Google’s Algorithm Updates

A Handy Guide to Google’s Algorithm Updates (2011-2018)

As we’ve blogged about before, Google regularly and consistently makes changes to its ranking algorithm (and yes, uses a lot of animal names in doing so).


Since 2011, when the first such change was introduced, there has been at least nine major updates, affecting how websites are ranked, and therefore, visibility. What were these changes, and how should law firms best optimize their sites for them? Read on for a handy synopsis of each.


Panda: 2011

Panda was Google’s first major algorithm update, way back in 2011. The intention behind this change was to fight against so-called “grey hat SEO” (stay tuned for an upcoming Umbrella blog about the differences between grey hat, white hat, and black hat SEO).


The goal of Panda was to improve the quality of search results by rewarding high-quality websites and down-ranking (i.e. diminishing) the presence of low-quality websites in search engine results.


The focus of the Panda update included:

  • Thin content: weak pages with very little substantive or relevant content.
  • Duplicate content: content that has been copied and appears in more than one place on the internet (can include pages on your own website where the same text is used with little or no variation in more than one area).
  • Lack of authority: content produced by sources that are not considered authorities on their topic.
  • Content farming: creation of a large number of low-quality and short pages, targeting every conceivable search term, often aggregated from another source or website.
  • High ad-to-content ratio: pages that consist primarily of paid advertising rather than original content.

Panda has since become part of Google’s core algorithm.


Best Practices Post-Panda


Best practices post-Panda include:

  • Publishing unique and original content on a regular basis, written by a knowledgeable writer with significant experience in your practice area;
  • Ensuring that all content pages and blogs are significantly lengthy;
  • Avoiding repetition of even short content, such as in your call to action at the end of each page and each blog post;
  • Beefing up any existing pages that may be too short or too “thin”.


Penguin: 2012


Penguin (yes, again with the animals), was introduced in 2012 and was intended to be an additional barrage against spam. It targeted websites that engaged in keyword stuffing and link schemes:

  • Keyword stuffing: filling a content page with unnatural and repetitive high-ranking keywords in an attempt to manipulate ranking. For example: “ABC Personal Injury LLP in Toronto is the personal injury firm in Toronto that Toronto plaintiffs trust when they need a Toronto personal injury lawyer to help them with a Toronto personal injury claim”
  • Link schemes & Link farming: developing, acquiring, or purchasing backlinks from low-quality or unrelated websites to inorganically increase the site’s authority.

Like Panda, Penguin has since become part of Google’s core algorithm.


Best Practices Post-Penguin


Best practices post-Penguin include:

  • Quality over quantity – focus on acquiring high-quality links (ie. from relevant, trustworthy with sites, with a good domain authority) rather than just the number of links;
  • Generate backlinks organically by creating quality, shareable content;
  • Regularly review your backlinks;
  • Check all newly acquired links;
  • Identify any suspicious or harmful links (such as “spammy” links)
  • Request the removal of any such links;
  • Disavow links where necessary.


EMD (Exact Match Domain): 2012

This was the second update introduced by Google in 2012. This updated was intended to prevent poor quality sites from ranking well simply by virtue of having words that match popular search terms in their domain names.


Prior to this update, people were gaming the SEO system by buying domains with an exact match keyword and building a site with very thin content and almost no value.


Best Practices Post-EMD


If you are buying an exact match domain, make sure your content is substantive, high-quality, and original/unique.


Pirate: 2012

This was Google’s third algorithm change of 2012 (yaaaar!). As the name suggests, the update targeted sites with pirated content (or content that had copyright infringement reports filed) from ranking well.  As a result of the change, pirated sites are demoted in search engine results.


Best Practices Post-Pirate


The Pirate update should not be of concern to law firms, as you are unlikely to be distributing the content of others without the copyright owner’s permission.


However, other sites may seek to pirate content from your law firm’s site, particularly if you are consistently producing high-quality, original, and informative content. It is important that your webmaster and/or developer insert code in indicating that your firm’s site is the original author of the content.


At the end of the day, the Pirate update is a good reminder that original, regularly updated and informative content is still king.


Hummingbird: 2013

Google reverted back to animal names with the introduction of Hummingbird in 2013. Unlike Panda and Penguin which were described by Google as “add-ons” to its existing algorithm, Hummingbird was cited as a complete overhaul of the core algorithm.


The update was intended to reflect Google’s attempt to understand the intent behind a user’s search (for example: long conversational phrases being searched rather than individual keywords) with the goal of matching them to more relevant results. It was also intended to improve vocal search at the dawn of technologies such as Google Home, Echo, Alexa, etc. all of which lend themselves to longer, more natural and conversational searches.


Best Practices Post-Hummingbird


The best way to deal with Hummingbird is to ensure that natural language is reflected in your sites content (including in titles and meta-descriptions!).


Pigeon: 2014

Google’s avian theme continued with the Pigeon update which was introduced in 2014. This update was intended to tie Google’s local search algorithm closer to its web algorithm and improve ranking parameters based on both location and distance.


This update provided a significant ranking boost to local directory sites and created a closer link between Google Web searches and Google Map searches.


Best Practices Post-Pigeon


The Pigeon update emphasizes the need for local businesses to have a strong organic web presence in order to effectively compete for local rankings. Some best practices in doing so include:

  • Emphasizing hyperlocal content: create video, image, and written content that associates your firm with a specific neighbourhood (if in a big city like Toronto) or local region;
  • Create a Google My Business page: create and regularly update a Google my Business page for your firm (especially your Name Address Phone Number, aka NAP profile). There are very specific ways in which to optimize Google My Business (GMB), and it is important to do so in the exact format that Google prefers. Working with someone who is experienced in setting up GMB is important;
  • Get featured in relevant local directories: ensure you are included in business directories that will likely rank high.


RankBrain: 2015

RankBrain was introduced in 2015 as a complement to Hummingbird.  RankBrain uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to determine the most relevant results in search engine queries. RankBrain continuously learns from searches to become more adept as time goes on.


Before RankBrain was introduced, Google would use its basic algorithm to determine what results to show for a particular search query. Post-RankBrain, it is believed that every search query now passes through an “interpretation model” that applies possible factors such as the searcher’s geographical location and the words of the search query to attempt to determine the searcher’s true intent.


Basically, before RankBrain, Google would try to match the words in your search query to words on a page. Now, RankBrain tries to figure out what you actually mean in your search.


This is again an attempt by Google to deliver more relevant results. RankBrain is intended to help Google process (and provide answers to) unique, unfamiliar, and original search queries.


RankBrain has been cited as part of Google’s overall Hummingbird algorithm.


Best Practices Post-RankBrain


Best practices post-RankBrain include:

  • Expand your keyword search (pay particular attention to synonyms and related searches);
  • Use natural language everywhere (again, this includes titles and meta-descriptions);
  • Track your site’s user experience (UX) (especially Bounce Rate and Session Duration) using Google Analytics.


Possum: 2016

Possum launched two year after Pigeon and was a further attempt by Google to provide search results based on the geographical location of the searcher.


Essentially, post-Possum, the closer a searcher is to your law firm, the higher of a chance they will see your firm among local search results.


Best Practices Post-Possum


The same best practices that apply post-Pigeon also apply post-Possum.


Fred: 2017

Google’s 2017 update was unofficially named “Fred” after Gary Ilyes, a trends analyst at Google jokingly suggested that all updates should be named Fred. This was quickly adopted by the SEO community as the moniker for the change.


Fred targeted websites using overly aggressive monetization tactics, including those with excessive ads and low-value content and little user benefit.


Best Practices Post-Fred


While it is OK to put ads on your website, consider using them sparingly, and avoid placing them where they may prevent users from easily reading and accessing your content.


Mobile-First Indexing/Mobile Friendly Update: 2015

This 2015 update, also known as “Mobilegeddon” was intended to ensure that pages that were optimized for mobile devices ranked higher in mobile searched and pages that were not mobile friendly were down-ranked.


The update was less about organic searching and more about Google responding to user behaviour, which, over time, was trending more in the direction of mobile.


Notably, this was one of the first updates in which Google provided actual information/a full explanation of what was happening, when it would be implemented, and how long it would take for full roll-out.


Best Practices Post-Mobilegeddon


All websites should be optimized for mobile usage. Google has a great resource for getting started.  You can also run a mobile-friendly test to see how your site is doing.


Page Speed Update: 2018

We wrote about Google’s Page Speed Update earlier this year, check out our post to learn more.


Best Practices Post-Page Speed


A page’s Optimization Score has a strong impact on its position in search results. Google has released a guide on the nine factors that influence Optimization Score which you should review and consider.


How Can Umbrella Help?

All of these changes can seem overwhelming and hard to keep track of. If you have questions about your website or would like guidance on ensuring that it adheres to all best practices suggested in the wake of all of these changes contact Umbrella Legal Marketing.


We pride ourselves on the sites that we build (and maintain) for our lawyer and law firm clients. Our stellar web design team constructs each site with a strong technical foundation aimed at maximizing SEO wherever possible, pay close attention to all major changes introduced by Google that could affect a site’s ranking, and we make changes and tweaks to all sites where needed.


Our outstanding writing and editing team (who are all former practicing lawyers) understand Canadian and U.S. law and can create in-depth, informative, relevant content specifically tailored to your target audience and client base.


Contact us online or at 416-356-4672 to learn more about what we can do for you and your website.