Almost every day, Google introduces changes to its ranking algorithm. Some are tiny tweaks; others seriously shake up the SERPs. This overview will help you make sense of the most important algorithm changes rolled out in the recent years, with a brief explanation of each...
Launch date: February 24, 2011
Main Focus: Duplicate, plagiarized or thin content; user-generated spam; keyword stuffing
How it works: Panda assigns a so-called “quality score” to web pages; this score is then used as a ranking factor. Initially, Panda was a filter rather than part of Google’s ranking algorithm, but in January 2016, it was officially incorporated into the core algorithm. Panda roll-outs have become more frequent, so both penalties and recoveries now happen faster.
How to adjust: Run regular site checks for content duplication, thin content and keyword stuffing. To do that, you’ll need a site crawler, like SEO PowerSuite’s Website Auditor. To check for instances of external content duplication, use a plagiarism checker like Copyscape. If you have an e-commerce site and simply can't afford to have 100 percent unique content, try to use original images where you can, and utilize user reviews to make product descriptions stand out from the crowd. For more tips on content auditing, contact me to set up a consultation.
Launch date: April 24, 2012
Main Focus: Spammy or irrelevant links; links with over-optimized anchor text
How it works: Google Penguin’s objective is to down-rank sites whose links it deems manipulative. Since late 2016, Penguin has been part of Google’s core algorithm; unlike Panda, it works in real time.
How to adjust: Monitor your link profile’s growth and run regular audits with a back-link checker like SEO SpyGlass. In the tool’s Summary dashboard, you’ll find a progress graph for your link profile’s growth. The stats that we know Penguin takes into account are incorporated into SEO SpyGlass’s Penalty Risk formula. Look out for any unusual spikes: those are reason enough to look into the back-links you’ve unexpectedly gained.
Launch date: August 22, 2013
Main Focus: Keyword stuffing; low-quality content
How it works: Hummingbird helps Google better interpret search queries and provide results that match searcher intent (as opposed to the individual terms within the query). While keywords continue to be important, Hummingbird makes it possible for a page to rank for a query even if it doesn’t contain the exact words the searcher entered. This is achieved with the help of natural language processing that relies on latent semantic indexing, co-occurring terms and synonyms.
How to adjust: Expand your keyword research and focus on concepts, not keywords. Carefully research related searches, synonyms and co-occurring terms. Great sources of such ideas are to Google Related Searches and check Google's Autocomplete. You’ll find all of them incorporated into Rank Tracker’s Keyword Research module. Use these insights to understand your audience’s language better and diversify your content. By creating comprehensive content that satisfies searcher intent, you’ll win both in terms of engagement and SEO.
Launch date: July 24, 2014 (US); December 22, 2014 (UK, Canada, Australia)
Main Focus: Poor on- and off-page SEO
How it works: Pigeon affects those searches in which the user’s location plays an important part. The update created closer ties between the local algorithm and the core algorithm: traditional SEO factors are now used to rank local results.
How to adjust: Invest effort into on- and off-page SEO. A good starting point is to start with off-page SEO like Getting listed in relevant business directories. Not only do those act like backlinks, helping your site rank; they rank well in Google themselves. You can easily find quality directories and reach out to webmasters asking to get listed with them.
Launch date: April 21, 2015
Main Focus: Lack of a mobile version of the page; poor mobile usability
How it works: Google’s Mobile Update (aka Mobilegeddon) ensures that mobile-friendly pages rank at the top of mobile search, while pages not optimized for mobile are filtered out from the SERPs or seriously down-ranked.
How to adjust: Go mobile and focus on speed and usability. Mobile devices are incredibly popular and websites need to be optimized for load time and to viewed on them.
Launch date: October 26, 2015
Main Focus: Lack of query-specific relevance; shallow content; poor user experience
How it works: RankBrain is part of Google’s Hummingbird algorithm. It is a machine learning system that helps Google understand the meaning behind queries, and serve best-matching search results in response to those queries. Google calls RankBrain the third most important ranking factor. While we don’t know the ins and outs of RankBrain, the general opinion is that it identifies relevance features for web pages ranking for a given query, which are basically query-specific ranking factors.
How to adjust: Optimize content for relevance and comprehensiveness with the help of competitive analysis. With the help of website auditing tools, we can discover relevant terms and concepts used by a large number of your top-ranking competitors creating a brilliant way to diversify your content.
Launch date: September 1, 2016
Main Focus: Tense competition in your target location
How it works: The Possum update ensured that local results vary more depending on the searcher’s location: the closer you are to a business’s address, the more likely you are to see it among local results. Possum also resulted in greater variety among results ranking for very similar queries, like “dentist denver” and “dentist denver co.” Interestingly, Possum also gave a boost to businesses located outside the physical city area.
How to adjust: Expand your keyword list and do location-specific rank tracking. Local businesses now need to be targeting more keywords than they used to, due to the volatility Possum brought into the local SERPs. As you check your rankings, make sure you’re doing this from your target location (or, better yet, a bunch of them).
Launch date: March 8, 2017
Main Focus: Thin, affiliate-heavy or ad-centered content
How it works: The latest of Google’s confirmed updates, Fred targets websites that violate Google’s webmaster guidelines. The majority of affected sites are blogs with low-quality posts that appear to be created mostly for the purpose of generating ad revenue.
How to adjust: Review Google Search Quality Guidelines and watch out for thin content. If you show ads, make sure the pages they are found on are high-quality and offer relevant, ample information. This is basically it: Don’t try to trick Google into thinking your page is about something when it really is a gateway page full of affiliate links. Most publishers make money off ads, and that’s totally legit as long as you are not cheating.