When Google announced Penguin 4.0, the SEO world went nuts.
For those unfamiliar, Penguin is part of Google’s algorithm that fights web spam. Any site caught using manipulative link practices (e.g. using link farms to accumulate backlinks from keyword-rich anchor text) to influence their organic search ranking will be penalized by Google.
Most webmasters don’t need to worry about Penguin. As Google said, “Penguin is just one of more than 200 signals we use to determine rank.”
Unless you’ve participated in questionable link building schemes, your site will be unaffected. But that hasn’t stopped Search Engine Land (one of the most trusted industry news sources for SEO) from writing countless articles on the subject.
Why is Penguin So Important?
While I said that most websites are unaffected by Penguin, those who were affected have been held in purgatory. As Search Engine Land notes, Google’s last update to Penguin was two years ago. For nearly two years, website owners that were penalized and stripped of organic rankings have waited to have these penalties forgiven and their rankings reinstated.
Penguin will now run “in real-time” with Google’s core search algorithm. Pre Penguin 4.0, webmasters caught with spammy links directing to their site would have to disavow these links and wait for Google’s Penguin filter to reassess the site. This could take days, months, or even years. Penguin now devalues web spam and reassesses ranking status instantaneously, so webmasters will only need to wait for Google to recrawl and reindex their site.
What Else Changed with Penguin 4.0?
While Penguin used to be a sitewide penalty, Google stated in its blog update that “Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site.” What does that mean? Some SEO experts propose this means Penguin can devalue or deindex certain pages of a site while preserving the sanctity of other pages. It could also mean that Google can revoke your ranking for a specific keyword instead of blacklisting your site completely.
UPDATE: Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes confirmed Google no longer demotes the ranking of an entire site based on Penguin penalties.
Penguin 4.0 also puts the majority of penalties on spam referrers. Penguin 3.0 penalized sites directing spam traffic and sites receiving spam traffic equally. Penguin 4.0 removes any SEO benefit a site receives from inbound spam links and punishes the site referring these links.
Finally, Google will no longer announce or confirm updates for Penguin. As it now runs as part of Google’s core algorithm, Penguin will receive periodic “phantom updates” that will not be disclosed to the public. This is a common theme for Google.
Why the Major Change to Penguin?
This is purely hypothetical, but I believe the shift from sweeping penalties of entire sites to more nuanced, page- or keyword-specific penalties addresses the looming threat of negative SEO attacks.
Penguin 3.0 gave rise to negative SEO attacks, where competing (black hat) SEOs would direct a ton of spammy traffic to competitor sites. These attacks would attempt to trick Google’s Penguin algorithm into thinking the targeted (competitor) sites were purposely trying to improve their ranking with backlinks. And while Gary Illyes said on Twitter he’s never seen evidence of a negative SEO attack, legitimate SEO sources have said a negative SEO attack is possible.
MOZ first wrote about negative SEO in 2014, saying negative SEO is unlikely but could happen so here’s a guide just in case. A Senior SEO Manager from Jellyfish said they were the victim of a negative SEO attack and wrote about their recovery. SEO software provider SEOPressor even created a guide to defend against negative SEO attacks. They’re not just an urban myth.