Google Algorithms are a mythical, mysterious thing to many people – including many digital marketers. If you were to hear about Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Fred or Pigeon, would you know what you were hearing? And if you did, would you know the impact that they have on the search results we see every day?
Google has one goal: to provide their users with the most relevant, high-quality results available on the internet. There is constant development to ensure that poor quality results or deliberate attempts to fool the algorithms in place don’t rise to the top. In fact, Google sends out around 600 algorithm updates each year – that’s more than one per day.
Some algorithm updates are more impactful than others. The majority are minor, and will barely affect the majority of website owners. Others changed the face of SEO overnight. If you’re working with an SEO company or hoping to make some positive changes to your own site, you need to know about the most famous and influential algorithms in recent years. If an update indicates a big change, Google will issue a name and an announcement for them.
Of the many algorithm updates that have been rolled out recently, here are the ones that you’ll need to know about:
Implemented: 23th February 2011
Main Focus: Content
Back in the day, it was easy to fool your way to the search rankings. With one keyword-heavy page, you could rank in first place and then re-use that same page for every keyword you need moving forward. Then, in came Panda. The update sought to combat poor quality pages and encourage content that was well written and relevant to searches. They did this by targeting:
- Low quality or low-word count – pages that had a small amount of content that wasn’t really relevant or substantial. These two traits tend to appear hand in hand, with poorly written, top level content.
- Duplicated content – an old-fashioned SEO tactic was to write an identical service page for every location, switching out only the name of the city. This led to the web being flooded with duplicated content.
- Misleading content – if the title indicated the page was about a subject, but the content failed to deliver any real information.
- High ad/content ratio – sites that have prioritised advertising space over content space. This includes a high volute of affiliate links.
- Content farming – dovetailing with the duplicate content penalty, some sites would be filled with poor quality content that was often collected from other sites or written by low-paid content creators for the express purpose of ranking. These were often too short, full of mistakes and stuffed with keywords.
How to avoid a penalty
It’s not difficult to stay on the right side of Panda – simply write well-written, unique content. Don’t copy from others or try to rank for something you can’t provide some good information on. Make sure that you write enough words (an absolute minimum of 400 is best). If you need content writing support, Zinc can provide bespoke content writing services to help.
Implemented: 24th April 2012
Main Focus: Links
Links are an incredibly powerful part of SEO. They indicate to Google that the page is of value to others. The more links, the more trustworthy a site seems and the higher value they are. This is well-known, and often abused by low-quality SEO practitioners who are looking for a quick fix. Penguin has had many iterations, with additions to the update keeping it as effective as possible. The update attempts to combat poor link practice by targeting:
- Bought or sold links – Google wants to know that the links to your site have been earned. It’s possible to buy links online, but these tend to be from low-quality sites with irrelevant content. They’re easy to spot, and will be penalised by Google.
- Reciprocal linking – this used to be a well-used tactic for link building; offering a link for one in return. It’s considered poor practice now, and offers little SEO benefit.
Automated link builders – Some automated programmes can build links to your site. These will be built without any evaluation of relevancy or quality.
- PBN links – Some black hat SEOs try to take link building into their own hands by building networks of fake sites to build links from. Once these are found, the entire network of links will be taken down.
How to avoid a penalty
To avoid a link-based penalty, it’s necessary to be constantly aware of your site’s link profile. You’re not in full control of who links to you, so if you notice a link that’s spammy or bad quality, make a note of it and investigate. You can contact the site owner to take it down, but if this doesn’t work then truly bad links should be disavowed using Search Console.
Implemented: August 2013
Main Focus: Search intent
Hummingbird was a big change in the world of SEO. Unlike Panda and Penguin, which focused on solving one primary issue, Hummingbird was a reworking of the core algorithm and is rumoured to have affected many areas of the algorithm. Hummingbird is less about penalties and more about accuracy. You won’t necessarily lose rankings if you don’t follow its guidelines, but you will easily be beaten by other more effective SEO practitioners who do consider it. Hummingbird is looking to help deliver better results through targeting:
- Keyword-stuffing – a tactic that’s come up before, keyword stuffing is often linked to irrelevant content. Hummingbird was a more intelligent algorithm that understood search intent. Therefore, if somebody was searching for ‘best pad thai in Northampton’, the search knows that you’re looking for restaurants, not recipes.
- Local search results – As a result of the fight against keyword stuffing, local pages were hit hard. Knowledge graph (the box that brings up a snippet of information) was launched the previous year, and Hummingbird caused a lot of local results to appear in these with automatically collected data.
- Answers to questions – it’s thought that the release of Hummingbird was a preparation for the future of voice search. The sites that rank well now are the ones that answer a question, instead of targeting a single exact-match keyword.
How to avoid a penalty
As outlined before, it’s not common for Hummingbird to lead to a penalty. However, in order to compete in a world where the search results are built on this foundation, it’s best to know what it’s looking for. Answer questions, don’t worry too much about an exact keyword, and focus on delivering a complete solution to a search.