August 3, 2021

How Google's Updates Affect Businesses: Part 3, 2011-2015

In Parts One and Two of our series on how Google updates affect businesses, we observed that the search provider tended to implement sporadic or monthly changes. In the 2010s, we see the company ramping up its efforts in creating a more responsive, user-friendly search engine. 

Updates became more frequent in the 2010s, and this is also the decade where the company launched Google+. In all, the 2010s was a busy time for Google, and it also brought significant changes to digital marketing and SEO as a whole. Let us take a closer look at these changes.

2011: Panda and Related Algorithm Changes

In January, Google launched an update to improve content attribution. It aimed to reduce spam levels and targeted sites with "low-quality" content. Pages that scraped content from other websites took a hit, and many see this algorithm change as a precursor to Panda.

Panda rolled out in February of that year, affecting a significant number of pages. According to Google, the Panda or Farmer update hit up to 12 percent of search results. It seemed to target content farms, pages that don't provide too much value and had more ads than content. An April update to Panda included new signals, like sites users blocked on SERPs or Chrome.

The company will tweak this algorithm over several months and years, eventually releasing it internationally for queries in English and other languages. According to Google, the change affected six to nine percent of queries in countries where it rolled out.

Google also launched several other updates in 2011, including Schema.org, an expansion for sitelinks, fixes for pagination, and query encryption. In June of that year, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft announced that they would support consolidations on structured data—Schema.org. This consolidation shows how the search providers are moving toward rich results.

Implications on Businesses

The Panda update solidified the move away from 90s-style SEO techniques. Because this algorithm devalues "low-quality" content, organizations must create pages that Google deems valuable. That is, ones that respond to customer or client needs. Content farming or generating topical articles for popular queries is no longer a profitable strategy. Instead, businesses should display technical or industry knowledge in a reader-friendly way.

2012 to 2013: The Changing Search Results Page

The developments in 2011 continued into the following year, with Google announcing landing-page quality detection, improvements to rich snippets, detection of sitelink relevance, and related queries. The company also updated page layout algorithms to devalue "top heavy" sites with too many ads above the fold. 

Google also introduced the Venice update in 2012, which more tightly integrated local search and organic results. This resulted in improved rankings for local results. An April 50-pack update also brought changes to scoring anchor-text, image search, and interpretations of local queries. April also brought the Penguin update, which adjusted signals for over-optimization.

It is also in this year that Google took significant steps toward semantic search with Knowledge Graph. This SERP integration supplements results with panels featuring people, places, or concepts related to the query. 

Two more developments in 2012 are the update penalizing repeat copyright violations and an algorithm change for exact-match domains. 

Google kept improving on Panda in 2013, with six announced updates related to it. In March of this year, the company also announced that it would be integrating Panda into the core algorithm. Other changes also took place, like the "Payday Loan" update targeting spam-filled results on loan and adult websites. 

In August, Google added "in-depth articles" to news results, highlighting evergreen and long-form content. This month, the company rolled out Hummingbird, an update with similarities to Caffeine that powers the semantic search and the knowledge graph.

Implications on Businesses

Many SEOs regard 2012 as the year local optimization truly took off. The Venice update meant even broad search terms could bring up local results, so companies now need localized plans to stay competitive. 

The introduction of the knowledge graph also fueled Google's transition from understanding text to understanding concepts. The knowledge graph lets marketers better understand user interactions and search engine interpretations of queries, meaning better end-user content.

2014 to 2015: Towards Mobile-First Search

Two significant midyear announcements in 2014 were the Pigeon update and the author byline and photo drop. In June, Google announced that they would be getting rid of author photos, which surprised many SEOs since the trend for pages seemed to move towards multimedia results. Later in the year, they removed bylines, getting rid of authorship altogether.

Another update that surprised search professionals was Pigeon. According to Google, this update brings the local and core algorithms closer. Some SEOs noted that it altered location cue interpretation, which changed some results. 

In 2014, Google announced that it would be giving a slight ranking boost to HTTPS/SSL sites and confirmed that Penguin has shifted to continuous updates instead of sporadic major ones.

2015's April 21 update, dubbed Mobilegeddon by search professionals, favored mobile-ready websites. It gave these sites higher rankings than ones only optimized for laptops and desktops. The reason for the change, according to Google, was because more people are browsing on their phones, and favoring mobile-friendly sites made it easier for people to access information.

Another significant change in 2015 was RankBrain, Google's name for its machine-learning system. The company revealed that the AI had been part of the algorithm for months and contributed to an influential ranking factor.

Implications on Businesses

The updates in 2014 and 2015 marks Google's transition to mobile-first ranking. The April 21 update, together with the authorship drop and the Pigeon update, streamlined browsing for mobile phone users. Although photos and bylines create a more dynamic UX for people on SERPs, they took up a considerable amount of space on a mobile phone browser. What's more, an update like Pigeon—one that focuses on local SEO—also helps mobile users since most people who look up local places are doing so on the go, on their phones.

Meanwhile, RankBrain helps interpret patterns and translate queries. It learns the intent behind search terms used and works well with long-tail keywords and voice search. Besides the actual keywords, it considers the searcher's online purchases, social media activity, and other signals. You could leverage RankBrain when you understand search intent and create long-form, evergreen content.

Conclusion

Google is a company that isn't content with moving with the times. It wants to form tech trends, and the updates from the years we covered here prove it. Machine learning, mobile-friendliness, and voice search have experienced exponential growth in the past two to three years. These developments look like they will be influencing online user behavior in the coming decade.

Read our fourth and final installment of this in-depth look at Google's update history, where we will look at changes from 2016 to the present.

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