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Pandas, Penguins and Beyond: Why SEOs Will Never Forget 2013

| Posted in category Google Search Engine Optimization

Whether we like it or not, we SEOs depend on Google. Sometimes it feels like living in a tornado-plagued region: one needs to constantly watch their back, since you never know what to expect from the skies.

And, oh boy, did Google keep us on our toes this year! Heralded by the first release of the Penguin update in 2012, Google's all-out war on web spam only gained force in 2013. Several big algorithm updates have been rolled out, creating new winners and losers in the SEO camp.

So, what exactly has changed, and what impact did it have on the effectiveness of the SEO tactics we use today? Let's go over the most important milestones.

[Jan 22] Panda refresh rolled out

At the turn of the year, many SEOs observed palpable search results fluctuations. Google had kept silence for a while, but eventually announced a Panda refresh that affected 1.2% of English queries on January, 22.

Note: Panda is a nick-name of a filter now permanently incorporated into Google's algorithm. It's been put in place to reward sites that provide great user experience and to weed out webpages with low-quality (often spun) content and poor UX.

[Apr 1] Link-Assistant.Com's anti-Penguin code

On April 1st this year, we published a post on Link-Assistant.Com's blog, announcing the release of our special "anti-Penguin code" one can embed on their site to make the latter immune to Google Penguin.

Of course, it was an April Fool's Day joke, which some folks took seriously for a moment, though. We apologize for any confusion that may have created.

[May 22] Penguin 2.0 hits

Unlike any previous update in the Penguin series, Penguin 2.0 did not take the SEO community by surprise this time. About two weeks prior to the algorithm's release, Google's distinguished engineer Matt Cutts told SEOs what to expect of the search engine in the next months:

Among other things, Cutts mentioned the upcoming Penguin update. Penguin 2.0 officially came out on May, 22, affecting roughly 2.3% of English-US queries.

Most SEOs seem to agree that Penguin 2.0 mostly punishes sites with manipulative-looking backlink profiles. The usual suspects would be links with keyword-rich anchor texts, links coming from the same C-class domains, etc.

For more information on how to perform post-Penguin backlink analysis, please check out the whitepaper we published just before Penguin 2.0 hit.

[Jul 26] Link Schemes document updated

Another important change that occurred this year was Google updating the Link Schemes section of its Webmaster Guidelines. The update went unannounced, but was spotted by Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Roundtable on July, 26.

This move by Google technically sent a whole bunch of long-used backlink tactics to the dust bin. It had officially become against Google's rules to build:

  • Article links with keyword anchor texts
  • Guest post links with keyword anchor texts
  • Press release links with keyword anchor texts
  • Forum signature links with optimized anchor texts
  • Advertorial links that pass PageRank
  • Text ad links that pass PageRank
  • Low-quality directory links
  • Low-quality online bookmarks
  • Links embedded in widgets distributed on multiple sites
  • Footer links placed on multiple sites

And here is an example of spammy press release links Google provided on the new Link Schemes page:

[Sep 23] 'Not provided' approaches 100%

On September 23rd, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land pointed out that Google had made all keyword searches encrypted by default (that is, keyword data in Google Analytics had become unavailable to site owners).

Many SEOs said Google was being hypocritical, since the latter still makes keyword stats available to paid advertisers. At the same time, the move was likely triggered by the NSA scandal, in which Google was accused of having had a hand (Google denied this).

Shared by +Denis Pinsky

Even though prophesised to hit 100% in October, the count of (Not provided) keywords for the average site remains 79,63% according to the (Not Provided) Count website (as of December 2nd, 2013).

There are certain workarounds SEOs can resort to still mine the (Not provided) keyword data. For example, one can still see the search terms in Google Webmaster Tools and test keyword conversions in Google Analytics.

[Sep 26] Google Hummingbird takes its first flight

On September 26th, Google animals went flying with the announcement of the new algorithm update dubbed "Hummingbird". What was this update about?

Hummingbird essentially makes Google more precise at matching the searcher's query to different documents in Google's index (hence the name).

It's different from Penguin and Panda in a way that the latter concern themselves with evaluating a website's quality, while Hummingbird tries to crack the meaning behind the searcher's query.

The Hummingbird update is different in scale, too: it affects 90% of queries, and can justly be called not an "algorithm update" but a whole new "search algorithm".

According to Google, Hummingbird is called to improve:

  • Voice search
  • Search results relevance (Google is now supposed to better interpret longer queries)
  • Subsequent search (e.g., when you search for "Show me the Eiffel Tower" and then ask "How tall is it?").

[Oct 4] Penguin 2.0 refreshed

Further into 2013, the "jarring and jolting" Penguin 2.0 update was rerun on October, 4.

Penguin 2.1 did cause some stir and produced new losers (allegedly affecting about 1% of searches). However, some winners got crowned as well.

By the way, if you are wondering which link building methods may still work after Penguin/Panda, please read this article I wrote for Search Engine People.

[Oct 30] Distinguished SEO exits industry

Another notable event of this year was Jill Whalen, an SEO with almost 20 years of experience, officially taking a break from SEO. Jill said that, with its recent algorithm updates (Panda and Penguin), Google made it possible for optimizers to earn high rankings by offering great content and awesome user experience. So, her job as the industry's voice of reason was done:

"At last the only real way to do SEO was what I had been espousing all along. And it's a beautiful thing! Today's SEO blogs and conferences are bursting with SEO consultants talking about how, when you create amazing websites and content for your users, the search engines will follow."

A glimpse into the future: SEO for Google Glass?

Now that we've mentioned the big events that shook the SEO world this year, let's take a quick peep into the future, shall we? What is going to be the next big SEO thing in 2014? Semantic search? Google Hummingbird 2.0?

By the way, John Rampton of Search Engine Journal just did a great interview with Rob Garner of Advice Interactive about SEO for Google Glass!

OK, now you know the next big SEO secret…

Happy holidays!

Image credits: estt via iStockPhoto, Creative Tools via

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