Since 2012, one word has struck fear into web marketers: Penguin. Google’s famously unforgiving filter, which followed on from 2011’s Panda, knocked some of the internet’s most successful sales sites so far down the rankings that they became practically invisible, losing up to 60% of their hits. Operating periodically, it last struck in October 2014, leaving sites impacted then with no chance to recover even if they changed their ways. Now, at last, an updated version has arrived. It will not only give those sites a chance to redeem themselves, but it’s also set to approach the punishment of sinful sites in a new, much subtler way.
Penguin refreshes in real time
Google has said that this Penguin update will be the last. That’s because from now on it will be running in real time, processed as part of the search engine giant’s core search algorithm. This will make it much easier for sites to recover if they tackle the problems that saw them fall foul of it. It also means, however, that Penguin will be quick to respond to new transgressions.
Penguin will reassess pages each time that Google crawls them as part of its routine re-indexing process. This means that the time between changes will vary depending on how often the site is crawled. It could take just a few hours or it could take days. Either way, it will be better than waiting for two years.
Page by page
One of the most positive things about this update is that Penguin is now a lot less likely to punish a whole site because it has a problem with part of it. Instead of looking at the site as a whole, it will examine it page by page. “Penguin is now more granular. Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site,” said Google.
Whilst this is undoubtedly good news, it comes with a warning. Despite the focus on pages, they are not the only factor that will be considered. This suggests that if a site has a high proportion of problematic pages, it can expect the ranking of its clean pages to fall as well.
Devaluing versus demoting
What does Google mean when it says that Penguin now devalues spam? Most experts are interpreting this as saying that pages with content identified as spam will not be interpreted positively, but will not automatically be knocked down the rankings. Content on the same site – or even on the same pages – that does please Google will continue to weigh in the site’s favour. This means that high-quality sites whose admins have made a few mistakes are a lot less likely to find themselves rendered invisible. Sites that are brazenly flouting the rules can still expect to suffer for it.
This change in approach means that sites will be less likely to suffer severely if other sites that they link to change ownership and start being used for spam. This will be a boon for big sites run by small teams who don’t have time to review all their links frequently.
Keeping Penguin happy
Despite this change in approach, Google is still advising website managers that it’s worth their while to keep Penguin happy. Whilst there is “less specific need” to use the disavow file, they have heavily implied that doing so can still make a difference. They also note that manual checks on sites will still take place. The fact that Penguin is now more forgiving may mean that Google’s human staff are less so. Although the risk of getting caught in this way is lower, the punishment could be a lot more severe, and it isn’t clear that sites penalised in this way could expect their original status to be restored the next time Penguin passes by.
Winners and losers
Who stands to lose and who stands to gain from this update? First of all, it’s good news for site owners who are genuinely trying to do the right thing but just make errors from time to time – including those who are naive about filters and have made no conscious effort to cater for them. Not everybody can be number one, however, so the fact that less careful sites are likely to rise in the rankings means that the work of careful webmasters will have less value. Getting to the top of the rankings will become less about following rules to the letter and more about other factors, such as the frequency of updates.
The fact that it has been two years since the last Penguin update means that a number of sites have got away with bad behaviour in the meantime, and their owners are about to get a shock.
Google said that the update is being rolled out slowly, so you may not see changes to your ranking immediately; but if you’ve been waiting a long time for the chance to redeem past mistakes, this Penguin will, at last, be a friendly one.