A Letter From SEMrush to Penguin 4.0: Our Afterthoughts on Penguin

Meri Chobanyan A Letter From SEMrush to Penguin 4.0: Our Afterthoughts on Penguin Meri Chobanyan

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September 23 was the day that Google announced Penguin 4.0 — its newest algorithm update. You can now read plenty of articles on the nature of the update and how it has effected SEO. The SEMrush Team has even shared their own insightful and initial evaluation of Penguin 4.0.

We recently had an interesting conversation with Will Critchlow, founder of Distilled, in which we discussed the latest trends in the digital world – with Penguin being one of them. Will had expressed concern that the update could provide a loophole for gray hat techniques.

Now, months after the Google update, SEMrush drafted a letter that we would send to Penguin (if it weren’t merely an algorithm)! We expressed our concern that the update could provide a loophole for gray hat techniques and asked experts to share their insights too.

Dear Penguin 4.0,

What makes you a brilliant update for professional SEOs has also caused some concern for us. While it is beneficial to those who are willing to play by the new rules, the update provides more opportunities for manipulative actions by those who are willing to join the shady side.

Here are some questions we have highlighted months after your release. Please consider them and maybe clarify a few points for us:

1) So now Penguin is real-time. What does that mean exactly?

Each time Google undergoes an information update, any page’s rankings can change (the web page or its backlinks), depending on Google’s satisfaction with the page. We see that any actions of SEOs, positive or negative, will produce a noticeable and quick effect!

If Google's real-time feature works in favor of the white hat SEOs’ advantage, it will also be manipulated by the gray hat SEOs.

Basically, here is what a gray hat SEO can read between the lines:

You can now conduct various experiments and see their outcome right away. Meaning, let's follow Google’s reaction to certain actions of yours, what happens if you do this or that, and, considering the next point, you shouldn’t have to worry about penalties anymore!

2) Penguin provides a faster recovery from Google Penalties. Can this lead to more shady conduct?

Let’s say a website gets penalized. What would happen before: you’d wait quite some time for Google to even notice any improvements on your side, and only then would you see any changes ranking-wise. However, now, if your webmaster is a professional and removes unreliable links quickly enough, you’ll notice a positive effect much more quickly, following straight post-recrawling of your pages by Google.

What does a gray hat SEO read into this feature?

Since the recovery is now faster, you don’t have to think twice whether to try misconduct or not. If you want to play with unreliable links, here’s a green light for you!

3) Penguin is a part of Google’s core algorithm, not a separate filter. Can it be gamed?

We don’t want to discourage you completely, though. As Will Critchlow pointed out, Penguin is “not perfect but certainly a step in the right direction.”

We asked some industry professionals to give their predictions about the effect of Penguin and actions that shady SEOs could take, given the information we have currently.

Alex Guest, Head of Inbound Marketing at Prodo, claims that possibly “within 18-24 months we’ll see Penguin as an 80% automated, self-evolving link spam filter with minimal elements of human intervention for quality control and adjustment”.

“Penguin 4.0 looks like an opportunity for gray hats to turn SERPs into another early 2000s-esque Wild West," continued Alex Guest. However, he implies that if the above actually happens, Google might introduce some elements of machine learning, as was the case with RankBrain.

Google’s Gary Illes has announced that you don't include machine learning (unlike RankBrain). That’s a fact. Thus, it can be inferred that it can somehow encourage gray hat SEOs to increase their manipulative actions.

“You can throw all kinds of things against the wall and see what sticks. Repeat what seems to work and shrug, smirk or laugh when it doesn't," says Dave Hermansen, an e-commerce expert.

Taking this fact into account, a gray hat SEO will hear:

Penguin is not a simple trial. It's the Google’s new reality. Thus, before Google figures out how to eliminate loopholes that allow you to manipulate Penguin's algorithm, the race to reveal malicious, adversarial machine learning is on.

4) Does Penguin reinforce the idea to play by Google’s rules?

According to Steve Pritchard, SEO Consultant, Wooden Blinds Direct, “the days of creating micro-sites to ‘burn’ are long gone, this is a better response than a penalty.” Moreover, he sees it as a kind of a chain reaction between gray hats and Google developers in that it increases improvements on one side and triggers creative approaches from the other.

Dave Hermansen claims that if gray hats manage to abuse Penguin's flexible nature, Google may introduce “yet another furry monochromatic animal up their sleeves that they are waiting to let out of its cage. Only time will tell."

It’s not all black and white, though.

There are some lessons that we can learn from the history of link-building tactics such as directories, article marketing, guest posts and, to some extent, round-ups. All of these were introduced at some point, were overused and decreased overall website quality.

  • Marcus Miller, SEO and Digital Marketing Strategist at Bowler Hat, puts it as “[it was a] link-building hamster wheel.”
  • Stuart Young, SEO Manager of Dr. Felix, predicts that “it’ll all come down to ROI again; for most, it will simply become a better value investment to play by Google’s rules rather than continuously looking for loopholes.”

Overall, we see a mixed reaction to the Penguin update in the SEO industry.

Some experts call Penguin a trial to strike a balance between the good and the bad of previous Penguin updates, while some call for “the removal of Penguin entirely” (David Mercer, Tech entrepreneur, SME Pals) as there is no actual Penguin penalty.

So what is the final result of Penguin? It simply chose to ignore faulty links!

The fact that Google doesn't count the harmful links anymore and "reduces risks” for the brand is an essential part of the update. Since it doesn't penalize the whole website and only individual pages, it's a huge benefit to businesses where competitors are dealing with shady link practices.

Yevgeni Sereda, an SEO expert at SEMrush, shares insights about Penguin:

In the old days (maybe history will term it the “pre-Penguin 4.0 era”), someone who wanted to disturb their competitor would simply provide harmful links. Penguin has made that job this much harder to do.

Nevertheless, those who are willing to manipulate backlinks, find loopholes within the algorithm, and test it in various ways, will certainly continue doing so. Although this task of manipulation and competitor backstabbing is more challenging.

“I don’t believe that negative SEO is gone completely. One can still do harm to their website with backlinks. But the recovery process from Google penalties is much faster.” — Yevgeni Sereda, SEO expert at SEMrush

Buying links from web catalogs, social bookmarks, posting spam in comment sections – Google takes all these into consideration, but they won't count on any of them anymore. Link baiting, content marketing and getting white links are becoming increasingly significant.

Regardless of your plan, white SEO backlinks are not easy to duplicate, and they have earned a great deal of trust from Google.

For example, think about backlinks from printed media. Certainly, link-building experts will not stop selling or buying links instantly. But since the cost of high-quality links is increasing, the fact that there is a marketplace behind it is not being widely advertised.

Finally, Penguin has become something we have long expected it to be – fast and flexible.

We don’t have to be fearful of Penguin anymore as it affects just single pages and not the entire domain. Your business stays safe from Google punishment with the changes made from the Penguin update.

Thanks, Google!

Kind regards,


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