Google Penguin 3.0 damage report

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  • October 18, 2014
Stephen Kenwright

Stephen Kenwright

Director of Search

Google has yet to issue official confirmation but we’re confident that the Penguin algorithm is currently rolling out. Edit: Late Sunday evening Google confirmed to Search Engine Roundtable that Penguin has indeed been updated.

Branded3 rank checks more than 125,000 keywords each day – and stores them – so we can see some of the biggest fluctuations already. We can drill this down to specific keywords/topics (SERPs) so we can be much more accurate when diagnosing ranking changes. Several sites we’re sure have been affected by the algorithm in the past have seen huge increases in rankings today. John Mueller has previously confirmed that Penguin would have to be run in order for this to happen so we can be pretty sure that it has.

Penguin 3.0 is an update of the algorithm – not a refresh of the data set – which means that the quality metrics feeding into Penguin have changed, along with the thresholds required to avoid it.

What’s new in Penguin 3.0?

If you missed the last Penguin update (it was around a year ago) you can read our thoughts about it here – but today’s update is a different beast altogether.

In the weeks prior to the update Google had implied that Penguin 3.0 would be a ‘softer’ version of the algorithm – similar to changes to the Panda algorithm earlier in the year…and early signs are suggesting that Google’s promise that Penguin 3.0 “will delight many” are coming true: several of the websites we’ve won for Penguin recovery projects since the last updates are showing substantial increases in Google organic traffic this morning. What’s interesting with this update is that we’re seeing very few hits anywhere – and so far nothing major at all.

Our intelligence platform (stay tuned to the Branded3 blog for big announcements coming soon) is showing huge fluctuations in search rankings across the 125,000 keywords we’re tracking. One of the big differences between Penguin and manual link penalties is the speed at which traffic is lost or regained; it can take several weeks for rankings and traffic to return after recovery from a manual action, but you will know in the next few days whether you’re suffering from Penguin 3.0.

AutoTrader Post-Penguin Rankings

As of this morning autotrader.co.uk is ranking in the top 20 for more than 1,000 more keywords. NB we’re not rank-checking AutoTrader specifically and can see similar trends across other sites in the automotive industry.

From what we’ve seen so far the UK automotive sector has been the one most affected by the update. What’s particularly interesting is that many were predicting parenting bloggers or ‘mummy bloggers’ to be the source of many of the manipulative links due to prevalence of disclaimers – that is declarations that the bloggers have received compensation for the link – but this doesn’t seem to be the case so far. We’ve been looking at sites known to have a large percentage of backlinks from mum blogs and few have changed much…but Google does appear to be cracking down further on anchor text links and sites that appear to exist solely for link selling purposes.

We’re finding it increasingly easy to determine whether a linking site is genuine without physically looking at it. While we wouldn’t advocate using this to audit links, it isn’t a stretch to believe that with refinement we’d be able to algorithmically decide whether a site is genuine or not with a reasonable degree of accuracy. An easy way to do this is using a metric such as ‘trust flow’ from Majestic, cross-referenced with social engagement metrics. We’ve not been trying, so Google can almost certainly do this.

Blog networks too are more likely to be targeted – this may be possible due to the appearance of links to certain websites/pages on multiple link selling blogs at once. Often bloggers that have monetised their websites through link selling own more than one site – and SEO agencies can be pretty lazy, taking whatever shortcuts they can find.

Like with Panda 4.0 and 4.1, we’re seeing that the new algorithm is ‘softer’, but Google is getting significantly better at automating identification of bad links. We have always advocated manual auditing of backlinks, especially for websites subject to penalties, because we know that a human being is on the other end of your reconsideration request deciding if manipulative links have been dealt with or not. Penguin does not give you this luxury – a smarter algorithm means automating backlink analysis will soon be impossible.

One of the interesting observations during the Penguin roll-out has been the difference between the desktop and mobile search results. Websites we’re tracking would typically move up or down on desktop a few hours before they would change on mobile. It could be that Google is rolling it out separately across results for different devices.

How big is the impact?

The number of queries that seem to be affected by the launch is significant, but the nature of the algorithm means that the most valuable keywords in search will be the ones affected. Like each of the previous Penguin updates, 3.0 affects websites that have acquired (substantial quantities of) links through unnatural means. Increasingly over the most recent Penguin updates this means links built to commercial pages, so it’s ‘over-optimisation’ of revenue driving keywords that will ultimately cause a site to be affected…

…but Penguin 3.0 still means loss of Google rankings across all keywords, similar to a site-wide manual action.

Branded3 works with a client who has been subject to one of the few confirmed negative SEO attacks, as reported on our blog a few months ago. Negative SEO has troubled businesses for a while with many speculating that the Penguin algorithm update could cause problems for some businesses targeted with this kind of activity.

The website’s rankings have changed slightly following the Penguin 3.0 rollout, moving down one place for a couple of key rankings. However it’s worth noting that the site taking 1st spot in the SERP has been affected by Penguin previously (we think) and is arguably the biggest service provider in its industry. This isn’t really a fair test, but most rankings for the site remain unchanged, which enforces our statement that keeping on top of the disavow file and notifying Google about potential issues is enough to ensure innocent businesses do not suffer.

How to recover from Penguin

The process of recovering a site impacted by the Penguin algorithm is largely the same as for a website under the effects of a manual action impacting links.

The difference is that there is no reconsideration request: we must pull a list of links (from Bing and Google Webmaster Tools, Majestic, Ahrefs and Open Site Explorer) and then manually and meticulously load and check each site.

It’s a painstaking process but the good news is that adding the offending links to your disavow file is enough to see a full recovery. There is no algorithmic way to police whether a business has or has not made attempt to contact a site owner and get a bad link taken down – Penguin 3.0 changes nothing in this respect, and there is still no reason to manually remove bad links.

Even relatively recent disavow file updates seem to have been taken into account, as confirmed by Screaming Frog‘s Dan Sharp:

Penguin 3.0 is a different, updated algorithm, and if early Penguin versions are to go by this could mean a rapid re-run of the algorithm in the next few weeks…though this is far from guaranteed it will be far less painful to go through the auditing process now than to wait another year for the algorithm to run again.

Google has told us to “expect that the next few Penguin updates will take longer” which will mean even more lost revenue for many businesses. We are confident that the update hasn’t finished rolling out, and that Google will not announce the update until it has completed. The changes happening right now are just as significant as those we were seeing this morning so it could be a few days before we receive any official word.

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