The Google Penguin

Over the last 5 or so years, we’ve learned a lot about Google Penguin. Some call it an “update” others call it a “change” a”penalty” an”action” or even an “algorithmic shift.” Whatever you decide to call it, Google Penguin has changed the way we look at Google search results, and how we as SEO’s do our jobs.

The Google Penguin update targets websites and SEO’s who used blackhat or spammy backlinks that are in violation of their guidelines to game Google’s results and achieve higher rankings. It is one of 200 signals that Google uses to determine rankings. Initially released in 2012, it was launched in a response to the massive amounts of websites that were gaming Google’s system by buying backlinks and creating them with robots.

Google Penguin Update History

  • Penguin #1 – April 2012
  • Penguin #2 – May 2012
  • Penguin #3 – October 2012
  • Penguin #4 – May 2013
  • Penguin #5 – October 2013
  • Penguin #6 – October 2014
  • Penguin #7 – September 2016

Upon the release of the last Google Penguin update around September 2016, Google announced officially that the Penguin update is now real time would now be rolled into the main Google algorithm, and there would be no more major updates. This means no more waiting for updates to happen, changes will happen much faster.

How Google Penguin Works

Google Penguin targets websites that have built spammy backlinks in an effort to game Google’s results and achieve higher rankings. Google’s algorithm scores each website on many different ranking factors. Some of these are known such as website speed and HTTPs, others are lesser known. To give you an idea of the type of backlinks Google Penguin targets, here are some examples of backlinks:

  • coming from low quality websites
  • that have the same, or similar anchor text
  • were obviously built using a bot or tool
  • that were paid for or incentivized
  • that come from strange countries
  • that were built in high quantity in a short period of time
  • from questionable countries

As Google crawls each of a websites backlinks, Penguin scores it based on quality. If you’ve reached a low enough threshold, your website will be penalized until you can clean it up. In what is quite possibly the most famous example of webspam, Google gave used this as an example of a tactic that would be targeted by Google Pengui

It has been said by Google in a live video that the Google algorithm “labels” your links, which is a great way to think about backlinks mentally. They gave a few examples such as:

  • footer links
  • links that were disavowed
  • Penguin impacted links

The easiest way to understand how Google Penguin works is to look at the “link schemes” section of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. They spell out in detail the types of link schemes which could negatively impact your website:

  • buying or selling do-follow links
  • exchanging links
  • large scale article marketing
  • advertorials
  • advertisements that contain do-follow links
  • forum comments or blog posts containing links
  • links in footer or templates (site wide)

It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out what “negatively impact” means. If you have enough of these links pointing to your site, you will probably lose rankings in Google.

There are times when some of these backlinks or websites might not be easily identified by the human eye. In the past few years, spammers have gotten very good at making blackhat links look like whitehat. This has been a big challenge for Google, as many SEO’s are writing high quality content and using them on low quality sites, dropped domains, and private blog networks. It is a constant cat and mouse game: Google launches a new update, SEO’s respond with a new tactic, Google responds with an update to target that tactic.

Being Penalized by Google Penguin

If Google has determined that your website has spammy backlinks, you may have one of these actions applied to your website. Many SEO’s simply call this a penalty, as it will reduce your rankings in Google and cause a loss of traffic. For example, in 2013 Google penalized Rap Genius (now known as Genius) for being involved in a link scheme. We tracked their rankings and found that the dozen or so keywords that we tracked, all dropped 4-6 pages in Google:

This was a really high profile Google penalty, and brought a lot of attention to both Google Penguin and Rap Genius.

Since then, a lot has changed about the way Google penalizes a website as a result of Google Penguin. For example, in the past Google would (mostly) penalize an entire website. As of 2016 Google announced that penalties would be more granular. While they didn’t go into detail of what this means, Gary Illyes of Google did say Google Penguin has gotten a lot “nicer” in the fact that:

  • it now updates in real time
  • it ignores spam instead of using it as a ranking factor
  • it is more granular, and won’t penalize entire sites as often

Once you’ve been penalized by Google penguin, your rankings will drop and as a result your traffic will drop as well.

Google Penguin Recovery

Many guides and eBooks have been written on Google Penguin recovery. In fact, and entire industry has spawned dedicated to recovering from Google’s penalties. Recovering from Penguin boils down to the following:

  • identifying all links pointing to your site
  • figuring out which ones are “bad”
  • removing or no-following the links are are able to
  • disavowing the links you aren’t able to remove

Once this is done, Google Penguin will re-crawl your website and make a determination based on the changes you’ve made. Up until 2016, this would take months or even up to a year or more in some cases. Google Penguin used to only refresh once or twice per year. Now, Google Penguin is ‘real time’ and updates much faster. This is a two-sided sword. Recovery from Google Penguin can happen much quicker, but being penalized can also happen quicker as well.

Here we see a Tweet from the well renowned Aleyda Solis of a Penguin Recovery from January 2017:

Here you can see a sharp traffic drop off about a year or more ago, and then a huge recovery between October and January of 2016 and 17.

One of the best tools to help recover from a Google Penguin action is Google’s Disavow tool. We’ve written an entire guide on how to use the Google disavow tool. In short, you identify which backlinks are spammy, and feed it into the Google disavow tool. Google will then devalue these links.

One important thing to note with Penguin recovery and the Google disavow Tool: Once these links have been devalued, you probably won’t bounce back to the rankings you once had. Since the Google algorithm no longer values them, they won’t be used to boost your site in the rankings. In order to gain those rankings back, you’ll need to find new high quality links. You must resist the temptation to build new spammy backlinks. Google gives much harsher penalties to multiple offenders.