Your Quick Reference Guide to Google Algorithm Updates

Google Algorithm Cheat Sheet

Google is constantly updating their algorithms in an effort to serve us the most relevant and authoritative search results on the web. The good folks at Moz produce enough in-depth SEO analysis to boggle the mind but chances are you don’t have the time to sift through the algorithm archives. We’ve boiled it down to the basics here in this handy cheat sheet of Google algorithm updates you need to know about, and best practices to ensure your website doesn’t get Google-slapped.

Screenshot of google search results pagePIGEON

Location, location, location

Late last year, Pigeon came home to roost shaking up search listings in the Google Local Pack – the list of local suggestions that appear mapped at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs) along with contact details and star ratings. The aim of Pigeon is to tie in local search algorithms with core algorithms even further, giving users more relevant results based on their distance from known city centres. Quality review sites and directories like Yelp, TripAdvisor, OpenTable and Zagat experienced a pump in search rankings while several niche business types such as DUI layers, real estate companies and plumbers saw a sharp decline.

To make sure Pigeon doesn’t poo on your search presence:

  • Think locally. Develop your content strategy with your neighbourhood in mind, including location-specific keywords in your web copy.
  • Invite reviews. If you’ve got happy customers, ask them to review your business on sites like Yelp and Google+.
  • Get listed. Google likes local directories now, so compile a list of ones that are ranking well and submit a business listing. Carefully maintain your listings for the best results.


Copyright violators be damned

The aptly-named Pirate update cracked down on the most infamous scallywags of copyright infringement: torrent sites. While most algorithm updates are aimed at improving UX, Pirate was rolled out explicitly to punish (i.e. downrank) repeat violators of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). As you can imagine, this led to a lot of controversy and flared age-old accusations that Google is policing the internet. Searchmetrics reported the top losers to be popular content streaming sites like,, and

To avoid getting pillaged by Pirate:

  • Don’t illegally stream content on your website or blog (duh).
  • Designate a DMCA agent to make sure your website isn’t liable for copyright infringement committed by users of your comment sections and interactive communities.
  • Set up Google Webmaster Tools to keep tabs on possible DMCA notices.


Screenshot of google search results page with knowledge graphA small step towards semantic search

Not technically an update, but a change to the overall algorithm focusing on semantic search – a next-level understanding of user intent. Search engines of the future will be intuitive. They will understand what you’re looking for by analysing contextual clues and connections to establish meaning. In other words though conversations, not keywords. While Hummingbird might be paving the way for futuristic machine learning stuff, for now it mostly means that Google is better able to serve up relevant answers to long-tail queries like “What is the best Thai restaurant in Brixton?” – even if the best-answer website isn’t optimised for this phrase.

The sweet, sweet nectar of quality content and great UX keeps Hummingbird happy, so:


  • Stop obsessing over keywords. The push towards semantic search rewards sites that provide meaningful solutions, regardless of antiquated metrics like keyword density.
  • Revamp on-page elements. If it’s been a while since your last site audit, Hummingbird is a good reason to make the time as optimal accessibility and UX have become even more important.
  • Implement structured data mark-ups. This helps search engines index your site, plus you can get some snazzy rich snippets in search results courtesy of the Google Knowledge Graph.



All hail high quality content
Panda is essentially a quality control filter targeting 3 major offences: thin, duplicate and low-quality content. So, stuff that provides little value to users.  Song lyrics sites suffered a major drop in rankings due to Panda as they’re quite often loaded with this trifecta of content sins – loads of ad-heavy pages scattered with a few sentences each, duplicated across many different domains.  Panda is updated regularly so if your SERP presence has suffered, optimising your site with high-quality content will eventually pay off. What counts as high-quality content, you ask? The Google Webmaster blog published an extensive checklist to point you in the right direction.

How to feed the panda:

  • Avoid large amounts of aggregated or automated content.
  • Don’t duplicate content across your site or republish loads of content from other domains.
  • If you do have internal duplicate pages, canonicalise or use a 301 redirect.
  • Identify your thin content pages and remove them from the index.
  • Don’t go crazy with the ads. A high ad ratio is a red flag as it often means bad UX.



Taking a bite out of link spam

First announced in 2012, Penguin was a dramatic move to combat the manipulation of search results though black-hat SEO tactics like paid link schemes, exact-match anchor text and comment spam. The first wave of Penguin affected more than 3% of search queries (sounds like a little, but it’s actually a lot) and left many webmasters out in the cold as they struggled in vain to detoxify their spamtastic link profiles.

Penguin is always out there fishing for link spammers, so:

  • Do not participate in paid link building schemes or other black-hat tactics that violate Google Webmaster Guidelines.
  • Use the Disavow Tool to banish dodgy backlinks.
  • Maintain a natural link profile. This means a wide range of relevant backlinks, both follow and nofollow, using a variety of brand and keyword-driven anchor text from a mix of authoritative domains.

Google’s algorithms are ever-evolving, keeping SEOs and webmasters on their toes. If you’re keen to keep up with the latest developments, bookmark the Moz algorithm update timeline for an easily digestible top-level view. Or if the world of backlinks, canonicals and anchor text has your head spinning, drop us a line and we’ll get your website sorted with a comprehensive SEO audit.