Understanding how Google’s algorithms work in SEO

Google Algorithm Updates Explained

Google algorithm updates don’t stop. With each passing year, the search engine launches new updates, reflecting on how sites are ranked in search results (SERPs).

Those who invest in SEO (Search Engine Optimization), need to keep an eye on all changes, to reformulate the contents and tactics to achieve the long-dreamed first position.

In this article, we’ll discuss the top updates to Google’s algorithm and how to optimize your site to improve ranking in SERPs. 

What is an algorithm?

In programming, an algorithm means a logical sequence of certain instructions that need to be followed by the system to perform a task or solve a problem. It is like a tutorial with a step by step on how to do or solve something technical. 

In Google’s algorithms, they also work with a set of formulas and logical operations but to create more assertive search result pages in organic search. And for that, they bring together hundreds of ranking factors to deliver the best possible user experience.

It is worth remembering that the internet is like a giant library and back in the early days of it, search engines were created to quickly find the information that the person searched for.

As the number of pages has grown exponentially over the decades, Google needed to update existing algorithms to continue delivering quality results. For this reason, there are so many updates and even new algorithms.

Google algorithms are formulas responsible for transforming questions into answers for the user in the search engine. They are constantly updated to guarantee the quality of results delivery and improve the user experience (UX).

Google Algorithms

google algorithm update cover

Having a website well ranked on Google for your business’s strategic keywords can be the differential in your company’s revenue. But to ensure that your website is well positioned on the first page of the SERP, it is important to know the main ranking factors used by Google’s algorithms.

Algorithms are ‘formulas’ responsible for transforming questions into answers for the user in their searches. Google is permanently working on updates to its algorithm to improve the user experience (UX). Each update is given a different name. Some of them were Pigeon, Penguin, Rankbrain, Hummingbird, Possum, Mobile Friendly and Panda. And more recently, BERT.

Each update focuses on some specific aspect of the search and ranking factors.

How Google’s algorithm works

Google’s algorithm is a sequence of operations responsible for ranking search results pages. To do this, it considers several selection criteria focused on quality (ranking factors) to deliver exactly what people are looking for and offer the best possible user experience. 

But, it was not always like this, in the early days of the internet, the search engine still had technological limitations and therefore allowed artificial content in the first positions. With the improvement of algorithms and updates, the results became much more personalized and assertive over the decades. This allowed Google to improve the user experience considerably by consolidating itself as the most used search engine in the world.   

Ranking Factors

google ranking factors

These are the sets of criteria that Google’s algorithms consider when deciding which pages will occupy the first SERP positions and the zero result. Google and other search engines have highly valued the EAT (Expertise, Authority and Reliability).

It even appears in Google’s quality guidelines as essential points to be analyzed on a page. In practice, it would be, for example, the level of knowledge on the topic of who published the content and the level of reliability and authority of the website, the page and the information itself.   

Remember that there are more than 200 ranking factors of Google that are kept secret by the brand. However, it is possible to have an idea of ​​the main ones: Content, backlinks and user experience (in May 2021, core web metrics also became important ranking factors). 

Content

Admittedly, content is one of the most important factors for Google’s ranking.

The Google crawler is interested in the user having the best user experience (UX).

Providing quality content is a major step in this direction. For the Google robot to understand that your site is relevant to the user the content of your site must have some characteristics, such as:

Size

  • Content production needs to be done with a focus on the user’s search intent. So the important thing is that the text is of quality and responds to the doubts of your personas in a consistent and optimized way. In doing so, you don’t have to worry about whether the content is 2000 words or just 500 words.

Density

  • Excessive repetition of the exact keyword in the content is no longer a positive thing for SEO, becoming a blackhat. Therefore, the recommendation is to use synonyms, long tails and related terms naturally in the text. Especially because nowadays Google understands due to the evolution of algorithms.
    Like, for example, BERT makes semantic interpretation very similar to that of human beings. Therefore, this update allowed the searcher to understand figurative meaning, slang, regionalisms, etc. So if the texts are written in a natural way, produced for people, they also end up helping Google’s robots to understand what the content is about.

Keywords

  • Keyword research is still required when producing content optimized for Google. However, to bring better results, it needs to be done focusing on the user’s intention and without excessive repetition. In this way, the text adds to the user experience on the pages. But, it is still worth using keywords and the main keyword in strategic points like URL, anchor text, title, and description. Remember: when in doubt, the tip is this: less is more!

Page Age and Updates

  • The time of existence of a landing page is also a ranking factor. That is, the older your page is, the more likely it is to rank well, as landing pages are gaining authority as time. However, the crawler periodically scans the URLs.
    Therefore, keeping your content up to date is important for the Google robot to interpret that your page remains relevant. But, it is essential to remember that SEO techniques need to follow Google updates not to compromise the positioning of your page.

Backlinks

how backlinks work

Building a network of backlinks (external and internal) is usually considered to be Google’s most important ranking factor. However, there is no point in having a massive amount of poor quality link pointing to your site. 

Backlinks are like votes of confidence. If several relevant domains point to your site, the Google robot will interpret that it is also good. But the reverse is also true. So bad sites linking to your pages are harmful. 

In other words, quantity is not everything. Quality and variety are more important

Key metrics for backlinks:

  • How many domains direct backlinks to your site;
  • The relevance of these domains (domain authority, trust flow and citation flow);
  • The amount of DoFollow links.

User Experience

Offering the best user experience to Internet users who search on Google Search is the focus of the largest search engine in the world. For this reason, periodic updates to Google algorithms occur so that technologically the search engine can always prioritize quality content that generally is:

  • Original
  • Useful
  • Optimized 
  • Naturally written 
  • And that answer people’s doubts.

Therefore, the updates allow the search engine to handle crawling, indexing, and maintain the high-quality standard on the search results page (SERP). 

So to rank well, it is important to do SEO focused on Google users who are part of your business personas. And for that, it is essential to optimize content with a focus on navigation intent (informational, transactional and direct).

Not to mention that it is still necessary to offer a great user experience on your pages, including the versions for mobile devices. 

Understanding Google’s algorithms updates is one of the challenges of SEO since it requires improvements and adaptations on your website. It is very common for a website to lose organic access right after an algorithm update. It is a warning sign that the site needs to improve.


Google Algorithms and Updates

google agorithm timeline

Florida

Google Florida Update
Google Florida Update

Googles Florida update came in 2003 and left a significant impact on the future of SEO and the modern process of executing SEO tactics. Florida was a means by which to completely revolutionise the ranking positions of websites via filters on keywords.

For starters, the Florida algorithm update took into account how a list of searched terms would be activated via the ranking they gained from implementation on the site and the SEO tactics on the page, such as title tags and meta descriptions. While keywords are important, so are root words. A part of Google’s Indexing process includes evaluating root words and associating them with similar phrases (such as digital-marketing or digital marketing).

Finally, the Florida update considered external linking, internal linking, and backlinking opportunities which would rank your site higher according to those sites linking to you or linked from your site. Google ranks sites based on those linked to them via their indexing process.


Pigeon

Google Pigeon Update
Google Pigeon Update

Pigeon is an update of Google’s algorithm launched in 2014 that started to benefit mainly small and medium-sized companies. The Pigeon was responsible for giving greater relevance to local searches; thus, the work focused on SEO for local searches became even more critical.

From Pigeon, when a search is made on Google, SERP displays results of companies according to the user’s location, showing comments from other users, distance, price, address, contacts, among other information.

The Pigeon update is also directly related to the greater relevance for long-tail keywords, this is because users are increasingly searching by voice. For example, if a user is looking for a “beauty salon in my neighborhood,” Google will show results from salons near the user’s location.

The new algorithm emerged as a response from Google to the massive increase in searches made from smartphones in recent years by users looking for a service or company near their location. The name Pigeon is a reference to the Pigeon bird that can identify its destination accurately.

The pigeon came to be an ally for small and local companies. Therefore, local companies must prepare themselves to take advantage of local searches. For companies that have a restaurant, beauty salons or pet shop, for example, they should pay attention to optimization.

  • Register your Google My Business
  • Create a page and interact with consumers on Google, encouraging them to comment positively on your business.
  • Mark your address
  • Register a landline in your profile, this will facilitate the identification of the location of your business through the prefix.
  • Sign up to trusted sites and directories that show companies and services in your area

Panda

Google Panda Algorithm

Panda is an update of Google’s algorithm and started to rank websites according to the content presented to the user. The aim was to punish sites that showed low-quality content and copied from other sites. It was common for sites with little content and low quality to rank very well on SERP until that moment.

The use of content farm strategies was also widespread. Therefore, producing relevant and original content has become a significant task in the SEO strategy. Panda has been constantly updated since 2011.

When version 1.0 of Panda was launched, it revolutionised SEO, as it was necessary to change content strategies, keyword research and even link building. 

As of Panda 4.0, a consensus was reached regarding some factors that may lead to a penalty. Some of them are:

  • Duplicate content
  • Low-quality backlinks pointing to your website
  • High bounce rate
  • Low rate of recurring visitors
  • Reuse of content within site (paragraphs or standard texts on several landing pages)
  • Too many keywords on landing pages

Panda 1.0

Mainly focused on punishing sites that used to make content farms, that is, they hired editors to write low-quality content, but focused on keywords to rank well on SERP. Having copywriters to produce content is important, as long as the content has quality.

Panda 2.0

The update focused on international searches that affected results from google.co.uk, google.com.au, and searches in English in other countries like India, Brazil and France.

Panda 2.1 to 2.4

Updates more focused on penalizing sites with weak content and benefiting sites with relevant content. Especially sites that managed to engage users and that were concerned with navigability had positive gains in SERPs.

Panda 3.0

Specific pages were hinted not to be penalized, such as updating and improving old content, creating new and original articles, using only information with good reference and writing content with good content quality.

Panda 4.0

Jumping to 2015, this Google algorithm update directly impacted large sites that dominated the SERP. The main sectors affected were real estate, technology, fashion, travel and insurance.


Rankbrain

Google Rankbrain algorithm update

In October 2015, Google released a new update to its algorithm. Rankbrain brought artificial intelligence and machine learning to the results shown at SERP. Only 15% of daily searches on Google are new. The other 85% of searches are recurrent. From this information, Google developed Rankbrain, which learns from the searches made by the user and, thus, presents better results.

Machine learning works to learn on its own by making its connections based on searches made by users. Rankbrain is most useful for searches that use longer terms, the so-called “long tail”. Since these are searches with very specific keywords, Google has fewer results.

With Rankbrain, the algorithm can show results that are not directly related to the search but related and help the user find the desired information. The algorithm allows Google to make connections between searches that have no connection to each other. Another application of Rankbrain is when users search using colloquial terms or terms with an ambiguous meaning.

Rankbrain and SEO

Rankbrain was not an update that generated major changes in search results, nor did it change Google’s crawling or affect the search engine indexes pages.

However, it is possible to infer some conclusions about how they can improve the optimization of a website using Rankbrain.

  • Increase the number of keywords in your content
  • Also, include synonyms and terms related to these keywords
  • Update, improve and expand your content, including new information that completes the text
  • Pay even more attention to the user experience since Rankbrain tends to look more and more like a human being.

Penguin

Google Penguin Update

Google launched in 2012 (and later versions in the following years) an update to its algorithm focused on improving search results. While Panda punishes sites with low-quality content, Penguin aims to identify link building strategies considered non-legitimate, aiming to manipulate SERP results.

With Penguin, Google’s algorithm can read the profile of backlinks that point to your site, punishing if it interprets that spam or black hat tactics were used.

Since the release of Penguin, most link building strategies have ceased to have effect, and many sites have been punished, losing ranking due to the building of unnatural backlinks. 

Link building strategies

After the Penguin update, the link building strategies had to be completely remodelled and became one of the most complex jobs in SEO. Google has come to value even more organic and quality backlinks.

The relationship between Panda and Penguin becomes clearer if we think that a very good and complete content will serve as a reference for other sites that, of course, will link to your article, generating organic backlinks. This is Google’s goal with Panda and Penguin.

However, gaining external links is a task that requires many hours of work, the cost of tools and a qualified team. In addition to all this, the link building strategy is the most susceptible to penalty. Therefore, it is necessary to be highly aware of the factors that can lead to penalties.

Check out some factors that can lead to punishment by Penguin.

  • Buying backlinks
  • Exchange of backlinks
  • Avoid gaining too many backlinks in a short time
  • Excess keyword within the text
  • Too many links in the exact anchor text
  • Avoid earning links on article directory sites
  • Do not create PBNs (your blog network linking to your website)

Mobile Friendly (Mobilegeddon)

Google Mobile Friendly update mobilegeddon

Most of the world population accesses the internet through mobile devices (smartphones and tablets). The Mobile Friendly update was launched to better rank sites having versions optimized for mobile devices, improving the user experience (UX). At the time of launch, in 2015, it was estimated that more than 60% of searches on Google were done through mobile devices.

The Mobile Friendly update came precisely to adapt Google to the new trend of user search behaviour and turning mobile-friendly sites into an important ranking factor. The interesting thing is that the change not only affected searches made via mobile devices, it also influenced the results of searches made on desktops.

From this new update of the Google algorithm, pages that are mobile friendly will receive a boost from Google in the SERP results. With that, Google only displays mobile friendly pages, making life easier for users. That is, if your website is not mobile friendly, it will lose positioning and traffic.

So, since the Mobile Friendly update, having a website with responsive design has become a must, more than an option. Having a mobile friendly website shouldn’t be a task just by Google’s requirement, after all, the trend is that the accesses made through mobile phones and tablets continue to increase and having a responsive website will improve your user’s experience.

Regardless of whether Google ranks friendly sites better, having a site that is well viewed on mobile phones and tablets is important to the success of your site.

How to Optimize Your Website for Mobile Friendly

With the launch of the update of the algorithm for mobile searches, Google also made available tools so that the websites could adapt to this new reality. To check if your site is compatible with mobile devices, use these tools:

https://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly

Google also created a document to help those who still need to adjust their site to become mobile friendly:

https://developers.google.com/webmasters/mobile-sites/

An important point to note that for your site to be considered mobile friendly, it is not enough just the layout to appear beautiful for the user on the cell phone, the Google crawler does not see the same thing that users and adjustments in robots.txt may be necessary.


Possum

Google Possum update

Possum is a September 2016 update of Google’s algorithm that directly impacts local searches and is directly related to Google Maps. The purpose of the update is to offer the user even more geographic accuracy in the search results.

Generally, when the user searches for a service, such as a restaurant, Google will present a location map and below a list of the three closest restaurants.

Google has identified in recent years an increase in searches for keywords followed by the term “near me”. Possum came to improve this user’s experience, showing more regional results according to the IP of the person’s machine, tablet or smartphone.

The update should make techniques for optimization of titles by the name of places and regions obsolete. Another conclusion that can be reached is that Google only considers the company’s address and phone number for search results purposes.

Some points that need to be considered from the Possum update are the following:

  • The user’s exact location is much more important. If you do a local search for a beauty clinic, SERP will show you specific nearby clinics. However, if you walk another 500 meters, possibly the result of the same search will show different clinics due to the location
  • Business outside the city limits has had an improved ranking. Google no longer considers only the geographic boundaries of the city but the positioning of the user. That is, if the nearest service is in another city, Google will display this result even if you are in another city.
  • There is a more significant variation in the search result depending on the specific term the user searches for. For example, when you search for “dermatologist Delhi“, Google will present very different results in relation to the search for “dermatologist NCR

Hummingbird

Google Hummingbird Update

Providing the user with more agile and accurate results was the goal of the Hummingbird algorithm, launched in 2013. Content has become Google’s most important ranking factor in recent years with algorithm updates like Penguin and Panda. Hummingbird came to complement this trend.

The Hummingbird update has the function of showing results that go beyond the keyword searched by the user. Google passes on and considers the semantic field of the searched term, as well as the context in which the term is inserted, in addition to considering the relationship of this specific search with the past searches made by the user. For example, when you search for “buy a car” it is very likely that the result of this search already includes terms such as “car”, “vehicle”, “dealerships”, “tips for buying a car”.

With updates to Google’s algorithm, SEO work has changed in recent years and has become increasingly complex. More straightforward strategies that generate results in terms of ranking have become obsolete, for example, creating a website with the specific URL of the keyword you want to work on. This was a common practice, and it paid off. However, currently, you can create this site, but just the URL will not make your site rank well if there is no excellent content for the user.

Another common practice that has become obsolete is called keyword stuffing. That is, forcefully spreading the keyword several times in the content. As Google now works with the semantic field, making the text more organic and fluid is the best strategy. Ideally, keywords and related terms should be working throughout the text and in the headings tags (H1, H2, H3, H4, etc.).

Some valid tips to ensure a good optimization to generate effective results in terms of ranking and avoid Google penalties:

  • Use keywords correctly on your landing pages.
  • Create more relevant and complete content seeking to delve deeper into the topic, using in addition to the exact keyword, synonyms and related terms
  • Avoid excessive keywords within the content.
  • When doing link building, always avoid using the exact anchor text.
  • Work well with the ALT attribute in the images, they can bring important traffic to your site.

Fred

Google Fred Update

Fred is an update from Google that works on content analysis. This update follows Google’s best-known guideline, generating good navigation for users with relevant and genuine content.

The highlights for Fred are:

  • Well-written and genuine content is critical to determining the relevance of a page.
  • A page with well-structured content, providing the user with a good read is essential.

Mobile First Index

google mobile first indexing

The Mobile First Index is an update to Google’s algorithm released on March 26, 2018, that started to prioritize the mobile version on the websites at the time of ranking.

The update caused changes even in the search results made on desktops; this is because those who maintain both versions, but with the mobile with much lower quality (which impairs the user experience on the smartphone and tablet), now has the version for mobile devices prioritized in indexing. Which caused a drop in ranking even in SERP in searches for computers.

Those who offer a better user experience for both Internet users who browse via desktop and mobile will now benefit from positioning in both mobile and desktop searches.

Regarding those who have a mobile version, the desktop version continues to be indexed and used in the ranking without jeopardizing the positions in the Google ranking.

Therefore, the Mobile First update was launched to better rank sites concerned with having optimized versions for mobile devices by transforming the mobile-friendly item into a vital ranking factor.

Remember that Google continues to update the algorithm for Mobile First Index. In August 2019, the company that owns the world’s most famous search engine confirmed a new rollout.

The mobile version became the first to be indexed by Google. Here’s how to optimize for Mobile First Index:

  • Make sure your site is mobile friendly on Google Search Console.
  • Offer better user experience on the mobile version as it is offered on the desktop.
  • Follow Google’s mobile-friendly tips for webmasters to make mobile-friendly sites.
  • Have a responsive layout, but don’t just think about the aesthetic (the Google crawler doesn’t see the same thing as users).
  • Adjust robots.txt when necessary (for the crawler to read your site better and faster).

Google Speed ​​Update (Mobile Speed)

google pagespeed insights speed update

The Google Speed ​​Update is an update to Google’s algorithm released on July 9, 2018 that now benefits sites that offer a better user experience on mobile devices.

They have relevant quality content coupled with high loading speed in searches via cell phones and tablets.

With this update, Google’s goal is to encourage sites to be concerned with the best user experience on the desktop version of the pages and the desktop version of the pages and the mobile version.

On the other hand, sites that maintain a mobile version with much lower quality than the desktop version start to lose ranking positions with Speed ​​Update.

That’s because slow sites and content without optimization for people who search by smartphone and tablets hamper their browsing.

So, like the Mobile First Index, Mobile Speed ​​is here to ensure a better user experience for Internet users who search on Google via mobile devices, what is now the majority worldwide.

Check here how to optimize for Mobile Speed:

  • Offer a better user experience also on the mobile version of the website.
  • Produce optimized content focused on the user’s search intent.
  • Increase the loading speed of your website’s mobile pages.

Medic

Google Medic Update

Medic is a major update to the main Google core algorithm released in August 2018 that mainly impacted healthcare websites (hence known as the Medic Core Update). But, it also penalized YMYL monetized pages (Your Money Your Life websites) and a plethora of other niches, including e-commerce sites. 

With this change, Google aimed to offer more security to its users since many of these sites provided content on essential topics in people’s lives, but without the expertise to do so.

Therefore, the idea is to prevent dubious information such as, for example, a post about “miracle formula to lose fat in 24 hours” or “become a millionaire in 1 month” from occupying the top positions of Google.
This is because the information contained in them could have consequences for users’ personal or professional lives.

How to optimize for Medic Update

  • Use EAT (Expertise, Authority and Trust) to your advantage.
  • Blogs with posts signed by experts on the topic (expert-authors).
  • Share all the expertise of your business on your website (at Home, on the Who We Are/About Us page, etc.).
  • Get testimonials from clients or your patients as social proof that you are an expert on the subject.

BERT

Google BERT Algorithm Update

Launched in October 2019, Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) is Google’s algorithm that has improved natural language processing (NLP) like never before in the history of the internet. 

Through Deep Learning and Neural Matching, Google BERT can interpret each query almost like a human brain would. What is not yet perfect, but so far, has come as close as possible to the interpretation of a human being.

Initially, the technological innovation of the largest search engine on the planet was restricted only to US SERPs. But, in December 2019, the BERT algorithm had an update that expanded the natural language processing to more than 70 languages. 

That is, it is possible to produce optimized content with a more natural language because Google BERT update allows the searcher to interpret the sentences from left to right and from right to left, including relating a keyword to the rest of the period components. Which results in a better understanding of the meaning (figurative or literal), context and even regionalisms. 

Google BERT and SEO

With Google’s natural language processing algorithm, the search engine started to interpret the phrases, not only focusing on keywords, but mainly taking into account the entire context that they present themselves. 

For this reason, it is no longer necessary to keep repeating exact keywords throughout the text for the search engine to understand that you are talking, for example, about the algorithmic Panda and not about the animal Panda.

This is because BERT is able to carry out a more in-depth analysis. Which allows the interpretation of: 

  • Figurative meaning
  • Regionalisms
  • Synonym
  • Gender
  • Longtails
  • Related terms

So the ideal is to write in a simple, direct way and – within the tone of your brand – to communicate as close as possible to a conversation with the internet user.

BERT and optimized content production

The Google update reinforced what has been a trend for years: the naturalness of optimized content. So if your company is already doing this, BERT will not demand new text optimizations to be well-positioned in SERP.

In addition, the new algorithm also emphasized the need for optimized content planning with a focus on navigation intent. That is, do user-centred SEO.  

For this, it also facilitates optimizing thinking about the relationships between entities (which are well-defined, unique and distinguishable concepts such as brands, places, ideas, people, positions, etc.) to add to the Google Knowledge Graph since it serves to answer the main doubts of the people in the search engine.

There is no way to optimize your site for BERT. Optimize the site for the user

  • The best way to think about BERT is to produce genuine quality content in natural language.
  • Instead of focusing your SEO strategies for content on keywords, the tip is to start answering people’s doubts taking into account the search intent.

While we have covered quite a lot of algorithm updates, there are still numerous Google Algorithm updates that weren’t covered yet, and obviously numerous such updates are in pipeline by both – Google and us 🤭

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