At the end of last week, Google confirmed, or perhaps admitted, that the Penguin filter has been updated. Most of the web is calling this Penguin 3.0 although if you actually count all the updates to Penguin thus far, it’s the sixth update. Confused? Don’t be.
Google Penguin Updates
Google runs a number of updates to its search algorithm throughout the year – a couple of hundred in fact! These minor tweaks are the concern of your SEO expert and don’t need to feature in your online awareness at all. Major adjustments to the algorithm are a concern, and tend to get named: Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird. Just to be even more confusing, some of these updates have names like Farmer/Panda and others have numbers like Penguin 3.0, the update we’re concerned with today. Some updates are updates to updates (still with me?) So we have Penguin 2.0 and Penguin 2.1. In essence, most experts say Google has updated Penguin six times, but some of those were updates to updates, so the most reason major update happened on Friday and is part of Penguin and is the third substantial adjustment, therefore Penguin 3.0.
What is Penguin for?
Google Penguin is an algorithm filter that aims to identify and penalise spammy sites, specifically by finding sites that break Google’s guidelines on linking and pushing them down the rankings.
Everybody knew this update was coming – partly because Google told us to expect it. About a month ago the Google team started to say that the long overdue tweak was on its way, but the world of online communication also knew it was coming because Google has been talking about how it needed to ‘hit’ spammy linkers for quite a while.
That’s not the only reason people have been waiting for it. Many sites were caught by the Penguin 2.0 update just over a year ago (October 2013). For sites hit by an algorithm update, the only way to find out if the changes they’ve made to improve search engine rankings is to wait for the next ‘refresh’ that will hopefully repair their ranking … a year is a long time to wait!
Actions taken to escape Penguin
Most website publishers who got penalised by the last Penguin update were hit because they had spammy links. They will be hoping that by removing those links, they will be freed from the way Penguin held them back down the rankings. By now, those whose strategy was successful will be seeing improvement in traffic, a process that started over the weekend. Like many updates, this one is rolling out slowly in different territories, so non-US sites should give it a little time before extrapolating results.
It’s very early days for Penguin 3.0 results, but there does seem to be an industry specific trend, with strict commerce sites showing swifter recovery than some other areas, and some territories (Germany for example) seeing no substantial change as yet. But ‘as yet’ just means it hasn’t reached those places yet – while the entire roll-out was complete in the early hours of 20 October, it will be some weeks before the range of effects can be properly established.
Removing or Disavowing Links
One of the first things to recognise is that if you chose to disavow bad, spammy or unnatural links in the previous three weeks to six weeks, the action will not be recognised in time for Penguin 3.0 to act upon it. So any disavowals from around the beginning of September will not assist a site’s position until the next Penguin release, whether that’s 3.1 or 4.0. See below for some good news about releases!
Removing those bad links or disavowing them are two different processes.
As Penguin’s algorithm measure the quality of a website’s backlink profile, manipulative links will have caused Penguin to suppress your site’s ranking. So what do you do about them? Actively, manually remove them, or use Google’s disavow tool to disown them?
Actually neither of these is the most important. The first step is maintain a high quality site with a good range of natural links that will boost your rankings. The catastrophic results that some sites saw in Penguin 2.0 happened because those sites only had links that were spammy or unnatural. Even if you remove spammy links, your ranking won’t improve if there are no positive natural links to boost your site.
The second step is to examine Webmaster Tools to see if you’ve been affected by Penguin or if you have a ‘manual webspam action’, which is also called a ‘manual penalty’. This is great news – any manual action you can take also allows you to ‘request review’ which is when you do the necessary work and a Google staffer comes and checks you’ve done it and (assuming you have) repairs your ranking! You cannot disavow links that are part of a manual action, you must make every possible effort to remove those links – contacting site owners and asking to have the links taken down etc. Only when you can do no more, should you use the disregard tool. The Google staffer will examine your track record to ensure that you’ve actually tried and failed to remove unnatural links. If you’ve only disavowed them, you will not get your ranking restored.
Sadly, if you’ve been Penguined, you can’t request a review, but you still need to take action. Check your analytics and see if your organic traffic drop matches the date of an algorithm update.
So, remove or disavow? According to Google, the algorithmic response is purely based on results, this means that if a website publisher puts links in its disavow file, the update will crawl that file and not count those links in the re-crawl. In other words, the disavow process is sufficient as long as there isn’t a manual action listed in Webmaster Tools. However, in a recent podcast, another member of the Google team said that it’s always better to remove the links where possible, in case anybody reviews a site’s file – implying that perhaps random checks are being made in relation to sites that had a manual action and have actioned it, perhaps as a form of post-action audit.
What other effects has Penguin 3.0 had?
If your site has seen some search ranking drop, it may not be because it’s been held back by Penguin. Analysis is required to discover whether ‘discounted links’ – which means quite a wide selection of links that Penguin 3.0 has discounted – are now failing to pass along the link credit they once gave your site. Link credit is like a vote, it stands in your favour. Where Penguin 3.0 has penalised what it considered ‘fake credit’, sites that have benefited from those votes will find themselves declining in rankings even though Penguin hasn’t directly penalised the site receiving those credits.
One piece of potentially good news – Google has hinted that this new Penguin update brings with it a significantly different refresh system. Apparently this will allow for much more frequent refreshes, so publishers and site owners may not have wait a year to see how their actions have panned out.
Penguin 3.0 summary to date
- SEO is always a long-term strategic process. Having good natural links and a non-spammy back link profile is vital, regardless of what Penguin 3.0 does to your site.
- Results are still coming in and analysis will take longer. Site hygiene is vital in the interim.
- Examine and action your Webmaster Tools – manual action requests must not be ignored. No algorithm update will change your ranking if you have an outstanding manual webspam action.
- Check new links with care: easy to obtain, bought, or mass-produced links will hurt you.
- Talk to your SEO expert about a Penguin strategy for the long term.