Could Google’s Penguin kill the franchise?

Creep up behind the nearest SEO specialist and whisper “Penguin!” in their ear. Now watch as they cough, splutter and start to turn grey.

Why? Well, like a horror film villain, Google’s Penguin has refused to die; it’s back and this time it’s starting to feel personal.

On Friday, the third Penguin update was pushed out by Google. The largest since April’s and between 0.3 and 0.4% of search terms are expected to be affected.

The response to the first two Penguin updates may have been disappointment, frustration and simple resignation; the response this time has been outright anger.

The first Penguin update in April wreaked havoc by cracking down on link building. It seems that any solicited link was considered black-hat. More worryingly, some people felt Google did not err on the side of caution, choosing instead to penalize all inbound links, natural or otherwise, that might by black-hat obtained.

Google’s own estimate was that 3.1% of English language queries were affected. No explanation of how Google arrived at that figure exists, but recent comments suggest that they may consider a query to be affected if there is a change in the top 5 results, meaning that the actual number of sites noticing any change at all was substantially higher.

Penguin beach

The second Penguin update a month later was minor by comparison, just 0.1% of English language queries estimated to be affected. Still getting to grips with the first release, the response to the May release was muted; most SEO specialists still focussing their efforts on the April release.

As a rule, search engine optimization isn’t a speedy art; like steering an oil tanker, you make minor adjustments and see where you are in a week. So in August, once the dust had settled and tactics for handling Penguin were clear, we published an article designed to help you comply with Google’s new requirements.

The day after our article was published Matt Cutts, the current head of Google’s webspam team stated “We’re still in the early stages of Penguin”. True to his word, last Friday Google pushed out its largest Penguin update since April.

Google expect the latest release to affect between 0.3 and 0.4% of queries. It will be months before the full impact is measurable but some webmasters are already complaining of a drop in traffic.

Penguin wreck

Changes to Google’s ranking algorithm are nothing new; there have been updates to Panda (Penguin’s predecessor) and EMD (exact match domains) in recent months; more than 65 minor changes to the algorithm were reportedly introduced in August and September alone.

What makes Penguin different is that it targets hyperlinks, a building block so fundamental to the web that HTML itself is named for it.

Twitter is awash with reports that Google is not responding to quality content — the official solution to ranking well under Penguin. Of course, one man’s quality content is another man’s spam so it’s hard to verify such claims, but what is easy to measure is strength of feeling this new release has prompted.

Many SEO specialists feel Google is intent on killing off SEO altogether. Certainly Google has never made any secret of the fact that it is opposed to any method that seeks to ‘game’ its algorithm.


The question that has to be asked is: if Google is morphing from a meritocracy towards a class system, can it survive in its current market position?

Whilst the demise of Google’s search seems unlikely to say the least, for the time-being we’re all left standing on ground about as solid as a glacier. And you’ve heard of global warming, right?

Have you been affected by the latest Penguin update? How far can Google go before you concentrate your SEO in other directions? Let us know in the comments.

  • Walter

    I completely agree with most of what you say. But imagine you’re a new start-up selling DVDs, or a new auction site. Google’s policy heavily favours established brands like or, it’s next to impossible under Penguin for niche companies to break into the market, leading to less competition.

    • jaystrab

      Unless *aha!* they PAY Google for top placement. Hmmmm.

  • Walter

    I’d LOVE that to be true, but I don’t think it’s likely unfortunately. We’ve been receiving spam promising to optimise our site for penguin or telling us that the ‘company’ emailing us has a ‘secret technique’ to bypass the update.

    If anything, the number of spammers and scammers seems to have increased since April.

    • Christopher Rice

      Exactly. Because optimization scams aren’t in the business of fulfilling their promises … they’re in it to receive your money.

  • jaystrab

    Unfortunately, clients do not want to pay for a “content strategy”. They want quick results. That never happens with SEO.

  • Christopher Rice

    If you’re optimizing correctly, you don’t need to worry about penguin. If you suck, then you’ll probably end up back in telemarketing when penguin’s done with you.

    • Walter

      The reason Penguin hit so many people is because it changed the definition of what “optimizing correctly” means.

      • @htmlcut

        absolutely! Google has been changing its own rules. On the one hand, they are right striving to better their algos. But on the other hand, it isn’t easy to do business when its laws and rules are constantly changed.

  • Michael Janik – Germany

    I am a SEO and web designer and I think SEO is not dead and I don’t think Google dislikes SEOs in general. There will be always to get ahead of your competition by
    – getting quality links with the right mix of anker text
    – producing quality content with the right mix of keywords (alt, title-tag, file-name etc.)
    – involving into the social sphere.

  • Jeff Delacruz

    I’ve been doing a lot of reading on SEO and designed a website for a friend ( ). I’m worried that I may have over keyworded it, but haven’t gotten any messages from google. I’m sort of in the dark about what to do these days if you want to get a good ranking on google and not break any rules.

    On another note, i’m running a little adwords campaign and my primary keyworks ‘Los Angeles Architectural Photographer’ has a 2/3 on the quality score and is getting denied showing because of poor “Ad Relevance”. Upon reading how to fix this it said I need to add the proper keywords, but as I said before, I’m worried I might get flagged for over keywording it.

    In short, could Penguin be effecting my adwords account too?

    • Walter

      It’s difficult to answer any question about Google because their play their cards close to their chest.

      I’d recommend that you make small tweaks rather than sweeping changes. Small adjustments and corrections are usually all that’s needed to come into line with Google.

      There are some great tips in our Penguin article here:

  • bgbs

    so far everything I’ve heard about global warming has been a hoax

    • Walter

      You mean the visibly depleted icecaps are simply the result of too many ‘bourbon on the rocks’ at the last Inuit office party?

      If only that were true. Tragically, there’s more evidence of global warming than of the moon landing.

  • Michael Meininger

    Social and proper content seemed to have made the biggest impact from my personal experiences. All the sites that were “over optimized” with heavy KW saturation and back links seemed to be hit hardest.

    I believe that Google will keep making this cat and mouse game more difficult until people cave in and just pay Google to provide higher placement on more searches, leaving users with an “Auction Engine” instead of a Search engine.

    I probably still won’t use Bing :p