November 25, 2013 E3

2013 Google Algorithm Updates: A Walk Down Memory Lane

Well, here we are, wrapping up another year full of Google algorithm updates. This year has been full of ups and downs. Google’s 2013 changes have provided us with new challenges and caused us all to adjust our expectations. It might be a little early to do a retrospective of this year’s changes, but we’re assuming any future adjustments before the clock strikes 2014 won’t be nearly as momentous as the ones we’ve already experienced. Here’s hoping, anyway.

So in case you’ve somehow missed them, or if you just want to walk with us down memory lane, let’s take a look back at the year Google turned 15.

Panda Gets its 25th Update

Just when you thought you’d heard the last of our black and white friends, they come back for more. Panda was a Google algorithm change originally released in February 2011 as a way to penalize low quality content, specifically scrapers and content farms. Early this year, Panda got its 24th refresh, and later it’s 25th , affecting about 1.2% of English language searches. The biggest change to Panda in 2013 was the way in which updates were rolled out. Instead of flipping a switch and initiating changes, Google made changes to the algorithm slowly over time.

At SMX West, Matt Cutts, the head of Google webspam stated, “Rather than having some huge change that happens on a given day, you are more likely in the future to see Panda deployed gradually as we rebuild the index. So you are less likely to see these large scale sorts of changes.”

One thing that has not changed among all of Panda’s updates: and that’s how Google gauges high-quality sites. They consider these sites to be trustworthy with content that is completely original and well-researched. High-quality sites should not generate a large number of complaints. Low-quality sites, on the other hand, are those with many paid links, don’t generate new content (or generate thin content) and sell too many advertisements.

The Release of Penguin 2.0

We can’t talk about Panda without discussing Penguin. Google continued to make adjustments to Penguin in the Spring with Penguin 2.0. The version name may be misleading – this was actually the fourth Penguin update and was designed to continue to sure things up in an effort to reduce webspam and affected 2.3% of English searches.

Authority was the name of the game with this update. Google decided to reward thought leaders and experts with an “authority boost.” Marketing departments were suddenly tasked with generating in-depth articles and other longform content aimed at proving authority. In addition to gauging the expertise of a website, Penguin 2.0 improved its analysis of link quality.

The websites that benefitted the most from these Google algorithm updates were sites that did an excellent job of branding themselves across the internet. Those sites that had a weak brand identity found themselves struggling against the current.

The Hummingbird Lands

On Google’s 15th birthday they announced some major changes. The first had actually been implemented weeks prior, without any fanfare. Hummingbird 1.0. This was not a Google algorithm update, but a new algorithm all together. Touted as the biggest overhaul to the search engine since “Caffeine” in 2009, Hummingbird affected nearly 90% of global searches.

Hummingbird is semantic, meaning it aims to understand the meaning of a query rather than just match up keywords. In other words, they are trying to humanize search. Think about how often you have been frustrated by your personal searches. For example, let’s say you were trying to locate free parking in Pittsburgh. If you searched prior to Hummingbird, you’d probably find results related to parks you could visit interspersed with parking areas. Or, you might have found nothing related to your actual search. But now, Google takes your entire query into consideration and (hopefully) provides the most appropriate results.

Everything is (Not Provided)

This is not a Google algorithm update, but it was arguably one of the most jarring changes of the year. In September, Google announced that they would be encrypting all organic keyword data .

Many people knew this day would come. Google had been encrypting more and more searches for quite some time. But this change still upset many SEOs apple carts. Why the change now? Depends upon who you ask. Some people believe it is a response to the NSA’s spying revelations this year. Others tow the Google line, that they are protecting user’s privacy. But most people think this was really just a push to get more people using Adwords.

The reasons aren’t really as important as webmasters’ responses to the change. There are still ways to infer organic keyword data, but many SEOs had to think quickly on their toes to deal with this adjustment.

Google Algorithm Updates Affected Everyone

If you add up all of the changes, it’s highly unlikely that you were not affected by a Google algorithm update this year. Some of you may have lost a lot of your rankings and traffic, while many of you felt only a small change. The key in dealing with Google changes is not to panic. If you’ve been following the rules all along, you’ll never have to worry about getting on the wrong side of the almighty Google. But even those folks who never deliberately break rules get burned by Google from time to time. It’s important to understand these Google algorithm updates so that you know what to expect moving forward. But it’s even more important to follow SEO best practices and it’s crucial to generate content that your visitors and customers find useful and want to share. Focusing on your audience is the best way to withstand anything Google could ever throw at you.

What changes do you think Google has in store for us in 2014? Give us your predictions in the comments section below.

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