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The Complete History of Penguin Algorithmic Changes

Google Penguin Algorithm

Apparently Google has taken a liking to the animal world, and it has given specific names to some of its most important algorithm updates. A few months ago we witnessed the release of the Hummingbird algorithm, which will definitely change many things for online businesses, but we should also thing about the Panda and Penguin refreshes, which have had the most catastrophic effects on online businesses, websites and blogs. On 4 October 2013, Matt Cutts announced the fifth Penguin update, which is predicted to affect approximately 1% of searches to a noticeable degree. This refresh itself is called Penguin 2.1 for the simple fact that the previous refresh, Penguin 2.0 (which was also the fourth Penguin) uses second-generation technology.

Matt Cutts has talked about this update in a recent blog post, and it seems that the overall reactions to it are positive, because the algorithmic change promotes and rewards high-quality sites, and good content. He also stresses the importance of ethical SEO strategies, that enhance the usability of a website, and the indexability of different pages. Ok, so you probably understand nothing of this nonsense, so the best way to understand what Penguin means and what it does, is to talk about each update separately.

History of Confirmed Penguin Updates

  • Penguin 1 on April 24, 2012 (impacting around 3.1% of queries)

  • Penguin 2 on May 26, 2012 (impacting less than 0.1%)

  • Penguin 3 on October 5, 2012 (impacting around 0.3% of queries)

  • Penguin 4 (AKA Penguin 2.0) on May 22, 2013 (impacting 2.3% of queries)

  • Penguin 5 (AKA Penguin 2.1) on Oct. 4, 2013 (impacting around 1% of queries)

The penguin algorithm is basically meant to fight web-spam, cloaking, link-schemes and keyword stuffing. In other words, anyone who has ever used such search engine optimization strategies will be severely punished by it.

Although there were only five confirmed updates in the past, Google makes significant changes to its parameters each month, to combat the growing amount of web spam, that has a tremendous impact on SERPs. Penguin is one of those algorithms that relentlessly work in the background to improve the overall quality of online content.

So let us dive into the history of Penguin updates in order to better understand one of Google’s most important updates, and also better protect our websites from impending dangers.


1. Penguin 1.0 – April 24, 2012

On April 24, 2012 Google finally launched the Penguin algorithm, which, they say, was supposed to catch people who spam search results purposely, or who try to rank better by manipulating the search engine. According to Google engineers, this release was supposed to impact 3% of all search queries.

In the next few days, we’re launching an important algorithm change targeted at webspam. The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s quality guidelines. This algorithm represents another step in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content. “

(Source: Google Webmaster Central Blog)

The bottom line is that penguin 1.0 will fight web-spam, but what exactly does this term mean? Web-spam is referred to any technique that involves keyword stuffing, cloaking, sneaky redirects or doorway pages, purposeful duplicate content and link schemes.

This news wasn’t new even when the algorithm had first appeared, because these techniques were being used for over ten years, and Google already started to fight against them. What penguin tries to do is find better solutions to dealing with these problems. In other words, Google was rolling out a more efficient method for protecting the average user from “lies”. When Penguin 1.0 rolled out in 2012, it was called the “webspam algorithm update”, and although it was dubbed the “Titanic” by people on Search Engine Land, it was finally confirmed as the Penguin.

1 Penguin

Penguin 1.0 was a Success

In the photo above, you have the perfect example of unnatural links being stuffed into one, short article. These types of sites, as well as articles that were stuffed with keywords, were affected by the change. If you read the text, you will discover that the anchors have absolutely nothing to do with the content. In other words, SEO practitioners who were doing nothing but stuffing random links and keywords into articles, will no longer be forgiven. For the first time, in a long time, white hat SEO was rewarded.

The initial Penguin update affected 3.1% of English queries, and 3% of sites in German, Chinese and Arabic. Furthermore, the heavily spammed languages changed to a degree that regular users might notice. According to Google engineers, they will only accept “amazing and compelling web sites” in the future, and this means no more spun content, suspicious links, and anchors that are not related to what you have written in your post. (Tip: Back-link strategies should be coherent and relevant to your niche)

Spam Still Managed to Get Through

Obviously, Penguin 1.0 managed to obliterate sites that were heavily reliant on black-hat practices, and still, there are spammy sites that somehow survived the update. In the past, it was possible to file a reconsideration request if your site was deemed as spam, but this rule did not apply to sites hit by Penguin. According to Matt Cutts, pages that were hit by Penguin could only recover “naturally” after all the suspicious content and links were cleaned up. But how will you know, after the cleanup, that your site is ok?

Like Panda, Penguin is actually a filter that gets refreshed from time-to-time. In other words, by the time you fix your pages, another algorithm might appear, and screw things up again. Also, Cutts wouldn’t say if Penguin gives side-wide slaps, or page-specific, like Panda. No matter how your site gets slapped, however, it is very possible to recover from any possible update.


2. Penguin 1.1 #2– May 25, 2012

Penguin #2 was released right before a holiday weekend, and this made it quite difficult for webmasters to determine whether or not they have been affected by it, because during the holidays, many verticals experience big spikes or significant downturns. In other words, what you think might be a problem with your site, might actually be a normal occurrence, considering that most people have left for the holidays.

Matt Cutts on Twitter:

Minor weather report: We pushed 1st Penguin algo data refresh an hour ago. Affects <0.1% of English searches.”

It was the first time, since the initial Penguin release, that Matt Cutts stated anything about it being updated. Although many webmasters suspected additional updates to the main algorithm, Cutts denied everything. Furthermore, the second update isn’t an update per-say. It was actually meant to help Google better index the content online, so inappropriate pages that escaped the initial tsunami, were hit. Obviously, webmasters, and small business owners in particular, were not pleased by these changes, as they made it even more difficult for them to rank their sites.

There have also been certain speculations that Google is applying such changes because it wants to get more money out of PPC and Adwords, but this is not entirely true. In a comment, on SearchEngineLand, someone said that the results from five years ago are extremely different from the ones at the present, and truthfully, it is really hard for Google to rank pages correctly, especially when there are so many door-way or black-hat SEO websites at the moment.


3. Penguin #3 – October 5, 2012

On October 5, 2012, the third Penguin update was announced. According to Google officials, it would impact 0.3% of English queries, and 0.4% of non-English ones. It seems that this data refresh will seriously impact pages that do not play by Google’s rules. As a matter of fact, sites that had problems with spam and unnatural links registered major drops in traffic, while websites that were previously hit by Penguin, but solved their problems, received boosts in traffic.

Matt Cutts on Twitter:

Weather report: Penguin data refresh coming today. 0.3% of English queries noticeably affected.

It is also the first time that Google engineers attempt to explain what “noticeable” means when displaying impact on search queries. Apparently, when the top 10 results change, they call it “noticeable”, and for cases where lower results shift, they do not mention anything more. It was around this time that the Panda #20 update was also released, but there is a major contrast between the two algorithms. The Panda refresh was focused on upgrading web-sites with good layouts, and in this Penguin update, the focus was on limiting spamindexing. Furthermore, research indicates that search engine visibility affects both traffic and conversions positively → implications of the web on business.

In many ways, the third update was good news for small businesses, and entrepreneurs, because they can now better focus on their work. Presumably, they cannot afford to hire a SEO agency to promote their website, but this might no longer be an imperative requirement for online success. Apparently, the focus on the importance of quality and relevance of back-links has increased more than ever. In other words, natural link-building schemes, citations, and active engagement with like-minded people is a must. This means that a blogger or entrepreneur can focus on his niche, and naturally promote an online presence, by doing what he knows best.

The paramount importance to get the initial visibility through the web has become somewhat easier for new bloggers and websites due to Google’s focus to filter web-sites in terms of content quality and weed out link-farms. “


4. Penguin 2.0 – May 22, 2013

There has been a lot of chatter on the subject of Penguin 2.0 in the past, and we have also already discussed about it in this post, so we will try to keep it short. Unlike previous updates, the fourth penguin had a little something special to it. It was actually more than a simple update, it had some second-generation under its hood, and this is the reason why it was dubbed Penguin 2.0.

The algorithmic change was announced during This Week in Google (episode #199), episode in which they also announced that SEOs and webmasters should expect major changes to the search results. Apparently, 2.3% of English queries will be noticeably impacted by this update. The main reason why it is so different, is because it goes deeper, and it impacts more than simply landing pages.

The big losers will be definitely be game sits, porn sites, and big grands like SearchMetrics was the first authority that commented, and tested the way that different websites were affected by Penguin 2.0 by using the SEO visibility benchmark. Although there has been a lot of fuss on the subject of Penguin 2.0, the truth is that at a SERP level nothing spectacular really happened. As a matter of fact, it seems that the only sites that will be seriously affected will be thin sites, with untrusted links, and low-quality content.

Main Characteristics of Penguin 2.0

  • If you are actively involved with SEO, you have probably had some confrontations with Penguin in the past. In all likelihood you have also discovered that legacy back-link profiles can cause serious ranking issues. Penguin 2.0 is quite similar to its previous updates, in that it punishes websites that have suspicious back-linking techniques and black-hat practices. Obviously, back-links are still vital for SEO, and many webmasters have tried to promote their content through various methods (guest-posting, comments, etc). But if you have unnatural links, then you should quickly get rid of them (by disavowing them), or you may be at risk.

  • Authority sites were rewarded by Penguin 2.0, because they have better use of content, they have leveraged their voice on the market, and they make use of integrated campaigns.

  • Penguin is looking for reactions from real people. This means no more senseless link-building campaigns on sites that are not visited, and no more obscure SEO tactics. The only way to promote yourself online is by making yourself heard by people, and not necessarily crawlers.

The prevailing trend for big brand SEO: get control of your existing SEO efforts; and, if you haven’t already, get your team working to a coherent content strategy that uses your thought leaders’ own voices to get the good word out about your brand. “ (Source: Search Engine Land)


5. Penguin 2.1 #5 – October 4, 2013

Someone mentioned that Penguin 2.0 was a lot quieter than expected, and that it might be possible that the next update will make a huge Bang, and they were right. The release of the fifth Penguin caused a lot of head-aches for many webmasters. This is where things get interesting: sites that were punished by previous Penguin updates have registered increase in traffic during the time of its release, and sites that somehow escaped its wrath in the past, were severely hit this time around. Also, Penguin 2.1 is part of the brand new Hummingbird algorithm, and not a replacement for it. As a matter of fact, it has become a small part of Google’s entire ranking engine (that is Hummingbird).

Matt Cutts on Twitter:

Penguin 2.1 launching today. Affects ~1% of searches to a noticeable degree.”

In their post, the writers from Webmaster Central mentioned that Penguin 2.1 is another step to reward high-quality sites, and this brings us back to a statement they made, that SEO practices should be focused on enhancing the overall usability of a site from a visitor’s point of view. In other words, effective SEO can make a site more crawlable, and pages more accessible. This is why Penguin 2.1 is important, because it fights against spam more efficiently, especially because it has become part of the Hummingbird algorithm.

The impact of Penguin 2.1? See for yourself: 

I’ve seen screen shots of Google Analytics showing websites completely destroyed by this update. I’ve also seen screen shots of Google Analytics showing websites that recovered in a major way from previous Penguin updates. This had huge swings both ways for webmasters and SEOs. Some recovered and are back in business, while others are about to lose their businesses. Also, some it had no impact on at all. Like you all know, when one web site drops another one takes it place. “ 

(Source: SeoRoundTable)

Furthermore, according to their poll, approximately 65% of 2500 sites were crushed by Penguin 2.1.

Now that you know the history of the Penguin algorithm, and how it has affected webmasters with every update, let’s see what you can do to protect your site from it:

  1. Create user-friendly meta-tags and meta-descriptions. Make sure they are relevant to your content.

  2. Create high-quality, unique and insightful content. Google cares a great deal about content, they want lots of it, but not just any type. The whole idea is to add value to the internet, so if you haven’t focused on it in the past, try to repair your articles, and create helpful ones in the future.

  3. Remove paid links that are not relevant to your page. Google has strict rules against it, and Penguin will definitely slap you because of them.

  4. Social signals play a vital role in SEO today. As a matter of fact, there is talk about social SEO and SoLoMo practices which try to bring together the most popular mediums: social, local and mobile.

Wrapping Up:

The requirements of Google have not changed much if you think about it. The only thing that changed is the enforcers. If two years ago it was possible to slip an irrelevant link on your site, or to create thin content pages, nowadays it is impossible. The only way to make it online, and sleep tightly at night, is by investing in ethical SEO strategies.

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