The seemingly-endless dry stretch in the history of Google’s Penguin algorithm has just come to an end. Major revisions to Penguin were announced on 23rd September 2016, and it looks like this may be the biggest news since the algorithm was first introduced in 2012.
The History Of Penguin
Google has been involved in an unending battle to improve its search results and purge irrelevant or manipulative links from the results page for a long time. Up until 2012, the assumption was that bad links – those which associated a site with known spam sites – were thrown away when Google assessed a page’s relevance. The Penguin algorithm, introduced in April of 2012, proved that assumption to be false. Not only did Google penalise sites that featured bad links, it would start doing so automatically with the new algorithm.
This sent shock waves throughout the world of online marketing. The initial Penguin deployment affected roughly three percent of Google searches run in English, and its impact in some other languages was even higher. Sites that received a site-wide penalty thanks to Penguin found themselves effectively tipped into a black hole.
Frustration For Marketers
Initially, marketers who were unfairly impacted by the algorithm held out some hope for Penguin adjustments to ease their pain. There were two significant updates to the algorithm before the end of 2012, but this was a pattern that would not go on indefinitely.
2013 saw a pair of Penguin updates in May and October. In 2014 there was just one (Penguin 3.0), announced on 17th October. Since then, Google has been largely silent on the subject of this most contentious algorithm. Marketers eventually deduced that a major part of Penguin was link ratios – bad links could be outweighed by enough good links – but they still had to wait on Penguin updates to see the core data used by the algorithm change. Penguin 3.0 was also frustrating due to its incredibly lengthy roll-out. Google spokespeople confirmed that it took more than two months to bring the algorithm fully online.
Penguin 4.0: What’s New
According to Google’s latest announcement, that’s all over with. (https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2016/09/penguin-is-now-part-of-our-core.html) After 700 days since last Penguin news, the search engine has announced a major overhaul. For one thing, it claims that Penguin is “now a part of [Google’s] core algorithm.” What does that mean for webmasters and marketers?
The most important effects were spelled out in Google’s blog post. As a core algorithm, Penguin is going to be updated in real time from now on. That means that catching a Penguin penalty will no longer be the kiss of death for a commercial website.
According to Google’s initial announcement, future changes to Penguin’s data will take effect far more rapidly than ever before. They appear to be aiming for immediate changes every time a page is re-indexed. That means that ranking changes caused by Penguin can, at least in theory, be fixed rapidly when they’re noticed.
One undeniably positive effect this is going to have is a big hit on some of the techniques used for negative SEO. Because older versions of Penguin were so ironclad, it was possible to use them offensively. By setting up the right kind of spammy links, a black hat marketer could actually drive down the ranking of a targeted page. This practice should be far less effective with the new rolling Penguin.
The possible downside to this continuous updating is that Google is no longer going to feel any need to announce or explain future Penguin changes. Other algorithm changes intended for similar purposes may also fly “under the radar” in the future.
More Granularity – Meaning What?
The other welcome bit of news in the announcement of Penguin 4.0 is that it’s becoming more granular. Marketers and website owners are still unpacking exactly what that means, but the hope is that the algorithm will now assign either partial penalties or individual penalties only when it finds bad links. That means single pages might be flagged and pushed down the results page without affecting the site as a whole.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an algorithm change without a little frustrating ambiguity. Early reactions to Google’s announcement have concentrated on exactly what “granularity” means in this context. The first supplementary information coming from Google indicates that while it operates at a more detailed level than site-wide, that doesn’t necessarily mean it operates entirely page-by-page. It will take time and first-hand experience to work out exactly how precise this new Penguin can be.
A Google algorithm change can be traumatic for marketers. The announcement of Penguin 4.0 looks exceptional in that it contains almost entirely positive news from the marketers’ point of view. Still, industry experts will be vigilant in the coming months looking for real-world examples of how this update changes page ranking.