The Secret to Staying Ahead of Google’s SEO Updates

Search engine optimization can seem like an impossible game.

New updates everywhere you look, and what I like to call the “caffeine conundrum:” the so-called experts tell you something is good for you one day, and bad the next. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the earliest Google algorithm updates was, in fact, dubbed "Caffeine."

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In reality, though, the same SEO cycle has been happening since Day 1. Google develops an algorithm. Most website owners do the right thing and follow Google best practices. A few bad eggs figure out how to game the system. Google adjusts its algorithm to counteract the bad eggs, and the whole thing starts over again. Rinse, repeat.

Let’s take a look at some of Google’s notable updates, and the common thread running through them. From there, as promised, you’ll learn how to stop worrying about the changes and rank as well as you can no matter what.

Panda (February, 2011). Google’s first major salvo against “content farms,” sites with thousands of pages of useless, poorly written content on every topic under the sun, designed to trick Google’s keyword ranking system. This was the first step in focusing less on things like keywords and size of site, and more on overall utility and quality. The algorithm just needed some fine-tuning.

Penguin (April, 2012). The next step. Penguin targeted keyword stuffing, actively penalizing sites and pages that overused keywords at the expense of useful content. A lot of well-meaning sites took a hit with Penguin – keyword density, up until then, was seen as a positive SEO factor, and just about everyone was prone to overdoing it. Penguin aimed to balance that out.

Hummingbird (August, 2013). This was a big one. While Panda and Penguin worked in parallel to Google’s core algorithm to weed out those rogue sites cheating the system, Hummingbird updated the core algorithm itself. It addresses the same goal in a broader way – rewarding high quality content. Unlike the more targeted Panda and Penguin updates, Hummingbird takes over 200 factors into account to determine whether or not readers find a particular page useful.

“Pigeon” (July, 2014). In quotes because that’s not Google’s official name for it — since it marked a big improvement in local search, furthering Google’s goal of highly personalized search results.

Other 2014 Updates: Google phased out authorship results (i.e. those headshots you used to see next to some search results) — something it was once all-in on. Just a few weeks ago, a Panda 4.1 update further zeroed in on sites with weak, “thin” content and after that, Penguin 3.0, hit. This refresh aims to reduce the number of spammy links intruding on useful search results.

By now, you’ve probably noticed the recurring theme: Google consistently rewards high quality content and penalizes weak content. That’s your secret: create high quality content. How does Google determine what that is? Here are a few things to aim for:

  • New or updated content consistently coming to your site.

  • Content that keeps readers engaged, from detailed part or product information to compelling blogs and case studies. The longer someone stays on a page, the higher quality it’s considered to be.

  • The needs of your customers. It’s better to be a niche expert in your strongest areas than to try and be all things to everyone. Google is getting better and better at telling the difference.

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