one part of Penguin recovery.  As my company does not currently take on monthly SEO contracts, I can’t devote time to transforming a site to one that can attract links on a scale that is large enough to make a difference.  I do believe though that if the sites mentioned above were able to attract good, natural links they should now be able to see not only recoveries but probably increases in traffic.

Your thoughts?

I debated on whether to publish this post.  It is not meant to be a guide to recovery by any means.  But, Barry Schwartz recently wrote the following:

The interesting thing, with Penguin 2.0, I barely saw anyone claim a recovery from Penguin 1.0. I’ve seen a ton of SEOs and webmasters complain they were hit but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone claim a recovery.

The sites that I wrote about here have not really seen recoveries because they are not seeing increases in traffic.  But, many did see an improvement in impressions.  Perhaps the information that I have provided will help us learn more about Penguin.  I believe that the more concrete data we have the better.

Comments are welcome!


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  • Andri Yarusman

    I think, using disavow tool is not enough we need to build another high quality backlinks after then our effected sites able rank well after next Penguin Update …

    • vishal12

      but how

      • niki_dom

        With magic!

        • vishal12

          which magic

  • Ryan Cruz

    I have similar test results as well. But what’s more important is “earning” links that are authority and not just the types of links that anyone can easily build.

    • Marie Haynes

      True. I may be publishing a case study soon though of a site that did everything they should – removed a good number of links, disavowed the rest of the bad links, earned some really nice natural links, and still did not improve after Penguin 2.0.

  • Johnathan


    I don’t think that Google is yet allowing recoveries yet per se. Even for those that have turned the corner months and months ago and started earning natural quality links and used the disavow tool. Here’s something interesting to think about in relation to the disavow tool that I posted on the Google Product Forums – if you’ve re-uploaded your links to your disavow file, does it re-set?!category-topic/webmasters/crawling-indexing–ranking/9C52jNastaA

    • Marie Haynes

      Hi Johnathan. If you upload a new disavow file, what happens is that as Google crawls the links in that file they will assign an invisible nofollow to the ones that are in your list. If there was a domain that was previously being disavowed but is now no longer on the list then Google will remove the invisible nofollow.

      • Ram Babu SEO

        Thanks Marie for asking question to “John Mueller” your article has cleared my every doubts I have regarding penguin recoveries .

  • Dori Friend

    GREAT insights! Will pass on! :-)

  • DG

    I noticed same drop of impressions (maybe -30~50%) in webmaster tools but the weird thing is that all my top ranking keywords and pages remain in SERP. The ranking for some keywords even improved but with drop of impressions.

    Anyone with similar experience?

    • Marie Haynes

      I am guessing that this has to do with things other than your top ranking keywords. A slight increase could mean that a keyword that used to be on page 3 and has now moved to page 2 gets more impressions.

      • DG

        We have sites catered for different country and most of them encountered the same problem – Rankings for top keywords/landing pages remain but with drop of impressions in GWT.

        I also noticed others have similar experience from blogs and forums. But no one has the answer for it.

  • Heath Showman

    Its always a controversial comment to say but, Penguin penalties are not recoverable.

    It’s no-coincidence that Google have in the last 15 months embarked on a continuous algorithm update that is now proven to be unrecoverable from.

    There are no stories are recovered sites, not because you haven’t found them, but because there aren’t any.

    The simple reason being. Why should Google recover them. Google responding that they want high quality search results is misleading. They want high quality PPC traffic, coupled with Google Shopping traffic.

    Google is not bigger than Yahoo etc because it claims to have ” better quality search results “. What does that even mean? Would any layperason outside the web marketing industry even be aware that an algorithm update has taken place.


    I can tell you in my industry what has happened and it proves my point.

    Brands are spending less and less on PPC. Whereas independents are spending more. Brands have overtaken search results because in Googles eyes, thats what the public perceive as ” quality results “. Google benefits by being able to claim to have better quality results, whilst the independents push up PPC prices.

    Google have us all on a constant chase for the ” recovery “.

    For Penguin recovery chaser see UFO chaser.

    • Steve

      From what I’ve seen in the past few months I have to agree with you. It seems like the only sites that are able to rank consistently are large brands. In other words, if you’re not an Amazon, Best Buy, or a Walmart, then take a walk.

      The one thing I wonder about though is the long term impact this will have – could it be that this is something Bing/Yahoo can take advantage of? Even earning natural links and adding content seems dicey depending on the site, so I wonder if more SEO’s will take to focusing on those engines.

  • Pavel Ungr

    Hi Marie, thanks for excellent article. I try to find answer to one question. John Mueller confirmed must to be index updated. It means that if my site was hit by Penguin, I have to wait for another Penguin update? Or for any Panda or Penguin Update? Or for ANY Google update? Thanks for answer.

    • Marie Haynes

      In general, yes, you do need to wait until Penguin either refreshes or updates. In this hangout ( at the 16:00 minute mark or so, John talks about how a site that is hit by Penguin can see gradual improvements if cleaning up webspam issues but that they won’t escape Penguin until a refresh happens.

      • Pavel Ungr

        Thank you very much. If I understand correctly, I can recover obly after another Penguin update. Another Google update (e.g.Panda) does not help and does not run Penguin data refresh.
        I also red your another article and there is written something about regular Penguin update. That confuse me a bit. Can you help me to understand what role in this process plays these “regular Penguin updates” ? Thanks for clarification.

        • Marie Haynes

          If you read the end of that article you’ll see where I updated it. John Mueller later clarified what he was saying. It sounded like he was saying that Penguin was refreshing regularly, but actually, he was just saying that Google was always working on improving Penguin. There can be Penguin refreshes and updates. The difference is a little complicated, but basically a recovery needs either a refresh or update in order for a site to be able to recover. They have happened only on May 25, 2012, Oct 5, 2012 and May 22, 2013 so far but should be more frequent in the future I think.

          • Pavel Ungr

            Thank you very much for clarification, it helps me very much.

  • Simon

    Hi Marie,

    In July I disavowed about 33% of my site’s links (based on the GWT list) and the affect has been a slight drop in traffic and impressions.

    However I only chose links from this GWT list which is what I thought John Mu had suggested in a hangout? Now looking at MJ fresh index I can see links that were not in GWT, so maybe if I am more ruthless and add more links to the disavow file that will help?

    I notice in another blog you wrote you mentioned Google may become suspicious of all links pointing to a Penguin hit site which is why no sites have fully recovered? My site is an EMD so I have some good quality links that are brand/exact anchors, am thinking maybe disavow them as well?



    • Marie Haynes

      Simon, thanks for this comment. I used to believe that WMT links were all that Penguin looked at, but I now think that I was wrong. I’ve started including links from every source I can get now when I do my audits and disavows. The main reason for this is that the example unnatural links that Google is giving are often not in WMT so that tells me that they are seeing these and counting these links.

      About the good quality links this is a really tough call. I’m working with a large brand that is in the same boat as you. They have some bad links that are anchored with their brand/keyword and also a whack of good ones. Google gave one of the good ones as an example. So, does that mean we need to disavow all of the good ones too? I really don’t know.

  • Jeremy

    Hi Marie,

    Really appreciate your honest appraisals and sharing of recovery stories, even now they are few and far between. I’ve removed around 30 penalties over the past few months and it’s an ongoing exercise in relationship-building to show how getting a positive message from Google is not identical to a positive result in the rankings. My experience has been similar, that limited, belated rankings increases do sometimes occur, sites with heaps of nonsense links can’t possibly recover from penalty removal alone, and sometimes rankings can drop further. Despite this uncertainty however, the message from Google has such a presence to it that really penalties have to be revoked if you want a site to do well in Google again.

    Saw you also mentioned you are now using links outside of Webmaster Tools. I used to think this but I actually switched the other way and now use GWT exclusively. I ended up calling my problem the “Google loop”, whereby the links shown in GWT update between the time you send a reconsideration request and the time you get a response. When they include sample links, they’re not in the complete External_Links.csv from a week or two ago, but download the links afresh and the links are almost always there. In the very rare remaining cases they still aren’t there, I tell them in the next request as they do make mistakes. Links that have been disavowed in the previous request, links that weren’t in the previous data, if these come up in the sample links they provide I’ve found pointing it out in the next request shows thoroughness and possibly helps.


    • Marie Haynes

      Hi Jeremy. Thank you for this great comment. Congrats on getting 30 penalties lifted…I know that involved a LOT of hard work.

      Regarding using GWT links I have flip flopped on this a lot. John Mueller has said that these links were enough to get a penalty lifted, but when people started getting examples of unnatural links that were not in Webmaster Tools it made me wonder. I think that John is saying that GWT links are enough to help you see the patterns. So, if you see a pattern of article links then you know that this is a problem. However, I think that Google is making the assumption that sites with unnatural links all have a list of the links that they have made and that is not always the case. It is not necessarily easy to find these extra links. As such, I am now using GWT, ahrefs, majestic, OSE and a tool that I use in house to find a few more indexed links that aren’t in the backlink checkers. It sure adds to the workload but better to be safe than sorry.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  • JonathanB

    Does this make negative link building the tool of someone trying to destroy a website? (Or am I being paranoid)

    My website consistently ranked number one in the organic searches for the last 3 years and then we took a bit of a hit with the Penguin update, moving to page 2 but started to see a recovery with an increase in blogging and a lot of work with forums etc. The industry that I work in went a bit crazy with marketing and the claims some organisations were making, to the extent that the regulators had to step in and formally warn some organisations (not mine though).

    We then received around 25,000 links from websites from all over the world with a lot coming from an inactive Armenian website (no idea what it was selling as I don’t read Armenian and the website did not function), and other less than desirable websites. This caused my website to drop off the face of Google searches!! As per some of the blogs I was reading we sent emails to the webmasters of these websites asking for the links to be removed etc etc. A few of them replied asking for money to do so, but most did not respond. Having contacted Google we have been informed that these negative links were the reason for the drop in ranking which seems crazy to me as we have made every legitimate attempt to stop them. We currently receive around 1500 negative links to my site every week meaning I have to spend my Fridays sending emails to these websites and using the diavow tool to get the links off.

    Has anyone else experienced this? Is this someone directly targeting my website to drive down my ranking?

    Google also highlighted some perfectly legitimate links to websites that I blog on and applied a manual penalty. We’ve now informed them this is a legitimate link however the manual penalty is still applied, Any idea how long this takes to be removed?

    • Marie Haynes

      That sounds like a frustrating situation. Google says that they work hard to make it really difficult for negative SEO like this to be successful. I plan to write a very in depth article about this when I get some time. What Google does say though is that the sites where people have complained that they have been negative SEO’d usually have a base of unnatural links that are there to start with.

      You mentioned that Google has called some links unnatural where you had blogged on another website. Are these guest post links? Guest posting can definitely be unnatural. If you are writing on someone else’s blog primarily as a way to build links to your site then this can be against the quality guidelines.

      The manual penalty *can* expire but if you don’t fix up the problem then you are likely to get repenalized again. As far as how long it would take to remove the penalty it depends on how many links you have that need to be addressed. Google won’t lift it until you have addressed almost all of the unnatural links. I find it usually takes me 2-3 months to get a penalty lifted, although I have recently hired more staff so I can get some done quicker.

  • Spook SEO

    Every google update impact a lot upon the ranking and traffic of the websites and your mentioned case studies also prove the same fact. The latest Disavow tool announced by Matt Cutts really works great and helps a lot to bring the site back in the Top SERPs list.

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