Google recently rolled out a travel-planning tool, Google Flights, which it says will help users “be more confident that you’re booking your flight at the right time to get the best price.”
It’s the latest from a technology company that repeatedly says it seeks to provide the best possible user experience. And while some of these efforts, like Google Flights, are easy to take at face value, others, like, say, algorithm updates, are a bit more complicated. In fact, even respected search experts say they don’t understand everything about Google.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be a dyed-in-the-wool SEO to keep up with the latter. Case in point: Here’s virtually everything marketers need to know about Google’s most recent algorithm update.
What is Penguin?
Google Penguin is one of more than 200 signals Google uses to determine search rankings. It was initially released in 2012 targeting webspam, or techniques like keyword stuffing and link schemes that seek to artificially inflate rankings.
Why are we talking about Penguin now?
On September 23, Google announced the latest Penguin update, 4.0, to further encourage webmasters to focus on “creating amazing, compelling websites.”
What does Penguin 4.0 mean for brands and marketers?
1. PENGUIN 4.0 IS PART OF GOOGLE’S CORE REAL-TIME ALGORITHM
Per Glenn Gabe, digital marketing consultant at digital marketing firm G-Squared Interactive, the first Penguin release heavily targeted unnatural links specifically, so sites that were using spammy links to boost their profiles saw a catastrophic drop in its wake.
But the most recent prior Penguin update was almost two years ago, which means sites hit by that particular update have had a long wait to see movement, Gabe added.
And, according to Gabe, the big change with Penguin 4.0 is that it runs in real time. In other words, sites hit with penalties as a result of prior updates had no choice but to wait for Google’s next release.
But Penguin 4.0 is faster.
“Now, Google is evaluating links as it recrawls the web. This isn't quite instantaneous, but we're talking hours or days now, not weeks or months,” said Pete Meyers, marketing scientist at SEO software firm Moz. “This means you won't have to wait months to recover from Penguin problems, but it also means that Google will devalue bad links much more quickly.”
With that in mind, SEOs will no longer have to wait with bated breath for penalty removals.
What’s more, rankings can theoretically change every time Google crawls a site, depending on the information on the site and the pages linking to it, said Brandon Schroth, digital SEO analyst for data recovery firm Gillware Data Recovery.
And, per Randy Antin, vice president of marketing at marketing analytics firm Jumpshot, Google wants sites to focus on user experience and is offering faster recovery as a “carrot” as “businesses who legitimately try to address their penalties can actually reap the rewards.”
It means less drama.
In addition, Ron Cierniakoski, director of analytics at engagement marketing firm Terakeet, said real-time Penguin means we probably won’t again see the dramatic impact of previous updates.
Further, Marcus Miller, head of SEO and digital marketing at SEO, PPC and digital marketing firm Bowler Hat, said the rollout of Penguin 4.0 seems gradual.
“The chatter regarding wins and losses in the industry is minimal as of yet and you can bet that as agencies start to see results, the Penguin recovery blog posts will start to appear in some volume,” he added. “So, it appears the true payload of Penguin 4.0 is yet to truly reveal itself so marketers must have some patience in the coming weeks as Google slowly crawls the web and [then] reshuffles the deck.”
It means no more big Penguin announcements.
Another filter, Panda, also started out as an add-on spam filter, but Google now trusts these signals enough to bake them into its core algorithm, said Rob Marsden, head of SEO at digital and search marketing agency Search Laboratory.
“What this means for brands is that no longer will Google be making announcements or comments about any future updates to Penguin,” he said. “A key takeaway here is to ensure that somebody is actively monitoring organic traffic levels and looking out for unusual patterns – it will not be sufficient to check traffic levels around the dates of Penguin announcements as these will cease to exist.”
Steven Harris, director of SEO at digital performance marketing agency DAC Group, agreed SEO is less set-and-forget now than ever. Rankings can change as soon as Google updates its information about a page – or a page’s competitors, he noted.
“Site owners will want to consider setting up automated reports and email alerts to keep them appraised of any significant changes to their organic traffic moving forward. And keep a closer eye on their competitors' rankings,” Harris added.
2. PENGUIN 4.0 IS MORE GRANULAR – AND DEVALUES SPAMMY LINKS INSTEAD OF DEMOTING ENTIRE SITES
It means punishments aren’t quite as bad.
Or, as Meyers put it, Penguin 4.0 is a “kinder, gentler Penguin.”
That’s because previous Penguin releases were punitive, punishing entire sites for manipulative link-building for months at a time at best, Meyers said.
Marsden agreed the original Penguin “changed the game” because bad links were no longer just ineffective, but could actually harm sites.
“The new Penguin devalues manipulative links and their target pages selectively,” Meyers added. “Those spammy links won't provide benefit, but they won't bring down an entire site.”
Danny Watkinson, SEO consultant and digital marketing manager at SEO consultancy Dijitul, called these penalties “micro, not macro.”
“Should you find yourself in a situation whereby you run so afoul of Penguin that demotion does happen, it will now be on a page-by-page basis, rather than the entire site being dropped,” Watkinson added.
And, per Michael Heiligenstein, director of SEO at small business resource site Fit Small Business, this is because Google has realized many spam links are simply out of a site’s control. And while it is important for search marketers to try to get spammy links and sites disavowed, Heiligenstein said, “With this new update, it seems like Google won’t be penalizing sites for links they have no control over.”
It means it is harder to track changes.
At the same time, Penguin’s more granular nature means SEO problems may be less obvious and harder to track, Harris said. That means brands need to ensure they are conducting more thorough and regular audits and reporting.
Cierniakoski said it will indeed be much more difficult to isolate Penguin’s impact – which underscores the importance of operating within Google’s guidelines.
Marsden agreed sites must make sure someone is actively monitoring organic traffic – and that brands are smart about how data is analyzed to reveal insights.
“Making use of analytics features such as content groupings is a good start as it will show traffic levels across groups of pages as opposed to individual URLs, although this is also important,” Marsden said. “Use Google Search Console and rank tracking software to look for page- and keyword-level issues.”
It means negative SEO is less likely.
Another result of devaluing spammy links is decreasing the power of negative SEO. So, if a competitor maliciously points low-quality links at a site, the problematic links won’t cause a site-wide penalty.
“Let’s say I point 100,000 spammy links at a competitor,” Gabe said. “In the past, when Google crafted its first version of Penguin, that could happen….now with 4.0, instead of penalizing the site, it will remove the value from the spammy links, which negates [negative] SEO in theory, which is brilliant. To me, one of the big factors in why it took so long to see the update is I think they saw collateral damage when testing and finally came up with the idea to just devalue links instead of penalizing sites and domains.”
3. SITES CAN STILL GET HIT WITH MANUAL PENALTIES – AND DISAVOWING BAD LINKS MAY NO LONGER BE NECESSARY
At the same time, Meyers noted the new Penguin is not a free-for-all.
“If you're thinking about taking advantage of the kinder, gentler Penguin, remember that Penguin wasn't the first link-based penalty baked into the algorithm,” Meyers said. “Google will also still take manual actions against bad links. There are plenty of risks to manipulative link-building and none of that has gone away.”
Indeed, in an exchange between Gary Illyes, webmaster trends analyst at Google, and Search Engine Land News Editor Barry Schwartz, Illyes wrote, “Manual actions are still there, so if we see someone systematically trying to spam, the manual actions team might take a harsher action against the site.”
It means there’s lingering uncertainty about disavowing.
Per Gabe, Google’s disavow links tool allows webmasters to ask Google not to take certain low-quality links into account when assessing their sites and, in the wake of Penguin 4.0, many sites are wondering if disavow files/links are still necessary and “Google has commented in a weird way, initially saying they [wouldn’t] still be needed…but now saying they should probably still use them.”
In other words, if Google devalues spammy links, Gabe noted it negates the value of using a disavow file, but he “would lean toward still using [it] if [a site] saw spammy links as a problem.”
Brock Murray, COO at SEO and PPC firm seoplus+, agreed sites should continue to use the Google disavow tool if required but “it's not as important as it once was from what I've read.”
“We won't know more about this until we do more testing,” Murray added. “But there is contention as to whether or not disavow is important anymore.”
“Google has been unclear whether the changes in the latest version of Penguin simply do a better job of ignoring webspam or whether it will further penalize individual pages seemingly trying to benefit from this tactic,” Harris said. “Either way, we're recommending website owners periodically monitor their backlinks list…and utilize the standard Google-prescribed method to disavow any suspicious links.”
Per Josh Patterson, senior SEO director at digital marketing agency Jellyfish, this very topic has been a recurring theme throughout recent client conversations.
“Some might think that since links no longer hurt a website from an algorithmic standpoint, wouldn’t it make sense to remove the disavow file in order to see if any uplift can be had?” Patterson said. “While this is a decent idea in theory, the one factor that isn’t considered is the fact that manual review and penalization can still occur. By removing links from a disavow file, in essence those links are once again subject to review and while a website might not see any loss in visibility from doing so from an algorithm perspective, they could be setting themselves up for manual action without knowing.”
4. GOOD LINKS STILL MATTER – AND WE MAY SEE NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR LINK BUILDING
And, Meyers noted, even after bad links are devalued, many sites may find they have nothing left providing value, which is also problematic.
“If so many of your links are devalued that there's nothing of any quality left, you're not going to be better off under the new Penguin's regime,” Meyers said.
Cierniakoski noted while Penguin won’t attack a site directly, the loss of offsite authority can manifest as a loss of keyword rankings. This also means Penguin is more likely to only impact a subset of keywords or pages rather than an entire site.
“While Google is continually making changes to its algorithm to improve user experience, there is no indication that links will be valued any less as a ranking factor moving forward,” said Chris Rodgers, CEO of SEO agency Colorado SEO Pros. “In fact, links could become more important as Google refines search results and is able to effectively remove spammers from the equation.”
Further, Kerry Dean, chief traffic officer at digital marketing agency PMG, said he is curious as to how link-building methods and tactics will change in the near future.
“From some initial research, it appears that many SEOs think this new Penguin update could actually open up some new opportunities for link builders,” Dean said. “It's ironic to think that an update like Penguin 4.0 could provide new opportunities for link building. The game of cat and mouse continues.”
For his part, Jacob Stoops, associate director of SEO at digital agency Razorfish, said the update will likely lead to a rise in SEO-related link building as it seems to mitigate the potential long-term risks of a manual penalty.
“Google knows the difference between good and bad links and this Penguin update will most likely put an end to the negative impacts of spam that we all see on a daily basis,” added Sam Wheeler, SEO project manager at digital marketing firm Inseev Interactive.
Indeed, Dean noted when Google updates its algorithms, PMG clients tend to see ranking improvements as Google continues to reward solid content and exceptional user experience with higher organic rankings.
However, Michael Bertini, search marketing expert at digital marketing agency iQuanti, said the latest Penguin update may also negatively impact local SEO, particularly among small businesses.
“Many people used small blogging sites to build links and as the demand grew for link building, these small blogging sites eventually became somewhat of a link farm where they would sell links under the books,” Bertini said. “Though search engines have always denounced unnatural links as poor quality links, the greatest hit comes with Penguin 4.0. With 4.0, if you had links from those sites, then chances are you could've lost local rankings as well. With that, companies may need to retrace their steps and audit their link-building campaign to lessen local SEO impact, but the only way to know which links are poor quality is through a manual check.”