Almost every day, Google introduces changes to its ranking algorithm. Some are tiny tweaks; others seriously shake up the SERPs. This cheat sheet will help you make sense of the most important algo changes and penalties rolled out in the recent years, with a brief overview and SEO advice.
But before we start, let’s do something fun. What if you could see which of the updates impacted your organic traffic, and in what way? Surprise surprise, you can, with a tool called Rank Tracker. All you need to do is launch Rank Tracker and create a project for your site. Then, click the Update Traffic button in Rank Tracker’s top menu, and enter your Google Analytics credentials to sync your account with the tool. In the lower part of your Rank Tracker dashboard, switch to Organic Traffic:
Launch date: February 24, 2011
Hazards: Duplicate, plagiarized or thin content; user-generated spam; keyword stuffing
How it works: Panda assigns a so-called “quality score” to web pages; this score is then used as a ranking factor. Initially, Panda was a filter rather than part of Google’s ranking algo, but in January 2016, it was officially incorporated into the core algorithm. Panda rollouts have become more frequent, so both penalties and recoveries now happen faster.
How to adjust: Run regular site checks for content duplication, thin content and keyword stuffing. To do that, you’ll need a site crawler, like SEO PowerSuite’s Website Auditor.
Launch date: April 24, 2012
Hazards: Spammy or irrelevant links; links with over-optimized anchor text
How it works: Google Penguin’s objective is to down-rank sites whose links it deems manipulative. Since late 2016, Penguin has been part of Google’s core algorithm; unlike Panda, it works in real time.
How to adjust: Monitor your link profile’s growth and run regular audits with a backlink checker like SEO SpyGlass. In the tool’s Summary dashboard, you’ll find a progress graph for your link profile’s growth. Look out for any unusual spikes: those are reason enough to look into the backlinks you’ve unexpectedly gained.
Launch date: August 22, 2013
Hazards: Keyword stuffing; low-quality content
How it works: Hummingbird helps Google better interpret search queries and provide results that match searcher intent (as opposed to the individual terms within the query). While keywords continue to be important, Hummingbird makes it possible for a page to rank for a query even if it doesn’t contain the exact words the searcher entered. This is achieved with the help of natural language processing that relies on latent semantic indexing, co-occurring terms and synonyms.
Launch date: July 24, 2014 (US); December 22, 2014 (UK, Canada, Australia)
Hazards: Poor on- and off-page SEO
How it works: Pigeon affects those searches in which the user’s location plays an important part. The update created closer ties between the local algorithm and the core algorithm: traditional SEO factors are now used to rank local results.
How to adjust: Invest effort into on- and off-page SEO. A good starting point is running an on-page analysis with WebSite Auditor. The tool’s Content Analysis dashboard will give you a good idea about the aspects of on-page optimization you need to focus on.
Launch date: April 21, 2015
Hazards: Lack of a mobile version of the page; poor mobile usability
How it works: Google’s Mobile Update (aka Mobilegeddon) ensures that mobile-friendly pages rank at the top of mobile search, while pages not optimized for mobile are filtered out from the SERPs or seriously down-ranked.
How to adjust: Go mobile and focus on speed and usability. Google’s mobile-friendly test will help you see which aspects of your page’s mobile version need to be improved. The test in integrated into WebSite Auditor so you can check your pages’ mobile friendliness quickly. You’ll find it in Content Analysis > Page Audit, under the Technical factors tab.
Launch date: October 26, 2015
Hazards: Lack of query-specific relevance features; shallow content; poor UX
How it works: RankBrain is part of Google’s Hummingbird algorithm. It is a machine learning system that helps Google understand the meaning behind queries, and serve best-matching search results in response to those queries. Google calls RankBrain the third most important ranking factor. While we don’t know the ins and outs of RankBrain, the general opinion is that it identifies relevance features for web pages ranking for a given query, which are basically query-specific ranking factors.
Launch date: September 1, 2016
Hazards: Tense competition in your target location
How it works: The Possum update ensured that local results vary more depending on the searcher’s location: the closer you are to a business’s address, the more likely you are to see it among local results. Possum also resulted in greater variety among results ranking for very similar queries, like “dentist denver” and “dentist denver co.” Interestingly, Possum also gave a boost to businesses located outside the physical city area.
Launch date: March 8, 2017
Hazards: Thin, affiliate-heavy or ad-centered content
How it works: The latest of Google’s confirmed updates, Fred targets websites that violate Google’s webmaster guidelines. The majority of affected sites are blogs with low-quality posts that appear to be created mostly for the purpose of generating ad revenue.