Google Search Algorithm Updates You Need to Know
The online search landscape has changed drastically over the last 5 years with a whirlwind of Google search algorithm updates that have left thousands of businesses reeling from their effects. These updates quite literally changed the face of the internet overnight with many former familiar faces being forcibly cast out of their top spots, some of them never to be see again, in favor of more deserving websites.
For a while there, it was chaos. Fire and blood rained from the skies. Doomsayers walked the streets proclaiming that “The end is nigh!” The very fabric of accepted truth was torn asunder and, for many search marketers and webmasters, it was a mad dash to get their websites up to snuff before the Big G brought the hammer down.
And it was all completely avoidable. The same as it is today.
For those of us that weathered this tumultuous storm, the updates were released in such rapid succession that we had to scramble to keep up with them, but we made it out the other side a little bit stronger, a little bit more knowledgeable, and, hopefully, a little bit wiser.
But what if your business is just breaking into the online space after being strictly brick and mortar for years? What if you’re trying to grow online, but you just can’t get any traction? What if hearing words like Panda, Penguin, and algorithmic penalty send you into a state of paralysis?
Well, I won’t lie to you. What you don’t know can, and will, hurt you. If you’re looking to build a strong online presence, you have to play by Google’s rulebook and not knowing their rules is a good way to get slapped with an algorithmic penalty by doing something you weren’t supposed to.
Google’s search algorithms are constantly being tweaked, updated, and honed to give searchers the best possible results for their queries and your website’s search placement hinges on how well it jives with the rulebook. Deviating from, or intentionally going against, the search algorithms will send your site careening into oblivion and utterly tank any chance of your site getting organic traffic.
If you want your business to become a major player in your vertical’s online space, you absolutely, positively need to know about these Google search algorithm updates and how they pertain to your website. Because, after all, those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
Release Date: ~February 2011
Goal: Lower the search engine rankings of websites with thin and/or low-quality content and to promote sites with informative, high quality content
Even before they released the Panda search algorithm, Google was a huge proponent of websites producing unique, informative, and high value content that answered searchers’ questions. Unfortunately, their search algorithm didn’t always reflect that.
In the Before Time, a webmaster could write ~100 words, SEO the hell out of the page, and have it pop up in the top 3 spots for a specific keyword / keyword phrase overnight. While this was great for businesses and search marketers, it was horrible for searchers because what they ended up getting was a webpage that was specifically created for ranking well in the search engine rather than giving them the information / products they were looking for. Google didn’t like that. Google didn’t like that one bit.
In a nutshell, the Panda search algorithm update specifically targeted websites like the one described above in order to devalue their content, based on a slew of data points & metrics, so that websites which actually answered searchers’ queries, displayed the desired products, taught them how to do the thing they wanted to learn about, etc. would rank higher and have a better chance of being seen by the people who should see it.
Basically, it allowed the cream to rise to the top.
What does this mean to you?
If your website doesn’t have high quality, informative, and unique content, you are going to have an incredibly difficult time ranking well for the desired keywords because you aren’t bringing anything valuable to the table in Google’s eyes. You have to set yourself apart. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard. You have to prove that you’re better than the competition by having stellar content that helps people find what they’re looking for.
Whenever you’re writing an article or creating content for your domain, check the content against these 23 points of what makes a good website to see if it’s up to snuff. Google released that set of guidelines shortly after the Panda update to help clarify what search algorithm what meant to do. If your content checks out, you have a decent chance of ranking well (eventually).
Release Date: ~April 2012
Goal: Lower the search engine rankings of websites with unnatural inbound link profiles that accrued inbound links by engaging in spammy, easily manipulative link building tactics.
Inbound links are effectively little votes of confidence in your website. The more “votes” your website has, the more Google views your site as an authority. It’s just a good old-fashioned correlation formula. This thing has 1,000 votes and this other thing has 900 votes so the one with 1,000 must be better and should rank higher. Bing, bang, boom, done. Roll credits.
However, it didn’t take long for people to figure this out and come up with unscrupulous ways to “game the system” so they could guarantee that their website would have the top spots for the exact keywords they wanted to rank for. It was essentially a different flavor of the low-quality content targeted by Panda, but propped up with tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of low quality links which gave it the illusion of “authority”.
Google didn’t like that. Google didn’t like that one bit.
The Penguin algorithm update specifically targeted websites that engaged in these shady link building tactics and effectively devalued / negated the benefit that the low-quality links provided while giving more weight to higher quality links that were earned the proper way. Entire domains disappeared from the SERP overnight and Penguin also caused many marketing teams to abandon link building altogether because of the associated danger of accruing low-quality links.
What does this mean to you?
- Don’t buy links.
- DON’T BUY LINKS.
- Be very mindful of the links you accumulate.
- Don’t engage in link schemes, trading, or directories.
- Regularly audit your inbound link profile & perform a disavow when necessary.
Even after the Penguin update, inbound links are still just as important as they were in the Before Time, but you have to be very careful about how you’re getting them, where they’re coming from, how they’re pointing at you, and how many you’re getting. Link building is not fast. Link building is not easy. Link building is not scalable. Link building really isn’t a thing anymore. It’s more link earning than building now.
The safest way for you to accumulate links in the current online marketing landscape is through the social amplification of your content marketing efforts. It’s a pretty safe recipe. Have outstanding content, share it with people that are interested in your niche / vertical / product / service, and hope that you did a good enough job on the content and that they like it enough to share / mention it on social media or link to it from their own websites.
Mobile Friendliness aka Mobilegeddon
Release Date: April 2015
Goal: Lower the mobile search engine rankings for websites that are not mobile friendly and promote websites that are mobile compatible.
Google is all about delivering a positive user experience to searchers and before Mobilegeddon, they’d told webmasters numerous times to make sure that their websites were mobile friendly so the on-site experience wasn’t abrasive to users on mobile devices.
One of the most frustrating things for mobile users is to click on a link that takes you to a page that isn’t mobile friendly. The text is too small, links are absurdly difficult to tap, you have to pinch and zoom certain areas of a page to get more info, and you have to take a slew of extra steps to interact with content when you shouldn’t have to.
It just makes things more difficult for the sake of apathy on the company’s part. Google didn’t like that. Google didn’t like that one bit.
Google finally got fed up with their words falling on deaf ears and released the Mobile Friendly search algorithm update which basically said, “Screw it. Be mobile friendly or we won’t rank you for mobile search results.” This search algorithm lowered the mobile rankings of websites that didn’t have follow current mobile friendly functionality practices and improved the rankings of those that were.
It may have been the equivalent of, “I’m taking my ball and going home,” but it motivated thousands of companies to finally bite the bullet and devote the necessary time and resources to tackle the mobile compatibility project they should have completed months before.
What does this mean to you?
If you want to show up in mobile search, your website better be mobile friendly. If it isn’t, you may not even crack the first page. For most businesses that are creating a new website, this shouldn’t be an issue as most WordPress themes and ecommerce platforms come with mobile compatibility straight out of the box. However, if you’re working with a legacy website that isn’t mobile friendly, you’d better get on that.
Mobile search used to not be that big of a deal, but with users searching more and more on their mobile devices, you really can’t afford to not have a mobile online presence.
This was a bit of a sleeper algorithm update since its intention was never to penalize websites or devalue a company’s marketing efforts like Panda or Penguin did. It did change how content was created while devaluing traditional SEO tactics, and justifiably so, but it was not meant as a punitive measure.
At its core, Hummingbird associated semantic meaning to search queries which helped Google understand the intent behind what a user was searching for so they could deliver the best possible results. It essentially devalued the individual words of a query and placed more focus how they interacted at the long tail keyword level so the most relevant page would be served up.
In a nutshell, Hummingbird deciphers your content’s topic so it can be served up for more conversational search queries rather than strictly for the optimized keywords.
To see Hummingbird in action, you don’t have to look any further than the search phrases below. In the Before Time, these searches simply wouldn’t work. Google wasn’t able to decipher the intent behind each of these searches and the user would end up getting a whole lot of things they weren’t looking for.
Hummingbird Search Queries
- That movie with the guy that keeps forgetting
- That movie with the pill that makes you smart
- That painting with the diner
What does this mean to you?
While you should still optimize your website’s content for long tail keyword phrases, your main focus should be on the overall topic of the page because users may not search for the exact phrase you optimized it for.
To put this into more practical terms, we’ll look at REI’s How to Choose Hiking Boots page. This page ranks #1 for “hiking boots” as that’s clearly what the page is about, it’s what the page is optimized for, and the content supports it. To put it bluntly, this is how long-form content should be written and optimized.
Now, if you look at other keyword phrases present on the page, “backpacking boots” comes to the forefront. This page ranks #7 for “backpacking boots” despite it not being optimized for that term at all. but how is it ranking so highly for that phrase? Hummingbird. (And the fact that it’s stellar content, but Hummingbird too.)
“Backpacking boots” is a synonym for “hiking boots” and Hummingbird helps Google understand that if a person is searching for the former, they’re also probably interested in the latter and serves up the page for that query. Maybe not as highly, but it’s still up there despite the lack of optimization which would have been impossible in the Before Time.
With this in mind, don’t be afraid to use synonyms of your target keyword and branch out a bit so you encompass the entire topic rather than just the keywords the content is intended to rank for.
Ignorance isn’t bliss, especially in the online marketing space. You absolutely, positively have to familiarize yourself with the major Google algorithm updates that have come before so you don’t dig your website into a hole that you’ll never get out of.
If you’re looking to bolster your company’s online presence, you have to color between the lines. This isn’t the Wild West. You can’t just throw a website up, fiddle with the SEO tags, over-optimize your content, and rank #1 for your target terms overnight. It doesn’t work like that anymore.
What you don’t know can and will hurt you if you aren’t careful.