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Everything You Must Understand About the Google Penguin Update

Learn about the Google Penguin Update and the complete history of it's algorithm, and how it affects SEO best practices.

Google Penguin Update

Learn about the complete history of Google’s Penguin algorithm and how it affected SEO practice.

The Penguin algorithm was released by Google ten years ago, and since then, the link-building approaches have become less common. Over the years, the algorithm has been updated several times, and now it is an integral part of Google’s algorithm. Penalties are still present, albeit less frequently than before, and may be either partial or complete.

Google says it usually ignores many poor-quality links online. However, it is still vigilant for unnatural patterns such as link schemes, private blog networks, link exchanges, and unnatural outbound linking behavior.

Penguin Algorithm Introduction

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Google officially launched the “webspam algorithm update” in 2012 to fight against link spam and manipulative link-building techniques. Matt Cutts, head of the Google webspam team, later dubbed the Penguin update algorithm.

There is no explanation of where the name Penguin came from for Google’s algorithm, but there is a good chance that it came from the same source as Panda’s name, which came from one of the engineers involved with it.

Penguin naming theory is one of my favorites because it references The Penguin from Batman DC.

Before the Penguin algorithm, link quantity had a more substantial influence on a website’s ranking when Google crawled, indexed, and evaluated them. Because some low-quality websites and content received higher rankings on organic search results pages than they should have, link volume played a more significant part in determining a website’s ranking.


Search results pages ranked websites and pieces of content using these scores, and some low-quality websites appeared in more prominent positions than they should have, resulting in these scores being used to rank websites.

What Drove Google To Create Penguin?

Google’s only tool to eradicate poor-quality content has been the Panda algorithm. In addition, the Penguin algorithm was created to help stop the same thing. The Penguin algorithm was created to prevent black hat link building, which has become popular recently. Cutts said at the SMX Advanced 2012:

“We conceived of Penguin as a way to target low-quality content. Panda was the first such tool; afterward, we noticed that spam was still prevalent.”

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Penguin was created to reduce the number of spammy links by refining the method by which websites and web admins earn links. Penguin observes how links are earned and processed to downrate manipulative and spammy ones to ensure that natural, authoritative, and relevant links are rewarded.

Google looks at the site’s incoming links but not the outgoing ones. Penguin only looks at the site’s incoming links.

The Initial Launch and Impact

Google estimated that Penguin affected over 3% of search results when Penguin was first released in April 2012.

In May 2013, Penguin 2.0, the algorithm’s fourth revision (including the initial release), impacted about 2.3% of all queries. On release, Penguin was said to oppose two specific deceits, particularly link schemes and keyword stuffing.

In general, link schemes categorize manipulative link-building techniques, including exchanges, paid links, and other unnatural link tactics described in Google’s link scheme documentation. The initial Penguin release also targeted keyword stuffing. A practice that has since become connected with the Panda algorithm (considered a content and site quality algorithm).

Major Google Penguin Updates And Refreshes

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Penguin has seen many updates and improvements since it was first released in 2012 and potentially several other undocumented algorithm updates.

  • March 26, 2012: Google released Penguin 1.1.

Google was refreshing its data for the first time since the Penguin algorithm launched. Websites that had previously been affected and had cleaned up their link profiles were seeing some recovery, while others that were missed the first time around saw an impact.

  • October 5, 2012: Google launched Penguin 1.2.

The English language, as well as international queries, were affected by this data refresh.

  • May 22, 2013: Google Penguin 2.0 was released.

Penguin 2.0 was a more sophisticated version of the Penguin algorithm, and it changed how the algorithm affected search results. Around 2.3% of English queries were affected, as well as other languages proportionately. This was the first Penguin update that looked beyond the website homepage and top-level category pages for evidence of link spam being directed to the website.

  • October 4, 2013: Google Penguin 2.1 was released.

Google provided no official explanation for the refresh to Penguin 2.0 (2.1) on October 4 of the same year. Still, data suggests that the 2.1 data refresh improved how deeply Penguin inspected websites and crawled further and whether spammy links were present. 1% of queries were affected.

  • October 17, 2014: Google launched Penguin 3.0.

Google+ user Pierre Far revealed in a post that although this update was marketed as a significant innovation, it was, in fact, another data refresh. Those harmed by previous updates could escape and recover, while many others who had used spammy link practices and had evaded the previous impacts saw an impact. Far said it took “a few weeks” to disseminate fully. Less than 1% of English search queries were affected by this update, Far said.

  • September 23, 2016: Google launched Penguin 4.0.

Penguin’s last update was released almost two years after the 3.0 refresh. The most significant alteration with this version was that Penguin became a component of the fundamental algorithm. When an algorithm becomes an integral part, it does not imply that its functionality will be altered or changed significantly.

Penguin runs with the core, monitoring websites and connections in real-time. You can see reasonably immediate results from your link building or rehabilitation efforts. This indicates that Google’s perspective on the algorithm has altered, not the algorithm itself.

Penguin Version 4 was less generous in devaluing backlinks than the previous Penguin updates, which penalized the backlinks themselves. Although link-based penalties are still prevalent, they still exist, according to research and my personal experience. Seeing SEO professionals’ data (for example, Michael Cottam’s) and algorithmic downgrades through disavow files lifted after Penguin 4.0 reinforces this notion.

Algorithmic Downgrades of the Google Penguin

Web admins and brands that had used manipulative link-building methods or filled their backlink profiles with copious amounts of low-quality links soon noticed a drop in organic traffic and rankings after the Penguin algorithm was released. Not all Penguin downgrades were site-wide—some were partial and affected certain keyword groups that had been heavily spam and over-optimized, such as essential products and, in some cases, even brands.

It has been found through research and experimentation that Penguin’s impact cannot be eliminated using a 301 or 302 redirect and that problems may arise if domains are switched. The old one was redirected to the new one. John Mueller of Google Webmasters Forum concurred that using meta refreshes from one domain might cause issues.

“Meta-refresh redirects should generally be avoided, as they could mislead users (and search engine spiders, who might mistake them for an attempt at redirecting). “

Read next: The Significance of Google’s May 2022 Fast Core Update.

Recovery from Google Penguin

Even though Penguin is now a component of Google’s main algorithm, the disavow tool has still been an asset to SEO practitioners. Reports and theories have been published arguing that disavowing links does not help with link-based algorithmic downgrades or manual penalties, but Google employees have publicly dismissed this theory.

Google recommends that the disavow tool be used only as a last resort when fighting link spam. Disavowing a link is far less time-consuming (and more effective) than seeking reconsideration for worthy links.

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A Disavow File Must Have

To remove all of the wrong links from damaging your website, you can provide Google with a disavow file, which tells them to ignore all of the links in the file. Because of this, Penguin, for example, will no longer negatively impact your website rankings.

However, too many quality links in your disavow file will no longer benefit your rankings. You may include notes in your disavow file for reference, but not for other purposes. You may include links alone or not include anything at all.

Google processes the disavow file without ever reading it, so don’t bother including notes about when URLs were included or how to contact the webmaster about getting a link removed. Some find it helpful to include internal notes.

After you’ve submitted your disavow file, Google will send you a confirmation. However, Google will not immediately discount those links until the disavow file has been processed. Google will still have to crawl those individual links you included in the disavow file, but the disavow file itself won’t prompt Google to crawl those pages. Therefore, submitting the disavow file won’t instantly recuperate you.

Unfortunately, Google Search Console still reports discounted and non-discounted links, so there is no way to determine which ones have been discounted.

Google will replace your old disavow file with your new one if you’ve submitted one. Thus, be sure to include any previously disavowed links in your new disavow file if you’ve previously disavowed links.

Google Search Console always provides a current disavow file download.

Domains vs. Disavowing Individual Links

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Choose to disavow links on a domain level rather than individual links, as long as there are some exceptions where you would want to disavow individual links. For example, you would want to disavow individually specific links on a significant website with quality and paid links.

Google will discount a link on your site based on a domain-level disavowal for most links. However, Google must crawl one page on that site to discount the link on your site.

When using domain-based disavows, you do not have to worry about links being indexed as www or non-www, as the domain-based disavow considers this.

How To Find Your Backlinks

A link audit and removal or disavowal of low-quality or spammy links may be necessary if you think your site has been negatively impacted by Penguin.

The Google Search Console backlink catalog lets site owners see all the links to their site, but be cautious because it also includes nofollowed links. Whether a link is followed has no impact on your website. However, be mindful that the site may remove the nofollow without warning at some point.

Some websites block third-party bots from crawling their site, so they cannot show you every link to your website. Some high-quality, well-known sites refuse to waste bandwidth on those bots, but some spammy websites use this technique to conceal their low-quality links.

In addition to monitoring backlinks, it’s essential to stay on top of any negative SEO attacks since our industry is not always honest. Many people refer to ‘negative SEO’ as the reason behind their site being caught by Google for having poor links. When your site gets caught by Google for having spammy links, your competitor may have purchased them and pointed them to your site.

On the other hand, Google is pretty good at spotting this type of issue, so most website owners do not need to worry about it. Consequently, it is a good idea to proactively use the disavow tool without a clear sign of an algorithmic penalty or a manual action notice.

However, 38% of SEOs maintain that they never disavow backlinks, according to a survey conducted by SEJ in September 2017. Examining a backlink profile and determining whether each linking domain is a link you want or not is not a simple job.

Link Reduction Outreach

Before disavowing wrong links, Google recommends that you attempt to reach out to websites and web admins to request the removal of those links.

Google recommends that you never pay to remove links. Include those links in your disavow file and move on to the following link removal, rather than paying to have them removed.

Link-based penalties can be recovered through outreach, but it is not always necessary.


The Penguin algorithm evaluates the link profile and the proportion of high-quality, natural links versus spammy ones. A penalty may still be applied even if it is only applied to specific over-optimized keywords (Impact). Link maintenance and monitoring should keep you safe.

Some webmasters go so far as to include “terms” within the terms and conditions of their website and actively seek out websites they believe should not be linked to them.

Determining Link Quality

Many people have difficulty evaluating link quality. Please do not assume it is high quality because a link comes from a .edu website. There are plenty of spammy .edu domains on which students sell links from their websites, which should be disavowed.

There are also many hacked sites on .edu domains that have low-quality links. Do not make automatic assumptions about domain types. However, you should not automatically assume all TLDs and ccTLDs, just as you should not with .edu domains.

 

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Google has stated that domain names alone do not impact search rankings. You must, however, examine each case individually. There’s a long-running joke that no quality pages have existed on any .info domains because so many spammers have used them. However, several excellent quality links are coming from that domain, which illustrates the importance of evaluating links individually.

 

Be Careful Of Links From Presumed High-Quality Sites

Be careful when evaluating links from specific websites; just because you have a link from Huffington Post or the BBC doesn’t mean that Google will think it’s a great link. Don’t just look at the list of links; determine whether each link is of high quality.

Those sites also sell links, though some masquerade as advertisements or has rogue contributors selling links in their articles. These kinds of links from high-quality websites have been confirmed by many SEOs as being low-quality, as they have received manual actions that include links from these websites in Google’s examples. Furthermore, they may have contributed to a Penguin issue.

There are also a lot of sites that are selling links, albeit some of them are disguised as advertisements or are being sold by rogue contributors within their articles. Many SEOs have recognized these links from trustworthy sites as low quality precisely due to their inclusion in Google’s link manual actions. It’s also possible that they might contribute to a Penguin issue.

In the future, more links will be flagged as low-quality because of increased advertorial content. Always investigate links, particularly if you plan on keeping any of them just because they are on a reputable site.

Promotional Links

Be careful when using paid links; they may still be considered promotional links. Even if money is not exchanged for the links, paid links are still risky to use.

Google views any link exchange for a free product for review or a discount on products as a paid link. Years ago, such links were acceptable, but now they must be nofollowed.

A link still provides value, but rather than aiding rankings, it provides brand awareness and traffic. For example, you may have links from old promotional campaigns that now hurt a site.

Individual link assessment is vital for all these reasons. You want to remove the poor quality links because they are negatively impacting Penguin or might cause a future manual action, but you don’t want to remove the good links, which are helping your search rankings.

When links are not nofollowed, they can also trigger the manual action for outgoing links on the site.

No Sign Of Penguin Recovery?

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It’s common for webmasters to notice no rise in traffic or rankings after they’ve gone to great lengths to clean up their link profiles. The following are some possible reasons for this:
Before being penalized by the algorithm, the site experienced an unjustified (and likely short-lived) boost in traffic and rankings from bad backlinks.

  • No attempt has been made to obtain higher-quality backlinks once links have been removed.
  • Some harmful backlinks still need to be disavowed/removed, and the proportion of removed links is not high enough.
  • The problem wasn’t based on links, to begin with.

Ranking at the top for your high-traffic keywords right after Penguin is lifted will probably be out of reach. Many site owners erroneously believe they will begin ranking at the top for their most popular terms as soon as Penguin is lifted.

Many site owners have trouble evaluating link quality, so you cannot expect your rankings to be as high as they were before. In addition, since some high-quality links are inevitably disavowed, contributing to higher rankings, you cannot expect everything to be as good as before.

There are several things to consider when optimizing for Google. The first is that Google’s ranking algorithm constantly changes, so things that benefited you before might not be as much now, and vice versa.

Myths and Misconceptions About Google Penguin

It’s lovely to be involved in the SEO industry, as it’s a lively and dynamic community, and new findings and theories are posted online every day. Of course, this has led to several misunderstandings and myths about Google’s algorithms. Penguin is no different.

A few things about the Penguin algorithm have been misunderstood over the years.

It is a myth that Penguin is a penalty. The biggest myth about the Penguin algorithm is that it is an algorithmic adjustment (Google’s term for a manual action). Penguin is purely algorithmic and cannot be removed by Google. Although both algorithmic changes and penalties can result in big website rankings declines, there are some significant differences between them.

When a member of Google’s webspam team responds to a flag, checks, and decides to penalize a website, a penalty (or manual action) occurs. You will receive a notification via Google Search Console relating to this penalty.

In addition to reviewing your backlinks and disavowing the spammy ones that go against Google’s guidelines, you must also submit a reconsideration request to the Google webspam team if you are hit with a manual action. If successful, the penalty will be lifted; if not, you must reconsider your backlink profile.

Penguin downgrades occur without Google team members becoming involved. It is all done algorithmically. Previously, you would have to wait for an update or refresh, but Penguin now operates in real-time, making recoveries happen much faster (if enough remediation work has been accomplished).

It’s a myth that Google will inform you if Penguin hits your site. It is false that the Google Penguin algorithm notifies you when it has been applied. The Search Console won’t notify you if your rankings have dropped as a result of the application of the Penguin.

Algorithms don’t inform you if you’ve been penalized, but Penguin recovery is similar to penalty recovery in that you are notified if you have been penalized.

It is a myth that disavowing Bad Links is the only way to reverse a Penguin Hit. Google Penguin evaluates the proportion of good-quality links versus those of a spammy nature. This approach is an utter waste of time and resources, and it is also time-consuming.

It may be wiser to focus on generating more high-quality links to your website rather than removing the low-quality ones. This will significantly affect Penguin’s percentage more than if you remove them manually.

It’s a myth that you can’t recover from Penguin. Sure, you can recover from Penguin. However, you must be familiar with Google’s unpredictable algorithms.

Instead of trying to remove the Penguin penalty from your website, focus on gaining quality, editorially-given links. By forgetting all of your current links and beginning to gain new ones, you will make it easier to release your website from Penguin’s grasp.

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