Penguin 4.0 – The Final Update

Google’s algorithm updates regularly send us internet marketers into a tizzy. Mostly, that comes as a result of not knowing exactly what it is that Google’s changed: they tend to be deliberately vague whenever they’re asked about their updates.

But this isn’t a new algorithm – just an update on one that’s existed since April 2012.

What Is Penguin?

Penguin is the official codename for an algorithm which is used by Google to find websites which have used unacceptable techniques to boost their rankings.

You may have spotted the occasional website with an out-of-place link, and if you look into many less-than-reputable sites you’ll find scores of backlinks from gambling, porn and spun content sites, which generate nonsensical text in an attempt to bypass Google’s detectors. They essentially give the website an unfair advantage over websites which have more authentically earned links. These are often done by black hat SEOs and while they used to be very effective, they are strictly against Google’s guidelines.

The initial Penguin algorithm was designed to combat these sites which had spammy links. The two main things that this was implemented to prevent were wholesale buying of links, and obtaining them through link networks.

The rollout was sporadic, and sites which were penalised by the Penguin (and subsequently lost their rankings) would have to go through the ordeal of disavowing and removing links without any promise that a re-evaluation would come soon: in fact, the last update was in 2014, meaning some websites may have had to wait two years for their website to be re-checked, validated and their penalties removed.

That’s a long time in marketing terms – two years of lost leads and opportunities that probably went to competitors.

You can see where this website was hit by Penguin penalties

You can see where this website was hit by Penguin penalties


The Evolution of Penguin

Not too much changed in the four years since its original release. A few micro-updates were released which were often focused on refreshing the algorithm, rather than adding new signals.

The third update affected only 0.3% of English language queries, while the fourth (officially known as Penguin 2.0) affected 2.3%. The 2013 fifth update affected another 1%, but aside from the periods in which these updates rolled out (sometimes a few months), no changes were made.

It was chaos, frankly. No one knew when the next update would come, or in what form it would appear – Google like to keep these things as closely guarded secrets as possible.


Google 4.0

This September Google made an official announcement, declaring that Penguin was now a permanent part of the core algorithm.

As the search engine consistently recrawls and reindexes pages, penalties and removal of penalties can now be implemented instantly. This gives internet marketers more opportunity to test their websites for Penguin faults, and get a near-instant reward for adhering to Google’s strict rules.

Penguin has become a powerful force, and Google is making it more and more difficult for websites to break the rules: that’s why it’s so important to have a knowledgeable person or agency in control of your SEO.


“More Granular”

Not everything was entirely straight forward in this update, however.

Google described the new iteration of Penguin as “more granular”, meaning that penalties will no longer be applied sitewide. Instead, Google will devalue the spam itself. This doesn’t mean that entire sites can’t be penalised anymore, only that it isn’t a given.

But then Gary Illyes dropped another interesting snippet of information…

It’s anyone’s guess what these protections might be – or if they even exist.


The algorithm may or may not have entirely rolled out by now, but it’s probably best to assume it is. Despite what a change this could make for penalised websites, it’s important to bear in mind that Google uses over 200 ranking signals in its algorithm.

Either way, adhering to Google’s policies against spammy link-building is always the safest option – and the biggest bonus of this update is that it should take much less time to see bounces back from the penalties.