Well, Google have done it again.

The last time I went on annual leave they took the sidebar ads out of the SERP. This time I take a two week holiday (shocking, I know) and they only go and update the Penguin algorithm, a component that everyone in the SEO world had been waiting on for most of two years. Talk about timing.

A Brief Penguin Primer

Google Penguin is designed to combat webspam. This includes (but is not limited to) problems with keyword stuffing, sneaky redirects and dodgy links. Over time the “dodgy links” portion of the algorithm has been expanded and refined so most modern SEOs know Penguin primarily as a combatant to “offsite spam.” Everything from bad link neighbourhoods, unnatural inbound anchor text proportions and abnormal link acquisition velocity is potentially in the line of fire.

Or, in other words, who you get links from, what they link on and how fast they roll out.

The initial Penguin releases set off a storm, especially in the dodgier parts of the digital world where bulk link building had been more or less the only form of “SEO” that a lot of even quite well-known brands had been engaged in. Industry news was rife with manual penalties, sites dropping out of search results, big names vanishing from the face of The Google.

Subsequent rollouts of Penguin served to both refine the algorithm and refresh the dataset, so sites doing link clean-ups or disavows had to wait for the next update before they could see if they were going to recover or not. Since the last rollout was back in 2014, a lot of people who got hit then have been very fractious about the lack of updates, for obvious reasons.

Incidentally, 4Ps has never had a client hit by a Penguin penalty due to our SEO activity. We’ve dealt with lifting penalties for a few people who’ve come to us for help though. We also provide comforting hugs, and often cake, while we work on penalty removals. Just saying.

Penguin 4.0

As well as updating Penguin and its datasets to the official version 4.0, Google has also made a few revisions to how it works. The first thing is that Penguin’s functionality is now real time – meaning that you’ll be penalised as you spam (pro tip: don’t), and will recover as you clean up, rather than having to wait for data refreshes and formal “updates” to roll out. This is something they’ve been promising for a while, so great news that it has finally happened.

Secondly, Penguin has been rolled into the main Google algorithm. This means it isn’t a separate filter applied on top of results (or underneath, or any other direction) once the core algo has run, but is baked in as part of the core process that ranks pages and produces a SERP. This doesn’t mean much in practical terms except that, combined with the real time nature of 4.0, Google won’t be announcing further Penguin changes because it will in essence be running continuously as part of everyday algorithmic business as usual. So Penguin the Fourth is also Penguin the Last, in a sense!

Importantly, this also means no more manual penalty messages in Search Console – if the algorithm is negatively affecting your site you’re not going to get an announcement in lights. edit 29/9/16: Thanks to some investigation by Barry Schwartz, we know that manual actions are still a possibility if you’re suffering from a real spam attack. It is also still recommended to use disavow files, interestingly, although Google’s Gary Illyes says that the algorithm now “devalues” spam on its own. Note the “devalue” rather than “demote” – inbound spammy links are aimed to just “not count as links” rather than to cause active demotion of a site’s visibility. Unless you really spam it. Then you’ll get a manual action just as you used to. So just don’t spam it.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, the way Penguin acts on websites and pages is changing. It used to be a fairly whole hog affair – if you got a Penguin penalty it walloped your entire website and took no prisoners. Now, Google are saying they’ve made things a lot more granular so if there are spam problems only on certain sections of your site, only the affected sections will experience the algorithmic “visibility downgrade” of any Penguin impact. Note that this doesn’t mean it only affects individual pages in the way the mobile UX signal does, just that it is more granular now than “whole site goes blam.”

What Does This Mean For Me?

Provided you’ve been avoiding dodgy and spammy SEO practices, especially in your offsite efforts, this should mean very little in terms of business as usual. Keep calm, carry on, have a cuppa, etc.

If your site has had penalty problems in the past, however, Penguin 4.0 is probably mixed news. Provided you’ve cleaned your act up since 2014 (and if not, why not?) then the update should go some way to helping your visibility recover. edit 3/10/2016 Google have now confirmed that Penguin recoveries should be rolling out onto previously penalised sites, so keep a weather eye on your SERP sampling. If you were waiting on a recovery now is when it should start happening (if you’ve cleaned your act up). Even if you’re squeaky clean, monitor those rank samples because the newly recovered folks will be jostling back for position so things are likely to get a bit bumpy for a while until things settle down a bit more again.

In addition, don’t forget that (depending on the nature of your activity) you might get an algorithmic penalty to all or part of your website. Annotate your analytics (and any rank sampling/tracking tools you use) so you can track changes back to the update rollout. If you do see problems, be sure to check by topic and site area to see which parts of your website are affected, given the more granular nature of the Penguin effects now.

And above all, don’t build rubbish and spammy bulk links. Come on, people, this is 2016.

4Ps isn’t just another SEO agency. To discuss how technology, search algorithms and web development are evolving together to meet new demands from search engines and users, give us a call on +44 (0)207 607 5650 for a no-obligation coffee and chat about data, marketing and user behaviour across all inbound channels. What could a 4Ps SEO consultant do for your business?