If you want to make sure that all the hard work you did to rank your website continues to pay off, then you should familiarize yourself with Google's rules regarding backlinks. You also need to understand the Penguin update.

Introduced in 2012,  Penguin made it more difficult for black hat SEOs to "game the system" by slapping backlinks all over cyberspace.

In this article, we'll go over the history of Penguin and offer some guidance that will help you avoid losing rank.

What Is Penguin?

Penguin is an algorithm. It's a piece of code that's designed to detect websites that are using shady backlink strategies in an effort to gain rank.

Prior to Penguin, unethical webmasters would often use tools to spam backlinks to low-quality online properties. In some cases, they'd place those links in "spun" articles that were rewritten by software to appear as unique content.

Google's search algorithm would detect those spammed backlinks and determine that the site must have some level of authority because other websites are pointing to it. As a result, the backlink spam (as it was called) would boost rank.

It's still true today that backlinks are one of the top three ranking signals. However, now that Penguin is in place, Google is much smarter at finding webspam and preventing sites that use it from ranking in the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Although the original release of Penguin in April of 2012 put a stop to some link spam efforts, it was far from complete. As a result, Google released several updates.

Penguin 1.1 (March, 2012)

The first update wasn't an update to the algorithm. It was a data refresh.

After the refresh, spammed sites that were missed by the original Penguin release were caught. Also, SEOs who fixed their backlink profiles saw their website rankings improve.

Penguin 1.2 (October, 2012)

The second update was also a data refresh.

It was a big deal though because it affected international sites in addition to English search results.

Matt Cutts, who was in charge of Google's anti-webspam efforts at the time, said the data refresh only affected .3% of all English queries.

Penguin 2.0 (May, 2013)

The next upgrade was a big one. It changed the algorithm itself.

How? By checking websites more deeply. The crawler went beyond the site's home page and category pages.

Also, Penguin 2.0 affected 2.3% of English queries.

Penguin 2.1 (October, 2013)

The next release was a data refresh.

Although it wasn't an algorithm update, some people claimed that Penguin 2.1 crawled even deeper in websites than the previous version.

Penguin 3.0 (October, 2014)

Believe it or not, Penguin 3.0 was not a major algorithm upgrade. It was a data refresh.

Penguin 3.0 accomplished two things:

It allowed webmasters who had fixed their backlink profiles to recover in rank

It penalized websites that weren't caught by earlier versions

Penguin 4.0 (September, 2016)

Almost two years after Penguin 3.0 appeared on the scene, Penguin 4.0 was released. It was an important milestone.

Why? Because, for the first time, Penguin became part of Google's core algorithm.

As a result, webmasters who had fixed their backlink profiles no longer had to wait for a new Penguin update to see their rankings improve. Results were immediate.

Penguin 4.0 also began a different approach to webspam: the algorithm devalued bad backlinks instead of punishing sites that used link spam.

In other words,, spammy backlinks were treated like no backlinks at all.

As of this writing, Penguin 4.0 is the latest version of the algorithm.

How to Play by the Rules

Although the days of earning "a Penguin penalty" seem to be over, you should still establish a healthy backlink profile. That way, you'll avoid looking like a black hat SEO and risking injury to your site.

How can you do that? With a few simple steps:

Choose quality over quantity - Make sure that your backlinks appear on quality websites. Avoid foreign sites with no reputation or sites that seem to be intentionally set up for no other purpose than to provide backlinks. You're better off with a few links from great sites than with many links from low-quality sites.

Diversify your anchor text - Google will notice if you use the keyword that you're trying to rank for as the anchor text for every link back to your site. That will instantly appear as webspam and your rank will likely suffer. Instead, make sure that you diversify your anchor text.

Don't buy links - You won't have any trouble finding a service on a black hat website that offers to sell you backlinks from a so-called private blog network (PBN). Just remember, though, that Google can also find those services. That means that whatever benefit those black hat tactics are giving you are fleeting at best.

Don't automate link-building - In almost every aspect of online marketing, automation is a great idea. Link-building is one exception. You might think that you've found a nifty tool that will help you rank by spreading backlinks to your site from all around the Internet, but it's a waste of money. All you'll get for your troubles are a few worthless links that Google's Penguin algorithm will devalue almost instantly.

Instead of taking shortcuts when it comes to building backlinks, do it the right way. Earn those links with guest-posting, viral content, answering questions on online forums, and connecting with influencers who will mention you on their blogs.