Did the Google Penguin Update Penalize WordPress Theme Creators?

I found an article recently published on WPMU.org where James Farmer claims that his site was severely penalized by Google’s Penguin update because it targeted sites that offered free WordPress theme. I understand that James is extremely upset about the April 24, 2012 Penguin update, as are thousands of other web site owners who were negatively impacted by Penguin, but he may not be correct about his assumptions.

James lays out his observations in an article titled, WordPress, Penguin, Google and Matt Cutts’ take on WPMU.org. As supporting evidence, he cites a comment made indirectly by Google’s Matt Cutts. Matt Cutts offered three examples of pirated software and spammer sites using his theme and pointed out that author links from these sites may have contributed to the problems with WPMU.org. From an SEO perspective, the assumptions made by James based upon these are probably incorrect.

James claims that the issue is the discounting of author links (he calls it the removal of credit) from several spammer sites that use his themes. Author links are the links typically found in the footer of most free WordPress themes that point back to the author’s web site. These links have always been valuable due to their shear numbers, but links are now a double-edged sword, and that may be what penalized his site. All links are not good links.

I don’t think that Google intentionally punished sites for distributing WordPress themes, as James claims. However, a large number of footer links from “bad neighborhoods” (AKA spammer sites) could very well have damaged his Google traffic. We have been stressing for several years that the quality of links leading to a site does matter. The difference was that in the past the value of poor quality links, such as most links from low quality directories, were simply discounted. Many hold no value at all. The difference that we have seen recently is that not only were more and more links being discounted, but large numbers of poor quality links or links from unrelated sites can actually damage a site’s rankings. Unfortunately, theme authors have no control over the types of sites that use their WordPress themes.

For many years Google’s Webmaster Guidelines claimed that there was nothing that a competitor could do to damage a site through backlinks. A few years ago they changed the wording to state that there is almost nothing a competitor could do to damage a site site’s rankings through backlinks. Today, Google’s Webmaster Guidelines has dropped that reference entirely. A fairly new factor has come into play that is referred to as Negative SEO. Negative SEO can have a very poisonous impact on a site’s rankings by flooding it with poor quality backlinks and backlinks containing unrelated keywords. From my observations, it appears that WPMU.org was more a victim of unintended Negative SEO, rather than the discounting of author links from pirate and spammer sites. Unfortunately, that was an unforeseen problem that was created through the use of author links.

It also appears that he is mistaken about the branding of the links. He suggests the need for consistency in those links. If he was snagged accidentally by Penguin, it was probably due to the near 100% consistency of those links, which would appear to be an artificial linking pattern. That is one of several hallmarks of Penguin. Penguin penalized sites that the algorithm determined to be using artificial linking patterns. They even sent warnings out to sites using Google’s Webmaster Tools prior to the algorithm change.

There is a solution to this dilemma–and James did identify the solution. The best solution would be to add a “nofollow” attribute to all author links. The nofollow attribute tells search engine spiders to disregard that link. The link will no longer pass any value or “link juice”, but it will also not be used to penalize the site that the link points to. The problem is that there are probably tens of thousands of sites already using WPMU.org themes that contain author links. It will be next to impossible to add the nofollow attribute to those links.