Google has issued five major algorithm updates, named (in chronological order) Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Pigeon, and Fred. In between these major updates, Google engineers also made some algorithm tweaks that weren’t heavily publicized but still may have had an impact on your website’s rankings in the search results.
Below, I’ve broken down each and every one of the major Google algorithm changes piece by piece.
Worried that you might be doing something wrong in the eyes of Google?
Want to know how to bounce back from a penalty?
You’ve come to the right place.
Google Algorithms and Why They Change
Before you can fully understand the impact of each individual search algorithm update, you need to have a working knowledge of what a search engine algorithm is all about.
The word “algorithm” refers to the logic-based, step-by-step procedure for solving a particular problem.
In the case of a search engine, the problem is “how to find the most relevant webpages for this particular set of keywords (or search terms).”
The algorithm is how Google finds, ranks, and returns the relevant results.
Google is the #1 search engine on the web and it got there because of its focus on delivering the best results for each search.
As Ben Gomes, Google’s Vice-President of Engineering, said, “our goal is to get you the exact answer you’re searching for faster.”
From the beginning, in a bid to improve its ability to return those right answers quickly, Google began updating its search algorithm, which in turn changed – sometimes drastically – the way it delivered relevant results to search users.
As a result of these changes in the algorithm, many sites were penalized with lower rankings while other sites experienced a surge in organic traffic and improved rankings.
Some brief history: Algorithm changes can be major or minor. Most of them, however, are minor.
In 2014, Google made approximately 500 changes to the algorithm. After each of those tweaks, a large number of sites lost their rankings.
Ten years earlier, in February 2004, Google issued the Brandy update.
A major algorithm change, Brandy’s major focal points were increased attention on link anchor texts and something called “Latent Semantic Indexing” – basically, looking at other pages on the same site to evaluate whether they contain the search terms, in addition to the indexed page.
Eventually, Google’s focus shifted to keyword analysis and intent, rather than solely looking at the keyword itself.
Going back even further, Google made a number of changes in 2000, including the launch of the Google toolbar and a significant tweak known as “Google Dance.”
However, as far as SEO’s impact on business websites is concerned, those updates didn’t have much impact on search results.
If you want to be up-to-date on these algorithm changes, you can review the entire history of Google’s algorithm changes.
Google needs large volumes of data to be able to make better decisions for any rank tracker. The more relevant results people get when they search for a specific keyword, the more accurate the data that Google can extract and return for other searchers.
That’s why these changes have also impacted mobile search results.
Google’s recent changes, coupled with the explosive growth in mobile device use, have been significant for search marketers.
As I already pointed out, Google wants to do good by their users.
They want their search results to make sense, and the job of their algorithm is to reward the sites in the SERPs that deliver what users want.
After all, the company’s focus on user experience is exactly why they won the search engine wars against competitors such as Yahoo!, Lycos, and Bing.
Google also prides themselves on being the “good guy” of the Internet, and their search algorithm confirms this.
The company’s old corporate motto of “Don’t be evil” is a stark warning for sites who try to game their system.
When we look at some key search algorithm changes over the years, it’s clear how Google’s desire to do good shines through.
Perhaps the most obvious example of Google altering their algorithm to assist users was the phenomenon of exact match domains a few years back.
In the not-so-distant past, the top results in the SERPs were brimming with spammy sites like “BestCoffeeShopSeattle.com.” Sites like this often outranked branded domains (think: Starbucks) or other more relevant results.
Sites like these were the bread and butter of affiliate marketers, often subject to keyword stuffing and other shady search tactics.
Deciding enough was enough, Google decided to put their foot down.
Long story short, Google punished spammy exact match sites. The result of their algorithm change looks something like this when we search for “best coffee shop Seattle:”
No spam, just real results for actual coffee shops. That’s Google’s algorithm at work.
Sure, it’s a bit scary to think that Google could potentially wreak havoc on your rankings at any given moment on a whim, right?
But it is necessary considering their objective of delivering the best user experience possible.
I’ve helped clients and friends in the past with algorithm penalties and have seen firsthand what happens when Google comes down hard on a site.
Trust me, it’s not pretty.
But don’t think of these algorithms as twisting your arm. The best long-term search strategy for anyone looking for traffic (even me!) is to align themselves with Google’s goals.
The better you understand the history of Google’s algorithms, the more likely you are to run a site that ranks well.
In this article, we’ll focus on five major Google search algorithm changes. Each of these updates had and continues to have, a significant impact on search engine marketing, on-page SEO, and your site’s overall content strategy for best search results. Specifically, we’ll discuss:
- The Panda update
- The Penguin update
- The Hummingbird update
- The Pigeon update
- The Fred update
- The Bert Update
How to Determine Which Google Algorithm Penalties You’ve Been Hit With
If you keep a close eye on your Google Analytics, you’ll be able to tell if you’ve been hit with a penalty. For example, a steep drop in traffic could signal that something’s wrong.
Now, keep in mind the difference between a sharp decline in traffic versus a slow decline that rebounds. If you’ve been penalized, your traffic is likely to go down and stay down.
Once you’re aware of your potential penalty, it’s time to figure out exactly what’s wrong. Chances are you can match your penalty with a particular update based on the timing of your traffic’s decline.
Google lends a helping hand to penalized site owners through its Webmaster Tools platform.
For example, Webmaster Tools can help you diagnose problems such as a potential duplicate content penalty.
If you’ve already installed the platform, simply log in, select Search Appearance and then HTML Improvements in the drop-down menu. Google then provides a list of any potential issues and allows you to take the necessary actions to fix them.
As noted, not all algorithm penalties are identical in terms of severity. In fact, Google changes their algorithm hundreds of times per year. In other words, there’s a good chance that a site could be penalized due to factors beyond a major update.
Now, let’s talk about the specific algorithms themselves.
Google Algorithm Update: Panda
What Is the Panda update? Panda uses a search algorithm named after the Google Engineer, Biswanath Panda.
In February 2011, the first search filter that was part of the Panda update was rolled out. It’s basically a content quality filter that was targeted at poor quality and thin sites with little SEO power in order to prevent them from ranking well in Google’s top search engine results pages (SERPs).
Whenever a major Panda update happened, site owners noticed either a drop in organic traffic and rankings or a boost.
It changed content strategy, keyword research, and targeting. It even changed how links are built since high-quality relevant links pointing to a webpage ultimately add to its value when it comes to SEO power.
Google could now determine more accurately which sites are “spammy” and which sites would likely be deemed useful by visitors.
Before Panda, poor content could rank quite highly or even dominate Google’s top results pages. Panda 1.0 was unleashed to fight content farms. Google said the update affected 12% of searches in the U.S.
In other words, high-quality content will likely bounce back in the search results while content pages that escaped the previous update get caught in the Panda net.
There has been a Panda update every 1-2 months since 2011, for a total of 28 updates with the most recent in May of 2015.
Google Algorithm Update: Penguin
On April 24, 2012, Google released the first Penguin update. While the Panda update was primarily targeted at thin and low-quality content, Google Penguin is a set of algorithm updates that puts more focus on incoming links.
Before Penguin’s release, site owners, content marketers and webmasters all employed different tactics for link building.
A handful of those ways still work, but a majority of the old-fashioned link building strategies are dead. According to Rival IQ, there are four factors will get your site penalized by Penguin. See the image below:
i). Link schemes – Links are still important, but high-quality sites are the best way to improve search rankings.
Link schemes are those types of activities geared at generating links that will manipulate or induce search engines to rank your web pages. If you fall into the trap of always building links to your site from every other site found in search engines, you may be penalized by Penguin.
Rap Genius, a dedicated website that interprets lyrics and poetry, was penalized because Google found they were using link schemes to manipulate their rankings at the time.
Bottom line: Avoid all forms of link schemes. It’s just not worth the risk.
ii). Keyword stuffing – Matt Cutts already warned against stuffing your page with relevant keywords. No matter how in-depth and easy-to-navigate the site is, Penguin will most likely find and penalize it. In most cases, it’s easy to see why. This is especially true if you’ve ever actually seen a keyword-stuffed page. Here’s an example:
Buying Valentine’s gift for your spouse is a great step to take. This year, Valentine’s gift should be an avenue to express how much love you’ve for him or her. Make sure the Valentine’s gift is well-researched. But don’t stop there. Make it a culture to always show love to your spouse, whether there is Valentine celebration, Christmas etc. When you show love, you get love. For instance, when you show love today, you’ll live to be loved. Are you ready to choose the best Valentine’s gift?
Do you see how many times the keyword “Valentine’s gift” is mentioned in this thin piece of content? That’s keyword stuffing and it’s contrary to the Google Webmaster Guidelines.
Don’t use excessive keywords in your content. Don’t try to manipulate your rankings. If a particular keyword doesn’t sound good or doesn’t flow smoothly in the content, don’t use it.
Note: Keywords are still relevant in the post-Panda and post-Penguin era. Just keep your focus on the intent of your keywords, and write content that appeals to people’s emotions and solves their problems. Effective SEO has always been that way. Let’s keep it simple.
iii). Over-optimization – According to KISSmetrics, “SEO is awesome, but too much SEO can cause over-optimization.” If you over-optimize your anchor texts, for example, this could get you penalized by Penguin. The best approach is to incorporate social media marketing and gain natural or organic links to your web pages.
In April 2012, Google rolled out another update that penalized large sites that were over-optimizing keywords and anchor texts, engaging in link building schemes and pursuing other forms of link manipulation.
One of the signs that you might be over-optimizing is having keyword-rich anchor texts for internal links, i.e., anchor text that links to a page within your own web pages.
Here’s an example:
Learn more about Hp Pavilion 15 laptops and its features.
(Links to: example.com/hp-pavilion-15-laptops.htm)
Do you know the best iPhone case that’s hand-crafted for you?
(Links to: example.com/best-iphone case-hand-crafted)
Note: When your anchor text links directly to a page with an exact destination URL, it can create good SEO. When it becomes too much, however, your site can be penalized for over-optimization.
iv) Unnatural links – The funny thing about unnatural links is that they don’t look good to anyone – not to your readers and not to Google. These links may appear on sites that are totally off-topic. Cardstore lost their ranking through unnatural links that appeared in article directories.
Yes, such links worked in the past and larger sites were the best players of that game. Google Penguin destroyed the playing field for those big sites, which then lost all of the benefits of their hard work. The moral of the story: Your links should be natural.
When you buy or trade links with someone, there is every tendency that the anchor texts or links will be totally irrelevant. Here’s another object lesson: Overstock.com plummeted in rankings for product searches, when Google discovered that the site exchanged discounts for .EDU links.
I don’t recommend link buying. But, if you must do it, make sure that the referring site is relevant and authoritative and that the links are natural. Here’s a better explanation from Search Engine Land:
How Penguin works – The Penguin algorithm is a search filter that depends on Google’s frequent algorithm updates and attempts to penalize link spam and unnatural links.
The Penguin code simply looks for aggressive link building practices aimed at manipulating the search engine rankings.
For example, if you’re building backlinks too fast for a new site, Google can easily detect that you’re aggressive and penalize your site or even delete it from their search index altogether.
Remember, any link that you build now or in the future with the intention of boosting your search engine rankings violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Google Algorithm Update: Hummingbird
On September 26, 2013, Google released one of the most significant enhancements to the search engine algorithm to date. Hummingbird gives Google a “precise and fast” platform where search users can easily find what they’re looking for when they type a given keyword in the search engine.
Rather than treating two similar search queries like completely different entities, Google better understands “what” their users meant instead of what they strictly typed word-for-word.
In other words, this update is designed to improve its delivery of results for the specified keyword – and not just the exact keyword itself, but what we call the “keyword’s intent.” In a sense, Panda and Penguin were ongoing updates to the existing algorithm, whereas Hummingbird is a new algorithm.
This new algorithm makes use of over 200 ranking factors to determine the relevance and quality score of a particular site. Hummingbird serves as a sort of dividing line distinguishing the old SEO from the new.
Now the focus is on the users, not the keywords. Of course, keyword research will continue to be relevant, especially when you want to explore a new market.
But, when it’s time to produce content that will truly solve problems for people, you should focus on answering questions. In today’s SEO, start with the user, execute with quality content and then measure the impact of your webpage links with a website auditor.
Google Algorithm Update: Pigeon
So far, we’ve talked about Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird and how these Google algorithm updates affect site owners who want to improve search engine rankings without getting penalized.
However, there are other algorithm updates and changes that have taken place since the 2011 release of the first Panda. Specifically, in July 2014, there was the Pigeon update.
Pigeon emphasized the experience of local searchers, which is crucial to meeting the needs of users looking for products and businesses on-the-go.
For starters, Google meshed the results of their search engine with Google Maps to produce the same results. For example, see what happens when you search “best pizza Los Angeles” in Google…
…and Google Maps
Similar results, right? As they should be.
Much like conversational search, Google took into consideration how synonyms play into local queries. If you search “best pizza in Los Angeles” and “where can I find Pizza in Los Angeles,” for example, the results are nearly identical.
Again, as they should be.
Pigeon also gave some weight to local search sites and directories such as Yelp, which had suffered via search in the past. If you search “Los Angeles dentist,” for example, the two of the top three results are from Yelp:
The update rewarded local businesses who integrate geo-specific keywords into their content. Pigeon also boosted Google’s ability for searchers to quickly find nearby businesses without having to search geo-specific terms themselves.
If you’re in Los Angeles looking for a coffee shop, you don’t need to specify your location to find a cup of coffee. “Coffee shop” is more than enough.
Seems like a subtle touch, doesn’t it?
But Pigeon is a great example of Google evolving their algorithm to better serve its users.
Google Algorithm Update: Fred
As of June 2017, there’s still a lot of question marks surrounding Google’s unconfirmed “Fred” update. According to Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land, Google refuses to comment on the update. The update is suspected of targeting sites emphasizing revenue over quality content.
Google Algorithm Update: Bert
Bert stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.
You are probably wondering, what the heck does that mean, right?
Google, in essence, has adjusted its algorithm to better understand natural language processing.
Just think of it this way: you could put a flight number into Google and they typically show you the flight status. Or a calculator may come up when you type in a math equation. Or if you put a stock symbol in, you’ll get a stock chart.
Or even a simpler example is: you can start typing into Google and its autocomplete feature can figure out what you are searching for before you even finishing typing it in.
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