As anticipated, Google kicked off 2016 with an algorithmic update – but not the one widely expected.
SEOs expected Google to update their “Penguin” algorithm in January, having delayed rolling out the update in December. Penguin is the algorithm Google uses to target websites doing shonky link building. The issue with receiving a Penguin penalty is that the penalty doesn’t simply get lifted once a link clean up has been done. Instead a penalised site has to sit in penalty limbo for 6+ agonising months until the next Penguin update occurs, praying they’ve done enough to get back into Google’s good books. Hence the hopeful anticipation by many penalised sites of a Penguin update happening in January.
But instead of a Penguin update, Google kicked off 2016 with several updates to its core ranking algorithm. These updates have caused a lot of volatility in US search results. According to SearchMetrics, the main losers are publisher websites such as theatlantic.com, vanityfair.com, and economist.com. These sites contain older content that until now has ranked highly for various brand keywords such as ebay, google, pizza hut, & netflix. This has changed dramatically, with massive drops in rankings and visibility.
Brands, on the other hand, have seen a boost in rankings. This trend is not yet noticeable in other international markets, suggesting the update has not yet been rolled out globally.
Google also announced they’ve now folded the “Panda” algorithm into their core algorithm. Given this, many people initially assumed the volatility being seen in rankings in January was due to Panda, however Google have said that’s not the case. Panda is Google’s algorithm used to target & penalise sites with thin, duplicate or low quality content. Despite being part of the main algo it seems that Panda is still not being run in real time, but will continue to be run periodically. That means sites hit with a Panda penalty which then take steps to improve their content will still need to wait until the next Panda update to see if they’ve done enough to recover. However, unlike Penguin, the Panda refreshes are much more frequent (roughly monthly), so if you you do get hit then at least the wait, whilst painful, is not as bad.
Why should you care?
Google typically makes around 600 updates to its algorithm each year and it looks like this year will be no different. As mentioned above, at this stage it looks like Google’s latest updates are still yet to roll out internationally and so far we’ve not seen evidence of major ranking changes. Let us know if you’ve experienced big fluctuations in rankings.
It looks like eventually Google will incorporate both Penguin and Panda into their core algorithm and so at some point these should become real time. If that happens then penalties will be imposed more quickly, but conversely recovery should be quicker once penalised sites clean up their act. But until then, if you do run foul of Google and get penalised you’ll be in for a long and expensive wait as organic traffic and conversions drop due to lower rankings.
Of course prevention is better than cure, so the smart thing to do is ensure you don’t ever put yourself in the position of being penalised.
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Mark is a Partner and Senior Consultant at SureFire which he founded back in 2002. Prior to establishing SureFire he worked for KPMG Consulting. Today Mark heads up SEO, embracing the challenges that can come with complex website implementations. Outside of work, his interests beyond his family are running, snowsports, diving and fishing (badly).