A business owner’s guide to Google’s Ranking Algorithms and how they affect your position in the results pages.

Google Algorithm Updates and How They Might Affect Your Business.

Ever since people began to realise that being placed on the first page of Google’s search results for a word or phrase, that is relevant to their business is highly desirable and generates traffic to their website which should convert into sales, achieving such a prominent position has been a quest that many have undertaken and, for the main part, failed to achieve.

The process of attempting this task has taken on a name, it is called Search Engine Optimisation, now usually abbreviated to SEO, and it has grown into an industry in its own right.

All of this started because Google had a problem – how does it decide which website to show at the top of the list of results and which ones to show below it, and in what order? If someone searches for “Christmas Cake Recipes” and there are upwards of 500 websites, all of a pretty good quality, containing recipes for Christmas cakes, how does it put one above the other for the purposes of providing a list of search results that is useful to the person carrying out the search?

Clearly it needed some kind of mechanism or formula for ranking websites in those results. This became a fairly complex affair and has, for years, been described as Google’s “PageRank” algorithm. It has been a closely guarded secret ever since.

Despite the secrecy as to the fine details, Google always released just enough information about the process to intrigue and whet the appetite. In fact, it revealed much more than most people realised by way of guidelines as to good practice when building a website.

One thing that became common knowledge fairly early on was the fact that a website to which many other websites had linked would be more highly regarded than one which had fewer, if any, such links. Google considered that such “backlinks” were a signal of approval, influence and popularity and rewarded it by giving sites meeting that criteria a higher ranking.

As soon as this became known, website owners began to think up ways to acquire such links that were not made naturally and were, in fact, usually paid-for and sourced from low quality websites set up for just that purpose. It worked at first, Google just counted the links and didn’t bother to check how genuine they were. Those with lots of links went to the top while the others languished at the bottom of the listings. But not for long!

Google soon realised what was going on and developed ways to identify websites where such practices had been employed to gain an unfair advantage, and effectively shut them down by reducing their visibility in the search results. Other dubious practices included “Keyword Stuffing” – filing a webpage with keywords which were simply there to fool the search engines and which were not part of a cohesive volume of readable text, and copying content from other websites word for word, usually by simply cutting and pasting.

If Google hadn’t taken action the Internet would be full of worthless websites with content that isn’t worth reading and which are of little or no value to the user. Many, however, would argue that is what we ended up with anyway, despite Google’s best efforts to avoid it.

Whatever you may think, Google’s ranking algorithms have continued to be updated over the years and many a dodgy website has bitten the dust because of them. If your website is important to your business then you should be aware of what’s going on, so I wrote this short guide.

The Google Algorithm Update Guide

There have been 6 significant, named, updates to Google’s search engine ranking algorithm, each of which being designed to tackle a different set of problems. The six updates are:

Panda

Launch Date: Feb 24, 2011
Rollouts: ~monthly
Update Type: Penalty
Objective: De-rank sites with low-quality content

Penguin

Launch Date: April 24, 2012
Rollouts: May 25, 2012; Oct 5, 2012; May 22, 2013; Oct 4, 2013; Oct 17, 2014
Update Type: Penalty
Objective: De-rank sites with spammy, manipulative link profiles

Hummingbird

Launch Date: August 22, 2013
Rollouts: —
Update Type: Ranking algorithm change
Objective: Produce more relevant search results by better understanding the meaning behind queries

Pigeon

Launch Date: July 24, 2014 (US)
Rollouts: December 22, 2014 (UK, Canada, Australia)
Update Type: Ranking algorithm change for local search
Objective: Provide high quality, relevant local search results at the top of SERPs

Mobilegeddon (not an official Google name)

Launch Date: April 21, 2015
Rollouts: —
Update Type: Ranking algorithm change for mobile search
Objective: Display mobile-friendly pages at the top of mobile SERPs

RankBrain

Launch Date: October 26, 2015 (possibly earlier)
Rollouts: —
Update Type: Ranking algorithm change
Objective: Deliver better search results based on relevance & machine learning