This last year has been agonizing for anyone who has been trying to escape the grips of Google's Penguin algorithm. I have spoken with so many webmasters who have diligently been auditing links and waiting desperately for Penguin to refresh. At one point last year I joked that I should create an email auto-responder that said, "I know your traffic is still down. I know you've worked hard to fix this. But at this point all you can do is wait for Penguin to refresh."
And then, late on October 17, 2014, I started to get tweets and emails from people saying that something was happening.
Most of these people were ecstatic because they were finally seeing improvement in their sites. But it didn't take long for me to start getting emails from site owners who were devastated because they had heard that Penguin had refreshed and they still hadn't seen any signs of recovery. When I first started getting these emails, I rationalized these non-recoveries by thinking that there had to be other issues with these sites. Perhaps some of them were struggling under another algorithm such as Panda. Or maybe, now that their unnatural links were dealt with, they had no natural links to support rankings. But, there were also cases of "non-recoveries" that I knew really should be seeing dramatic improvement but were not. Some of these were my own clients. We had worked for months cleaning up backlinks, and in many cases also making on site improvements and earning new, fantastic natural links. And many of these sites were not even ranking in the first ten pages of Google for their main keywords.
Something was wrong.
But wait...it's not over!
My emotions went through such a roller coaster over the first few days of Penguin 3.0. While I was overjoyed to receive emails from site owners who jumped back to page one, I was devastated that several of my clients who paid me good money to help them had not improved one bit. Now, please know that for every Penguin hit client I took, I was careful not to promise recovery. There is so much about Penguin that no one outside of Google knows. I am going to make a bold statement here, but I think that there are very few people in the world who are as obsessed with Penguin as I am. But still, I did not guarantee improvement for anyone.
As these site owners contacted me, my advice was to wait. They had to be still rolling out Penguin 3.0. And then, I got the devastating news that John Mueller had stated in a hangout that as far as he knew, the rollout was over.
Augh. Something was wrong.
I emailed John Mueller, not expecting a response but more because I felt I just had to do something. I asked if he would like me to send him examples of sites that should have recovered but did not. To my surprise, he wrote back saying that he may have been mistaken and that Penguin was still rolling out.
I sent an email out to people who are on my newsletter, telling people that Penguin wasn't over yet. I had so much hope.
Over the next week or so, there were a couple of reports of sites that saw a slight increase or decrease in rankings, but nothing dramatic. And then, Google made things even more difficult by refreshing Panda...not Penguin...but Panda. We don't have official confirmation from Google on this, but those of us do a lot of work with algorithm changes are quite certain that Panda refreshed. So, if you saw an improvement or a hit sometime *after* October 17th, it's hard to know exactly what is going on.
But now, as I write this, three weeks have passed since Penguin refreshed. I haven't seen anything dramatic happening for a while now. I'm not calling it over just yet though, as John Mueller said just a few days ago that they're still rolling Penguin out slowly. Gah. This has been the most agonizing slow rollout of an algorithm ever. But, something is terribly wrong.
Why is Penguin taking so long to roll out?
So, what's happening? Why is this taking so long? I have theories, but they're just that though...theories.
Theory 1: Negative SEO is working.
When Penguin 3.0 first started rolling out, I saw several tweets from blackhat SEOs who were claiming that they had successfully taken out competitors by using negative SEO against them. I think that it is possible that one of the reasons why it took a whole year to refresh Penguin was because Google had difficulty creating an algorithm that would punish cheaters but not allow negative SEO to work. And personally, I think they're stuck. I think that it's possible that they started to roll out Penguin, realized that it was allowing negative SEO to knock out websites and stopped the rollout. If this is the case, it's possible that the Google engineers are furiously working to fix things so that this will not happen.
Theory 2: Hard to find unnatural links are holding sites back
I have a number of clients for whom I do monthly or quarterly backlink audits. It amazes me how every time I do one of these, old links pop up on the backlink checkers. Some of these are unnatural links from as early as 2006! Does Google see these links? I know for sure that they do. I often see links like these given as example unnatural links on failed reconsideration requests for manual penalties. (Oh the irony...just as I was typing this I got an email from Google of a failed reconsideration request and two of the links given are ones that are not on any of the backlink checkers or Webmaster Tools.) So, Google's got links in their system that you can't find even if you use every available source. If you can't find them, you can't disavow them. So what if these links are counting against you in the eyes of Penguin? If this is the case, then Google has to do something to fix this! It may be that the webspam team are working now to find a way to let sites that have cleaned up all that they can find but still have unnatural links that are hidden.
Theory 3: They can't run Penguin and still produce good search results
I think that this theory is less likely, but still possible. Let's say that I'm searching for a good attorney in my city. But, perhaps all of the law offices in this city have been actively engaged in creating unnatural links. As a result, Penguin causes all of the good sites to plummet and instead, what I'm left with is unhelpful sites that aren't actual attorney offices but simply talk about the law or point to law offices that either don't exist or aren't very good. As a searcher, I'm not going to be happy with these results. Again, I think that this theory is probably not the cause for Google to be stuck with Penguin, but it's certainly possible. It may be that they are struggling to find a way to properly demote cheating sites, but still produce good search results.
If you haven't recovered....
If you have been working hard to clean up your Penguin hit site and you haven't seen improvement with this refresh, then here are some suggestions that I have:
Be sure that Penguin is the source of your problems.
I have seen many cases where site owners are working furiously to clean up a Penguin problem when actually the site had other issues. In many cases, the sites had serious issues that were holding it down with the Panda algorithm. In my opinion, if you have been affected by Penguin then you really should be seeing a significant traffic change that happened on the date of a known Penguin refresh. If you've got Google analtyics, go to Acquisition --> Keywords --> Organic and set the date back far enough to look for drops on any of the following dates:
April 24, 2012
May 25, 2012
October 5, 2012
May 22, 2013
October 4, 2013
If your drop doesn't happen on one of these dates, then there's a good chance that your issue is something other than Penguin.
Do you have good links?
If you've removed or disavowed all of your unnatural links, what's left? Unless you're in a very uncompetitive vertical, you are not going to be able to rank well unless there are good, truly natural links there. I'm not talking about "high quality guest posts" or valid directory links. Is anyone actually linking to your site without you asking? If not, it is possible that your current rankings are the best you are going to see.
Have someone review your link profile and disavow.
It's possible that you are missing some unnatural links in your disavow file. I've seen cases where people thought they were being thorough but had missed a particular type of unnatural link. One place where you can often get your disavow reviewed for free is the Google Webmaster Help forums. Post your url and your disavow file and the volunteers there will often give you their advice. Be warned though - these are volunteers and they are not always right. They're also sometimes a little on the harsh side.
Did you rely solely on an automated link audit?
There can be some benefits to using automated link auditing tools provided that you combine those reports with a thorough manual review. If you have not done a link by link manual review of your links then I can almost guarantee you that you're missing unnatural links. Automated tools can't see everything. They can also sometimes cause you to disavow some good links. If you've taken an automated report and gone straight to disavow with it, then you need to go back and review things.
I'm sending examples to John Mueller
John Mueller did say that he would be happy to pass on to the webspam team examples of non-recoveries for Penguin hit sites. I've got a few of my own that I'll send to him, but if you would like to have me send your site as an example as well, then let me know. If you'd like me to include your site in the list, then here are the requirements:
- You'll need to add me to your Google analytics. (hiswebmarketing at gmail dot com).
- Send me your disavow file as it existed by September 1, 2014. If you don't know, then send me your most recent disavow.
- Share with me a few of the keywords that you feel you should be ranking well for but you are not. If you have keywords that you're only showing for on page 6+, but really should be on page 1 or 2, then those are the type that I am most interested in.
- Tell me whether you have removed any links or just disavowed. (Either is probably ok, but I'm wondering if sites that went through active link removals are seeing a better advantage.)
- Share with me some good, natural links that you have obtained.
- Let me know whether I can use your story, including analytics screenshots, in a future article or whether you'd like me to keep the information private (other than sending it to John of course.) If I can use your data in a future story, let me know whether you'd like to be credited with a link or whether you'd like to be completely anonymous.
Sending this information to the webspam team may or may not make a difference. A few months ago, some members of the webspam team invited me to join a hangout where they asked my opinion on how they could make the process of manual penalty reconsideration more straightforward. I saw that they really were open to change and really do want to help webmasters. I know that many of you out there are not fans of Google. I don't blame you, especially if your income has been crippled because you have been stuck in one of their algorithms. Perhaps I am naive, but I do believe that Google is trying their best to make things right. I don't envy them the task though.
What do you think? Is Penguin broken?
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.
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Great article Marie. As a small business owner, it’s extremely frustrating that we have to wait this long for a refresh.
My thought on this though is that Google is being extremely cautious with this refresh due to the holiday shopping season. If you look at their historic revenue by quarter, this is their strongest quarter by far.
Google may not want to chance disrupting their current revenue stream and wait until early next year before they fully roll out a refresh. I believe that John Mueller even alluded to this in one of his webmaster hangouts.
Thanks Dustin. I agree with you and think that we will hopefully see some big Penguin related changes in early 2015.
I sent you a message using your contact form. I would really appreciate having my site passed along to John and the webspam team as an example.
I agree that something is terribly wrong with Penguin. As it looks now, escaping from Penguin has become virtually impossible for even sites that have done thorough cleanups, with a few exceptions.
My hope is that Google will offer a path to recovery for sites that are willing to do the work. If cleaning up your links is no longer sufficient to release a site from Penguin, perhaps Google can offer another way out?
For example, Google could implement a review system, like they have for manual penalties. If a site that has been hit by Penguin could request a manual review, and possibly be freed, that would be wonderful. If you feel that this is feasible, please consider passing this suggestion on to John.
In my opinion, cleaning up your links and waiting for Penguin to refresh is no longer a viable path to recovery. Google needs to offer another way out.
Thanks so much for sending me your information Antonio. I’ll contact you once I’ve had a look.
Google got it completely backwards. Reward only good behavior and stopping punishing bad behavior. Problem solved on all fronts: sites with good links and content will rank well (the others won’t), sites with bad links and/or content won’t be penalized or suppressed (they just won’t be rewarded, BUT they’ll have the opportunity to be rewarded when they deserve it), negative SEO won’t work.
Hypothetically, if all sites survive Penguin, in the end Penguin will not have mattered one bit. Companies did what worked in order to to rank well (they got listed in seo directories, created pr posts, etc. etc. etc.). Now they’re penalized. But now they’re doing what they need to do to rank well again (create great link-worthy content, etc. etc. etc.). Companies or people do what they need to do to get what they want. In the end, Penguin is pointless. Way to go Google!
1st I miss the g+ share button, I wanted to read and I had to go to twitter and search the tweet – I usually share thinks on G+, wich I want to read later … (as a german!)
I think its not so impossible, that the penguin could destroy the SERP Quality, I mean it was matt cutts who said, that the SERP Quality suffers, when google ignores Links. I allready thought about it, but I hope it is not the reason.
Great article. I have sent you an email requesting to be added to your list. Our site now ranks WORSE than when we had Manual Action! If I could reverse Penguin and go back to having Manual Action instead, I would jump at the chance!
Thanks Steve. I’ll let you know when I’ve sent the email to John.
I predict that penguin will be alive for 1-2 years. Afterwards it will be finally replaced by something better which can handle negative seo.
Bing is doing well, but has no traffic.
We saw a dramatic decrease in search impressions for our design site from the 18th October, however we have had a 2000% increase to search impressions on other site which is relatively new print site only a couple of months old.
This Penguin update does seem a little shady. Something that also feels off about it is I saw a big boost at one point and then it seemed like it reverted.
Seems almost like they decided to keep websites penalized by Penguin for some reason. I hope you are able to figure something out with John Muller. Considering how little Google seems to show they don’t care so much but it is in their hands to help businesses shot down by penguin out.
I could technically start a new website but it would be a big pain and I am a branded business. Hopefully Google will actually release a good update with this and the sooner the better of course.
Do we know if Penguin has finished its roll out yet?
John Mueller said last week that he believes it has finished. But, we never did get an official word from Google.