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The Complete Guide to Google's Penguin Algorithm Update

The Penguin Algorithm update has drastically changed SEO as Google targets web spam and manipulative link building tactics.This is a complete history.

In 2012, Google officially launched the "Spam Spam Algorithm Update", which specifically targets link spam and manipulative link building behavior.

The webspam algorithm was later (officially) known as the Penguin Algorithm Update, via a tweet from Matt Cutts, who was then the head of Google's webspam team.While Google officially named the algorithm Penguin, there is no official word on where the name came from.

The name of the Panda algorithm comes from one of the key engineers involved, and Penguin likely came from a similar source.One of my favorite penguin naming theories is that it pays homage to the penguin in DC's Batman.

Before the Penguin algorithm, link volume played a bigger role in determining a page's score when Google crawls, indexes, and analyzes it.

This means that when sites are ranked based on these scores of search results pages, some low-quality sites and content appear more prominently in organic search results.

Why you need Google Penguin

Google's war on low quality begins with the Panda algorithm, and Penguin is an extension and addition to the arsenal for fighting that war.

Penguin is Google's response to the growing practice of manipulating search results (and rankings) through black hat link building techniques.Speaking at the SMX Advanced 2012 conference, Cutts said:

We see it as content designed to address low-quality content.It started with Panda, and then we noticed that there was still a lot of spam, and Penguin was designed to address that.

The goal of this algorithm is to better control and reduce the effectiveness of many black hat spam techniques.

By better understanding and dealing with the types of links that websites and webmasters receive, Penguin works to ensure that natural, authoritative, and relevant links reward the sites they point to, while lowering the ratings for manipulative and spammy links.

Penguin only handles incoming links to websites.Google only looks at links to related sites, not outgoing links to that site.

Initial release and impact

When Penguin first launched in April 2012, it affected more than 4 percent of search results, according to Google's own estimates.


Penguin 2.0, the fourth update to the algorithm (including the first release), was released in May 2013 and affected about 5% of queries.

Critical Google Penguin Updates and Refreshes

Since the introduction of the Penguin algorithm in 2012, there have been many updates and refreshes, and possibly a few other tweaks that have gone down in history as unknown algorithm updates..

Google Penguin 1.1: March 2012, 3

This is not a change to the algorithm itself, but the first refresh of the data in it.

In this case, the sites that were initially affected by the release proactively cleaned their link profiles and saw some recovery, while other sites not caught by Penguin the first time saw the impact.

Google Penguin 1.2: 2012,10, October 5

This is another data refresh.It affects English queries as well as international queries.

Google Penguin 2.0,2013, May 5, 22

This is a technically more advanced version of the Penguin algorithm, changing how the algorithm affects search results.

Penguin 2.0 affected about 2.3% of queries in English, as well as other languages.

This is also the first update of Penguin, which goes deeper than the website homepage and top category pages for evidence that link spam is being directed to the website.

Google Penguin 2.1: March 2013, 10

The only update for Penguin 2.0 (2.1) was on October 10th of the same year.It affects about 1% of queries.

Although there is no official explanation from Google, the data shows that the 2.1 data refresh also further improved Penguin's view of the site and crawls the site more deeply, and conducts further analysis on whether it contains spam links.

Google Penguin 3.0: 2014,10, October 17

Although this is named a major update, in reality, this is another data refresh;Those who were affected by previous updates were allowed to show up and recover, while many others who continued to practice spam linking, and had escaped the radar of previous effects, saw the impact.

Googler Pierre Far confirmed this via a post on his Google+ profile, and that the update will take "a few weeks" to fully roll out.

Far also said the update affected less than 1 percent of English-language search queries.

Google Penguin 4.0: September 2016,

Nearly two years after the 3.0 update, the final update to the Penguin algorithm has been launched.

The biggest change in this iteration is that Penguin becomes part of the core algorithm.

When an algorithm goes beyond being part of the core, it does not mean that the function of the algorithm has changed or may change drastically again.This means that Google's view of the algorithm has changed, not the algorithm itself.

Now running in parallel with the core, Penguin evaluates websites and links in real time.This means you can (reasonably) see the immediate impact of your link building or repair work.

The new Penguin also didn't close the door when it came to issuing link-based penalties, but devalued the link itself.This is in stark contrast to previous Penguin iterations where negatives were penalized.

That being said, research, and from personal experience, the algorithmic penalties associated with backlinks still exist.

Data published by SEO professionals such as Michael Cottam, and the removal of algorithmic downgrades by rejecting files after Penguin 4.0 have reinforced this belief.

Google Penguin algorithm downgrade

Soon after the Penguin Algorithm was launched, webmasters and brands that used manipulative link building techniques or populated their backlink profiles with lots of low-quality links started seeing their organic traffic and rankings drop.

Not all Penguin downgrades are site-wide - some are partial, affecting only certain groups of heavily spammed and over-optimized keywords, such as key products and, in some cases, even brands.

Penguin's effects can also be passed between domains, so changing domains and redirecting old domains to new ones can cause more problems in the long run.

Experiments and research have shown that using 301 or 302 redirects will not eliminate the effects of Penguin, and on the Google Webmaster Forum, John Mueller confirmed that using a meta refresh from one domain to a new domain can also lead to complications.

In general, we recommend against using meta-refresh type redirects, as this can lead to confusion for users (and search engine crawlers, who might mistake it for an attempted redirect).

Google Penguin Recovery

Rejection tools have always been an SEO practitioner's asset, and that hasn't changed even with Penguin's existence as part of the core algorithm.

As you might expect, there has been some published research and theory that, in fact, denying links doesn't help link-based algorithm degradation and manual manipulation, but this theory has been publicly attacked by Google representatives.

Having said that, Google recommends that the disavow tool should only be used as a last resort when dealing with spam, since disavowing a link is much easier than submitting a reconsideration request for a good link (which is a faster process).

what to include in the reject file

A disavow file is a file you submit to Google that tells them to ignore any links contained in the file so that it doesn't affect your site in any way.As a result, negative links will no longer cause negative ranking issues for your site like Penguin, but it also means that if you include high-quality links by mistake in your disavowal file, those links will no longer help your site ranking.

You do not need to include any comments in the rejection file unless they are strictly for your reference.Just including the link and nothing else is fine.

Google won't read any comments you make in the disavow file, as they will automatically process it without a human needing to read it.Some people find it useful to add internal symbols, such as adding a set of URLs to the date of the disavowal file, or comments about their attempt to contact the webmaster for a link removal.

After uploading the rejection file, Google will send you a confirmation.But while Google will take care of it right away, it won't discount those links right away.So you don't immediately recover from a separate commit denial.

Google still needs to go out and crawl those individual links you include in the disavow file, but the disavow file itself doesn't prompt Google to crawl those pages specifically.

Also, it's impossible to tell which links are discounted and which aren't, as Google will still include both links in Google Search Console's link report.

If you previously submitted a rejection file to Google, they will replace it with your new file instead of adding to it.Therefore, it is important to ensure that if you have disavowed links before, you will still include them in your new disavowal file.You can always download a copy of the current disapproval file in Google Search Console.

Deny individual links and domains

It is recommended that you choose to disavow links at the domain level rather than disavow individual links.

In some cases, you will need to disavow individual specific links, such as on major sites where quality links are mixed with paid links.

But for most links, you can do domain-based rejection.

Google can discount the link on your site by simply crawling a page on that site.

Doing domain-based disavowals also means you don't have to worry about those links being indexed as www or non-www, as domain-based disavowals will take that into account.

Find backlinks

If you suspect that your site has been negatively affected by Penguin, you need to conduct a link audit and remove or reject low-quality or spam links.

Google Search Console includes a list of backlinks for site owners, but please note that it also includes broken links.If a link is nofolled, it won't have any effect on your site, but keep in mind that the site may remove the nofollow in the future without notice.

There are also many third-party tools that will show links to your site, but since some sites prevent these third-party bots from crawling their site, it won't be able to show you every link to your site.While some of the sites that block these bots are high-quality, well-known sites that don't want to waste bandwidth on these bots, it's also used by some spammy sites to hide their low-quality links from being reported.

Monitoring backlinks is also an essential task because sometimes the industry we work in is not entirely honest and negative SEO attacks can occur.At this point, competitors will buy spam links and point them to your site.

Many people use "negative SEO" as an excuse when their site gets caught by Google with low quality links.However, Google says they're pretty good at recognizing this when it happens, so it's not something most site owners need to worry about.

It also means it's a good idea to proactively use the rejection feature without clear signs of algorithmic penalties or notifications for manual action.

Interestingly, however, a SEJ poll in September found that 38% of SEOs never deny backlinks.Going through the backlink profile and scrutinizing each linking domain to see if it's the link you want is no easy task.

link removal outreach

Google recommends that you first try to contact the source site and webmaster of the bad link and request that it be removed before you start denying it.

Some website owners demand payment to remove links.Google recommends never paying for link removal.Just include these links in your disavow file and go to the next link to delete.

While outreach is an effective way to recover from link-based punishment, it's not always necessary.The Penguin algorithm also takes into account the entire link profile, as well as the number of high-quality, natural links versus the number of spam links.

While the algorithm may still affect you in the case of partial penalties (affecting over-optimized keywords), the basics of backlink maintenance and monitoring should put you at ease.

Some webmasters even include "terms" in their site's terms and conditions and actively promote sites that they believe should not be linked to.

Evaluate link quality

Many people have trouble evaluating link quality.

Don't assume a link is high quality just because it comes from a .edu site.Many students sell links from their personal websites on those .edu domains, which are spammy and should be rejected.Likewise, there are tons of hacked sites with low-quality links in the .edu domain.

Don't make judgments based strictly on the type of domain name.While you can't make automatic assumptions about .edu domain names, the same applies to all TLDs and ccTLDs.

Google has confirmed that it doesn't help or hurt search rankings just on specific TLDs.But you do need to make a personal assessment.

There's a long joke about .info domains that never had quality pages because so many spammers were using them, but in reality, there were some quality links from that TLD, which shows Why personal evaluation of links is so important.

Beware of links from supposedly high-quality sites

Don't look at link lists and automatically consider links from a specific site to be high-quality, unless you know a very specific link is high-quality.Just because you have a link from a major site like the Huffington Post or the BBC doesn't make it an automatic high-quality link in Google's eyes - if anything, you should question it more.

Many of these sites are also selling links, although some are masquerading as advertisements or by rogue contributors selling links in their articles.These types of links from high-quality sites are actually low-quality and have been confirmed by many SEOs who have received a link playbook action that includes links from these sites in Google's example.Yes, they likely contributed to the penguin issue.

As ad content increases, we will see more and more of these links being flagged as low quality.Always investigate links, especially if you're considering removing any of them based solely on the website they're on.

Promotional link

As with editorial ads, you need to consider any links the website may have to you that may be viewed as promotional links.Paid links don't always mean exchanging money for links.

In Google's eyes, an example of a promotional link that is technically a paid link is any link offered in exchange for a free product for review or a product discount.While these types of links were fine a few years ago, they need to be searched now.You still get the value of links, but not through brand awareness and traffic to help rank.You may have links from promotions that were done years ago that are now negatively impacting the site.

For all these reasons, it is critical to evaluate each segment individually.You want to remove poor quality links because they affect Penguin or may lead to manual action in the future.But you don't want to delete good links because those links help you rank in search results.

Promotional links that are not unsearched can also trigger manual action on outgoing links on the site where they are placed.

Can't see the penguin's recovery?

Sometimes, after webmasters have gone to great lengths to clean up their link profiles, they still don't see an increase in traffic or rankings.

There are many possible reasons behind this, including:

  • The initial traffic and ranking boost seen before the algorithmic penalty is unreasonable (probably short-term) and comes from bad backlinks.
  • When links are removed, no effort is made to gain new backlinks of greater value.
  • Not all negative backlinks are negative / A high enough percentage of negative backlinks have been removed.
  • First of all, this question is not link based.

When you recover from Penguin, don't expect your ranking to go back to where it was before Penguin, and don't expect to recover immediately.Too many website owners have the impression that once Penguin is lifted, they will immediately start ranking high for their top search queries.

First, some of the links you deny may result in artificially high rankings, so you can't expect those rankings to be as high as they used to be.

Second, since many website owners struggle to assess the quality of links, some high-quality links that contribute to higher rankings are inevitably denied in the process.

Plus Google is constantly changing their ranking algorithm, so what used to be in your favor may not have as much of an impact now, and vice versa.

Google Penguin Myths and Misconceptions

One of the great things about the SEO industry and the people involved is that it is a very active and vibrant community, with new theories and experimental results being published online every day.

Of course, this has led to a lot of myths and misconceptions about Google's algorithm.Penguins are no exception.

Here are some of the myths and misconceptions we've seen about the Penguin algorithm over the years.

Rumor: Penguins are a punishment

One of the biggest myths about the Penguin algorithm is that people call it punishment (or manual action as Google calls it).

Penguin is strictly algorithmic in nature.It cannot be manually lifted by Google.

While both algorithm changes and penalties can lead to a massive drop in website rankings, there are some pretty huge differences between them.

Penalties (or manual actions) are applied when a member of Google's webspam team responds to a flag, investigates, and deems it necessary to impose a penalty on the domain.You will be notified via Google Search Console about this manual action.

When you run into manual actions, not only do you need to review your backlinks and submit rejections for spam that violates Google's guidelines, but you also need to submit a re-review request to the Google Spam Team.

If successful, the fine will be revoked, if unsuccessful, it will return to reviewing the backlink profile.

The Penguin downgrade happened without the involvement of a Google team member.This is all done algorithmically.

Previously, you had to wait for a refresh or algorithm update, but now Penguin runs in real-time, so recovery can happen faster (if enough repair work has been done).

Rumor: Google will notify you if Penguin clicks on your site

Another myth about the Google Penguin algorithm is that you will be notified if the algorithm is applied.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.Search Console will not notify you that your ranking has dropped due to Penguin's app.

Again, this shows the difference between an algorithm and a penalty – if you get hit by a penalty, you'll be notified.However, the process of recovery from a penguin is very similar to recovery from punishment.

Rumor: Denying bad links is the only way to reverse a Penguin hit

While this strategy will remove many low-quality links, it is time-consuming and can be a waste of resources.

Google Penguin looks at the percentage of good links compared to spam.

So instead of focusing on manually removing these low-quality links, focus on increasing the number of quality links your site has.This will have a better effect on the percentages considered by penguins.

Rumor: You can't recover from penguins

Yes, you can recover from penguins.

It's possible, but it requires some experience dealing with the vagaries of Google's algorithm.

The best way to get rid of Penguin's negativity is to forget all existing links on your site and start getting original editorial links.

The more of these quality links you get, the easier it will be to free your site from Penguin's control.

Extended reading:

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Core Web Vitals as a Google Ranking Factor: What You Need to Know

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