Google likes to keep search marketers on their toes. Its search engine algorithm, kept top secret, has evolved gradually over the course of more than 15 years, but its biggest changes have come in the form of incidental spikes. Google releases major updates to its algorithm in big packages, which roll out over the course of a few days, and have traditionally caused great volatility in the search rankings of countless businesses. Google also releases tiny updates, fixes, and data refreshes as follow-ups to these massive updates, but they don’t make nearly as many waves.
The big players of the past decade have been the Panda update of 2011, the Penguin update of 2012, and the Pigeon update from earlier this year. These updates all fundamentally disrupted certain ranking principles we had all taken for granted, and their impact has dictated the shape of search marketing today.
Today, it’s easy to understand why Google released each of these updates, but when they first rolled out, they were surprising to everyone. While there is a certain predictable calm in the current search marketing world, it’s only a matter of time before Google changes the game again with another revolutionary new update.
So what will the nature of the next update be? And what can we do to prepare for it?
In order to understand the possibilities for the future, we have to understand the context of the past. The Panda and Penguin updates served as complementary rollouts, targeting the negative practices of onsite SEO and offsite SEO, respectively.
The Panda update came first in 2011, shaking up the results of almost 12 percent of all search queries. The update came as a surprise, but it was only a natural response to some of the practices that were rampant at the time. The update’s primary target was onsite content, and culprits who used low-quality content as a mechanism solely to drive rank. Accordingly, it penalized those sites and rewarded sites that maintained a focus in providing valuable, enjoyable content.Low-quality spam-like practices, such as stuffing content with keywords and copying content from other sites, were virtually eradicated.
The Penguin update came out as a counterpoint to Panda in 2012, doing for offsite link building what Panda did for onsite copywriting. Penguin 1.0 affected just over three percent of search queries, giving it a narrower range than Panda, but the sites it did affect were affected enormously. Penguin targeted sites that paid for external links, built external links on irrelevant sites, or spammed links in irrelevant conversations. Conversely, it rewarded sites that built more natural links in a diversified strategy.
The Pigeon update was slightly different from its cousins. Like them it was a major update that fundamentally changed an element of SEO, but it was never officially named by Google. It was released in the early summer of 2014.
The Pigeon update was designed to change results for local searches. Rather than attempting a global change, like with Panda and Penguin, Pigeon is focused only on redefining searches for local businesses. Through Pigeon, local directory sites like Yelp and UrbanSpoon got a significant boost in authority, and businesses with significant high ratings on those sites also received a boost. Now, local businesses can get as much visibility by increasing the number of positive reviews posted about them than they can by pursuing traditional content marketing strategies.
While these updates all surprised people when they came out, and their specific changes are still being analyzed and debated, they all share one fundamental quality: they were rolled out to improve user experience.
Panda was rolled out because too many webmasters were posting spammy, low-quality, and keyword stuffed content. The update sought to improve user experience by promoting sites with more relevant, valuable content.
Penguin was rolled out because the web was filling up with keyword stuffed, random backlinks. The update sought to improve user experience by penalizing the culprits behind such spammy practices.
Pigeon was rolled out because the scope of local businesses online was getting more diverse, and users needed a more intuitive way to find the ones that best met their needs. Pigeon sough to improve user experience by adding sophistication to its local business ranking process.
User experience is the name of the game, and it’s the sole motivation behind each of Google’s landmark updates.
Since their release, Panda and Penguin have been subject to countless new iterations. Data refreshes and updates tend to occur on an almost monthly basis, while major updates have been rolled out annually—Panda 4.0 and Penguin 3.0 both rolled out in the past few months. Pigeon is still relatively new, but chances are it will see some expansion as well.
For now, it seems that Google is trying to build off of the structures that already exist within the confines of its greater algorithm. Rather than trying to introduce new categories of search ranking factors, Google is refining the categories it’s already introduced: onsite, offsite, and now local. It’s likely that Google will continue this trend for as long as it continues to improve user experience, gently refining their quality criteria and targeting emerging black hat tactics as they arise.
However, it’s only a matter of time before Google discovers a new category of refinement. When it does, the update will likely be just as surprising as the big three, and will warrant its own series of updates and refinements.
If we’re going to predict the nature of the next update, we need to understand two things: the emergence of new technology and the fundamental focus Google maintains on improving user experience. The next major Google update will probably have something to do with significantly improving the way users interact with one or more rising technologies.
The Knowledge Graph
One option is a radical expansion of the Google Knowledge Graph. The Knowledge Graph, that box of helpful information that appears to the side when you search for a specific person, place or thing, is changing the way that people search—instead of clicking on one of the highest ranking links, they’re consulting the information displayed in the box. The next Google update could change how significant this box appears, and how it draws and presents information from other sites.
Third Party Apps
Google has already shown its commitment to improving user experience through the integration of third party apps—it’s favoring third party sites like Yelp and UrbanSpoon in search results, and is integrating services like OpenTable and Uber in its Maps application. The next search algorithm update could start drawing more information in from these independent applications, rather than web pages themselves, or it could use app integrations as a new basis for establishing authority.
The Rise of Mobile
Smart phones are ubiquitous at this point, but wearable technology is still on the rise. The swell of user acceptance for smart watches could trigger some new update based around proximity searches, voice searches, or some other facet of smart watch technology. Since smart watches are in their infancy, it’s difficult to tell exactly what impacts on search they will have.
No matter what kind of update Google has in store for us next, it’s bound to take us by surprise at least slightly. We can study its past updates and the new technologies on the horizon all we want, but Google will always be a step ahead of us because it’s the one in control of the search results. The only things we know for sure at this juncture arethat Google will eventually release another new massive update at some point, and its goal will be improving user experience.