When Bloomberg broke the story last week about Google’s new RankBrain algorithm, the news finally gave a reason for some of the volatile organic search fluctuations reported in 2015. Just about every time major changes to Google algorithms roll out, the rankings of many websites take a roller coaster ride. RankBrain, one of several Google algorithm changes this year, is a big one.
For a glimpse into the state of Google’s search algorithm today, we will look at what RankBrain is and how it changes organic search ranking. We will also review other reported changes to Google algorithms this year and what we can expect to see in the near future.
What is Google’s RankBrain?
Google’s RankBrain is a new a machine learning system, an artificial intelligence, that is now a major factor in the search ranking process. Used in processing a large percentage of search queries, RankBrain is learning to better interpret what people search for, the intent behind those strings of words. As the number of complex, long-tail queries never before used in search continues to grow (think voice search), RankBrain’s ability to interpret those new query sets will grow as well.
A significant part of Google’s search algorithm today, RankBrain helps determine which webpages should appear in search results for a given query and how those pages should rank. In FAQ: All About the New Google RankBrain Algorithm, Search Engine Land founding editor Danny Sullivan provides an overview of what we know so far.
Although RankBrain is one of about 200 major ranking signals used by Google, it has become the third most important one. That’s significant.
According to the Bloomberg article, the rollout of RankBrain has been a year-long effort. In the last few months, RankBrain processed a “very large fraction” of Google search queries. That could certainly explain the previously unexplained volatile organic search results reported in recent months.
But while the machine learning RankBrain brings a major change to how Google’s search algorithm ranks web pages, it is not the only update rolled out in 2015. And another big change is expected before the end of the year.
My Organic Search Rankings Dropped. Was it a Google Algorithm Update?
It is a question commonly asked in industry forums. More often than not, Google provides no answers.
We’re told the search giant constantly makes changes to its algorithms, thousands each year. Minor tweaks usually go unnoticed, as do some slow rollouts. Although Google announces a few major algorithm updates impacting a large number of sites, many go unconfirmed. Those unconfirmed changes leave webmasters and SEOs who experience the roller coaster effect searching for answers. Almost never do we know the date of an update in advance, as we did with Google’s Mobile-Friendly Update, named Mobilegeddon.
Did you miss Google’s Mobile-Friendly Update?
Google announced in February that its Mobile-Friendly Update would roll out April 21, 2015. It would be more significant than Panda or Penguin, Google warned. As the date passed without major impact, people asked if it had rolled out yet. It had.
Perhaps Google gave advanced warning to instill fear in webmasters and SEOs, prompting a majority of websites to become mobile friendly. In the months leading up to and following the Mobile Friendly Update, many did.
Coming Soon: Real-Time Google Penguin Update
Although Google hasn’t given a specific date, we’re told to expect a roll out of the next Penguin refresh soon. It brings another big change to organic search.
First launched on April 24, 2012, the Penguin algorithm targets webspam, primarily link schemes. Many websites suffered significant sitewide drops in organic search rankings when Penguin rolled out.
This next Penguin 4.0 algorithm update, coming more than a year since the last full update, is expected to be the real-time version Google announced working on in June. With Penguin running in real time, the discovery of new links, as well as the removal of links, will be processed without waiting for a data refresh. That brings an end to the long waits after link clean-up for those penalized by Penguin. It also means a site with questionable backlinks could be hit at any time by Penguin, without notice or explanation.
About six months after Penguin launched, Google introduced the Disavow Tool to help clean up backlinks to sites penalized. But like Panda, another part of Google’s ranking algorithm, sites penalized by the Penguin filter had to wait for another update after making improvements to begin recovery. Some sites never recovered.
Panda 4.2 Begins Its Slow Rollout, Still Rolling Out in October
Like Penguin, Google’s Panda works as a search filter. It targets low quality, thin, or duplicated content and content farms. The Panda 1.0 algorithm launched February 23, 2011, followed by several updates, including the slow rollout of Panda 4.2 that began July 18, 2015. After waiting nearly a year for a refresh of Panda, sites that made improvements after penalized in a previous Panda update might finally recover.
But due to the extremely slow rollout, the initial impact seemed minimal. Months later, Google confirmed on October 1st Panda 4.2 was still rolling out, and would continue to roll out for some time.
Other Major Google Algorithm Updates in 2015
Below are a few other big updates, or suspected updates, reported in 2015:
- Google Algorithmic Changes in October Tackle Hacked Spam – On Oct. 5, Google announced the rollout of a series of algorithmic changes targeting hacked spam in search results. A few months before, IT security firm SOPHOS had discovered hundreds of thousands of high-ranking PDF documents on hacked sites using cloaking techniques to “poison” Google’s search results. Google said the algorithmic changes made to prevent those high rankings would “eventually impact roughly 5% of queries, depending on the language.”
- The Google Cricket Update that Grew in June – In mid-June, discussions grew in industry forums about another possible Google algorithm update. Search Engine Roundtable founder Barry Schwartz, who regularly reports Google updates, initially said the chatter in the SEO community was so low he called it the Google Cricket update. But then the discussions in forums “spiked significantly”. Some webmasters and SEOs saw big changes in rankings and wondered if it was a Panda, Penguin or HTTPS update. Google said it was another core algorithm update, and to expect more.
- Google’s Quality Update in May a Core Algorithm Change – The Quality Update hit around the first of May. Seeing huge changes in search rankings and traffic, people turned to the forums to find out if Penguin, Panda or another major Google algorithm update was released. Google first denied the update, leading many to call it the Phantom Update. After a couple of weeks the search giant finally confirmed changes to its core algorithm, in how it assesses content quality. As usual, Google refused to provide specifics on those quality signals.
- Significant Google Search Algorithm Update Feb. 4 – Although January was not quiet (we saw discussions mid-month about a shuffling of rankings and drops in conversions), the first flood of reports of a major algorithm update in 2015 came in early February. Some SEOs believed the suspected Google algorithm update was mobile-related. (Google had sent warnings to webmasters of non-mobile friendly websites only two weeks prior to the update.) Others said the update was e-commerce related, mainly focused on traffic-heavy misspelled brand terms. This unnamed update was not confirmed by Google.
As you can see, Google is constantly changing and refining its processes for determining which webpages should be returned for each of the three billion plus searches each day, and in what order those pages should rank. According to Google, it will continue refining its processes to bring searchers the best results possible, as quickly as possible. What Google doesn’t say leaves many unanswered questions.
Do you often feel like your organic search rankings are on a roller coaster ride? Want to build a trusted website that doesn’t take a performance dive with every major Google algorithm change? Give our local & organic SEO experts a call and contact us when you’re ready to talk.