Mobile, Machine Learning, and Quality Content, Oh My!
Every year, Google changes its algorithm hundreds of times. While most of these changes go unnoticed, some have drastic impacts on the way the search engine serves its organic results. For digital marketers, having a working knowledge of these algorithm changes and the timeline of their release is imperative. For our team specifically, knowing this information ensures our ability to help the brands we work with stay top of page and top of mind, navigate future fluctuations in traffic or rankings, and ultimately make better digital marketing decisions going forward.
In this post, we’ll review some of Google’s major 2015 algorithm changes, decipher what they may mean for you, and look ahead to 2016 to predict some of the major changes likely heading our way.
2015 Google Search Engine Updates
Mobile Friendly Update AKA: “Mobilegeddon” – April 21st
Perhaps 2015’s most hyped algorithm shift, Google’s mobile-friendly update threatened such drastic change that the media took to referencing it as Mobilegeddon. As was preemptively announced by Google, the April 21st update involved using a website’s mobile usability as a direct ranking factor in mobile SERPs. Many of the SEO industry’s most well-known experts predicted the mobile update would drastically change the mobile search SERPs, potentially causing smaller, less mobile-friendly business sites to experience major traffic losses.
While the update did, in fact, impact mobile search results, the effect wasn’t quite as large as many had first predicted. Many mobile-friendly results did receive a boost in rankings, while non-friendly pages often dropped, but the impact was simply less than many had foreseen.
Key Takeaway: While the mobile update may not have completely uprooted the world of mobile search, mobile-friendliness is still a highly important ranking factor that webmasters cannot ignore. Mobile-friendly pages continue to gain ground over non mobile-friendly pages. Furthermore, even if your site was not negatively impacted by this update, Google still highly recommends ensuring your site complies with its mobile-friendly best practices if you have not yet done so.
The Quality Update – May 3rd
In the weeks leading up to the Quality Update, webmasters had noticed changes in the search results. While Google denied this was part of a Panda update, clearly search results were being scrambled. Google finally announced it had launched a change in the way it assesses site quality, but because this was not a change in the traditional sense of a full-fledged update like Panda, the upgrade was simply deemed the “Quality Update.”
Key Takeaways: While Google gave no specifics about what this change actually judges in terms of page quality, webmasters recommend reevaluating the quality of the content produced and published. Google has many content quality posts on what it considers a high-quality piece of content, and a simple search may be a good refresher on how to produce good content, better aligned with Google’s best practices.
Panda 4.2 – July 17th
The latest installment of the famous Panda update, which originally launched in 2011, was upgraded in 2015. This update was essentially a refresh that impacted 2-3% of queries.
Key Takeaways: As with the Quality Update, Panda 4.2 simply continues Google’s trend of yielding the best possible content on the web. Remember that quality content with a valuable purpose is always preferred over thin, less useful content.
RankBrain – October 26th
In what could be one of the most revolutionary new components added to Google’s search algorithm in 2015, RankBrain – surely in its infant stages – is now used in conjunction with Hummingbird to more effectively process queries. RankBrain uses the power of machine learning—where a computer can actually teach itself to do something rather than be taught by humans. With regards to search, RankBrain’s purpose is to draw connections between entities; effectively learning the meaning behind more complex web searches so that it can present more meaningful results to future user queries. Google has often stated a vast chunk of the search queries they see every day are completely unique. RankBrain is probably being used to decipher many of these less common, and often long-tail queries to return better and more relevant results.
Key Takeaways: The impact RankBrain stands to have on SEO doesn’t change what we already know. The trends all point to Google’s continued focus on providing its users the highest quality content available. The search engine is placing more emphasis on actually identifying the meaning behind its cataloged content verses simply matching user queries with keywords injected into paragraphs of text. Thus, webmasters must create content intended to serve a specific purpose, otherwise said content is essentially worthless in Google’s eyes. In short, Google is getting too intelligent for brands to create sub-par content and expect good results.
2015 Updates and Beyond – What Can We Expect?
If there’s one fact we can easily draw from 2015, it is that Google continues emphasizing that content it catalogs must serve some valuable purpose. The search engine is committed to presenting user-focused content, and the biggest algorithm updates of 2015 are an obvious play toward solidifying that ideology.
Looking ahead to 2016, more major updates are surely on the way. Earlier this month, many sites experienced a large change in rankings. While Google has kept quiet on what the change exactly entailed, it was likely another one of their quality-based, core algorithmic changes.
Machine learning is the future of how search engines will process the web. It is likely that machine learning will continue to churn the web, and the world of search, into an ever-changing, dynamic experience. Even though the thought of artificial intelligence may seem like such a game changer with regards to SEO, the same continued focus on user satisfaction will likely continue yielding good results. Machine learning will still look at similar metrics to figure out which kinds of content create the most satisfactory experiences among web users, and thus we must all continue to create content that satisfies these metrics.
By paying close attention to user experiences, creating engaging content, and focusing on user interaction metrics such as dwell time, we can stay ahead of the curve, no matter how the world of search changes.