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December 19, 2014 // 6:00 AM

An Overview of the Major Google Algorithm Updates of 2014

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Inbound marketers are constantly on alert for changes in Google's ever-evolving algorithm ... but that doesn't mean we don't miss one every now and then. The combination of frequent algorithm updates and a busy workload means that sometimes a critical update gets lost in the sauce.

To make sure you're fully up to date on the latest major changes in SEO, we've compiled a full list of the most important Google algorithm updates from 2014. This year, we saw changes from pirates and penguins and pandas and pigeons; the removal of authorship, and other notable updates. Let's take a closer look at what those updates were.

The Animals: A Quick Refresher

For your reference, here are the names given to Google's algorithm updates that were relevant for 2014 and a brief description of each.

  • Pirate: A search filter designed to prevent sites that have a lot of copyright infringement reports (as filed through Google's DMCA system) from ranking well in Google's listings. It was first introduced in August 2012.
  • Penguin: A search filter designed to better catch sites deemed to be spamming its search results, in particular those doing so by buying links or obtaining them through link networks designed primarily to boost Google rankings. When a new Penguin Update is released, sites that have taken action to remove bad links may regain rankings. It was first introduced in April 2012.
  • Panda: A search filter meant to stop sites with poor quality content from working their way into Google's top search results. (Poor quality content is most commonly content created solely for SEO purposes -- featuring things like keyword stuffing and scraped or duplicated content.) It was first introduced in February 2011.
  • Pigeon: A major local search algorithm update launched in July 2014 to provide more useful, relevant, and accurate local search results that are tied more closely to traditional web search ranking signals. 
  • Payday Loan: Okay, this one isn't an animal -- but it's still important. It's a search filter that targets "very spammy queries" that are frequently associated with spam -- often for payday loans, accident claims, and other insurance-related sites. It was first introduced in June 2013.

Alright, let's get to the actual updates.

The Major Google Algorithm Updates of 2014

February 2014: Page Layout #3

In February, Google refreshed their Page Layout algorithm, also known as "Top Heavy," which dings sites that load too many ads above the fold. This smaller update is meant to improve user experience -- users want to see the content they were looking for right away when they click on a search result, and Google heard them loud and clear.

May 2014: Panda 4.0, Payday Loan 2.0

In May, Google released a major update to its Panda algorithm, and a smaller one to its Payday Loan algorithm.

  • Panda 4.0: Starting with a tweet from Matt Cutts, Google announced the rollout of its major Panda 4.0 update to help small businesses and websites that create great content do better in Google search results. Search Engine Land called this change a "softer and gentler" Panda algorithm that specifically helps out smaller businesses with shallower pockets.
  • Payday Loan 2.0: The details of the Payday Loan 2.0 update are a little fuzzy, but Google did release the update to specifically target "very spammy queries." Google told Search Engine Land this update was an international update and affected different languages to different degrees.

June 2014: Payday Loan 3.0, Authorship Photo Removed

In June, Google updated their Payday Loan algorithm and ended Author Photos in search.

  • Payday Loan 3.0: Google made a significant iteration to its anti-spam algorithm less than a month after the last major Payday update. According to Moz, "official statements suggested that 2.0 targeted specific sites, while 3.0 targeted spammy queries."
  • Authorship Photo Removed: Google decided to drop Authorship photos from most search results, frustrating marketers everywhere. Instead, authors' names would be linked to their Google+ profiles, without including circle count. Why the change? Mueller wrote in the announcement that it decluttered search results, particularly for mobile users -- which makes sense as Google continues to embrace mobile-first design. Mueller also cited some of Google's eye tracking research, which found that social annotations like author photos completely changed the way users looked at search results.

authorship-photo-change

Image from Moz

July 2014: Pigeon 1.0

The introduction of Google's Pigeon algorithm in July was -- for local businesses, at least -- its biggest change of the year. The changes are meant to help users find "more useful, relevant, and accurate local search results that are tied more closely to traditional web search ranking signals," according to Search Engine Land. While Google says it improved their distance and location ranking parameters, some local businesses likely found it affected their number of web site referrals and leads.

It also seems to have given local directory sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor better visibility in Google's search results. For example, if you search for "chicago hotels," the search results favor URLs from sites like Hotels.com, Travelocity, and Kayak, while individual hotels' websites don't show up until page two.

August 2014: Authorship Removed + HTTPS/SSL As a Ranking Signal

In August, Google announced they would start giving a small ranking boost to secure HTTPS/SSL sites and decided to kill Authorship.

  • Authorship Removed: Google decided to remove Authorship results from search, which many believe strips Google+ of the only value it every really had. This move meant Google would no longer track the rel=author tag data -- although keeping it on your pages "won't cause problems," Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller wrote in a post to Google+. Mueller told Search Engine Land that the reason for the change was that users didn't find it helpful or valuable, and it had low publisher and webmaster adoption. But, interestingly, Google+ posts from your connections will now look like Authorship did -- so it's possible this change is an (aggressive) ploy to get more people using Google+. (Learn more about the removal of Authorship here.)
  • HTTPS/SSL As a Ranking Signal: Google uses about 200 ranking signals when determining organic search page rankings, and in August, they added secure sites to the list. They cited this change as part of a broader effort to make the internet a safer place. With the update, adding a SSL 2048-bit key certificate on your site -- what Search Engine Land calls "going HTTPS" -- began giving websites a small ranking benefit. According to the official update, it's only a "very lightweight signal" for now, affecting fewer than 1% of queries and carrying "less weight" than other signals like high qualiy content. 

September 2014: Panda 4.1

In September, Google released the 27th version of its Panda Update that will make the search filter more precise to better identify low quality content and therefore allow more small and medium-sized sites that generate high quality content to rank better. Although this is a much smaller change than Panda's May 2014 update, it still shows Google's listening to user feedback and doing what it can to reward smaller sites putting out good content.

October 2014: Pirate 2.0 + Penguin 3.0

In October, Google made some changes to their Pirate and Penguin Updates.

  • Pirate 2.0: In their continued effort to fight digital media piracy by dinging sites with a lot of copyright infringement reports, Google's most recent Pirate update targeted a relatively small group of suspect websites and caused dramatic drops in their ranking.
  • Penguin 3.0: This update was just a refresh affecting fewer than 1% of English queries, but it helped boost search ranking for websites that have cleaned up the webspam discovered in the previous Penguin update, while also catching and dinging sites with new spam.

Were you affected by any of these major updates? Learn more about how to recover from a Google algorithm update here.

What do you think Google has up its sleeve in terms of changes to its search algorithm in 2015?

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Topics: SEO Content Marketing

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