A Guide to Google Algorithm Updates

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) can be a complicated business

Firstly, you need to keep up with the terminology to work out what people are talking about in the first place – phrases like canonicalisation, domain authority and link reclamation are all technical terms which might mean nothing to you.

Also, you should keep up to speed with the latest developments, as SEO is a constantly evolving subject. A good way to start to understand these developments is to understand the major Google algorithm updates.

These updates happen pretty regularly and for good reason – the internet is changing all the time:

  • There are millions of pages of content being added globally to the internet on a daily basis, so the requirement for search engines to understand content on the web is getting bigger and more difficult all the time
  • Not all content on the web is full of such high quality content like ours! If a search engine keeps directing you to poor quality sites, it won’t be too long before you start looking for another search engine which shows you better quality sites
  • The way that people use the internet is changing all the time. People are increasingly engaging with ecommerce on the go, and the adoption of relatively new nations to the web have seen an explosion in mobile device usage
  • Finally, there are some people who are still trying to ‘game the system’ by employing black-hat SEO techniques. As search engines become more sophisticated, going the black-hat route is difficult and futile, but does that stop people from trying? No, it doesn’t!

So, let’s take a look at six of the major algorithm updates – they are a good way of getting your head around SEO as well as understanding what direction the world’s number one search engine is heading in.

Google Panda

The Panda algorithm was first released in early 2011 and is about trying to identify websites with poor quality content and lower them in search engine results. The focus here has been looking at what Google calls ‘thin sites’. These are sites with vague content, copyright infringing content, or have a lot of advertising on them – you have seen these sites: nothing but adverts and unlikely to deliver a good user experience.

Panda has also addressed the issue of duplicate content. This is a problem for search engines: how are they supposed to know what page to send the user to if multiple pages have the same content? And even if the content has been clearly re-written but based on a different page, search engines can spot this too – your content should be at least 50% different, and we recommend that content should be re-written entirely to the needs of the specific audience. The solution to avoid Panda is simple – simply write better content that your users will love and engage with, simple as that.

Google Penguin

The Penguin update is a full year younger than the Panda update. Penguin is a webspam algorithm mainly concerned with a website’s link profile. Search engines assess a websites backlinks by seeing which other websites connect to that site: if these sites are well established, well respected and engage users with their content (see Panda!), then a link from such a great site must mean that the other site is pretty decent too.

This spurned a lot of websites which sold thousands of links for very reasonable prices hoping that their customers believed that quantity ruled over quality – it did for a while until the arrival of Penguin. To avoid encountering the nasty side of this Penguin, you should check your backlinks regularly to ensure that all of the links pointing to your site are legitimate. If they are not, contact the webmaster and ask them to remove the link, or if that and everything else fails, use Google’s link disavow tool.

Google Pigeon

Google Pigeon was only released in July 2014 and is in response to one of the ways that people are using the web differently – it is all about local search. A lot of businesses will answer the question of where do you want to attract traffic from with a one word answer…everywhere! What Google Pigeon aims to do is ensure that when a search is locally biased, e.g. ‘where is my nearest pharmacy’, then the most relevant websites and information will appear.

The Pigeon update uses a number of factors to try to determine the relevancy of local results such as schema markup, reviews, address citations and a business’s presence on Google’s ‘My Business’ platform. Pigeon also takes a look at what the user experience is like on your mobile website – crucial for local search. Even though it was separate from 2015’s Mobilegeddon, Pigeon was Google’s first really hard look at mobile websites.

Google Hummingbird

Hummingbird was released in 2013 and is perhaps Google’s most ambitious update – it tries to understand the context of the way that people search, or to use its terminology, semantic search. Previous to the Hummingbird update, Google would focus on each individual word of a search query, but now takes into account the whole phrase and tries to understand the exact problem that the query is asking. A large number of searches made on Google are literally questions, particularly with the arrival of voice activated search on mobile devices.

The Hummingbird update puts a real emphasis on the content that a website is producing – not only should it be interesting, it should also answer queries that people are searching to find answers for. Hummingbird aims to join these very specific queries and very specific content together.

Google Pirate

Google Pirate’s name is less abstract than its animal-based cousins – Pirate is all about piracy and copyright infringement. There are a lot of torrent sites which you could find very easily on Google before the Pirate update just by typing “watch *insert film name* for free”. If you did that now, you would see adverts for legitimately buying the film from Google and Amazon.

This seems like a good thing that Google is doing (especially if you work in the entertainment industry), and they used copyright violation reports to help them identify sites which should be affected by the Pirate update. What made Pirate notorious was unlike other algorithm updates, its effect was brutal: many websites experienced a 96% drop in search visibility – not a 100% drop, as branded search still works for these sites, but enough to fundamentally wipe out a website’s traffic.

This prompts the question of whether copyright enforcement is Google’s responsibility – is Google doing a good thing? Is Google defending the jobs of a large world-wide industry or is it flexing its muscles and assuming the role of judge, jury and executioner?

Google Phantom

Google Phantom is an update that affects the quality of a website, but is separate from Google Panda. Whereas Google Panda is looking at the quality of the content, Phantom (so named because it came without warning) looks at the website from a broader perspective. For example, websites which use auto-start videos, pop-up adverts and adverts in prominent positions were targeted. From an advertiser’s perspective, the adverts are in great locations. But unless the ads are well targeted, they are often an unwelcome intrusion to the user experience. Google tracks bounce rate and other engagement metrics to see if the ads are engaging the audience or not.

Phantom also looked at duplicate content like Panda, but went further as it actually started affecting websites for company’s ‘boilerplate’ descriptions – i.e. the same 100 words that you always use for your company when someone wants a synopsis of what you do for an article. Often these boilerplate descriptions are also used on social media profiles and this is where it can turn into duplicate content.


That is what has happened so far…but what does the future hold? It is likely that these algorithms will continue to evolve and we can look forward to having multiple updates and releases: poor quality content isn’t going to disappear overnight just because of a couple of Panda and Phantom updates, is it? But knowing where Google is heading will give you some idea of where you need to focus your efforts to maximise your SEO value.

What do you think the next Google algorithm update will aim to address? And if it was your job, what animal and SEO update would you pair together?!

Nathan Whitaker About the author

Nathan is the co-founder and Strategy Wizard at eMagic. He is responsible for the development and execution of our effective SEO strategies. He is passionate about search and delivering unrivalled results for our clients and industry partners.

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