SEO is always evolving. Everyone knows this. It’s a statement that gets used almost as often as everyone’s favorite: “Content is King!” Everyone also knows that Google is always evolving. In fact, there are hundreds of updates made to Google’s various algorithms each year. You can be sure that at least a few of these updates have some impact on SEO. However, there have been 5 changes in particular that have really changed the SEO game in a big way since 2011. Read on to find out what they are.
Back in February 2011, Google unleashed its first anti-spam attack animal upon the web. Panda struck out against sites that thrived on thin, low quality content or duplicate content created pretty much for the sole purpose of astroturfing Google results. In other words, if your website had a whole lot of crappy articles written around keywords with little regard for substance (i.e. written for Google bots instead of humans), you may have been pounced on, rabidly chewed, and then spit out by Google Panda. This particular algorithm is still updated to this very day (in fact, Panda 4.0 just recently rolled out in May, 2014), so ne’er do wells beware, the Panda is still on the prowl for low quality websites with poor content. For a REALLY in-depth look at Panda, check out Bill Slawski’s Moz Blog article, “Unraveling Panda Patterns.”
In April 2012, another vicious animal waddled onto the scene, and SEO was never the same again. Google Penguin is markedly different Panda. It’s sort of like the T-1000 to Panda’s T-800 (or we just really felt like throwing a Terminator reference in there). Where Panda beat down websites with low quality content, Google Penguin savaged sites that utilized spammy backlink schemes to improve search engine rankings.
We’ve talked a lot about backlinks on this blog, but in essence, any link that is created on one site solely for the purpose of passing PageRank onto another is a link scheme, according to Google. If you, or perhaps your SEO firm, engaged in the practice of creating these types of links, something that previously went on for years without any objection from Google, you were suddenly outlawed and punished overnight. For websites with an extensive amount of unnatural links in their link profile, the screws only tightened with subsequent Penguin updates unless they underwent extensive, painstaking link removal campaigns (only made slightly less painful by the release of Google’s Disavow Tool).
Make no mistake: Links still very much matter in the SEO equation. Google simply does not want you to go about creating your own backlinks. That being said, unlike Panda, Penguin hasn’t had a refresh in a while. In fact, it’s been 10 months, leading many to question what’s taking so long. There are even rumors that there may not be another Penguin update due to how easy it is to exploit in terms of “negative SEO” (see comments section in the linked article above). Only time will tell…
Local Results Appear in SERPs
SERPs used to be so simple. Google’s first page had 10 organic positions. The end. Nowadays, you have the knowledge graph, local listings, and all sorts of other fancy doodads and widgets. It all started when Google inserted local listings from its Google Maps/Google Places system into SERPs pages. The once simple system of 10 organic positions per page was now cut open and stuffed with these local listings. You now had more than 10 positions per page. What’s more, because the listings appeared in the middle of SERPs pages, breaking up the organic results, this made for a much longer scroll down to the organic positions that happened to appear below the local listings. What this did was further devalue the organic positions that were lower on the page. In other words, being position 6 or 7 in Google now meant significantly less than it used to in terms of impressions and click-through-rate. Yay.
Although it sort of seemed to go under the radar, Google’s Venice update in February, 2012 rather largely impacted the potential reach of local businesses in SERPS. Google Venice was designed to “aggressively” localize search results. As mentioned above, Google had already previously begun to insert a section of local listings into its SERPs results, but now the localized results were also invading traditional organic rankings. Even if you weren’t signed into your Google account, Google would now provide you almost completely localized search results based on your IP address. Previously, a small company could rank nationally for a very broad money keyword (even if they only actually serviced a small, local area), because there were only 10 positions on the 1st page of Google nationally. However, in a post Venice Google, local businesses are much more likely to only show up for web users who live in cities that are within their service area. In other words, Google’s traditional top 10 was now exponentially divided into thousands of cities with results that differed for each and every city.
This update makes a lot of sense. A company that, for example, does landscaping in El Paso, Texas should most certainly not appear in the top 10 results when someone in Fort Myers, Florida searches for “landscaping company.” However, that is little consolation to the little guys who were at one point showing up there nationally for their keywords and getting that much more exposure (albeit untargeted exposure).
Panda and Penguin were two additional algorithms that functioned aside from Google’s core algorithm. Hummingbird, on the other hand, which was released in August 2013, was a complete revamp of said core algo. Hummingbird was said to be the evolution of a smarter Google that could interpret a website’s content much more like a human being would. It could now go beyond simply analyzing word counts, spelling mistakes and keyword density. Google supposedly now understands the semantic relevance and meaning of the content and can index content in such a way that it can provide its users more value (i.e. knowledge graph results) when they do searches.
Does this mean you should no longer bother with traditional on-site optimization? It depends on who you ask. Some SEO analysts out there really do feel that you should throw keyword research out the window, and Google will now be smart enough to pick up on what your article is about without your “assistance.” As always, Google is very opaque when it comes to this sort of thing, so it comes down to trial-and-error experimentation for us SEOs. In fact, all of the above game-changing updates have lead to a great deal of division within the SEO community, and it’s this general uncertainty and lack of solidarity that has probably impacted SEO the most overall. The answers to what gets a website ranking in 2014 and beyond simply aren’t as clear cut as they used to be; thus, it’s important to apply many different techniques for ranking to see what sticks best. We do know this much: Content matters, links matter and social media matters. Don’t ignore any of these!
Did any of the above algorithm changes have an impact on your SEO? Share your story with us in the comments below!