As is the case with every major Google update, Penguin 4.0 unleashed jitters in the SEO community when, on September 23rd, Google announced that a Penguin update was imminent. The Penguin 4.0 update is very different from past Penguin updates. This time, it seems that there is some good news for both the SEO industry and the businesses that hire SEO agencies.

What’s Different About Penguin 4.0?

First, a little history about Penguin:

Penguin history

The "bloodbath" refers to the 2013 Penguin Update that devalued link spam, demoted websites and left the SEO industry and many businesses (mostly small businesses) in disarray.

The Penguin 4.0 update marks a shift in the way Google reacts to link spam:

  • It’s Real-Time - This update now affects every SEO agency, webmaster, business, and every webpage in real-time, rather than waiting months, or even years for a new update to roll through. Any individual page's rank can change as soon as Google re-crawls and re-indexes. Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land writes: "As Google re-crawls and re-indexes pages—which happens constantly—those pages will be assessed by the Penguin filter. Pages will be caught and/or freed by Penguin as part of this regular process."

  • It’s Even More Granular - Now that Penguin is more granular and in real-time, Google will immediately disavow spammy links, rather than demote the entire site’s domain. This will enable SEOs and webmasters to calmly and coolly address single page issues, instead of going into full panic mode as they scramble to recover from a devastating website demotion.

SEO professionals can rest easier now, knowing that a client’s website will not be demoted by a Penguin penalty if Google finds a sketchy link. And the client will not suffer from a significant loss of organic traffic, which in many cases is the lifeblood of the business.

So, No More Penalties?

Since Google's Penguin 4.0 update will devalue bad links that come from low quality sites, those that have little or no relevancy, paid links, and so on, and NOT demote the site, there’s no longer any reason for SEOs to worry about penalties for link spam or negative SEO, right?

Not exactly.

Google hasn’t done away with manual penalties. Penguin 4.0 takes some of the worry out of having bad links pointing toward a website, but Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, warns that, "If we see that someone is systematically trying to spam, the manual actions team might take harsher actions against the site."

For those who think Penguin 4.0 has taken the risk out of link spam, that Google has given the industry carte blanche to go crazy with link spam, think again. Google’s message is the opposite of that.

What Does the SEO Industry Think?

According to HubShout’s SEO After Penguin 4.0 Survey, roughly 59% of SEO agencies believe that the Penguin 4.0 update is a positive sign for the entire industry.

 Pie chart how Penguin will affect the SEO industry

While the majority of SEO agencies are optimistic about the Penguin 4.0 update, many in the industry question whether there is any reason to employ Google’s link disavow process (to remove spammy or low-quality links) now that Penguin 4.0 doesn’t demote sites for link spam. The consensus seems to be that link disavow is still a useful tool, but one that should be used very carefully.

Link Disavow Considerations

Illyes has said that there is now "less need" to use link disavow specifically for Penguin. But according to the HubShout survey, 48% of SEO agencies still plan to use link disavow for their clients’ links, presumably for the reasons mentioned in Rand Fishkin’s Whiteboard Friday Post. Fishkin wrote,
"Penguin does not necessarily any longer penalize an entire domain. It still might. It could be the case that if lots of pages on a domain are getting sketchy links or some substantive portion or Google thinks you're just too sketchy, they could penalize you. Remember, Penguin is not the only algorithm that can penalize websites for getting bad links. There are manual spam penalties, and there are other forms of spam penalties too."

Google has stated that the process to disavow backlinks is "an advanced feature and should only be used with caution." Refer to this Guide to Using Google’s Disavow Tool for guidance.

No More House of Cards

Before Penguin 4.0, link spam could bring about a quick rankings boost and fool an SEO client into thinking the SEO provider was doing a great job, until a Penguin penalty knocked down that house of cards. Now, because of the real-time nature of Penguin 4.0, Google can immediately devalue link spam so it’s not rewarded, even temporarily, with good rankings. For this fact alone, Penguin 4.0 is helpful to businesses that will now have a much clearer read on the effectiveness of their SEO providers and their SEO campaigns.


While it’s not the perfect, failsafe solution to the problem of web spam, Penguin 4.0 is a very big step in the right direction for the SEO industry. In this round, SEO agencies that focus on content marketing and link outreach that yields natural, i.e., contextually appropriate links, are the winners. Their clients are too. Flagrant link spammers are the losers.

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