The SEO industry has gone through endless changes over the last 15 years, as the search engines and, especially Google delivered repetitive efforts to improve the search experience, in particular the overall quality of the suggestions presented in the search engine’s results page (AKA “SERP”).
Google made thousands of small changes to their Google Rank algorithm. Some of them had a perceptible impact on the Search Engine Result Page.
Officially, 8 of them were major updates. These updates seriously shake up the SERPs and have challenged (and freaked out) SEO practitioners to adapt to stay relevant.
Here’s a list below, in chronological order :
Release: February 24th, 2011.
Target: * Duplicate, plagiarized content, * Thin content, * User-generated spam, * Keyword stuffing.
How it works: Panda assigns a so-called “quality score” to web pages; this score is then used as a ranking factor. Initially, Panda was a filter rather than part of Google’s ranking algorithm, but in January 2016, it was officially merged into the core algorithm. Panda rollouts have become more frequent, so both penalties and recoveries now happen faster.
How to adjust: Run regular site checks for content duplication, thin content and keyword stuffing. To do that, you’ll need a site crawler. To check for instances of external content duplication, use a plagiarism checker like Copyscape. Whatever is your case (e-Commerce, Blog, Agency website, etc…), you must find a way to make your content unique, in a useful way.
Release: April 24th, 2012.
Target: * Spammy links or irrelevant links, * Links with an over-optimized anchor text
How it works: Google Penguin’s primary objective is to down-rank sites with manipulative link building. Since late 2016, Penguin has been part of Google’s core algorithm; unlike Panda, it works in real-time. It has followed the trend of search engines trusting more websites with more links pointing to them, and inevitably, the manipulations from the SEO industry (comment links, auto-generated links, links shops, etc…).
How to adjust: Monitor your backlink regularly and run audits with a backlink checker like hrefs or Ubersuggest. Look out for any unusual spikes: Backlinks that you’ve unexpectedly gained could be harmful, so judge each link critically. Check if the domains pointing to yours are completely somehow related to your industry. You may not want them. Links are like a recommendation. You seek recommendations from experts or at least persons qualified enough to judge how relevant you are.
Release: August 22nd, 2013.
Target: * Keyword stuffing, * Low-quality content
How it works: Hummingbird helps Google better interpret search queries. It aims to provide results that are matching the searcher’s intent. This is an important evolution in that it goes beyond just matching with results that contain the individual terms & within the query. Matching keywords is still very important, but Hummingbird makes it possible, in certain cases, for a page to rank for a query even if it doesn’t contain the exact words that were searched for. Hummingbird relies on natural language processing and latent semantic indexing, co-occurring terms and synonyms.
How to adjust: Expand your keyword research and focus on concepts, not only keywords. Research related searches, synonyms, and co-occurring terms. Great sources of such ideas are Google Related Searches and Google Autocomplete. Tools like Ubersuggest can give you some related search terms. Understand your audience’s language better, and create comprehensive content that satisfies searcher intent. Your content will perform both in terms of engagement and SEO. Read also about comprehensiveness in this post below, when we discuss RankBrain.
Release: July 24th, 2014 (US); December 22, 2014 (UK, Canada, Australia).
Target: * Local searches, * Local businesses noticed an increase or decrease in web site referrals, leads, and business
How it works: Pigeon affects searches in which the user’s location plays an important part. The objective is to tie the local algorithm closer to the core algorithm, and improved distance and location ranking parameters. 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.
How to adjust: Invest effort into on-page and off-page SEO. A good way to start with off-page SEO is to get listed in relevant business directories. Not only do those act like backlinks, helping your site rank; they rank well in Google themselves. Find quality directories and reach out to webmasters asking to get listed.
Release: April 21st, 2015.
Target: * Lack of a mobile version of the page, * Poor mobile usability, * Bad page responsivity on mobile devices.
How it works: Google’s Mobile Update (aka Mobilegeddon) ensures that mobile-friendly pages rank at the top of mobile search, while pages not optimized for mobile are filtered out from the SERPs or seriously down-ranked.
How to adjust: Go mobile and focus on speed and usability. Google’s mobile-friendly test will help you see which aspects of your page’s mobile version need to be improved. Pay attention to the time it takes to render the first visible content, the size of images, the size of buttons or CTA on mobile, the size of fonts, and the compactness of the text.
Release: October 26th, 2015.
Target: * Lack of query-specific relevance features, * Shallow content, * Poor UX.
How it works: RankBrain is part of Google’s Hummingbird algorithm and is a machine learning system. It helps understand the search intent and meaning behind search queries, to serve best-matching search results in the SERP. According to Google, RankBrain was, at the time of its release, the third most important ranking factor. The ins and outs of RankBrain are unknown to the public, but the general opinion is that it identifies relevance features for web pages ranking for a given query, which are query-specific ranking factors.
How to adjust: Optimize content for relevance and comprehensiveness with the help of competitive analysis. Discover relevant terms and concepts used by a large number of your top-ranking competitors: those are a brilliant way to diversify your content and make sure you provide all the information your visitors are looking for.
Release: September 1st, 2016.
Target: * Tense competition in your target location.
How it works: The Possum update ensured that local results account for the searcher’s location: If you are close to a business’s address, you are more likely to see it among local results. Possum also resulted in greater variety among results ranking for very similar queries, like “dentist Chicago ” and “dentist Chicago co.” Surprisingly, Possum also gave a boost to businesses located outside the physical city area.
How to adjust: Expand your keyword list and do location-specific rank tracking. After Possum update (and the volatility Possum brought into the local SERPs), local businesses should be targeting more keywords than they used to. Check your rankings, from your target location (or from a bunch of them).
Release date: March 8th, 2017.
Target: * Thin content, * Affiliate-heavy content, * Ad-centered content.
How it works: Fred update targets websites that violate Google’s webmaster guidelines. The majority of affected sites are blogs with low-quality posts seemingly created mostly to generate ad revenue.
How to adjust: Review the Google Search Quality Guidelines and watch out for “thin” content. If you show ads, make sure the pages they are found on are high-quality and offer relevant information. Don’t try to trick Google into thinking your page is about something when it is a gateway page full of affiliate links. Most publishers make money from ads, which is legit as long as they are not cheating.