I get a lot of emails saying things like this: “We were hit by Google’s Penguin algorithm. We did a thorough link cleanup six months ago and NOTHING has changed.”

This post, The Current Status of Google’s Penguin Algorithm was first published on SearchEngineWatch.

An incredible number of small businesses have been decimated by Penguin. They’re trying to recover but are not succeeding.

Because Google’s updates of the Penguin algorithm are so infrequent, it is not uncommon for it to take a year or more to see the benefits of a link cleanup.

In this article we will review the history of the Penguin algorithm, discuss the current status of Penguin, and we’ll even speculate on what the future of Penguin is likely to be.

The History of Google’s Penguin Algorithm

April 24, 2012 was a day that changed the lives of many people. Prior to this date, it was relatively easy to get a website to rank well.

You could do so by creating links in directories made for links, article galleries, and bookmark sites. The more links the better.

But in April of 2012, Google turned on the Penguin algorithm and made this announcement. As a result, a huge number of websites that had relied on the power of self-made links saw a drastic drop in rankings.

Unfortunately a huge number of non-spammy, legitimate businesses were hit severely as well.

I hear story after story about businesses that hired someone to improve their online presence, and had no clue that they were breaking Google’s Quality Guidelines.

Low quality linking took them from ranking at the bottom of the first page for their keywords to first place rankings.

When Penguin hit, they were beyond page ten with no clue as to why. Many of these businesses that had seen years of incredible growth powered by top Google rankings were forced to lay-off staff or even close down.

On May 25, 2012 – one month after the launch of Penguin – Google launched a Penguin update. There was one reported case of recovery from WPMU.org. This site quickly moved to remove keyword anchored links from the footer of people who used their templates.

I didn’t see any other recovery cases. This is not surprising considering that at this time we had no disavow tool – it was not introduced until October of 2013.


Penguin Updates and Refreshes

Over the next few years Google ran several updates and refreshes of the Penguin algorithm. There is a difference between a Penguin update and a Penguin refresh. A Penguin update occurs when Google changes the criteria that Penguin uses in its calculations.

In a Penguin refresh, they use the same criteria as the previous time but rerun the algorithm. A site that has been demoted by Penguin is generally not able to recover until either an update or a refresh happens.

Here is a history of the Penguin reruns that we have had so far:

  • April 24, 2012: Initial launch of Penguin
  • May 25, 2102: Penguin Update
  • October 5, 2012: Penguin Update
  • May 22, 2013: Penguin Update
  • October 4, 2013: Penguin Update
  • October 17, 2014: Penguin Refresh

There were also a few possible minor refreshes of Penguin on November 27, 2014, December 2, 2014, December 5, 2014, and December 6, 2014.

If you look at that list, you can see that the last time Penguin updated was October of 2013 – almost two full years ago. Wow – this means that Google has not changed the criteria that they use to determine whether your links are untrustworthy in a long time.

The Last Penguin Refresh

The last official run of Penguin was on October 17, 2014. This was supposed to be a slow rolling change that could take a couple of months to be complete, but it’s quite clear that many sites were affected on particular dates at the end of 2014.

Google ran this refresh primarily to help site owners who had worked hard to clean their links. It is likely that they pushed this out as a response to the outcry from the community of site owners that had been waiting an entire year for Penguin to rerun.

Google employee Pierre Far explains the search giant’s intentions stating, “This refresh helps sites that have already cleaned up the webspam signals discovered in the previous Penguin iteration, and demotes sites with newly discovered spam.” 

We definitely did see some sites make nice improvements, such as this one:


However, a huge number of sites that had done very thorough link cleanups were unable to recover. For some of these cases, there was a logical explanation as to why no recovery was seen. Here are some possible reasons why:  

  • The link cleanup wasn’t thorough enough.
  • Not enough time had passed for Google to recrawl the disavowed links.
  • The site had other issues that were holding it down such as problems with Panda. 
  • Its previous good ranking was due to the power of links that are now considered unnatural. Therefore the site did not deserve to rank. 

I wrote a thorough article that discusses these points in greater detail. However, I reviewed many cases of sites that I still believe really do deserve to rank well. They did extremely thorough link cleanups – some of them had over two years of thorough disavow work in place. Yet these sites still appeared to get squashed by Penguin.

While it’s possible that my theories on these sites still being suppressed by Penguin is incorrect, I think a likely explanation is that the current framework of Penguin makes it difficult for some sites to recover.

If you did not see improvement with Penguin 3.0 in October of last year – do not give up hope. According to many webspam team members I’ve spoken with, it is clear that Google is aware of the fact that small businesses are struggling to escape the grips of Penguin.

I also believe that Google is working to liberate the sites that make the effort to clean up their link profiles. What is still not clear is how much of a priority this problem represents to the team that is currently working to improve Penguin.

The Future of Penguin

We have now waited almost an entire year since the last official refresh of Penguin, and two years since the last update. I have heard some speculation from the community that perhaps Google will never update Penguin again. It’s a mess. In my opinion, there are two big challenges that are hindering the process:

  1. It’s hard to run a punitive algorithm that doesn’t allow for negative SEO. Google claims to be good at distinguishing negative SEO from self-made links, but I imagine that Google possibly tried to refresh Penguin and found that sites were being unfairly hit by negative SEO during pre-launch tests .
  2. The search results could suffer. What would happen if Google launched a new version of Penguin that could target excessive amounts of guest posts and paid link placements on articles for authoritative sites? I bet that many well-known brands would be found guilty. If Google punished every site that used this tactic, this could possibly make their search results less useful to users.

Is it possible that Penguin will never update? I don’t think that this is true. Google’s Gary Illyes has said that they are working on the update that will be out in a few months:

 Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 4.11.19 PM

He also said they are working on making Penguin run more frequently:

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 4.11.29 PM

Perhaps I am naive, but I do believe that the webspam team is working to make Penguin fair and ultimately better overall. I think we will see a good number of spectacular recoveries with the next update. If you have been waiting for a recovery, then hang in there.

So let’s circle back to the question that started this article off. If you have done a thorough link cleanup and have not seen recovery, it is possible that you just need to wait for Penguin to refresh.

If you submitted your disavow file after October of 2014, then there has not been an official refresh since them. Also those who filed a disavow after July of 2014 are still playing the waiting game because the recrawling and disavowing process generally takes a few months. But have faith – there is a decent chance that you will see positive improvements with the next Penguin update.

What do you think?

Are you still waiting for Penguin to update? Do you think that future iterations of Penguin will make recovery more possible?