It would be impossible for me to explain how Google’s algorithm worked. I’m not a software engineer at Google. Google keeps a tight lid on the inner workings of the most powerful and popular search engine in the world.
But for a while there, Google announced every major update to their search engine. These update announcements told webmasters and SEOs exactly what in the world wide web each update affected.
Now, Google is largely silent on their updates.
If you look at Moz’s Google Update page, everything from Early October 2016 is labeled “Unnamed Major Update.” And Google is keeping us in the dark on purpose.
If you want to understand where Google is now, you have to understand where it’s been. I’m going to take you through some of the major changes we’ve seen over the last few years.
1. It All Began With the Panda
Before the Panda arrived, all was quiet on the Google front. We were all munching our keywords politely while other people were dumping low-quality trash into the top ranking search spots.
It’s the low-quality and thin content trash from “content farms” that angered the Panda. The Panda rampaged through Google for the first time in February 2011. And suddenly a whole lot of people saw their site traffic drop enormously.
This changed content strategy completely.
It also changed how we approach SEO. Keyword research and even link-building since linking to poor quality websites no longer boosted your SERPs.
The first update affected about 12% of all U.S. searches. Which is a large number considering how many people actually use Google.
SEOs and webmasters became accustomed to the new updates. The percentage of affected sites dropped each time the Panda rampaged through Google.
“Updates” in Google aren’t a one-time deal. A “major update” is essentially a new filter that runs periodically and adapts to the way people are searching.
The Panda rampages about every couple months. And there are even little Pandas that tweak things in between sometimes.
2. Then the Penguin Waddled
While the Panda did affect link-building somewhat, it’s the Penguin that did the most “damage.”
Before the Penguin waddled all over the link-building scene, everyone did link-building differently. There were hundreds of link schemes geared toward manipulating search engines into ranking your content higher.
The Penguin totally destroyed all hope of ever using most of the schemes ever again. Anyone who used link-schemes saw their website tank right after the Penguin update.
If the Penguin went to your site and saw too many keywords, it pulled the trigger. Before the Penguin update, Google used keywords to find content for the user.
Keywords still help Google determine content useful for each user. The Penguin update ensured that this wasn’t the only metric Google used to rank content. And it penalized anyone who tried to stuff keywords to force Google to rank them higher.
The Penguin Can’t Stand Over-Optimization
In general, SEO is good. It directs traffic to high-quality sites and gives the little guy a chance. But sometimes SEOs can get a little overzealous.
This is why keyword stuffing happened. It’s also why Penguin penalizes a lot of things.
Take anchor text for example. Before the Penguin Update, if you wanted to optimize (over-optimize) your anchor texts for internal links, you would place a major keyword with a URL that had the keyword.
Now, if you try to use that method now, Penguin will find out. And you don’t want the Penguin to find out. It’s not pretty.
3. And The Hummingbird Flitted Free
The Panda and Penguin were just updates to an old algorithm. They weren’t anything revolutionary for Google.
But when the Hummingbird came along, everyone in the Google jungle paid attention. Why? Because The Hummingbird was a completely new search algorithm.
The Hummingbird weaved a whole new nest for searches in 2013. How did it change the way we search? It introduced a search for meaning.
Not the meaning of life, sorry, (although I’d argue it’s 42.) The meaning of each search.
Before the Hummingbird flitted in, Google would only take into account specific words and match them together. But with Hummingbird, you can have two search queries that are similar but not exactly the same on a page.
This creates a faster search engine. How? By giving users a broader base of information from their single query. And it more accurately displays results.
The Hummingbird update utilizes some 200 ranking factors. And keywords are further down the list than ever before.
How To Contend With The Hummingbird
The eternal question in SEO is “how do I keep up with Google?” For the Hummingbird update, you simply change what question you ask.
Instead of “how do I rank for this query?” it should be “how do I answer this question well?”
Your focus should be on your audience or potential leads. How do you answer their questions? How do you give them what they need (or want)?
That’s how you please the Hummingbird. And really, that’s a lot more simple than attempting to rank (which we still try to do #noshame).
4. But They Didn’t See the Pigeon Arriving
Whether you agree with globalization or not, local commerce is still where a lot of the money is at. And Google realized they needed to improve their local search back in 2014.
So, they released the Pigeon.
And it flew wingman for the Hummingbird. Why? Because it too emphasized the meaning of a search query over mere words.
If you searched for “The Best Dive Bars in Jersey” and then searched “Jersey Dive Bars,” you would get the same results.
Local SEO changed when the Pigeon arrived. And SEO companies like LocalWeb SEO had to adapt.
How? Well, the Pigeon also brought along Google Maps. And “local” suddenly had to mean Local.
If you’re not running a VPN and telling Google you’re in Russia, then you shouldn’t have to type a location when looking for the local Hookah bar. And with Hummingbird, this was suddenly a non-issue for searchers.
Conclusion: Google Still Tinkering
Although Google isn’t officially announcing their algorithm updates, it’s apparent they’re still tinkering under the hood.
SEOs have seen a few unconfirmed updates over the last year. The most major of those they’ve named Fred.
Fred seems to target sites that emphasize revenue over quality content. But this is unconfirmed by anyone in the know at Google.
Were you working with SEO when the updates happened? What effects did you see? Let me know in the comments below.