April 24th 2012, D-Day for Webspam

In the lead up to this fateful day there was a lot of speculation as to what was happening behind the closed doors of Google HQ. Most expected some sort of ‘over-optimization’ (or over optimisation for us Brits) update, and they were not far off. Google announced this update, later to officially be named Penguin by Google as another tool in their fight against black hat webspam. Whilst Google were understandably coy about how Penguin would attack the world of spam, giving examples of both keyword stuffing and of unnatural anchor text linking, Penguin has now been categorised as an update which is focussed on linkspam. Yes, it does also tackle some onsite factors but the Penguin update has become synonymous with linkspam: unnatural links, paid links, link directories and link networks are likely to anger Google’s pet penguin!

Whilst Penguin originally only affected around 3% of all search queries (Panda was more like 12%) over the years the Penguin update has become just as infamous as the Panda update. In fact, we would expect more people to be caught nowadays for Penguin related webspam compared with Panda related webspam. Regardless though, you don’t want to be in either camp.

How many iterations has it had?

Google is yet to create an algorithm which allows Panda and Penguin to update themselves in real time according to the actions of the web. As such, they still have to release these updates which can take months to roll out. We are now on our fifth iteration of Penguin:

April 24th, 2012. PENGUIN 1.0 – the first release of Google’s most vicious antarctic mammal, bred to fight webspam and support their already famous Panda.

May 26th, 2012. PENGUIN 1.1 – released fairly quickly after the initial Penguin update, this affected only 0.1% of search queries. Labelled by Matt Cutts as a ‘data refresh’ rather than a large update.

October 5th, 2012. PENGUIN 1.2 – another data refresh that affected circa 0.3% of english search queries. It gave those previously penalised a chance to recover but on the whole was not as impacting as many were predicting.

May 22nd, 2013. PENGUIN 2.0 – a larger, and more anticipated update to the update which affected around 2.3% of English search queries. It was named 2.0 instead of 1.3 due to the new algorithm update rather than simply a data refresh as in Panda 1.1 and 1.2. Until Penguin 2.0 it was thought that the Penguin update only looked at backlinks pointing to the homepage of a website. Penguin 2.0 meant that unnatural spammy backlinks pointing to any page on your website could land you in hot water.

October 4th, 2013. PENGUIN 2.1 – another data refresh update rather than a change to the algorithm affecting around 1% of English search queries although some reported some harsh penalties.

October 17th, 2014. PENGUIN 3.0 – a refresh of the algorithm that perhaps garnered more attention than it should have including the coveted Penguin 3.0 name due to the fact that it came a whole year after Penguin 2.1. Took weeks to roll out which caused a lot of ambiguity over the actual impact of the update.

September 23rd, 2016. Penguin 4.0 – after a 2 year hiatus Google unrolled what has become known as the real-time update which will be the last major update of its type. Historically Penguin would penalise sites upon an update which in turn meant that these sites would then have to wait until the next update to find out if their remedies had been effective or not. For those caught by Penguin 3.0 back in 2014 this may have meant a wait of nearly 2 years to be released from the grasps of Google’s infamous Penguin. The new update refreshes in real time as Google continuously crawls the web and reindexes pages and sites, meaning that there is a constant re evaluation of sites. Furthermore, Google pointed towards a ‘finer granularity’ for Penguin which some have taken to mean that pages can be penalised rather than the whole site although Google has not confirmed the extent to which pages vs sites will be penalised.

Update: Gary Illyes from Google confirmed that as part of Penguin 4.0 Google will attempt to devalue spammy links pointing to a site rather than penalise/demote the site. However, he did go onto say that manual action will still be taken on sites that ‘systematically’ try to manipulate search results through link spam. Again, it really isn’t worth the risk and if you are engaging in extensive link spam you are still putting your whole site in the firing line.

How effective is it?

Even if you do not stay up to date with the latest SEO analytics data, if you have been working in the SEO industry you will have noticed that Google has improved dramatically in their ability to find and penalise webspam since the release of the Panda and Penguin updates. Penguin’s area of expertise, linkspam, has been devastated and whilst this has certainly not put a halt to those who think they can still manipulate the search results through webspam, it has certainly stemmed the flow somewhat.

What are the penalties?

It is an algorithm and therefore not a manual penalty, although that is not to say that if your website was to go under manual review and had spammy links that a Penguin like penalty would be applied to your site. The impact of being caught by Google’s Penguin are site wide rather than just for the individual page and can be devastating (*update – with Penguin 4.0 sites may only have pages penalised rather than the whole site, although you can only presume that if multiple pages contravene the rules that the whole site would be tarnished). Huge losses in rankings or de-indexing can occur depending on the severity of your transgressions against Google’s webmaster guidelines.

Can you recover from a Penguin penalty?

Yes you can, but for a long time, like Panda you usually have to wait until the next data refresh of the algorithm which, as can be seen from the above, can sometimes be 12 months. Not an ideal situation to find yourself in. This changed significantly with the roll out of Penguin 4.0 in 2016 (the so called real-time update) which should allow sites to recover much faster if they clean up their link spam as Google re assesses their site and inbound links.

Regardless of the real time update taking action, the best route is to dissect your backlink profile and remove all unnatural or spammy links (along with any onsite spam that you can identify). Try and remove the link spam yourself before attempting to use the disavow tool. Google are claiming that they will naturally re assess your site when it is indexed but it isn’t exactly something you would bet your house on.