How the “big 5” Google algorithm updates reward quality content

July 05, 2017


by Chelsea Robson

Panda and penguin representing core Google algorithm updates

Search engine optimization (SEO) is constantly changing. Google updates its core search algorithm 500-600 times each year, and sometimes up to three times per day (Moz). Most of these changes are minor, but the major shifts – like Google Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, RankBrain and now Fred – have a significant impact on search results. These “big 5” updates have one key thing in common: they reward high quality content in some way.

To make sure your content hits the mark, it helps to know what they do:

1. Google Panda

Panda is the search engine’s main content quality filter. It rewards high quality content (i.e. content that is valuable to users) by demoting poor quality, thin, or spammy content.

Panda also considers how well your content satisfies searcher expectations. Even if your content is excellent, if it’s ranking for queries that don’t give users what they’re searching for, Panda could perceive it as low quality due to bounce rates (The SEM Post). Ensuring your content matches the query is one of the easiest ways you can improve quality.

Pro tip: If you think the quality of a piece of content could be better, fix it, don’t remove it. Thicken up thin content by adding an extra paragraph or two focused on helping the user, and make sure the piece is well-written and carefully thought out. If your content has any search traffic at all, removing it is a bad idea. Google says it has seen too many people cut good content away while trying to appeal to Panda.

2. Google Penguin

Penguin focuses on the quality of your content’s incoming links (aka backlinks). It’s designed to catch sites that buy links, use link networks, or have done any kind of sketchy link building in an effort to boost Google rankings. It used to be “the more links the better,” but Penguin is looking for quality over quantity. In theory, if your content is high quality, it should attract high quality links.

Google Penguin can analyze your content’s backlinks in a very sophisticated way – taking metrics like trust, authority and spam into account. As a general rule, trustworthy and authoritative sites pass on their credibility, and spammy sites pass on their spamminess. It’s better to have fewer links that are all high quality than a ton of links from questionable sources.

If you think you may have been slapped by Penguin, you can use Google Search Console to do a link audit and remove or disavow any spammy links. It’s important to assess each link individually – links you assume are high quality might be low, and vice versa. As advertorial content increases, even websites like the BBC might be flagged as low quality, so do your investigations carefully (Search Engine Journal).

How long does it take to get back on Penguin’s good side? Until last year, Penguin would only run periodically, so if your links were found to be spammy, your site would remain penalized until Penguin ran again – which could take months to years. But now Penguin runs in real time as part of Google’s core search algorithm, so pages will be caught and/or freed by Penguin on the regular (Search Engine Land).

3. Google Hummingbird

Hummingbird helps Google serve up the best possible results for a query. Many queries today are conversational and therefore longer-tail – think of voice searches, for example. Hummingbird pays attention to each word in the query, and takes the whole phrase into account, rather than just particular words.

If you search for “where’s the closest place to buy an iPad?”, a traditional search engine might pick out “buy” and “iPad” and find pages that use those two words, including results on pricing, reasons to buy an iPad and other topics that may or may not be helpful. Hummingbird will understand more of the meaning behind your search (including that by “place” you mean “store”) – and it will match your current location to the nearest store that sells iPads (Search Engine Land).

To optimize your content for Hummingbird, it needs to be optimized for conversational search. Make sure it is highly readable (imagine Siri or Google Home reading it out loud), and make sure it can answer both long and short-tail queries. Both of these characteristics speak to quality.

4. Google RankBrain

RankBrain is Google’s machine learning system. It helps the search engine understand queries it’s never seen before, and, similar to Hummingbird, it helps improve search results.

RankBrain identifies patterns behind different search queries, even if they seem unrelated. This allows it to connect new or ambiguous queries with queries it has seen in the past, and serve up relevant results. The system is also continuously teaching itself by paying attention to bounce rates and time spent on pages, and refining results accordingly (NikSto).

What does this mean for your content? RankBrain favors meaty, high quality content that uses natural language – so always write for humans first, and search engines second. Avoid repeating or excessively using keywords, cover all aspects of a topic, and answer as many questions as possible. RankBrain’s goal is to provide users with the most useful and relevant results, so create your content with the same goal in mind.

5. Google Fred

Google’s Fred algorithm update was just confirmed in March 2017. We don’t know a lot about it quite yet, but SEO experts think Fred targets ad-heavy sites that focus more on revenue generation than users.

Search Engine Land did its own analysis and found that many of the sites hit hardest by Fred are low quality content sites – often in blog format – with ads or affiliate links sprinkled throughout. They tend to have thin content on a variety of topics, and don’t offer much value above what’s already out there (Search Engine Land). So if your content helps users by addressing a topic in depth, and isn’t overrun with ads, you should easily be able to avoid the wrath of Fred.

Key Takeaways

No one outside of Google knows everything about Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, RankBrain and Fred, but we know enough to say it’s all about the user. To appeal to users (and by proxy, search engines):

  • Create high quality content that offers value and answers user queries
  • Earn high quality backlinks, and remove or disavow any spammy links
  • Optimize for conversational search and longtail queries
  • Develop meaty, comprehensive content that uses natural language
  • Keep your focus on the user, not on ads or revenue generation

There is an ocean of content out there, and although quality is key, it’s not enough on its own. Learn how to create high quality content that cuts through the clutter with our free e-book.

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