Google updates are not clockwork. They don’t run in a balanced, predictable, or even logical fashion. They tend to pop up out of nowhere, only to disappear into the void and pop up again several months later. Some search marketers have dedicated their careers to trying to predict the impact and timing of these updates, while most of us simply roll with the punches and focus on the bottom line.
Until recently, most of us wrote off Penguin as a dormant update—one that is still relevant, but won’t be seeing any major additions or changes in the coming years. Think of it as a “complete” piece of the algorithmic puzzle that Google is satisfied with enough to leave it be.
Only, this no longer appears to be the case. According to an update on Google’s own Gary Illyes’s Twitter account, the next Penguin refresh is going to come in a matter of months—implying that it will be a major push with the potential to shake up rankings like an old-style algorithm update.
Up until now, Penguin has been one of the more regular Google updates. Penguin 1.0 first debuted in April of 2012, with 1.1 coming out a month later and 1.2 coming out in October 2012. Penguin 2.0 came out in May 2013, roughly a year after 1.0, and 2.1 followed it in October 2013. Following this May-October pattern, most people expected Penguin 3.0 (or some other iterative update) to come out in May of 2014, but it wasn’t until October 2014 that we saw anything—in this case, it was 3.0.
While this pattern isn’t perfect, it would lead us to expect an update either in May of 2015 (which didn’t happen) or October of 2015 (which could still feasibly happen). However, many search marketers also speculated that Penguin was the latest algorithm segment to become a part of Google’s new vision for updating.
Google Panda serves as a model for how I believe Google wants to update in the future. Previously, the company would “bundle” packages of code that change or update its ranking algorithm, then deploy that code all at once for a sudden, significant change. This worked well enough for a time, but often disrupted search rankings to the point where both businesses and users became upset.
Trying to resolve this disruption while still maintaining momentum in gradually improving their search algorithm, Google opted for a new model with Google Panda, beginning sometime around 2013. Rather than making batched pushes, Panda started updating slowly and iteratively. Over the course of several days within any given month, tiny bits of new ranking processes and data refreshes would roll out to the live algorithm. Businesses would only notice small changes at a time, but at the end of the year, the impact would be more or less the same.
It’s a much more behind-the-scenes approach that seems to work better for everyone. Businesses are disrupted less. Users have more consistent results. And Google itself takes less flak for making sudden, major changes.
If we make the assumption that Illyes’s comments imply a major update is coming several months from now, it means that Penguin is not updating gradually and interactively, and that instead this refresh will have the old-style jarring impact we’ve come to expect from these types of updates. So why is this the case? Why isn’t Google making this iterative approach universal, across the board?
According to comments made by Gary Illyes immediately after his original revelation, Google is working toward adopting this process, at least to some degree. He offered a suggestion that soon, Penguin will update in a much smoother, much faster way—so nobody has to wait for a year in order to see a ranking shift, and nobody’s blown away by a sudden penalty.
It could be that Penguin is currently too complex to transition to this gradual-updating state, or it could be that Google has bigger priorities right now. Either way, it looks like eventually, Penguin will join this club but for now, we’re stuck waiting for the inevitable refresh.
I’m going to call this Penguin 4.0, though it may end up being something closer to 3.1, depending on how much changes. In either case, it’s probably not going to roll out until November at the earliest. That gives you four months to prepare—but if you’re paying close attention to link building best practices, you shouldn’t have to change much. This update is only going to make Google more adept at identifying “bad” links—it isn’t going to start disqualifying “good” links or anything revolutionary. As long as you’ve been building good links and avoiding risky rank manipulation behavior, you have nothing to worry about and nothing to change between now and then.
While it’s not out of the question that Google will someday introduce another game-changing major packet of updates, for the time being it looks like they’re trying to settle into a steady rhythm. Updates and refreshes happen gradually, step by step, so you don’t have to worry about sharp ranking fluctuations like you did back in 2011. Keep your users at the heart of what you do, and no matter how Google chooses to update, you’ll be in good shape.