When it first came on the scene, Google’s Penguin update hit businesses with questionable backlinking practices hard. Harsh penalties were common across the web, and traditional link building strategies were made almost completely obsolete. Google’s updates are iterative, and multiple rounds of Penguin updates and refreshes have followed up on the initial dramatic release. Now, search marketers and business owners are keeping watch for signs of the next Penguin refresh to proactively guard against its potential penalties. Google makes it next to impossible to accurately predict the scope and timing of their algorithm changes, but there hasn’t been a Penguin refresh for some time, and we’re overdue for one.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Google Penguin first hit the web on April 24, 2012 as a follow up to the game-changing Panda update the year before. Where Panda cleaned up the web by penalizing sites with low-quality content, Penguin cleaned up the web by penalizing sites with irrelevant, unnatural, or otherwise “spammy” backlinks. Overall, Penguin 1.0 affected just over three percent of all search queries, but the long-term impact it had on the world of search marketing was substantial.
After the update, the process of link building was completely transformed—rather than being mostly a numbers game, link building suddenly required finesse and careful attention to ensure that all links are relevant, valuable, and natural. Previous strategies revolved around posting a specific number of links on a regular basis to external sites, including a blend of industry-specific authorities and easy-to-find link directories. Penguin 1.0 intended to put a stop to link building for the sole purpose of increasing page rank, and targeted “low-quality” links that seemed to have no primary purpose other than for search engine rank building.
Over the course of the next several months, Google released a series of follow-ups, including refreshes on May 26 and October 5 of 2012 designed to refine and perfect the original algorithm release. The next major Penguin algorithm release wasn’t until May 22, 2013 when Penguin 2.0 impacted another 2.3 percent of search queries. Several new sites with questionable backlinking practices got hit, despite making it out of Penguin 1.0 unscathed. Google also followed up with a refresher to this major update on October 4, 2013, impacting about one percent of all search queries.
Since then, things on the Penguin front have been relatively quiet. There have been a few rumors of data refreshes and speculation on a “Penguin 3.0” yet to come, but there have been no formal announcements or indications of a specific date.
We’ve mentioned before that Google releases algorithm changes iteratively. They have a long history of releasing updates upon updates and gradual refreshes since they first started releasing regular updates to their algorithm in 2003. Since they’re always interested in refining their process and building upon their established frameworks, there is always room for further advancement.
As an example, let’s take a look at the Panda update. February 24, 2011 was the first big Panda hit, affecting nearly 12 percent of all search queries, but that was only the beginning. Several refreshes rolled out over the course of the next few years, some of which were announced and some of which were unannounced. In March 2013, Google made a public announcement that they intended to keep rolling out data refreshes for the Panda update on a more-or-less monthly basis. Since then, we haven’t received any formal announcements of updates, but we have seen the quiet results of their release.
An objective look at Google’s history makes it seem likely that we haven’t seen the last of Penguin. As the two major pillars of modern search engine progress, Panda and Penguin continue to be the most significant considerations for search marketers, and it makes sense that Google would want to continue making those algorithm revisions increasingly sophisticated.
Even though Google’s history makes it seem likely that a new Penguin refresh is inevitable, it’s no surprise that there hasn’t been a formal announcement regarding its release date. Google likes to keep things under tight wraps for several reasons, most notably to throw search marketers off their game. The motivation behind these updates is to prevent people from being able to easily manipulate page ranks so that users can find relevant results more easily. Withholding critical information, such as the specifics included in each update and upcoming release dates, helps to ensure that site owners engage in long-term best practices rather than trying to find loopholes.
That being said, it pays to be prepared, and we can make a best guess at when the next Penguin refresh will occur. It’s already been more than a year since Google Penguin had its last major update. The big dates for Penguin have been April 2012, May 2012, October 2012, May 2013, and October 2013, showing spans as big as 5-7 months between releases. At that pace, we could have expected Penguin 3.0, or at least a data refresh, back in April 2014.
Obviously, that didn’t happen, but unless Google considers the Penguin update to be perfect (which is unlikely), it’s likely we’ll see at least one refresh by the end of 2014. Just following the pattern of major October releases, a new Penguin update in October 2014 seems likely, if not inevitable.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to guard yourself against the possibility of a new Penguin update and respond to the changes of the previous ones. Penguin is all about encouraging a more valuable, sustainable link building process, so implement these strategies as part of your preparation:
Not all backlinking sources are equal. Article directories, link farms, and external sites not related directly to your industry are all bad news. Instead, focus on building links with a diverse range of sources that include high-authority sites like .edu or .gov domains, quality blogs and forums, and niche-specific industry directories.
Let your users build your links for you. Use content with a high potential to go viral, such as unique infographics or entertaining videos, to subtly encourage people to link back to your site.
Quality is better than quantity. If you go crazy posting dozens of links all over the web, you’ll appear to be spam and you could suffer a penalty as a result.
Build your authority and generate more web traffic by using more brand mentions (explicitly naming your brand without a link) and Nofollow links (marked by a rel=”nofollow” expression). These promote your name and authority without counting as explicit links to search engines who might otherwise see it as spam.
Google Penguin is still one of the most significant SEO disrupters in play, and because there is still room for improvement, it’s only a matter of time before we see another update. At 10 months and counting since the last major update, Penguin is overdue for some new energy. As of now, our best guess is October 2014 to see Penguin 3.0 (or at least a data refresh).
Regardless of whether this new update is or is not on the horizon, it’s important that you continue to polish your link building practices. The more natural and relevant your backlinks are, the more traffic you’ll receive, and the better protected you’ll be against future Google updates.