Penguin Proof Link Building

Today I look at how to develop penguin proof links from related sites and build your website’s topical authority.


I was reading a good post this morning on Penguin proof links (have a read here). To summarise, the points raised to look out for when assessing whether a link from a site will be a good one to have were: –

  • Design of the site – if it looks like it was thrown together in a hurry, then it’s probably a good indicator that the webmaster isn’t really serious about what he is doing.
  • Toolbar Pagerank – it’s out of date etc, but I would be lying if I said I still didn’t take a look
  • Traffic – if the site is receiving good traffic (alexa isn’t that accurate, but at least it gives you an indication) then it is probably trusted by google
  • Backlinks – this seems a bit excessive, but if you are really worried about where your links are coming from then you can use opensiteexplorer or ahrefs to analyse the back link profile of the linking site
  • Social Signals – does the site have a presence on the main social networks? Is it active?

These are all pretty good indicators, although I would caveat the design one with the fact that not everyone is a graphic designer and if the site has great content and appears to have an engaged following (comments, readers etc) then you can probably ignore that blue and yellow clashing colour scheme.

One thing missing from the list, which I wanted to look at today was the topic/theming of the linking site.

This is a bit of a contentious one and opinions vary, so let me explain…

Topical Authority

This site is primarily about SEO & internet marketing.

It is generally accepted that google has some way of organising sites (certainly in a loose sense) based on theme/topic and by the same token, it almost certainly has some sort of intelligence built into its algorithm to determine which theme/topic best matches a given search query.

Quite how far they go down the tree is up for debate, however, for me it is safe to assume that they will at least know the difference between a site about say fashion and a site about SEO.

If you are forbes or The New York Times, your site is of course so powerful and trusted that you will be able to rank for queries on any topic, however, for the average Joe webmaster, the chances are you will show up primarily for queries related to your niche (which is what you would want after all!).

How Do You Gain Topical Authority?

Well, the first metric will obviously be your content/site architecture.

Developing a good hierarchy for your site is one of the fundamentals of SEO and you should think carefully about your top level categories and what they say about your site’s topic. For example my top levels are: –

  •  SEO
  • Marketing
  • Blogging
  • WordPress
  • Web Design
  • Affiliate Marketing
  • Business

As these pages are linked from every other page on the site, they will be seen as important and help to tie my theme down to SEO/marketing etc.

Next, the content of your site should back this up. My posts for example will naturally contain lots of words closely associated with my niche in both their titles and the content.

It’s ok to go off topic sometimes (and I know I do…), but 80/90% of your content should be based around your main theme.

So, that’s the on site stuff, but just as important in developing authority in a niche is what is happening off site.

Theme Of Linking Sites

If 80/90% of your content is based around your main topic, I believe that to develop strong authority in a niche, keep google happy and ensure your incoming links will be Penguin safe, the topical distribution of linking sites should be similar, i.e:-

For every 10 new links your site gains 8/9 of them should be from sites related to your niche.

It is logical that if your site is about fishing, then sites related to fishing would be the ones who wanted to link (cite) your site.

If the majority of your links come from general article directories or unrelated sites, then it is unlikely that these will be considered citations (which are the really powerful links). Why would a site about hairdressing link to a fishing site?

It doesn’t look right and too many links coming from unrelated sites runs the risk of triggering Penguin.

There Are Of Course Exceptions…

I’ve been talking above about the topic/niche of sites themselves, however, as I mentioned above sometimes things can go off topic, so what about the following example: –

That hypothetical hairdressing site that shouldn’t be linking to our fishing site… well how about they have put up a blog post which talks about how all the staff went on a team building fishing trip?

Certainly a link to our fishing site would now be contextually relevant to the individual page. So I guess the question here is does google categorise purely on a site wide level, or do they categorise individual pages?

Well google has technically always ranked pages as opposed to sites (although high ranking pages which attract links boost up other internal pages by definition), so my opinion is that this link would now be classed as on topic, Penguin safe and authority boosting.


The danger would be that they might consider a topically irrelevant page on a site a bit of a red flag and perhaps something that has been sponsored/paid for?

I don’t however think this would be enough to cause a penalty and the worst that would happen is that the link wouldn’t pass as much value as a link from a page on a theme matched site would.

Taking Things Further…

So, if the site is off topic, but the page is on topic and relevant (think about whether if a human read it, it would make sense to be there) we should be ok.

But what about if our hairdressing site had a review of their year and they happened to mention a fishing trip in one of the paragraphs?

Again, I would say that as long as the link makes sense to a human reading the article it will be ok as google should take into the account the words in the paragraph surrounding the link and use them when assessing relevancy.

It will probably pass even less authority than a link from a topically themed page, but you shouldn’t have to worry about it causing anything negative.

More Exceptions…

I mentioned that some sites are so trusted that they will naturally rank for pretty much anything they put up. Well, the same goes for a link from one of these sites.

If you get a link from the New York times it doesn’t really matter what the page is about – it’s going to help your rankings and authority. So, please don’t disavow that link from forbes based on this post!

Those Who Disagree

I mentioned at the start how this was contentious and there are certainly many SEOs who would disagree with what I am saying here.

They will probably look more at the pagerank/age etc of a linking site and determine if a link is worthwhile based on this, rather than the topic of the site.

My opinion is that, while a few of these links might be ok in isolation, too many off topic links from high PR domains will seem unnatural and will eventually trigger a Penguin penalty.

I believe they will also dilute the topical authority of your site and as have already said, I think that google do already use theming as a ranking factor and furthermore, I believe it will become more important over the coming year or so, particularly when tied to Author Rank.

So What Do You Think?

You may have noticed that I have used words/phrases such as ‘probably’ and ‘I believe’ in this article, as it is not a black and white issue, however, I have based my opinion based on my years of experience, what I feel are best practices and of course a lot of research.

But what do you think?

Will a large percentage of links from topically unrelated site/pages dilute your topical authority and potentially trigger a Penguin penalty? Or do you subscribe to the ‘a link is a link’ mentality?

Let me know by dropping a comment below!

About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.

David of THGM - October 7, 2013

Yes, Google has to give some leeway even on content, of for no other reason because sometimes people write on analogies or about something happening at their company (like a charity drive, for instance).

On the matter of two sites, such as a hairdresser site and a fishing site, both owned by the same person…sadly, I think you are right. I do believe that a footer link in each will be detrimental SEO-wise. However, I think that is a shame, because this is an entrepreneur’s lowest hanging marketing fruit – to promote one website to the users of the other. In this case, the overlap probably is pretty small, so it’s not all that much of a shame. But take the example of a hairdresser website and a baking website, and you can see why the single owner would want to cross promote.

OK, rant over. 🙂

So I agree in general with this post – topic is very important, as is quality – and of course, I thank you for building on what I had written earlier.

    David McSweeney - October 8, 2013

    Hi David, yeah, I do think it is a shame that you need to seriously think about whether to interlink your own sites. After all, if you had two physical locations for businesses you would certainly include flyers/cards etc promoting your other businesses, so a link is like the same thing in a virtual space.

David Hood -- SEO Consultant - November 6, 2013

There are “schools of SEO thought’ that believes that link building is a thing of the past and the hummingbird algorithm looks more into content. You need to gain the authority on a particular topic.

Susanta Kumar Sahoo - July 17, 2014

Assessing the relevancy and trust of links is what Google has been working for a while, and they did achieve some success with their Penguin update roll out. However, considering the millions of webpages being added to Google’s index on a daily basis. it must be getting increasingly challenging for Google to keep their algo current and fight spams. Google’s alog is designed to fight spams in niches that are rather popular and have higher spam occurrences. Plus, cunning web masters will always find ways to get around the Penguin somehow, especially in some niches. This pretty much explains why we still see low quality pages ranking at the top of Google’s SERPs for many popular keywords. The good news is “Google is working on it”. Thanks for the insightful article, David!

Steven SEO Consultant - July 24, 2014

I agree Davie of Thgm. Google has to give some leeway even on content, of for no other reason because sometimes people write on analogies or about something happening at their company

Johnny G - November 29, 2015

My thing with linking out is would you want your name on that site. If so, I give out a link. Quality is king.

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