Opinion

The weird world of SEO is even weirder after Google’s algorithm change

From pigeon-powered search results to updates named Fred, the world of SEO speculation is a weird one, writes SEO manager Stephanie Terrett.

There are plenty of things in life you can’t really predict, like next week’s weather, or this weekend’s football results. But at least those things lose their mystique after they’ve happened.

Google’s algorithm changes, though, are the mystery no-one ever quite unravels, even long after they’re implemented. SEO watchers all know that the refinement of Google’s organic ranking criteria can be a baffling business.

Google makes two or three updates a day in the name of user experience – most of them trivial, some far more impactful – and only occasionally does the search giant spell out exactly what it has done.

The classic example was an earth-shaking update last March, which was neither announced in advance nor officially confirmed, even after it had hit many websites like a traffic-destroying tornado, the effects of which were felt for months.

That tweak – and all future unconfirmed updates – was jokingly named ‘Fred’ by Google webmaster analytics expert Gary Illyes. But even to this day, if you want any idea of what Fred might have been about – punishing low-value content sites that put revenue above users, is the general deduction – your key sources are webmaster forums and any number of educated-guesswork editorials across the web.

As a result of a lack of hard facts, the SEO grapevine constantly crackles with rumours, as amateurs and pros compare their experiences, analyse the Twitter feeds of high-ranking Googlers and end up producing their own inadvertent version of fake news. Is Google downgrading slow-loading mobile sites? Is Google stacking the cards against content-heavy publishers to drive them into PPC ads?

Sometimes, you wonder what havoc you could create by starting your own rumour on the all-important Webmaster World forum. We changed the colour of our homepage and our Google ranking fell through the floor!? Is Google really using huge clusters of pigeons to power its search results?? (That last one is an old Google April Fool’s joke from 2002.)

It all goes to demonstrate just what an unusual medium organic search is. Google controls the system, but it only comments on it in fairly oblique terms, unless it is delivering one of its infrequent official updates, with names like Panda, Hummingbird or Penguin. It makes no money directly from SEO, and tolerates rather than encourages the experts who have made a business of interpreting it.

Google’s algorithm contains hundreds of ranking factors, only a few of which – content, back-links, mobile-first user experience – are entirely beyond dispute. An attempted, unofficial list of 200, including entries that are ‘proven’, some that are ‘controversial’ and others that are ‘SEO nerd speculation’ is available online.

The reality is that many of the ‘updates’ spotted by puzzled publishers and SEO specialists are actually ongoing elements of previously announced algorithm changes. And meanwhile, many events that may seem like updates are part of the general turmoil of the wider web, or, very often, slow-burning results of things you did to your own site.

It all adds another quality to those a good SEO manager requires. Along with patience, diligence and the ability to apply what we know for sure, we also need enough common sense to listen carefully, raise an eyebrow and maybe change the channel when the fake news starts flying around.

Stephanie Terrett is senior SEO manager at Tug Agency.

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