A Guide to Google’s Penguin Algorithm Update


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The Google Penguin algorithm update in 2012 was intended to combat manipulative and ‘spammy’ link building techniques. It was originally called the ‘webspam algorithm update,’ but was later given the official name of the Penguin update by the Google webspam team. No one really knows why it was called Penguin, or at least no one outside of Google knows, but as the previous Panda update was named by a Google engineer, we can assume the Penguin name was probably born in the same way. Before the Google Penguin update, websites were scored in such a way that placed a lot of importance on the volume of backlinks they had with no way of determining whether those links had any relevance or value.

Why Google Penguin Happened

When only the number of backlinks mattered, the result was that many websites and content pieces were ranking despite being of low-quality, simply because they had a lot of links which could be sourced through black-hat spamming. Google had already launched the Panda update in early 2011 in an effort to combat low-quality search results and manipulative SEO practices. Panda made a start, but they found that a lot of spam was still getting through. Penguin was the next level in Google algorithms.

The Penguin algorithm could understand and analyze the types of inbound links (not outgoing) a website had earned and favored those which had relevant, authoritative and natural links. Websites with spammy links were downgraded in search results.

What Has Happened Since Google Penguin?

The Penguin update was first rolled out in April 2012 affecting over 3% of search results, but there have been several refreshes and updates since then which have had a significant impact.

Penguin Update 1.1 March 2012

The data within the algorithm was refreshed. Some websites affected by the original update recovered slightly but the refresh also negatively affected websites that had not been affected initially.

Penguin Update 1.2 October 2012

This technical refresh affected the English language and international queries.

Penguin Update 2.0 May 2013

This update affected 2.3% of search queries and enabled the algorithm to analyze websites on a deeper level than just the homepage and top-tier category pages.

Penguin Update 2.1 October 2013

Another refresh happened in October 2.1 which impacted around 1% of search queries.

Penguin Update 3.0 October 2014

This was a data refresh that enabled websites that had been negatively affected to recover while those who still used spammy backlink techniques (and had not previously been affected) were downgraded. This affected less than 1% of English search queries.

Penguin Update 4.0 2016

The last update to the Penguin algorithm was to integrate it into the core algorithm. This means that the core algorithm analyzes websites and backlinks in real-time so changes to link building strategy will have an almost instant impact to your ranking.

What Impact Does Google Penguin Have?

It did not take long for the Penguin update to take effect and websites which had been using spammy and manipulative link building tactics or had a high volume of low-quality links saw a drop in their ranking and, subsequently, their traffic. Some Penguin downgrades were applied to entire websites while others only affect specific groups of keywords which had been subject to heavy spamming and over optimization.

How to Recover from Penguin

Penguin can be passed between different domains, which means that redirecting one domain to another is not an effective tactic, whether using 301 or 302 redirects. In addition, Google has confirmed that a meta refresh from an old to a new domain may cause confusion with both users and the crawlers. So, how can you recover if your website has been affected by Penguin?

Finding Your Backlinks

In order to find out if your website is being negatively affected by Penguin, you will need to conduct an audit of all the links on your site. You can then disavow or remove the unwanted links.

It’s worth noting that some links will be designated as ‘no-follow’ by the domain which has linked to your website. A no-follow link does not have any impact on your ranking, positive or negative, but the linking domain could change the no-follow to a follow at any time.

There are SEO tools which will show you your link profile, but they will not show you all of the inbound links to your site as some websites choose to block those bots from accessing their site. This is because they either don’t want to waste bandwidth or they may be hiding their low-quality links so they cannot be reported.

Requesting Link Removal

In the first instance, when you discover an unwanted link, Google recommends that you try to contact the website in question and ask them to remove the link. However, if they try to charge a fee for removing the link, disavow it.

Disavowing links

While Google suggests it should only be used as a last resort, SEO specialists have been using the disavow tool since before the Penguin update and still use it now it is included in the core algorithm.

By submitting a disavow file to Google, you can tell them which of the inbound links to your website to ignore and which to take into account in your ranking. This means that any poor links will not affect your score. However, if you accidentally include high-quality links in the file, it will not take those links into account either. When you have uploaded your disavow file you will receive a confirmation email from Google. Google will process the file, but will not discount the links straight away as all the individual links need to be crawled again. This is why you will not see recovery simply from submitting the file.

Most SEO specialists will advise you to disavow links on a domain level, not to disavow individual links, but there may be instances when you want to disavow some links from a domain and not others. By disavowing on a domain level, you make it simpler for Google to discount the link as they only need to crawl one page per domain and Google will discount all indexed variations. However, disavowing backlinks is a time-consuming task, and many SEO specialists simply don’t have the time to do it on a regular basis.

It’s important to continue monitoring your backlink profile on a regular basis, as new links can come in at any time and, unfortunately, some unscrupulous competitors may attempt to attack your SEO score by buying low-quality links and pointing them to your website. This is sometimes used as an excuse for having a lot of bad links, i.e. “It wasn’t our fault,” but Google has ways of recognizing when this occurs.

It’s also worth noting that the Penguin algorithm analyzes your whole link profile, so if you have a lot of natural and high-quality links the update will take the ratio into account.

What is a ‘High-quality’ Backlink?

It can be difficult to work out what is a high or low-quality link. For example, there is a misconception that a link from any .edu domain is high-quality, but there are lots of students with their own .edu websites that should be disavowed. In addition, there are plenty of high-quality .info sites, despite their reputation for spam. You need to assess each link for its individual merit.

There are a lot of high profile websites which, on first inspection, look like a great link but may not be what they seem. Some brands will allow third parties to publish adverts or content which includes links on their website for a fee. These links are viewed as poor-quality as are promotional links. These are links that have been received in exchange for a positive review or a discount on products, for example. If you have these links, they should be changed to no-follow to ensure you retain the link’s value in terms of traffic and brand awareness but not rankings.

Recovering from Google Penguin Update

In some cases, it can seem like you have taken all the steps to improve your backlink profile but are still not seeing any improvement in rankings or traffic. There are several possible reasons for this.

  • Not enough of the poor links have been disavowed or removed.
  • Some websites that were using spammy link building tactics just before the update may have been experiencing a temporary boost; when the update hit, they lost their perceived improvement.
  • While poor links have been removed, no effort has been made to gather high-quality links.
  • Poor SEO performance was never due to the link profile.

Even with all the right moves, recovery from Penguin does not happen overnight and, if your original high ranking was due to poor link building tactics, it’s unlikely your rankings will be restored to their previous glory. Google is changing their algorithm either slightly or significantly on a daily basis and there are many other ranking factors which could be affecting your performance in search results. It is absolutely possible to recover from Penguin, but if you are struggling, you may want to speak to SEO experts who can create tailored SEO strategies to help you improve your ranking in Google and maximize your brand’s visibility.

Author: James Owen

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