It wasn’t that long ago when business owners and search optimizers felt like they were at Google’s mercy, waiting for the next unpredictable manual algorithm update to shake up their rankings and possibly ruin months of work. Though updates were around before 2011, Panda was the first major push, followed shortly by Penguin in 2012. Now, things are relatively quiet on the update front, but that hasn’t stopped speculators and worriers from constantly “looking around the corner” for the next major shake-up.
Here’s thing: that shake-up probably isn’t going to come. Massive manual algorithm updates are practically dead, and here are seven reasons why:
When was the last time you ran a personal Google search and came back disappointed with the results? It’s probably been several years. That’s because Google has all but perfected the modern search engine. With Panda ensuring only sites with great content can rank, Penguin filtering out link spam, and Hummingbird providing a better analysis of user queries, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get an unhelpful or inappropriate list of results. Google has a great foundation now, and spammers are easily kept at bay. Of course, there are always little improvements to be made, but there really isn’t any more need for the type of massive game-changing updates that Google’s become known for.
Panda was massive, affecting almost 12 percent of all queries. Its close cousin, Penguin, only affected 3 percent. Since then, the significance of each Google update has shrunk. Consider the case of Mobilegeddon, which earlier this year was heralded as the “next big Google update,” and the one capable of changing search ranks forever. Despite having most of the information in advance, panic set in and search markers braced themselves for the worst. When it came out, only a handful of sites saw any meaningful changes. That’s because it didn’t change much in terms of how Google produces search results. It was merely an improvement.
You may not realize that Panda and Penguin weren’t one-time updates. Instead, they’ve consistently seen new add-ons and “data refreshes” over the past few years (and continuing today). Why haven’t you noticed? Because these are rolled out gradually and iteratively, layering themselves onto Google’s existing algorithm so nobody sees a major shakeup like they did with the first iteration. Panda rolls out a new refresh practically every month, and this seems to be the general direction Google’s heading—much less severe changes to the fold in favor of more consistent, imperceptible changes.
Google is still the go-to search tool for two-thirds of online users, but new forms of search are starting to emerge—and they seem just as powerful and useful as Google (though they lack as much name recognition). Major competitors like Bing and lesser-knowns like DuckDuckGo are starting to grow in numbers, and new digital assistants like Siri and Cortana are changing the landscape of personal search as we know it. For the average search marketer this means two things—one, Google’s losing its status as the be-all, end-all search authority, and two, even if it does push out a manual update, you won’t see as much volatility since your search bets are naturally being hedged.
This is admittedly one of the less convincing arguments on this list, but take a look at how much PageRank factors have changed in the past few years. It’s changed constantly, a little less each year, for most of the 2000s, but by 2013, it was practically stagnant. In 2014, John Mueller announced that Google would probably never change PageRank again, meaning it’s pretty satisfied with how things are ranking and isn’t interested in a new introduction.
My big example here is the Google Knowledge Graph, but Google+, Google Now, and other new features and platforms compound this view. Traditional web searches have been favorable and profitable for Google, but the company is ready to move on to wider-reaching, more sophisticated forms of helping users retrieve the information they need. Rather than continuing to perfect an old system, it’s building new systems.
Finally, I want to touch on the importance of RankBrain. RankBrain is an artificial intelligence program that works with Hummingbird to better understand and adapt to user queries—it’s incredibly sophisticated, but the short version of the story is that it updates Google’s algorithm of its own accord. That’s right. Google is now being updated by itself—not by humans—so the big, batched, manually processed updates we’re used to seeing are no more. This is at least true for semantic search analysis for the time being, but don’t be surprised if you see more AI algorithm updating programs emerge in the near future, for Google and other engines.
Google might come out with another manual update—in fact, it probably still has several more to go. But over the next few years, these updates will grow to be less massive, less impactful, and less noticeable. For you, that means you don’t have to worry about manual Google updates anymore—most of them will disappear, and the few that remain will be beneath your notice.
Still, the world of search is far from done changing. Its evolution will continue, gradually but significantly, as new technology and user patterns emerge. Pay attention to these changes, stay on top of your strategies, and never stay in one place too long.