The Ultimate Guide to Google Penguin 4.0

Advanced SEO Techniques

It’s now been over a month since Google’s Penguin 4.0 rolled out. Time for the dust to settle and the impact to become clear.

Here’s everything you need to know about Penguin 4.0 and how it’s changing–and will continue to change–the SEO landscape.

What is Google Penguin?

Google’s Penguin is an algorithm update designed to punish sites that engage in black-hat SEO by decreasing their search engine rankings. So, for instance, if an ecommerce site built 10,000 backlinks from a site that sells Viagra, Google will see that and prevent it from ranking for most search queries.

Penguin 1.0 went live on April 24, 2012. Since then we’ve seen Penguin 2.0 (May 22, 2013), Penguin 3.0 (October 18, 2014), and now Penguin 4.0.

Penguin 4.0 To-Date: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

September 23, 2016: Google announces that Penguin 4.0 is live. At this stage, there were three big changes.

  1. Penguin is now real-time. No more getting penalized, submitting a disavow report, and waiting years for a recovery. From Google: “With this change, Penguin’s data is refreshed in real time, so changes will be visible much faster, typically taking effect shortly after we recrawl and reindex a page.”
  2. Penguin is now more granular. It doesn’t just demote whole sites anymore. Instead, according to Google, “it affects finer granularity than sites.” But, they clarified, “(this) does not mean it only affects pages.”What does this mean? Our best guess is that it now targets everything from individual pages to sections of sites. So, if you run a snowsports eCommerce store and build 1,000 Russian backlinks to your snowboards section, Penguin might punish this section of the site; or just a few pages on it. But it’s less likely to punish the whole site.
  3. Because Penguin is now real-time, Google will no longer confirm new Penguin updates. There would be nothing to confirm.

September 28, 2016: The first Penguin recovery stories start rolling in. SEOs who have done the hard work for their clients cheer and pop the champagne.

September 28, 2016: Penguin confirms that it no longer demotes sites.

This is big. Penguin 1-3 used to do two things: a) devalue unnatural links and b) demote sites with spammy link profiles.

Gary Illyes (Webmaster Trends Analyst with Google, and the most public face of Penguin 4.0) confirmed that demotions for Penguin 1-3 have been removed.

In a black-and-white world, this would mean that Penguin now ONLY devalues links. But Google likes shades of grey more than Christian Grey. And while Google Penguin 4.0 may be focused on devaluing links now, that’s not the whole story.

How can that be? See below…..

September 29, 2016: Barry Schwartz reports that Google Penguin 4.0 “devalues” spammy links, rather than “demoting” sites with bad link profiles. In the past, Penguin demoted sites; if your link profile built up enough toxic link signals, you could get slapped with an automatic algorithmic demotion. Now, Penguin just devalues spammy links; essentially they ignore these links, so these links don’t pass any link juice.

To quote Gary Illyes: “Demote as in adjust the ranking of a site. Devalue as in ‘oh look, some crap coming towards this site. Let’s make sure it won’t affect its ranking’”

But this can’t be the whole story, because then Google’s Illyes talks about how there’s “less need” for the disavow report with regards to Penguin 4.0–but not “no need.” That implies that Penguin doesn’t turn a 100% blind eye to spammy backlinks–if it did, why would we still need a disavow?

And, Penguin’s granularity doesn’t make sense if it just ignores links. If Penguin simply “devalues” spammy backlinks, it wouldn’t matter whether it affected whole sites, sections, or individual pages.

Google also keeps saying that other algorithms still target links, and it’s possible that one of these will demote sites with a spammy link profile.

So, what does Illyes’ comment mean? Google’s not a fan of hard-and-fast rules; they love their shades of grey. In this context, it’s likely that Penguin tends to devalue links rather than demote them; but doesn’t stick to this standard 100% of the time. So, the odds of a Penguin penalty may have shrunk, but you may still need to pull out that Disavow report.

October 3, 2016: SEOs see the first Penguin 4.0 ranking drops. It’s unlikely (not impossible) that these are site demotions. What’s more likely, given Gary Illyes’ comments above, is that some powerful but unnatural links were passing link-juice to these sites, and now they’re not (they’re ‘devalued’).

October 3, 2016: SEMRush publishes an excellent piece on how to tell if you’re in a Penguin penalty, and what link-building practices SEOs should now avoid.

October 6, 2016: Gary Illyes confirms that the part of Penguin that devalues unnatural links is indeed running. This helps explain the drops some sites have been seeing.

October 10, 2016: Gary Illyes clarifies what most people already assumed: Penguin mainly targets “link spam,” not “web spam.” When your site gets a link, Penguin looks at where it’s coming from (the “source site”); if it’s coming from a spammy domain (for instance, if empty forum profile pages linked out to you hundreds of times), that’s a red flag.

October 12, 2016: Gary Illyes confirms that Penguin is fully rolled out! If you were in a Penguin penalty and did the work, you should see a recovery. If you haven’t seen a recovery yet, there could be a few reasons for that, as Marie Haynes spells out in a fantastic post about Penguin recoveries.

October 12, 2016: Gary Illyes confirms that all Penguin 1-3 demotions (i.e. penalties) have been lifted. He’s doubling down on his statement from Sept 28, which makes us think Penguin really is lifting all old penalties.

October 14, 2016: Gary Illyes says that if Penguin sees link manipulation, it can discount ALL links (even the good ones) to your site. He may have been talking about a manual action penalty. But if he was actually discussing Penguin, this sounds like a brutal potential penalty, because this would be death for almost any website in the SERPs.

At this point, Google’s statements on Penguin are becoming a puzzle. They devalue links, rather than demote sites; but they’ll de facto demote sites with bad link profiles–maybe. And the Disavow is still a useful tool.

Confused? Never fear, we’ll break it all down in the next section.

October 20, 2016: Gary Illyes confirms there’s no ‘boost’ for not having a Penguin penalty, the way there’s a boost for having HTTPS. This makes sense; Penguin explicitly pushes some sites down, it doesn’t need to also push the rest of the web up. That would be redundant.

How does Penguin 4.0 Affect Me?

Penguin 4.0 Winners

  1. Small Businesses

No two ways about this one. Small businesses, who try to learn SEO on their own and figure out just enough to be dangerous, are the real winners from Penguin 4.0. Before 2016, it was easy for well-intentioned small businesses to end up in a Google Penalty. They’d read online about how they need to be building links for SEO, and then buy a ton of links that sounded good, and BAM! end up in a penalty. From there, they’d have to spend thousands of dollars with a legitimate SEO agency cleaning up their link profile, and then wait months or years for a recovery. All that time, their site would barely rank.

Now, Google’s trying to deal a kinder hand to small businesses. Penguin won’t (generally) put them in Google jail for accidental spam; it will just disregard the spam. This is a big win for small businesses and other DIY SEOs.

  1. DIY SEOs

Let’s be clear: DIY SEO is a bad idea. SEO is a complex field that smart people spend their lives trying to master. If you just read a few Search Engine Land articles and try to SEO your site, it’s probably not going to go well.

But, the more forgiving Penguin 4.0 means you’re unlikely to tank your site (at least by building backlinks). DIY SEO may not help, but it’s less likely to hurt than it was last year.

  1. Legitimate SEOs with Clients in Penguin Jail

Man, have we been waiting for this update! If we’ve done the work, our clients are now shooting back up in the rankings, and are very grateful. This is a great update for legitimate SEO agencies with clients in a penalty.

  1. Companies in Penguin jail

This one’s pretty obvious. For most companies in Penguin jail, the door’s been opened and you’re free to walk. If your rankings are still depressed, it means either a) it wasn’t a Penguin issue, b) you were getting some value from unnatural links, and now you’re not; or c) your link profile is still bad and Google’s cracking down on your site.

  1. Black-Hat SEOs

This one’s unfortunate, but probably true. Penguin 4.0 looks like a kinder, gentler algorithm than Penguin 1-3, which means there may be more room for spam. If we take Gary Illyes at his word and assume that Penguin now just ignores unnatural backlinks, that makes building these backlinks very low-risk. Build 50 bad backlinks, and if 49 are ignored and one passes link-juice, that’s a win.

Now, this isn’t the whole story, because as mentioned above we can’t quite take Gary Illyes at his word. He noted that there’s still some need for a disavow file, and that Penguin now affects pages and sections of sites rather than whole sites–both of which point to the possibility of Penguin demotions.

Penguin can also disavow ALL your links, taking you back to 0 if it sees a pattern of link manipulation. Manual actions also exist. And Google’s core algorithm consists of 200+ factors, some of which target links, and some of which might penalize sites for building unnatural links.

So black-hat link-building is still risky. And, it’s worth noting, spammy SEO is hugely unethical, which should stop people from trying it even if it works. (that’ll convince people, right? Right?)

That said, Penguin was the main cop on the SEO-spam beat for 4 years, and now that cop is publicly announcing a softer stance. This is going to embolden spammers, and potentially with good reason.

Penguin Update Losers

  1. SEOs who specialize in recovery

For the same reason that small businesses who accidentally landed themselves in Penguin jail are Penguin’s winners, SEOs who helped them get out of jail are Google Penguin 4.0’s losers. The fact is that the market for Penguin recoveries just shrank. It still exists, and there are things like manual actions that will always require an elite SEO team to help with recovery–but no denying SEOs who specialize in penalty recovery may have less business, which is bad for them and great for everyone else who doesn’t have to deal with a penalty.

  1. Negative SEO

And a great cheer went up from the SEO community! Negative SEO used to work because a competitor would point thousands of spammy links at your site, and that would trigger a Penguin penalty. Now, it’s much more likely that Google will just ignore those links. It’s not impossible that negative SEO could trigger a penalty, but it’s much less likely; and that means the ROI of negative SEO is going to go down.

And there you have it. Everything you need to know about Penguin 4.0 and how it affects you.

How do I build high-quality links?

Even though spam isn’t as heavily penalized as it used to be, it’s still a bad idea. You should be working hard to build white-hat, high-quality links; what are often referred to as, “editorial” links.

How do you do that? Outreach Mama put together a great list of 51 tools to help make the link-building process easier and more effective.

Do you agree or disagree with our analysis of Penguin 4.0’s winners and losers? Let us know in the comments!

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Chris Rodgers is CEO & Founder of Colorado SEO Pros, a boutique SEO agency providing a suite of inbound marketing services for small and mid-sized organizations. Chris has been working in the SEO and digital marketing industry for over 10 years and aspires to provide a better class of SEO and inbound marketing services to industry leaders across a variety of verticals. Connect with Chris on Twitter.