The Big Google Update: What We Know So Far

Google Updates

We all knew something was coming and of course the SEO community has been abuzz with speculation for a while. Will January bring a big Penguin update, many questioned, and this was by far the most popular theory. This was especially the case as the search giants dismissed the idea that a big Penguin update was likely to happen before the holidays and as such, was more likely to be the ‘big one’ that was expected in the new year.

But it seems not, whilst a Penguin update remains certainly a very real possibility, it seems likely that there may be a bit more to it than that. In fact, we’ve had confirmation from the horse’s mouth that in fact, the mystery update (which is likely to be still rolling out although it did take place a weekend ago) is in fact a core update. Google even went as far as to confirm it, not a common occurrence for the company – further to this, it even mentioned that Panda is now a part of the core algorithm.

Time for a quick history lesson.

What is Penguin?

Before Penguin (and Panda) came along, articles with bad links had their SEO value significantly reduced. If you wanted to recover your pages’ search ranking then you needed to replace (or ideally do away) with them quickly.

However, once Penguin dropped, bad links were considered to be highly toxic and would require a much more in-depth link audit in order to remove or disavow them. In other words, including spammy links in/to your website (amongst many other bad practices) was no longer being tolerated by Google.

Some of the factors that affect site rankings under the new algorithms include:

  • Content: Google can tell if the content within a site is badly written (in terms of spelling and grammar), whether it has an excessive number of advertisements and the quality of the links contained within. This allows Google to filter out pages that use article syndicates and content mills to produce low quality content and shuffle them down the rankings.
  • Freshness: Google now places more emphasis on how regularly sites are producing content. It achieves this by analysing whether or not the content is topical to current or trending events as well as the dates on which it is uploaded. This isn’t particularly new, a site that has fresh content added regularly will be crawled more regularly and as such, enjoy better rankings.
  • Uniqueness: Duplicate content is bad – we know this and so do search bots. Link relevance will carry more weight as Google looks to check whether links appear contextually and organically within the content.
  • Social Management: There’s long been speculation that the big G has correlated social signals with ranking but despite studies, this hasn’t really been confirmed as such. G+ appeared to rank content with +1s higher but we’ve known this for a couple of years now. Social is more than just a vanity metric now though and it’s likely that Google will look for – and penalise – those that use bots and other spammy tactics. There’s little evidence to say that anything has changed with this particular update though, but it’s worth keeping a beady SEO eye on.
  • Technologically Sound: If your website is built from templates or Flash then it may be time to look at getting a professionally crafted update. Google now places greater importance on websites that are built on sound architecture and contains valid CSS tags and meta data. And of course last year’s ‘Mobigeddon’ means that you really should have a mobile-friendly site if you want to stay ahead.

Penguin refreshes often take a little time to impact a site positively if you’ve been hit by a drop in the SERPs. This is due to the amount of time that it can take in between refreshes. Frustrating? Yes, but there’s little to be done but work on making your site as good as it can be.

Early Signs of Trouble for Publishers?

As for this update, according to early Searchmetrics data, this update has been pretty volatile when it comes to what sites have been penalised. In the US in particular it seems that publishers with brand keywords have suffered from “losses in visibility” whilst the winners have been brands themselves. However, this is only as yet noticeable in the US, which presumably means that the rest of us are yet to suffer the effects of the update.

The biggest US loser – the atlantic.com – has apparently lost out due to older URLs which ranked for brand keywords.

google algorithm searchmetrics

However, it seems that publishers that add content which is fresh and relevant are winning. With that in mind, it could be an idea to carry out an audit and remove brand mentions and entities.

It could be that the algorithm update will take this disavowing of bad or spammy links to the next level. It seems very possible that there will be a far bigger emphasis on the relevance of links. In other words whether they are related semantically to where they are linking to, especially in the case of editorial links.

This could see Google’s own artificial intelligence system – RankBrain ‘learning’ how to understand the relationships between links and their origin rather than simply relying on traditional data. This would allow RankBrain to assign positive or negative values to a search result, dependant on the relevance of its links.

So, also a good time to carry out a link audit and remove or disavow those that appear to point to or come in from less desirable sites such as spammy directories and the like.

So, What Has Been Going On?

Well, if you take a look at all of the ‘big boys’ of Google monitoring, then a pattern of activity becomes fairly clear. Mozcast’s unique weather report system shows massive fluctuations in the Google ‘temperature’ over the last week. And whilst AccuRanker’s grumpy tiger is looking chilled today (19th Jan 2016); he was less so just a few days ago. RankRanger and SERPmetrics also back up the opinion that Google is playing around with something.

It almost has the appearance of some gizmo being turned on and off again, as SERP fluctuates up and down over time.

The chatter on WebMaster World and Black Hat World, seem to confirm that something is happening with Penguin as users report significant positive changes to sites that have been hit by Penguin. However, some have suggested that these tests are not only linked to Penguin, but could also involve a refresh of update of Google’s core algorithm.

Bizarrely, when quizzed on the increase in activity on twitter John Mueller tagged in the President of the United States of America. Who knows what this means (assuming that it was intentional), but it certainly does help to fuel the mystery of the situation to no end.

Whilst some of the data out there would certainly fit the pattern of Google Penguin doing what Google Penguin does best, it’s probably a bit early to declare the mystery as being solved just yet. What we have seen so far doesn’t seem to be significant enough to be the result of a fully developed algorithm and Google has a lot of other stuff in the pipeline that this recent activity could be related to.

What Else Does Google Currently Have in the Pipeline?

Whilst Google has confirmed that they are working on a real-time update to Google Penguin, it is most certainly not the only thing that they are presently producing. The following are other systems whose updates that could be potentially responsible for the fluctuations that we’ve seen recently.

Google Alphabet

Alphabet was established in August 2015 and serves as an umbrella conglomerate under which Google and many other companies that it owns now sit.

Google Alphabet was created to not only make Google’s internet services more accountable and streamlined, but to also group companies that operate outside of the internet services arena.

I am unsure how, but the changes could be related to some kind of integration from Google Alphabet. After all, changing the business model of a company as big as Google is bound to involve a little more than simply getting some new stationary and business cards printed.

Google RankBrain

We’ve already discussed what Google RankBrain is and what it does. As the third most important factor that Google uses to rank web pages, it is bound to require some tweaking since its rollout last year.

Google processes around 450 million searches per day that it has never seen before. RankBrain’s job is to process and better interpret these new searches and translate them effectively for the person making the search.

It would not be too much of a leap to imagine that the upheaval Google has experienced recently may be connected to continued testing or updating of RankBrain.

Google Algorithm Updates

There were at least six significant updates to Google last year. Three of these updates were confirmed (Mobile-Friendly Update, Phantom 2 Quality Update and Panda 4.2) and three were not.

Many of these updates are associated with content quality, which leads us to suspect that Google may be taking certain aspects of its systems (such as Panda) and making them a part of its core algorithm. Google has previously expressed an interest in doing this, so it is very possible that the 2015 updates were paving the way for this to occur.

Google Penguin

Or, it could be Penguin.

I jest of course, but it could possibly be. The fact is that I’m afraid that we have been somewhat misleading with the title of this article. The harsh reality is that there isn’t much that we do know and there is an awful lot that we don’t.

You can’t accuse Google of being boring – it likes to keep us poor marketing managers and SEOs guessing what it could possibly get up to next.

Apart from the raw data on offer in regards to the objective activity on Google over the last few weeks, and the tentative early Searchmetrics data, everything else is pure subjective speculation.

Things are changing in Google’s algorithms, of this there is no doubt. However, the exact nature of those changes and what they will mean for business owners, SEO experts and those unscrupulous philanderers who fill your inbox everyday with broken-English filled pleas and promises remains to be seen.

The internet is a constantly shifting beast and Google has to continually adapt and change to keep up with it. Loopholes need to be closed and gaming and fiddling practices need to be stamped out to improve the overall experience for the end user. And that is what it’s all about – the fight against spam, black hat practices, poor quality links and content – it’s all intended to make the internet a more helpful, useful place for us all to gain knowledge.

Google Shot the Sheriff

Google’s algorithms are the law of the wild west that the internet remains and this is why we wait with bated breath whenever a rumour comes about that it just might be planning something big.

Of course, there are other search engines that could become the law – or, so I’ve heard. Perhaps more of a deputy …

If nothing else it’s certainly got the community talking and with all of the changes to Google’s own social network recently it will be interesting to see how it pans out.

Do you have any ideas about what has been going on in camp Google recently? Or maybe you have uncovered some data, or another piece of the puzzle that may help us to gain a clearer picture of what to expect?

Either way, please let us know in the comments.

 

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Kerry Butters

A prolific technology writer, Kerry was an authority in her field and produced content for a variety of high profile sites in her niche. Also a published author, she adored the written word and all things tech and internet related. Sadly she passed away in February 2016 after a valiant battle with cancer.

  • I am especially excited about social media. It will be interesting to see how social networks will impact SEO world. That is, I presume they will have much more impact. We wrote a similar article on Penguin topic. Most people think that future lies in user experience. I agree to that.

  • Great update on what we so far know around the Google update. Always plenty of secrecy and heaps of experiments and trials to figure out what they have done. That said, we don’t own their channel, so they can do what they like. It’s important we stay in the loop and keep up to date with what’s new. I will be interested to see how long they will continue to try and plug +1 for G+ as SEO ranks. As soon as they say it’s over, plenty will leave. There’s nothing much there nowadays.

  • Insightful and succinct, thanks. I’m a bit surprised about templates — that’ll kill millions of SME rankings — because the problem is not templates per se (though they could be leaner) but with the baggage of plugins that load bloated code with them.

  • Thanks for sharing this Kerry :-) …and we still wait for Penguin ;-)