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The Ultimate Google Algorithm Cheat Sheet

Everything you need to master the Google Algorithm

Rather than trying to wrestle Google’s entire menagerie of elusive algorithms yourself, we’re going to try to simplify the process for you. Our Google algorithm cheat sheet is exhaustive without being exhausting – no small feat if you consider the seemingly endless (and evolving) number of hoops one has to jump through to maintain a solid ranking.

Let’s delve right in. For those of you who may need a little background, we’ll begin with a little Q & A session on the algorithms and their objectives.

Q: What is a Google algorithm?

A: An algorithm, as it relates to Google, refers to the process the search engine uses to rank websites. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, you’re right. It is simple. Or rather it was simple. Then Google decided to change things up. And then they changed things up again. And then again.

Q: Why does Google change their algorithms?

A: Some SEO professionals might say it’s because Google is a power hungry, insatiable beast. Or because Google likes to watch the little people squirm and scurry about trying to appease its every unfathomable whim. Or because Google wasn’t hugged enough as a child. Or just because it can.

The people at Google say it’s because they want to provide the best search experience for their users, and that involves consistently re-evaluating their search criteria to bring the best and most relevant sites to the top of any given search result. Whatever you choose to believe, the fact remains that Google’s a little like the most popular girl in high school. You may not like her, but you want her to like you. It’s a sick twisted game we’re playing here, but if you’re playing to win, you’re going to need to get used to it. After all, Google actually makes algorithm changes over 600 times a year, but they only let us know about the big ones.

Q: Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird? What the…?

A: Yes, Google has given its algorithms adorable names. We don’t know if this softens the blow of their seemingly endless changes, but these are the big algorithm alterations we spoke of earlier – the ones they actually tell us about.

Here’s what you need to know about each Google algorithm update:

The animal: Panda
The first sighting: February 23, 2011

The objective: To volley higher quality sites and demote poor quality ones with a bear paws worth of disdain. (It wasn’t named Panda for this reason; it was actually unnamed at first and then was officially named Panda after one of its creators, Navneet Panda.) The Panda algorithm was also known as the ‘Farmer’ algorithm since it seemed to affect content farms (i.e. websites that amass information from a variety of sources, often lifting content directly from other websites in order to accumulate many pages to rank well for a host of different keywords). Ranking well with Panda is all about creating relevant, quality, authoritive and shareable content. In other words, Panda was paving the way for things to come.

The fix: Here’s the good news: Panda refreshes about once a month, meaning if you’ve been slacking on getting your site up to speed with this Google algorithm, you’re in luck; your next chance to repent and reform isn’t far away. You want to create high quality content that can actually help people and is not just a keyword grab.

Duplicate content is also a big no-no. The Panda algorithm will demote your site if you are simply ripping off the content of other websites. Google algorithms are savvy and they can figure out if you’re not the mastermind behind the words – and it’s not only duplicating content from other sites. You shouldn’t even be duplicating content from your own website. For example, let’s say you sell nail files and you have a page dedicated to every size and colour option, but your text is the same. This could mean thousands and thousands of pages of duplicate content by the time you account for all the colour and size options. Google doesn’t appreciate all these identical pages in their index. Your best bet is to use canonical tagging (i.e. when you redirect multiple URLs to a single dominant version).

The animal: Penguin
The first sighting: April 24, 2012

The objective: To pick out the cheaters who’ve created unnatural backlinks in an attempt to bolster their Google ranking. Links are akin to ‘Likes’ on Facebook. When another site links to your site, it shows that someone has faith in your site. It’s a vote in your favour. The bigger and more respected the site that links to you, the better. (Though a large number of links from smaller sites can produce results, too.)

Penguin also set out to pull the slip on sites that manipulated anchor text (i.e. the text underlined in a link that let’s Google know what, in essence, the link is about; for example, ‘running shoes’.) The people at Google began to realize that sneaky SEO specialists could – and were – backlinking and using anchor text with and from self-published articles, forums, links in comments in forums and blogs as well as directory listings. In other words, they were creating unnatural, unearned hype.

John Mueller, an employee at Google, has shed a little light on how Penguin works, saying its scope is site wide. Penguin doesn’t affect your site on a mere page or keyword level, it can reduce the ranking of your whole domain. Like Panda, Penguin is about recognizing quality websites, and it does this by trying to establish a standard of trust not only in front end content, but also within the behind the scenes site mechanics.

The fix: Google Employee Amit Singhal offers up some pretty comprehensive tips in his blog but if you want the Coles Notes version, it basically all comes down to trust. You need to amass original, quality, professional content. This means no duplicate content, overlapping content, content that’s redundant and only uses marginally different keyword variations. Part of quality and professional content means creating content that has depth and is free of spelling, grammatical or factual errors. Basically, every page on your site needs value.

The animal: Hummingbird
The first sighting: September 26, 2013 (Though Google says it had been in place already for about a month prior.)

The objective: To better respond to the searcher’s query. Achieving this goal means that Google overhauled the entire search system. That’s right. The whole thing. Think of Panda and Penguin like new appliances in a house and Hummingbird as a whole new house. Google has transferred the new appliances to the new house to help the home run smoothly – but we’re still dealing with a whole new structure.

So, how does the latest big Google algorithm actually help refine user queries? It listens better. Hummingbird focuses less on specific keyword searches (though they are still important) and more on conversational searchers. Many insiders speculate that this move is in large part due to the rise in voice recognition technology; most notably Google’s own voice search. It makes sense, right? We are likely to type using abrupt phrasing, but when we speak, it’s often more fluid and conversational. Here’s an example of what we mean: if you search “what’s the best place to get a massage in Toronto?”, Hummingbird can recognize that the ‘place’ the searcher is looking for is probably going to be listed under results that show ‘spa’.

The fix: If you’ve been paying attention and adapting along with the evolution of the Google algorithm, you shouldn’t actually have to make any changes. However, if you’re still churning out purely keyword based content and taking hackneyed stabs at nefarious linking practices, then you’re going to be in the proverbial dog house of Google’s animal kingdom. Granted, Google’s a bit of a beast, but if you gain and maintain its trust, you’re golden.

How to Ensure High Quality Content Across ALL Google Algorithm Updates

We’ve already mentioned a few of Google’s best practices to appease the all-mighty algorithms, but we’ll dive a little deeper into the fray here. We’ve combined our own experience and research with tips leaked from some of the masterminds at Google.

  • Your web pages should have high-quality factors on their indexed pages, specifically. Non-indexed pages don’t register with Panda ranking. Same goes for AdWords or non-Google traffic.
  • You need solid user satisfaction metrics in regards to your entire website. This includes content, your presentation and even your shopping cart for eCommerce businesses. In short, you want to ensure your visitors are following through with the intended action on every page, whether it involves clicking through, commenting or making a purchase.
  • Nurture good sharing on social media via actual sharing and positive referrals on social platforms.
  • Garner stellar reviews on sites that are independent from your own, but can also be verified by Google.
  • Get reference crazy and make sure you employ good citation ethics. This means you need to cite your sources.
  • Make sure your contact is listed clearly on each page.
  • Be enticingly unique and create vigorous About Us, Contact Us and Customer Service pages.
  • Create and maintain an exceptional reputation on forums, blogs, independent businesses and organization like Amazon, Yelp and Google Product Search.
  • Acquire friends with power. You want to get references from experts in your field.
  • Keep your dates current, both on your copyright and your blog posts.
  • The longer standing your domain name and public registration, the better for your ranking, so don’t arbitrarily switch up your web address.
  • Google’s algorithms will also demote your site if it is too slow, specifically if it takes over 20 seconds to download and/or results in disgruntle users. Make sure the speed is optimized for other devices and browsers as well.

It should also be mentioned that websites that represent government organization, health authorities, legal or educational institutions and eCOMMERCE sites will be held to a higher standard, since they need to uphold public trust and safety.

The Low Quality Low Down

Scratching your head and wondering why you’re not ranking well within the Google algorithm? It could very well be due to any one (or any combination) of these major faux-paux.

  • Your pages have images that won’t load, broken links, and/or sparse content.
  • Your site has links to affiliate sites, affiliate links or monetized links.
  • Your site has a spammy look/feel or flat out spammy content.
  • You are using longer and low quality EMDs.
  • You have duplicate content from your own website or someone else’s. (Remember, original content is key.)
  • Your content is keyword saturated. Of course, you want to use the keyword, but if you’re bludgeoning your readers to death with it, you will be penalized.
  • You’re blocking Googlebot in any way, anywhere.
  • Your site is infested with text ads or pop ups.
  • Your main content is displayed below the fold.
  • Your site is riddled with 404s or too many level 500 or any PHP/MySQL error messages.
  • You have clone sites.

Any or all of this sound painfully familiar? If you’re looking to make nice with Google, then you have to address these rather egregious issues. Yes, it can take some work – especially if your web presence is built on these sorts of tricky manoeuvres – but you have to remember that despite Google’s less than clarion way of going about it, every Google algorithm is trying to make the surfing experience more useful and pleasant to internet users. They are trying to clean up a virtual universe littered with trash. That aside, they are also the apex species of search engines, so like it or not, you’re going to have to adapt to survive. This will involve continued vigilance and a dedication to constant learning – and yes, it can be as exhausting as it sounds, but if you stick to it, your commitment will pay off with consistent and solid top spots in searches.

Need help bringing your site to Google compliance? Contact our professionals.


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