There have been some important Google algorithm updates so far this year, and by all reports it looks like there will be further changes in the coming weeks and months.
So I thought this would be a good time to take a good look at what has occurred in January and February to date – the effects on websites and rankings, how you should react, and what is to come.
Also, it’s a great chance for me to include pictures of cute penguins and pandas:
Unnamed Update January – What Was It?
On the 8th January, multiple tracking tools and industry commentators reported large ranking fluctuations, which Google later confirmed was a “core algo update”. Although everyone had been waiting for the next big Penguin update, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes insisted that it was nothing to do with Penguin, Panda, or any other animals:
However, Google did go on to confirm that this latest version of the core algorithm incorporates Panda spam filters – hence the large effect on the search results. Site content and quality is now more important than ever:
Panda is an algorithm that’s applied to sites overall and has become one of our core ranking signals. It measures the quality of a site, which you can read more about in our guidelines. Panda allows Google to take quality into account and adjust ranking accordingly.
Searchmetrics released some interesting data on the changes they observed in the Google search results following the update – leading them to the following conclusion regarding content and rankings:
High quality, longform content pieces that cover a topic in-depth are the winners in many areas. But the sheer amount of content is not decisive for rankings, rather the question of whether the content is relevant and fulfils the user intention.
What To Do If Your Rankings or Traffic Have Been Affected
If you suspect that your site has suffered after the latest update – perhaps your rankings have been fluctuating or falling, or you have experienced a decrease in organic traffic – what can you do?
Unfortunately, it is nigh on impossible to confirm categorically whether you have been hit by this update. Up until now, Panda has been manually updating, so the direct effects on websites were more obvious. But because it is now integrated into the core algorithm, it is very hard to say for certain whether a site has been experiencing Panda issues.
Obviously, prevention is better than cure, but if you do find that your site has suffered from this latest update, then it’s worth completing a full site audit to analyse where any problems might have crept in.
However, you’ve got to be careful with how you tackle the issue of content quality in regards to your site.
Jennifer Slegg has written an extremely useful guide, helping you to understand Panda in relation to your website. She cautions against attempting to “fix” sites in response to Panda, which could actually end up hurting your site more. For example, she rethinks the idea of “thin content” and warns us against removing all low word count or low quality content. I urge you to read more here.
What Other Updates Are On The Horizon?
An update to the Penguin algorithm has been anticipated since last year, but by all accounts it’s not yet happened. Again, we can turn to Gary for answers of some kind – on the 19th January he stated on Twitter when asked when the Penguin update will happen:
Although we won’t know for certain until the update rolls out, it has been rumoured that Penguin 4 will, like Panda, be incorporated into the core algorithm. We have also been informed by Google that the update will be “real-time”, meaning that the Penguin portion of the algorithm will always be “on” and updating. This could help Google identify spam link profiles more quickly and prevent undeserving sites from ranking well.
So both Penguin and Panda will be “baked into” the core search algorithm, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that nature of what they try to achieve will change. It does indicate how much Google values them though: Punishing spammy link practices and rewarding high-quality content-rich and useful sites aren’t an extra bonus, they are a fundamental part of the algorithm as a whole.
However, as Matt Southern for Search Engine Journal states, “Details are sparse, and if history is anything to go by we likely won’t have our questions answered until the update finally rolls out.”
Should You Be Worried About Penguin 4?
If you have a large number of low-quality links to your site that you have never removed or disavowed, then you have some cause for concern.
Again, try and keep ahead of the game – complete an audit of your site’s backlinks ASAP, and take steps to remove links that could cause you problems.
Finally, build high-quality and linkable content, and conduct outreach to gain good links back to your sites from relevant websites in your industry.
Though all this looks a lot easier on paper (or should I say screen?) than it is in practice, it really is the only way to ensure that your site avoids being penalised.