Google’s search algorithm & the world of SEO

March 21, 2014 - Digital State Marketing

Following our recent article detailing the iterations of its search algorithm, we are today going to look in more detail at the impact of this formula and how it has become, in many ways, the central plank of 21st Century business.

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Google is probably the most influential company in the world. Last year its search engine processed 2,161,530,000,000 search requests – a daily average of 5,922,000,000. YouTube is the world’s third most frequently visited website – and second largest search engine. And, in 2012, Gmail became the world’s largest email service provider. These statistics are indicative of Google’s crushing dominance of internet search. It is in a different league when compared to its rivals, and remains the “go-to” source for information, entertainment, social media, email and news – it is easy to use, dependable and relevant.

google_puppet_master

Photo: www.skynetchronicles.com

Recently, we’ve been tracing the history of Google’s search algorithms. In this paper we’re examining the impact of algorithm updates on search engine optimisation. We’ll look at how algorithmic changes have shaped the world of SEO, how they have affected small online businesses and also discuss the importance of Google in the digital world of today.

So what are computer algorithms?

Essentially, algorithms are mathematical formulas that map step-to-step processes for solving digital problems. They correct errors on electronic devices such as CDs; protect online passwords; keep credit card data secure using public key cryptography and are used to create computer generated visual effects.

Google’s “PageRank” is the most powerful computer algorithm and is the key invention behind the company’s dominance of web search. PageRank examines the link profile of every page on the internet and calculates the rank of a webpage on the quality of inbound links.

In September 2013, Google celebrated its fifteenth birthday by introducing the biggest change to its search algorithm since 2010. Hummingbird was specifically designed to meet the increasing popularity of conversational and voice search. Similarly to the Caffeine update (2009-10), it represents a major change to Google’s infrastructure and core algorithms, specifically, “Knowledge Graph” – a huge conceptual encyclopedia which helps process the results of every search query.

The head of Google’s core ranking team, Amit Singhal, believes Hummingbird will affect the analysis of around 90% of all search queries – which might not be good news for “honest” websites which try to play by Google’s rules. So, how have changes to Google’s search algorithm made it difficult for SEO and honest websites? And what changes can we expect following Hummingbird?

In February 2009 Google released the Vince update, which dramatically changed the landscape of SEO forever. Although the intricacies of Vince remain a secret, it appeared to favour big brands in search engine results pages (SERPs) by emphasising the number and quality of a webpage’s inbound links. Google’s chief software engineer, Matt Cutts, simply referred to it as a minor modification. “We don’t really think about brands”, he explained. “We think about words like trust, authority, reputation, PageRank and high quality… So the Google philosophy on search results has been the same pretty much forever… It’s that if somebody comes to Google and types in ‘x’ we want to return high quality information about ‘x’”.  For SEOs, however, Vince amplified the importance of online brand building. In order to maintain prominent SERP positions, smaller companies have sought to provide multi-channel and high quality content. Blogs, videos, infographs and PR schemes, for instance, are now often used to enhance the reputation of online brands to help establish “trust” with Google and web users.

In 2010, the Caffeine update – a major infrastructural change that improved efficiency and expanded Google’s search index – spurred outcries because it explicitly sought to downgrade websites whose content were not relevant to certain search requests. Caffeine favoured websites with regularly updated content; introduced more real-time results into SERPs and made the search engine faster and more comprehensive. Google’s webmasters wrote that “with Caffeine, we analyse the web in small portions and update our search index on a continuous basis, globally. As we find new pages, or new information on existing pages, we can add these straight to the index. That means you can find fresher information than ever before — no matter when or where it was published.”

Google’s SERP Freshness update in November 2011 also gave increased weight to topical content. Similarly to Caffeine, Freshness favoured sites with frequently updated content such as news sites, video portals and major brands. The move encouraged online businesses to regularly update their content in order to reflect changing developments in their field. PageRank downgraded content it considered to be outdated. Sites have tried to incorporate current issues into blog posts. And, moreover, rewriting and revising content from existing pages has become more common, because both Caffeine and Freshness reward new and updated content, rather than just new webpages.

Google Caffeine - Freshness Update

Photo: blog.searchmetrics.com

In February 2012, Google’s Venice algorithm integrated localised results more tightly into SERPs. The update provided users with results more relevant to their location, making it more important for SEOs to develop more localised plans. Prior to Venice, most websites were not optimised for local search. In 2014, however, the most effective webpages – offering the best user experience – are tailored for local needs. Local keyword rich content, local landing pages, “meta-descriptions” and “meta-keywords”, for example, have become standard practice to help optimise search rankings.

SEOs have a difficult task in trying to anticipate the effects of algorithmic changes. And with the introduction of the Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird updates, the role of SEO has not only expanded, but become more essential. As the Guardian deftly puts it, there is a “perpetual arms race” between Google and companies trying to enhance their SERP standing. PageRank is so powerful because if a website is not on the first listing page, it might as well not exist. Research illustrates that Google’s search top listing result receives 33% of online traffic, compared to 18% for second position and 6% for fifth. Moreover, there’s a significant drop in traffic from Page 1 to Page 2: the first page receives 92% of all traffic, compared to 5% for Page 2, 1% for Page 3 and 0.4% for Page 4.

Statistics such as these underline the importance of bespoke SEO. In 2013, Google’s algorithmic changes once again shifted the playing-field of organic search by targeting online spam and thin content. An excellent article by Search Engine Watch explains how SEOs have recently evolved from being tacticians to strategists. “The best and most successful players…will work to anticipate Google’s next moves and respond to them with laser focus”, it writes. “In a sense, the infinite digital game of chess that is SEO will continue, but the rules of the game have become more complex.”

In a series of incremental updates since February 2011, Panda has targeted thin content, content farms, duplicate content and sites filled (disproportionately) with adverts. Panda affects the ranking of an entire website – rather than just individual webpages – so has proven to be the death-knell for hundreds of online businesses. Firstly, the changes have encouraged companies to create more unique and high-quality content. Secondly, companies have started to block the indexing and crawling of low quality content to avoid entire sites from being downgraded. And, thirdly, websites have focused on providing more authoritative content – emphasising trustworthiness, originality and relevance. “Basically, we are looking for high quality content”, said Matt Cutts, in September 2013 following the integration of Panda into its main indexing process. “Try to make sure you’ve got the sort of content people might enjoy, that’s compelling and the sort of thing they’ll love to read… That you might see in a magazine or a book…that people would refer back to, or send to friends.” Search rankings do not necessarily have to reflect a company’s budget and resources (though we should still be wary). Instead, Panda rewards websites that concentrate on offering the best user experience possible.

Google’s Penguin (or “webspam”) algorithmic update targets “black hat” SEO tactics such as keyword stuffing and pages with unnatural link profiles. Again, the update benefits websites that produce authoritative content. Websites hit by Penguin (and, indeed, Panda) may have suffered a significant decline in traffic. In order to reverse unfavourable PageRank demotions, Search Engine Land recommends that websites limit the number of advertorials, remove low quality links (through link auditing) and stop common black hat tactics altogether. Furthermore, authorship and social shares have become essential for producing quality content. “Make sure you have used the authorship tag and…are constantly tweeting and sharing your articles and creating relationships with others who will do the same”, it writes.

Hummingbird marks a huge step towards fully semantic online search. Unlike Caffeine, it attempts to rank sites based on a more intelligent understanding of search queries – more good news for the producers of serious content. “The artificial intelligence dream is being built inside Google a step at a time”, remarks Amit Singhal in an interview with the BBC. The Hummingbird algorithm is another huge leap in language understanding and information access. “Our aspiration for Google search is to become that omnipresent tool that allows you to live your lives better by bringing you all the information you need”, Singhal continues. SEOs are now emphasising the importance of excellent content, optimised for a wide-breadth of “long tail” semantically-related keywords (rather than just “short-tail” search queries).

The new Hummingbird algorithm typifies Google’s evolution from “search engine” to “answer engine” and, also, the growing popularity of multi-device online search. But what are its consequences for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)? For business that already have a solid (“white-hat”) SEO strategy in place – such as those tailored for localised results, those designed for mobile marketing and those which produce relevant (and interesting) content for a target market – recent algorithmic updates will prove beneficial. Considering the effects of the Panda and Penguin updates, you can see that businesses which follow advice from Google’s webmasters can expect to be rewarded with improved SERP rankings. Following the first Panda update, for instance, major websites such as Amazon, Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube experienced a rankings boost; whereas hundreds of content farm domains were downgraded (…and those “losers” are still losing). Algorithmic updates can have a huge influence over the relative success of SMEs. Therefore, in an ever-growing competitive marketplace, it is crucial that business utilise all possible opportunities to promote themselves. Most notably, Google has started to rank websites according to their “usability”, so most small businesses would benefit from website investment, more social media interaction and more locally-tailored services. Yet, ultimately, SMEs should remember that content is king.

The importance of algorithmic updates to our web browsing experience cannot be underestimated. Consider how, for example, Google’s search algorithms shape both the world of SEO and, also, our own internet habits. Google is a fantastic tool – it is simplistic and reliable – but if we never truly understand how it works are we, to some degree, slaves to it?

Well, in a word, no. The World Wide Web is currently celebrating its 25th birthday, and, last week, the Independent wrote how it is “an invention which has changed humanity forever”. Together with Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, Google is a kind-of “Founding-Father” of the digital world. Moreover, in constantly modifying its search algorithms, it is creating some sort-of digital constitution. This new “world” is growing at an exponential pace and although SEOs are occasionally critical of algorithmic changes, they bring necessary order to the potential chaos of the web.

The Guardian has referred to algorithms as “the secret source of the computerised world.”  PageRank is the most powerful algorithm in the world, yet it is shrouded in secrecy. In fact, algorithmic secrets only seem to be unearthed during times of scandal. In 2012, for instance, stock-market trading giants Knight Capital’s algorithm went rogue, traded for 45 minutes (buying high and selling low) and cost the company $440 million. So, while we place huge importance on computer algorithms, they are far from perfect.

Although Google’s algorithms do their (essential) work behind the scenes, they are not designed as part of a conscious effort to control the online masses; only to improve our browsing experience and de-clutter the pandemonium of the internet. Google’s dominance of the search engine industry means they “make the rules” (you might want to check out these six handy predictions for SEOs in 2014). However, its status is well-deserved and its pre-eminence appears, particularly in light of recent browsing statistics, unassailable. Google has a profound influence over how people think and how businesses respond, but still enjoys an unblemished reputation in the court of public opinion… and that’s fine with us.

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What are YOUR thoughts?  We’re always keen on feedback so please feel free to comment below – or via our social media (@smg_uk) – and tell us if there’s anything you’d like us to discuss.

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