You can’t go too far into this blog, or very much other literature about online marketing, without seeing some mention of search engine optimization, or SEO. It’s not really possible to talk about driving traffic to your website without talking about what you need to do to ensure that people can find it. Even the most technologically advanced and well-styled website won’t be of much value to you if no one ever sees it, so much of the digital marketing process consists of efforts to rank high in search engine results.
We should be clear about one thing at this point - when we talk about “search engines”, we’re really referring almost exclusively to Google. While they certainly weren’t the first search engine (does anyone remember Archie?) and there are still others to this day, Google gets the lion’s share of web searches, currently estimated at more than 75%. So, much of the SEO process deals with learning and understanding Google’s search engine algorithms, so that we can figure out the best ways to turn up high in their rankings.
Wait, what’s an algorithm, anyway?
If you haven’t studied statistics or programming, you may not be familiar with the term. Dictionary.com defines an algorithm as “a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps, as forfinding the greatest common divisor.” Well, that’s not too much help here. Google themselves give us this definition: “Algorithms are the computer processes and formulas that take your questions and turn them into answers.” Okay, that gives us a little bit more of a working definition.
How can we tame the beast of Google’s search engine algorithm? It’s a little tricky, since it’s really a moving target. Google makes changes to it approximately 500 times a year. While it may seem like they’re trying to make things more confusing for marketers, it’s really simple. The web is constantly evolving, as are the ways in which we use it. So Google is constantly trying to adapt so that it can most efficiently get us to the information that we’re looking for. Most of these changes are very small, though there are some which stand out as bigger changes to the way that Google operates. Here is a brief history of the major changes to Google’s search engine algorithm, in chronological order. Please note that for the purposes of this discussion, I’m omitting the earliest primordial steps in Google’s evolution, and starting the timeline with the most relevant changes, beginning in 2010.
2010 - Thin Content
In 2010, Google made a major change to its search algorithm which lowered ranking based on “thin content”, low quality pages with little to offer in terms of meaningful content, but loaded with links. They also made a change that takes into account positive vs. negative reviews, after the NY Times pointed out that the website DecorMyEyes was getting high search rankings, primarily based on negative reviews.
2011 - Panda and Privacy
This was the year that Google made the first “Panda” update (there would be subsequent updates which remained under the Panda umbrella). This one came down even harder on sites with thin content, sites with high ratios of ads to content, and content farms. Google reported that this update affected 12% of websites. They continued to tweak this algorithm update seven times in 2011, finishing out the year with Panda 3.1, which was said to restore sites that had been penalized unjustly by the earlier updates.
2011 also saw Google’s encryption of search queries, for privacy reasons. Unfortunately, this made it difficult for marketers to track organic keyword referral data, because some would show up as "(keyword not provided)".
2012 - More Pandas, a Penguin, and more
Google continued to make updates to its core search engine algorithm, Panda, through the course of 2012. They also introduce another process, known as “Penguin”. Originally called the “Webspam Update”, this penalized sites for “over-optimization”, such as keyword stuffing, and was said to reward “high quality sites”.
This was also the year that Google rolled out “Knowledge Graph”, its first step towards “semantic search”. It was said to add more intelligence to its search algorithm, to produce search results that are “things, not strings”. They also began to send warnings through their Webmaster Tools when they detected an abnormal number of backlinks.
2013 - Hummingbird
Google rolled out another new search engine algorithm in 2013, under the moniker “Hummingbird”, because it’s both precise and fast. Google didn’t give quite as many details about this update, announcing it after the fact, and stating that it improved Knowledge Graph and semantic search.
2014 - Pigeon, Spam, and Security
Google kept in tradition with bird names for its algorithms, introducing Pigeon in 2014. This update really impacted the world of SEO, with changes to local search results. They also implemented a change which impacted results for searches involving “payday loans”, “porn”, and other “spammy queries”. This was also the year of the “HTTP/SSL” update, which continued their reward to privacy-friendly sites by giving a boost to sites with secure pages.
2015 - Mobilegeddon
The major update to Google’s algorithm in 2015 was its “Mobile Update”, which it said would give higher priority to mobile-friendly sites. This one really rocked the marketing world, who immediately gave it the nickname “Mobilegeddon”, as it was expected to devastate SEO as we then knew it. As it turned out, the results were not nearly so dramatic as everyone feared.
2016 - The penguin flies in real-time
In 2016, Google announced that its Penguin update (now ver. 4.0) is now working in real-time, and has been fully baked into the “core” of its search algorithm. Its data now refreshes constantly, so changes will be visible much faster. This year also saw further mobile boost, and more penalty for posting content that is too thin or otherwise poor quality.