Google’s veritable zoo of algorithms is a detailed guide for those in the SEO community, but keeping track of the numerous comings and goings of Google’s animals, and that odd bloke Fred chasing after them with a stick, is harder than it seems. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the situation, a new shipment of safari creatures gets delivered and the possum eats the pigeon – the pigeon who told you exactly how to build your website – and then a hawk comes along and eats the possum as payback.
Does the above make no sense? To most people it doesn’t, partly because my metaphors get so convoluted at times that even the most studious of SEO’s wonder whether I hit my head at some point. That’s why we’ve created an exhaustive resource for anyone and everyone who wants to know about the various Google algorithms and their updates, and what it could mean for your business and SEO strategy.
We’ll update this regularly with all of Google’s latest tweaks, so be sure to check back if your website traffic and rankings seem to be acting a bit weird, and we’ll let you know whether it’s because Google’s released a racoon into your bins.
What is an Algorithm?
In the case of SEO and Google, the algorithms are softwares that have been created to analyse a website for quality and then rank it in the SERP’s (Search Engine Results Page) accordingly. Different Google algorithms and their subsequent updates will impact this to look for different things; some algorithms look at content quality, some look at your backlinks, and so on.
By understanding the various Google algorithm updates, you can make sure that your website is in a strong position to rank highly for your keywords – the words that people search for when they require your service or product. This, fundamentally, is what SEO does; an SEO company or in-house specialist will work on (and off) your website to optimise it to be highly visible on Google (and other search engines) to those searching for your keywords. Because of this, SEO companies work hard to keep up to date on every Google algorithm update, and then to implement the latest techniques for your website.
Google releases new algorithm updates fairly frequently, whether that’s edits to existing algorithms or entirely new ones. Sometimes you’ll know it’s coming, more often than not you won’t, and Google often won’t even confirm it for you at first (or sometimes ever). However, the intelligent folks in the SEO industry have become adept at spotting these changes and identifying what’s going on.
Whenever a shift occurs in an algorithm, or a new update is introduced, we’ll talk about it here. Below is a list of the major Google algorithm updates, in reverse chronology, that have drastically shifted SEO tactics and still impact the way that SEO works today. We’ve started with the first Panda algorithm launch in 2011, and offer this guide on what to do to tame the beasts. General Google updates roll out even more frequently, so we won’t be covering them in detail, only the big, named algorithm and their updates.
If you’re concerned about how Google updates might be affecting your website search presence, you can speak with the team at Active Internet Marketing (UK) for help.
Google Bracket Update – March 2018
What was the Google ‘Bracket’ algorithm update?
As of the time of writing (29th March) very little is known about the so-called ‘Bracket‘ update, other than the fact that Google has actually confirmed it. This confirmation is wildly out of character – but is an indication of the future openness policy that Google seems to be moving towards following the hire of Danny Sullivan (a former prominent SEO journalist).
Google’s statement clarifies that this is a core algorithm update; it claims that this update is “benefiting pages that were previously under-rewarded” and that there’s “no fix” other than building great content. No changes there, then.
How to optimise after the Google ‘Bracket’ update
Although some speculation has been thrown around in regards to this update and the impact it has had, nothing concrete enough has been seen to be able to give concise advice.
For now, we’ll hold off on speculating how this will impact best practice moving forward, but we’ll update this section once we have a confident new approach that gives great results.
Google Maccabees Update – December 2017
What was the Google ‘Maccabees’ algorithm update?
The first thing to make clear here is that Google has not confirmed this update (what’s new?) but has confirmed that they released a few ‘minor’ updates at this time which could have impacted things. We’ll cover the apparent impact here. The Google ‘Maccabees’ update (named by Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Roundtable) seems to be targeting a handful of things in particular. After investigation, websites that were negatively impacted seem to primarily be websites that have many, many pages built purely to target individual services in individual areas (or Doorway Pages as they are widely known).
Many people reported severe website traffic dips from December 13th onwards and mass keyword fluctuations.
How to optimise after the Google ‘Maccabees’ update
Doorway Pages are viewed negatively by Google as they often have thin content that simply isn’t useful for a user, as they are only being created in order to help a website rank well in search engines – a somewhat ‘grey hat’ tactic. Always keeping the user in mind is paramount in today’s SEO climate, and Doorway Pages simply do not do that.
Due to this, when writing pages for certain services in certain locations, make sure to make this a useful page to the user that has plenty of helpful content. Local maps, blog posts regarding relevant local news, directions to your local premises – all of this is useful local content specific to your services. This will not be seen as a Doorway Page and should therefore allow you to target customers in specific locations without facing a ‘Maccabees’ drop.
What was the Google ‘Hawk’ algorithm update?
Google Hawk is interesting in that it seems to mainly exist to undo an impact of a previous algorithm update – Possum. Hawk is a local algorithm update that sent us back to a time before Possum – sort of. When Possum hit, Google began ‘filtering’ local results to only show one type of a business in one area. That means if you’re a hairdressers and there is another hairdresser just down the road from you, only one of you would show up! Rather than presenting all of the available options, Possum picked the most Google-friendly version and simply hid the rest. This was, of course, not looked upon favourably, and the advancement of Hawk seems to insinuate that Google sees it as a mistake.
Hawk has reversed this filter, meaning a user can pick from the full choice of hairdressers, or opticians, or dentists, or taxidermists, in their area.
How to optimise after the Google ‘Hawk’ algorithm update
There is nothing specific that you need to do following Hawk. However, it’s worth using this as a reminder to always optimise your meta descriptions and page titles. Of course, not showing up on the results at all due to a filter is awful. However, now that you will show up again, make sure a browsing user picks you. By giving your pages catchy titles that address the user’s presumed-query and by promising a full solution and good service within your meta description, a user is more likely to click on your website over your competitor’s.
Google Fred – March 2017
What was the Google ‘Fred’ algorithm update?
Though never-confirmed by Google, the Fred algorithm update had enough of an impact on SERPs and website rankings to be given its own name in the SEO industry and to make its way onto this list. Fred targeted black-hat SEO tactics, similar to Penguin and Panda. This wasn’t about Google trying to get smarter about what results it shows – it was about knocking nasty black-hat SEO’s back a bit. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t impact a white-hat SEO campaign that might have accidentally done something a bit wrong.
Fred mostly appeared to impact ad-heavy websites that are to do with overly-aggressive monetisation of a website. Therefore, any websites that are content-based but packed full of ads are basically just going for the money rather than trying to help a user in any way. It was websites like this that got hit by Fred.
How to optimise after the Google ‘Fred’ algorithm update
If you think you may have been negatively impacted by Fred, take a look at the quality of the website for a user. Is your content thin and only there to draw people to adverts that will make you money? Are the adverts getting in the way of a user’s journey around your website – whether on mobile or desktop? Do you have lots of bad backlinks to get your rankings up purely to have people exposed to these adverts? If so, focus on taking a big step back and reevaluating the purpose of your website. If you genuinely want to improve and be white-hat (and therefore sidestep Fred) you need to write genuinely useful content for your users and get rid of most if not all of your intrusive advertising.
Google Mobile-First Indexing – November 2016
What was mobile-first indexing?
This was announced in November 2016 and has been ‘rolling out’ since then but with no confirmation date of when all indexing will occur like this. However, for safety, one might as well assume that this could now be the case for your targeted search terms, as it is the case for ‘many’ according to Google.
For the first time, Google is beginning to index the mobile version of websites before the desktop version. This means that your mobile user experience truly is paramount to ranking success. This will soon be the default way that Google indexes all websites, so it’s more important than ever to give the user an exceptional experience once they land on your website through a mobile phone.
How to optimise after mobile-first indexing?
If you’re not ranking for terms that you believe you should be, or your website traffic is dropping with no real reason as to why, you should check the mobile experience on your website. Visit your site on a mobile device or tablet, click around the menus, make sure images load and do not block the text or create a bad UX (user experience). Google has said that a responsive website will be enough to make this change have no impact on you, but it is absolutely worth checking the mobile experience of your responsive website regardless.
What was the Google ‘Penguin’ algorithm update?
Although we’ve discussed Penguin below, the October 2016 update changed some things drastically. Penguin is still looking for the same things (bad backlinks and other spammy tactics) but the way that Google is going about it is all different. Penguin became real-time, meaning that once you make changes to your website, whether good or bad, you’ll see the ranking impact as soon as Google indexes your website.
The other big change in the way that Penguin is looking at spammy SEO is that it no longer penalises a whole website for having spammy backlinks; instead, it simply devalues those links. Therefore, you won’t be penalised, but you also won’t reap any of the rewards of having those links to your website. In addition, many webmasters were delighted to find that the Penguin update of October 2016 reversed all previous penalties. Of course, many were unhappy about this too, as sites that had been penalised for years were suddenly ranking again, adding to the competition.
How to optimise after the Google ‘Penguin’ algorithm update
The answer to staying in Google’s good books with Penguin 2016 are the same as before; avoiding any spammy black hat tactics and generally following Google’s webmaster guidelines.
What is the Google ‘Possum’ algorithm update?
The effects of Possum are still being measured, but overall it is another local algorithm which had quite some impact on local rankings for many in the industry. This was a big local shake-up to rival Pigeon and did impact the way one should approach local SEO. For one, businesses that previously wouldn’t rank in a location because they fell just outside of a city limit suddenly saw big jumps in their rankings, which meant that those within the city limits suddenly had far more competition.
The physical location of the searcher also became incredibly important. Since the Possum algorithm launched, you can optimise all you want but if someone is looking for, say, a hairdresser, and there’s a hairdresser one street away from where that person is searching, that hairdresser will likely be at position one. This means you’re now shooting for mass visibility rather than a ‘static’ number one position, because the location of the search will ultimately dictate that.
Another impact of the Possum algorithm update was that Google filtered out businesses that offered a similar service within close proximity of each other. Therefore, if you happen to run a dentist for example, and there’s another just down the road from you, Google will pick the ‘most relevant’ (read – best optimised) one and show that one rather than any others. This isn’t just that you’ll rank lower, it’s that you might not show up at all. [Note: Google has since changed this, much to the relief of many SEO’s and businesses – see the Hawk update above.
How to optimise after the Google ‘Possum’ algorithm update
You should still be using all of your local SEO techniques from Pigeon, but your goal has shifted slightly. Local listings can no longer be desperate for that #1 position, because it no longer exists – it will all be dependant on where in the town, city, or world the user is searching from. Therefore, quantity of keywords across a range of search topics should be aimed for; if you are ranking page 1 for 90% of your keywords, they’ll be shown on that page in a range of orders, so you’ll still get that visibility.
You should also absolutely prioritise your Google My Business listing; local packs are now the gold dust of local search results. Again, you can’t guarantee a static number 1 spot but give yourself every possibility to show up there often – this means aligning your citations and getting your Google My Business page in perfect order; a few reviews wouldn’t hurt either.
Another impact of Possum, and this is something that one of our clients felt keenly, was a crack down on duplicate business listings. Our clients’ rankings plummeted after the launch of Possum and it quickly became clear why – they had a second Google My Business listing for a separate location and it was no longer trading (but had been ranking them in that area). Google doesn’t allow that anymore, so once we quickly identified the problem and had the listing deleted the rankings shot back up again.
Google Mobilegeddon – April 2015
What is ‘Mobilegeddon’
Announced in February 2015 and rolled out in April of the same year, Google made mobile-friendliness a “significant” ranking factor. This meant that websites suffered a drop in their rankings if they were not a good user experience for someone viewing them on mobile. Having a responsive website, one that could be viewed on any device size and will automatically shrink or grow to fit the screen and be usable, is the optimum goal. Mobile-specific websites are seen as worse than responsive websites, but are still better than nothing at all.
How to optimise after Mobilegeddon
Google has been uncharacteristically helpful with this. You can simply use their Mobile-Friendly Test and they’ll tell you whether your website is OK or not. To achieve a good result, you will want your website to be responsive on all devices and also quick. If you have a mobile specific website it’s not the end of the world, but you’ll be looked on more favourably for having your desktop website be responsive for mobile.
Google Pigeon – July 2014 (hit UK December 2014)
What is the Google ‘Pigeon’ algorithm update’?
Our homing pigeons came home to roost with the launch of this local-specific algorithm. For those who want their businesses to rank in their local area, Pigeon is the bird to keep an eye on. By learning what Pigeon expects from you, you have a much better chance of ranking in local packs and Google Maps, which have very high user click through rates.
Pigeon ranks businesses based on their ‘local signals’ and sees this as more important than standard optimisation techniques. A good example of this is links; in comparison to ‘national’ SEO where a link from a website with a high domain authority (DA) would greatly improve your rankings, Pigeon will prefer links from websites in your local community, such as schools, even if their DA is as low as 1.
How to optimise after the Google Pigeon algorithm update
Essentially, become a local business and show it. You want to ensure that your Google My Business page is fully operational and correct. Clean up your citations, with a high focus on the directories that are seen as most important in your local area – you can find this out by simply checking which directories are showing up under the local pack. However, don’t forget good SEO practices whilst you’re doing this – quality content and a fully functional website will still be taken into account. Write locally relevant content and engage with your community online and in real life; that’s what Pigeon will notice.
Google Hummingbird – August 2013
What is the Google ‘Hummingbird’ algorithm update’?
Continuing with its focus on the user, Hummingbird buzzed in to try to really work out what the user wants. No more was exact keyword matching going to cut it, because Google didn’t trust the user to type it properly anyway. OK, maybe that wasn’t quite the reason, but Google certainly was trying to now understand what the user really intended to say (and find).
Hummingbird is all about semantics. When you’re searching for ‘pizza place’, Hummingbird recognises that what you’re actually looking for is a pizza restaurant. It’s trying to make us all a bit classier, essentially. Similarly, when you type ‘Who won Man U vs Man C’, it has to somehow decipher that. So, ‘won’ becomes ‘won the football match’ and ‘Man U’ becomes Manchester United Football Club; Hummingbird deciphers this and throws up the most relevant result to the user’s intended query.
How to optimise after the Google ‘Hummingbird’ algorithm update
This, again, comes down to high-quality content. However, the focus here should be on the organic. Sure, identify your keywords, but then talk around them too – use their semantics, use colloquialisms, use various phrases that are to do with that niche. By not focusing so much on ‘exact’ keyword match and instead casting the wide net of colloquialisms, you’ll be ensuring Google knows that you’re talking about what the user is talking about.
Google Penguin – April 2012 (Became real-time October 2016)
What is the Google ‘Penguin’ algorithm update?
Penguin was rolled out to target the naughty children in the industry who were taking part in what is now known as ‘black hat SEO’, using ‘spammy’ strategies to get to the top of Google, such as buying links to their website.
The Google Penguin algorithm update (in 2012) targeted black hat SEO techniques and slapped those using them on the wrist by slapping their whole website with a big ol’ penalty (meaning you’ll no longer rank well). The biggest focus of the Penguin algorithm update was backlink profiles, which is all of the links pointing to your website. A link is like a ‘vote’ for your website, so having lots of ‘votes’ will make you rank higher in Google’s eyes. However, when these are actually bought from companies that just sell links, that is a voting manipulation tactic, which the user and Google don’t want. Therefore, Google punished websites using bad link tactics such as this with Penguin.
How to optimise after the Google ‘Penguin’ algorithm update
When Penguin rolled out in 2012, the answer to fixing your website was to get rid of any spammy links that you’ve got pointing to your website and to take a look at other black hat techniques you might be using, such as keyword stuffing. Clean up your links, clean up your site, make it so that the user intent is at the forefront of your strategy, and you should be good… in a few years. There were tales of people waiting 4 years for a Penguin penalty to lift, but that won’t be the case now that it’s real time. Penguin has since had a relatime update in 2016.
What is the Google ‘Panda’ algorithm update?
We won’t be going back any further than Google Panda, because named algorithm updates before this have essentially just created modern SEO; it’s from this point on that SEO’s were truly kept on their toes. Google Panda was brought in to target websites with low quality and therefore low value for the user. It was at this point that the shift to ‘user experience’ was truly solidified; Google wanted to make sure that it was delivering a stellar service to its user which meant making sure that websites with really high-quality content and useful stuff was making its way to the top of the search rankings.
The Google Panda algorithm update ranked sites higher that had higher quality content; this meant it devalued ‘thin’ content that wasn’t very useful to the user and also targeted duplicate content (because that’s bad regardless). Google Panda was all about how nice your website was, both to use and to look at, as well as how nice it was being in providing you with all of the information you could want in the best way possible, whether that be in really in-depth articles or simply by not having broken images all over the place.
How to optimise after the Google ‘Panda’ algorithm update
There have been an incredible amount of updates on this over the years and it is now a part of Google’s core algorithm, so if your rankings have dropped and you’re not sure why, have a think about how good your website is. If you’re not sure it really is the best experience for a user that it could be, you may be suffering from Panda. Turn your focus to improving the quality of your website by making sure nothing is 404’ing, your images aren’t broken, and your content is engaging and useful for those that find it.
If you’re struggling to navigate the complex world of Google algorithms and updates, don’t hesitate to get in touch with an expert SEO agency. Active Internet Marketing (UK) work tirelessly to keep on top of every new development from Google and have years of experience in helping businesses of all sizes to keep competitive in an ever-evolving digital marketing world. Call us today on 0800 772 0650.