7 Google Algorithm Updates Every SEO Should Know

Written byWebCEO WebCEO

SEO is good for your site.

The catch is, not all SEO is equally good.

Certain optimization methods take time to produce results, but prove effective in the long run. Others work much faster but may end up leaving your site in a worse situation than when you started.

Less knowledgeable webmasters may use this as an argument that SEO is ineffective, but it actually proves the opposite: search engines can tell the good sites from the bad. Google, in particular, is an expert – nay, the expert in measuring their worth.

Google’s search ranking algorithm has undergone countless changes since its debut. In the past, nobody could predict all the possible methods to push low-quality sites to the top of search results, but Google dealt with them as they came – with the help of algorithm updates.

Now there are much fewer ways around Google’s principle “quality first” than in the past. No doubt you’ve heard about the silent judges who made it possible: Panda, Penguin and Pigeon, to name but a few.

Check if you’ve been hit by any of them.

If you notice a sudden drop in traffic and rankings while looking at your site statistics, you might’ve been bitten (or clawed) by one of those beasts.

Which one? That depends on what you’ve been doing with your site.

Too much of something or not enough of something different – Google algorithm updates cover a lot of ground.

Let’s look at seven of the biggest Google algorithm updates of all time.

“In the past, nobody could predict all the possible methods to push low-quality sites to the top of search results, but Google dealt with them as they came – with the help of algorithm updates.”

Google Panda

What does it do?

This algorithm update is the most likely to strike you.

Google Panda evaluates websites based on the quality of their content.

Pages with high-quality content are rewarded with higher ranking positions, and vice versa.

It boils down to how good you are with on-page optimization.

What triggers the Panda?

  • Thin content. This doesn’t necessarily mean content with too few words. Need a demonstration? Type “is it Christmas?” in Google’s search bar and see what’s ranking first. The site checks the date and then just says Yes or No in your local language. I won’t encourage you to be laconic like a Spartan, though. When you create content, make sure it provides an explicit answer to the user’s search query.
  • Low-quality content. This means content that hurts you to even look at it, let alone read. Poorly formatted text with grammar errors, huge or otherwise distracting images, design that negatively affects a user’s experience – anything you suspect will rub users the wrong way, will. Their visit to your site should be enjoyable.
  • Unhelpful, untrustworthy content. The kind that doesn’t help the users who found it or causes outright harm. Google has no tolerance for incompetence and con artistry. Strive to be a positive force.
  • Duplicate text. It’s often referred to as “duplicate content”, but Panda really only frowns upon copied chunks of text. Images are fair game. Videos are fair game (except on YouTube). Text is where you should be careful. It’s OK to reuse small bits of text as quotes – if you properly mark them as quotes in context. Reusing text and passing it off as your original work, is a no-go. Do that on enough pages to hamper the quality of your site, and Panda will take action.
  • Article spinning. This refers to attempts to avoid issues with duplicate content by rewriting text from another site. Unfortunately for those who try it, good content also needs to be original, and spinning often lowers the content’s quality as well (especially if you automate the process with software).

How to recover?

Are you positive your site was hit by Panda? Then your course of action is to improve your content’s quality.

If it’s obvious to you which pages need more work, overhaul them: remove all that offends users and the algorithm and put up more of the things deserving approval.

Google Penguin

What does it do?

This is the second algorithm update most likely to hit you. Penguin has a lot in common with Panda, but it evaluates websites for a different factor: their link profiles. Backlinks positively affect a site’s rankings if:

  • They are placed on pages contextually related to your linked pages
  • They are surrounded by content related to your linked pages
  • They point to you from trustworthy sources
  • They come from multiple different domains

Conversely, dubious links from shady sources will negatively impact your rankings. Penguin makes sure of that.

Important note: Google Penguin is not the same as Google’s manual actions for unnatural linking. Penguin is completely automatic and will let its grip on your site when unnatural backlinks are no longer a factor. To deal with a manual action, you’ll need to submit a reconsideration request in addition to purging those links.

What triggers the Penguin?

  • Buying links. It’s a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines to acquire links that pass PageRank in exchange for money or products.
  • Lack of anchor text diversity. Text inside backlinks is another factor affecting the quality of your link profile. If this text is the same everywhere, it will look to Google like an attempt to manipulate your rankings.
  • Low quality of links. A backlink will set Penguin off if the content surrounding it is low-quality or contextually irrelevant to the linked page. You can’t always control who links to you, but you should do all you can to get rid of links that harm you.
  • Keyword stuffing. Surprise! You’d think this would be Panda’s territory, since keywords are on-page content. But Penguin also watches for an unnatural use of keywords. Have you ever encountered pages with long, near-meaningless sentences filled with dozens of search queries? That’s what keyword stuffing looks like at its worst.

How to recover?

If the problem is in the backlinks department, you should dig through the ones you have.

The easiest way to do this is to scan your site with WebCEO’s Backlink Quality Check tool.

Once you’ve found all the bad apples in your basket, take them down through any means available.

If you are able to remove them manually, do it. If you can talk to the person who manages the linking domain’s content, do it. For cases when these two options can’t work out, there’s the Google Disavow tool.

Then get the keywords on your site in order if you’ve messed up with them, too. Reduce their numbers until the text looks natural everywhere.

You can scan your site’s pages with WebCEO’s Landing Page SEO tool to check how much of their content in percent is keywords.

Google Pigeon

What does it do?

If you’ve ever dabbled in local SEO, you most likely know about the ranking factors involved in it.

But did you know Google uses them in a separate search algorithm?

Two algorithms – one for traditional web search, the other for local search. Such a divided approach returned less than ideal search results. An update was needed to make the two algorithms cooperate better, and so it was made.

The outcome?

A website’s rankings are now determined by its respective business’ location and distance from the user: the closer, the higher.

In addition, Google shortened its 7-pack and remade it into the 3-pack. It was certainly a great help to users… But for businesses, it’s now a priority to compete for those precious three positions.

What lies in post-Pigeon SEO?

There isn’t much you can do about the distance between your business and the user. But to attract the users who are close enough, there’s everything in your power to help your site appear higher in search.

Strengthen your ranking positions as you normally would with SEO:

  • Create high-quality content related to your niche.
  • Use keywords that include your location.
  • Optimize your site for mobile devices.
  • Build links from reputable sources.

Optimize for the local search algorithm, as well:

  • Use text, images, and videos in your content that are strongly associated with your location.
  • Create listings on business directories and Google My Business.
  • Include NAP (name, address, phone number) citations in those listings and on your own site.
  • Gain positive reviews and testimonials from your customers.
  • Leverage structured data on your site’s pages.

Google Hummingbird

What does it do?

Unlike Panda and Penguin, the purpose of Google Hummingbird wasn’t to change how websites are ranked – at least not as directly.

Hummingbird aimed to improve search itself: by interpreting the user intent behind a query, it made the algorithm return webpages that would be the most qualified for the task. The context around keywords became just as important as the keywords.

What lies in post-Hummingbird SEO?

Hummingbird started the era of semantic search as we know it.

How to meet its standards?

The key lies in understanding what exactly users want to find when searching online.

Most of the time it’s obvious, especially if the query is in the form of a question. Provide answers in your content and be generous with details, synonyms, and contextually related words.

It’s highly recommended to thoroughly research the subject before you write about it; that way, you will possess all the necessary vocabulary and the means to use it correctly.

Be careful: the point is to help your audience, not confuse them. You don’t want to come off as a pseudointellectual who tries too hard to fit in.

Where to find semantic search-friendly keywords and phrases?

Wikipedia is a great example of a site optimized for semantic search (and it was even before Hummingbird). Thanks to being rich with information, its articles almost always satisfy user intent behind one-word and “what is” queries – because that’s precisely what Wikipedia is for. The same is true for other search results that appear for such queries.

Google Payday Loan

What does it do?

Payday Loan shares a few things in common with Google Panda and Google Penguin, but it’s not to be confused with them. It’s a separate update in its own right. It rolled out in 2013 when Google decided to drain the swamp of pornographic, casino, and high interest loan sites.

This update was straightforward and simple. It targeted sites using high-risk SEO methods (such as spammy links) to rank for the above mentioned keywords: sites with pornographic content, high-interest loan sites, casino sites and so on.

Naturally, sites that were optimized for those queries without resorting to spam techniques were not affected – in fact, some have reported an increase in their traffic when their competitors were downranked.

How to recover?

As long as you don’t dabble in black hat SEO, Google Payday Loan should never be your problem for you. If you have triggered it, however, the only solution is to abandon spammy methods and double down on SEO activities which actually produce something valuable to users.

Google Mobile-Friendly update (Mobilegeddon)

What does it do?

One fine day with a boom and a blur, an update rolled out and it caused a little stir. Despite the scary name it received from SEO pros, sites didn’t crash and burn.

All Google did was introduce a new mobile search ranking factor: the user experience quality when viewed on small screens.

Such an innovation was spurred by a significant increase in the number of searches being conducted on mobile devices. Google had a hunch we were were heading toward a mobile-first world – and was completely right. The need to adapt their search algorithm for devices other than PCs was justified.

This mobile-friendly update, a.k.a. Mobilegeddon, arrived in 2015, and ever since then, there has been talk of a new, separate index for mobile-friendly websites. It finally saw the light of day in 2018, and sites that prepared for it early were promptly added in this new index.

What lies in post-Mobilegeddon SEO?

A good start would be to check if your site is already mobile-friendly. You can find out by using WebCEO’s Mobile Optimization tool.

Suppose the result is negative, or you feel like you can do more. How do you optimize your site for this Google update?

A website needs to meet certain requirements to be considered mobile-friendly. Replace “mobile” with “user” and you can easily tell what half of them are; after all, mobile SEO is primarily user experience-oriented.

Let’s see how many of these you have guessed!

  1. Responsive design. It is possible to design a website in such a way that it will automatically adjust itself to any screen it’s displayed on, removing the need to zoom in or scroll sideways.
  2. Large font. Another way to save the users’ time is to make your text larger than you’d normally do for a PC screen. Consider making it even larger above the fold, where you are supposed to catch the visitor’s attention and motivate them to keep scrolling.
  3. No unplayable elements. Who wants to see messages like “this content cannot be played on your device”? They make users feel like they are missing out. Consider the types of content that certain devices don’t support (e.g., Flash has this kind of relationship with mobile) and avoid using them.
  4. No intrusive elements (with a few notable exceptions). Popups that all of a sudden cover the site you’ve been browsing peacefully are a UX killer. If you need to show ads or tactfully hint to your visitors that they can subscribe and get something good, do so in a way that will leave most of your content still visible and usable. Users will much appreciate if you make your popups easy to close, too. Exceptions are notifications that have a good reason to block content, such as age verification popups.
  5. Space between interactive elements. If there are any buttons, checkboxes or the like on a page, make them large enough so they’d be easy to press and leave some room between them so the users with big fingers won’t press the wrong one by mistake.
  6. No separate website. Frankly, having one won’t hurt your SEO or rankings, but you’ll save time and effort if you don’t create one. Just focus on making your primary domain mobile-friendly instead of working on an m-dot.
    – If, for whatever reason, you need to have a separate website, make sure all your links between them are working properly. It’s not uncommon for a faulty redirect to lead to the other site’s home page instead of where the user wanted to go.
  7. Loading speed. Google has finally announced their plans to make web pages’ loading speed a ranking factor. It’s even more important to sites that want to be mobile-friendly, since mobile users tend to close a slow-loading tab sooner than most. How does one make their site load faster?
    – Image optimization. Images take a toll on the loading speed due to all the kilobytes (or megabytes) they are packing. It’s therefore necessary to reduce their file size as much as possible while preserving their quality. Pick the most optimal formats for your images and compress them with specialized software and services.
    – No excessive code. The less code in a page, the faster it’s parsed by the browser. Make your pages do their job with minimum HTML, CSS, JavaScript and other kinds of code. A special example of this method is AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), which eliminates JavaScript code completely and minimizes the rest, achieving blink-of-an-eye speeds.

Google Fred

What does it do?

Fred is Legion, for they are many. Fred is all those minor updates to Google’s search algorithm that are made every day. However, one of those unnamed updates proved to be bigger and more troublesome than most, so this entry will be about this one particular Fred.

It was March 2017 when many websites reported a sudden drop in traffic. (Maybe yours was one of them, too.)

Battle-tested webmasters immediately knew what it meant: another Google algorithm update. Their investigation revealed that affected sites had certain things in common, which proved enough to answer the question:

What triggers the Fred?

  • Aggressive advertisement. Fred helped websites that emphasized content over ad revenue, which is why users visit websites in the first place.
  • Thin, low-value content. If users could find better content elsewhere, Fred shared the sentiment and promptly rewarded the more worthy websites.
  • Poor user experience. Fred wasn’t picky about the methods of disrupting UX. If a site had popups covering the entire screen, wasn’t optimized for mobile, or had a user-unfriendly navigation, the outcome was the same.

How to recover?

As it’s always the case with overcoming penalties, the path toward recovering from Fred lies in doing the opposite of what leads to the loss of traffic. Everyone and their dog has ads on their sites, but don’t make them the priority. That should be content and user experience.

Make your content worthy of being called competition and your user experience silky smooth.

Interestingly, some websites observed a rapid increase in their traffic shortly before Fred’s negative effects were noticed. This shows Google is serious about improving the quality of search results. Was your site among the lucky or the unlucky ones?

Google updates may affect your rankings. Be careful and check your site often.

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