Google Penguin 4.0
The Google Penguin 4.0 update has finally rolled out after many months of speculation. In this article we explain in plain English what Penguin is all about and what this new update means for SEO in 2016 and 2017.
Getting to the top of Google’s results pages is a central task of search engine optimization. It is impossible to ace the rankings game without understanding how Google assigns scores to Web pages for each keyword they contain. SEO got a lot more complicated when Google started applying filters to adjust the ranking algorithm results. The most prominent of these filters are named after creatures. Each of these filters focuses on a specific aspect of Web pages. Penguin focuses on the quality of links pointing into a page. It particularly aims to weed out bad links and imposes penalties on the pages that are their destination. The search engine has recently altered the frequency that Penguin assessments are applied and that move has sent the SEO consultants of the world into overdrive.
Google’s basic algorithm is called PageRank. It assigns a score to Web pages with regard to a specific keyword. The score is allocated to that page by the links that point to it. Thus, each Web page is given a PageRank. The outbound links in a page all get an equal share of that PageRank to carry to the pages that they point to Thus, if a Web page has a score of 4 and contains 2 links, the pages pointed to by those links will each gain a score of 2. If the original page has 4 links, each of the pages that are the links’ targets will get 1 point.
Search Engine Optimization
The practice of search engine optimization, or SEO, aims to improve the ranking of a page for the search terms that describe the purpose of the page. The efforts of SEO consultants employ tricks to boost a particular page over its competition. Google began to see these tricks as damaging the accuracy of its search results. Pages began to rank for topics that didn’t really appear on the page and some pages ranked much higher than they should have done. The search engine provider decided to adjust its algorithm results to filter out the effects of SEO tactics.
In order to defeat SEO tricks and prevent new strategies being devised, Google did not release information of exactly what each of its ranking adjustments did. They announced the overall theme of each adjustment, but not the scale of rewards or penalties, and they didn’t detail exactly which practices it considered to be good or bad. Therefore, the SEO industry had to analyze changes and guess what tricks had become harmful. These adjustments are known as filters. The core algorithm of Google runs all the time. There are millions of new Web pages created every day, and they needed to be given a score. As the score of one Web page gets passed on to the pages it links to, the rankings of all the Web pages in the world are constantly being reassessed. Filters don’t operate like that – they are run once only.
Panda and Penguin
The two filters that worry digital marketers most are Panda and Penguin. Panda’s task is to penalize sites for their content. Pages that have too many adverts, or have many repetitions of keywords get subtracted from their scores. Penguin was Google’s next major filter and it created a lot of trouble for webmasters. The filter created a method for sneaky SEO practitioners to damage the rankings of rival sites. They set up poor quality sites and pointed links to their rivals’ Web pages. Penguin would then penalize the rival and the originator of this cursed link would rise up the search engine results pages. A major problem created by these filters is that they did not run alongside the core algorithm. Instead, they were run periodically, with Penguin being released about once a year. That meant that the penalties imposed on a site could not be removed until the next run of the filter. Worse still, each re-run was actually a different assessment, because Google rewrote each filter between updates. So you might fix all the problems on a page, but still languish at the bottom of the rankings until the next run of Penguin, only to be penalized for something else.
Penguin’s penalties are difficult to rectify, because they punish the website that is pointed to by a spammy link, rather than the source of the link. As external links appear on other websites, the target site has no control over them. They are someone else’s property. Therefore, if the owner of the link refused to remove it, the penalized site’s owner could do nothing to get rid of it, other than to rename the page, which changes the address and invalidates all links to it, or remove the page entirely. Those drastic measures would also lose all the PageRank accumulated by good links pointing to the page. This situation was clearly unfair and enabled tactical players to victimize other sites.
Google’s solution to the inability of site owners to control the links pointing into them was the disavowal process. Site owners could list the links they did not want pointing to their pages and Google would exclude them from its calculations. The disavowal system resolved the problem of a bad link ruining the rankings of a page. However, the infrequency of an update of Penguin meant that site owners had to be proactive and disavow links before they were noticed by Penguin. This task makes site maintenance a more time-consuming process. webmasters needed to make regular checks in their link profiles – the number and sources of the links that point into their sites.
Compared to Panda, Penguin covered relatively few tasks. Panda covers a large number of factors on a Web page and so had more impact on the SEO community. The main aim of the filter was to put a number of link-based tricks out of business. Link farms were sites that just contained lists of links. Clients would pay for inclusion, because, back then, a link was a link. However, under the methodology of PageRank, one link out of a thousand on a page gained very little PageRank score. These link farms didn’t really give the clients any advantage in rankings. Google did the world’s online businesses a favor by killing off the link farm sector. However, one man’s directory is another man’s link farm. A large number of directories went out of business thanks to the initial rollout of Penguin. Other old tactics that were shut down by Penguin were link exchange schemes and paid links.
Penguin was run much less frequently than Panda. From its first run in April 2012, the filter was run twice more in 2012, twice in 2013, and once in 2014. The filter was not run again until Google announced in September, 2016 that it had integrated Penguin into its core algorithm. Most SEO experts are referring to this as the Google Penguin 4.0 update. By comparison, Panda was run 28 times from its release in February 2011 up to July 2015. Panda was integrated into the core algorithm in January 2016.
Rumors of an impending Penguin update started to circulate on the SEO news sites in June 2016. Google rarely announces updates to its ranking programs, and they had given no indication of its plans to run Penguin again. However, the company authorizes key personnel, such as John Mueller, to release hints. This strategy keeps the search engine in the news and helps the webmaster of the world get ready for an update without actually giving official confirmation. The next version of the filter was dubbed Penguin 4.0. However, as we now know, the filter disappeared into the core algorithm instead.
Penguin Integration Consequences
The integration of Penguin into Google’s core algorithm is good news for everyone who runs a website. The infrequency of Penguin updates was excruciating to those who had been hit by a penalty. The webmaster had to wait for the next update before their efforts to correct mistakes with links were recognized with a removal of the penalty. The last run of the filter was in October 2014. That means that those who were penalized during that last run have had to work around the effects of the penalty for almost 2 years. Better still, the company has changed the application of Penguin penalties from hitting the entire site, to only applying to transgressing pages. Google Penguin 4.0 should be an update that most of us are happy about.
Penguin had the desired effect on the SEO community and with Google Penguin 4.0 being implemented today, we should see its effects playing an even greater role. Link farms disappeared and link building became a more respectable pursuit. With most of the sneaky tricks abandoned, content marketing became the main driving force for creating a quality link profile. This strategy uses attractive articles and reference information to encourage others to link to a site. A large number of directories got knocked out in friendly fire with the first release of Penguin and the ambiguity of whether a directory could be interpreted as a link farm kept that sector of the Internet at bay for a number of years. However, Google has significantly shifted its opinion on directories over the past few years, and now encourages businesses to list their websites on them. The growth of respectable real-world directories such as Yelp, getting onto the Web has helped improve the reputation of this category of sites.
The Google Menagerie
Part of the reason that Google didn’t run Penguin again after October 2014 was the fact that they were rewriting the formula to integrate it into their main algorithm – a project that they announced in December 2014. Another reason that they seemed to tone down their aggression towards link building tricks was that the company was distracted by other issues. Over the past 2 years, the search engine has been prioritizing local SEO signals and mobile search. Google noticed the trend towards people using smartphones to access the Internet and tracked the growth in access to their search engine from those devices. The company added to the rankings menagerie in August 2013 with Hummingbird. This was a complete rewrite of the core algorithm and it introduced the use of synonyms, so Web copywriters no longer have to repeat the same keywords over and over again in order to improve rankings. Pigeon was introduced in July 2014 to enhance the scores of local websites.
Other Google Filters
Google’s other filters do not carry names of creatures. Perhaps the most significant change in Google’s algorithm occurred in April 2016, when the company allocated a bonus score to sites that had a mobile-friendly version. This event was christened “Mobilegeddon” as all the webmasters in the world scrambled to get a mobile version of their sites in place. When the update actually happened, the number of sites that had gone mobile-friendly was so great that no one really got any relative advantage in ranking terms.
Google Penguin 4.0 is big news for as it has finally become part of the core algorithm, causing SEO spammers to seriously rethink their efforts. However, it seems that the main focus of the search engine is towards improving local and mobile search. These two categories work hand in hand, with the majority of searches now taking place on mobile devices, and immediate needs, such as location searches forming the majority of demand on the search engine. Google is refining the merger between mobile and local search with its “nearby” capabilities and voice search. These developments mean that the user of a smartphone simply needs to speak a question into the phone relating to the location, without naming that location. An example of this capability given by Google is of a user standing by a river and simply asking “How deep is this river?” Another major drive in the search engine is the implementation of artificial intelligence, in the form of RankBrain, which examines the relationship between words in a search to better understand the intent of the query. Google keeps moving forward, and the SEO industry has to try to keep up with them.
Moz: Google Algorithm Change History
Wikipedia: Google Penguin
Google Webmaster Central Blog: Penguin is now part of our core algorithm
Google Webmaster Central Blog: Another step to reward high-quality sites
James Attorney Marketing: SEO Trends: Penguin Alert
Search Engine Roundtable: Google Status Update On Penguin: It’s Closer & Hopeful Not Too Far Off
Search Engine Roundtable: Google’s Issues With Most Web Directories: Little Content
Search Engine Land: FAQ: All About The New Google “Hummingbird” Algorithm
Search Engine Land: Google “Pigeon” Updates Local Search Algorithm With Stronger Ties To Web Search Signal
Bloomberg: Google Turning Its Lucrative Web Search Over to AI Machines