An Introduction To Google's Algorithm Updates

You’ve probably heard of Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird, and maybe even dropped those terms on unsuspecting friends at a party. But unless you’re a seasoned SEO professional, you’re likely not familiar with the key details of Google’s numerous algorithm updates. With an expected Penguin update on the horizon, here’s a quick primer on the most notable algorithm updates of the past five years and why they’re significant to marketers. The lesson, as always, is that SEO is constantly evolving. 

1)     Panda (26 updates) – Launched Feb. 23, 2011

If you’re focused on adding high-quality content to your site, Panda is your friend. Panda rewarded high-quality sites by suppressing sites that abused content — a process that affected 12% of searches. Panda affected “content farms” (sites that generated massive amounts of original, low-quality content), sites with thin content (automatically generated, scraped content or doorway pages) and pages with poor ad-to-content ratios (excessive number of ads, especially above the fold). Most notably, and JC Penney were penalized by Google for these tactics. There have been 25 tracked subsequent updates, the most recent being Panda 4.0 in May (which affected 7.5% of all searches). 



2)     Penguin(5 updates) – Launched April 24, 2012

Penguin targeted sites using SEO techniques that violated Google’s quality guidelines. This included keyword stuffing (overloading of keywords or phone numbers), link schemes (buying or selling links, unnatural links and forum comments with signature links) and other methods of gaming the system to improve search rankings. This change only affected 3%   of queries, but it significantly impacted sites gaining an unfair SEO advantage. Four subsequent Penguin updates have had a profound impact — all sites should now be reviewed via regular Link Audits to rule out the presence of spam links. Penguin 3.0 is rumored to reward sites that have done the hard work of disavowing nefarious links.

3)     Knowledge Graph (2 updates) – Launched May 16, 2012

“Things, not strings,” is how Google describes the Knowledge Graph, an instantly returned element that gets strong prominence on the search results page. The premise is that words represent things and search results should provide better information than simple links to pages. This is typically a picture/map, with description and links at the top right or even top center of search results (mobile search or sports scores/schedules, stock ticker/results on desktop). The second update to Knowledge Graph (KG) increased KG results by 50%, with a quarter of all searches now including some kind of KG content. Google pulls this content from numerous sources, including Google Plus, so it’s good to have a completed G+ account profile that includes recent posts and reviews.

4)     Hummingbird – Launched Aug. 20, 2013

Hummingbird is a relatively new search algorithm, the biggest change since the Caffeine update in June of 2010. Google retained the best parts of its previous algorithm while adding in new elements specifically tailored to the present needs of search. One of these areas is “conversational search,” which includes searches phrased as questions (and spoken searches) and incorporates previous queries and natural language processing. The idea here is that facts and pages can be connected in ways beyond explicit matches of keywords.

5)     Pigeon– Launched July 24, 2014

Google’s most recent update had a major impact on local search results. Following Google’s current less-explicit approach to updates, this is the first major update to be named by the search community, not Google. This change ties local results more closely to traditional search ranking signals, improves distance and ranking parameters, and results in more three-packs (three local results) and fewer seven-packs. This change also favors directory sites and puts more emphasis on local businesses than local brands.

There is rarely a dull moment in the world of Google’s algorithm. A big change has either just happened or is on the way. Understanding the major implications is critical to search performance, but the bottom line is to know Google’s rules and to play by them.

3 comments about "An Introduction To Google's Algorithm Updates".
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  1. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, September 15, 2014 at 4:18 p.m.

    My comment is about the overall process of "who should decide" who makes all search engines algorithm standards and process" of search data and not Google's programs or their ideas. Google as it stands is the sole judge and jury about what is good search data or bad. If it is bad, by Google's standards, then they will penalize your company and website. Sweepstakes Today went from first in the world for "Sweepstakes" to not even found in the top 25 pages because I refused to change my banner locations "above the fold". Then an Google employee "demanded" I take down a competitors banner above the fold. I refused. I felt on a legal basis this was against federal anti-trust laws to either to be force to take down a competitor banner. Worse, ST was in the original test market layout in partnership with Google AdSense. They promised a "double of the revenue if we put 3 of the Google banners above the fold" about 6 years ago. This cost us $40,000 to change the site to meet Google's request. We did and Google did pay us at the higher rate. Now they are making "demands" to change again. This will cost us $10,000 and no promise to renew our old payment rate. This is the online advertising version of "abuse" of a publisher. What I would like to see is the industries standards set by the Advertising and Publisher's Council(s) instead of one company like Google. Take the quality standards and put it in the hand of the fair minded people and companies who actually buy the advertisement and publishes the ads and who contribute to the search contents.

  2. Jeorge Martin from Radixweb, September 16, 2014 at 6:39 a.m.

    It is great for white hate SEO companies and lost for spammers when any updates from Google regarding fresh content, link juice and any others refreshment updates.

  3. Joe Laratro from Tandem Interactive, September 17, 2014 at 12:56 p.m.

    Jeremy, this is a very nice round up of the last couple of years, but "this is the first major update to be named by the search community, not Google" is not really the case. We used to name the major updates before Google named Panda. The "Florida" and "May Day" updates are the first ones that come to mind. Moz has a great historical timeline of the bigger algo updates. Besides that one thing, thanks for writing this, it is a great reference point!

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