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Review: Google's Algorithm Updates in 2013

2013 - A Year in Review...

Google tweaks and modifies its search engine algorithms on an almost constant basis, with annual revisions typically numbering several hundred at least. However, some changes to the way the search engine behemoth ranks webpages and presents information to its users are considerably more significant and impacting for inbound marketers and SEO experts than others.

As was the case last year, many of 2013’s major Google algorithm revisions were introduced as additions to the much-feared and plenty hyped Penguin and Panda updates, of which we’ve already heard so much. Also introduced this year however were the so-called ‘Hummingbird’ update and an interesting new feature of SERPs focused on presenting relevant ‘in-depth’ articles more readily to Google users.

So, as the final days of 2013 approach, let’s have a look at some of the more notable features of the major updates to Panda and Penguin, as well as the early functioning of Hummingbird and the in-depth article elements.

Panda Updates

Panda was the first of the ‘P’ animal-themed algorithmic update to emerge as a weapon in Google’s fight against content farming and the general popularity of low-quality online material. The first of its kind came to Europe in February 2011 and impacted as much as 12 percent of all searches, according to Google’s own data. Later updates have been numerous with some proving considerably more significant than others.

The updates to Panda in 2013 began in January, with 1.2 percent of searches apparently affected and more work done to see poor content and high ad-to-content ratios discouraged. The Panda refresh was the 24th recorded since the first in early 2011 and it was followed in March by a 25th, about which little was officially revealed by the brains behind the various processes. When he did speak out on similar subjects though, Google’s webspam-slayer in chief Matt Cutts suggested Panda was to be fully integrated into the company’s core search algorithm and attentions duly turned elsewhere for the remainder of the year.

Penguin Updates

Manual Penalty

Penguin 1.0 was introduced back in April 2012 as an update reckoned to represent a major step forward for Google’s ability to penalise websites that contravene Google’s Webmaster Guidelines - Specifically those that have obtained unnatural links. Webmasters guilty of breaking Googles quality guidelines received unnatural link warnings within Google Webmaster Tools and manual penalty actions that often resulted in sites all but disappearing from Google search. Sites we’re also algorithmically affected by Penguin (i.e saw an adverse effect but were not manually penalised) and many experienced their rankings decline as Google better identified sites that had acted outside of its guidelines. Later in 2012 there were two other notable updates announced as improvements to algorithms along the same lines and bracketed generally as further Penguin updates.

Google Penguin 2.0

Fast-forward a little to 2013 and there came a further update to the same algorithmic functions taken as being the fourth of their kind but referred to within Google circles as being Penguin 2.0. Such is the potential impact of major updates to the way Google ranks websites that search marketers were braced for enormous ramifications from a Penguin 2.0 rollout, but when it came the impact was significant without being revolutionary or broadly devastating for most. With that said, it did said a further warning to websites that engaged in practices such as unnatural link building that the writing is indeed on the wall.


Knowledge Graph expansion and In-depth articles


Google Conversational Search

As well as doing its level best to deter spam and impede its usefulness in the context of search engine results, Google has been busily aiming to improve the way it responds to searches and presents useful information to its users. To that end in 2013 the company significantly expanded the scope of its knowledge graph function, which now responds to a majority of searches by presenting facts and resources on a given SERP designed to be both relevant and illuminating.

With the roll out of more voice activated search tools (such as Google Glass, Android Phones and Google Chrome on Desktop, more question based and more specific searches are becoming the norm. Try a voice search for "Who is the President of the United States” and on hearing the answer back from Google (yes, it speaks!) ask "How old is he?” and you’ll receive your answer with Google understanding your second query was related to your first.

Conversational search (as Google calls it) is going to be an increasing factor and the expansion of Google's Knowledge Graph is designed to satisfy these searches better. Going forward, search marketers need to focus on answering the needs of searchers by creating in-depth content that provides searchers with the answers they crave as it’s highly likely we’re going to see more updates relating to in-depth content and Google's Knowledge Graph in 2014.

Meanwhile, there was another addition to the way Google’s results are presented with the introduction of an ‘in-depth articles’ feature in response to various searches. Not all searches will deliver links to evergreen, informative and in-depth content but as of 2013 they’ll be there under certain circumstances. So, you’ll be met with a list of in-depth articles in response to a Google search on broadly-focused subjects such as ‘jobs’ or ‘ancestry’ for example, or those subjects that we all know deserve serious scrutiny like ‘50 Shades of Grey’.

In-Depth Articles


The (potentially) greatest change for Google in 2013 was almost certainly the roll out of Hummingbird, which took place in August. However, despite the update effectively replacing one core algorithm with another more finely tuned alternative, its introduction was not widely noted or remarked upon until a month or so after the fact.

But while the changes to the way Google works ushered in by Hummingbird might not have been immediately earth-shattering, they are likely in the longer term to be very significant, for users of Google Search services and ultimately for marketers as well.

As with the inclusion of in-depth article results into many of its SERPs and the expansion of knowledge graphs, Hummingbird is essentially designed to make Google yet more useful for everyday users.

In the same way that the Caffeine update of 2009 aimed to give us relevant & fresher search results faster, Hummingbird has been aimed at giving us more relevant responses to queries by delivering a more nuanced interpretation of semantics. In short, the Hummingbird update helps Google deliver more human responses to searches by having a better shot at understanding each word that’s entered, how it relates to other words in the search and the person making the request.

Looking forward

As we head into 2014, it looks likely that the general thrust of what Google will aim to achieve will continue along the same lines as ever, with the focus broadly speaking to remain firmly on deterring spam content and low-grade websites while encouraging the proliferation of useful resources and compelling user experiences. The issue for inbound marketers will be how best to balance priorities, stay on the right side of what Google (and searchers) expects, deliver competitive content and win fresh traffic in innovative ways.

Oh, and remember the old adage that rumours of the death of SEO are likely once more to be greatly exaggerated.

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