Understanding Google’s Algorithm Updates

The term “webspam” refers to low-quality sites that use manipulative search engine optimization strategies to win rankings and traffic. Google’s war on webspam has reached an all-time high, with the search giant churning out an average of one-to-two updates a day. Understanding these algorithm updates and how they impact your place in Google’s search results is important to defining your SEO strategy.

The Panda and Penguin algorithm updates have taken the lion’s share of attention this year in the SEO industry. The Panda updates focus on downgrading shallow or duplicative content. Sites that use stock product descriptions that are used across many other sites were affected, as were “content farms” that specialized in creating many thousands of pages of content with little useful information. The brunt of the Panda upheaval was felt in February 2011 when the algorithm was first introduced. The updates we’re seeing now are minor algorithm tweaks or refreshes with comparatively small impact.

The Penguin algorithm updates are being felt strongly this year, though. Launched in April, Penguin targets sites with low-quality link profiles. In years past, link-building strategies tended to focus on easily acquired links such as links from directories, article repositories, wikis, and comments on blogs. Many times these low-quality links were also paired with highly optimized anchor text in an attempt to squeeze as much value into each link built. But precisely because they’re easily acquired, these links are worth very little individually even though they could be built in large numbers.

Quality Algorithm Updates

In the past, these large numbers of low-quality links influenced rankings unfairly, in Google’s eyes, giving an advantage to sites working hard to manipulate rankings rather than those working hard to create compelling and valuable content. This theme of focusing on creating compelling and valuable content has become a mantra for Google of late, as it has focused on devaluing the types of content and links that they consider low quality.

Keeping Pandas and Penguins at bay, then, simply requires doing the right things right for your customers, in tandem with ensuring that your site is technically optimized to strengthen the signals all that great content is sending. That is easier said than done. If creating compelling and valuable content that engages customers and inspires them to link to and share your content naturally was easy, every site would do it. And that’s precisely why it’s valuable to Google — it’s not easy. As a result, the best sites will rise to the top of the rankings rather than the sites that spend their time looking for easy ways to manipulate rankings.

Another recent algorithm update targeted low-quality sites with exact match domains. The EMD update focuses on the practice of domaining, buying up many domains that contain keyword phrases and building narrowly focused content sites on each. Domainers typically make their money via affiliate programs or by selling ads on their sites. To make this practice more scalable and profitable, the sites tend to also lack unique, valuable content.

It’s clear how the combination of the Panda and EMD updates would affect domaining, but the Top Heavy update takes it a step further by devaluing ad-heavy sites. This algorithm update looks at the layout of the pages on a site to identify paid ads placed “above the fold.” Too many ads in first view equates to too little content in first view in Google’s eyes, creating a negative user experience for its searchers. It’s also a signal that the site likely exists solely to make money from ad clicks, which correlates with sites that tend to use manipulative practices to influence rankings.

It’s important to know what signals Google uses to sniff out and squash spam. It’s a good idea to avoid heavy ad placement and super-keyword-rich domain names, especially if you’re not able to put the resources into creating unique content to fill the pages on that domain between the ads. Knowing those signals helps us understand Google’s overall strategy and work with it rather than against it.

Design Algorithm Updates

Not all algorithm updates target spam, however. Many changes Google makes to search results affect the form the page takes and how much space is available for traditional web search rankings. For example, Google released its 7 Results SERPs — search engine results pages — in August. Instead of the traditional 10 blue links on the search results pages, Google now shows seven approximately 20 percent of the time. The shorter result set tends to appear on branded searches where the first result includes a large list of site links, indented results displaying a list of major pages within the site that best matches that search query.

In May Google rolled out its Knowledge Graph, another major visual change to the search results. Knowledge Graph appears on the right of the search results where paid ads are typically displayed. When results are particularly visual or break into easy subsets like “dog breeds” or “Johnny Depp movies,” Knowledge Graph expands to include a carousel at the top of the page offering thumbnails to scroll through and click on for deeper searching. Knowledge Graph features content sourced from authoritative sites like Wikipedia and Google’s own databases in an attempt to answer questions searchers may have, in addition to displaying links to help them refine their search queries.

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Searching fro "dog breeds" in Google produces the thumbnail carousel at top.

Searching fro "dog breeds" in Google produces the thumbnail carousel at top.

Personalization Algorithm Updates

Google also made several major algorithm updates that increase the personalization of each searcher’s results. I’ve long maintained that rankings should be considered a source of data, rather than a success metric. Google’s ever increasing push towards more personalized results highlights that point. Personalization data comes from many sources, from a searcher’s IP location to the location setting in Google search to the vast array of data available in your Google account that stretches across Gmail, Google Calendar, Google+, Android devices, AdWords behavior, search history, and much more.

While Google+ hasn’t lived up to its hype in the tech press as a Facebook killer, it has been integrated in some ways into Google’s search algorithms. In January Google announced Search Plus Your World, which introduced content shared in Google+ into traditional search results. Consequently, search results for the same query may contain different content for each individual user depending on how active they and their Google+ Circles are in sharing content on that particular topic. Seeing a friend’s face next to a piece of content they have +1’d is a strong visual endorsement, one that can improve organic search traffic for your site over your competition.

On the local search front, Google+ pages have become the default page for local and map searches. Though many consumer companies pass Google+ over in favor of the more popular social sites like Facebook and Twitter, Google+ simply can’t be ignored for local search as a way to drive online traffic into brick and mortar stores.

Speaking of local search, Google also included its local personalization in search results in February with the Venice update. That update enabled Google to include more local results in its primary search results for broad search queries like “used cars” or “divorce attorney.” The Venice update works independent of the standard local search results box. If Google knows you’re in Illinois, it may show you Illinois-based content for used cars in the traditional search results as well as the very localized local search results showing the used car lots down the street from you.

What It All Means

The common themes in all of these algorithm updates boil down to surfacing higher quality contents that are more likely to answer individual searchers’ questions. Google is in the business of answering questions, knowing that if it’s more successful than other engines the searchers will continue to prefer Google. The more searchers Google can boast, the more data it can collect to serve those searchers ever more effectively, and the more money it makes selling advertising across all of its free products.

That sounds cynical, but it’s the reality. If your site isn’t optimized for search, according to Google’s definition, Google will just skip over it and offer searchers the sites that are optimized. Understanding the algorithm updates Google spends its time and money creating can help you understand Google’s definition of “optimized” and craft a strategy that merges SEO, customer experience, and business needs into a compelling site that wins rankings and attracts customers.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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