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A briefing on Google’s latest algorithm changes

A briefing on how 13 of the most significant algorithm changes impact SEO ranking

As you may have heard, Google has released a major update to its algorithm which has seen a significant impact on search results in the UK and the US. Penguin 2.0 released on the 22nd May 2013 is the latest in a long line of updates made by Google aimed at improving search results presented to the user.

Although Google has made several changes to its Penguin algorithm over the past year, this latest update is perhaps the most significant and has changed the way Google bots rank all pages on a site not just the homepage.

The algorithms are designed to highlight only the best results from a search term and Penguin 2.0 has been created to weed out paid for content that masquerades as ‘real’ content such as advertorials, sponsored content etc so that the user finds only authentically produced content that meets their requirements.

To better help you to understand Google’s approach, we’ve mapped out the 13 most significant updates made over the past two years. It's not intended for SEO specialists, rather it is a briefing to check you're up-to-date with the latest changes for marketers where SEO is just part of their responsibility.

The outline below explains how each update has affected search rankings and the types of content you should be avoiding. In addition we’ve created an interactive timeline on Target Internet covering these updates too.

13 significant Google updates

  • 1. Listed Changes - Parked Domains, Autocomplete changes (12/1/2011)

What Google said:

‘New 'parked domain classifier'. This is a new algorithm for automatically detecting parked domains. Parked domains are placeholder sites with little unique content for our users and are often filled only with ads. In most cases, we prefer not to show them.’

What it means for search - This one is very simple, if your holding site offers no useful content for the visitor then Google won’t show it in the results. This was one of the first major updates that showed Google’s commitment to weeding out low quality content sites and set the tone for future updates.

  • 2. G+ Integration with Organic (1/10/2012)

What Google said:

'Google Search has always been about finding the best results for you. Sometimes that means results from the public web, but sometimes it means your personal content or things shared with you by people you care about. These wonderful people and this rich personal content is currently missing from your search experience. Search is still limited to a universe of webpages created publicly, mostly by people you’ve never met. Today, we’re changing that by bringing your world, rich with people and information, into search.’

What it means for search? Until this point, a lot of users were struggling to see the value of G+. This update showed Google’s intention to integrate its own social activity into search results. Results were far more personalised and took into account your own interactions on G+, displaying results from the wider web as well as accounts you were interacting with on G+. Suddenly everyone wanted a G+ account.

More detail on this Google Search Update.

  • 3. Panda 3.3 Internal Linking Update and Freshness (2/27/2012)

What Google said:

‘Many of the changes we make are so subtle that very few people notice them. But in the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking—a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries—and we wanted to let people know what’s going on.

This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.’

What it means for search? This update rang in the death of ‘black hat’ SEO practices and actively sought out and blocked sites that were exploiting Google’s ranking system of external linking and its indication of quality content.

Previously Google had seen incoming links to a site as a vote of confidence in its content, the more links the better the content. Many SEO companies got wise to this and provided specific backlink services which saw website owners paying to increase the number of links into its site.

This update saw the downgrading of ‘link farms’; sites specifically set up to house a lot of links, many hidden within the content and bore no relevance to the user’s search term.

The update hit a lot of sites pretty hard and while some sites providing a genuine service saw their rankings declined, for the most part it cemented Google’s commitment to only serving up high quality results where links were generated by users actively linking to good content.

More detail on this Panda 3.3 update.

  • 4. Penguin - The End of Blog Networks (4/24/2012)

What Google said:

‘In the next few days, we’re launching an important algorithm change targeted at webspam. The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines. We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content.

While we can't divulge specific signals because we don't want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high quality sitesthat create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods instead of engaging in aggressive webspam tactics.’

What it means for search? Ensuring your content is optimised using specific keywords is a great way to give Google a steer as to what your content is about encouraging it to match your content with specific search terms.

However, keyword ‘stuffing’ (where content is created with the sole intention of cramming high ranking keywords into a page just to bump page rankings) is a practice which doesn’t benefit the user or Google. Following this update, Google assessed the use of keywords more carefully and any content which appeared to use specifically terms too frequently were downgraded as webspam.

This also applied to sites which contained outgoing links that had little or no relevance to the content on the page. Outgoing links were always interpreted as an indication of the page content, but as many site owners realized, they could link almost any keywords within the page that had nothing to do with the relevance of the content.

More detail on this Penguin update.

  • 5. Panda 3.6 52 Changes for April (5/4/2012)

What Google said:

‘We’ve had a zerg rush of 52+ launches this month in search. One of the big changes for me was our latest algorithm improvement to help you find more high-quality sites. But, that’s not all we’ve been up to.

As you may recall, a couple months back we shared uncut video discussion of a spelling related change, and now that’s launched as well (see 'More spell corrections for long queries'). Other highlights include changes in indexing, spelling, sitelinks, sports scores features and more. We even experimented with a couple more radical features, such as Really Advanced Search and Weather Control, but ultimately decided they were a little too foolish.’

What it means for search? April saw a number of small updates to how results are displayed for the user. These updates focused on not just looking for exact matches to search queries, but also predicting the user’s needs based on a number of factors too numerous to list.

This update was much more about predicting user requirements, where they hadn’t been explicit, to enhance the experience and offer up the best results. This could be as simple as detecting a spelling mistake in the search query and offering results based on the corrected spelling while also allowing the user to continue searching for ‘incorrect’ spelling if they choose to.

More detail on this Google Search Update.

  • 6. Knowledge Graphs for People, Places, and Things (5/16/2012)

What Google said:

'The Knowledge Graph enables you to search for things, people or places that Google knows about—landmarks, celebrities, cities, sports teams, buildings, geographical features, movies, celestial objects, works of art and more—and instantly get information that’s relevant to your query. This is a critical first step towards building the next generation of search, which taps into the collective intelligence of the web and understands the world a bit more like people do.'

What it means for search? The Knowledge Graph aims to intelligently predict what a user wants to know when searching for things, people or places and displays the most relevant results.

For example, when searching for an author by name, Google will display information about the books that person has written as well as personal information such as birth and death date.

Instead of just matching keywords, it looks back at what other users have searched for and selects the most viewed types of content in one snapshot.

More detail on this Google Knowledge Graph Update.

  • 7. Panda in May 2012, 39 updates (5/25/2012)

What Google said:

'May is often a big month for us in Search, and 2012 has been no exception. This month we had exciting announcements including the Knowledge Graph, better search for users in mainland China, and an updated Search App for iPhone. We also released new sports features, deeper detection of hacked pages, and much more.'

What it means for search? Some highlights from these updates include better predictions for Google's autocomplete meaning that the predictions that appear as you're typing will be more relevant, better ranking for news results so they can be accessed quicker, and a 'freshness' update which allows results to be shown in real time following a major event.

More detail on these Panda updates.

  • 8. Panda 3.9 (7/24/2012)

What Google said:

'In recent months we’ve been especially focused on helping people find high-quality sites in Google’s search results. The 'Panda'algorithm change has improved rankings for a large number of high-quality websites, so most of you reading have nothing to be concerned about. However, for the sites that may have been affected by Panda we wanted to provide additional guidance on how Google searches for high-quality sites.'

What it means for search? This update was designed to provide better guidance and insight into how Google decides the quality of your content. It poses a series of questions for site owners to ask themselves when deciding what to publish and how to develop their site.

If you're already committed to providing good content specifically aimed at engaging your audience then a lot of it will be common sense but if you're new to SEO or you're trying to understand how Google ranks your content then it's worth taking notes.

Google doesn't usually go out of it's way to explain how it ranks content and won't give anything away about how the algorithm works but if you can answer these questions you're on the right track.

More detail on this Panda 3.9 update.

  • 9. June/July 2012 86 changes (8/10/2012)

What Google said:

'We’re back with the latest in our series of search quality highlights. We have a couple months to make up for, so this list is a doozy with 86 changes. You might notice we’ve made one subtle tweak as compared with prior blog posts.

We’re no longer using separate descriptive names and codenames (we’re just listing one or the other). Many times the descriptive names really just repeated the information in the short description. Names are sometimes useful for providing a unique identifier for a given change, so in cases where we don’t have a name, we’re adding an ID number.'

What it means for search? The guys at Google were very busy generating a whole host of updates, for SEO specialists this kind of bulk updating can be a nightmare to manage but for the most part the updates were minor tweaks along the theme of improving the quality of results.

There were also a few updates to improve the quality of image results, identifying that main images displayed within content were usually the most closely related to the content topic.

More detail on this Google update.

  • 10. Increased Scraping Penalties (8/10/2012)

What Google said:

'These quality guidelines cover the most common forms of deceptive or manipulative behavior, but Google may respond negatively to other misleading practices not listed here.

It's not safe to assume that just because a specific deceptive technique isn't included on this page, Google approves of it. Webmasters who spend their energies upholding the spirit of the basic principles will provide a much better user experience and subsequently enjoy better ranking than those who spend their time looking for loopholes they can exploit.'

What it means for search? One of the most interesting questions Google poses in this update of its quality guidelines is 'Would you be doing this is search engines didn't exist?' referring to specific practices site owners use to improve their rankings.

Moving on from just downgrading sites that employ questionable tactics, Google has actively started penalising sites that it feels don't comply with the quality guidance.

Sites have found themselves not just moved down the list but removed from results altogether and being forced through appeal systems to get their site indexed again. This update really showed how serious they are about giving users a good experience and anyone found trying to manipulate the algorithm would not be shown mercy.

The message is clear, create content for users, not for search engines.

More detail on this Google Webmaster guidelines update.

  • 11. August/September 2012 65-Pack (10/4/2012)

What Google said:

'Our latest installment of search quality highlights is here with 65 changes to report for August and September. As you may recall from our last post, in cases where we don’t have a descriptive name, we are using a unique ID number. August and September were both busy months as we launched new features, expanded the Knowledge Graph globally in English, and worked towards building the search engine of the future.'

What it means for search? Highlights from these updates include a larger focus on 'local' results, and improved search results for mobile users e.g. providing smaller video thumbnails on mobile devices. There were also a few updates around the handling of adult material on the web to make browsing safer.

More detail on this Google Search update.

  • 12. Structured Data (3/12/2013)

What Google said:

'Starting today, webmasters have two new tools that make it simpler than ever before to provide the structured content of their web pages. The first is an expansion of Data Highlighter to eight types of structured data: events, products, local businesses, articles, software applications, movies, restaurants, and TV episodes.

With Data Highlighter, webmasters don’t even need to change their site’s HTML. Instead, they can just point and click with their mouse to 'tag' the key fields on a few sample pages of their site. Google learns the pattern of the fields and applies it to similar pages on the site, so all their information can be understood.

What it means for search? While this update didn't affect Google's algorithm or ranking process, it offered two new tools to help webmasters categorise their content in order for Google to display it alongside other relevant results.

  • The first tool - Date Highlighter allows site owners to tag their content into a series of structured data sets (listed above) which moves beyond the rich snippets functionality and allows content managers to point and click to tag rather than updating the site's HTML.The Data Highlighter tool helps Google to understand your content but in order to offer the same kind of helpful information to users, Google also launched the Data Markup Helper tool which allows you to access and download sample code as a guide for implementing structured data into your website.

More detail on this Google Structured Data Update.

  • 13 - Penguin 2.0 - The Big One (5/22/2013)

What Google said:

'We started rolling out the next generation of the Penguin webspam algorithm this afternoon (May 22, 2013), and the rollout is now complete. About 2.3% of English-US queries are affected to the degree that a regular user might notice. The change has also finished rolling out for other languages world-wide. The scope of Penguin varies by language, e.g. languages with more webspam will see more impact.'

What it means for search? Penguin 2.0 is specifically aimed at seeking out webspam and sites using 'black hat' tactics. The latest update goes much further than previous updates which has earned it the Penguin 2.0 name rather than just a refresh of the existing algorithm. it is expected that this update will have a far greater impact on results than other updates. One of the areas Google is focusing on is advertorials which are not clearly promoted as paid-for content.

Google is becoming a lot more sophisticated and is focused on delving deeper into problem areas to come up with effective solutions. It also promises to come up with more ways to help webmasters whose goals are aligned to Google's aim of matching users with high quality content.

Google Webmaster Help have created a great video giving you an idea of what to expect following the most recent update.

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