Understanding the Google Algorithm: Your Cheat Sheet for Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird
Google’s algorithm changes from time to time and some people still feel confused about how exactly these changes affect their site. Panda, Hummingbird and Penguin can all affect your site and the whole point of this article is to succinctly explain to you what each of these algorithms do.
Hopefully this will be a great resource you can use to help clients, employers, friends or anyone who uses the internet as a marketing channel understand these algorithm changes without delving into complex technical details that would overwhelm them. If you are a business owner with little knowledge of SEO then I hope you will also find this useful.
Explaining an Algorithm Change
Google’s algorithm is a complex beast. When Google initially created its search engine it was relatively easy for search marketers to manipulate the search engine so the search engine would think that their site was the one the user was searching for. Manipulating the search engines was as simple as messing with the meta-tag descriptions to tell the search engine what the website is about.
However, things are no longer that simple for marketers. Google wanted to avoid the search engine being manipulated like this and therefore they looked at ways to make searches more relevant to what a user was searching for. Google started to factor in things like a good descriptive title for example.
In the past Google’s algorithm has tended to change infrequently. Your site could rank number one for a certain keyword and then Google would change its algorithm causing your site to drop down in rankings. There are slight changes made to the algorithm each day and over 600 changes made per year. However, these changes are only small and they largely go unannounced.
However, when a major change to the algorithm occurs they give it a name. In this case there have bee three major changes and their names are Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird.
Explaining the Panda Algorithm
Panda was first launched on February 23, 2011 and it was a big deal. There were major changes as a result of Panda. At first Panda didn’t have a name so people referred to the changes as the “Farmer” update. This is because it seemed as if the changes mainly affected content farms. These content farms were used as a way to get sites to rank well in Google but they were a dodgy practice at best.
Only problem was that it didn’t just affect content farms. It affected entire websites and the effects on sites were huge. What Panda did was target sites it deemed to be low on quality. What this means is that any sites that were deemed to not be very helpful to users were targeted and they were hit hard by the changes. The problem with this was that entire sites were pushed down the rankings when they were not necessarily low quality.
For example, there may have been a page or two on your site that Panda deemed to be low quality so instead of pushing those pages down the rankings, it pushed the entire site down the rankings. This is what the major problems with Panda were.
Many people who were affected by Panda want to know what they can do to help get their site back up the rankings. In simple terms, focus on producing high quality content that is relevant to users. For the long version keep reading:
Is the information in this article trustworthy?
Did an expert write the article or is it shallower in nature?
Are there duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the site based on the same topics?
Is this is a site you would trust with your credit card information?
Are the articles factually and grammatically correct?
Do the site’s topics have a reader’s best interests in mind or is it trying to trick search engines into ranking well?
Is the article original in terms of its research, analysis, information, etc?
Does it provide substantial value on the same level as other sites ranking well for this topic?
Is there any quality control on the content?
Are both sides of the story discussed in the article?
Is this site a recognised authority on its topic?
Do individual sites or pages get the same amount of care as others on the web?
Does the article appear to be produced well?
For health related queries, would you trust information from this site?
Is this site recognised as an authority 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?
Is there an excessive amount of ads that detract from the main content?
Would the article be worth putting 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?
That is a comprehensive list that you can run through if you want your site to recover from changes made by Panda. The easiest thing to do is to focus on producing high quality content that users will find valuable. Do that and your site won’t be affected by Panda. Ultimately, the intention of Panda is to help users and that is something that Google has always been great at.
In particular there are few things that you should focus on, which are important to Panda:
Having Thin Content
This one is pretty simple and ties into what I’ve already mentioned about producing high quality content. Thin content is anything that isn’t useful to readers. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with word count, the amount of pages, etc. It is all about high quality articles and pages that help users.
If your site has pages or articles that aren’t useful and original to readers then get rid of them.
Having Duplicate Content
Duplicate content is a big no, no in the eyes of Panda. Imagine you have a blog and it is full of articles that contain information from other sources. Well Panda is pretty good at figuring out it’s not your content and if your site contains a large amount of information that is featured on other sites then yours is the one that will be punished.
This can cause issues for ecommerce sites as well.. Let’s say you have a large number of products for sale on your site. Say your product has separate pages for different colours and sizes. What happens is that you essentially end up with a large number of pages for the same product and this is where the problem lies. It is duplicate content and this is what Panda targets. One way to avoid such a problem is to use canonical tags.
Filled With Low-Quality Content
This one is pretty simple. If you have low-quality content then Panda is coming after you and Panda is essentially all about targeting sites with low-quality content. The easiest way to remember this is to make sure that your content is useful to readers and is unique. Do this and you’ll be fine.
One thing that you shouldn’t be doing is posting articles that have a title and few lines of content targeting a certain keyword. This is the sort of content that Panda targets because it doesn’t provide anything useful and original to readers.
Recovering From a Panda Hit
The Panda algorithm is refreshed monthly. Google used to announce when they were refreshing the algorithm but they only do this now when a really big change occurs in the algorithm. If your site has been hit by Panda then you need to identify where you’ve gone wrong. Look for things like thin, low-quality, and duplicate content. These three things are the killer for Panda.
If you remove these and then replace them with high quality content, once Panda refreshes, your site will gradually start to improve again. However, sometimes Google will perform an update where they change the criteria used to determine what is and what isn’t considered high quality.
Explaining the Penguin Algorithm
The Penguin algorithm was launched on April 24, 2012. To put it simply, Penguin targets sites that have cheated Google by using an unnatural backlinking strategy. Links are the most important thing to look out for regarding Penguin.
Why are Links Important?
Links are important because they are like a vote of approval for your site. Think about it, if a high authority site links to your site it must be because it’s good, right? This is why Penguin pays so much attention to links. No one is going to link to a site if it doesn’t contain great information.
The anchor text is another important component in the algorithm. The anchor text is the part of the text that contains the link and this is particularly important. If the anchor text contains a text like “marketing blog” and there are a large number of sites linking to a marketing blog with that anchor text then it tells Google that site is important.
It is easy to see how this was used to manipulate search engines in the past. You could have dozens of sites that all link to your site containing an anchor text linking to your site that are self made. What many SEO’s used to do was create links in places like forums, comments on blogs, directory listings, etc, in order to rank highly. The whole point of Penguin was to stamp this practice out and gain links that were genuine.
The easiest way to avoid being hit by Penguin is to focus on producing high quality content so that other sites naturally link to you. What this does is indicate to Google how much other sites trust you. The more trusted you are, the more likely you are to rank well in search engines.
Recovering From a Penguin Hit
Just like Panda, the Penguin algorithm is run periodically and then sites are re-assessed. The last time a Penguin update was performed was on October 4, 2013. If you want to recover from Penguin then you need to remove any unnatural links and focus purely on producing high quality content that other sites naturally want to link to.
Penguin specifically targets sites that try to manipulate the search engines by link manipulation. As long as you don’t try to cheat Google with your linking then your site will be fine. If you have successfully cleaned up your site then the next time Penguin refreshes your site will start to perform better again.
Hummingbird is a complete change to the Google algorithm. Whereas Panda and Penguin are the algorithm changes and that is where the difference lies. Many people think they were affected by Hummingbird when it was released officially on September 26, 2013. However, many of the sites that were affected weren’t hit by Hummingbird at all. They were affected by a refresh to the Penguin algorithm which was released a week after the initial Hummingbird announcement.
The whole point of Hummingbird is pretty simple. Its goal is to better understand a user’s search query. So for example if a user was to search for “What is the best place to find and eat pizza in London?” Hummingbird can tell that when the user means “place” they are likely to be interested in results displaying “restaurants.” The whole point of Hummingbird is to better understand what a user is searching for. Ultimately, it is trying to give users a better experience when using Google.
Recovering or Improving in the Eyes of Hummingbird
The easiest way to avoid being hit by Hummingbird is to create content that answers a users queries rather than simply trying to rank for a specific keyword. Again, it comes back to producing high quality content that helps users.
Now there isn’t really a way to recover from a suspected Hummingbird hit like there is with Panda and Penguin. The best advice I can give is in future to focus on producing content that does a better job of answering a user’s search query. If you focus more thoroughly on what your website offers you’ll do well in search engine rankings because your content will be of a higher quality anyway.
The whole point of this article was to help you understand the algorithm changes made by Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird. I have tried to present this information in an easy to understand manner so that business owners with little knowledge of SEO can understand it and I hope it is useful to you.
Do you have any more questions about these algorithm changes? Has your site been affected by these algorithm changes in any way?