What Did Google Just Do to Its Core Ranking Algorithm?
At AudienceBloom, we’ve tracked a ton of Google updates, from the incessant add-ons to staples like Panda and Penguin, to one-off updates like last year’s content quality revision. Some updates require Google’s explicit announcement and explanation, while others get integrated without attracting much attention at all, but few changes significantly alter the “core” algorithm—the batch of code that Google trusts to run by itself without manual monitoring (think of it as Google’s foundation). Now, a recent change to Google’s core has caused some significant ranking volatility—and it might spell a new future for some of the branch (non-core) updates we’ve come to know and love.
Recent Ranking Turbulence
First, let’s take a look at the introductory evidence. Earlier this month, over the course of a weekend, many webmasters and SEO experts noticed an increase in ranking volatility. Though nowhere near the size or scope of Panda, the shifts were significant enough to signal the introduction of something new to Google’s ranking algorithm. For a time, it appeared that this would be one of Google’s top-secret implementations, going unacknowledged and unnamed by Google on an “official” basis.
However, both Gary Illyes and John Mueller (two Google rockstars) confirmed that yes, indeed, a core algorithm change was implemented that caused this ranking volatility. We haven’t gotten much in the way of details for this update—nor have we gotten a name—but the confirmation is a good starting point.
The Integration of Panda
It’s worth noting that Google recently announced the integration of Panda into their core ranking algorithm. If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Panda was first introduced in 2011 as a “branched” algorithm, meaning it existed separate from the core but still interacted with it, and since, all the Panda updates we’ve seen have applied to that algorithmic branch. In fact, as recent as last year, we’ve seen monthly iterations of Panda, either making gradual tweaks to the algorithm or refreshing its data.
The move to the core didn’t change much about Panda itself, but instead serves as an acknowledgment by Google that Panda is in a more-or-less “complete” form, ready to be integrated into its core algorithm permanently. For those of you who were still holding out hope that Panda was temporary, that hope is vanquished (and for good reason). There’s one major ambiguity here, and that’s exactly when the integration took place.
Related or Unrelated?
If you’re like me, you’ll look at these two facts and come to a natural conclusion. You know that a fundamental change to Google’s core algorithm occurred, resulting in ranking volatility. You also know that Panda was recently integrated into Google’s core algorithm. If you put two and two together, you come to the conclusion that Google’s integration of Panda led to some of these ranking discrepancies, but did it?
According to John Mueller and Gary Illyes, the integration of Panda is unrelated to the recent ranking volatility that many of us have seen. These were separate instances that have no bearing on one another, other than the fact that they both happen to deal with the core ranking algorithm. Mueller also confirmed that this recent volatility was completely unrelated to Penguin—crushing the hopes of many SEO experts who have been anxiously awaiting the next iteration of Twitter since the end of last year and adding confusion to the Google process.
What It Means for You
Because our knowledge of this update is somewhat limited, there aren’t many takeaways that can lead you to better results. All we can do is focus on the changes that did occur, why they might have occurred, and what practical actions you can take to respond to those changes. As far as we can tell, there are only two critical distinguishing factors between the “winners” of the update (those who gained rank) and the “losers” (those who lost rank):
- Winners tended to have longer-form, more descriptive content with more multimedia content.
- Winners tended to have more recent content about the subjects in question.
It’s no secret that Google loves recent, descriptive content, so is this update just a simple refinement of the significance of those factors? If so, your response to this update should be simple; increase the recentness and relevance of your content by beefing up your content with more visuals, more information, and a timelier posting schedule.
However, there are two more critical questions we need to ask as a result of this volatility.
When Is Penguin Coming?
First, if Panda has moved to a permanent position in the core Google algorithm, and the recent volatility wasn’t a result of a new Penguin update, when is that new Penguin update coming? Is Google holding onto it for the middle of the year? The end of the year? Or is it waiting for one final push to “perfect” the Penguin branch so it, too, can be moved to the core algorithm? This leads me to my next question.
Is Everything Moving to a Core?
Panda has been a major branch for almost five years. If Google is now finally ready to move Panda into its core algorithm, are other branch updates like Penguin, Hummingbird, or even Pigeon going to eventually become cannibalized by the core algorithm? And if so, how will this affect the future of Google updates, especially as more of its components become self-learning and self-updating like RankBrain?
This question probably peers further ahead than we need to look, but it’s an important consideration. For now, focus on what we do know—Panda is now permanent, and Google is still refining its definition of high-quality content. Keep your content fresh and detailed, and you shouldn’t experience any trouble from these recent core changes.
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