If you are confused regarding the differences between the Google Penguin algorithm update and an unnatural links penalty, then you do not need to think that you are well behind the 8-ball when it comes to SEO. You are not the only one to be confused; both at some point have stumped the most respected voices in the SEO industry.
Part of the problem has been that Google have made no secret of the fact that future algorithm updates are going to continue targeting unnatural links. Therefore, many have assumed them the same thing. However, they are not, and believing they are is probably going to make your SEO performance worse and further cloud your thinking when it comes to search strategy.
The Big Difference
The main difference between these is simple: Google Penguin is an algorithm, meaning if you slip down the search results it is because crawling your site shows you have been engaging in unethical or unnatural link building practices.
An unnatural links penalty is manually levied by Google, perhaps because of a random check or because a competitor filed a spam report against you. Google’s algorithms cannot pick up everything, which is why this mechanism is in place. However, if you use Google Webmaster Tools, you will usually receive an unnatural links warning, giving you time to take action to avoid Google handing you a manual penalty.
Where do they Hit Hardest?
Usually, Google Penguin will only have an impact on your site around particular keywords and pages. For example, if we were to focus on our social media optimization page, and started guest posting or commenting on blogs using that very same anchor text exclusively, the chances are that Google Penguin would prevent that page from ranking, owing to the way in which we have shamelessly tried to rank for those keywords.
Webmasters and site owners who believe Google Penguin have affected their whole site are often mistaken. What has really happened is that they have been building links to their homepage only, and so Google Penguin has hit this page. If anything, this example shows the importance of having an SEO strategy in place across a number of key pages, rather than just targeting the homepage.
An unnatural link penalty can affect a keyword, page, or the entire site. While the latter occurrence is the rarest, it is a warning of what can happen if you are engaging in unethical link building practices to the extreme.
Google Reconsideration Requests
You can only file a reconsideration request if you have received a warning or been hit with a manual unnatural links penalty. Remember that Google Penguin is an algorithm, so the organic search results are a direct result of what that does.
Should you see your warning in Google Webmaster Tools, it is best to take remedial action immediately and then file your reconsideration request right away. If you are unsure about what the problems are, file a reconsideration request without doing anything, Google will usually respond with specific pointers that are clear about the action you must take next.
Does the Disavow Links Tool Make a Difference?
Since October 2012, webmasters have been able to use the disavow links tool to make any links that they are suspicious of ‘no follow.’ However, in the Webmaster Tools suite, the disavow links option comes with a warning that states that, by disavowing links, you could potentially be damaging the SEO performance of your site.
The best course of action to take here is probably to use the disavow links tool as a reactive measure. Although you will naturally want to be proactive when it comes to your site performance, unless you are 100% certain that a backlink is spam, you might be unintentionally removing a useful link.
If your site has dropped down the rankings because of a Google Penguin update, review your link profile and disavow the links that you believe to be low quality. Of course, your link profile might be one of a variety of reasons why you have seen a drop, so ensure this is only part of an overall review of your SEO plan.
In the event of an unnatural links penalty or warning, Google might have made you aware specifically of the links that have caused this, so you know which links to disavow prior to filing your reconsideration request.
Should I Manually Remove Links?
Manually removing links is something that you must look to do in the event of an unnatural links penalty or warning. You need to show Google that you have worked to remove any backlinks that were irrelevant spam or poor for any other reason. This is unavoidable; otherwise, spammers could simply build links everywhere and disavow them if and when they received a warning. In fact, Google themselves say that you should take this step first, and that disavowing links should be your final course of action.
For the Google Penguin algorithm, disavowing links should be enough, as you do not have to show someone what you have done. If you are able to remove links rather than disavow them, however, then do so.
My Site Has Been Hit: When will it recover?
If you have had a manual unnatural links penalty, then, depending on how many reconsideration requests and other forms of correspondence Google is dealing with, you can expect to bounce back usually within a period of two weeks. Bear in mind that this can take longer, however, and the turnaround time should be all the motivation you need in order to remove any offending backlinks and stop them from damaging your site.
The picture for Google Penguin is not as clear. Although a site will likely not recover from the specific issue until the next Penguin update, you can see benefits from other, regular algorithm updates, which will help your site be more visible prior to the aforementioned Penguin update. Again, this provides ample motivation for keeping on top of your link profile, in addition to all other SEO aspects, at all times.
Do not allow any confusion around Google Penguin and unnatural link penalties to cloud your thinking or damage your site. Now that you know what to look for, and the steps to take, you should be in a great position to solve any issues, as well as prevent them from happening in the first place.