Let’s be honest: search engine optimization is all about appealing to an online program. Google, Yahoo!, Bing, Ask – these are the masters that optimizers must work to appease, and they’re not even transparent programs, meaning that many of the changes made to a specific program’s search algorithm are not announced in detail. This leaves much of the search engine optimization to a combination of data analysis and guess work.
But here at SEOWebsiteDesign.com we specialize in closely following each and every search engine algorithm change, and we take pride in using that information to empower our clients. Being that Google dominates approximately 66% of the search traffic market, that’s where we’ll start with our examination of how search engine algorithms have changed over the years.
Google Search Engine Updates
And please note: the following information only examines the major Google search algorithm changes. We’d be here all day if we examined each and every algorithm change. After all, on September 21, 2011, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google Inc, announced that the company made 516 algorithm changes in 2010, which resulted from 13,311 tested potential updates. That’s a total of 12,795 updates that didn’t make the Google cut. Crazy.
So yeah, we’re just focusing on the major updates. Let’s get to it.
Google Places — April 2010
Here marks the first major update of 2010: Google Places, which was originally released in September of 2009 as part of Google Maps. This major update re-branded Google’s Local Business Center as Google Places, separating Places from Maps.
In addition, Places gave business owners additional local optimization options, such as paying for monthly advertising that targeted local demographics by using tags in Google Maps. All in all, this was a very beneficial update, both for search engine optimizers and businesses.
Our Opinion: Hop onto the Google Places train and drive it straight to the consumers that are close to your business. It’s easy to use, affordable, and great for attracting new customers.
May Day — May 2010
Sometime in late April and early May, individuals over at WebmasterWorld.com went into a flurry of panic as websites all across the Internet saw sudden drops in long-tail traffic. Many of the impacted sites were eCommerce-based websites containing lots and lots of individual product pages, each containing either no content or duplicate content taken from the product’s manufacturer. WebmasterWorld.com dubbed this the May Day update.
Matt Cutts, head of webspam for Google Inc, later posted a YouTube video, in which he says, “it’s an algorithm change that changes how we assess which sites are the best match for long-tail queries.”
Our Opinion: Being an eCommerce website with a bunch of products isn’t enough for Google to consider a site worthwhile for a customer. The site has to contain valued content, too. Focus on giving customers more than products – give them information or entertainment via blog posts, and build backlinks to landing pages that then drive customers to product pages. Landing pages are easier to optimize than countless individual pages.
Caffeine (Rollout) — June 2010
Talk to a search engine optimizer for a few minutes and you’re bound to hear the words “index” or “indexed.” Basically, when you use Google’s search engine, you’re not looking at the live web. You’re searching Google’s index, which is a collection of websites crawled by Google’s spiders – programs built to read websites. With the Caffeine update, the time it took Google to index a website was drastically reduced, increasing the likelihood of a new blog or article or website to be seen by mainstream audiences. According to Google, Caffeine provided “50 percent fresher results for web searches” than their previous indexing system.
Our Opinion: This was one of the best updates to come out of 2010, because it meant search engine optimization changes made to a website would be seen earlier, making it possible to more quickly push a website up the search rankings.
Brand Update — August 2010
More of a search result change than search algorithm update, August’s Brand Update made it possible for the same domain to appear multiple times on a search engine results page (SERP). Previously, domains were limited to one or two listings on a specific page. Now, it’s not uncommon to type, say, “Apple” into Google and see multiple pages all leading to Apple.com. Google explained the update by saying, “We expect today’s improvement will help users find deeper results from a single site, while still providing diversity on the results page.”
Our Opinion: We’re torn on this update. On one hand, it’s great for a website with multiple pages ranking well enough to reach the first page. On the other hand, it’s bad for websites struggling to get even a single site showing on Google’s first-page results. It’s situational, really, and we’d have to examine a specific website before giving a thumbs up or down.
Social Signals — December 2010
Google confirmed that “social signals,” which are basically shares or posts on Facebook or Twitter, affects both organic and news results corresponding with what was shared. For example, if a bunch of individuals on Facebook or Twitter are sharing a specific post, the post will rank higher in Google’s search engine results.
When asked about the update, a Google team member responded, “[A shared post] is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We also use it to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article.”
Our Opinion: This update greatly increased a company’s need to produce worthwhile, shareable information. Articles, infographs, blog posts, professional copywriting, these are now a company’s best option for both connecting with an audience and increasing its search rankings. It’s a win-win situation, if the company does it right. Don’t underestimate the power of people sharing information online.
Panda/Farmer — February 23, 2011
Now we enter the era of Panda, possibly Google’s most powerful algorithm update. Released in February, Panda first affected up to 12% of search results. The sites hit hardest appeared to contain thin content, excessive inbound or outbound links, high ad-to-content ratios, and a whole heap of other quality issues. The Panda update took a couple months to take hold of the Internet, but Google has since continued updating the algorithm change, continuing to make it more effective at killing poor quality websites.
According to SEOMOZ.com, here are four factors that led to website actually benefiting from this first Panda update:
- It seemed that sites whose pages had fewer and/or less intrusive blocks of advertisements on them tended to be in the winner bucket, while those with more and more intrusive advertising tended to be in the loser group.
- Likewise, sites whose UI/design would likely be described as more modern, high quality, thoughtful and “attractive” were winners vs. the “ugly” sites that tended to be in the loser bucket.
- When it came to user-generated-content (UGC) sites, those that tended to attract “thin” contributions (think EzineArticles, Hubpages or Buzzle) lost, while those with richer, often more authentic, non-paid, and not-intended to build SEO value or links (think Etsy, DailyMotion, LinkedIn, Facebook) won.
- In the “rich content” sector, pages with less usable/readable/easily-consumable content (think AllBusiness, FindArticles) tended to lose out to similarly content-rich sites that had made their work more usable (think LOC.gov, HuffingtonPost)
Our Opinion: We believe there are four factors that now contribute to a site ranking well after this Panda update:
1. User Data – Google examines a website’s overall traffic data, including click-through and time-on-site rates. Basically, the longer people spend on your site, the more value Google sees your site offering users.
2. Content Analysis – Quality content keeps users on the website, which adds to the previous factor. But quality content is also examined by Google’s algorithm, contributing to the way a website ranks. Quality content uses copywriting as a platform for connecting with audiences by relaying information. It should not be a platform for keyword stuffing or building links. Focus on providing a worthwhile experience for customers.
3. User Flow – Nothing drives users away like blocking them with advertisements. Obtrusive advertisements stuffed onto a page not only reduce a user’s overall experience, but it also reflects negatively in Google’s examination of your website. Cut the advertisements. Keep it clean.
4. Modern Interfaces – The passion put into a website is reflected in the website’s interface. If it’s clean and functional and inviting, users will want to stick around and see what the site is all about. Sure, a modern interface doesn’t do too much for when a search engine algorithm crawls the site’s code, but it matters when the search engine looks at the user data.
Google’s Panda algorithm change heavily puts the emphasis on quality, not quantity, and website owners have to maintain a certain level of consistency. You have to be consistently relevant, consistently worthwhile, consistently delivering fresh content, and so forth. It’s about caring for customers, basically.
The +1 Button — March 30, 2011
Jumping into the social sharing system, Google introduced its +1 button. Basically, an individual clicking the +1 button will influence the search results of those within their social circles, across both organic and paid traffic, by increasing the likelihood of the +1’d page showing up in the search results.
Our Opinion: Include the +1 button in your website, but don’t target it. The Facebook Like button continues to be the dominating social media sharing tool. Build something worth sharing and people will do the rest.
Panda 2.0 — April 11, 2011
The Panda keeps on rolling, with this update bringing the algorithm change to all English queries worldwide. Also, the update integrated “new user feedback signals to help people find better search results,” said Google. Google claims the update affected approximately 2% of US search queries, a much smaller number than the previous Panda update’s 12%.
Our Opinion: In addition to announcing Panda 2.0, Google announced its Webmaster Guidelines, a list containing information that “will help Google find, index, and rank your site.” Most of this information is simplistic, but it provides some information as to how Google wants websites to be developed. Here are a few examples:
- Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.
- Keep links on a giver page to a reasonable number.
- Check for broken links and correct HTML.
- Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.
- Make sure that your <title> elements and ALT attributes are descriptive and accurate.
While we agree with many of these recommendations, we must again stress that they are simplistic. If this were a list to, say, build a house, these recommendations would say things like “make sure the foundation is sound” or “check the roof for leaks” or “make sure to have a door.” It all makes sense, but actually constructing a worthwhile house – or website – requires professional assistance.
Panda 2.2 — June 21, 2011
Yup, another major Panda update, this one targeting scraper websites using black hat techniques to steal content and then out-rank the original website source of the scraped content. In addition, numerous websites that were hit hard by the Panda 1.0 update found themselves ranking well again after the Panda 2.2 update. On the flip side, some websites were suddenly hit hard, as if the original Panda 1.0 update had finally found their website.
Our Opinion: According to Google, this update was specifically targeted at scraper sites, but, as previously stated, numerous websites saw their rankings change, both for better and for worse. For this reason, we assume that the previous Panda updates were still being rolled out, and it just happened that some websites were hit around the same time as the 2.2 update.
Note: The Panda algorithm now enters a state of “flux,” in which Google releases many small Panda updates every month or so. These updates are often relatively small, so we shall now refrain from discussing Panda updates.
Google+ — June 28, 2011
In an attempt to compete with other major social networking websites, Google rolled out its Google+ social media platform. The service is based around sharing information with circles of individuals. Similar to the social signals update, Google+ shares influence the search results.
Our Opinion: Although not as popular as Twitter or Facebook, it’s a great idea for businesses to have a Google+ page. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry and you want to access as many audiences as possible. Again, we recommend focusing on quality, shareable content. That’s the best way to approach social media marketing.
Freshness Update — November 3, 2011
In an attempt to give users the latest information pertaining to a search query, Google released an algorithm update that affected time-sensitive information. For example, if someone were to search for “the Olympics,” they most likely would want the most recent Olympics, not one years ago. This is exactly what the algorithm change was intended to do: give the most up-to-date results.
Google claims the algorithm change affected 35% of searches, and this is exactly the kind of update that revolutionizes the search engine optimization game.
Our Opinion: Websites have to continue developing fresh content. In addition, the content has to be relevant and worthwhile, not just a rehash of an old article. The articles have to be both sharable by humans and optimized for the search engines, a balance between SEO copywriting and fresh information.
Ads Above The Fold — January 19, 2012
Placing ads above the “fold” of a website – meaning ads placed at the top of a site, where visitors will instantly see them upon entering a site – used to be a common marketing tactic. This update killed that tactic.
Matt Cutts posted, “In our ongoing effort to help you find more high-quality websites in search results, today we’re launching an algorithmic change that looks at the layout of a webpage and the amount of content you see on the page once you click on a result.”
Our Opinion: Cutts’ post continued, “Overall, our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus on specific algorithm tweaks.”
We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.
Penguin — April 24, 2012
Designed to target websites that were over-optimized, Penguin is Google’s official “webspam update.” Affected websites included those stuffed with keywords or excessive links, but they were not so spammy as to be hit by any of the previous Panda updates. Reports estimated that approximately 3.1% of English queries were hit by the Penguin update.
“Sites affected by this change might not be easily recognizable as spamming without deep analysis or expertise,” wrote Matt Cutts, “but the common thread is that these sites are doing much more than white hat SEO; we believe they are engaging in webspam tactics to manipulate search engine rankings.”
Our Opinion: Just as one can under-optimize, so too can someone over-optimize, and we believe today’s search engine optimization industry must carefully walk the fine line between the two. Optimizing a site now requires a professional eye for the intricate percentages of link or keyword spam, because too much in one direction can result in a drastic reduction in traffic.
DMCA Penalty — August 10, 2012
As a leader in the online world, Google has to set a precedent for all other online companies to follow, and their DMCA penalty update is one of the most aggressive ways of setting that precedent for everyone. This update monitors “the number of valid copyright removal notices” that Google receives for any given website. Sites with high numbers of removal notices will actually rank lower in search results.
Our Opinion: The Internet may feel like a place without consequences, but Google continues developing ways to ensure people are punished for working outside of their moral compass. Obviously, they believe creators should be credited for their work, and you should only use their work if they allow it. Essentially, this update tells you not to take things that don’t belong to you.
Exact-Match Domain (EMD) Update — September 27, 2012
Google announced that it was changing the way it handled exact-match domains (EMD). Websites with domain names containing keywords actually saw a huge plummet in traffic for that specific keyword. The website would still show up for other keywords.
Our Opinion: We actually wrote a huge post about the Exact-Match Domain Update. Check it out for in-depth analysis and examination of how this update changed Google’s rankings.
While the previous list does not include every single Google update, it does cover the ones that made headlines throughout the years. As Google continues delivering more information on its updates, we’ll continue updating the list. Check back for more information.