Last Friday (September 23rd) Google announced the release of their latest Penguin algorithm update, Penguin 4.0. Read on for 6D’s overview and POV on what the change means for you, our clients, and the SEO industry at large.
What Is The Penguin Algorithm?
Google relies heavily on backlink link metrics to determine search rankings. Penguin is a part of Google that identifies and penalizes websites that are associated with fake or unnatural links to manipulate rankings. Compared to other algorithm updates, Google updates this portion of the algorithm infrequently, with months or even years between updates.
Google uses an algorithm to assess hundreds (200 by their count) of signals to determine where a web page should rank for a given search query. A large part of that algorithm deals with signals in the form of external links, aka links pointing from other domains to the ranking page. In the earlier iterations of Google’s algorithm, any external link was seen as a signal of credibility (and better rankings) to the page being linked to. However, Google engineers would soon learn that it’s not that difficult to falsely inflate external link counts by use of web directories, fake shell websites, and networks of websites all owned by colluding webmasters. Enter the Penguin algorithm update.
This layer of the algorithm was designed to identify “spammy” links like the ones described above and then either devalue these links, rendering them useless to organic rankings, or actually penalize an entire site by way of exclusion from Google results entirely. A Manual Action penalty, as it was called, would involve a message from Google via Webmaster Tools/ Search Console letting webmasters know they are in a time out and prompting them to remove offending backlinks by way of the Disavow Tool, an arduous and manual process that renders a .txt list of domains or links inert.
The Tricky Thing About Penguin
The thing about Penguin updates is that Google will never clarify which links are guilty and which aren’t, so for Manual Action situations it becomes a sensitive situation for an SEO or webmaster who must remove or disavow enough backlinks to free themselves from penalty but not cut so deep as to unnecessarily remove positive links. For penalties that don’t involve a Manual Action and communication line with Google, webmasters have even less to go on (removing links by gut or with the help of software to identify spammy links) and won’t see improvement until the next iteration of Penguin is released which, as mentioned, can be the better part of a year or longer. Needless to say there may be a reason Google chose one of the cutest animals on earth to represent this often less-than-adorable update.
The Update - What’s 4.0 All About?
The latest iteration, Penguin 4.0, is a major change because it makes Penguin part of Google’s “core algorithm.” What that means is that Google doesn’t need to push a new version every 6 months, 1 year, etc. like a software update. Instead, links are now assessed and devalued in real-time, which in theory is a big relief to SEOs and webmaster who will no longer need to wait months on end to see recovery from a Penguin-related drop in rankings. In fact, this update should (in theory, always “in theory” because Google will only hint at truths to protect their secret sauce) do away with deliberate penalization altogether. Instead of seeing sudden drops or hand-picking sites for Manual Action penalty, the rolling Penguin algorithm will simply render spammy links ineffective as it goes.
Google representatives have also described the update as making the Penguin algorithm “more granular.” They didn’t elaborate beyond that but we can only understand that to mean more precision, which is always good when you’re dealing with an algorithm that cuts down backlinks and rankings.
Overall this update is a positive for both SEOs and Google, who no longer need to engage in tedious link removal exercises or watch their calendars waiting for the next update and the shakeup that ensues. Although vague, the description of additional granularity sounds promising for webmasters that strive for clean, healthy backlink profiles.
On a personal note, I’m also sick of looking at all the tacky penguin-related blog imagery, so I hope the lack of distinct updates will abate the fervor of blog-based discussion and the penguin stock photography that we all feel compelled to include with it. I was able to find this gem during my search for “robot penguin” before I decided to outsource to Fiverr - great work from umunhum!
The only bad I can think of is that the effects of Penguin now blur into the rest of the algorithm, which hurts visibility into what exactly a “spammy link” is. It’s definitely not convenient to wait 6 months for another chance to recover from Penguin, but that distinct penalization event allows for research into how and why it occurred. What backlinks existed before the penalty? What did we remove and did it work? How can we prevent this in the future? These questions are harder to answer while the Penguin algorithm silently undermines the value of links it deems unworthy of affecting rankings.
This Still Sounds Kind of Scary - Should I Be Worried?
In my experience (8+ years of SEO) a Penguin penalty has only come into play when someone has engaged in high volume link acquisition (100’s of links at a time) from a vendor or organization that just sells links (so as to avoid accountability for actual SEO performance) and does so at scale by placing links on very low quality sites. It’s not that the volume of links itself is the problem - if you somehow got 100 major publications to link to your site Google certainly wouldn't penalize you. However, for the average brand it’s near impossible to get 100 quality backlinks overnight, so more often than not high volume links end up being low quality links that land websites in Penguin jail. However, with the new Penguin update, there isn’t a penalty per se, just an erosion of spammy links’ effect, so purchasers of spammy links may continue investing in high volume, low quality link grabs without realizing they’re no longer getting a return.
6D Link Building
We help our clients build high-quality links to their websites that build brand awareness and increase rankings. We do so through real webmaster relationships that exist because those webmasters create or have created high-quality content that’s relevant to our clients’ brands or industries. We’re very picky about the kinds of sites we work with so that we never have to deal with Penguin link penalties. They aren’t fun. We’ve dealt with them before and we really, really don’t like them.
What You Should Do
You don’t need to do anything and it’s unlikely you have anything to worry about since we actively avoid the kinds of SEO tactics that result in Penguin penalties. Still, we’re monitoring all SEO clients’ ranking performance closely to see any significant drops that correlate with the change. If it hasn’t already come up, it would be good to know if you’ve ever worked with a shady link building company before and when. As always, feel free to reach out if you have any questions, concerns, or want to jump on the phone to learn more about this update and all things SEO.
Consider calling 6D Global to learn about our SEO services.
Just kidding...I would recommend monitoring rankings closely around the last couple weeks of September. The announcement was made Friday the 23rd but Google reports the update is still rolling out so full effects won’t be realized just yet. If you’re employing any link building strategies (nothing spammy I hope) I would recommend putting an extra close eye on the effect those links are having on rankings to make sure they’re not so low quality as to be rendered inert by Penguin. I would hate to see anyone wasting time and resources getting links that don’t push the needle. Shout out to our SEO platform - well there’s a nice, natural link :) - and partner, Conductor Searchlight, which we use to tag and organize keywords by link building focus so we can easily track the results later. I’m also a big fan of Barracuda’s Panguin Tool (there’s another!) to easily correlate algorithm updates to web traffic (via Google Analytics integration).
That’s it for now. Please feel free to comment your own thoughts and feelings about this quirky, flightless algorithm update - if Google reps are true to their word it may be the last chance to do so!
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