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Google’s Gary Illyes on Penguin: When Is It Coming and What Will It Do?

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Featured in the Moz Top 10 for March 2016
UPDATE: 23 September 2016 – Google announced today that Penguin 4.0 is rolling out.

Recently Perficient Digital’s Eric Enge and I conducted a Virtual Keynote live online with Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes (@methode on Twitter). You can watch the entire event or read a full transcript here.

In this post I want to focus on Gary’s answers to our questions about the Penguin update, not only going over Gary’s responses but also adding some additional commentary and insights.

What Is the Google Penguin Update?

Penguin is an addition to the Google search ranking algorithm that is intended to automate and scale the detection and penalizing of sites that appear to be attempting to manipulate search results through backlinking practices that violate Google’s guidelines.

Primarily the kinds of inbound links Google doesn’t like to see are paid links (where the linking site has been compensated to place a link) and links obtained through link networks (where links are traded on a “you link me; I’ll link you” basis).

When Penguin detects that a site is likely to be using manipulative linking practices, it can penalize the site by devaluing its ranking power, usually sharply reducing organic traffic to the site. The only remediation for a Penguin penalty is to remove the offending links, by getting the sites that host them to remove or no-follow them, and then disavowing any links that can’t be removed, using a tool Google provides.

Even if a webmaster is able to clean up a site’s link profile, recovery from a Penguin penalty can’t happen until the next Penguin update. (At least until Penguin goes “real time” – see below.) So the frequency of updates is a matter of critical importance to penalized sites.

When Is the Next Penguin Update?

Of course, this is one of the most frequent questions Gary Illyes has been asked for months.

The last major update to Penguin was on October 17, 2014, nearly a year-and-a-half ago at this writing. Since that update, Google spokespersons have said that with the next update, Penguin would become “real time.” That is, recoveries will be able to occur at any time and not have to wait for a major update as they do now. More on that below.

In our Virtual Keynote interview, Gary said that he thought they had been aiming for the first quarter of 2016, but that he had cut back on asking the update team for a date, as “[like] any human, they have a threshold for nagging.”

So what has been delaying this Penguin update for so long?
We Will Serve No Penguin Before Its Time
Gary said the team has been running experiments with the update and will “not launch something we are not happy with.”

Gary Illyes on why Penguin is delayed.

Google’s Gary Illyes during our Virtual Keynote event.

[Tweet “Gary Illyes: Penguin delayed until we’re sure it does what it is supposed to. More at”]

Gary indicated that they are aware of the huge impact Penguin can have on a site. Because of that, they want to do everything possible to make it unlikely that Penguin will penalize a site that really did nothing wrong.

He told us that they first go through a long period of “brute tuning,” and then eventually get down to a lot of really fine tuning, which can take even longer.

What Gary explained here serves as a valuable reminder of the complexity and difficulty of doing something on the scale of Penguin. Trying to automate at huge scale what might be a tricky judgment for a human to make on just one site is no small task.

While algorithms are designed to run on their own, they require constant human evaluation and tuning to correct mistakes or misjudgments they make. That becomes even more important when the algorithm has the ability to deal out what can be a devastating blow to a site.

How Real-Time Will Real-Time Penguin Be?

Google representatives have said that the next Penguin update would make Penguin “real time.” They said this meant (in part) that after this there would be no more announcements of major updates. In fact, there would be no more major updates. Instead, Penguin would be constantly refreshed and tweaked on a regular basis.

In the Q&A section of our Virtual Keynote with Gary Illyes, someone asked him to provide further illumination on what real-time Penguin means. How will we site owners and SEOs experience Penguin differently from how we do now?

Gary responded that the biggest effect will be pages that are hit by Penguin will be able to recover much more quickly. They will also see more of an immediate effect when they are penalized. That will enable webmasters and SEOs to better ascertain what might have triggered the penalty. If they made some drastic change to their link portfolio, and then shortly after that see a sharp drop in traffic, they will be better equipped to know what they need to change in order to recover.

[Tweet “Google’s Gary Illyes: Real-Time Penguin will allow sites to recover much faster from a penalty. More at”]

Gary cautioned, though, that “real time” does not mean instant. Google still has to recrawl the pages, and that can take some time. But once a webmaster has cleaned up and/or disavowed the offending links, recovery should happen right after that crawl, instead of waiting until the next Penguin update, as is the situation now.

A Final Word from Gary

Finally, Gary threw in a personal observation. He said that in his experience, the vast majority of penalty situations were not accidental, but were caused by the deliberate actions of bad SEOs.

While SEOs “can do awesome magic” and are necessary for many businesses, Gary cautioned that you need to be careful in choosing who does your SEO.

He wanted to be sure, however, to note that there are a lot of good SEOs and SEO agencies that really do help their clients:

I know some of the sites that you’re [Perficient Digital] working with, for example, and I know that they are doing amazing. Or there’s Bruce Clay, for example, who has a great team. There are a few companies that are really, really good, but you have to be careful how you choose your SEO team, and look at what they did in the past. Talk to the other clients, perhaps, but you have to figure out a way to make sure that the people that you are letting touch your website will do a good job, that they know what they are doing.

Thoughts on “Google’s Gary Illyes on Penguin: When Is It Coming and What Will It Do?”

  1. Gary or Google, if you’re reading this, this is for you.
    I keep stumbling into the den of black hat SEOs through 1) emails they send me trying to sell backlinks on PBNS that are “undiscoverable by Google), 2) in innocent-looking how-to SEO videos in Youtube (I can think of one who quite openly and publicly talks about their PBNs making it sound like it’s the thing to do), or 3) when I do backlink analysis on clients and their competitors, and I find all those horrible PBNs that other “SEOs” have planted links on for them. (I put “SEOs” in quotes for good reason.)
    Please tell me you’re going to take down those “undiscoverable” PBNs. Even though their content now might be grammatically perfect because they keep getting better and better, they are completely irrelevant and useless.
    Also, currently I’m doing clean-up work for a client that was hacked. The hack generated dozens of shopping pages on her site which were then puffed up by backlinks the hacker placed in PBNS and other websites he/she hacked. Those backlinks are auto-generated everyday on a multitude of sites and I can’t keep up with it. I have to disavow hundreds each month.
    Please understand that there are a lot of innocent small business owners out there who are getting hacked, hijacked and penalized through no fault of their own, other than hiring the wrong “SEO,” as the case may be. Be gentle on them. A withdrawal of benefits, rather than a penalty, may be the way to go.
    Also, as in the case of the autogenerated backlinks I’m dealing with now, they all point to the same urls. If you can provide a way to disavow links pointing TO particular pages, in addition to links coming FROM particular pages, that would be really helpful!

  2. “Not until it’s ready” can be taken as a valid reason for why they haven’t yet *updated* the Penguin algorithm, but not for why they haven’t *refreshed the data* that gets fed into the algorithm.
    The sum takeaway from all these Gary-says-we’re-trying-hard stories that I keep seeing is that Google has failed massively at using machine learning to improve search results.

  3. Michael Stricker

    Kathy, that sounds exhausting, even if lucrative. Have you thoroughly excised the infection, or reverted the site to a pre-malware instance? That may halt the attack. In some cases, creating a new site can be an option, retaining content, Domain Name and URLs. Watch out for cut-and-paste of code or db’s that may inadvertently transfer the infection.

  4. Thank you very much! Your article gave me another confirmation about what I teach my clients about SEO and Google. There (some where in SPACE) are this tricky freaks who can put your site “on the first page on Google” and they ask a lot of money for a bad practice. I say to my clients: Be honest, be you, and give time for your stuff to grow. To take care about your site, its like gardening, and has to be slowly but surely.
    When Penguin come, they have to pay! They don’t know about this and don’t care about this! And then this is bad for business. So, I`m happy because this is what Google do, keeps out wrong people from doing wrong things, offering (like Katty Long say up) irrelevant and useless web content and services!
    I like very much and I have all my trust in Google algorythm. Until now I get only confirmations, and its like what I wish, it comes true when Penguin get another update!
    To have this rulles applied in “real time” it means that Google will own the WWW! And again I`m happy because I will have a full time job: “the guy that make magic and boost the profit of your online business”!

  5. I still see many website that are using Black Hats techniques, discovered / undiscovered PBN’s links for the money sites. Above all they do rank on top 3 positions on several keywords for long times. When I discover their mass back links, quality of content posted I think G is not taking any action. Effecting all white hat “SEO” relates workings.
    What are Pengium or Panda’s doing? Can’t reached those and killing all small business.

  6. Brain, it is certainly a gross exaggeration to say that Panda and Penguin are “killing all small business.” There are a great many businesses of all sizes who have been helped by the Google algo changes, because their more white hat efforts finally are being rewarded.
    But yes, it is still possible to find queries for verticals where spam and black hat sites prevail. As a Googler said in a recent Hangout, one of the reasons for this is that there are verticals (and parts of the world) where there are few to no good results, and Google has to show something. I’ll be writing a post soon on this blog about why some spam and black hat still wins in the SERPs. Watch for it!

  7. Awesome update – I can’t wait for the new implemented Penguin, and I hope it takes proper care of the crap, and leaves the good stuff alone 🙂

  8. It’s great that Google will penalize Bad SEOs, but what are they doing about Negative SEO by competitors buying up 10s of thousands of bad links for $5.00 and pointing them at their competitors?

  9. As you may know, Lori, for a long time Google spokespersons denied that negative SEO existed, or if it did, that it was much of a problem. Then later on there was some admission that it could be a problem in some isolated cases. So we don’t know, but it will be interesting to see if that’s a factor in the new Penguin.

  10. Hi Kathy,
    In regards to the infected website…. I recommend either employing Sucuri to remove the malware (and set up an anti-malware firewall) or rebuilding (yes, from scratch) the infected site on another server. Fighting an infected website one link at a time doesn’t really help. There very well be other unseen malware on the site, such as key loggers and drive-by’s, that’s made the website a mechanism for spreading further infections.
    In regards to bad SEO players, is there a resource that has a list of all the questionable SEO firms?

  11. After the first couple Penguin updates, I tested and poured over data until my eyes bled. There was so much misinformation (there still is) being spread. “It’s all about anchor ratios, SAPE links, PBNs…blah blah”. It was mass hysteria for a while there.
    I think initially some of what was being said was true. Then came some serious backlash with negative SEO. Guys were openly admitting to and even showing case studies of how they completely destroyed websites. It was a dark time in the industry.
    I believe it was then, that Google’s search team and engineers decided it was time to change the algorithm, and the way in which links are treated. I believe they started working from top to the bottom and began to understand link neighborhoods much better. I also believe they now discount the value of a link if they believe it to be in a bad neighborhood, or are created specifically to game their algorithm (this is what I believe the newest runs will be all about…finding links, which create artificial authority and devaluing them). Links in good neighborhoods are what create and grow the authority of a website. Authority is what is important. If you have that, you have little to worry about with Penguin. If the authority is artificial, you’re probably going to have some bad days ahead.
    Just 2 cents.

  12. Real time updates should help the legit SEO in the long run. I do see an interesting facet to the real time update. Any ranking factor google wants to toy with can be done rather quickly leaving a tidal wave of issues for many site. Google will not have to tell the public what it changed meaning that time will be needed to determine what google has changed. Lets see how this plays out once it is released.

  13. Kathy, This is quite the statement: “Please understand that there are a lot of innocent small business owners out there who are getting hacked, hijacked and penalized through no fault of their own, other than hiring the wrong “SEO,” as the case may be. Be gentle on them. A withdrawal of benefits, rather than a penalty, may be the way to go. ” I feel for you. If it is any comfort, you are not alone.
    I also have reverted a site for a client. It worked. It was pretty easy to asses how far back to go from changes in Google Analytics.
    Wishing you a easier road going forward.

  14. Mark, as always, you write so well and on key topics.
    We all benefit from your deep knowledge of search, algorithms, PPC, SEO, etc., and close connections to discern who Google works and what we can expect.
    Thank you!

  15. This Is An Impossible Solution For Small Business Owners:
    As an SEO, you are able to watch what’s going on and how to clean things up in case of some negative SEO attack. This makes our job more laborious in some ways but also helps us safeguard our clients in other ways.
    That’s great news, however… We LIVE IN A WORLD OF AUTOMATED LINK SPAM!!!
    It’s now that much easier for negative SEO’s because they can just automate crappy links 24/7 and the clean up ‘Manual SEO’ crew will not be able to keep up with that on a manual basis.
    So it comes down to Manual SEO vs. Automated SEO?
    Google is Soooo FAR off the grid with this stupid idea I can only imagine this will tank them into a deeper pit with the public in general. Especially for the small business owners who have no idea how they would go about ‘manually’ cleaning up their profile.

  16. Hi Joshua – Is it your experience that a lot of small businesses are being subject to automated link spam? That would mean some other very knowledgeable person with a budget to spend on generating automated link spam would do so, and I wouldn’t have thought that the small businesses would be the target of that (because they are small, after all).
    btw, I’m in no way saying the situation is ideal, but am wanting to benefit from hearing more about what you have seen out there.

  17. Hi Eric,
    Thanks for your reply,
    Small, in my idea of a business can be anything that is 10 or less employees. That covers anything from marketing to legal. So yes, it happens in a lot of niche’s and will probably increase dramatically once the Penguin real time rolls out.
    With just basic technology and automation using desktop bots, or outsourcing, link spam to another site could take but a few minutes per month. So not that hard to blaze down the top 10 competitors in any single keyword that’s bringing the most ideal traffic for that niche.
    It’s very easy to head over to the $5 dollar sites that sell 3k link packs and blast it over to a competitor. That doesn’t take a very knowledgeable person in my opinion. The only skill set required for that to happen would be an evil and short term mentality. 🙁
    It does however take a bit of knowledge (and time) to figure out which links in a profile to disavow, and which ones you think you should keep.
    Again, I’m talking about Manual vs. Automation and in this case, we obviously know who the clear winner will be.

  18. Thanks Mark, I agree with your point too. But it becomes headache when you have to deal a niche whose is outranked by those shady link building. Looking forward for your new post.

  19. Hi,
    I have a question, my website is a dutch website (ranks in the netherlands).
    Will this Penguin update also be in other countries?
    I’m waiting for a long time now to see an end coming to the link schemes and over-obvious bought backlinks.
    Pretty frustrating to see competitors rank #1, #2 & #3 for all keywords that are worth something.
    Their backlink profile is pretty much the same. 90% of the links is exact match. Every category has always atleast 5 exact match links. Most of the links come from articles with a [sponsored content] with 5 links to their site (exact match and followed).
    Anyone knows if the updates will also be for EU countries?
    Thanks in advance,

  20. I honestly don’t know these days how honest websites can compete. According to Google Forum people who sit there and reply, you just need to have good content. HA HA HA. I am in the niche – wedding photography where my 8 years old website with amazing content which is shared by 1000s of sites is on page 2 or 3 for relevant keywords, while new sites which are 6months-2 years old are dominating 1st page results and they have NO LINKS( less than 20)- new sites, new photographers with sites that have no content or even good photographs. Obviously they are using SEOs, PBNs and other stuff – and there’s nothing I can do to compete.
    Now about Bad SEO. An average person doesn’t know how and where to find one. I had 5 in the last 4 years and none of them delivered what they promised. Over $6,000 spent over that time frame with pretty much any results.
    One of those “seos” screwed one of my sites which resulted in manual penalty. When I removed it after 6 months of cleaning up over 10,000 links site went to 4th page and stayed there for 3 years lol… The same also has a ton of really good quality links as it has great content.
    Question that I perhaps have, I heard that penalized sites never return to 1st page due to the Google’s internal algorithm. Is that true? I tried everything to move that site from page 4 and it moved to page 3 for some keywords,but stayed the same for most. One of the SEOs gave up after 4 months saying they can’t do anything and nothing works and said we need to get a new site as Google still has some kind of internal block on the site. I wonder if it’s true

  21. My understanding is that once a penalty is cleared, it’s cleared, and you have every possibility of recovering over time. However, in order to clear the penalty you had to make some site changes, and you’re no longer benefiting from whatever was working before the penalty that you had to change. What was the nature of the penalty? Did you get a message in Google Search Console? If so, what was the message?

  22. Understood that those things are out there. I just wonder how many people that are competing with that small business (my guess is that would be another small business) would know enough to buy those link packages to implement a negative SEO campaign (understanding that you could try to do something like that is a pretty advanced piece of knowledge by itself). I worry more that they buy these link packages and point them to their own site, and end up shooting themselves in the foot.

  23. Eric,
    Yes, there was a message about manual penalty, gave a few examples and they even contacted me about 4-5 times and gave examples of what the issue was during the penalty removing process.
    1. About 10 sitewide and other paid links on some related blogs
    2. Article directories with useless articles which had anchor texts as links
    3. General directories
    4. blog comment spam( these were in excess of 10,000)
    Basically, it was over optimized by using the same 2-3 anchors and 1000s of links and none of those even looks natural.
    Regardless of that. A year old FLASH website with no content at all and 50-100 useless links should not be #1 when there are dozens of aged website(not just mine, others too) with great content and 100s or 1000s of relevant links are pushed to page 3,4,5.

  24. Thunder, I don’t think that’s necessarily a concern. First, the only conditions I know of under which Google might devalue or penalize a page or site for outbound links is if the links make the page appear spammy (e.g., too many links pointing to low value sites, or too many affiliate links). A normal blog roll pointing to decent, relevant sites, should not be a problem. I seem to recall Matt Cutts saying something about Google might not pay much attention to those links (i.e., won’t give much or any link juice to the linked-to sites), but that’s it.

  25. Thunder, they had no issues with 2 sites which put our website in the blogroll by our business name. Google only had issues with a few sites which used the over optimized anchor texts, which was obviously not natural. Those obviously looked like paid links…
    Plus those sites with spammy blog rolls were pointing to a bunch of non relevant websites as well, all by anchor texts, which looked spammy and not natural at all and one didn’t have to know anything about seo to see that.

  26. Will Google penalize links to other sites of the same group of companies?
    For example. a Tour operator that has 10 different sites in different domains for different services and each site also links to the rest of the group.

  27. It’s impossible for us to say what Google will or won’t do in any particular circumstance, but think of it this way. What Google wants are simply legitimate links. Legitimate links exist to help the user of the site. It could be perfectly useful for a user to be linked to other resources, or to link to partners in a sidebar, say, (clearly marked as “Our Partners” or such).
    Where it might begin to get shady and raise suspicions with Google, in my opinion, is if there is a constant practice of interlinking between the sites that begins to look like a link scheme, and not a service to your readers.

  28. It always depends on the details of the situation and the quality of the sites involved. If all the sites are very high quality, are owned by the same company, and link to each other, that shouldn’t be a problem. But, if there are poor quality sites involved, or their common ownership isn’t clear, then it could be more problematic.

  29. HII
    currently I’m doing clean-up work for a client that was hacked. The hack generated dozens of shopping pages on her site which were then puffed up by backlinks the hacker placed in PBNS and other websites he/she hacked. Those backlinks are auto-generated everyday on a multitude of sites and I can’t keep up with it. I have to disavow hundreds each month.

  30. I did a prelim backlink audit for a client yesterday and was finding hundreds of spammy links pointing to a blog post that had hundreds of spammy comments. The anchor texts of the backlinks are completely irrelevant to the client’s site. The severity of the issue was obvious, but I was a bit baffled as to *why* the irrelevant spammy links were being created.
    Reading your comment just now made it all click.
    Spammers are posting automated comments in swarms, then “boosting” them with swarms of automatically generated links on hacked domains. There’s currently over 6000 links and I’m sure it’s growing daily. They’re facing a seriously bad situation and it’s 100% no fault of their own. Wow.

  31. All of the updates that Google comes out with are designed to get rid of the black hat garbage links and allow only quality links from trusted sites. It gives the industry a bad name and image when people do stupid link building or hacking someones site. For everyones sake I wish they would just go away but I guess you need the garbage so the good floats to the top. Thanks for the post

  32. Hi.
    I am a big fan of your blog. I had read many of your great articles and learn great techniques and methods to do proper research. This information again is very interesting and all case studies are very inspiring.

  33. This article is very useful for new people like me. Google Penguin has been upgraded more and more to prevent keyword spam, keyword stuffing. I really like your blog and posts!

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Eric Enge

Eric Enge is part of the Digital Marketing practice at Perficient. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO.

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