Understanding the algorithms used by search engines, such as Google, can be mystifying. Let's start at the beginning:
What is a Search Engine Algorithm?
An algorithm is a mathematical process used by a computer to solve a problem or answer a question. Google, launched in 1998, is the leading search engine. The search engine algorithm was designed to find files on the internet.
Google uses many algorithms, but the very first one ever used is called PageRank, which measures the importance of all web pages (PageRank is named after Larry Page, the software developer and Google co-founder). PageRank functions by counting the quantity and quality of links to certain web pages to determine an estimate of the website's importance, and thus, its ranking as compared to other websites in the same field or category.
Google has used the assumption that the more important websites are most likely to have more links from other websites, and therefore rates the website with a higher ranking on the search engine results page (SERP). PageRank happens to be the most widely known algorithm used by Google. A whole industry of business services to take advantage of PageRank is now called Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Google's algorithms change about 500-600 times per calendar year – more than once every day. The changes are implemented to make the search experience more relevant for the user. Most of the changes are minor, and don't usually change website's ranking to any noticeable degree.
For nearly two decades, Google has been refining their search engine service, becoming more sophisticated, with their massive algorithms affecting the way websites are ranked.
What is an algorithm update?
Major updates have been rolling out on a regular basis, both named and unnamed. Companies providing SEO services devote their resources to figuring out how each change affects the websites they manage. The stakes are very high, especially for websites engaged in ecommerce. If a website is built and maintained using best practices, with a focus on unique content and an easy-to-navigate user experience, the website will rate well. A strong rating turns into a superior page ranking which will provide more website traffic.
Some of the named updates over the years have been: Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Pigeon, Possum, RankBrain, Mobilegeddon, and Pirate. Each update relates to a specific aspect of a website, such as website link quality, semantic content search, and mobile friendly (or responsive) websites.
How are algorithm updates revealed?
This is fascinating: some updates are announced; others are rolled out covertly and are full realized by watching page ranking activity. Google sometimes confirms the updates after the update is launched. Lately, Google has been silent about confirming their algorithm updates. The SEO industry watches the metrics carefully to determine what aspect of page ranking is being affected. When they notice large changes in search results, they conclude that an algorithm update has occurred.
What is the Fred Update?
On Wednesday, March 8, 2017, industry experts noticed major changes while using Google tracking tools. This algorithm change has been dubbed the Fred Update.
Until the experts full digest the meaning of the page rankings, the nature of the update is speculative. The Fred Update is showing early signs of being associated with the quality – not content – of links. Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, tweeted a picture of colorful Fred the fish on March 7: “DYK for each search result there may be several title candidates & the one that it's believed to work best for query is shown to the users”.
Since there is an evaluation taking place to select the best query result, looking at pages that rank better than your website may uncover opportunities to improve content without duplication. Unique content and quality linking to and from your website will help improve page ranking. The most recent massive algorithm update to date is Google Penguin 4.0 (Phase 1 and Phase 2). This update largely removes the penalty for bad links on sites, and in turn devalues the bad links, which still negatively affects rankings, but not to such a degree that sites are penalized.
Penguin was significant in that it targeted low quality websites that contained 'spammy' content. Their main concern was with flagging websites that would harm user's computers or cell phones.
Google Penguin 4.0
The Google Penguin update had been on in development, under revision, for two years before being released. The update actually launched on September 27, 2016.This update was unusual because it was multiphasic, taking quite a bit longer to be released than most other algorithm updates.
The second phase was released on October 6, 2016. After this second phase launched, the algorithm “temperature” dropped off and got relatively back to normal. Moz reports the weather by day showing the temperature or turbulence of the Google algorithm. When Google makes a change, there is often a shakeup of the page rankings. This week the Moz temperature is 94o; this shows the likely effect of the Fred Update.
Knowing the complex nature of evaluating the worthiness of a website, understanding these updates, and recognizing how the algorithms affect a website and its ranking is the work of companies who provide SEO services. You may choose to carry out this work in-house, but hiring an outside firm to handle your SEO is often money very well spent.