Google came onto the search engine scene with a revolutionary algorithm called PageRank. PageRank was a formula that essentially ranked sites based on the number and quality of links pointing to that site. Introducing a metric that accounted for data from other websites, making it harder for spammy websites to dominate the results pages as each of these qualified links could be seen as a ‘vote of trust’ for that site.
Although Page Rank was a game changer, spammers once again found a way around it through link spam and other black hat techniques. Link spam can take many forms but basically, it involves links coming from illegal sources that trick Google’s algorithms into giving a site more authority than it deserves. This exposed flaw marked the beginning of the never-ending process of updates to Google’s algorithms that we are still experiencing today.
Overview of Google algorithm updates
From the beginning of Google’s dominance in the search engine sphere to the present day – it still accounts for around 78% of searches – Google is constantly working to improve its algorithms. As long as spammers and black hat SEO experts keep finding loopholes, Google will keep improving and adding new ones. So much so that every single day Google is adjusting and tinkering with its algorithm to the point that no one outside its core team knows what exactly makes up its algorithm. So when it comes to writing an overview, it takes days to analyze every little update Google has made over the years. And who has time for that? So instead, we’ve done the dirty work for you and pulled out the major updates with a brief summary of each (in chronological order) and what they mean for you and your website. Let’s start with one of the most important updates today, the Pandas update.
1. Panda Update
The Google Panda update was released in February 2011 and is still being updated from time to time, so following the rules outlined here is vital to SEO success.
The Panda’s update was Google’s introduction of a filter to the process. In January 2016, the filter was such an important tool to Google that it was officially included in the algorithm. The Panda Filter is in charge of removing websites whose overall content is not conducive to search results or, at least, prevents them from ranking well. The key flags that Pandas checks for are duplicate content, thin content, and keyword stuffing, which means pages that stuff their text with targeted keywords.
To keep your site from getting penalized by Panda, you should follow several practices to maintain the quality of your content:
- Eliminate duplicate content from your site, which may exist in duplicate pages and/or similar content on multiple pages.
- Update all pages on your site to have at least 800 words of content, and refresh this content from time to time.
- Avoid any kind of keyword stuffing or using keywords that sound unnatural.
2. Penguin Update
Google Penguin Update was first introduced in April 2012 and has been updated several times since then. This update, opposite Panda, is a real-time part of Google’s algorithm.
Penguin is a software that focuses on the quality of backlinks. This was an update that was overdue since the early days of PageRank and has caused many black hat SEO experts a major headache. The gist of this update is that any link that Penguin considers to be spammy or manipulative is given zero added value to the website and will result in fines to the associated website. In previous versions of the Penguin algorithm, these links would have devalued the website on top of being penalized, but Google noticed that anti-competitive sites were targeting manipulative links at their competitors and made the change.
To avoid being punished by penguins, the following actions should be taken:
Quality over quantity: Always avoid low authority domains when searching for new links. A good way to make sure the domains you’re sourcing from are trustworthy for links is to enter the URL on Majestic and find the scores for Citation Flow and Trust Flow. Rankings range from 0-100, with double digits being respectable, and scores should be relatively close to each other.
Diversified Anchor Text: When creating anchor text for links, the text should always avoid being keyword stuffed or Google will flag it as keyword stuffing. Instead, focus on diversifying your anchor text to build quality backlinks.
Avoid buying links or using tools to build backlinks: both of these strategies will bring you into partnership with low-quality sites that are known for black hat tactics. Building a strong network of links is not accomplished overnight and requires a good amount of work and Google knows this.
3. Pigeon Update
The Pigeon update went live in February 2012 with a list of updates to the current algorithm. This often overlooked update is an important guideline for local SEO strategy.
Pigeon is an update to Google’s algorithm that has improved search results for local queries. Up to this point, if a user wanted to receive location-based results from their query, they would need to append the appropriate modifiers to their search (eg for Caffe in New York, the search would need to include the word New York). . , Following the Pigeon update, Google began using the computer’s IP address as well as the user’s physical location to assist with results for searches that had a local intent but was not explicitly typed (e.g. For example, if you searched for ‘good Italian Caffe ‘, Google can understand that you don’t just mean a good Italian restaurant, but results around you). See an example below for a search for ‘An SEO agency in the London area:
Since 2012 there has been another update known as the Possum and Pigeon Update, which compliments the Pigeon Update. These updates focus more on the results that are closest to you for your query. Other improvements were also made to help address new local spammers that were found to be flawed in the Pigeon update.
Overall, if any of your pages are going to thrive on local traffic, it’s important to make sure your pages reflect that intent. Optimizing your metadata and on-page content with local contexts is a good start to seeing higher rankings from local audiences.
4 The Hummingbird Update
In August 2013, Google shook up the game and changed the core of its algorithm. This major update was known as Hummingbird Update.
This update, opposite of Panda and Penguin, was less about recognizing and penalizing black hat techniques and more about enhancing Google’s search results. The idea was to better understand the user’s search intent with their queries and provide them with more relevant answers. This meant moving beyond results that just matched on-page keywords to include latent semantic indexing, co-occurring words, and synonyms. By employing an advanced language processing algorithm, more low-quality content is cut out, and results pages are filled with more relevant pages than ever before.
As mentioned above, the Hummingbird update was less about catching users with spam and more about systematically improving Google’s results pages. To be successful with Master Calendar, make sure your content is natural and that you’re targeting key topics, not just individual keywords.
5. Mobile Update
In April 2015, Google launched its mobile update which is simpler than it sounds.
This update penalized sites that did not have a mobile-friendly version of their website or had poor mobile usability. Thus if a search is performed on a mobile phone, results containing a mobile site are given higher priority, and sites that are not pushed down the results page.
The solution here is as straightforward as the problem – if you haven’t already, launch a mobile version of your website. Once launched, you can use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to see if your site is mobile-friendly and whether it has any usability issues. An additional update was released by Google in July 2018 discussing how page speed would now be an official factor for ranking. So in terms of best practices, both usability and speed are important considerations. To learn more about the benefits of going mobile, check out this post on how to rank better with mobile SEO.
6. Rankbrain Update
RankBrain was released in October 2015 and it is a part of the Hummingbird algorithm. It is a machine learning system that helps Google understand the meaning behind queries and provides the best matching search results in response to those queries.
RankBrain is a machine learning system that acts as a query processor to help Google understand search queries. RankBrain is believed to be continuously recording and back-storing written and oral queries and processing them into potential objectives.
The strategy to be successful with RankBrain is no different from Hummingbird but focuses more on making sure your website is searchable, user-friendly, and contains the proper amount of content. A wide range of keywords and helpful backlinks to official partner websites will also prove beneficial.
7. The Fred Update
The latest Google update came in March 2017 with the name Fred. The purpose of FRED is to identify websites that are violating Google’s Search Essentials and send warnings (example below) and subsequent fines if the problem is not resolved. These guidelines are designed to prevent many tactics, but most flagged sites are dealing with content issues. These content issues can be anything from thin content that is a clear attempt to sell to pages with ads.
The best way to avoid getting flagged by Google Search Essentials is to review the rules mentioned and adjust your site if anything doesn’t look right. Having ads or promoting third-party sites should not get you in trouble, as long as they are presented in a natural way and the parties you are advertising are official.
Best Practices on Google Today
If you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back. Google algorithm updates aren’t always the most engaging reads. But needless to say, they are important to keep up to date. If any of the updates above have you concerned that you may be penalized, a good resource to check is the Barracuda Tool which will help you to check if you have been affected. After going over each of the major updates above, we can see some very important themes that can help us to be successful:
- Google is transparent about SEO and wants your site to be effective
- SEO can be complicated and hard to master, but knowing a few best practices goes a long way.
It’s common to fall into a sense of seeing Google as the unfair ruler of the search engine world. But Google really wants your website to be as good as it can be. Their success and relevance depend on it. When someone enters a keyword search, they expect Google to give them an immediate answer to their question, regardless of how their search can be interpreted. This may be too much to ask. That’s why Google needs our help to make it as easy as possible for our sites to crawl, understand and rank whenever they play a trick like this. And in return, Google will rank your site higher and higher on their results pages.
Additional proof of Google’s support came in 2022 when Google announced the top 3 important search ranking factors. Announcing the three biggest factors for ranking, not only shows that Google is a more open book when it comes to SEO than we thought but also tells us to focus on these factors and get our websites ranked as high as possible. Also encourages. Also encourages. Also allows customization. Diving into those ranking factors, it’s no surprise that both Content and RankBrain are in the top 3. Both of these factors emphasize the importance of your site being quality and natural, which is why Google rewards the best sites with the best content. Finally, seeing backlinks ranking so high is essentially telling us that Google is using the internet to grade itself. Backlinks can essentially be seen as a vote of confidence for a website, so the more votes a website receives and the more authority these votes come from, the more Google shows that the site in question is legitimate.