Google said that they expected a ‘real-time’ Google Penguin 4 algorithm to launch in early 2016 – possibly in January or February 2016 – and then that was changed to at some point in the first quarter of 2016 – but it took until September 2016 for Google Penguin to be finally implemented.
Table Of Contents
What Is Google Penguin?
The Google Penguin algorithm, first unleashed in April 2012, is a webspam algorithm designed to target websites that use low-quality link schemes to rank high in Google SERPs.
Penguin had an immediate impact when it launched in 2012.
I remember this comment standing out:
Google has dropped the nuke
Google, it seemed, had declared war on unnatural links – a tried-and-tested means to actually rank a website high in Google – and issued the following statement:
…this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce web spam and promote high-quality content. While we can’t divulge specific signals because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for Webmasters is to focus on creating high-quality sites that create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods (GOOGLE)
Low-Quality Link Building Nuked!
Blackhat seo immediately shared how this algorithm affected them:
Here we go again. This has gone from an attack to a massacre.
Blackhat SEOs are a great litmus test for these type of webspam algorithm updates:
I think they may have rolled this change out now in the UK. Almost all of my site have been wiped out!
I got hosed bad too, about 4 hours ago.
If these SERP changes I’m seeing hold, we are gong to need to turn off that “profanity” filter because this is a blood bath!
Bah, will this madness never end. The fallout from this algorithm change is shaping up to be pretty messy
A ton of my sites have just tanked big time…….in fact rankings in a lot of my niches have taken drastic changes. My days as an internet marketer look to be numbered….
I think my days as an internet marketer are numbered too.
Penguin Impact Was Widely Felt
The original Penguin update in 2012 targeted ‘webspam’ and impacted many websites and businesses who were ignorant of the risks of web spam.
There were MANY LOUD complaints on the actual post from Google about the first Penguin Update.
I built a public benefit website that for 8 years has helped thousands and thousands of addicts find addiction treatment for free… We were able to provide the service through the industry paying for featured status for their centers in our directory of treatment centers… Harvard’s addiction hospital links to us, as well as a number of super picky super high-quality websites… A few years back I started to notice crap links pointing at the site… Then Panda came and the site lost half it’s traffic… We submitted reinclusion requests, we sent notices for sites to remove links to us and informed Google, and now this! Now our site is nowhere to be found, and competitors (who are no doubt paying link companies to take down certain competitors thanks to the algorithms changes) have won! Well done Google… You took a true public benefit site out of the rankings (one with a database of treatment centers more complete than the U.S. government’s), and replaced it with referral sites (of course, the exact-keyword match .com) and individual treatment centers that charge people in dire need of help (and usually broke) scores of thousands of dollars for treatment, because they can afford to bring down the real good-guys that have been helping people for years by pointing links at them. Well done Google.
The ‘Titanic’ Update
Many link builders and bloggers, including myself, were about to name the update the ‘Titanic‘ Update as the timing was so close to the 100th anniversary of the ship disaster in 1912.
Google apparently didn’t want that, and quickly the update was named ‘Penguin‘.
The iceberg was pretty obvious:
Google Penguin targeted natural anchor text, unnatural links, low-quality sites and private blog networks.
In short – Penguin targeted low-quality, obviously paid links.
Unnatural Links Messages
Google sent a lot of “Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links” emails to many of website owners just before the Penguin Update:
Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links
Dear site owner or webmaster, We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes. We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results. If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request. If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support. Sincerely,Google Search Quality Team.
My first observations included:
- Google will not just ignore links it doesn’t like if it thinks you have built them. Now, these links can well get you penalised – and quickly – and a lot more noticeably.
- No longer can you be cavalier about where you get your links. I, have been happy to take links from anywhere in the past, safe in the knowledge links are not toxic, and that Google will ignore low-quality links before penalising you for them.
- Your website CAN have a toxic link profile. It’s evidently about YOUR INTENT. If your intent was to rank high in Google for particular keywords using low-quality links, I think that’s enough for Google, these days, to sink your site.
- Ensure your link does not end up duplicated across LOTS and LOTS of low-quality sites. Too many of these types of links DECLARE AN INTENT to Google to manipulate rankings.
My initial recommendations then were to beware:
- Sitewide links and site interlinking, and ESPECIALLY if using rich anchor text, and or managing the links in any way (like changing the keyword text)
- Blog comment links
- Article marketing links
- Manipulative RSS syndication links
- Low-quality SEO friendly directory links
- Private blog networks (PBN)
- Low-quality press releases
And do MORE of the following:
- Get links from real websites
- Focus on getting links to inner pages of your site
- Build natural domain authority
- Add lots of new content to your site
- Make sure your web page is OPTIMISED for EVERY keyword phrase for which you want to rank.
- Make sure your content is shareable
Link building was not dead. Amateur low-quality link building was dead, or at least, took a bullet.
My first impressions of Google Penguin was there was a real manual effort behind it. It seemed more manual review, to me than an algorithm.
The many delays in subsequent updates might confirm that, although it is a moot point, with tens of thousands of human reviewers crawling the web, rating websites.
Google Webmaster Tools Became Important
Before Google Penguin, I did not recommend using GWT especially if you are up to anything a bit grey or had multiple sites.
That fact was – from that point forward if your site was losing traffic, Google Webmaster Tools (AKA Search Console) subscription was a necessary evil.
How To Deal With Notices of Unnatural Links
If you did get a Google Webmaster Tools notice of detected unnatural links message, Google had some advice for you:
It was clear this was not going away, and we had to deal with these unnatural links. My initial recommendations were:
- Stop link building **whether** or not you are fighting fire with fire
- Make an effort to remove your crap links (especially the ones with a lot of similar phrases – there are a lot of phrase match penalties being handed out and some are reporting their websites and blogs deindexed)
- Accept responsibility and take your penalty
- Reconsider where you are getting your links from – and definitely,
- KNOW where you are getting your links from
- Pay attention to site-wide links from other sites…. not only are most of them useless, now they can make your link profile toxic – (confirmed in an example included in Google’s recommendations to webmasters)
- Focus on getting links from REAL sites, and ideally, sites with REAL online business authority
- AVOID generating a lot of anchor text rich links fast on low-quality sites
- Concentrate on earning backlinks with a brand signal, paying particular attention to the QUALITY of the sites.
Unnatural anchor text was extremely risky from 2012 onwards…. and ESPECIALLY if those links were on low-quality sites like private blog networks or low-quality directories.
Later iterations of Google Penguin targeted obvious spam, obvious out of context links and obvious brute force linking (examples given are footer links, blogrolls and some PBNs (private blog networks) – i.e., not the sort of links you want to point at your main site.
Webmasters reported 301s hit too – home pages disappearing and affiliate sites penalised (although a black hat affiliate site isn’t going to last long these days without somebody who knows what they are doing at the helm).
Black hats ARE, however, very much worth listening to at times like this.
Real-Time Google Penguin
Apparently, it was not so simple to re-run Penguin. Google has since mentioned it might have been too aggressive for too many webmasters, to run it as was.
Google spokespeople have ben saying for years that the aim was to introduce a REAL TIME PENGUIN.
Penguin ‘penalties’, we now know, can last for over two years(!) and if you get hit with a Penguin penalty because of your activities – there’s a really good argument for starting again with a brand new domain.
That’s how serious it is.
Google will no doubt claim that Penguin 4 is ‘baked’ into the algorithm- but will you bet on that?
Even if it is the case – if you DO get penalised – Google still wants to punish you for (maybe) a year – or – where’s the stick – or at least – where’s the carrot for White hats – not to spam links?
A lot of webmasters will spam Google silly if there is no ‘penalty’ in doing so – and I doubt Google is going to let that happen.
The Relationship Between Penguin & Panda
Google’s algorithms seem focused on quality, as Google defines it, and Google has published advice on creating a high-quality website that will rank high in SERPs:
What counts as a high-quality site?
Our site quality algorithms are aimed at helping people find “high-quality” sites by reducing the rankings of low-quality content. The recent “Panda” change tackles the difficult task of algorithmically assessing website quality. Taking a step back, we wanted to explain some of the ideas and research that drive the development of our algorithms.
Below are some questions that one could use to assess the “quality” of a page or an article. These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves as we write algorithms that attempt to assess site quality. Think of it as our take at encoding what we think our users want.
Of course, we aren’t disclosing the actual ranking signals used in our algorithms because we don’t want folks to game our search results; but if you want to step into Google’s mindset, the questions below provide some guidance on how we’ve been looking at the issue:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
- Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- How much quality control is done on content?
- Does the article describe both sides of a story?
- Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
- Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
- Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
- Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
- Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
- Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
- Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
- Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
Writing an algorithm to assess page or site quality is a much harder task, but we hope the questions above give some insight into how we try to write algorithms that distinguish higher-quality sites from lower-quality sites. SOURCE
Those guidelines above are helpful to think about if impacted by Google PANDA or SITE QUALITY algorithms.
They are worth paying attention to – but equally, if you put your link building hat on, you could say they were a guide as to where you might NOT want to see a link to your site – which is where, in obvious cases, Penguin might take over.
Why would Google want to count a link to your site if your link was on any page that didn’t meet these quality guidelines?
Why not considering penalising you if all your links are on pages that “users complain when they see pages from this site?“.
Right or wrong – this is what Google is doing – in its self-styled PR ‘war’ on ‘black hats’ and you don’t want to be pulled into that battle if you can avoid it.
Google doesn’t seem to care about sites hit by Penguin as much as per say a human reviewed manual action (when a penalty can sometimes be lifted very quickly if the infraction is borderline).
- Investigating A Website Traffic Drop
- Dealing With Low-Quality Pages On A Website
- Example of a High-Quality Webpage
- User Experience As A Ranking Factor
- Making High-Quality Websites
Should you be worried about the Google Penguin Algorithm?
If you run a business that can’t afford to flip domains and change web addresses, then yes, especially if you are letting a third party ‘build’ links to your site.
If you are not buying links (and have never done so), then you probably have A LOT LESS to worry about (and should be more concerned with Google Panda and overall site and page quality challenges).
If you are the unfortunate recipient of negative SEO attacks (as this site has in the few last years) then the only real option you have is to have your disavow file in place at Google Webmaster Tools – and make an apparent attempt to disassociate yourself from the most toxic of those links.
Google recently penalised a lot of not-so ‘Private’ Blog Networks (PBNs) that were breaking the rules, and Google’s John Mueller said that algorithms don’t operate in isolation – which could indicate your site needs to trip other algorithms, too, to be slapped by the harshest of Penguin.
Penguin has always been more traditionally about the nature of your backlinks.
Matt Cutts recent tweet would indicate that it was black hat SEO services they were going for with this.
Blackhat SEO fads: like walking into a dark alley, packed with used car salesmen, who won’t show you their cars. http://t.co/pQEpSv5LIT
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) September 24, 2014
Many of my black hat friends won’t go near a disavow file but they have an entirely different business model.
If you care about a site, you probably should have a disavow file in place – especially if you rank successfully for anything.
Penguin is the one algorithm you do not want slapping your site down – so check your back links for obvious, low-quality links.
I presume you are already addressing site quality issues to avoid getting continually pumped by a constantly evolving Panda algorithm.
Has Your Website Lost Rankings in Google?
If your primary site did get hit by Penguin, then you’re probably doing something wrong.
Symptoms may include website rankings dropping on the following dates I list:.
Penguin Update History Dates:
- Penguin 1.0 – April 24, 2012 (3.1% of searches)
- Penguin 1.2 – May 26, 2012 (0.1% of searches)
- Penguin 1.3 – October 5, 2012 (0.3% of searches)
- Penguin 2.0 – May 22, 2013 (2.3% of searches)
- Penguin 2.1 – Oct. 4, 2013 ( 1% of searches)
- Penguin 3 – Oct. 17/18 2014 (LESS THAN 1%)
- Penguin 4 – Announced September 2016 (with potential updates into 2017, but not officially announced)
Impact of Historic Penguin Updates
- Many sites were impacted experienced fall-out from Penguin 1 and Penguin 2, and some Webmasters have been waiting since 2012 to be ‘re-evaluated’ by this algorithm – leaving them in a desperate position.
- Google Penguin 2 did a pretty good job at devaluing some lower quality links from obvious link sources. Whether Google just slapped an algorithmic change on you, algorithmically penalised you or started ignoring your links – the result was that previously stable rankings disappeared overnight. If the sites that link to you have a quality issue (from Google’s point of view), expect that ranking problem only to worsen over the coming months.
- If you were hit with one of Google’s changes – you could expect rankings to fluctuate, and perhaps dissolve in the coming weeks and months, especially if you have LOTS of ‘low-quality’ links pointing AT your site.
- I do see Google rewarding a diverse and natural link profile even in some less spammy verticals. There is still spam, of course.
- Penguin 2 was not initially as aggressive as Penguin 1. Penguin 2 looked like more of a rerun of Penguin 1 with a net cast wider. Penguin 1 focused on home pages (with lots of manipulative anchor text) – and Penguin 2 was a rollout of the same algorithm to internal pages on your site (as we understand it).
Competing Without Relying On Unnatural Links
It doesn’t change what anybody running a site for the long term should be focused on going forward in 2017:
- Making content
- Making content relevant
- Making appropriate content reputable
- Increasing engagement
For the small retailer wanting to compete in Google who wants a degree of certainty, that rankings they have today are there tomorrow, building links with lots of focused anchor text and using low-quality networks is finished.
AND don’t expect Spam to disappear.
Spam always ranks before a fall. During that time – you lose out. By the time Google has caught up with the spam, it’s ranking new spam above you. Google makes a lot of money from the status quo if you haven’t heard.
Dissociating Toxic Links
Google says of the disavow tool:
This is an advanced feature and should only be used with caution. If used incorrectly, this feature can potentially harm your site’s performance in Google’s search results. We recommend that you only disavow backlinks if you believe you have a considerable number of spammy, artificial, or low-quality links pointing to your site, and if you are confident that the links are causing issues for you.
If you believe your site’s ranking is being harmed by low-quality links you do not control, you can ask Google not to take them into account when assessing your site. You should still make every effort to clean up unnatural links pointing to your site. Simply disavowing them isn’t enough.
Lots of SEO naturally are wary of anything Google says.
But, if your positions took a slap during a Penguin update or refresh, it will be time to clean up those links and get busy building new reputation and authority – disavowing the real crap is a likely place to start (although I would 404 / 410 internal pages with VERY spammy link profiles first).
What If I Do Nothing about my old toxic links?
You can also do nothing, and hope Google passes you by, and your rankings do not disappear over the coming months.
- You SHOULD be disavowing most risky links from your backlink profile as you are still at risk of manual actions and future algorithm changes.
- You should STILL be link building, too, but start with a piece of content that deserves links. Links STILL make the world turn as far as Google is concerned – just don’t be doing what everyone else is doing.
If you are not involved in any low-quality link building, Penguin will probably not affect you – but there are lots of other things going on at Google to change your rankings.
Google has a habit of hitting webmasters with one update after another, sometimes with multiple types of update at one time.
It all adds to keep SEOs guessing and learning.