Panda and Penguin Are Not Penalties

Did you know that Penguin and Panda are NOT penalties? It seems hard to believe that this is true, especially if your website is experiencing horrendous ranking drops because it has been affected by one of these changes. However, Google is quite adamant that we should not be calling these algorithmic changes penalties.

In John Mueller’s Google Webmaster Help Hangouts, any time someone mentions a ‘Penguin penalty’ or ‘Panda penalty’, he is quick to say that these algorithms are NOT penalties. “From our point of view, Penguin isn’t a penalty. It’s essentially a search quality algorithm… a penalty is something that is done manually”, he said.

When asked a question about recovering from a ‘Penguin penalty’, John’s answer was: “We see Penguin as an algorithm. It’s not something we’d see as a penalty… It’s not something that’s either on or off. It’s something where we look at the signals that we have and we try to find the right way to adjust for that.”

What is a Google penalty?

Google penalties do indeed exist. Google can manually penalize a site for things such as inbound unnatural links, outbound unnatural links, thin content, pure spam and more. The most common reason for a site to be manually penalized is because someone has reported the site to Google. Most people also believe that Google manually reviews the top sites in several competitive search results as well, but we don’t know this for sure.

If your site has a manual penalty, you will see evidence of this in your Google Search Console (formerly called ‘Webmaster Tools’). To see if you have a manual penalty, go to Search Traffic → Manual Actions. You’ll either see a penalty like this:


Or, if you have no penalty you will see this:


Important Note: You will not always see evidence of a penalty in the ‘messages’ section of the Google Search Console (Webmaster Tools). If you were added to Google Search Console for this site before the site was penalized, then you should see a message that looks something like this:


However, if you became an owner or restricted owner after the penalty message was initially received, there will be no penalty message for you to see in the messages section. In this case, you will still be able to see the penalty in the Manual Actions Viewer though. Hopefully this is something that Google will change in the future. It would be quite helpful to be able to see the past site messages for a newly verified owner.

If you have a manual penalty, once you have cleaned up your site you can file for reconsideration. If you have done a thorough job, then a Google employee will manually remove your penalty. Something that changed in 2013 was that only sites that had a manual action could apply for reconsideration. Prior to this, anyone could file a reconsideration request, even if there was no manual penalty. For sites that were only affected algorithmically, you would get an automated response back telling you that there was no manual penalty. But now, you can’t file for reconsideration unless you actually have a manual penalty.

What is an Algorithmic Filter?

Google’s algorithms are immensely complex. There are parts of the algorithm that are constantly evaluating websites and modifying their rank depending on what they see. For example, Google’s keyword stuffing algorithm re-evaluates your site each time that Google crawls it. There are other parts of the algorithm, however, that we call filters. Filters are modifications that only take effect when Google decides to run them. Penguin and Panda are filters.

If either of these algorithms determines that your website is not a high quality site (or does not have high quality backlinks, in the case of Penguin), then Google will adjust the algorithm so that your site does not rank as well. If you have lots of issues, you can be affected severely. If you have just a few issues, you may see just a minor rank deduction.

I look at Penguin and Panda as if they were like sandbags that are holding a hot air balloon down. A site with serious issues can have very heavy sandbags that pull the site down and make it almost impossible for the site to rise in rankings unless those sandbags are removed. A site with minor issues might have lighter sandbags applied. These smaller weights still pull the site down somewhat, but not as severely.

Here are some things that separate manual penalties from algorithmic filters:

  • A manual penalty is manually applied by a member of Google’s webspam team. An algorithmic filter is an automatic thing.
  • You can’t file for reconsideration to get an algorithmic filter removed.
  • With a manual penalty, once you’ve cleaned up, and successfully requested reconsideration, the penalty is lifted. With an algorithmic filter, you need to improve your site and then wait for the algorithm (Penguin or Panda) to either update or refresh and reassess your site.
  • A manual penalty is either on or off. There can be cases where a severe penalty can be downgraded to a less severe one such as having a sitewide unnatural links penalty downgraded to a partial but in general a manual penalty is either there or it’s not. But, with an algorithmic filter, you can be affected to different degrees. Not all algorithmic hits are drastic.
  • There is no way of telling whether you are being demoted by an algorithmic filter. Google employees have a console where they can see whether a site is being affected by Panda or Penguin, but webmasters can’t see this. Oh how I wish Google would allow us to see whether we are dealing with an algorithmic filter! If you can see a drop in traffic that coincides the the date of a known or suspected refresh or update of Panda or Penguin, then this is a good hint that you are dealing with one of these issues. However, not all refreshes are announced. And, in the future, Google plans to incorporate both of these algorithms into the main algorithm so it is going to be hard to determine what needs to be done in order to see recovery.
  • With an algorithmic filter, there is no way of knowing whether you’ve done enough work to escape the filter once it re-runs. If you clean up your backlinks, Penguin refreshes and you see a mild improvement, there’s no way of knowing whether you would have seen more improvement if you had removed or disavowed more links. You can’t tell whether you still have a mild case of Penguin or whether the site is completely free of algorithmic sandbags holding it down. Similarly, Google doesn’t tell you what type of on-site quality issues they want to see cleaned up for Panda. We take our best guess when doing a Panda cleanup, but if Google is taking issue with something that we haven’t addressed and is still suppressing the rankings for that site, there’s no way to know.

Should We Be Calling Panda and Penguin Penalties?

Do a Google search for “Panda penalty” or “Penguin penalty” and you’ll see some well known SEO professionals using this terminology. Is it wrong to do so? In my mind it’s all semantics. If you want to sound like someone who really understands Google’s algorithms, it’s probably best to refer to Panda and Penguin as algorithmic filters rather than penalties. But, when I’m talking to a small business owner who has had their revenue severely cut because they’re stuck under an algorithmic filter, I certainly don’t correct them when they say they are being penalized.

I feel that Google has done a good job at cleaning up the search results for the most part. When someone searches for information on car insurance, they’re not likely to see some scuzzy site that got to the top of Google by manipulating the PageRank flowing to the site. As a user, I generally am getting better results now than I did a few years ago. It’s good for Google to show the most relevant results possible. But, these filters are causing so many businesses to suffer severely. Some made poor decisions in hiring a low quality SEO to build links to their site. Others don’t even know what they did wrong, but are the victim of site quality issues that perhaps are caused by a faulty CMS. In my opinion, there needs to be a better way for sites like this to be able to recover.

What Do You Think?

Have you been negatively affected by Panda or Penguin? Do you think we should be calling these penalties?

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