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Chapter 3: Google Penguin, Panda, & Hummingbird

Search engine algorithms are based on a simple premise: searchers want an answer to their queries. For any search, there are hundreds or thousands of sites that offer a potential link or insight related to the query. As a result, search engines need to accomplish three goals:

  • Disqualify all the sites that aren’t relevant.
  • Return a list of sites that are relevant.
  • Rank and prioritize those sites in order of importance, to identify which sites are the most relevant.

Because no single factor is sufficient to provide these insights, Google and other search engines use complex algorithms that blend dozens of factors. The exact formula isn’t known, but a range of topics are considered. These include:

  • Link authority: number of incoming links, quality of the sites, anchor text used
  • On page factors: such as title tags, responsive mobile design, page loading speed
  • Brand metrics: search volume for the brand, brand mentions, citations of brand name in connection with specific keywords
  • Content: quality and depth of content, frequency of new content updates, reads and shares on social media

Just when you think you’ve grasped the specific details of Google’s algorithm, it’s important to note that changes occur all the time. By understanding the historical trends in what’s changed and staying on top of how things are evolving, website owners stand the best chance of developing and implementing strategies that lead to great long-term rankings. For a more in-depth look at Search Engine ranking factors, see Moz’s annual Search Ranking Factors survey.

Google’s Recent Key Updates

Navigating Google’s current landscape requires not only a general understanding of search engine algorithms and how they operate, but specifics of recent updates. In the last few years, Google has implemented a number of changes that have hit site owners particularly hard. These have focused on three key areas: content and usability, the quality of links, and the importance of mobile and how we search. Here’s a closer look at each of these updates and what you need to know to be up to speed.


panda Chapter 3: Google Penguin, Panda, & Hummingbird

Google Panda was first introduced in February 2011, and has had several smaller updates rolled out since that. Panda started the ball rolling on the content discussion, focusing on eliminating low-quality or thin sites in favor of those with in-depth, regularly updated content. Panda also tackled sites with too much advertising and poor navigation, when commercial gains were clearly prioritized over user experience. Since Panda, content marketing has increased in popularity with a focus on blogging, on-site content, building off-site content assets through practices like guest blogging, and social media participation.

In July 2012, Google provided a series of questions to help webmasters evaluate whether their sites were in line with the search engine’s quality guidelines. Reviewing these questions provides the best sense of the types of issues Panda addresses, and the types of violations that are likely to get sites into trouble. The questions included:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?
  • Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  • Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  • Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  • Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  • Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  • Would users complain when they see pages from this site?


penguin Chapter 3: Google Penguin, Panda, & Hummingbird

Google Penguin was the search engine’s response to so-called “black hat” SEO tactics for link building, which was first released in April 2012. Numerous updates have been rolled out since then. Manipulative link building techniques that focused on creating links through “link schemes” were targeted. These included buying links, building thin sites simply for the purpose of linking back to a main site, trading links, comment spam links, and similar tactics.

The era of Google Penguin has required site owners to take a much harsher view on link building. Each site, perhaps for the first time in the history of SEO, is expected to know and own its site link profile. The volume, quality, source, and content of links ultimately fall to the site’s owner. If dubious practices are detected, site owners may be required to audit their entire link profile and work to have poor quality links removed. Today, when building links, it’s smart to ask questions such as:

  • Is this a high quality site?
  • Is it relevant to my topic or niche?
  • What does that site’s link profile look like?
  • Will they use diverse anchor text to point to my site?


hummingbird Chapter 3: Google Penguin, Panda, & Hummingbird

Hummingbird reinforced everything that had been done through Google Panda and Penguin, but added two specific dimensions. Announced in late 2013, Hummingbird introduced the importance of mobile devices to search. For the first time, mobile responsive designs clearly have taken on increased importance. Many have argued that it’s also critical to have a mobile content strategy: that is, to assume that readers will be accessing your content from a variety of devices including smartphones and tablets and creating your content with a mobile-first mindset.

The second, and perhaps more exciting, component of Hummingbird was the introduction of contextual search. Until Hummingbird, search engines typically interpreted queries using what it identified as the most important keywords from a search. But with Hummingbird’s introduction, Google has begun to look at the relationship between terms to interpret context.

Many considered Hummingbird a natural evolution both of Google’s development and of the proliferation of mobile devices. After being in business for 15 years, Google’s developed an incredibly rich and sophisticated Knowledge Graph (or major database of all the information that it’s collected). As more and more users search on mobile devices, searches are evolving from short keyword driven inquiries to being structured the way we naturally speak and ask questions. Hummingbird is helping to ensure that Google is poised to understand and meet that demand.

Google Changes in 2014 and Beyond

Recent updates have set the tone for where we can expect future changes to go. There’s an increasing focus on content, links, and mobile presence. As an evolution, it’s expected that future updates will focus on refining these theories and increasing the accuracy of the updates. For example, many experts believe that a future Penguin link related update will target guest blogging and a recent video from Matt Cutts seems to confirm that.

If you’re interested in learning more, there are several strategies that can help you stay tuned to the latest changes. Following Google’s Blog, Webmaster Tools updates, and Matt Cutts’ personal blog are all great places to start. Regularly read industry trend pieces on sites like Search Engine Journal to get inside analysis and perspective from SEO professionals. For more detailed reading on the future of Google’s algorithm evolution, check out SEO in 2014: How to Prepare for Google’s 2014 Algorithm Updates. Now we’re going to take a closer look at keyword research and how it’s evolved in light of Google’s more sophisticated search features
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