The first Penguin update in 2012 was Google’s official warning that it really, really did not like what link spam was doing to its search results. Google was not going to stand by and let spammers taint its most lucrative property. Every SEO provider, white hat or otherwise, learned to dread Penguin updates. But even SEOs who tried to do the right thing could find themselves caught up in a Penguin penalty. That was the life of an SEO before Penguin 4.0.
Who in the industry hasn’t been there?! An update or refresh could come at any time. It could range from a minor blip to a calamitous bloodbath. The 2013 Penguin 2.1 update was particularly rough for many SEOs and webmasters.
No well-intentioned SEO provider enjoyed calling a client to explain that the rankings had tanked because of a Penguin update. While you may have explained that you can neither guarantee rankings nor protect against all Google penalties, that didn’t cushion the blow. And those who were selling “Penguin-proof SEO” (BTW, not a real thing) probably had far more difficult conversations with their clients.
Many SEOs took a long, hard look at their strategy at the time, and adjusted it to follow Google’s advice:
The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.
Penguin Had to Get Tougher
But Penguin updates didn’t ‘catch em all’. They weren’t perfect and didn’t come around that often. This meant a website could still benefit from link spam and hold steady for a while. Some less scrupulous SEOs used that to their advantage and played fast and loose with the rules, while leading clients to believe that everything was fine. And when the rankings subsequently tanked, the disillusioned client likely didn’t understand why, as the average business owner doesn’t know or care about Penguin updates. Meanwhile the SEO provider could walk away from the train wreck and take on another unsuspecting client.
Once clients were burned by a concept that they didn’t understand in the first place, they were understandably distrustful of SEO. In my opinion, this really hurt the industry.
Finally, Penguin 4.0 Brings the Hammer Down
Link spam was once in the crosshairs of Penguin updates. Penguin 4.0, released in fall 2016, ignores it! Why is this a great thing?
Now that Penguin is part of the core algorithm and works in real-time, Google does not reward link spam with improved rankings. Not even temporarily. Link spammers won’t get results and won’t fool clients with quick and precarious rankings gains. Any SEOs out there who continue using the link spam model (are there really any SEOs out there who are still spamming blog comments?!) will get nothing from Google. This is good news for ‘the good guys’ of SEO.
More Good Things
Years ago, Google pushed the idea that content marketing was the proper path to top rankings and many SEOs went with that. Meanwhile, link spammers were still getting rankings and those who were trying to follow Google’s guidelines couldn’t help but feel frustrated. That shouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Beyond that, how many SEOs followed Google’s directions and still got destroyed by a Penguin update? Plenty. That’s not going to happen anymore either.
A site that has questionable links, for whatever reason, won’t be completely obliterated. Pages that are penalized can recover much faster than they would have when Penguin updates and refreshes were few and far between. Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land explains: “As Google re-crawls and re-indexes pages–which happens constantly–those pages will be assessed by the Penguin filter. Pages will be caught and/or freed by Penguin as part of this regular process.”
An Important Caveat
When Google says that Penguin will no longer demote entire sites, bear in mind that this is only about Penguin. Google has other methods of dealing with websites that deliberately use spam to try to game the system. Pay close attention to this comment from Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes: “If we see that someone is systematically trying to spam, the manual actions team might take harsher actions against the site.”
Link Disavow: Still Useful
Now that Penguin won’t penalize an entire site, it might seem like a waste of time to disavow potentially harmful links. Not so. Jennifer Slegg of TheSEMPost writes: “John Mueller [Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google] is clearly saying that SEOs should continue using the disavow tool when they know they have spammy links from previous link building to the site. There is also the reason of manual actions – Google can still use any non-disavowed links for analysis when it comes to placing a manual action on any site for bad links. And Google has said that link quality is used in other parts of their search algo as well.”
According to an SEO After Penguin 4.0 survey, more SEO agencies are planning to use disavow post-Penguin 4.0.
- Pre-Penguin 4.0, 35% of SEO agencies submitted link disavow files for their clients
- Post-Penguin 4.0, 48% of SEO agencies say they will submit disavow files
A Hopeful Industry
The survey also found that 59% of agencies believe that Penguin 4.0 is good for the SEO industry.
Based on comments from survey respondents, those who are making a good faith effort to follow Google’s guidelines are relieved that they:
- Will no longer get caught in a Penguin sweep that was really meant to catch deliberate, incessant spammers.
- Can focus their efforts on building links through content promotion. They don’t have to fear that one or two outliers are links from a bad site.
Google has made great strides in counteracting link spam. Let’s hope that with Penguin 4.0, we’re going to see a big reduction in the number of SEOs who promise quick page one rankings. Penguin 4.0 will not let them deliver on that promise. And because spam doesn’t work anymore, life should be much easier for SEOs who are honest with clients about the time, skills and cost it takes to put together an effective SEO campaign.
Survey data screenshots taken January 2017