An algorithm is a detailed set of procedures for solving a problem or completing a task. When you think of an algorithm in the most general way, they’re everywhere. For example, a recipe you use for making food is an algorithm comprised of ingredients, preparation steps and times, cooking steps and times, etc. Once your food is prepared and ready to go, the algorithm that helped get you there is complete.

Algorithms as they relate to Google Search are in part what allow us have SERPs (search engine results pages). When you search on Google, you want the answer, not just a list of billions of webpages that make up the internet. Google ranking systems sort through the hundreds of billions of webpages in their index to give you useful and relevant results in a fraction of a second. These ranking systems are made up of a series of algorithms that analyze what it is you are looking for and what information to return to you.

Over time, algorithms are refined to assess your searches and the results in finer detail to make Google Search work better for all users.

What are some of the Google algorithms we know about?

To be clear, Google does not function with a single algorithm. There are multiple algorithms that work (both together and separately) to allow the search experience that we have today. Some of their algorithms have been publicized and given names, while others remain somewhat of a mystery*.

  • *through testing, Webmasters have made educated guesses towards additional algorithms
  • *additionally, patents that Google has filed also can help shed light on algorithms being created

The first algorithm developed by Google and given a name was their PageRank algorithm. The algorithm was a way of measuring the importance of a web page, for the purpose of ranking within Organic search. Below is a bullet list of some recent notable (and confirmed) algorithms from Google:

  • PageRank
  • assigns measure of web page importance to help with organic rankings
  • Caffeine (2010)
  • the first huge update to the way Google handled searches, this update allowed Google to boost their speed at which they crawled and indexed the web
  • Panda (2011)
  • placed an emphasis upon content, specifically the quality of content towards fulfilling the need of the end user
  • Penguin (2012)
  • went after spammy backlink profiles, over optimized anchor text, and linking practices that were outside of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
  • Hummingbird (2013)
  • this is the name given to Google’s Search Algorithm after the huge update/overhaul; prior to this, Google’s main algorithm didn’t have a name
  • any reference you might hear to “the core” algorithm is now synonymous with Hummingbird
  • Hummingbird was a complete overhaul to the way Google handled searches, with a special focus on conversational search and natural-sounding language
  • RankBrain (early 2015)
  • the artificial intelligence machine-learning algorithm that helps Google process search results
  • specifically, RankBrain helps Google to understand unique long-tail queries occurring more and more with the increase in mobile devices and voice search

For a list of algorithm updates, Moz has you covered nicely.

For further reading on RankBrain, SearchEngineLand has a great write-up.

Historically, how have we identified algorithm changes?

Google used to announce and confirm big/major changes. All of the algorithms listed above were confirmed by Google and explained to the SEO/Webmaster community.

Beyond Google confirming, visual tools have been created that track large sets of websites in an effort to identify fluctuations in their SERP visibility (these are listed below under Resources).

Outside of these tools, your site’s organic rankings and traffic can be key indicators of your site being re-evaluated after an algorithm update. If there has been an update, what do your organic rankings look like? Did they fall off the map? This might not be a bad thing; you could possibly be ranking on new terms/keywords you just aren’t tracking. Next step would be to look at your analytics and organic traffic. Regardless of you falling off for some ranking keywords and maybe gaining visibility on others, if your traffic has taken a nosedive, you may have been negatively affected by an algorithm update increase.

Now – to be clear- there can be anywhere from 500 to 600 tweaks to Googles algorithms each year. Algorithm updates happen almost daily! However, most of these algorithm updates are small and not noticed by the SEO community. In the past, Google has announced major changes to their algorithm(s). Many members of the community believe that after the introduction of RankBrain, Google will begin to slow down and/or stop making announcements in respect to algorithm updates.

If you’ve been affected, how can you understand why?

It’ll be nearly impossible to completely understand; there isn’t just one algorithm, and no single algorithm is completely known by the SEO community. Some algorithms are understood better than others, and the SEO community has identified key contributing parts of confirmed algorithms that help clients and brands to optimize towards (take Panda, for example; we know this focuses on devaluing thin content, duplicate content, and/or content that doesn’t provide value to the end user).

In a post RankBrain world, let’s say an algorithm update happens tomorrow. What can you do?

  • Look at your organic rankings – are you seeing any volatility?
    •  If no, look at your analytics to confirm
    • If yes, look at your analytics to confirm
  • Look at your organic traffic (segmented out for just Google) – any major shifts?
    • If no, you very likely weren’t affected
    • If yes, what landing pages experienced the drop?
      • Were they all in the same directory?
      • Was there a common link these to these pages?
      • Is there a likeness towards their content model or backlink structure (thin, provide little value, etc.)?

Conclusion

It’s about trying to be as proactive as you can be in a relatively reactive industry. For the Google algorithms that have been publicized and confirmed, your site should already be strategically fitting into them. If you have a spammy backlink structure or a thin content strategy with individual pages that speak to every iteration of your keyword strategy – you’re clearly not optimizing for what’s already known.

It’s nearly impossible to optimize for what you don’t know, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot for what you do already know.

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Ready to learn more? Check out our Guide to SEO in 2018, or contact the 3Q SEO team to find out how we can enhance your search strategy.

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Additional Resources

Rank Ranger

Moz

Advanced Web Ranking

Searchmetrics SEO Visibility

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Colin Guidi
Colin Guidi has been working in the SEO industry since 2009, and began working with 3Q Digital in 2014. In his spare time, Colin enjoys taking off his computer glasses and enjoying the outside. However, in his opinion nothing beats reading a solid well constructed SEO blog post littered with discussion comments from thought leaders (you might just find some attributed to him).