Note: This article was written to explain my early thoughts on Penguin. I've written a full article here on everything we know about Penguin and will be updating that article regularly.
For even more updated news, check this new post: Sites previously demoted by Penguin are getting the "penalty" lifted off of them!
After almost two years of waiting, Penguin 4.0 has finally arrived. I can't believe how poor the timing was for me as I got the news while traveling to Toronto for a four day trip with almost no internet access. Perhaps that was a good thing though as it allowed me to look a few days of data before publishing my thoughts on Penguin 4.0.
My first impression on Penguin 4.0 so far is that it is underwhelming.
Seeing any changes?
The majority of sites that I monitor for Penguin changes have seen absolutely no change. However, I have a couple of sites that have seen dramatic increases in keywords jumping from beyond page 5 to page 2 or 3. While those changes are dramatic, they're not going to help pay any bills at this point.
Is this a slow rolling update?
I suspect that we will see more changes gradually over the next few weeks and months. On Twitter, I quoted Barry Schwartz speculating that this was a slow rolling release. Dawn Anderson asked Gary Illyes from Google if it were true that we would still need to wait for our disavowed URLs to be crawled, and Gary Illyes agreed that yes, this was the case:
If this is true, then it makes sense that we haven't seen any dramatic stories of Penguin recovery just yet. It may be that Penguin has been released and that we will see changes as Google recrawls the web. Gone are the days where we see beautiful spikes in traffic that coincide with an algo update. Now that Penguin is baked into the algorithm, I suspect that we will see a slow increase over time.
Do we still need to disavow?
Google's announcement on Penguin 4.0 had a line in it that had some speculating that perhaps all that Penguin was doing was devaluing spammy links:
While I do believe that it's true that Penguin devalues spam links, I also think that Penguin has a further dampening effect on a site. That dampening effect can be huge or small depending on the level of distrust that Google has in your link profile.
Simply devaluing spam links would make the problem of crappy link negative SEO go away. But, if all that Penguin did was devalue spam, then there would be no reason for spammers not to try new spam techniques. In other words, if I were a black hat link builder I could keep trying different link techniques to rank my sites until I found what got past Penguin and I would see no negative effects from my efforts.
I still firmly believe that when a site is affected by Penguin, Penguin acts as an anchor that pulls your site down. In the past, John Mueller has said that moving forward with a Penguin hit site without cleaning up links would be like "driving the car with the handbrake on, or having an anchor that is pulling you down". I firmly believe that when a site is hit by Penguin, it's like a weight is put on the site to keep it from ranking at its full potential. I don't think that this has changed significantly with this new iteration of Penguin. However, I'm not completely sure what Google means by Penguin being more granular. I think it's possible that that anchor or handbrake may only affect parts or pages of a site rather than the whole site. We'll have to wait until we get more information to make that decision.
Google has said a couple of times over the weekend that we should still be disavowing links:
To me, this issue is HUGE. It's no secret that I have been a big proponent of the disavow tool. I have written of examples of sites that saw recovery from Penguin by disavowing unnatural links. I do not think that this has changed with the launch of Penguin 4.0. My opinion is possibly biased as I make a good income from offering link audit services, but I promise not to let that bias cloud my judgement. I will be watching with great interest over the next few weeks and even months as Penguin rolls out to see if we can see more recovery cases.
Added on September 28, 2016
Google has added more information on the use of the disavow tool for Penguin hit sites. This info is confusing me. You can read the SEL article here. In it, Gary Illyes says the following:
Traditionally webspam algorithms demoted whole sites. With this one we managed to devalue spam without demoting.
When asked for clarification on whether or not it was necessary for site owners to use Penguin to recover from Penguin, he said:
For Penguin specifically, there's less need, yes.
Hmmm...ok, less need. What does this mean?
He went on to say:
If you see the crap, you can help us help you by using it.
Again, what does this mean?
I think there are a few possible ways this could be interpreted:
- It's possible that Penguin will no longer demote a site and act as an anchor that holds the site down. But, if this is the case, other algorithms that use links could still negatively affect you and as such, it is a good idea to disavow.
- It's possible that "crap links" that are horribly spammy such as comment spam and the like that are used for negative SEO are automatically discounted and as such there is no need to disavow. But, it's possible that self made SEO links (such as purchased links) could still do harm. That's my interpretation though and Google did not say this.
Also, just to confuse matters, Google keeps saying that their recommendations on using the disavow tool have not changed. Yet, Matt Cutts himself has said publicly that it is a good idea to use the disavow tool for Penguin:
I will be running a case study starting today that should help to answer some of my disavow questions, but it will take some time for the study to be complete.
A theory - New links are very important to build up TRUST
I feel that Penguin is primarily about how much Google trusts the quality of your backlinks. Disavowing or removing unnatural links can really help improve the level of trust that Google has in your links. But it would make sense to me that an even better way to improve that level of trust would be to demonstrate that your site can actually get good links. I think that if your site does not have a steady flow of truly natural links coming in then unfortunately Penguin recovery may not happen.
This makes sense naturally as simply getting rid of spam links should not bounce you back to number one. I think it goes deeper than this though. I've seen sites that after getting hit by Penguin are unable to rank for anything. If all that Penguin did was to remove the benefit of those unnatural links, they should be ranking at least somewhere in the first three pages. I think that once hit by Penguin, you may be continually suppressed until you can prove to Google that you truly do have a site that can attract natural links. (Note: added September 28 - Penguin sites that were previously demoted are now having the demotion lifted off!)
If you are going to Pubcon Vegas in October of this year, I'll be speaking more on the subject on trust and link acquisition. I'll also be presenting some case studies of sites that saw good Penguin recoveries that I believe were due to a combination of link cleanup plus excellent link acquisition. I will be talking in great detail on how those sites obtained their good links.
Early days yet
We are only four days into the new age of Penguin 4.0. If you have been awaiting recovery and haven't seen it yet, please be patient. I'll be updating people via my newsletter on any obvious changes that I am seeing.
I'd love to hear your observations on Penguin in the comments below.