PPC – Lookback: Google launched the Penguin algorithm update 11 years ago

PPC - Lookback: Google launched the Penguin algorithm update 11 years ago


It’s been 11 years since Google launched one of its most significant algorithm updates, Penguin. Here, we’re looking back over more than a decade of Penguin. 

Find everything you want to know about Google’s Penguin algorithm update – what it is, why it was launched and its impact – plus Search Engine Land’s coverage of Penguin from 2012 to 2021.

What was the Google Penguin update?

The Google Penguin update was an algorithm update launched on April 24, 2012, to combat webspam techniques. Penguin’s primary focus was link building, keyword stuffing and general webspam.

The war against webspam wasn’t new as Penguin followed the Panda and Page Layout algorithm updates.

All of these updates had a common goal – to reward high-quality content and sites in search that provided a great user experience and fulfilled search intent. Penguin was an extension of these efforts.

It was thought that Penguin affected 3.1% of queries in English and around 3% of queries in German, Chinese and Arabic. To contextualize its significance, it was expected that a regular user would see the impact of Penguin in SERPs.

Penguin was a pretty big deal, and it impacted a lot of sites. What made this change frustrating for web owners and SEOs is that an algorithm change isn’t something a site owner can appeal to. 

There was no quick fix to recover from Penguin. If hit, it was made clear that website administrators needed to reduce spam on their sites.

As a result, sites suffered, and some didn’t recover. Naturally, there was a question about whether or not the algorithm improved or worsened the SERPs.

Considering that Penguin is still highly influential in the algorithm today, it’s safe to say that it improved the SERPs, web owners, and SEOs have collectively learned what constitutes spam. 

Most conscious site owners wouldn’t even need to think about the Penguin update since the webspam tactics that felt the wrath of Penguin – like keyword stuffing and link schemes – are an industry no-no.

Why was Google Penguin launched?

Before Penguin, the quantity of links was weighted in the algorithm. As a result, poor quality or spammy pages were ranking when they didn’t really deserve to. 

Their rank was influenced by the quantity of links pointing to the site rather than the quality of the site or the content itself.

If quantity is the only factor, then it’s easy to manipulate. You just need links and lots of them.

To help us understand what constituted spam, Google shared examples of spammy pages with keyword stuffing and poor uses of links.

Google shared this image at the launch of Penguin showing unnatural links. A blog on exercise links unnaturally to pages about payday loans.

If link quantity mattered, then links like the above were useful to websites. 

But it’s clear that the linked text has nothing to do with the article’s content. Plus, the link text reads very unnaturally within the context of the article.

If it’s not an engaging and helpful read, the content shouldn’t be ranking at all. 

The link tactic demonstrated above is a black-hat SEO tactic executed solely to manipulate SERPs.

Penguin was designed to identify and demote websites that were engaging in these spammy link building tactics, while rewarding websites that had natural and high-quality links pointing to their well-researched and well-written content. 

Why did Google name it Penguin?

Despite being named Penguin by Google, there doesn’t seem to be a known story about why it’s called Penguin, unlike the Panda algorithm, which was named after a key engineer. But it was the second major new Google algorithm named after a black and white animal.


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Google Penguin algorithm explained: How it worked

If you want to recover from Penguin or understand how Penguin fits into the wider guidelines and algorithms it helps to understand how it worked.

Penguin was a webspam algorithm

There’s a bit to unpack here. 

Penguin was a webspam algorithm, meaning it impacted all sites across the web at around the same time. 

Sites were crawled and new algorithm factors were taken into account. The intention of this algorithm was for high-quality sites following Google guidelines to be prioritized.

The Penguin algorithm was launched to combat spammy sites. To do this, the algorithm needs to consider many factors, including spam links and content.

Perhaps it was the timing of the Penguin update – after Panda and before the Disavow Tool – that has Penguin heavily associated with spam links and link farms, but truthfully, Penguin was more than that.

As Google’s John Mueller put it:

“The Penguin algorithm is a webspam algorithm and we try to take a variety of webspam issues into account…It does also take into account links from spammy sites or unnatural links in general…but I wouldn’t only focus on links. A lot of times what we see is that when a website has been spamming links maybe they’re also doing some other things that are kinda borderline or against our webmaster guidelines. I wouldn’t only focus on links, I’d make sure that you’re cleaning all of the webspam issues as completely as possible.”

When Penguin launched, one of its purposes was to devalue links, taking spam links weighting out of the algorithm. However, it’s thought that the Penguin algorithm can do more than just that.

In the video, Mueller says:

“When we can recognize that something is problematic and kind of a spammy link we will try to ignore it. Across a website if we see a very strong pattern there, then our algorithms can say, ‘We really have lost trust in this website…’ We need to be more on a conservative site when it comes to understanding this website’s content and ranking it in the search results and then you can see a drop in visibility.”

Recovering from Penguin 

Recovering from Penguin was no easy feat for SEOs. There were long delays between updates which were incredibly frustrating. 

As an algorithm update, the only way out was a lot of hard work, cleaning a site of its spam, which for many was no easy feat.

Google forms

For sites that had previously been flagged as spam by Google, there used to be a reconsideration request where webmasters could request a second view of their site. 

This was useful in the case of a manual action, meaning a person had spotted an issue and manually marked it as spam.

But, Penguin was an algorithm change. Google announced that reconsideration requests wouldn’t work if a site has suffered since the Penguin update. 

Instead, webmasters had to reduce the spam on their sites. Once done, they’d eventually recover from Penguin and appear in SERPs again.

That said, there seemed to be some acknowledgment that sites were impacted by Penguin unfairly.

Google released a form where webmasters could flag this issue to Google. This same form could also be used to report sites that should’ve been penalized.

Since Penguin was launched to fight spam with a primary focus on link spam, one strategy to recover from Penguin was the disavow tool launched on October 16, 2012.

In 2012, Matt Cutts explained how and when to use the tool.

It’s important to note that this tool was not designed for most websites but for that 3% of sites using spammy links, manipulating SERPs and using link farms.

If you follow the guidelines and create content consciously, you won’t need the disavow tool.

Remove on-page spam

Earlier, I shared an image of a spammy article linking to payday loans unnaturally from an article about exercising. This is the sort of spam that webmasters needed to remove from their sites.

Other on-page spam might include keyword stuffing. The thing to remember is that Google wants to prioritize content that is useful to readers. 

So, before publishing content, ask yourself: is this informative? Do I meet search intent? Is this content helpful?

Although some of these guidelines were set or improved upon more than 10 years ago with the Penguin algorithm update, you might note that these items are still prevalent today.

Does Google still use Penguin? 

Yes, Google still uses Penguin as part of the core algorithm.

Mueller shares tips and insights on what a site owner should do if their site is flagged as spam.

As you can see, this video is very similar to the video published by Cutts 10 years ago. 

Mueller recommends the webmaster forums and advises you not to hide anything about your website. 

A complete timeline of the Google Panda Updates

Here’s Search Engine Land’s coverage of Penguin, from 2012 to 2021:

April 24, 2012: Penguin Update 1.0

Google Launches “Penguin Update” Targeting Webspam In Search Results

April 25, 2012

Did Penguin Make Google’s Search Results Better Or Worse?

April 26, 2012

Penguin Update Peck Your Site By Mistake? Google’s Got A Form For That

The Penguin Update: Google’s Webspam Algorithm Gets Official Name

Google Penguin Update Recovery Tips & Advice

May 3, 2012

Adjusting Your SEO Strategies During Panda & Penguin

May 10, 2012

Two Weeks In, Google Talks Penguin Update, Ways To Recover & Negative SEO

May 14, 2012

5 Local Linkbuilding Ideas For The Post-Penguin/Panda Era

May 15, 2012

In Wake Of Penguin, Could You Be Sued For Linking To Others?

May 17, 2012

Google’s Penguin Update Makes The Wall Street Journal

May 21, 2012

Bing Offers Advice On Google’s Penguin Update: Diversify

May 26, 2012: Penguin Update 2.0

Google Releases Penguin Update 2

May 29, 2012

First Report Of Google Penguin Recovery

May 31, 2012

Google Penguin & Panda Talk Now In Coffee Shops & Elementary School

June 11, 2012

The Four Keys To Post-Penguin Directory Submission Happiness

Aug. 16, 2012

Google: Further Penguin Update “Jolts” To Come; Panda Is Smoother & Monthly

Oct. 5, 2012: Penguin Update 3.0

Google Penguin Update 3 Released, Impacts 0.3% Of English-Language Queries

The EMD Update: Like Panda & Penguin, Expect Further Refreshes To Come

Feb. 20, 2013

No, Google Hasn’t Released Unannounced Penguin Updates

March 11, 2013

Google’s Matt Cutts On Upcoming Penguin, Panda & Link Networks Updates

March 19, 2013

Study Finds Google’s Penguin Update Getting Stricter Over Time

April 23, 2013

Risk Management for Links – How To Prepare For The Next Penguin Update

May 10, 2013

Google’s Matt Cutts: Next Generation Of The Penguin Update “Few Weeks” Away

May 22, 2013: 

Penguin 4, With Penguin 2.0 Generation Spam-Fighting, Is Now Live

May 23, 2013

Still Seeing Post-Penguin Web Spam In Google Results? Let Google Know

Penguin 2.0 Losers: Porn Sites, Game Sites, & Big Brands Like Dish.com & The Salvation Army

June 3, 2013

Big Brand SEO & Penguin 2.0

June 18, 2013

Is Link Building Dead? 3 Tips For Link Builders Post-Penguin 2.0

Oct. 4, 2013: 

Penguin 5, With The Penguin 2.1 Spam-Filtering Algorithm, Is Now Live

April 8, 2014

Google’s Penguin Algorithm Comes In Different Levels Of Degrees?

May 28, 2014

No, Google Says There’s Been No Penguin Update

July 30, 2014

Penguin: Google’s Punitive Algorithm – And A Call To Google To Fix It

Sept. 12, 2014

A Year Later, Are We Finally Going To Get A Penguin Update Refresh?

Oct. 2, 2014

Google: Penguin Refresh May Come As Early As Next Week

Oct. 19, 2014

Google Releases Penguin 3.0 — First Penguin Update In Over A Year

Oct. 21, 2014

Google Penguin 3.0: Worldwide Rollout Still In Process, Impacting 1% Of English Queries

Nov. 4, 2014

18 Days Later, Google Penguin 3.0 Continues To Slowly Roll Out Worldwide

Dec. 1, 2014

Google: Penguin 3.0 Rollout Still Ongoing

Dec. 3, 2014

Is This The End Of The Penguin & Panda Era Shakeups And Recoveries?

Dec. 4, 2014

Was Your Site Hit By Google’s Panda Or Penguin? This Flowchart May Help You Find Out.

Dec. 10, 2014

Google Says Penguin To Shift To “Continuous Updates”

Dec. 11, 2014

How Google’s Penguin 3.0 Is Playing Out Across The Web

Feb. 11, 2015

Google Says There’s No Whitelist To Save You From Panda Or Penguin

April 8, 2015

Google Says The Penguin & Panda Algorithms Still Require Manual Data Pushes

April 13, 2015

Google Panda & Penguin Lack Real-Time Updates, Despite Google’s Past Statements

June 2, 2015

Google: We Are Working On Making The Penguin Update Happen Continuously

July 13, 2015

Google Says Penguin Refresh Months Away From Happening

Oct. 1, 2015

Google Confirms The Real Time Penguin Algorithm Is Coming Soon

Oct. 29, 2015

Google: Next Penguin Update Should Happen By End Of 2015

Nov. 17, 2015

How To Prep For The Pending Penguin Update & Ensure You’re Penalty Free In 2016

Dec. 3, 2015

Google: New Penguin Algorithm Update Not Happening Until Next Year

June 23, 2016

Key takeaways from the Google AMA: RankBrain, Panda, Penguin, bots & more

Sept. 6, 2016

How many days has it been since the last Google Penguin Update?

Google: Friday’s update was not due to the Penguin algorithm

Sept. 23, 2016: Penguin Update 4.0

Google updates Penguin, says it now runs in real time within the core search algorithm

Sept. 28, 2016

Google Penguin doesn’t penalize for bad links – or does it?

Google says Penguin recoveries have started to roll out now

Sept. 30, 2016

Authority & link building with real-time Penguin

Oct. 10, 2016

Google Penguin looks mostly at your link source, says Google

Google labels your links, such as ‘footer’ or Penguin-impacted

Oct. 13, 2016

Google says Penguin 4.0 rollout now complete

Oct. 25, 2016

Penguin 4.0: Necessary and positive improvement

Oct. 27, 2016

A Penguin’s Tale: Responding to the latest update

Nov. 1, 2021

Google on Penguin algorithm; aims to ignore spammy links but can lead to distrusting your site

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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