Alright. So. Google has an algorithm. We all know this. We also know that they release frequent updates to that algorithm – multiple times a day, in fact. The stumbling block for most people is the ever-growing number of algorithm changes. Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Pigeon, Caffeine, Venice, EMD, Mobile-Friendly – it’s a lot to keep up with. Some of these are better-known than others, but all of them have played a role in your current rankings one way or another.
To assist the masses with clarifying which update did what – and how you can leverage each of them – we’ve put together a rather lengthy cheat sheet for you. We’ve also organised the updates in the chronological order in which they occurred.
We hope you find it valuable!
First sighted in February 2011
Don’t let the cute, cuddly bear fool you. The update that was named in it’s honour was vicious and caught many people off guard. Google’s Panda algorithm update was designed to target poor content, and preventing guilty websites from appearing in the search results. Specifically, Google targeted pages with thin content, poor quality content and duplicate content. Google has built it’s reputation on serving the most relevant results for the 100+ billion monthly searches they record. Keeping websites with low quality content away from the top spots seems like a pretty logical step – just not anyone seemed prepare for.
When it was first released, it was called the “Farmer update” because it only seemed to affect content farms. But it didn’t take long for everyone to realise the scope was far wider than that. In most cases, the sites that were hit by Panda were hit really hard, leaving little room for doubt as to the cause of their sudden drop in rankings. This is because the Panda update targeted the website as a whole, rather than individual low-quality pages. If you had enough low quality pages, Google marked your entire website as low quality.
As a recent update for you, Panda is now part of Google’s core ranking signals, meaning it’s not rolled out manually every few months anymore. It’s a rolling update within Google’s core algorithm, meaning it’s constantly and automatically updated.
If you’ve been hit by Google Panda, then you need to get proactive about the content on your website. Remove thin content. Remove duplicate content. Remove poor-quality content. Get into the mind of your customer and be your own harshest critic. Will they find this page useful? Is this content meaningful and relevant? Is it descriptive and informative?
If you haven’t been hit by Google Panda, that doesn’t mean you’re safe. You should still be evaluating your website’s content and making sure it’s engaging and of value.
For those of you who want to know more about Google Panda I recommend you reading this article, which delves into how to survive and leverage the update in greater detail.
First sighted in April 2012
Google’s Penguin update was designed to crack down on website’s leveraging spammy link building tactics to boost their keyword rankings. Specifically, they were focusing on websites that were buying links, using link networks or obtaining links from irrelevant but authoritative websites. This was a massive update, affecting a considerable amount of websites across the World Wide Web.
In March, not long before the update rolled out, Google launched some pre-emptive attacks on major blog networks and link networks. Following that, they started sending out messages to webmasters via Google Webmaster Tools about “artificial or unnatural” links that they had found pointing to their site. While they didn’t provide specific examples, it was a warning shot across the bow for anyone participating in spam link building activities.
As expected, when the full update was released in April, there were a lot of companies that felt hard done by or wrongly affected. But remember, an algorithm change is a blanket rule, meaning it’s built on a foundation of “if this, then that”. There’s no room for human interpretation or compassion. If you violated the rules of the algorithm, you were punished. Simple.
To quote Google:
“Because this is an algorithmic change, Google has no plans to make manual exceptions. Webmasters cannot ask for reconsideration of their site, but we’re happy to hear feedback about the change on our webmaster forum.”
The best way to recover from this kind of penalty is to take action and remove bad links. That means combing through your thousands of links and identifying which of them might be considered spam. If you have ownership or control of the link, remove it completely. If you don’t have control, then contact the webmaster and ask them to remove the link on your behalf. If the webmaster doesn’t respond or asks you to pay to take it down (yes, that actually happens), just use Google’s disavow tool instead.
If you’re sitting on the fence about whether or not a link is considered spam under Google’s algorithm, then you’ve answered your own question. Throw it in the bin. There’s no point in gambling on a risk that might keep you penalised. You’re better off over-correcting than under-correcting.
First sighted in September 2013
Think of Google’s algorithm as an engine – a search engine (it’s a stretch, I know). The Penguin and Panda algorithm updates were designed to replace certain parts of the engine that needed some work to help everything run smoother. Hummingbird, however, is replacing the whole engine. It still uses Penguin and Panda as parts, but they’ve essentially rebuilt the whole thing from scratch.
The update, rolled out in September 2013, has been called Hummingbird because they’re “precise and fast” animals, which is meant to be a reflection of what Google is trying to achieve. They’re shifting from offering results based on exact keywords to trying to understand the intent behind the search altogether. Google is trying to understand the context and meaning that’s driving your search, rather than just looking at an individual keyword. This should, in theory, mean that the search results are more relevant to your query.
Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land fame summarised Hummingbird best:
“Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.”
From an SEO perspective, this means that pages that match intent will start to perform better in the search engine results pages than those that match specific keywords. Pages with in-depth content that answer more questions and cover more topics will rank better by being associated to a greater variety of queries, proving once more that content is critical to driving relevance.
First sighted in July 2014
The Pigeon algorithm was an upgrade to the accuracy and relevancy of local search results. It ties local search rankings signals more closely to the traditional search ranking signals, so the change is most prominent when looking at Google Maps. This means that those using local search should now be seeing more relevant search results.
“The new local search algorithm ties deeper into web search capabilities, including the hundreds of ranking signals used in web search along with search features such as Knowledge Graph, spelling correction, synonyms and more.”
For those of you that are curious, the name Pigeon was actually created by Search Engine Land – not Google. Why Pigeon?
“Pigeon is the name we decided on because this is a local search update and pigeons tend to fly back home.”
With a more formalised set of ranking factors for local search, it’s time to start optimising your listings. Fill in all of your details, add images, produce content. Give Google the information it needs to pinpoint you as relevant to a searcher’s query.
First sighted in April 2015
This one is pretty straight-forward. The mobile-friendly update is designed to give preferences to mobile-friendly pages – go figure! The algorithm has been given another update this month. You can read Google’s full statement, but here’s a highlight reel for you:
“Last year, we started using mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal on mobile searches. Today we’re announcing that beginning in May, we’ll start rolling out an update to mobile search results that increases the effect of the ranking signal to help our users find even more pages that are relevant and mobile-friendly.
If you’ve already made your site mobile-friendly, you will not be impacted by this update … And remember, the intent of the search query is still a very strong signal — so even if a page with high quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank well if it has great, relevant content.”
This is an great example the analogy I gave earlier regarding engine parts being changed versus the entire being changed. Despite many minor changes happening frequently, much of the core remains constant. In this particular case, content is still critical as a ranking factor within the Hummingbird engine, but they’ve increased the value of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.
You should (immediately) go to the Mobile-Friendly Test tool and see how your website performs. If your website isn’t responsive and doesn’t have a mobile version, you better pray that you have loads of relevant content. Otherwise you’re severely limiting your potential visibility in the search results.
Check out this Q&A session that Google did last year to explain the roll-out in more detail:
We understand that keeping up with the many changes can be overwhelming, confusing and exasperating. The hard part is usually knowing what the changes mean and how to maintain your search visibility despite the onslaught of updates.
As a secret weapon, you can also track every single algorithm update the Google has ever made – major or minor – by following Moz’s Algorithm Change History page. You can also follow their Algorithm Weather Report, which will notify you anytime there’s any action.
Just remember that no matter what you do in SEO, if you follow these three principles you’ll be fine:
If you have any questions, drop us a note in the comments section or get in touch with us. Otherwise, good luck and happy SEO-ing!