When Google first released their Penguin update in 2012, it was an unmitigated disaster. That update penalized all the wrong sites for all the wrong reasons. It was designed to target link spam, but it initially failed – badly.
Google quickly started making changes and corrections to try and improve the algorithm. It did improve, though webmasters the world over grumbled and griped about how many perfectly legitimate, “white hat” sites had been demolished by the update.
Some continue to argue that, years later, it still unfairly favors big name brand sites over high authority niche sites, but that’s another post for another day.
One basic principle of Penguin that Google didn’t change was the effect that spammy links had on the ranking of a site. Those low quality links from known spammy sources often got a site demoted out of the rankings. This led to the birth of what’s called “negative SEO”, where unscrupulous SEO practitioners would build garbage links to competitors’ sites and tank their rankings.
When negative SEO was first postulated I was in denial that Google could be so stupid. “No way Google, with all of its brilliant engineers and forward-thinking leadership puts the power of negative SEO into the hands of the bad guys. NO WAY!”
Alas, it was true. Negative SEO was real.
Granted, it had no effect on highly authoritative sites, but for the little guy trying to build the reputation of his or her site, it worked. Though Google never directly admitted to granting the bad guys such power, they provided tacit proof of its existence by giving webmasters the ability to disavow links. Why would a site owner need to claim that they didn’t build the spammy links if spammy links had no negative effect on a site?
Now, finally, more than four years later, Google has taken the power of negative SEO away from the bad guys.
Gary Illyes from the Google Webspam Team has stated that with Penguin 4.0 (which is rolling out now) Google can finally “devalue spam instead of demoting” sites that are the target of spammy links. What that means is that Google “no longer penalizes the site or specific pages but rather ignores/devalues the spammy links and thus the rankings are adjusted” (see this SearchEngineLand.com article).
While this news should certainly make webmasters across the world happier (and sleep better at night knowing their rankings won’t be tanked by negative SEO), I have to ask the question: Why did it take one of the most technologically brilliant teams in the world four years to correct such a painfully obvious, damaging flaw in their algorithm?
Given Google’s general lack of transparency when it comes to anything related to their algorithm (which, honestly, I understand their reasoning for), we may never know.
This doesn’t mean you can run out and build spam links with impunity, however. Google is still taking manual actions against sites known to build low quality links. It’s the automated demotion that’s been removed from their algorithm. A human being has to make the decision now. So if you’ve been the target of a negative SEO attack, Google still recommends disavowing those links to recover your rankings.
As always, post your questions, thoughts and personal Penguin/Google gripes in a comment below. I’m all ears.
P.S. It’s these kind of innocent-webmaster-ignoring actions that Google has taken since going public that have led me to look more and more into alternative forms of traffic. And boy oh boy am I glad I did. CLICK HERE to see the astounding results!