The Beginner’s Guide to Google’s Algorithm Changes

In recent years, Google has rolled out a number of updates to its search algorithm to provide better and more relevant results to its users. In fact, Google makes hundreds of changes to its algorithm each year, and many pass by rather quietly without having any discernible impact on websites. However, there are a few updates that have caused major disruption upon release; namely, Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird. If you’re unfamiliar with Google’s algorithm, you might feel like you’ve unwittingly wandered into a zoo. Stick with us (or check out our previous SEO blogposts).

Before we go into any details, let’s first recap on what exactly an algorithm change is and how it can affect your website.

What is an Algorithm Update?

Google’s search algorithm is immensely complicated, but fortunately for digital marketers, it’s not necessary to know all of the various ins and outs in order to get a basic knowledge of SEO. In simple terms, the algorithm is much like a pattern or a process that Google uses to filter and sort its results when a user enters a search term.

In the early days of search engines, high page rankings were very easy to manipulate. At one point it was simple as inserting a piece of code. However, this meant that the top result on Google may not have been very useful or relevant to the term it was ranking for. As time and technology progressed, Google’s updates became more and more about how to stop people from cheating.

The first major update arrived in 2010, under the name of “Caffeine”. Since then, updates have gotten bigger, smarter and have made more and more of a monumental effect on websites. The algorithm now considers hundreds of factors – from your site’s age and size to the use of keywords and sitemaps.


Panda initially launched in February 2011, and to great fanfare. Its purpose was to decipher between high and low quality sites in search results. Named after one of its founders, Navneet Panda, this update sounded the death knell for websites spammy directories, sites with sparse content and “content farms” – sites consisting wholly of stolen 3rd party copy in order to rank.

Sites deemed to be of this low quality by Panda were heavily penalised by Google, either falling pages behind in the rankings or disappearing altogether. If this affected you, there are a few widely accepted ways to recover from these penalties. The first is to remedy any thin, useless content: a site full of pages featuring no more than a few keywords is not useful to a reader and therefore not approved by Google.

Another parameter set by Panda is duplicate content. In the old days, “Black Hat” SEO tactics included simply copying keyword-rich pages across your site in an attempt to improve rankings. Lessen the blow of Panda by making sure all of your copy is original and substantial.


Penguin appeared in April 2012, with its beady eyes fixed on unnatural or suspicious-looking backlink profiles. Links were, and still are, a significant factor in search rankings. If a number of high quality and authoritative sites have linked back to your site or blog, it indicates that others have found your content useful and are engaging with you. Certain links are more valuable and effective than others, but building a comprehensive back link profile has long been on the agenda of SEO specialists. Search engines also take into account the anchor text used to link to your site.

For example, if you’re a hairdresser in Newcastle and a number of other websites have linked to you using the words “Newcastle hairdresser”, you become more relevant to search engines for that search term.

The arrival of Penguin aimed to dispel forced, manipulated or unnatural links: in other words, poor quality links that SEO-ers went out looking for with rankings in mind. Again, the update punished sites for not delivering authentic and useful content, and like Panda, Penguin is regularly refreshed in cycles and re-evaluated at each point, so is constantly improving and evolving.

One of the main ways to recover if you have been hit by a Penguin update is to undertake a backlink profile audit. Tools such as SEMrush provide backlink checkers, allowing you to evaluate the quality of the links pointing to your site. If you find historical links from poor quality directories, it’s a good idea to contact the website and ask to have them removed. If this isn’t possible, you can also use Google’s disavow tool.


Small and delicate by name, aggressive and destructive by nature. Hummingbird first appeared in October 2013 and has been the most significant change to date. Rather than an update, Hummingbird is intended as an overhaul of the entire algorithm, with the main aim of better understanding user intent. Google now takes into account colloquial and regional differences as well as slang in search queries. This is understood to have been prompted by the recent introduction of voice search.

Much like Panda and Penguin, the overarching aim of Hummingbird is to improve a searcher’s experience. It rewards content that answers a search query rather than simply targeting a keyword. Hummingbird is, however, a bit harder to “recover” from – it’s not as simple as having a look at your backlink profile or beefing up your content. In Hummingbird, Google has found a way to make websites take a long, hard look at what they offer and consistently strive to deliver something better.

If you’d rather someone else did all the “heavy lifting” with your SEO and understanding of the Google algos, then let Clever Marketing take that weight off your shoulders. Fill in our contact form or drop us a line on 01276 534 680 to discuss your digital marketing requirements.