On July 3, 2014, Matt Cutts declared to the search community that he was going on leave for 4 months, all the way through October. Upon hearing the news, I had a big sigh of relief. For you see, I thought to myself, “There is absolutely no way Google is going to launch any algorithms or make any significant updates to their existing algorithms while the face of their search quality department was on leave of absence.” I mean, who are SEO’s going to yell at and blame for all of their woes while he is away, right? John Mueller, a Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, tends to navigate Google’s help forums and host Google Hangouts, giving advice on how to build a website that’s both user and search engine friendly, would be my first guess – but is he adequately prepared to fend off the masses of SEO questions ahead?
Google Algorithms Launched and Updated in 2014
Well, it turns out that Google had no plans for holding back during Matt’s absence. In fact, it seems they’ve decided to turn up the heat a bit. They’ve made quite a splash with announcing two new algorithms, and there have even been a couple periods of unconfirmed algorithm changes hitting the streets, causing significant SERP (search engine ranking placement) changes. But before we get into the more recent algorithms, let’s first have a quick look at the algorithms that Google has acknowledged have launched or been updated, prior to Matt skipping town.
Page Layout Algorithm #3
Release Date: February 6, 2014
The Page Layout algorithm (originally referred to as, “Ads above the Fold” algorithm) was first launched on January 19, 2012, and then updated in October 9, 2012. Google believes having too much ad-space / advertisements above the page fold of a website provides for a bad user experience, so the algorithm aims to hinder the rankings of websites that are dominantly ad heavy. In trying to find what impact the Page Layout algorithm had on our 130+ HVAC, plumbing and electrical clients, I found that this algorithm negatively impacted any thin content pages. And I also suspected that it treated having too many images above the page fold the same as having too many advertisements. Moral of the story is to try and have as much unique and valuable content above the page fold as possible instead of having too many images or ad’s.
Release Date: March 24, 2014
Although it was never publicly confirmed by Google, there was a major shake-up in the SERPs around March 24 – 25. According to Moz.com’s documented Google Algorithm Change History, SEO’s speculated this was the softer Panda update Matt Cutts confirmed at SMX West 2014 would be rolling out relatively soon.
Payday Loan 2.0
Release Date: May 16, 2014
The Payday Loan algorithm was first introduced by Matt Cutts via Twitter on June 11, 2013. In his tweet, he suggested webmasters watch a video he posted previously in which he discussed some upcoming changes to Google’s search. In the video, he hints that the algorithm is geared towards cleaning up search results that tend to be more aggressively spammed than others, such as payday loan, Viagra, gambling, pornographic and other like keywords.
Release Date: May 19, 2014
In what’s now becoming a more common thing, Google is releasing significant algorithm updates within short periods of one another, in what I believe is a tactic to help make it more difficult for SEO’s (such as myself) from reverse engineering the exact metrics their algorithms target. Apparently Matt Cutts stated the algorithm started rolling out on May 20, but the SERP data Moz.com collects indicated it may have started a day earlier.
Payday Loan 3.0
Release Date: June 12, 2014
Not even a month after the 2nd confirmed update for the Payday Loan algorithm, we received word from Google that they launched yet another update. According to Barry Schwartz’s Search Engine Roundtable article, Matt Cutts stated that the 2.0 update not only helped to better prevent negative SEO (the black hat art of pointing spammy, irrelevant and/or low quality backlinks to competitor sites), but it also specifically targeted spammy websites. Whereas this 3rd update more so targeted spammy search queries, which is consistent with what the initial algorithm did.
Authorship Photo Dropped
Release Date: June 28, 2014
This is more so a SERP display change rather than an algorithm update, but it is significant enough of a change to have earned a spot on this list. John Mueller announced on June 25, 2014 that Google would no longer be showing authorship photos within their search results. Many webmasters, including myself, noticed in the days and weeks prior to the official announcement that there were some rare instances of authorship photos disappearing, but I don’t believe any of us would have believed Google would have removed the authorship photos entirely. Nevertheless, Google has opted to leave the authorship name, which links directly to the Google+ profile for the respective authors, as well as the date of when the blog article was published. You can see an example of this in the screenshot below showing my authorship info for my blog post on keyword cannibalization.
Above I discussed new, updated and unconfirmed algorithm tweaks that occurred prior to Matt Cutts going on leave.
Below are the algorithm’s which launched after Matt Cutts going on leave.
Release Date: July 24, 2014
This update was actually never officially named internally at Google. So in an attempt to make it easier for SEO’s to reference it later, Search Engine Land (SEL) was, as usual, quick to dub this algorithm – they decided on “Pigeon.” Keeping with the theme of P-named algorithm updates (i.e. Panda, Penguin, Payday Loan, Page Layout), SEL felt this name was appropriate because this algorithm specifically targeted local search results, and “Pigeons tend to fly back home.”
Now getting to the good stuff – what we do know about this algorithm is that it is said to be the 2nd largest algorithm to be released since the Venice update. Barry Schwartz also claims Google told him that the new local-focused algorithm particularly made local SERP ranking signals similar to that of organic SERP ranking signals, and that it improved their ability to better interpret and factor in both distance and location for improved local ranking. To me, this suggests that websites will have a harder time ranking locally for cities in which they are no physically located within.
MozCast’s Google SERP Feature Graph, a tool that shows changes in Google SERP results, indicated a local SERP drop from 19.3% to a low of 9.2% within the days following the algorithm’s launch and a slight increase of knowledge graph results, from 26.7% to 28%.
The commonality spotted by many SEO’s in the industry is that there are many keyword phrases which used to show a local map pack, but no longer do (Mike Blumenthal, a well-known local SEO expert, noticed that real estate type keywords in particular seemed to be the ones that were most significantly impacted, which he indicates in his comment here). Moz’s graph is showing that local search results seem to have regulated back to normal around July 29, 2014 – Barry Schwartz reached out to Google to confirm if we were already seeing a fresh of the Pigeon algorithm, but they would not confirm nor deny.
HTTPS / SSL Algorithm
Release Date: August 6, 2014
During my trip to SMX West this year, Matt Cutts stated that he would love to see websites that utilize SSL certificates (i.e. https://www.wellsfargo.com; note the HTTPS vs. HTTP, which means this website is secured) receive a ranking boost for providing a secured website to their websites visitors. Well, it seems he knew more than he was letting on – five months later and Google officially announced that they now provide a minor ranking boost to websites that have SSL certificates installed. They also suggested that they might increase the weight of this ranking signal in the future.
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The Google Algorithms Keep Coming, and Coming, and Coming ….
As you can see, we SEO’s have our hands full. There are only a handful of algorithms (out of the hundreds of updates Google makes per year) that are significant enough for Google to publicly announce, but it truly is a never ending battle. One day you might have 1st page rankings for “Denver Plumber”, the next week you could fall off to the 5th page or even farther, and then you could find yourself ranking higher in the weeks following.
My seven plus years of SEO experience has taught me that Google’s SERPs are in a never-ending state of flux, but if you build and optimize your website to the highest standard, you tend to not have to worry about any sort of negative impact from these frequent updates. And this holds true with the majority of client’s here at iMarket Solutions. We only utilize white hat methodologies, and we stay up to date on Google’s quality guidelines and the algorithms they do publicly announce, so we know exactly what Google prefers in a website.
We and our methodologies aren’t perfect; we have had some clients’ who have seen negative results from algorithmic changes, but I’ve learned to accept that as collateral damage, if you will. It’s simply impossible to build a perfect website and marketing campaign, especially with so many great minds and websites competing with our own, and to not expect some sort of backwards movement at one time or another. The important thing to do in those situations though, which is pretty much a favorite past-time of ours, is to review ranking, Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools data to try and determine which pages or strategies an algorithm has targeted on a site, and to use that knowledge to better your methodologies as a whole. This is what iMarket Solutions does on a weekly basis for our clients’, and a large reason as to why we are capable of building such successful SEO campaigns.
If you are in the HVAC, electrical, plumbing or home remodeling industry and want a website that dominates organic search results, feel free to give us a call - (800) 825-7935!
And if you have any questions or comments regarding this blog post, I’d love to hear about them below.