April 24th 2012 can be considered ‘D-Day’ for webspam and black hat SEOs. 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 the ‘Penguin Update’ – as another weapon in their fight against black hat webspam. Google were understandably coy about how Penguin would attack the world of spam, giving examples of both keyword stuffing and unnatural anchor text linking. However, while it does tackle some onsite forms of spam, the update has now been categorised as an update that takes aim at all kinds of linkspam: unnatural links, paid links, link directories and link networks are among the main offenders likely to anger Google’s pet penguin. Note: for a comprehensive list of linkspam tactics, check out our glossary entry on the subject.

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 rather than Panda related webspam. Regardless, you obviously don’t want to be in either camp.

The many iterations of Penguin

Until recently, Google were unable to adapt their algorithm in real time according to the unpredictable fluctuations and movements of the web. As such, they have only been able to adapt Penguin by rolling out individual updates over the years (some of which took months to take full effect). What are these updates? And what did each one do? There have been seven iterations overall, but let’s start from the beginning:

April 24th, 2012. PENGUIN 1.0 – the initial release of Google’s most vicious antarctic mammal, bred to fight webspam and support their already famous Panda. This update introduced a ranking penalty affecting all sites that were engaging in spammy link schemes, which makes it a landmark moment in Google’s unending fight against black hat SEOs.

May 25th, 2012. PENGUIN 1.1 – released fairly quickly after the initial Penguin update, this iteration affected only 0.1% of search queries. Matt Cutts, Google’s former head of wegbspam, labelled this a ‘data refresh’ rather than a large algorithm update.

October 5th, 2012. PENGUIN 1.2 – another so-called ‘data refresh’ that affected around 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 iteration that affected approximately 2.3% of English search queries. It was named 2.0 instead of 1.3 because it was an algorithm update, not just a data refresh in the vein of Penguin 1.1 and 1.2. It was previously thought that the Penguin update only looked at backlinks pointing to the homepage of a website. With Penguin 2.0, however, lots of unnatural spammy backlinks pointing to any landing page on your website would result in a penalty.

October 4th, 2013. PENGUIN 2.1 – another data refresh that affected around 1% of English search queries, although some reported harsh penalties following its release. SEOs suspected that this iteration allowed Penguin to dive into deeper web pages in its hunt for linkspam.

October 17th, 2014. PENGUIN 3.0 – a refresh of the algorithm that perhaps garnered more attention than it should have, given that it was simply another data refresh. This is probably because it was released a whole year after Penguin 2.1 and took several weeks to roll out. Penguin 3.0 ended up impacting about 1% of search queries.

September 23rd, 2016. PENGUIN 4.0 – after a 2 year hiatus Google unrolled what has become known as the ‘real time update’ to Penguin, allowing them to reevaluate sites (and any Penguin-related penalties they may have) as and when they are crawled. In other words, Penguin 4.0 marked the integration of Google’s anti-linkspam algorithm into their core algorithm, making it the last ever ‘version’ of Penguin. This update needs a bit of special attention…

Penguin’s final form

Previously, the Penguin update would dish out penalties only when it ‘refreshed’, meaning that penalised sites would have to wait until the next ‘refresh’ to find out if their changes and remedies had been effective or not. For those caught by Penguin 3.0 back in 2014, this system resulted in a wait of nearly two years before being released from Google’s clutches. However, Penguin 4.0 refreshes its data in real time, meaning that it reevaluates sites alongside Google’s perpetual crawling and indexing of the web. As such, sites punished for linkspam no longer have to wait months for their changes to be recognised.

Shortly after its release, Gary Illyes from Google confirmed that Penguin 4.0 had started devaluing spammy links pointing to a site rather than penalising/demoting the site itself. However, he did go onto say that manual action would still be taken on sites that ‘systematically’ try to manipulate search results through link spam. So if you think of Penguin 4.0 as a ‘softer’ algorithm that lets infringing sites ‘off the hook’, think again. Engaging in black hat tactics still isn’t worth the risk, and if you are engaging in extensive link spam you will be putting your whole site in the firing line.

How does Penguin penalise sites?

If you have been working in the SEO industry for a while, you will know that Google has improved dramatically in their ability to find and penalise webspam since the release of Penguin in 2012. Linkspam (the update’s area of expertise) has seen a devastating decline, and while this has certainly not put a halt to those who think they can manipulate search results through webspam, it has certainly stemmed the tide since the ‘wild west’ era of the web. But how?

While the Penguin update used to penalise infringing sites by demoting their rankings in SERPs, the last update made it so that it simply devalues the infringing links pointing to such sites. Although, as established, this is not to say that sites with spammy links can’t be checked and penalised manually (the old-fashioned way, by demoting the site’s rankings). Likewise, punishments are no longer site-wide since the release of Penguin 4.0, and web pages are punished on an individual basis if they are caught red handed by Penguin’s all-seeing gaze. Still, if multiple pages engage in linkspam we can presume that the whole site would essentially be tarnished. In all, this makes the prospect of any effective black hat SEO campaign a lot less feasible.

Can you recover from a Penguin penalty?

The short answer is: yes you can! For a long time, those hit by a penalty had to wait until the the algorithm’s next data refresh before they could experience any recovery – not an ideal situation to find yourself in! Of course, as mentioned above, this changed significantly with the roll out of Penguin 4.0, which allows sites to recover much faster so long as Google can see that they are making an effort to clean up their link spam. Regardless, the best way out of a Penguin penalty is always to dissect your backlink profile and remove all unnatural or spammy links, as well as any onsite spam that you can identify. Try to remove the link spam yourself before attempting to use Google’s backlink disavow tool.