Usability-first Search Engine Optimization

Big Changes to Penguin

Huge changes in the SEO world last week

Google’s Penguin algorithm (which targets and punishes sites that have a lot of spammy backlinks) was updated last week, after about 2 years. It’s generally accepted that the last Penguin update was in October of 2014.

Until now, Penguin ran—very—intermittently, filtering all sites on the internet, evaluating them for their participation in link schemes, such as backlinks from high numbers of garbage directory listings, blog networks, 3-way linking schemes, etc.

Because it has been so long since the last Penguin update, many people have been taking advantage of it, and seeing (knowingly short-lived, and high risk-to-payout) results.

The Changes

  • Real-time: After a few years of anticipation, Penguin became real-time last week. While we don’t yet know if this is an international rollout Reports are hitting the SEO community from all over the globe of sharp downward traffic spikes by those who were pushing rank with help of low quality links. Also, sites are finally recovering after nearly two years locked in a freezer with a motionless Penguin. Sites that are now seeing sharp dips in traffic have not been caught in the filter, but rather, their low-quality backlinks have been devalued. This bring me to the next important change:
  • Devalued only: Googles claims that spammy links found by the Penguin Filter will no longer hurt sites. Instead of a dampening factor being applied to sites by Penguin, low-quality links will now just be ignored. Many of us in the industry aren’t yet convinced of this, and some of us are working together to test the changes to Penguin. But I digress: No harm, no fowl, right? All those sites participating in shady link building practices now have nothing to lose? Wrong:
  • Manual actions against unnatural links may increase: Penguin is just the automated filter that evaluates link quality. There’s no longer a dampening factor imposed by Penguin, but manual actions are still a factor. Gary Illyes said on Twitter that disavowing links is still relevant, and some, myself included, have speculated that keeping a disavow file may help you sort things out faster in the event that you receive a manual action for unnatural links.
  • Granular effect: Finally, and I find this to be the least interesting news, Penguin is said to now be more granular.

    Penguin is now more granular. Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site.

    This likely has nothing to do with beads of ice covering Penguin’s body. Google’s somewhat ambiguous (surprise surprise) statement has ample room for interpretation. If they hadn’t use the word granular, I’d interpret that statement simply as ‘spam links will be devalued, and rankings won’t drop as a result’. But because of the word granular, some are interpreting it to mean only pages/sections of a site will be affected in some way.

    Here’s where I—and a few others— are at with the interpretation of Penguin’s granularity: You have all this link equity built up, some good some bad. Some of your pages received some benefit from spammy links that Penguin—being on vacation—didn’t see, and those benefits might very well be neutralized, but only for the pages concerned. If my interpretation changes, you’ll see a strike through it, and a replacement. Otherwise, that’s where I stand.

Where does this leave us? The main takeaways here for me are:

  • Negative SEO is less of a problem, especially if you keep a disavow list, and watch your Google Search Console.
  • Your and your clients’ competitors who are pushing rank with their blog networks and other garbage will hopefully slide back down to reality once their rankings reflect a real-time Penguin.
  • Hopefully, my prediction of more manual actions against obvious link schemes will come to fruition

About matt

Matthew Edward is the founder of Springboard SEO, a usability-first search engine optimization company in Montreal.

  • Adithya Murali

    Great post Matt! You talked about spammy links getting devalued. So what’s your take on submitting disavow files from now on?