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.
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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.”
[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.