The constantly changing landscape of SEO underwent another shift in September of 2016 thanks to Google’s widely anticipated release of Penguin 4.0. This Penguin update constituted a major change to Google’s core algorithm. As a result, many SEO practitioners have been left wondering exactly what changed and how they should react to these changes.

What is Penguin?

Google’s Penguin algorithm first launched in April of 2012 as a direct response to black-hat SEO tactics. While it considers many quality guidelines, Penguin is specifically designed to analyze link activity for aggressive and unnatural link patterns in order to punish websites that are attempting to manipulate Google’s search rankings through artificial links.
The Penguin algorithm is often confused with Google’s Unnatural Links Penalty. While both Penguin and the Unnatural Links Penalty focus on ensuring that all links leading to a site are organically acquired through great content, instead of created for the express purpose of increasing a site’s rank, they are not the same. The main difference between the two is that Penguin is algorithmic whereas the Unnatural Links Penalty is manual. A manual penalty is triggered by a human, and is accompanied by a written warning. A site hit by Penguin receives no such warning to explain its sudden drop in rankings.
How has Penguin worked in the past?

Previously, if Penguin detected a site using inorganic links, the whole site would be flagged and experience a drop in rankings. When this happened, there was no way for sites to quickly correct the problem and begin recovering. Webmasters had to use their best judgment while combing through their backlink profiles to remove or disavow bad links. However, unlike with an Unnatural Link Penalty, there was no way for webmasters to submit their sites for reconsideration. Once a site’s link audit was complete, the site had to wait for another Penguin release to see if its changes were enough to lift the penalty.
Since its launch in 2012, the time between Penguin releases has steadily increased. The Penguin 4.0 launch on September 23, 2016 came nearly two full years after the release of Penguin 3.0 on October 17, 2014.

What did Penguin 4.0 change?

Penguin 4.0 introduced three major changes to Google’s Penguin algorithm. With the 4.0 update, Penguin is now a part of Google’s real-time core algorithm, is “more granular” than previous versions, and devalues bad links instead of demoting offenders. So what do these three changes mean?

1. Real-time: Penguin is now a part of Google’s core search engine that runs in real-time. This means that if a site is hit by Penguin, it no longer has to wait for another release to see if its corrective measures fixed the issue. Recoveries based on backlink audits will appear as soon as the site is recrawled and reindexed. Now that Penguin is a continuous, real-time process, Google will no longer announce any Penguin-specific algorithm updates. Penguin 4.0 will be constantly running, so there will be nothing to confirm.

2. Granular: Unlike past Penguin updates that affected entire websites, Penguin 4.0 is more page specific. The algorithm now targets specific pages or sections of a site, instead of the site as a whole. However, if a website has enough bad links, the entire site may still be impacted by Penguin, and may even incur a manual Unnatural Links Penalty.

3. Devalues: Instead of demoting a website by lowering its position in the search results, the Penguin algorithm now devalues, or ignores, bad links. Despite the fact that Penguin no longer actively pushes down sites with bad links, it can still hurt a site’s rankings. Any links flagged by Penguin will no longer help boost the page at which they are directed. Because the page no longer benefits from its spammy links, it may still experience a drop in rankings.

What does Penguin 4.0 mean for SEO?

Overall, the Penguin 4.0 update is good news for those who follow Google’s guidelines. It is still a good idea to utilize SEO best practices for collecting great links organically through creating authoritative content, implementing shareable social media campaigns, and pursuing effective marketing campaigns.
Now that Penguin is real-time, sites need to monitor their rankings and links more often in order to see if any drops in their search results could be a result of a Penguin hit. Although bad links may no longer result in demotions, they can still negatively impact a site’s performance if not taken care of in a timely manner. Despite the fact that sites now need to check their links and rankings more often, the Penguin 4.0 update does make it easier to recover from previous penalties. Additionally, the fact that the algorithm now devalues links, instead of demoting sites, means that the black-hat, negative SEO tactic of pointing spammy links at a competitor’s site is much less effective.

How can sites avoid Penguin?

One way to avoid being hit by Penguin 4.0 now that the algorithm is continuously running is to follow the tried and true white-hat SEO advice of making quality content, focusing on the user, and building a stronger brand. All of these things attract high quality links that will increase a site’s ranking without being affected by Penguin. In addition to following SEO best practices, it is a good idea to monitor a site’s position in Google’s search results for hints that it may have been affected by Penguin. It is also recommended that sites monitor their backlinks on a regular basis in order to disavow or remove any negative links that pop up.