Google Evolution: How SEO Algorithms Keep up with the Times

As organisms strive to survive in this changing world, the constant forces that assail them from the environment make all living creatures adapt. Failure to do so will often lead to extinction. This concept can be applied to the internet as well, especially Google, a multinational company that has found itself at the top of the food chain in the search engine business. It is estimated that approximately 68 percent of the total online population prefer to use Google for their search queries.

This domination of the market share did not occur by dumb luck or chance; Google has continuously strived to ensure that the search results it delivers to its users are accurate and worthwhile. The company has always been on the lookout for opportunistic webmasters who want to manipulate the rankings in order to gain an advantage without having to improve their websites. Considering that Google is only about 16 years old, the number of changes that the company has implemented in such a short period of time is remarkable. Most notably, its search algorithm is constantly improving, punctuated by major updates that crack down on spam techniques and force business owners to put in real work rather than rely on cheap gimmicks. Some of these major updates and their global effects on SEO are as follows:

Google Florida and the end of keyword stuffing

A cornerstone of search engine optimization is keyword placement. Simply put, keywords are popular words or phrases for which users often search in relation to a specific niche. For example, “diet pills” would be a keyword, and if your website deals with health and fitness, it would be a wise move to include this keyword somewhere within your content so that search engines could find it. In the late 90’s, keyword placement was the primary way in which search engines ranked websites.

Of course, it didn’t take long for unscrupulous webmasters to figure out that this could be exploited. Keyword stuffing involved spamming a website with keywords dozens or even hundreds of times to trick the search engine into ranking it higher. This is often done by hiding the keywords so that they are invisible to the human eye — such as using white text color on a white background — but still visible to the search engine. Eventually, most websites started including keywords which were completely unrelated to their own areas of expertise. This led to inaccurate results and widespread dissatisfaction.

Google responded to this practice by releasing an update in 2003 called Florida, a milestone not just for the company, but for the entire search engine industry. Florida was one of the earliest search engine updates that effectively created standards to which webmasters should adhere. One of these standards involved penalizing websites which had an inordinate amount of keywords. Naturally, most of the webmasters that cheated were stripped of their rankings overnight, and some were even banned completely, leading to much grumbling among those who were affected. However, the user satisfaction improved immensely and secured Google’s status as the leading search engine.

Google Penguin and the end of bad backlinks

As Google tightened its quality control, the indolent also improved their tactics. An alternative to keyword stuffing that provided quick results for little work was soon discovered: backlinks. When used in its proper form, a backlink is an excellent SEO practice that involves linking one webpage to another webpage. A higher number of backlinks brought about a higher rank for the receiving webpage. Some webmasters took advantage of this principle and created hundreds of backlinks overnight, effectively using spam to artificially boost their rankings. Other websites even turned this into a lucrative business by selling backlinks to the highest bidder.

Just as with Florida, Google got wind of this new loophole and released the Penguin update in 2012. It was a large step forward in improving SEO standards and involved penalizing websites which used excessive backlinks. Some webmasters were caught by surprise, and many established websites lost their ranks or completely disappeared from the search results. Suffice it to say that many people discovered too late that long-term commitment is better than short-term deception.

Google Panda and the end of poor content

Recently, another update called Panda was released by Google. Having gotten rid of spam keywords and backlinks, some webmasters have resorted to spam content. A popular saying among SEO experts is “content is king,” which basically means that the more content your website has, the better its ranking. Of course, this assumes that the content is relevant and provides adequate value to visitors. Some webmasters have taken yet another shortcut and resorted to blatantly copying content from other websites. Some entrepreneurs quickly capitalized on the demand by creating software that “spins” or manufactures a large amount of content with a press of a button. Unfortunately, the content is often gibberish, plagiarized, or of extremely poor quality.

The Panda update finally put an end to this practice by penalizing websites with duplicate material or low-quality writing by using a sophisticated algorithm to analyze text. Webmasters that put the extra effort into creating excellent content were rewarded, and those who did not were swiftly weeded out of the search results.

The way forward

It goes without saying that more updates will be released in the immediate future, since SEO is always changing and the threat of sneaky tactics that circumvent the process is always present. A key lesson to take away from Google’s history is that following best practices that prioritize the user will always be rewarded. Any technique that claims to inflate a website’s ranking without any effort needs to be carefully scrutinized or downright avoided.

Evolution for organisms is a slow process that unfolds over millions of years. Luckily, evolving your website so that it can cope with the demands of the times doesn’t take as long, but it still requires you to put in the solid effort. At the end of the day, the hard work pays off, and you can rest assured that your online empire will not only survive, but thrive.

About Mohamed Alazzawy
Mohamed is a Senior Search Planner at Sandstorm Digital FZE working on high profile accounts such as National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD), Etisalat, Meraas, City Index and Souqalmal.com. His experience includes both the technical and content aspects of SEO.

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