For more than a decade now, Google updates have been keeping search marketers on their toes. Every time you got used to one common SEO custom—such as the most effective way to build backlinks—Google seemed to respond by pushing a major algorithm change that altered how it took those factors into consideration. In the SEO community, industry professionals were constantly either looking for ways to take advantage of the most recent update or trying to anticipate what changes were coming with the next one.
Now, as we enter a new era of search, Google’s update patterns appear to have shifted. For the past several years, rather than introducing new algorithm changes, the search giant is only making tweaks to previously existing ones and making minor changes to account for new technologies. Rank disruption is still occurring, but on a much smaller scale, leaving search marketers to wonder—are Google updates a thing of the past?
The Major Overhauls
Google updates have earned a reputation for being large, disruptive, and sometimes annoying pushes that can raise your site to the top of the SERPs or drop you off into online oblivion. That’s because most of Google’s major updates so far have been massive game changers, either completely overhauling Google’s search engine algorithm or adding some new set of qualifications that turned the ranking system on its head.
Take, for instance, the Panda update of 2011 affected nearly 12 percent of all queries, massively disrupting the search game by introducing a new concept of content-based evaluation. Sites with high-quality content were rewarded while sites with spammy content were penalized.
It was a fair system, and searchers of the world were happy to start seeing more relevant results and fewer obvious attempts to climb ranks by whatever means necessary. But it was still a major headache for search marketers who had invested serious time and money into the previous iteration of Google’s search algorithm. For a time, updates like these were common, and search marketers were constantly on the run, waiting for more changes like the Penguin update, or Panda 2.0, which carried another massive update to Google’s content evaluation system.
Modern Panda and Penguin
Panda and Penguin, two of Google’s biggest landmark algorithm updates, have seen multiple iterations over the past five years. Panda 2.0 was followed by small iterations leading to 3.0, and Penguin 2.0 came out only a year after the initial round of Penguin. These algorithm changes were substantial, and search marketers attempted to predict the cycle based on existing patterns, projecting when the next major Panda- and Penguin-based algorithm changes would come.
But something changed in 2014. Rather than unloading the Panda update in a major package, Google started rolling out data refreshes and minor tweaks to the algorithm on a steady basis. Instead of hitting the search world with a massive burst, it introduced a regular, unobtrusive pulse. Similarly, with the Penguin update, major iterations were virtually done away with. Marketers named an algorithm update “Penguin 3.0” in late 2014, but search volatility was limited compared to Penguin updates in the past.
This, combined with the fact that Google hasn’t released a major overhaul to its search function since the Hummingbird update of 2013, seems to indicate that instead of rolling out massive, disruptive updates, Google is more interested in rolling out very small, gradual changes.
Niche Algorithm Updates
Other than extensions for its previous updates, Google has also released a handful of other changes. However, most of these are focused on niche functions—for example, the unofficially nicknamed “Pigeon update” of 2014 overhauled the way Google processes and displays local search results, taking local reviews from directory sites into account. Similarly, Google has been making changes to its Knowledge Graph and how it displays on SERPs.
These niche updates don’t radically change Google’s core algorithm, nor do they interfere with any major updates of the past. They do have an impact on how search works and what strategies are the most rewarding, but they haven’t done anything to change the fundamental elements of a great SEO strategy.
The Case for Micro-Updates
There are a lot of reasons why Google would want to abandon large-scale updates in favor of smaller, less noticeable ones, and the evidence supports that transition:
- Major updates have slowed to a stop. Instead of large batches of changes, Google is rolling out Penguin and Panda changes gradually and almost imperceptibly.
- Google is no longer officially naming its updates. Penguin 3.0, Panda 4.1, and the Pigeon update are all unofficial nicknames—Google has abandoned the process of naming its updates, indicating it’s moving away from the process.
- Search volatility is decreasing. Since Panda’s 12 percent disruption, nothing has come close to that level of volatility.
- Google is finally at a stable point. The search algorithm is now complex enough to evaluate the quality of sites and the intention behind user queries, leaving little reason to rapidly accelerate through growth spurts.
Of course, it’s possible that Google has a few more aces up its sleeves, but for now it looks as though major updates are dead, in favor of smaller, less momentous rollouts.
What Search Marketers Can Learn
There’s no reason to fear anymore. It’s likely that Google will no longer be pushing out the updates that have disrupted so many business rankings for so long. Instead, search marketers should understand that the fundamental best practices for SEO—improving user experience and building your authority—aren’t going to change anytime soon. The tweaks here and there might fine-tune some small details, but for the most part, the sites and brands that offer the best overall experience are going to be rewarded.
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