From Panda to Penguin: the main Google updates at a glance

Believe it or not, this article has absolutely nothing to do with a visit to the zoo: instead, it’s about the most well-known and important Google updates that have taken place in recent years, and what they mean for SEO. Those working in the online industry fear these regular updates due to the threats they pose to websites, like losses in rankings.

The basic aim of the search engine’s algorithm changes is to make search results better and more relevant for users, but it isn’t known in advance which parameters Google plans to change or which steps website operators have to take. We have provided you with an overview of the most important algorithm updates, their consequences, and how much they impact on your website.

Why does Google change its algorithm?

Changes to Google’s algorithm (Google updates) take place for a reason: to improve the quality of search results in order to show the user more relevant and higher quality content. Some years ago (before these updates took place), website operators were even able to manipulate search engine results. Through various SEO practices (this is known today as Black Hat SEO, it was possible to feign relevance in order to achieve a higher ranking. Keyword stuffing and cloaking were the most commonly used tricks.

Little by little, Google wants to stop these deception methods and be able to provide users with only relevant content. Algorithm changes aim to kill off spam practices and any unfair SEO tricks. Google’s algorithm determines the relevance of sites in the Google index and where they place in the SERPs.

Google takes around 200 different ranking factors into account in order to determine the quality and relevance of a site. If there is an update, Google adjusts the algorithm - which can increase or decrease the severity of the consequences. Google updates can:

  • change the weight of existing factors
  • introduce new factors

Consequences of Google updates

The effects that the updates have on the search results (i.e. a website’s visibility) reveal themselves in different ways. You can find out whether you’ve been affected by the update by referring to the SISTRIX visibility index. Using the SEO tool you can track visibility over time. Google now makes major updates public so you can see exactly if a loss in ranking is due to the update, or not.

By using small pins in the graph, SISTRIX shows when the main Google updates happened. If visibility falls immediately after an update, it indicates that the negative ranking is due to the most recent algorithm change. But beware: a loss of ranking shouldn’t always be blamed on an automatic update. Technical errors, such as unavailable content or faulty redirections, can also be a reason for the decrease in ranking. But it’s not all doom and gloom: sites can profit from updates too. SISTRIX also offers a special Google Update Checker. After entering your URL you’ll see the effects of all previous Google updates over time, displayed as percentages.

The main Google updates of recent years

Experts have counted more than 40 updates in Google’s algorithm since 2009. You can find a list of all of them on the abovementioned SISTRIX site. We will introduce the 5 updates that have had the greatest impact for website operators.

2011: Panda update

The first rollout of the Panda update took place in February 2011. Panda was originally designed to be a regular filter, but in the meantime it’s become a fixed component of the Google Core algorithm. Even though Panda isn’t active in real-time, it ensures continuous quality assurance of the search results.

What is the purpose of the Panda update?

The aim of this update is primarily to reduce the visibility of websites with low-quality content and for the SERPs to only display sites with relevant and high-quality content. The update can identify sites with inferior or spam content (i.e. content farms). Whole websites and sections can be checked, not just individual subpages, which was originally the case.

Based on their content, all websites are assigned a content quality score, which has an influence on the ranking. Google hasn’t disclosed the exact criteria for this score, but SEO experts have revealed that the following factors have a negative impact on a site’s visibility:

  • High percentage of duplicate content
  • Low percentage of original, individual content (unique content)
  • Inferior, meaningless content
  • Short visitor stay times
  • High bounce rate
  • Spam content
  • Excessive amount of advertising
  • Over-optimized content (e.g. keyword stuffing)

Who was affected by the Panda update?

Websites with meaningless content or whose content was of barely any use were the first to feel the update’s wrath. This particularly included content farms that relied on quantity instead of quality to get as many clicks as possible. Widespread link farms, which were solely designed for the purpose of building backlinks, were negatively affected by the update a few years back. This explains why the Farmer update is often talked about in SEO.

According to Google, the Panda update had an impact on 12% of the search results in the US and some sites experienced ranking losses of over 75%. But there were also sites that profited from the update, including media and news sites.

2012: Penguin update

The Penguin update is often referred to as the webspam update since its name is the primary objective of the algorithm change, which is to stem the amount of spam in the search results in order to improve the relevance and quality of the results.

Google sees webspam as an unclean practice that is implemented to artificially improve the search engine ranking. A website that has only been optimized for the search engine and not for the user shouldn’t appear among the top search results, according to Google. The task of the Penguin is to identify unnatural site optimization and curb any deliberate manipulation.

What is the purpose of the Penguin update?

The Penguin update is often referred to as the webspam update since its name is the primary objective of the algorithm change, which is to stem the amount of spam in the search results in order to improve the relevance and quality of the results.

Google sees webspam as an unclean practice that is implemented to artificially improve the search engine ranking. A website that has only been optimized for the search engine and not for the user shouldn’t appear among the top search results, according to Google. The task of the Penguin is to identify unnatural site optimization and curb any deliberate manipulation.

Who was affected by the Penguin update?

Just like with the Panda update, The Penguin update targeted Black Hat SEO practices, such as keyword stuffing and cloaking. Again, there is no official confirmation on which variables Google has used to carry out the algorithm change. But by analyzing the 'Penguin losers' it clearly shows that unnatural link building was the focus.

The practices that violate Google’s webmaster guidelines and were penalized by the Penguin update include:

  • Buying links e.g. through link networks
  • Unnaturally fast link building
  • High proportion of links with money keywords in anchor text
  • Irrelevant links
  • Substandard backlinks from link farms, directories, comments, or footers.

Websites whose link profiles showed signs of any of these practices were penalized by Google and given a lower ranking. According to the company, 3.1% of all search queries were affected by the first Penguin update. The second update in May 2013 affected 2.3% of search queries.

2013: Hummingbird update

Google rolled out the Hummingbird update in August 2013, just in time for the search engine’s 15th anniversary. For many experts, this was the weightiest edit of the search algorithm since 2000. It wasn’t just the ranking algorithm that was changed with the Hummingbird update, but rather the entire search algorithm. This update gets its name from the characteristics of the bird: speed and precision, which is how the Google search should be.

What is the purpose of the Hummingbird update?

As part of the Hummingbird update, Google optimized its own evaluation procedures for search queries. Up until this point, individual words or word combinations were only static (i.e. recorded and evaluated without context). This new way of searching is also known as semantic search since it’s not just individual keywords that are taken into account anymore, but rather the whole query. The aim is to understand the user’s intentions better and so be able to interpret their searches.

Keywords are still very important, but are taken into account depending on the specific context in the complete query since Google can answer specific questions a lot more precisely. Since Hummingbird came about, synonyms are also recognized. The search results aren’t as strongly focused on a keyword anymore and topic-relevant content also has the ability to rank well even if it doesn’t contain the required keyword.

Who was affected by the Hummingbird update?

Hummingbird managed to seek out those websites whose plan was to artificially improve their rankings. Sites that were especially affected were those who neither featured high value nor high quality content. If other questionable keyword-optimization measures were used (such as keyword stuffing), the site would find itself at the bottom of the search results list since this leads to poor usability. On the other hand, the winning websites were those that delivered valuable and informative content. According to Google, the new search algorithm affected nearly 90% of search results.

2014: Pigeon update

In 2014 the Pigeon update signified the biggest change in the Google universe. With Pigeon, Google wanted local search mechanisms to be tied more closely to its general algorithm and so be able to deliver more useful and relevant results. The user’s location became an even more important part of the search, and the importance of Google+ and Google My Business profiles also increased. This also meant that local small and medium-sized businesses had a chance to win new customers through Local SEO.

The Pigeon update had an important influence on Google Maps as well as on the normal search engine results, although the effects weren’t comparable to those of other updates. But it still had a clear impact since there was a change in many businesses’ strategies after the rollout of Pigeon. Local small and medium-sized businesses as well as large companies with different locations began to focus more on local search engine optimization.

2015: Google Mobile Friendly update

Until 2015 mobile sites were just exact copies of desktop versions. In April of the same year, Google confirmed the Mobile Friendly update, which has also been referred to as 'Mobilegeddon'. Since then, the search has become more independent and takes into account the usability of mobile websites and apps. This algorithm change only affects mobile searches.

What is the purpose of the Google Mobile Friendly update?

With the mobile update, Google began to devaluate mobile-unfriendly sites in Google’s mobile search. Websites that are optimized for mobile devices benefit a lot from this calculation change. The aim is to display only mobile-friendly websites and those with good usability in the top positions. This means that usability of smartphones and tablets is an official (mobile) ranking factor. Many aspects influence the usability of mobile devices – you can find more detailed instructions and tips for optimizing a website for mobile devices in our guide.

Who is affected by the Mobile Friendly update?

You won’t find tough punishments or ranking losses with the Mobile update like you would expect to with the Panda and Penguin update. But website operators shouldn’t count on this since optimizing your website for mobile use is an absolute must! Last year, Google received more requests on smartphones and tablets than on stationary PCs for the first time ever. This fact alone shows how important it is to optimize for mobile devices if you want to generate traffic through organic searches. Sites that aren’t optimized can expect more than just a lower ranking: Google even lets users know which sites aren’t optimized, which will most likely deter them from visiting.

Google updates: a calculation with many unknowns

Google updates are simultaneously a blessing and a curse. A curse for website operators who get penalized and are still reeling from the penalty months later. A blessing due to the continual improvements and enhancements for the user as Google strives to make itself even better and easier to use.

The big challenge, even for experienced SEO specialists, is that there are many unknowns regarding Google. The search engine giant often performs algorithm changes without giving concrete details of what’s happening. These unnamed updates are often referred to as phantom updates. The effects are noticeable and the causes are a mystery. This also won’t change in the future and further updates (whether official or phantom) ensure that SEO is constantly changing and websites are constantly being optimized.