Five backlink metrics to elude the dreaded Penguin

Ever since Google released its Penguin algorithm, website owners have been swimming in murky and dangerous waters. It is no longer enough to get lots of good quality links pointing to your site. you also have to avoid the naval mines* lying in ambush – links from sites that Google considers to be toxic. Consider this article to be your minesweeper.

Once upon a time, not that long ago… ah, but this is not a fairy tale we are telling. Just two years ago, in fact, the main task of most SEO specialists was building links. That was never all there was to SEO, but it certainly was the most labour-intensive and the most never-ending task. I think Tom Shivers puts it best when he wrote:

“I’ve been a SEO consultant for over a decade and although I am sound with technical SEO the majority of my expertise and emphasis has been on gaining natural links.”

Most readers know the story well enough. The lovely princess and the handsome price… Oh, no, that’s not it. This is the tale of the weary link-builders who would look for shortcuts and systems and automation and ways to build thousands of backlinks to their websites or their client websites. This was never a very good idea, but Google rewarded them handsomely for doing so despite tut-tutting them for it.

What a difference two years make.

Google's penguin at work (cartoon)Having noticed the ravaged landscape of the Internet, Google has decided to align its actions more closely with its words, unleashing its “Penguin” algorithm, a hungry beast that is shredding webmaster’s little empires across the Internet.

The Penguin has turned the SEO world quite literally upside down. Just two years ago, the main task of most SEO specialists was building links. Now the main task of most SEO specialists is unbuilding links or at least defending against disreputable backlinks.

A couple years ago, any link was a good link. Even the most hoity-toity, holier-than-thou SEO practitioner paid no attention when a spammy site linked to their site.

Now, even people who once paid no attention to SEO at all are running around in a panic that the wrong kinds of sites might link to theirs, lest the Penguin get wind of it.

Instead of people coming up with tools to help webmasters build lots of quick and easy backlinks, savvy entrepreneurs are now coming up with tools to monitor their backlinks. I recently reviewed a really neat subscription software that does just that: Monitor Backlinks. This service also gives you some really neat metrics to help decide if each backlink is worthwhile or not, or dangerous or not. And you can keep tabs on your competition with it, too.

Five metrics to evaluate your backlinks

This blog post describes five metrics you can use to easily identify the worthwhile backlinks and the dangerous backlinks you might have or you might have the opportunity to acquire, so that you can avoid building a questionable backlink profile.

For those of you with some spare change and python-tight schedules, Monitor Backlinks is a quick way to identify troublesome backlinks. For those of you who misplaced your cash flow but have some spare time on your hands, there are free tools available.

Metric #1: Design

This is very simple. Take a look at the site. If the design is exceedingly poor, it is unlikely to attract good traffic or good backlinks. Chances are that the site sucks.

Free tool: Eyeballs

It’s not for nothing this is commonly called “the eyeball test”.

What to look for

Look for obvious signs that the site is not being maintained. Check if the pages are filled with ads. Check if there are tons of outbound links. Look for images that are not scaled properly. Check for real contact information. A site that posts telephone number and mailing address are much more likely to be in Google’s good books than a more secretive website.

Metric #2: PageRank

This is at the same time a no-brainer and somewhat of a red herring. A no-brainer because this is the only public metric of a site’s value that Google displays. It is somewhat of a red herring because it is often inaccurate and out of date, and is often relied upon far to heavily just because it is such an each measurement to check.

Free tool: Google toolbar

This is probably just plain obvious.

What to look for

Look for very high or very low PageRank. If a home page has zero PageRank, it is either a very new website or one that really has no presences on the Internet (or there is a glitch in the toolbar data). If you are really pressed for time you might want to pass it by.

If a home page has really high PageRank, like 5 or more, chances are that the site is a steal. But remember that there are often inaccuracies in the toolbar, so never take PageRank at face value. If a site has high PageRank but doesn’t pass the eyeball test, I’d trust the eyeball test more. In fact, I would never even look at the PageRank of a site that totally fails the eyeball test.

Look also for page-specific PageRank. This can be useful if the home page has a high PageRank and you have the option of being linked from an internal page with low PageRank or one with medium PageRank.  Choose the better page.

Metric #3: Traffic

One great way to quickly determine if a website makes a good backlink is based on traffic. Google has a lot of data on which websites send traffic from their links. A website that gets no traffic, sends no traffic. So low-traffic counts could be a sign that the site has little respect from Google.

Free tool: Alexa

Anybody who has been around on the Internet for a while knows about Alexa, a website that measures traffic trends for any significant website.  Of course, this might be of little use if the site is new or has very little traffic.

What to look for

There are two things to look for. The first is the overall traffic levels compared to other similar websites. BIG emphasis on “compared to other similar websites”. You cannot compare a website about fish tanks with a website about free clip-art. Alexa will tend to draw much more data from one niche than from another; this is the weak point about Alexa.

Similarly, you cannot compare a website that runs a forum for fish owners with a fish-related blog or with a website selling fish tank supplies. They might be the same niche, but they will draw different levels of traffic by their different functions.

The second thing to look for is the trend. Alexa offers really cool trend graphs so you can see if traffic has been growing or falling over the past year.

Alexa website traffic graph

Growing is good. Falling is bad. But don’t worry too much if traffic has been gently falling over the long run. That is unlikely to reflect badly on the site.

However, if traffic has suddenly plunged, that could be a sign that Google has penalized it. If you are in a rush, you might just want to steer wide of that website and avoid getting a backlink from them. If you have time to kill, you can always try comparing the timing of the drops in traffic with the timing of Penguin updates.

Still, even if there is no direct correlation in timing, something drastic has happened. It could be the end of an ad campaign or the break-up of a partnership or some other Google penalty. Whatever it is, it is probably not worth your investment in time to figure it out.

Metric #4: Backlinks

What better way to assess the quality of a potential backlink site than by looking at its own backlinks? A website with lots of strong, credible backlinks is one that is very likely to get the stamp of approval from Google. A website with lots of spammy looking backlinks is quite likely to be in or to be headed for the doghouse …er…the penguinhouse.

Free tool: BacklinkWatch

This is not the only free tool to check backlinks with; but I find it useful.

What to look for:

You could spend hours analyzing the backlinks of every site or page offering you a backlink. Let’s not. There are a few things to look for that don’t require deep analysis.

First, check for simple link diversity. If a website has 1200 backlinks and it looks like 900 of them are coming from a single domain, or even from just three or four domains, that could be a big concern.

Of course, it also depends where the other 300 links are coming from. If several of them are coming from recognized authority websites like CNN or Forbes or webMD, the site might be well worth getting a link from. So the second thing to watch for are well-known websites that likely convey authority.

The third thing to look for are really spammy looking websites. I don’t mean to click-through each backlink, but you can easily tell if there are a lot of type of domains linking in. Or if a large number of inbound links come from directories or forum profiles or article directories. Nothing wrong with having some of these in a link profile. Something very wrong with having oodles of them.

Metric #5: Social signals

You might have heard that the search engines are valuing “social signals” of late. It’s true.

Free tool: ShareTalley

This tool will give you a quick count of social mentions across a broad range of social sites. It does not look at the domain, just at individual pages.

What to look for:

First, I would look at the linking page to see what social profile it has. A good social profile will show mentions across several services. I have found that if a page is promoted in any of the big six social sites (Twitter, FaceBook, Google Plus, Pinterest, StumbleUpon and LinkedIn), it will naturally pick up mentions in other places, especially Delicious and Pocket. If there are 100 or more tweets and no mentions in any of the smaller services, that is a red flag that the page might have been promoted artificially, such as by buying tweets or FaceBook likes (not good).

Next, I would look at the home page and check its mentions. That can sometimes also give an idea of the website’s social profile. But be aware that a content page that is actually of interest to people might get shared more than a home page.

Happy linking

We come to the end of our fairy tale. This is where the prince and the princess kiss and ride off into the sunset. They can do this because the Penguin is off in the next county hunting down people who didn’t bring their eyeballs and their other tools with them.

* If this imagery reminds you of a certain Monty Python skit, I take no responsibility for the consequences.

Illustration credit: A big thank you to Aires C. Bautista.


  1. Nice article David and thanks for referencing Break Your Addiction To Google.

    I’m finding that getting down on the same level with my readers is most effective. Though I don’t always do it well, when I do it pays off nicely.

  2. Thanks for the information! I have been SO lax about SEO from the very beginning. I always thought that if my content was stellar, no worries. Or fewer worries. Anyway, thanks for this post. I am now better informed!

  3. Roy A. Ackerman, PhD, EA says

    Thanks for this post. having been bombarded wtih literally hundreds of trashy links daily for a month, I have been removing them as fast as my fingers work. (I am sure they chose their attack days based upon me not working on all those Jewish holidays.)
    I am downloading these tools to add to my arsenal forthwtih.

  4. Nice article David and I would agree with the points for assessing link quality. My main rule of thumb is if a link can potentially send actual referrer traffic (i.e. the reason links are around in the first place) it is a good link to have.

    With this in mind, some sort of relation (even if it is semi tenuous) to your sites topic from the linking site is probably something to aim for, i.e. if you have a fashion site you probably don’t want a load of links from sailing sites. Also, probably goes without saying, but avoid links from corners of the internet that you wouldn’t like to be associated with (the p word, warez etc).

  5. @David Some good points.

    My take on the related topic is that generally most of the links should be related, but I don’t sweat it if some are not. For instance, if I comment on a hiking post or a food post that I like, I see no problem with dropping my link, because any unobtrusive promotion is good and is natural. However, if there are more of these than related links, it sends a sign that maybe you aren’t doing much to promote your website where it counts the most. And it also depends on the niche. For instance, as writers, we want to get in front of people who might want to hire writers – and that certainly is not on websites catering to other writers.

  6. It’s an interesting topic and certainly one that’s up for a bit of debate.

    It got me thinking and I just wrote up a post about topical authority/penguin (contains a link back to this article)

    I agree that a percentage of unrelated links won’t be an issue, but I guess what’s up for debate is where is the tipping point?

  7. David,

    Another free tool to take a quick look at social metrics on a piece of content is our Activity Analyzer tool.

    Just login with Twitter and add a URL and it will give you the social count on that URL for most of the social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Stumble, G+ etc.

    Also you can create a watch list of URLs if you have an entire list of article you want to be able to check the social action on at a glance.

    On a different note. Regarding evaluating a sites value. Especially if you are using metrics like PageRank. It may seem quite obvious but it can be easy to overlook if you are in a hurry. Take a quick second and Google the domain name to make sure it is in Google’s index. Another “free tool” your brain! hehe

  8. Hi David,

    totally agree with you, two years back we were building backlinks from any website even if it’s not relative to our website and we were using keywords as our anchor text, no body was looking for a backlinks with click here as anchor text, but now after latest Google updates you have to pay attention to the place you are getting backlinks, it should be a relative website with high quality. Your anchor text should look natural and keywords as anchor text shouldn’t be the majority of your backlinks therefore you have to use click here, read here as an anchor text instead. Thank you so much for sharing this great discussion.

  9. Great article. Never heard of the Penguin algorithm but that is because I have been relaxed on SEO. Got to step up my game.

  10. Really design is the first thing that you need to look out. Poor and complex design leaves an adverse effect on your website thereby dramatically reducing traffic rate.

  11. In line with David M, although a small percentage is unlikely to hurt, if the site us unrelated it is unlikely to help either. In this cases, you may consider linking to one of your SM profiles or a personal site.

    Yes, there is the possibility that if someone is reading about hiking and they see a comment from an SEO specialist, they might say, hey I could use that, but not a very big one. :O)

  12. Hi Chris. It does depend on what you are offering. You bring up a B2B example, whereas I was thinking B2C.

  13. Awesome article, we featured it in our Monthly Resource Roundup –

    Cheers! -Daniel

  14. Great article David, although in my experience many tend to overestimate the negative impact that poor quality links can have on a website. Besides the quality of the linking site itself, there are plenty more than a handful of reasons why Google may penalize a site.

    A friend of mine was doing the SEO for a very huge company, and while examining the link profile of their direct competitor, who was outranking them, he found out that their profile had less quality links than they did, but it was full of forum and blog-comment spam. I mean of the type “Wow, incredible weblog format! How lengthy have you been running a blog for? you made running a blog look easy. The overall look of your website is excellent, as smartly as the content!”

    In other words, I am talking first-class spam. As George Orwell would put it, to Google all websites are equal, but some websites are more equal than others. A new site would be sent to the sandbox in a microsecond for links of that sort; a well-established site gets a much undeserved prize for it.

    Add to that the fact that many new webmasters notice their site going up and down in ranking quickly, and decide that Google must be penalizing when the truth is they are simply losing or gaining links naturally, or Google is updating its algorithm. Since a new site has relatively few links, small changes can have a great impact on rankings.

    I feel, that unless engaging in heavy black hat techniques, one does not need worry too much about penalties. I would love your opinion on this.


  15. Hi Arthur. I certainly agree that there are many factors that could lead to a penalty. However, as you noted that “small changes can have a great impact on rankings”, small errors in where links come from can also have a big impact on penalties. I have seen great sites with some poor links get penalized for things beyond their control, when the number of backlinks shoots up for no reason, for instance. The poor links might not have gotten them in trouble, but suddenly they are stuck in jail until they clean them up – and that can be a long time, since Google doesn’t like to tell people what links it feels they should clean up. I really don’t think one can be too careful.

  16. I am pleased to report that so far so good — sites related to my business or for friends or family that I’ve done work for are all doing fine post Penguin.

    I love the fact that the cheaters are being punished. Serves them right.

    My concern is this, having been involved in retail business online for three years now, my company has been the target of several sustained, albeit rudimentary sabotage campaigns. Usually, these involve orders being placed with the intent being to return the product for a refund, only destroying the product beyond a condition in which it could be sold to another customer, then leaving bad reviews (even with these campaigns our customer satisfaction rate is above 99%). My fear is what I’ll be up against if the competition ever figures out how to up the ante and prevent sales from occurring in the first place by way of measures made possible by the same update intended to punish the cheaters.

    This begs the question of whether preemptive action is justified given the fact that I already know the competition would use such action against my company if in possession of the knowledge to be able to do so…

    Any thoughts or opinions on this would be greatly appreciated.

  17. Hi Peter. I don’t know what preemptive action can be taken, other than almost daily monitoring links and disavowing them “au fur et à mesure”, as they say in French.

  18. Honestly, I am not a paranoid about this. After all there are so many other sources of traffic. After all rankings after new update always drop and after that come back in less than a week.

  19. Ok.. I love this post.. cuz personally backlinks have always confused the crap out of me.. Yet I’m getting a better understand now.. since I didn’t understand it back when I started.. I didn’t have much trash to clean up.. which I’m guessing is a good thing… smile. I appreciate this informative post.. thank you for the insight.. keep smiling