SEO 101: understanding Google's algorithms

Every company wants their website to rank as highly as possible on Google.

The higher you rank, the more traffic and conversions you can hope to receive. However, Google only wants the most relevant websites returned when a user submits a search; websites that fulfil the needs of users based on the searches they have entered.

So if you’re struggling to get your website ranking at the top of Google for relevant searches, it could be time to evolve your approach.

What approach is needed?

In recent years, Google has made a series of algorithm amends, each designed to improve the relevancy of the results its users receive and each moving the goalposts for site owners keen to gain high visibility.

Whilst the Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird updates (amongst others) have been well-publicised within the SEO and wider digital industry, to some they remain a misunderstood or unknown entity. To help you plan your approach to SEO, we’ve put together a quick round-up of its big three updates since 2011 and their impact on ranking factors.

Panda

Launched in 2011, Panda was introduced to filter high-quality sites from platforms of lower-quality, in line with Google’s aim of providing users with only the most relevant search results. Panda examines the content that sits on a website, determines whether it is of a certain quality, and ranks it accordingly to its quality criteria.

Elements of a site that may be deemed ‘low quality’ include duplicate content, or content that has little value to users (i.e. pages that are too short, do not offer enough information). This algorithm was the first major step that Google took in more accurately returning valuable content to users and filtering out content of lesser quality.

Penguin

Penguin was released in 2012; its aim is to examine the links used by and to a website (specially focusing on unnatural links – those that may have been purchased, linked to for linking sake; this is what Google considers ‘unethical’ practices).

Getting sites of good authority to link to your platform is great for improving your rankings, as Google will then consider your site as being a source of rich information, in which other reliable sites have put their trust. Buying links, or having a suspiciously high number of links point to your site from low quality sources, is not looked on too favourably and will probably result in restricted rankings.

Hummingbird

Unlike Panda or Penguin, Hummingbird was not simply an algorithm change; it was a complete rework of Google’s overarching algorithm and indexing methods. It still utilises Panda and Penguin, but at the time of implementation in August 2013, it completely changed Google’s approach to how websites are ranked.

Hummingbird was introduced to help Google better understand user queries, again, in line with search giant’s approach to better catering for the needs of individuals looking for particular content. This change seeked to understand what a user might actually mean when certain keywords are used, and return results that Google feels are of most relevance. Content which is deemed to answer these queries, rather than content which simply tries to rank for a specific keyword, is likely to be looked on more favourably by the search engine in this instance.

Further updates, refreshes and releases

Google continues to update and refresh its key algorithms periodically; Panda 4.2, for example, was released towards the end of July 2015, while Google usually gives the industry forewarning when an update or refresh is about to be implemented (although sometimes, the search giant will only announce an update when it is already active within its algorithms).

Whilst Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird have been the biggest game-changers, Google continues to refine its algorithm with smaller updates that are worthy of attention, including the local SEO update, ‘Pigeon’, and the infamous mobile update ‘Mobilegeddon’.

Improving your search engine visibility requires an ethical, best practice approach to SEO but having a close eye on Google’s algorithm updates is an important step in minimising fluctuations and staying at the top.

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