Why Didn’t You Recover from Penguin?

Posted by Dr-Pete

After almost a two-year wait, the latest Penguin update rolled out in late September and into early October. This roll-out is unusual in many ways, and it only now seems to be settling down. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen many reports of recoveries from previous Penguin demotions, but this post is about those who were left behind. What if you didn’t recover from Penguin?

I’m going to work my way from unlikely, borderline conspiracy theories to difficult truths. Theories #1 and #2 might make you feel better, but, unfortunately, the truth is more likely in #4 or #5.

1. There is no Penguin

Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. Ok, this is the closest I’ll get to full-on conspiracy theory. What if this new Penguin is a ruse, and Google did nothing or rolled out something else? We can’t know anything 100% without peering into the source code, but I’m 99% confident this isn’t the case. Interpreting Google often means reading between the lines, but I don’t know of any recent confirmed announcement that ended up being patently false.

Google representatives are confirming details about the new Penguin both publicly and privately, and algorithm flux matches the general timeline. Perhaps more importantly, we’re seeing many anecdotal reports of Penguin recoveries, such as:

Given the severity of Penguin demotions and the known and infrequent update timelines, these reports are unlikely to be coincidences. Some of these reports are also coming from reliable sources, like Marie Haynes (above) and Glenn Gabe (below), who closely track sites hit by Penguin.

2. Penguin is still rolling out

This Penguin update has been unusual in many ways. It’s probably best not to even call it “Penguin 4.0” (yes, I realize I keep calling it that). The new, “real-time” Penguin is not simply an update to Penguins 1–3. It replaces them and works very differently.

Because real-time Penguin is so different, the roll-out was broken up into a couple of phases. I believe that the new code went live in roughly the timeline of Google’s announcement date of September 23rd. It might have happened a day or two before that, but probably not weeks before. This new code, though, was the kinder, gentler Penguin, which devalues bad links.

For this new code to fully take effect, the entire link graph had to be refreshed, and this takes time, especially for deeper links. So, the impact of the initial roll-out may have taken a few days to fully kick in. In terms of algorithm flux, the brunt of the initial release hit MozCast around September 27th. Now that the new Penguin is real-time, we’ll be feeling its impact continuously, although that impact will be unnoticeable for the vast majority of sites on the vast majority of days.

In addition, Google has rolled back previous Penguin demotions. This happened after the new code launched, but we don’t have an exact timeline. This process also took days, possibly a week or more. We saw additional algorithm spikes around October 2nd and 6th, although the entire period showed sustained flux.

On October 7th, Gary Illyes from Google said that the Penguin roll-out was in the “final stage” (presumably, the removal of demotions) and would take a “few more days”. As of this writing, it’s been five more days.

My best guess is that 95%+ of previous Penguin demotions have been removed at this point. There’s a chance you’re in the lucky 5% remaining, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

3. You didn’t cut nearly deep enough

During the few previous Penguin updates, it was assumed that sites didn’t recover because they simply hadn’t cut deep enough. In other words, site owners and SEOs had tried to surgically remove or disavow a limited number of bad links, but those links were either not the suspect links or were just the tip of the iceberg.

I think it’s true that many people were probably trying to keep as many links as possible, and were hesitant to make the deep cuts Penguin required. However, this entire argument is misleading and possibly self-destructive, because this isn’t how the new Penguin works.

Theoretically, the new Penguin should only devalue bad links, and its impact will be felt on a more “granular” (in Google’s own words) level. In other words, your entire site won’t be demoted because of a few or even a lot of bad links, at least not by Penguin. Should you continue to clean up your link profile? Possibly. Will cutting deeper help you recover from Penguin down the road? Probably not.

4. Without bad links, you’d have no links at all

Here’s the more likely problem, and it’s a cousin of #3. Your link profile is so bad that there is practically no difference between “demotion” and “devaluation.” It’s quite possible that your past Penguin demotion was lifted, but your links were so heavily devalued that you saw no ranking recovery. There was simply no link equity left to provide SEO benefit.

In this case, continuing to prune those bad links isn’t going to help you. You need to build new quality signals and authoritative links. The good news is that you shouldn’t have to wait months or years now to see the positive impact of new links. The bad news is that building high-quality links is a long, difficult road. If it were easy, you probably wouldn’t have taken shortcuts in the first place.

5. Your problem was never Penguin

This is the explanation no one wants to hear, but I think it’s more common than most of us think. We’re obsessed with the confirmed update animals, especially Penguin and Panda, but these are only a few of the hundreds of animals in the Google Zoo.

There were algorithmic link demotions before Penguin, and there are still parts of the algorithm that look for and act on bad links. Given the power that links still hold over ranking, this should come as no surprise. The new Penguin isn’t a free pass on all past link-building sins.

In addition, there are still manual actions. These should (hopefully) show up in Google Search Console, but Google will act on bad links manually where it’s warranted.

It’s also possible that you have a very different algorithmic problem in play or any of a number of technical SEO issues. That diagnostic is well beyond the scope of this blog post, but I’ll offer this advice — dig deeper. If you haven’t recovered from Penguin, maybe you’ve got different or bigger problems.

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