How Not to Get Penalized by the Penguin 4.0 Real-Time Algorithm Filter

The long and eerie silence that hung in the air since Penguin’s last update has finally been broken. On 23rd September, Google dropped the bombshell and announced that Penguin is now part of Google’s core search engine ranking algorithm.

And it has been well worth the 715-day wait! The two biggest changes in how the filter (or ranking signal, depending on how you look at it) now works are:

  1. Penguin 4 is real time. Once you get rid of your bad links and disavow those you can’t, there’s a bit more you can do than sit tight and pray to the other G (god).
  2. Penguin 4 is granular. Your whole site won’t be hit out of the park just because a post on links to your out-of-stock item.

A week after the announcement, the jury is still out on whether Penguin 4.0 has fully rolled out. And given the sheer number of signals, filters and data refreshes that overlap, it is very difficult to determine the effects of Penguin (or any other algo factor, for that matter) on a specific URL or SERP with absolute certainty.

Dr. Pete Meyers of Moz tweeted something very significant:

“My gut feeling is that we’re not going to see a big Penguin 4.0 spike.”

That has held good for a week so far. A poll on SEO Round Table backs it up:

It appears the first three iterations have been successful in scaring the spammers away, and SEOs and webmasters across the world have turned a new leaf. Or, it might be that Google has just integrated the code into the algorithm yet, and with a few tweaks, the impact might be more visible as Penguin hits all of Google’s data centers and rolls out over an extended period of time, as and when gazillions of URLs are re-crawled.

Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting confirmed this:

So if you, like us, are in the 72% who aren’t seeing any fireworks, read on to find out how you can stay safe and away from the warzone.

Don’t expect to be warned

As with Panda, there won’t be any official word from Google on future updates. The obvious way to know if your site had been hit by an algorithmic penalty was to check if you had a traffic drop on the date of the announcement.

Not happening anymore.

And no use thronging those forums or bothering @rustybrick for the latest news. You alone are responsible for your sites, SEO-related actions, ups, downs, and recovery.

Build great links

“Create great content!”

You hear that everywhere. It’s what Google has always told us. It’s what the doctor said when my son was born.

Okay, I exaggerate. But not a lot. While most of us are busy creating great content these days, we tend to give just a wee bit less importance to that old workhorse – PageRank. And the road to high PageRank is paved with authority links. Google gently reminded us of that elephant in the room:

The integration of Penguin into the core algorithm doesn’t make link building obsolete. On the contrary, it is more crucial than ever before. Link building tactics and strategies that are feasible or actually work have remained pretty much the same in the past half-decade or so. Going forward, the real-time and granular characteristics of Penguin 4.0 will ensure that link building also follows suit.

How so?

First, let’s look into the “real-time” nature of Penguin. SEOs everywhere are delighted that their recovery efforts (disavowing or getting rid of low quality links) will yield immediate results. However, the opposite is also true. One injudicious campaign, a few tacky sources, or an ill-considered spurt in link velocity could cause your rankings to plummet at the wrong time and cost you a lot of money.

That said, it will be far easier to identify what exactly caused the fall, and if you act quickly, you’ll be back in the game within no time. SEO experts, including (I’d like to think) us, have always maintained that a “penalty recovery” doesn’t mean you get your rankings back; it only means there’s no spam holding you down anymore. To actually regain your visibility and impression volume, you need to consistently build authority links on the topic (and to the page) in question.

In the past, that used to be more of a spray and pray approach – you continued building new, authoritative links, but remained in a state of extended suspense until the next data refresh happened. Our clients and site owners in general took these recommendations (which cost money, effort and time to implement) with a pinch of salt and a barely discernible roll of eyes. We now stand vindicated: compared to the old days, Penguin 4 guarantees a virtually instantaneous recovery (as soon as Google recrawls and reindexes your pages) – surges in traffic can be clearly connected to positive efforts, if any.

Now let’s take a closer look at the “granularity” factor. As Google said in their announcement (and Gary Illyes later clarified), Penguin will no longer arbitrarily demote rankings of whole sites in search results. Rather, Google will now look at “spam signals” and devalue the actual incoming links based on the crappiness of individual pages or domains that are linking out to your site.

I believe this is a sign that Google is reasonably confident they have achieved two things:

  • They’ve built a comprehensive working database of spammy domains with the help of all the disavow files submitted so far.
  • They are now able to apply something like Moz’s Spam Score on a per-URL basis.

Taken together with the real-time component, this means you can plan for not only the quantity but also the quality of the links you build. If you’re a gadget retailer, for instance, by all means up your link building ante with reviews, comparisons and whatnot (from wherever you can get them) in the run up to Cyber Monday. But get links with more how-to and benefit-focused content (on consumer tech sites such as Engadget or Wired) the rest of the year round.

Got my point?

Mind your keywords

One mistake even seasoned SEOs and link builders make is to equate Penguin with bad links. However, Penguin combats much more than spammy links. In its original blog post heralding the arrival of Penguin, Google specifically mentioned (and gave an example of) keyword stuffing ahead of link schemes. They went on to say:

What are these quality guidelines? Here you go:

So, regardless of whether the content you create is on your site or the one from which you’re building a link, make sure it’s unique, useful, high quality and delivers a good user experience. Ditto for your tags, markup and meta content. We do remember to create content for humans now, but frequently forget to create titles, descriptions and anchor text for them. Experimenting with your rich snippets, over-optimizing your landing pages, getting creative with your affiliate programs, or allowing your audience to go ballistic on your website, may all lead to unintended consequences.

I’m privy to first-hand empirical (but not irrefutable) evidence that a URL can be hit by Penguin for certain search terms but not others, so I suggest you go as broad as possible with your keyword targeting and content optimization.

Don’t try to outwit Google

As Google continues to entrust increasingly larger chunks of its prized algorithm to machine learning, it faces a quandary that has been robbing programmers of their sleep for decades: new code invariably breaks the one that currently works. With AI, this problem is compounded because, as multiple Googlers have admitted, even those who created and set these algorithms in motion don’t fully understand how they work at the moment.

  • Gary revealed that many Google patents aren’t being put to good use as they weren’t yet feasible or compatible with existing systems.
  • We’ve seen exact match domain names and exact match anchor text routinely cycle through now-it-works, now-it-doesn’t phases.
  • In the past, there have been reports of Google algorithm updates such as Pigeon being rolled back. Indeed, Penguin 3 demotions will be removed in order to allow Penguin 4 to work its magic.

Bearing the above in mind, if you are advanced link builder who doesn’t mind trying out hats of varying color, the real time and granular properties of Penguin 4 might tempt you to try out stuff along the following lines:

  • Remember when you put those “borderline” domains (that you weren’t quite sure were hurting you) in your disavow file “just to be safe?” Now is the time to remove them and find out. While Gary Illyes and John Mueller both tweeted that Google’s disavow recommendations haven’t changed, Gary later admitted “for Penguin specifically there’s less need” for a disavow file (screenshot below).
  • Simultaneously burning the candle at the other end, you could also try building links that aren’t exactly natural or editorial but you think “wouldn’t do any harm.” Of course I don’t mean high velocity guest blogging, redirected domains or repurposed microsites, ecommerce site cloning, or dynamic PBNs using large scale cloaking combined with mass-produced, fresh content.
  • Build links to specific pages or campaign-specific sections on your site. Combine this with an internal linking strategy that involves linking to these designated URLs from the homepage or other important pages and tweaking the meta robots nofollow tag to control the flow of link juice (hello PageRank/anchor text sculpting) to them.

If any of these tactics get you in trouble with Penguin, you could quickly stop and turn back.

But… don’t try these at home. The risk is certainly not worth it. If you can think of it, Google has already thought of it. Someone has already done it and the machines are already dealing with it.

Manual actions seem to have declined on the surface, but they’re very much alive and kicking; Google sent 4,300,000 notices of manual actions to webmasters in 2015. And they reserve an especially nasty vengeance for systematic spammers:

You’re better off following their guidelines to the letter, even if that white hat doesn’t get you that elusive front row seat.


While Gary is confident that many webmasters will be happy once Penguin 4 completes its roll out, Dr. Pete’s prophecy makes more sense to me:

“If you didn’t see a Penguin recovery, I doubt you’ll see it in the next few days.”

Karma is a bitch but she doesn’t bite everyone. Google continues to shuffle and fuddle its SERPs in order to make “optimization” extremely difficult, abstruse and unpredictable.

The only thing worth optimizing in the long run is what people put into the search box – aim to build a brand and influence the conversation around it to such an extent that Google is left with no alternative but to chase it.

If you have any questions about Google penalties, or need any kind of help recovering from manual or algorithmic actions, feel free to get in touch. We have a team of SEO pros who understand the fundamentals of Google’s search algorithm, and have the experience and tools needed to keep your traffic and visibility climbing.

Rohan Ayyar

Rohan is the Regional Marketing Manager for India at SEMrush. He is an experienced digital marketer who has worked both agency and in-house, developing data-driven strategies for SEO, PPC, social media and content marketing. Rohan is also an avid business and tech blogger, with insights featured on publications like Fast Company, Business World, Search Engine Journal and Adweek.

1 thought on “How Not to Get Penalized by the Penguin 4.0 Real-Time Algorithm Filter

Comments are closed.