When Google promised an update to their infamous Penguin algorithm for early 2016, website managers across the world braced themselves for a potentially devastating drop in their search engine rankings. The Penguin algorithm is designed to ‘punish’ websites that violate Google’s webmaster guidelines, and to promote those that follow the ‘rules’.
Many sites affected by the original Penguin update felt that they had been unfairly penalised by the algorithm. Particularly when it took months or years for many to recover their original rankings.
So when a change in ranking factors did finally arrive in the middle of January, there was instant panic that Penguin was in effect.
It’s not Penguin because Google says it’s not
After the dust settled, it quickly became apparent that the update was not Penguin-related. More importantly, several key Google figures even said as much on Twitter:
At the time of the update, there was wild speculation that Penguin or Panda may be at work. In the hours following the update, most SEO experts settled on Penguin, although it seems as though Gary Illyes’ response was posted in the middle of the panic - hence his reference to ‘other animals’.
The biggest winners from the update seem to be brands themselves. Evergreen content on the ‘Acme Ltd’ website is apparently being prioritised over Acme-related content on another site, like Forbes.com. Thus Acme.com appears above unaffiliated content in Google search results. You can read more about Yoast’s efforts to measure the changes here.
Analysis of search results following the update suggests that the change is both dramatic and negligible. When users search for a brand name, they are typically looking to land on the related site. 99.9% of people searching for Acme want Acme.com, not a Forbes.com article about Acme.
So in the rankings Acme.com goes up and Forbes goes down. But when it comes to actual traffic, almost nothing will change. Acme.com links will still attract almost all of the clicks, regardless of where they appear.
Effectively everything and nothing has changed.
Don't get complacent
This core update will not be the last algorithm change to take place this year. Google has also restated their promise to release a Penguin update:
@mrjamiedodd I'll go with weeks. We're aiming for launching penguin this quarter, but we don't have a more precise timeframe.
As always, what will change, and how dramatic the effects will be remain a secret until the algorithm goes live. It is worth noting that around 1% of all search queries were affected by the last Penguin update released in October 2014. Now consider that Google handled 2,095,100,000,000 queries in 2014.
So although January’s update may have had a minimal net overall effect, the next Penguin release is likely to be far more hard-hitting. Businesses should take this opportunity to review their website and link-building strategies to ensure that they comply with Google’s best practice guidelines – particularly when it comes to ‘unnatural links’. And knowing that the algorithm update could drop at any moment, website owners need to familiarise themselves with Google’s link disavow tool quickly, or face a penalty that may last months, until the next update is released.