All of the speculation can finally end, it has arrived and it’s now part of the core Google algorithm. Of course I am talking about Penguin 4.0, the spam based update from Google that focuses on your backlinks and the amount of spam pointing to your website. For some time now Penguin 4.0 has had the reputation of the giant in the hills that will eventually appear, creating mass hysteria and destruction when it does. We’ve awaited it’s presence with patience, wading through multiple articles from various sources and vague tweets from Google employees of it’s impending arrival, and here we are, September 23, 2016, staring Penguin 4.0 in the face.

I’ve already gotten a few emails about what we should expect and how we can prepare for Penguin moving forward. But honestly, things don’t change all that much. Google still hates spam and still wants you to collect honest, natural backlinks that help users find your website based on topical relevance, leaving old school black hat SEO tactics of the past behind. The only difference now is how Google utilizes Penguin, and I wanted to create a post that highlights how that’s happening. But first, let’s take a couple of steps back...

What is the Penguin Update?

For those unfamiliar with the Penguin update from Google, it was an algorithm that was released by Google in April of 2012 that helps Google reduce trust in sites that have created unnatural or spammy backlinks in an attempt to manipulate search results for their benefit. In other words, it’s a way for Google to smell bullshit in your backlink profile. If Google smells it, it will reduce your site’s value in search results for search queries that are topically relevant to your site’s content.

Since 2012 Google has released numerous updates to Penguin, with each update getting stronger and stronger in it’s attempt to combat spam. Here’s a list from SERoundtable of the history of Penguin:

Today, Google announced that Penguin, instead of being an update that needed to be “refreshed”, would now be a part of the core algorithm. This means that Penguin wouldn’t need to be updated moving forward, because it’s a part of the core algorithm and would work in unison with the other components of the core algorithm in real time. But what does that mean?

What does it mean now that Penguin is in the core algorithm?

It’s important to note here that you shouldn’t only worry about Penguin as a signal in Google’s core algorithm. Google’s algorithm takes into consideration over 200 different ranking signals that inform the search results and ultimately what you may or may not click on. If you’d like to take a look at what some of these signals may be (since Google will not release that information), Backlinko has a great article based on confirmed signals and speculation.

But back to your question. When it comes to Penguin being a part of the main Google algorithm, SEOs and marketers need to focus on the same thing they’ve always been focused on - keeping your backlink profile, and onsite assets, spam free and clean. Here are the highlights of the Penguin 4.0 rollout direct from Google:

  • Penguin is now real-time. Historically, the list of sites affected by Penguin was periodically refreshed at the same time. Once a webmaster considerably improved their site and its presence on the internet, many of Google's algorithms would take that into consideration very fast, but others, like Penguin, needed to be refreshed. With this change, Penguin's data is refreshed in real time, so changes will be visible much faster, typically taking effect shortly after we recrawl and reindex a page. It also means we're not going to comment on future refreshes.
  • 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 means that the hard work you put into fighting spam on and pointing to your website will now be rewarded more quickly and more handsomely. You’ll be able to showcase the results of your work more quickly and effectively, hopefully ending in better organic results. The flip side of that coin is that if you are attempting to manipulate search results, you’ll be able to see your site drop from search results, taking organic traffic with it. Stay on the right side of history.

So, should I be worried about Penguin?

Well, that’s a bit harder to gauge from my perspective. I don’t know your website(s) directly and the tactics that you have leveraged to help your site in search. Like I stated above, if you’re attempting to manipulate search results with buying or garnering irrelevant backlinks, then yes, you should worry, because what you are doing is exactly what Google is trying to fight against.

But, that being said, I am willing to bet (and hoping) that you don’t have to worry about Penguin, because you’re an awesome marketer or SEO and would never try to pull wool over Google’s eyes.

But, that being said, it wouldn’t hurt to check, right?

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What can I do to stay in Penguin’s good graces?

The first thing I would do as a concerned SEO and website owner is take a look at the following resources:

After that, I would take a step back and take an honest look at the current state of your website, both onsite and offsite. You need to disconnect yourself from “ownership” of your website and look at it from the user / search engine perspective. To do that, you need to do the following...

Schedule regular website and backlink audits

From there, I would get on a regular schedule with website audits and backlink profile checks. If you need a guide on getting started with weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly audits, check out this article from Search Engine Watch.

When it comes to backlink audits, simply utilize a service like Moz’s Open Site Explorer, Majestic, or Ahrefs where you can download your backlink profile and review the links currently pointing to your website. You can also take advantage of tools like Kerboo to help you score your backlinks and prioritize what links are valuable to or hurting your website.

Now, some of this is manually labor when you look at your backlinks, but it’s not as difficult as you’d think. It’s mostly gut instinct and common sense! Here are some things to consider when reviewing backlinks:

  • Does this link help my website?
  • Is this link relevant to my website?
  • Would I trust this site (that's linking to me) if I landed on it?
  • Is the website or content in which I am being linked from topically relevant to my website?
  • If you check metrics - does anything about the metrics make me feel uneasy?
  • Are the links from directory templates? (example)
  • Inspect URLs with blatant spam words
    • Free
    • Porn
    • XXX
    • Submit
    • Directory
    • Paid
    • Links
    • URL
    • Sex
    • Etc.
  • Check for multiple domains and URLs on the same IPs
    • This can usually show link farms or spam
  • Is this link sending traffic to website / converting users?

Taking a look at the above points when analyzing a backlink profile will help you greatly moving forward in keeping your site clean and safe. Regularly look at your backlink profile with these in mind, and you’ll be just fine! Here’s a great guide to help you remove toxic backlinks, as well as how to use your disavow file if need be!

But, it’s not just about backlinks!

Remember earlier when I said “onsite assets” can be considered in the Penguin update (although backlinks are the main component)? Spam can be both offsite (backlinks) and onsite (content), and it’s important to keep in mind that Google takes this into consideration as well when gauging the amount of spam that your website contains and whether or not it should be ranked.

As Marie Haynes stated in her fantastic article that looks at Penguin’s potential effect on onsite spam…

“In my opinion, links are still the most important factor when it comes to dealing with the Penguin algorithm.  However, if you have been affected by Penguin, I think that it is important to look for on page issues that may be considered attempts to manipulate the search engine results or deceive users.”

Marie also points out a quote from the Google Quality Guidelines that summarizes how to judge if what you are doing is spammy…

“Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, ‘Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?’”

Remember, onsite and offsite spam work hand in hand when it comes to Google and how they rank your site. If you regularly check and maintain both facets presence, then Penguin and other search factors will take notice and rank your site accordingly, hopefully with a stronger presence and higher rankings!

Of course, if you require professional attention (highly recommended!) feel free to contact us!

Where can I learn more about Google’s Penguin?

If you’re wanting to learn more about Penguin, it’s history, and more, please take a look at our friends websites below:

From these, you’ll be able to see more in depth analysis and findings from the brightest minds in the industry, as well as continued tactics and tasks that can help your site perform better in Penguin’s midst. You and your site are going to be just fine. Just keep your eyes peeled, keep your tactics honest, and keep your users in mind in the links you build and content you create. Your audience, and search engines, will appreciate the hard work. Good luck!

If you have any questions for Marcel Digital and our team of SEO experts, feel free to contact us, find us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+, or shoot us an email - we’re more than happy to help in whatever we can and answer whatever questions you may have! Good luck!

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