Penguin 4.0 Google update – what is it and who’s been hit?

Penguin 4.0 Google Update
10 things you need to know about the Penguin 4.0 Google algorithm update

1. Penguin 4.0 is now processed in real time (September 23rd), and forms part of Google’s core algorithm.

2. Penguin 4.0 is different to Penguin 3.0 (2012) in that it simply discounts, devalues or ignores the link-juice passed on from any spam links, rather than algorithmically penalising an entire domain for the spammy links pointing towards it.

3. Penguin 4.0 judges on a granular, page by page basis – entire domains will no longer be able to gain any authority or ranking from spam links…

4. …but neither will they be completely slaughtered in the SERPs as a result of having a select few, low-quality (spam) links pointing towards them.

5. Domains can only potentially lose rankings if their spam links had actually helped them to improve rankings in the first place.

6. Therefore, it isn’t necessarily imperative to use a disavow file*, as Penguin only targets spam links specifically – however it can’t hurt to apply just in case.

7. When manual actions are involved, as a result of human audits made by Google webmasters (i.e. when a domain falls foul of Google’s webmaster quality guidelines), it’s still crucial to apply disavows.

8. Sites that previously received penalties, as a result of Penguin 3.0, should be beginning to see recoveries, provided that they have taken the right steps to remove spam links (i.e. by applying disavows or addressing over-optimised internal link networks), and built a quality link profile since then, according to Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google.

9. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed that parts of Penguin 4.0 rolled out prior to September 23rd.

10. Penguin 4.0 may well target sites with over-optimised internal linking strategies and keyword rich anchor text.


*What is a disavow file?

You upload a disavow file to Google to sever a link between your domain and a third party site – usually when this site is either of low quality or spammy. Links like this can lower the authority of your domain, especially in large quantities, so it’s important to stem the flow where possible.


What’s the SERP landscape like since the Penguin 4.0 Google update hit?

Since Penguin 4.0’s announcement on September 23rd, we SEOs have been left scratching our heads in bewilderment because, actually, not a lot seems to have changed so far in the SERPs. This has led some to believe that Penguin 4.0 is a fixer-upper algorithm, rather than a seismic shift in SEO linking best practice.

Gary Illyes confirmed that Penguin 4.0, in fact, rolled out before its official release date, which has also left some of us wondering whether the ‘Possum’ September algorithm update around 2nd and the 14th was at all Penguin 4.0 related.

What’s more, there’s been a lot of conjecture as to whether the ‘Possum’ flux can be attributed to the ongoing Panda algorithm which, unlike Penguin, is not real-time, but subject to manual refreshes at random intervals.


Did Penguin 4.0 hit the finance and gambling industry?

Following the September 2nd update, we discovered that some major UK online banks and gambling sites had dropped out of the SERPs for some big, competitive search terms. Originally we believed that September 2nd was the result of drastic testing in Google, but have now discovered some evidence to suggest it was potentially Penguin 4.0 related.

The gambling sector, in particular, saw drastic drops, which is demonstrated by Pi Datametrics visibility index below.

Penguin 4.0 google update - visibility index banking drops Penguin 4.0 google update - visibility index gambling drops

These dips in performance may appear to be fairly subtle, but they represent negative site-wide performance across major, competitive and high-value generic gambling terms.

Gambling, historically, has been characterised by quick wins and questionable link building strategies, so the first natural conclusion we can draw is that these sites have faced the wrath of Penguin 4.0, prior to its official release date on the 23rd. However, this didn’t quite fit the bill of ‘Penguin 4.0’, given that it’s no longer meant to persecute the entire site for poor link practice, and rather just devalue the select few pages which display black-hat, spam or poor quality links.

Unless that is, if both domains had conducted site-wide, low-quality link building tactics…


Major UK online bank and gambling sites sure seem to think they’ve been targeted by Penguin 4.0 Google update

Penguin 4.0 google update - Major UK gambling site dropsPenguin 4.0 google update - Major UK online bank drops out of Google

We analysed the landing pages linked to the terms most negatively affected on September 2nd (‘Best current account’ [in purple] and ‘Gambling games’ [in grey]). When looking at their backlink profiles, we found that both pages had lost hundreds of backlinks following September 23rd, or the official Penguin 4.0 release date.

Penguin 4.0 google update - Major online bank cleans up link profile Penguin 4.0 google update - Major online gambling site cleans up link network

We dug deeper into the bank’s lost backlink profile and found that it had been previously conducting fairly black-hat link building strategies, i.e. purchasing 13 separate TLDs:

  • .nz
  • .cz
  • .org
  • .pl
  • .ru
  • .net
  • .de
  • .za
  • .com
  • .lu
  • .my
  • .jo

…as well as 11 route variations and two separate subdomains, to link to their current account landing page.

Following the 23rd of September, however, this site began a big clean-up and seemingly lost hundreds of links (between September 3rd – October 3rd), and only 11% of those came from unrelated, external sites – the rest of the link juice flowing from the above TLD’s had been 301 redirected to the banks ‘Current account’ landing page. They obviously supposed their drops in performance stemmed from some questionable link building tactics.

Similarly, only 29% of links lost by the major UK gambling site were from external or unrelated sites – the rest either came from internal or related subdomains, which suggests that this site had also been clearing up its link inventory across its network of sites.


Is the Penguin 4.0 Google update targeting over-optimised internal link networks?

One main focus of Penguin 4.0 is keyword rich anchor text, and the gambling site had used the same anchor text across every lost backlink that they could control (i.e. they used ‘Vegas casino games’ to point towards their gaming subdomain from other family related assets).

Perhaps this contributed to their dramatic drop in performance, however, if you’ll believe Matt Cutts’ comments on intra-site linking, you’d think that site-wide menu navigation links and internal link networks are – technically – acceptable. There’s further evidence to suggest that Google even rewards sites that apply keyword rich intra-site linking in this in-depth study carried out by Viperchill.

However, it could be that Google is cracking down on grey-hat linking techniques via Penguin 4.0 (i.e. footer / menu navigation links for building a network of sites) – especially if you take into consideration the fact that they recently issued a warning to those who practice widget link building.


Despite link cleaning efforts, both the bank and gambling site have yet to recover

Penguin 4.0 google update - Major online bank cleans up link profile with no organic uplift Penguin 4.0 google update - Major gambling site cleans up link profile with no uplift
Looking at the current performance of both landing pages, it seems that neither link clean-up has returned these sites to their previous rankings (positions 10-14 [bank] and positions 7-10 [gambling site]) – which is unusual as Penguin 4.0 is thought to work in real time, meaning changes should happen as and when each page is crawled… Perhaps this isn’t the work of Penguin at all.


What conclusions can we draw from this?

1. Penguin 4.0 may have been the cause of the huge early September flux

2. Google may be telling porkies about how Penguin 4.0 deals with affected sites – does it really just ‘devalue’ single pages, as opposed to entire domains? …

3. OR – Is Penguin 4.0 targeting grey-hat techniques such as over-optimised internal links in footers, menu navigation and widgets?


We’re scanning the SERPs every day and we have yet to see any major drops or peaks after the 23rd of September which are explicitly Penguin 4.0 related. We’re forever on the lookout though – don’t you worry about that!

If you’ve seen any Penguin shaped flux, drop us a comment below. And, if you are interested in receiving any more Penguin or link-based insights, feel free to get in touch here.

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