When Google launches an update to its search algorithms, the whole SEO community stop what they’re doing and listens. The great majority of these changes are minor and with best practices are hardly reflected in search traffic. But in the past 5-years, Google has made three major algorithmic updates that have changed the way experts approach SEO strategies – Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird.

These search algorithmic updates were implemented with the ultimate goal of making search results relevant to users. When searches are relevant, the quality of traffic improves. To effectively shape SEO strategies for the future, it’s important to look into the past and study the effects of these major search updates.

The Panda Algorithm

The Panda search algorithm was launched in early 2011 as a solution to the growing number of content sites or “content farms”. These sites aggregated content and information from other sites, allowing them to grow massive amounts of pages. This pushed many of these content sites to the top of the search rankings using copied, and sometimes unorganized, content.

Panda was one of the first major movements by Google that intentionally punished sites for having low-quality content. According to Google, Panda has affected 12% of all search results.[1] Panda used many site factors in determining the quality of a site, such as:

  • Content variety
  • Content length
  • Visitor behavior

Sites that scored poorly in the majority of their pages saw a major decrease in their search rankings. Punishing sites for low-quality content has discouraged many sites from following poor practices like keyword stuffing. Sites that frequently published content, but saw little page interaction, were penalized.

The Penguin Algorithm

The quality of backlinks to your site has always been a major factor in its authority. When another site links to your content, search engines will consider the content as valuable to visitors, earning them a higher placement in search rankings. Naturally, with backlinks being a heavy factor, some sites created unnatural backlinks to cheat Google’s search results.

In mid-2012, Google released the Penguin search algorithm with the intent of qualifying backlinks. Sites with backlinks to low quality sources like forum comment sections, directories, and reported pages were considered “self-made” and untrustworthy. The severity of the punishments by Penguin’s algorithm depended on the density of a site’s untrustworthy backlinks.

Like Panda, if the majority of a site’s pages have backlinks from untrustworthy sources, then the entire site will see a loss in rankings. Google reported that the initial release of Penguin affected 3.1% of English search queries.[2] While the impact of Penguin is smaller in comparison, the algorithm was successful in refining the way SEO experts approach link building.

The Hummingbird Algorithm

The Hummingbird search algorithm is vastly different from Panda and Penguin, and is considered to be the start of an entirely new search engine. Released in 2014, Hummingbird was the first step in semantic SEO where relevant pages show for conversational long-tail queries.

For example, if you search “top tacos in Austin”, Hummingbird will recognize the query as a search for “list of top taco restaurants in Austin, Texas”. Using synonyms, historical data, trending sites, and many other user-based factors, Hummingbird is able to better understand the intention behind searches for more relevant rankings.

One of the major influences of Hummingbird is SEO experts focusing their content development around visitor queries, instead of fighting for position over a keyword. While this may sound intuitive, it’s a practice that was underutilized in the structuring of content. The release of Hummingbird has also devalued many of the other factors used search rankings, placing greater weight on the content’s ability to engage users.

Google search continues to refine its search algorithm for more relevant search results and rankings. If there’s anything to learn about these three major algorithmic updates, it’s to follow best practices and to keep an ear to the ground for future changes.

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[1] Steven L. “A Q&A with Google’s Top Search Engineers”. Wired. http://www.wired.com/2011/03/the-panda-that-hates-farms/

[2] Matt C. “Another step to reward high-quality sites”. Google Inside Search. https://search.googleblog.com/2012/04/another-step-to-reward-high-quality.html