How 10 years of Google Penguin has changed the SEO industry

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Google’s first Penguin algorithm update rolled out on 24 April, 2012, shaking up the entire SEO industry. This month, we mark the 10th anniversary of Penguin and it seems like the perfect moment to reflect on how this update changed the world of SEO – and why it’s still important today.

What is Google Penguin?

Penguin refers to an algorithm that first acted as a separate filter, independent of Google’s core search algorithm. Essentially, it was a bolt-on launched during the first Penguin algorithm update on 24 April, 2012. The update targeted websites engaged in manipulative link schemes and keyword stuffing, as part of Google’s war on webspam.

Between 2012 and 2016, Penguin itself went through 10 documented updates, evolving over time, before Google announced it had become part of its core search algorithm in early 2017.

What does Penguin target?

The Penguin algorithm targets two malicious SEO activities: link schemes and keyword stuffing.

  1. Link schemes: Purchasing backlinks or engaging in the artificial development of backlinks to a website or group of websites. To this day, links are one of the strongest signals in Google’s core algorithm and SEO quickly learned they could game the system by pointing large volumes of links to web pages and tricking Google into ranking them higher.
  2. Keyword stuffing: Inserting a high volume of target keywords on a page in an attempt to rank higher for the specific keyword or, in some cases, deceive Google about the topic/relevance of the page to the keywords being used – eg: ranking for a high-volume keyword but showing users unrelated content.

Both of these practices were rampant by the time Google rolled out the first Penguin update in 2012. Now, keyword stuffing is a 100% redundant practice but the culture of artificial link building still exists, to a certain extent.

Prior to becoming part of Google’s core algorithm, getting hit by a Penguin update could devastate a website’s search ranking and organic traffic volume. Initially, websites hit by the algorithm were penalised although this is no longer the case, as violating links are now simply devalued.

How has Penguin changed over the years?

Penguin underwent 10 official updates before being implemented into Google’s core algorithm in 2017. So, the algorithm has evolved plenty during this time and, probaby, continues to do so as part of Google’s ongoing core algorithm updates.

Here’s a little refresher on how Penguin has changed over the years.

Penguin 1.0 – 24 April, 2012

Google announced the original penguin update on April 24, 2012, calling it “another step to reward high-quality sites”. The update impacted an estimated 3.1% of all English queries.

Penguin 1.1 – 25 May, 2012

Google rolled out its first targeted update for the Penguin algorithm, which confirmed to SEOs that it was handling data outside of the core algorithm, much like Panda. Matt Cutts announced the update on Twitter, saying the update affected less than 0.1% of English searches.

Penguin update #3 – 5 October, 2012

Google announced its third Penguin update on 5 October, 2012, this time affecting 0.3% of English queries. Following comments from Matt Cuts that the next Penguin update would be “jarring and jolting,” the relatively small impact of Penguin #3 was the biggest surprise about this update.

Penguin 2.0 (Penguin #4) – 22 May, 2013

After months of speculation, hype and dread, Google announced its fourth penguin update on 22 May, 2013. Once again, the impact was far smaller than anticipated, and Google publicly naming the update as Penguin 2.0 didn’t exactly help ease the anticipation leading up to it, either.

Penguin 2.1 – 4 October, 2013

Google announced the fifth Penguin update on 4 October, 2013, with Matt Cutts saying the launch affected ~1% of all searches. That may not sound like a huge impact but the SEO community was shaken by an update Google was calling Penguin 2.1, prompting hopes of incremental impacts after relatively mild implications from the previous two updates.

Penguin 3.0 – 17 October, 2014

More than a year after the previous Penguin update, Google announced Penguin 3.0 on 17 October, 2013. As often is the case in the SEO industry, the impact of the update failed to match the long spell of speculation, affecting only around 1% of English queries.

Penguin part of Google core algorithm – 23 September, 2016

After almost two years since the last Penguin announcement, Google released a statement on 23 September, 2016. It told us that Penguin was now part of the core algorithm, acting as one of “more than 200 unique signals” to help users find the content they’re looking for.

The statement also announced an update and a summary of the key changes:

  • Penguin is now real-time. Historically, the list of sites affected by Penguin was periodically refreshed at the same time. Once a webmaster considerably improved their site and its presence on the internet, many of Google’s algorithms would take that into consideration very fast, but others, like Penguin, needed to be refreshed. With this change, Penguin’s data is refreshed in real time, so changes will be visible much faster, typically taking effect shortly after we recrawl and reindex a page. It also means we’re not going to comment on future refreshes.
  • Penguin is now more granular. Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting the ranking of the whole site.

Penguin 4.0 – 23 September, 2016

Analysis suggests the first phase of the Penguin 4.0 update started around 22-23 September. The second phase started in early October and any subsequent phases are impossible to distinguish from the “continuous updates” of the algorithm.

Panda 4.0 introduced a gentler version of Penguin that no longer penalised whole websites for bad links, instead devaluing the specific links in question. Now, it’s much easier to protect a website from bad links by running regular audits and disavowing low-quality or irrelevant links.

What does Penguin mean for SEO in 2022?

Links are still one of the most important signals in Google’s core algorithm and Penguin is in charge of assessing the legitimacy of links pointing to your website. So, while it’s no longer an independent algorithm in its own right (it’s now part of Google’s core algorithm), Penguin is just as important in 2022.

The good news for website owners is that Penguin is less aggressive than it used to be. Instead of penalising full sites for dodgy links, it can now simply devalue offending links so websites gain little or nothing from them. Crucially, this means that you’re not going to suffer any real damage because you inadvertently capture inbound links from low-quality websites.

As long as you keep on top of your link profiles and remove the worst links, you should be fine.

The other big Penguin target is keyword stuffing but this is less of an issue now, too. First of all, Penguin did a very good job of removing any value from keyword stuffing (this is much easier than evaluating link quality) but its algorithm is far more capable of understanding the contextual meaning of content/pages now.

So, you can forget about creating pages for one topic and stuffing keywords to trick Google into ranking for high-volume queries or deceptive tactics like that.

By extension, Google has also become less reliant on keywords for matching content to queries over the years. It can now identify the topics covered on pages and many of the nuances in the content to find the most relevant pages for user queries, including subtle variations in meaning. 

Example of Google's contextual understanding of search terms and content on a page

While keyword optimisation is still important (for example, including primary keywords in titles and headings), Google isn’t reliant on the presence of keywords to match content with users. It’s more capable of matching topics and contextual meaning, which is why there’s more emphasis on optimising for topics and longtail queries in modern SEO.

Kerry Dye profile picture
Kerry Dye

Kerry has been working in digital marketing almost since the beginning of the World Wide Web, designing her first website in 1995 and moving fully into the industry in 1996 to work for one of the very first web design companies. After a successful four years, Kerry moved to an in-house position for a sailing company, running the digital presence of their yacht races including SEO, PPC and email marketing as the primary channels. A stint then followed at another in-house role as online marketing manager. Kerry moved to Vertical Leap in 2007, making her one of the company’s longest-serving employees. As a T-shaped marketer – able to advise on digital strategy outside her main specialism – she rose through the ranks and in 2012 became the head of the Small and Medium Business (SMB) SEO team. The SMB team has grown from two to five people, becoming a bigger part of the overall Vertical Leap business. Kerry lives in the historic town of Bishops Waltham with her husband and daughter. When she’s not at work she enjoys cooking proper food, curling up with a good book and being a leader for Brownie and Rainbow Guides.

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