SEO is such an unpredictable domain, constantly changing and putting the website owners’ patience to the test. The optimisation techniques that worked perfectly until yesterday can be considered history today after yet another algorithm update from Google. Even obscure codes like 7NVUUV33MHET come to have relevance and meaning in what we do.

This year, the Google Zoo has grown after the endless series of 2012 Google Panda updates and the algorithm change called Penguin. With so many changes, one question remains unanswered: white hat, black hat… or zebra hat link building?

To help answer this question, we’re going to go through all the major 2012 Google updates. This 2012 SEO overview will hopefully bring some light into what has changed in the way that Google evaluates a website for ranking.

We will also describe all the important 2012 Google updates, from the Panda updates bundle that were rolled out this year to the Penguin updates that were created to stop spam on the Internet and many others.

Google's train of animals changed SEO in 2012

Image courtesy of Thanamat – www.freedigitalphotos.net

 

Ready? Let’s begin…

Panda updates bundle

Google rolled out several Panda updates in March and April but most of them were fairly routine updates with minimum impact. However, the Panda 3.4 update that was rolled out at the end of March 2012 coincided with a number of notifications sent to webmasters worldwide warning them about unnatural linking to their sites.

So, even though some site owners might have thought that they had the best kind of links, one of the Google Panda updates had a surprise in store for them. They received an important notice informing them that Google Webmaster Tools detected unnatural links to their site. Obviously, most site owners panicked until Google’s Matt Cutts explained they had nothing to worry about:

“If you received a message yesterday about unnatural links to your site, don’t panic. […] While it’s possible for this to indicate potential spammy activity by the site, it can also have innocent reasons. For example, we may take this kind of targeted action to distrust hacked links pointing to an innocent site. The innocent site will get the message as we move towards more transparency, but it’s not necessarily something that you automatically need to worry about.”

Parked domain bug

Another one of the 2012 Google updates focused on classifying the sites that were actually parked domains, meaning domains that had only ads and no other content. The purpose was to target parked domains or ‘placeholder’ sites so these wouldn’t rank on Google. However, Google mistakenly classified some sites as being parked domains even though they weren’t. As a result, some sites no longer ranked in Google. The issue was later solved as it wasn’t an intentional algorithm change but rather a data error.

Penguin updates

The Penguin updates are a group of the 2012 Google updates whose purpose is to stop webspam. Here is Google’s official explanation of Penguin: a decrease in rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google existing quality guidelines”.

This year’s Penguin updates focused on site owners who abused Google’s quality guidelines by either stuffing their content with keywords or exchanging too many links. In other words, the Penguin updates penalised people who went beyond what is natural, such as:

  • Hiding text

Using white text on white background or hiding text behind an image with the sole purpose of getting a few more keywords in are violations of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Penguin has improved its detection of content for search engine optimisation that has been hidden using CSS.

  • Keyword stuffing

This is probably one of the most significant changes that has come with the Penguin update. Google has improved its algorithm for detecting websites that are stuffing their content with keywords in order to rank higher.

  • Unnatural external links

One of the major Penguin updates focused on penalising websites with unnatural external links as a result of excessive link building. Another important Penguin update was over-optimisation. This refers to having too many sitewide links from other sites, which could indicate a much too aggressive link building that includes but is not limited to excessive link acquisition, links exchange or over-optimised anchor texts.

As a result of these Penguin updates, in July 2012, many webmasters have received notifications from Google through Google’s Webmaster Tool warning them about having unnatural links linking to their websites.

The Pirate update

Not long after the Penguin updates, Google hit with yet another update. The ‘Pirate update’ was rolled out back in August with the purpose of penalising sites that have been repeatedly accused of copyright infringement. So, if Google receives a large number of ‘takedown’ requests against your site and after analysing it comes to the conclusion that your site violates copyright, then your site gets penalised. How? Google will cause your site to rank lower in search results.

Domain diversity update

A few months later, in September, Google rolled out yet another update, this time to improve domain diversity. The purpose of this update was to show search results from different domains and not just from one or two. This way, users can get a more diverse set of results.

Exact match domain crackdown

Domain names with exact keywords have been a commodity since the internet became a commercial marketplace. However, many have argued that Google gives too much weight to keywords included domain names. You have probably seen plenty of three, four or five keywords included in a single domain name and these are clear cases of abuse of keywords. So, at the end of September, Google rolled out another update disputing the relevance of certain EMDs.

So, which are the EMD most likely to be considered spam? The most important ones are multiple dash domains and domains with too many words.

Link Disavow tool

In October 2012, Google announced a new tool to disavow links. This can be useful if you’ve been notified by Google about having too many spammy, unnatural or low-quality links pointing to your site and if you believe that these may cause issues for your site. Find out more about this tool and how to use it for your site.

Too many ads above the fold

Also in October, Google released a new Page Layout Algorithm also known as the ‘above the fold’ update. This was designed to target pages with ads above the fold instead of content.

Here’s how Google’s Matt Cutts explains the update: “We’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away. So sites that don’t have much content “above-the-fold” can be affected by this change. If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.”

Changing rel=author tags in the search results

Last month, Google changed the way rel=author tags work in search results. The rel=author tag helps you show a by line and a photo next to your blog listings in the SERPs. The latest update refers to what happens when one clicks on the author name or by line. In the past, this would have taken you to the author’s Google+ profile. Now clicking on the author name or picture runs a new search for that author, displaying the author’s bio and even listings of recent blog post or status updates from the author’s page. If you’d like to find out how to implement rel=”follow”, make sure to read our dedicated post on the subject.

This 2012 SEO overview includes only the most important Google updates that have affected many site owners worldwide. Some have managed to recover while others are still trying. So, here comes our question for you: have any of the updates presented in this 2012 SEO overview affected your site? And if so, what have you done to recover?

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