Google Penguin 3.0: 5 Things CMOs Need To Know

Should you be concerned about this update to Google's organic search results?

By Kristine Schachinger

Organic Search

You want to be there in those moments when potential customers are looking for you in Google's search results. But whenever Google launches or updates an algorithm, it's quite possible your brand could suddenly become invisible to consumers, especially if you've achieved high search positions with a risky search engine optimization strategy. Google Penguin 3.0 is the latest attempt by Google to clean up its search results. Could it threaten your brand's search visibility?

After what seemed like a long period of rest, the past six weeks have been very active for Google and the webspam team. The end of September brought us:

  • A Panda 4.1 update, which focused on content.
  • The beginning of the long awaited Penguin 3.0 update, which focused mainly on links.
  • The anti-piracy update, which focused on demoting rankings for the “most notorious” websites.

Now that Panda and the anti-piracy update have finished rolling out, what about Google Penguin 3.0? Here are five things you need to know about this update.

1. What is Google Penguin?

Google Penguin hatched in April as an algorithmic update designed to reduce the visibility of webspam in search results. It wasn’t just about links, but also about items on-site or off-site that violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Since then, the Penguin algorithm has been refined to focus mainly on the links of sites that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. It’s been more than a year since Google unleashed an update.

Before Penguin, when a site had bad links linking to it, Google would just devalue the links. This meant your site might have lost its ground, but you could easily repair the damage with new links. Penguin doesn’t operate this way.

If the Penguin algorithm hits your site, your site can’t recover until the issues that got you in trouble with Google are fixed and Google updates the Penguin algorithm. A website can’t recover from Penguin until Google has revaluated it.

Algorithmic shifts aren’t technically penalties, because they can reward or punish a site. When a site is “punished” it has violated the focus of that algorithm and something in the guidelines. When this happens the site receives a devaluation. This devaluation is often referred to as a ”penalty”, but technically only manual actions that appear in the Google Webmaster Tools Viewer are true penalties.

If Google Penguin, a different algorithmic update, or a manual penalty has impacted the organic traffic to your brand’s website, whatever you do, don’t ignore it!

If consumers can’t find your site in Google’s organic search results when they’re looking for your site or a product you sell, then you’re missing out on traffic, sales, and conversions. And the longer a site waits to recover, the harder it will be to recover.

Your site won’t fix itself and Google won’t tell you where you’ve gone wrong, so you have to figure it out and fix issues to recover the next time Google updates or refreshes Penguin and regain your domain visibility.

2. When Did Google Penguin 3.0 Rollout?

Penguin 3.0 started rolling out October 17. Most sites didn’t notice its effects until October 22 or 23.

When Google Penguin impacts your site for the first time, organic traffic in your analytics will appear to have fallen off a cliff. Slow traffic declines due to Penguin are very rare, and likely due to a different issue.

At first glance, it appeared Penguin was done rolling out by the time the weekend was over. John Mueller, Google webmaster trends analyst, (@JohnMu on Twitter) even stated it was complete, only to reverse his claim about an hour later.

Pierre Far, another Google webmaster trends analyst, then announced via Google+ that it would be a “few weeks” before the slow rollout was complete. As of the time of this writing, it has not finished its rollout.

You can follow the Google Webmaster Central Blog for the major announcements of algorithm rollouts.

3. My Site Didn’t Recover From A Previous Penguin Update … Now What?

If your site was impacted by Penguin last year, and you’ve been waiting for Penguin 3.0 to recover, but you haven’t seen any positive results in the past two weeks, there isn’t a lot of hope you will. We can’t be 100 percent certain until the rollout is complete, so don’t panic and rush into making any changes just yet.

Once Penguin 3.0 has completely rolled out, and you don’t see a recovery, what do you do then?

Disavowing Links

Did you create a disavow list? Were you updating that disavow list as new “bad” links were found? And did you make sure all your disavow lists contained the previous lists link list as well as your new ones?

If you answered no to any of these questions, you likely have a disavow issue. (Learn what Google says about disavowing links here.)

Google stopped evaluating disavow lists after Sept. 18 for Penguin-related issues. Note: this date is approximate. Mueller stated it was about a two week time frame prior to the first announcement about the refresh, which would put it at September 18th (give or take a day or two).

Link Removals

Did you go through the link removal process? Did you include those on the disavow list? Link removals, while immediate, can take a bit of time for Google to notice. If you did not include your link removals in your disavow Google may not have noticed.

In addition, even though some sites have recovered without link removal (and even Mueller has stated that the disavow can be enough). Our experience shows that link removals are often necessary. Google is like your parent and you got caught staying out after curfew. After they are done grounding you, they want to know you will do what you said you were going to do.

Replace Bad Links With Good Links

Did you rebuild links to your site? If you have a Penguin issue, you likely disavowed and removed 40 to 60 percent or more of your links. So you might have fixed your Penguin issue, but the reason you aren’t coming back up is your link profile is very weak.

Make sure to use a reputable SEO link builder or acquisition specialist. Never buy links – best case, you won’t get much value from them; worst case, your site will once again lose search visibility after the algorithm detects them or your site will be the unlucky recipient of a manual penalty for unnatural links.

Tip: Recovery is an ongoing process. Bad links can show up in your GWMT for months, even years after you stopped purchasing them. Make sure even if you recover to do a monthly link analysis and immediately remove/disavow the ones you purchased.

4. I Think My Site Got Hit, What Now?

Google has said that Penguin updates will now come more frequently. If your site gets hit, you will need an audit, a plan, and help implementing it.

This means that you should find a reputable SEO agency or consultant that specializes in forensic/penalty audits. Hire them and let them help you start on the path toward recovery. If you have an in-house team, you’ll still want to hire a person or agency that specializes in audit forensics because often what seems like one issue, is really another.

Just knowing the release dates doesn’t mean that downturn in your organic search traffic is related. Recovery specialists see these issues most every day and are more qualified to identity your issues and to help you create the plan to regain your site’s lost rankings and traffic.

Tip: During any recovery process, be careful not use the same people that got you into the mess, because it’s unlikely they’ll be able to get you out. You will need outside help, a new set of eyes, and people who specialize in penalty and algorithm site recovery.

A site audit by a proper specialist/consultant won’t be cheap, but if you want a full site recovery the money you spend now will be worth its weight in gold once you recover.

Do have hope. We have yet to find a site that can’t recover. Given the proper direction and assistance, your site’s health can be restored.

5. Why Do Panda And Penguin Seem To Follow Each Other?

There actually might be a reason for this progression.

Fili Weise (@filiwiese) a former Google webspam team engineer, explained it this way: “If a site gets a lot of backlinks from sites that are Panda candidates then that site may become a Penguin candidate.”

So it seems if your site is linked to by a bunch of sites that have Panda issues, it may trigger a red flag on your site when Penguin runs. This makes sense because many spam sites are created with poor content quality. Following that logic, a Panda update should precede a Penguin; however Panda is also written into the main algorithm, so you may not be aware it was run.

If you see a Panda update is coming and you have disavowing to do, get it in immediately before the updates start to happen.

Entity Banner Momentology

Did Penguin 3.0 negatively impact your search visibility, or did your brand see positive gains in visitors and share of search? Tell us what you've seen so far.