Each year Google updates its search algorithm hundreds of times. Most of these updates are minor but every few months, boom! – the search engine giant rolls out a major update that affects search results in a significant way.
While analysing and worrying about Google algorithm changes may make sense for search engine optimisation (SEO) experts and webmasters, small business owners don’t have the time to keep up with every update.
However, understanding Google’s algorithm updates and when they rolled out can help explain certain fluctuations in organic website traffic and rankings.
So, today take five minutes to read this post and find out what were the major changes that Google has made this year that had the biggest impact on search results.
Here’s what we’ll talk about:
- Panda 4.0 and the updated Google Quality Rating Guidelines
- Google’s abandonment of authorship markup
- An adjustment to the local ranking algorithm (the Pigeon update)
- A new ranking signal in HTTPS (secure encryption)
- Penguin 3.0
Let’s get started.
1. Panda 4.0 and the updated Google Quality Rating Guidelines
On 21 May, Google’s Matt Cutts announced Panda 4.0 on Twitter. About 7.5% of English-language queries were affected.
Since it first rolled out on February 24, 2011, the goal of Panda has been to penalise sites with poor quality content while boosting sites with high-quality content in the SERPs. So with this update Google wanted to ensure that users would always get the highest quality results first.
If you want to find out more about Google’s Panda 4.0 update, this post explains everything you need to know: what it is and what small businesses should focus on to ensure their site never gets hit by a future Panda update.
Ultimately, the key to this algorithm change (and many other) lies in Google’s guidelines for content creation. Basically, if you create quality content, you’ll never have to worry about riding the Google update rollercoaster.
In July, not long after Panda 4.0 rolled out, the latest version of Google’s search quality evaluation guide was leaked, giving users more clues into how the search engine giant determines quality.
The Quality Rating Guidelines is a 160-page guide that includes Google’s instructions to human quality raters for when they review search results. This new version includes some new terms and concepts, such as:
- “E-A-T” which stands for Expertise, Authority and Trust, the elements that Google values most in a website.
- Website maintenance which refers to keeping pages updated to show that someone cares for and maintains the site.
- YMYL (“Your Money or Your Life”) where Google sets a higher standard of excellence for sites with content related to a person’s health, finance and wellbeing.
If you want to dig deeper and learn more about the latest version of Google’s search quality evaluation guide, I recommend reading this post from Search Engine Watch.
2. Google drops authorship markup
Author photos and bylines next to search results are gone. So is the 35% click-through rate increase that those photos seemed to generate.
Removing authorship markup data was one of Google’s major (and surprising) updates. To summarise, this markup was signaling to Google the Google+ profile associated with an article’s author. So when you would search for an author name on Google, the search engine results page (SERP) would also show the author’s photo and byline next to the title and summary of the article.
Here’s how it used to look:
On 25 June, Google Webmaster Trends analyst John Mueller, announced that Google would be dropping all authorship photos from SERPs. The drop was complete on 28 June, at which point the author byline and other stats, like the number of G+ circles, were still showing in SERPs.
Then on 28 August, Google announced that they would be completely removing authorship markup. A day later and all authorship bylines had disappeared from all SERPs:
No photo, no byline, just a simple result.
So, why did Google decide to remove authorship markup data?
The official statement was that Google is striving to create a cleaner, universal look across different devices. However, many SEOs believe that profile images made the natural listings more noticeable than paid results, which was decreasing Google’s ad revenues.
IMO, most compelling explanation for Google removing profile pics from search is that it distracted from ads, and cost advertisers clicks
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) June 25, 2014
A month later, in September, Google’s John Mueller advised webmasters not to bother removing existing authorship markup as the data will be ignored anyway. Who knows what Google has in store so you better not remove your authorship markup, if you already have it in place.
3. Updated local ranking algorithm
On 24 July, Google launched an update to their local search algorithm to help them provide more accurate and relevant local search results.
While Google didn’t announce it officially, they did confirm the update with Search Engine Land (SEL) which decided to codename it Pigeon “because this is a local search update and pigeons tend to fly back home.”
So, this update aimed to provide a more useful, relevant and accurate experience to users seeking local results. We’ve also written a post on the Pigeon update, what’s it about and how it affected local businesses so make sure you read it.
4. HTTPS becomes a ranking signal
At the beginning of August (and after months of speculation), Google finally announced that they would be giving preference to secure sites and that HTTPS (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure) is officially a new ranking signal.
This means that sites going HTTPS by adding a SSL certificate to their sites will be given a minor ranking boost.
Google mentioned that this carries “less weight than other signals such as high-quality content”. However, they may decide to strengthen the signal because they want to “encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.” So, make sure you add some extra security to your site.
Google starts giving a ranking boost to secure HTTPS/SSL sites
Google Webmaster Central official announcement
Google’s Support documentation on securing your site with HTTPS
5. Penguin 3.0
At the beginning of October there was a lot of buzz on a potential Penguin refresh. And, as everyone predicted, Google Penguin 3.0 was indeed launched later that month, on October 17th. This refresh was “a large rewrite of the algorithm” and was meant to help those sites that have been hit by a previous update but have in the meantime cleaned up their bad link profiles.
Google launched the Penguin update in April 2012 with the purpose of uncovering spammy backlink profiles and punishing sites that are violating Google’s quality guidelines by lowering their rankings in its search engine results.
Penguin 3.0 would be the sixth refresh and Google confirmed that it’s still rolling out so it’s definitely a big one!
Read our post on Google’s Penguin 3.0 update to learn more about it, its impact on websites and rankings and what you can do to clean up your link profiles for future updates.
So, there you go! These are the most important Google algorithm changes from 2014. Hopefully you got a better understanding of these updates so you can make changes to your site, if necessary, and also to anticipate the future changes coming from Google, which we’ll discuss in detail in an upcoming blog post.