Understanding and Handling Google Algorithm Updates

According to Google, updates happen at least once per day on average, but major changes are far less frequent, often only once per month or less. Although most updates can go unnoticed, when one hits your site it can be stressful and scary.

Knowing how to understand and then handle a Google algorithm update is vital to running a business in the 21st century when ranking for keywords is critical to bringing in new customers.

What are Google Algorithm Updates?

Google can serve results to their users via an algorithm which decides which page are best for the queries that you search for. Periodically they update the algorithm to fix different exploits that are being used and to tweak the algorithm to improve their search results.

In this article, we’re focusing on the major changes which happen quite rarely, often only a few times each year. Typically these updates only focus on a specific issue, but changes like Penguin and Panda target millions of results and can impact hundreds of thousands of businesses because they alter some of the key signals significantly.

Should You Believe What Google Tells You?

The majority of updates go unrecognized by Google, by occasionally they will admit that an update has happened and give a vague indication as to what they adjusted. But should you believe what they tell you? It’s widely accepted that they omit the truth to prevent spammers from figuring out their algorithm.

Accepting Google at their word is naive, but there’s no reason to presume that they are lying. Instead, you need to read between the lines and test to figure out what an update is targeting.

What Can Be Done If You Are Hit By an Update?

If your site gets hit by an update, then you need to be careful about how you respond. Making the right choice can put you ahead of where you were before while making a misstep can drop your rankings further and leave them there for months or years.

Don’t Freak Out

Most importantly, if a website gets hit by a Google update, the worst thing that you can do is to freak out. Google has filed a patent which they use to find spammers by looking for websites that reverse changes quickly after they get negative results and freaking out can make the situation worse.

Instead, you need to take a few days at least to see what happens so that you can get more data and see how the update plays out for your website; it’s not unheard of for your website to regain rankings naturally.

Read Responses by Respectable Bloggers

To figure out precisely what the update targeted you might want to read what some of the respectable bloggers have to say about the issue. Some of them will have figured it out, and this can help you to understand where the problem is so that you can fix it.

Do Some Research

If an update happens and no bloggers have figured out the issue that your site is happening, it might be necessary to conduct some research. If you are unable to do this, I can help to figure out the update to increase your rankings.

This research often involves looking for problems on your site and then comparing it to a range of other websites that are also impacted by the algorithm change. Often, many of the sites which are hit by a change have factors in common like low-quality content, bad links or high exact match anchor text.

Continue with What You Believe is Right

If after looking at what has happened to your site and the others which are hit by the update, you still believe that there is nothing wrong with your website, you might need to continue as if nothing happened. Often Google staff members will say that there is nothing that site owners can do to fix their rankings after an update and sometimes that’s true. In this case, you need to continue doing what’s right, and eventually, you’ll see an uptick in your traffic.

Major Google Algorithm Updates 

Google makes multiple updates each day to their algorithm, most of which are tiny and go unnoticed, but periodically they will release significant algorithm updates that can have a significant impact on your rankings. These significant changes typically target a single issue through a variety of changes, combined into an update that usually rolls out of a week or less.

Panda Update

Although certainly not the first large change to the algorithm, most SEO’s would agree that it was the first serious major update that specifically targeted SEO’s and impacted their websites. Released in February 2011, Panda tried to increase the quality of the results by targeting low-quality, thin pages, and content farms.

Typically, the sites that were impacted had aggressive advertising, short articles and low amounts of brand-related searches. Estimates suggest that up to 12% of all search results were affected by Panda.

Pigeon Update

Released on July 24, 2014, Pigeon was designed to give searchers looking for local businesses a far better searching experience. Previously, sites with more links and content would rank higher, even if they weren’t local to the person searching.

With Pigeon, the location of the searcher and the distance to local businesses was heavily used to alter the rankings of sites. Therefore, when you search for queries that Google believes are about your local area, they give a sizable weighting to those businesses that are closest to your location.

Penguin Update

Released on April 24th, 2012, Google Penguin shook up an estimated 3% of SERP’s, having a huge impact on websites that were trying to manipulate their rankings. Penguin was created as a response to black-hat SEO’s who were using link schemes to artificially inflate their rankings and bring in more traffic to their websites.

Penguin is a filter which looks at the quality of links, presumably by using signals such as the number of outbound links, the quality of the sites they are linking to and other signals to indicate manipulation.

The majority of the sites impacted by the Penguin update had large numbers of links coming from irrelevant low-quality pages, often using very high levels of exact match anchor text.

Mobile Update

The first major change to the algorithm regarding mobile devices was nicknamed ‘Mobilegeddon’ and was released on April 21, 2015. With more people than ever searching from their mobile devices, Google decided to give preference to those sites that are mobile friendly.

Rather than punishing sites for not being mobile-responsive, they are giving a slight boost to those that are. As of July 2018, Google will also use page speed on mobile devices as a ranking signal because it’s a strong indication of the quality of a result for those browsing on mobile phones and tablets.

Hummingbird Update

Believed to have been in effect since September 2013, Hummingbird is Google’s attempt at using natural language processing to understand better the queries people enter. Rather than looking at individual keywords, it tries to understand the context of the words and the order in which they are used to derive a more advanced meaning.

The result of this update was that pages would be returned which may not have the exact keywords on them at all because Google recognized that the meaning of their query was related to that page. As a result, keyword density is fairly unimportant while writing naturally is more advantageous.

RankBrain Update

Arguably the most important update to the algorithm in recent years, RankBrain is believed to be the third most impactful ranking signal behind links and content. RankBrain is an artificial intelligence which uses machine learning techniques to consistently improve the algorithm by processing search queries, providing more relevant results and testing for improvements.

Results have shown that RankBrain can come within 10% of the effectiveness of Google engineers when it comes to making updates and this is likely to improve over time. RankBrain allows them to make changes to the algorithm more frequently, tweaking and improving it to prevent spammers from succeeding and to rank the best content at all times.