A Complete Guide To Google Penguin: What SEOs Need To Know

Mackenzie Griffith

  | Published on  

May 26, 2021

Seeing a sudden drop in organic traffic? We’re talking 100 to 0.

You may have been bitten by Penguin - Google’s algorithm update, not the bird.

As a website owner or marketer, you should familiarize yourself with the Google Penguin Algorithm, how it works, and why it’s necessary. Google Penguin was introduced as an update to Google’s algorithm to filter out trashy links, and it continues to be an important part of ensuring only high quality sites make it to page one.

Because Penguin is an essential function for determining the validity of a site, we want you to come out understanding the program, as well as how to avoid being punished.

What is Google Penguin?

Think of Penguin as the web spam update. Put simply, Penguin is a program that targets the bad and rewards the good. Penguin aims to filter out sites with links spam and/or manipulative link building practices.

Google released Penguin in 2012 as a means to combat low quality content from ranking in Google Search. 

After a few iterations of the algorithm, in 2016, Google Penguin became a part of Google’s core algorithm.

What is link spam and manipulative link building?

Penguin was introduced as a result of link spamming. Since backlinks are a strong signal to Google to rank the site, people did everything they could to acquire more backlinks (even if the links were not relevant to the content on the linked page).

The concept of manipulative link building is very simple. Before Penguin came into play, people would backlink to their site to signal to Google that their site was legit and worth ranking in Google Search. And because backlinks are a strong indication to Google of a worthy site, people would create sites with bad content, and link these sites back to the sites they actually care about- consequently, boost their pages SERP (Search Engine Results Position). 

But, this is where Penguin comes to the rescue…

Why is Google Penguin needed and how does it work?

Google Penguin started in 2012 as an expansion of the Panda algorithm, but it quickly became more of an asset to Google than originally intended (which is why Penguin is now a member of its core algorithms). 

For those that are unfamiliar with Google’s Panda algorithm, it essentially uses machine learning to conclude how humans would rate the quality of a specific piece of content. So, as an extension of Panda, the objective of the Penguin algorithm was to disrupt spammed links and reduce the amount of spamming and creating low quality links to back link from.

Penguin analyzes the legitimacy of links and ensures that the relevant ones that enhance the sites they point to are rewarded, while the links that act as spam are downgraded. With Penguin being a part of Google’s core search algorithm, the program is able to evaluate links on websites in real-time, meaning that as a website owner, you are able to see the immediate impact of your link-building work.

What is a Google Penguin penalty?

In the older versions of Google Penguin, sites with spammy or poor links were handed penalties. With the penalty, Google would cut all ties, and you would immediately see a massive drop in your traffic. But with the 2016 update, Google chose to turn these punishments into “downgrades.”  A downgrade involves reducing a given site’s rank in Google’s search results which, of course, is the opposite of what all SEOs strive for.

Keep in mind that these “downgrades” are not taken lightly.

What happens if Google Penguin downgrades your site

As a Business owner, SEO, and Marketer, it is essential to understand how Google Penguin works, and the consequences of ignoring Google’s strict guidelines. Not knowing these rules can result in extremely harsh punishments by Penguin, which are catastrophic for any business.

When Google made the jump from enforcing harsh penalties to downgrading sites with faulty links, webmasters of sites that used manipulative link building tactics saw immediate decreases in their rank and organic traffic, and in some cases, lost almost all traffic overnight. Although many of these downgrades were site-wide, this was not the case every time. Some of the downgrades were partial: for instance, if specific keywords were heavily spammed, the Penguin algorithm would just target these keywords. In this case, if Google Penguin targeted a specific keyword that seemed to be spammed, it would cut all organic traffic linked to that keyword.

How do I recover from Google Penguin?

One simple way to avoid having Google automatically read your links as spam and downgrade your site is to use the Disavow Links Tool. 

The Disavow Links tool functions as a messenger to Google Penguin, telling it to avoid reading certain links. While this can help keep the algorithm from reading your poor quality links as spam and therefore downgrading your site, keep in mind that you should use the Disavow Links tool as infrequently as possible.  You do not want to use this tool all of the time because if every one of your links was disavowed, then you would never be able to boost your rank in search results.

This may go without saying, but remember to never use the Disavow Links tool on your high quality links. Doing so would prevent Google from following those links, and thus prevent them from positively impacting your rank. For more information on the Disavow Links tool and how it works, check out this blog post.

While the disavow tool is great for preventing you from being hit with spammy links, the best way to avoid the Penguin punishment is by not purchasing links and not using spammy links to try to rank. 


The Penguin update to the Google search algorithm paved the way for genuine link-building to become a core part of SEO today. By targeting link spam and reducing the rankings of sites that employed manipulative tactics, Google continued their fight against low-quality content that provides little to no value to users. As an SEO, a marketer, or a content creator, you can take advantage of the Penguin algorithm by focusing on building links based on relationships and attracting links with high-quality, shareable content.

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