40 Google Algorithm Updates for February: The Effects of Panda 3.3 and Changes to Local Results and Link Evaluation

Google recently announced 40 tweaks and algorithm updates for the month of February making this the search engine’s biggest monthly search quality overhaul to date. Many of the updates – some of which have already rolled out – are minor and probably won’t have too much of an impact on a sites’ ranking positions for particular search queries but there are several with the potential to be devastating.

In case you have not yet had the chance to read Google’s official declaration of the changes, here is a summary of the three updates that SEO engineers and website owners should pay the most attention to and some steps that can be taken to prevent negative ranking ramifications from occurring:

Panda 3.3

Google Panda
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Google: This launch refreshes data in the Panda system, making it more accurate and more sensitive to recent changes on the web.

Google’s original Panda update was launched a little over a year ago in an effort to see websites that contain fresh, high quality content ranking more highly in the SERPs for certain search queries. This update continues to be tweaked and despite the fact that many websites have so far been penalised with each of the refreshes, there are still many websites which lack a competent strategy for onsite content.

Although websites can recover from a harsh Panda punch, it makes sense to be proactive regarding the update instead of simply being reactive to any penalties that might be issued as a result of its implementation.

It might seem a little unfair – and perhaps tedious – but online retailers who go to the effort to provide product descriptions that go beyond the generic information provided by manufacturers are likely to rank higher than their competitors who don’t bother to do this (detailed product descriptions could also see sites ranking for several long-tail search queries). Clients have seen positive ranking shifts from altering these descriptions every now and again using synonyms, or adding a sentence regarding a new discount for a particular product.  The inclusion of product selection guides and blogs regarding any new products hitting the market and the latest on-site deals can also help to bulk up the amount of fresh content on an ecommerce website.

Surviving Panda is a matter of striking a healthy balance between quality and quantity of content – one should never be sacrificed for the other. It should be noted that attempts to recover from Panda problems might not be fruitful until the (almost inevitable) 3.4 comes into play.

Changes to Local Results Algorithm

Google Local Search
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Google: This improvement improves the triggering of Local Universal results by relying more on the ranking of our main search results as a signal.

This basically means that the ranking factors which determine the order of SERPs in local search will now more closely align to those in operation for main search. It was once the case that Google’s local search could be abused by SEO engineers and businesses; lying about the exact address of a company – and placing it in the very centre of a town or city – and paying for many positive reviews of said business could see it place above those that are more deserving of the highest positions.

As a result of this algorithm change, we have seen some of our clients’ sites climb local SERPs for certain queries, simply due to their overall domain authority. In a nutshell, this update means that regular SEO is more important than ever for ranking well in local SERPs.

Whilst this is great news for established companies and their websites, smaller businesses could lose a significant amount of business and the online retail world could begin to resemble the physical high streets in which large brands dominate.

Changes to Link Evaluation

Google Link Evaluation
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Google: We often use characteristics of links to help us figure out the topic of a linked page. We have changed the way in which we evaluate links; in particular, we are turning off a method of link analysis that we used for several years. We often rearchitect or turn off parts of our scoring in order to keep our system maintainable, clean and understandable.

As to not provide a key to unlock the secrets of its search algorithm, Google has been purposely vague regarding which of their link evaluation methods they have put to bed. There has been much discussion – and head scratching – for those in the SEO industry as to which of the factors has been obliterated but the poll conducted by Search Engine Roundtable suggests that the answer is far from obvious (Page Rank is currently topping the poll at 19.64% however).

The actual method of link analysis which has been turned off may become clearer over the coming months as back link analyses are conducted for penalised sites/pages and engineers share their findings and theories. In the meantime, link building is still important and it is wise to continue to seek links from on topic, high authority websites instead of using link building networks, directories and link farms since Google is sure to continue their crack down on these – arguably black hat and often off topic – SEO techniques.

Exact match link building should also be avoided – if you do not vary your anchor text then this is a clear signal to Google that you are attempting to manipulate your clients’ positions in the SERPs!

What do YOU think?
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Has your website – or one belonging to a client of yours – suffered in the wake of Panda? What link evaluation method do you think Google has switched off? We’d love for you to share your thoughts with us in the comments below.