Google Penguin 4.0 – Facts, Fiction & The Final Verdict

The long anticipated algorithm update finally gets released

So as we suspected last month, after 731 days since the release of the now infamous and generally draconian Penguin 3.0 algorithm, Google finally got around to releasing its most feared and loathed search engine update to the joy and dismay of many.

As the days, weeks and months grew between the version 3 and 4 updates, the rumour mill of what this latest update will have in store got into high gear. Some theories were just plain guesswork based on pure conjecture whilst others were actually based on factual information relating to the infrequent and admittedly at times, contradictory messages coming out of Google HQ; most notably from the mouths of John Mueller and Gary Illyes

However, what we do know is this algo update is finally here and it’s a game changer. It’s been close to a month since it was officially rolled out on 23rd September 2016, (although we believe it actually began much earlier) and the effects are being felt all the time.

Now you may think that we’re a little late to the party in writing a blog post about an algo update that has already been out for several weeks. But hold your horses!

There’s been far too many industry ‘experts’ and ‘insiders’ coming out with their de facto opinions and final verdicts way too early when clearly this latest algo was still in the midst of rolling out and taking full effect. Some blog posts were frankly far too premature.

Even today, SERP volatility monitors such as MozCastSERPmetricsAlgorooRankRanger and AccuRanker have all been simmering or close to boiling point for weeks now ever since this latest release started. This fact alone tells you just how big a beast this latest algo is and its temperatures are still running pretty hot right now. Google’s search results pages seem to be consistently ‘grumpy’ to say the least!

Most SEO’s will tell you its been a testing period. Many have experienced ups, downs and fluctuations that have made very little sense. So we’re here to try to clear a way through the hot air and fog to present the facts, fiction and informed verdicts on what this algo update has effectively done to the search world since its unveiling a few weeks ago.

Google Penguin 4.0 Left Many SEO’s in a Nervous Sweat with Anticipation!

What we do know about Google Penguin 4.0

This release has granular structure

There’s not a great deal of ‘official’ information coming out of Google on this release (now there’s a surprise) but what we do know is unlike it’s predecessor, which hit the search world like a freight train, Penguin version 4 is ‘granular’. So what does that mean?

If you take a look at how Penguin 3.0 was developed, you’ll completely understand this statement. That algo was built as a single, great big compiled ugly lump that when it hit, it was like a ton weight landing on you from a great height. It literally crushed and destroyed sites, many of which were undeserving of such harsh and devastating treatment.

Many sites got hit by ‘manual action penalties’ whilst others were hit unwittingly with more stealth like algorithmic approaches and suddenly and unexpectedly, found themselves languishing on the lower search results pages. Some disappeared off the radar altogether! They were told in good faith to remove and disavow toxic links and either wait for the next Penguin refresh or for their penalty to be revoked to see if their efforts would help them recover. Some never did.

Now over two years later, owners of those sites are now only starting to see if those efforts were worth it and the net result so far is a very mixed bag, most of which is not good news unfortunately. It seem some of these sites won’t ever recover fully.

Understandably, Google received some pretty harsh criticism over the way in which Penguin 3.0 was handled and with this release, it comes as no surprise that version 4.0 is segmented and granular, meaning any small parts of their algo can be adjusted and tweaked unlike the big ugly beast that was version 3. Google will never admit it made some major errors of judgement over the previous incarnation of the Penguin algorithm but frankly, it was a disaster on many levels.

It hit sites without warning and it hit them across the board, creating a new dark art of the SEO world in the shape of ’negative SEO’ which allowed unscrupulous individuals to deliberately and maliciously build toxic links, pointing them at competing sites to take them down. It was messy, ugly and downright disgraceful at times. Google had screwed up big time. They knew any future Penguin release would have to take these issues into consideration and realise that not all links were necessarily created or built by the target website owners in question.

Inbound links will be affected, not entire sites

So with the debacle that was Penguin 3.0 behind them, Google knew that any future algo would have to take action against the quality of the actual inbound links as opposed to the target site in question.

Again, this has not been confirmed by Google officially but many studies by well-respected SEO’s have shown that this latest algorithmic release now demotes or devalues the power of inbound links which in turn, reduces the equity being passed to a site from any given link, rather than slapping the actual target site with the penalty.

This makes a great deal more sense and does make one wonder why Google didn’t take this approach last time around! With a Web Spam team that is well stocked with employees, it baffles me how this idea hadn’t surfaced a long time ago. But gripes aside, its about time and an approach that is long overdue!

What this means is, negative SEO will be far less effective as the link sources will get hurt more than the target site and it also means that anyone involved in link building for SEO must choose quality over quantity, otherwise you’re just wasting your time and your client’s money.

When Google’s ‘page rank’ system was the core ranking factor, SEO’s could get away with building thousands of links from various sources using ‘exact match anchors’ to improve search visibility. Not anymore! Now the game has changed big time and SEO’s have to go out and source industry niche specific sites that offer a useful and reputable platform on which to build links via great content or relevant material. In other words, spam is dead and the only way forward is to seek out sites within your community that will bring relevant traffic to your target site through creating and sharing great content – surely that has to be a win win!

Target pages will be affected, not entire sites

When an SEO builds a link, that link has to go to a single page URL. In the past, most would build links to the top level website URL and why wouldn’t they you may ask? Most site owners would want their traffic to enter their site via the homepage. But if the majority of the links you have built are spammy and of a poor quality, then this is bad news.

Those poor quality links will now have been demoted and thus, your site ranks will have fallen likewise. Google knows that when users search for information or content, rarely is that ever found on a site’s homepage. It’s most likely to be found on a site blog or on deeper linked specialist pages that discuss specific subjects that users want to read.

So if you’ve built links pointing purely to the homepage in the past, stop and think about the net effect of what this approach will do to your clients ranks. Web users want a great experience so create content on your site that is original, useful and informative and share that to a wider audience via social media, industry niche sites and communities and guess what – not only will your traffic increase, the quality of the visitors will improve and your site’s bounce rate will most likely drop with it too.

The good news is, this latest Penguin release will only demote links based on where they point. In the past, an entire site will have been affected but now, poor link building should only affect the target page in question, so you’ve been given a reprieve and a chance to undo the bad work you’re undertaken in the past. Don’t waste this opportunity!

Penguin now refreshes in real-time

Like it’s algorithmic cousin Google Panda (the on-page quality algorithm), Penguin is now part of the core algorithm and will refresh in real-time. So if you have built great quality links or for that matter poor ones, you should see the net effect of your work fairly quickly. This of course could mean your ranks go up as well as down but at least you’ll now have the chance to remove or disavow poor quality links and see the result of that work far quicker. Gone are the days of waiting months, even years for the next algo refresh, thank goodness.

What we don’t know about Google Penguin 4.0

Will penalised sites fully recover?

It’s still very unclear whether sites that were slapped with a ‘manual action penalty’ will ever fully recover, even after removing and disavowing links. Many believe that once you’ve been in and out of Google’s jail, you’re always on probation so will likely be handicapped for good.

From the chatter we’ve seen online in the SEO community, no one to date who received a manual action penalty has fully recovered back to where they were. However, anyone who built toxic links whether knowingly or unwittingly will undoubtedly have many more floating around the internet they may not be aware of and so we believe any real recoveries after Penguin 4.0 will be relative to the quality of the links they kept and those they removed.

Is it fair game?

We’re seeing reports of many search results showing multiple entries from the same domain which we were led to believe Google was tackling. So to see these return is a massive disappointment and does lead us to feel that the big G is still favouring the heavily paying advertisers over the small business owners. So as things stands, the search outlook doesn’t appear particularly fair.

Will new manual action notices be sent to sites using spammy links?

There’s very little evidence to support any talk of new manual action penalties being placed on sites with this algo release. We hope that Google learned many lessons from last time around and has realised this is not the best way forward, so to hazard an educated guess, we’d bet this concept has been permanently shelved. But at the time of writing, we cannot fully confirm if this is the case.

Inbound link page rank no longer affects a site’s search ranks

It’s common knowledge that Google is gradually shifting away from its ‘Page Rank’ system in favour of the recently introduced ‘Rank Brain’ scoring system to ranks sites based on an array of factors but we’re yet to see any clear cut evidence that page rank is effectively dead. We know that MOZ page rank, authority and trust flow is a hugely influential factor in how link equity affects the target site receiving the inbound link but this does not represent the absolute end of page rank. We still believe it has some years left to run but how long that is, only Google knows.

The Final Verdict

So after months and month of asking when and how will Penguin 4.0 get released, we finally got what we asked for. Was it worth the wait? There’s arguments for both sides.

Those that received harsh penalties will be the ones who feel most aggrieved. There’s talk coming from within the doors of Google that those who worked to remove poor links will start to see recoveries very soon but the evidence we’ve seen is minimal. Way back when, some folks at Google including John Mueller expressed advice to some site owners to start again. It seems he perhaps knew that recoveries would never be felt by those with seriously hit sites and thus, they should have taken his advice.

Those who have walked away from poor link building methods, including greyhat and blackhat in favour is creating and sharing high quality whitehat content will be rubbing their hands with glee.

In the main, sites that have engaged in quality link building have reaped the rewards and thus, that hard work has really paid off. It’s still not an entirely fair playing field however, with a fairly large group of big guns who have been known to use some very questionable link-building methods still appear to rank high regardless which tells you just how much money talks. Never upset the sponsors hey guys!

But overall, this latest Penguin release was far less harsh than some had anticipated, including ourselves. With it taking over 2 years to be developed, it was understandably easy to expect it to be massively disruptive and at times during the early parts of September 2016 when we suspect its rollout really started, ranks were all over the place.

However, as the days and weeks have gone by, this latest update has started to settle down and we can see that in the main, if you have built high authority links within your niches to high quality content on your target sites, you should be sitting pretty. If you’re not, it might be time to audit your backlink profiles to see if there’s any bad eggs floating in there.

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