Did Penguin 3.0 Affect Your Site? Here’s How to Find Out
This past weekend, Google officially released the latest Penguin update. This version of Penguin, currently dubbed Penguin 3.0 by the SEO world, is the search engine giant’s latest attempt to fight against websites that use spammy techniques to give themselves an artificial boost in the rankings.
Early reports indicate Penguin 3.0 is both a data refresh and an algorithm update. Data refresh basically means that sites impacted by the last Penguin were freed of their effective “penalties” (provided of course they took the necessary steps to be released from the shackles of Penguin). An algorithm update essentially means that Google has reconfigured the way rankings are calculated based on link quality.
EDIT (10/21/14): Google's Pierre Far has announced via Google+ that Penguin 3.0 was a "refresh affecting fewer than 1% of queries in US English search results."
What Does the New Penguin Do?
It’s too early to tell exactly how the new Penguin works. However, it’s clear that it does work. Search engine results have changed significantly since Penguin 3.0 was rolled out on Friday night. That doesn’t mean every site was affected. Nor was every search query. Past Penguin updates have affected up to 3% of search queries. While this may not seem like much, it’s obviously a big deal if your business depends on any number of the impacted queries.
In the past, getting hit by Penguin meant you couldn’t recover until the next Penguin refresh. Even if you made all the changes Google wanted (such as disavowing spammy links), you had to wait. Many in the SEO world were hoping this would change with the newest version of Penguin, which, according to Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes, is supposed to delight us. At this point, we have no definite indication that Penguin 3.0 will work differently when it comes to recovery efforts.
The most widely discussed feature of Penguin is the way it treats backlinks. The algorithm discounts spammy links, which can result in ranking fluctuations. If your site had enough spammy links, this could be in the form of a major drop in the search results. For example, if you’ve been using automated programs to generate thousands of backlinks to your site to achieve a page one ranking, chances are good that you are now buried deep within the search results. On the other hand, if you've been doing everything the right way for months or years, then you may have noticed a rankings boost thanks to the new Penguin.
How to Determine If Your Site Was Hit
Whenever a major algorithm change is released, SEOs and website owners around the world launch into panic mode. While this is particularly true of anyone employing blackhat tactics, Penguin can strike fear into the hearts of even the most stringent follower of Google’s rules. News of a Penguin update often puts website owners behind their computers running dozens of search queries to see if their sites are still ranking. This is certainly not the best way to conduct a Penguin health check. In fact, there are many reasons why you shouldn’t do this:
- Your search results are often personalized; a Penguin hit may go unnoticed if you visit your site daily because your site will still probably show up in your own search result
- Running manual searches can affect your click-through rate; if you search and don’t click on any results, then you are telling Google that the search didn’t provide what you wanted to see
- The searches you are conducting manually may not actually be the typical ways customers get to your site; in other words, your rankings may have changed, but it may not be a result of Penguin—and it may not matter
Running a manual spot-check from time-to-time doesn't hurt, but it won't yield the most fruitful results. Instead of running manual searches to see if Penguin has taken a toll on your site’s visibility, it’s much better to use the tools you (should) already have at your disposal. Here are a few (free) places to start:
- Google Analytics (or a similar platform): Check your website data to see if you were actually affected. Start with the basics: visits (or sessions, as Google now calls them). If you notice a sudden decline in the number of visits to your site (or a drop from last year during the same period), then you may have been hit.Before jumping to conclusions though, you should check the channels and sources of your visits. If your search traffic looks steady but your social referrals have gone down, then Penguin doesn’t look to be your problem.
There are other potential answers to sudden fluctuations. You can’t look at a single day or single week to determine you were hit by Penguin. Instead, you need to evaluate trends. Maybe it’s just a slow time of year for your industry. Before crying, “Penguin killed my business!” you may want to take a look at your year-over-year data. If things look similar, then you may not have been hit after all.
- Webmaster Tools: Another great way to check for a Penguin hit is by using your Webmaster Tools. Here, you can access a lot of great data regarding search queries, impressions, click-through rates, and more. It’s important to note that Webmaster Tools doesn’t tell you everything. There’s a delay (usually a couple days) in the data. Additionally, you will only see a certain percentage of your impressions and clicks. Still, it gives you good insight if something bad has happened. For example, if you see a big change in the number of impressions—or your average search position, then there’s a good sign something has had a negative impact on your site.
There are also plenty of paid tools out there to help you assess your post-Penguin-update health. Whenever assessing the data, it’s important to look at the overall picture. Don’t panic because one thing looks a little off.
If you were negatively impacted by a Penguin update, then you need to take the proper steps to recovery. This includes figuring out what your site did wrong to begin with. Checking your backlink profile is the best place to start. There are a lot of free tools to help (Webmaster Tools even gives you a list of sites linking back to you), but many of these tools require paid subscriptions to get the full data. If a Penguin hit means a huge loss in revenue, then you will want to spend the money for the best backlink tools available. Once you’ve found the links that likely led to the Penguin attack, then you need to do one of two things: send out link removal requests or use Google’s disavow tool. Whichever method you choose, remember that you may have to wait for Google to refresh Penguin before your site will come back in the search results. Let's hope that won't take over a year this time around.
Of course, the best Penguin strategy is to make sure you don’t get hit in the first place. That means using only solid principles that conform to Google’s policies. If you are trying hard to beat the system, then you are putting your business at risk. Instead of gimmicks and tactics, focus on doing things the right way. The bottom line: create great content that your users will find valuable. Oh, and don’t put your entire business model in the hands of Google.