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Google Algorithm Update
Happening Now:
Stresses Content Quality

By John Rust
January 21, 2016

Google has confirmed that it is implementing a major core algorithm change right now. This has caused major disruptions, with two weekends of major search results fluctuations so far. Your website might be affected.

Google frequently makes minor “tweaks” to its ranking algorithms, but major changes typically come once a year or so. Google announced plans for a MAJOR update last year, but technical delays pushed out their launch to year end. Finally, Google announced they would postpone the major update until after the holiday shopping season in order to avoid disruption of online shopping sites.

While this week's current update is a major one, and you should definitely check your search results for the final outcome, Google has indicated that this is NOT the “Big One” which was anticipated. So be aware that more changes are to come in 2016.


Google has confirmed that the current update incorporates their spam-fighting algorithm code-named “Panda.” Panda is designed to improve search results by assessing the quality of a website's overall content - not just that of a single page.

“Quality of content” focuses on whether a site's visitors find the information they had searched for. Spam, content of little value or full of advertisements, and unoriginal content are what Google wants to reduce.

Quality Content

Google wants to provide searchers with links to unique, compelling, and high-quality content. In other words, your website must have useful, original and “relevant” content.

Your website's analytics data is where to start. A Google spokesperson has recommended that site owners use the Search Analytics Tools in Google Search Console to determine what pages are getting traffic and identify potential candidates for content that needs improving due to zero Google referral traffic.

In particular, one should look for pages where the search query doesn't quite match the delivered content. Google's spokesperson said, “If you believe your site is affected by the Panda algorithm, in Search Console's Search Analytics feature you can identify the queries which lead to pages that provide overly vague information, or don't seem to satisfy the user need for a query.”

So first, review your analytics, and then the content on each page.

Text content has always been the main focus, but content is no longer solely about written text. In today's multi-media, multi-device, world, content can have many forms, including images, videos, or other kinds of embedded rich-media. Google will analyze your media content in relation to its context in the form of text on pages that embed that kind of content.

Content Improvement

Poor quality content, other than “spam,” is sometimes called “thin content” - that having little informative value as opposed to “rich content” that is packed with interesting material.

Improving the thin content is the best step, but if improvement is not possible Google suggests that you code the page so it will not include the page in its index of your website. This is a technical step which your webmaster can do for you. The risk to this is that you might hurt your positions with other search engines, like Yahoo or Bing, so careful analysis is required.

Adding new content to your site is also an excellent solution. Remember, “Content is king,” so a site will always benefit from new quality content.

Your Blog

Be aware that your blog, including your Facebook page, is where a lot of “thin” content is found. The content is often too little, and unrelated to your main website.

It has become more and more important that you make certain that the text and images you add are closely related to your main website, are original and unique to you, and that the text you use in linking back to your main website is an accurate description of the page you link to.


Google's next MAJOR update is code-named “Penguin.” It was first launched in 2012, with several updates to it since. Its focus was also on Spam, especially on links to one's website that were paid for or widely placed on forums and guest books - ie., the links you get when you buy a service advertised as “SEO for $99” or “1,000 Back Links for $99.”

The Penguin update was anticipated last fall, but was delayed until after shopping season. It has been the subject of much advance discussion, yet its focus is still a mystery. Nevertheless, it is likely to incorporate these factors:

  • Mobile Friendliness - Google announced in 2015 that mobile friendliness would be a factor for searches on mobile devices (phones & tablets). This plan was expanded before year end to include searches from non-mobile devices (desktops & Laptops);
  • Real time - Google has been phasing in an ability to scan very new webpages and then immediately include them in search results. You may have seen this in basic form with news websites. This might be fairly significant if you are posting to a blog (hopefully on your own website);
  • Penalties for “Interstitials” - Google announced in 2015 that sites using interstitials would be penalized. An “interstitial” is related to the “pop-up” ads of ten years ago. An interstitial adds a top layer over a webpage, so that you can't get to the main content until you respond to, click on, or click off the interstitial. Just like a pop-up, it is an advertisement. You have probably already encountered an interstitial - both the Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News websites use them.

    Google performed extensive testing on interstitials. Their research confirmed that visitors find them extremely annoying. Google found that they had a better sales response from visitors when not showing an interstitial than when the interstitial was active. As a result, Google discontinued their own use of interstitials, and decided that since the presence of these intrusive ads negatively impacted a site's quality, they began to downgrade webpages using the feature. Bottom line: do not use an interstitial, and certainly not a pop-up ad either.
  • “Machine Learning” - Machine learning is purportedly the third most important ranking factor, yet its existence was unknown prior to its disclosure by Google this past October. Google expanded the “self-learning” capability of its search engine, and as yet we do not know its full effect on search results.

Bottom Line: Do These Now

  • Review your website analytics for traffic changes
  • Review your websites position in search results
  • Watch your positions over a few weeks - there is generally much bouncing up and down while Google is fully implementing a major update
  • Identify pages with "Thin" content, then improve them
  • Be sure that your media content is appropriate for the page, and that it has the text elements to help search engines understand what the media depicts
  • Add to, reduce or replace content that is not original
  • Add new content

  • John Rust specializes in search engine marketing, optimization and online marketing strategy.

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