Understand what is SEO
What is the search engine landscape or the search landscape? Search engine can be seen as a huge platform or market place where all the available information contained in various web pages and documents is served to the vast, dynamic and growing market of searchers. The point of convergence is the search process where users use queries to search for information and each of those queries are matched with information which can serve the users in the best way.
This serving of useful, best and relevant information is where all the real action takes place. This is the platform for all the search optimization activities and practices.
When you enter the world or SEO and for those like me already here, two things which we will always be hearing and reading about is "best practices in SEO" and "algorithms or updates".
Google created the algorithms. One of the best ways to understand these algorithms is to see these as set of functions and rules working collectively to evaluate so many different factors related to a website so as to decide its relevancy, position and rank in terms of various topics and sub topics which it talks about in its content.
There are certain functions these algorithms do and have a very broad set of criteria they have developed to effectively do these functions.
These criteria indirectly define what all a website should do and how so that it looks more relevant and a good answer for the various queries or questions which people ask with respect to that website's content.
This set of criteria, which is seen more as a set of rules, directs, defines, and creates the SEO best practices that most of us follows.
Any updates, changes and additions in those function, criteria and rules changes the list of best practices to follow in SEO.
We will take up what SEO related practices people follow and what is preferred for better and improve search engine optimization in our chapters on technical SEO, on page SEO and off page SEO.
Google Algorithms — the guiding and deciding factors in SEO
We may use and talk about Google, Bing, Yahoo or any other major or other search engines. There is one thing that is common among all and in the search engines landscape and market, it is the rules or better called as standards about what works and what not in the world of web search.
The search engines and its landscape that we know of today started with the invent and evolution of a system of methods or programs to evaluate various aspects of websites to ultimately decide which websites will be displayed for which queries and among all those websites which one will be shown at the first page and on top of that page and which ones will show at page 2, 3 and on later or deeper pages.
This system basically drives the ranking system or methodology and that drives our knowledge and practice of what we call as search engine optimization.
Let us take a scenario.
If we still were in the era of 1990s or earlier and search engines were just displaying random lists of files and web pages then we would not be needing the type of SEO we are doing today. Because no matter how big the database was, all the pages were displayed in a random list.
This was exactly the case earlier. Files or pages were listed by their names.
Perhaps the results could be much better if we categorize all those files and pages by the topics which they talk about. This could be done by looking at some indicative words in the file names and in the content that is in those pages.
This creates keywords and with it came optimization through their use, and over optimization or keyword stuffing.
Then came the importance and power of links or backlinks, as we call them in the world of SEO, as a vote of popularity for a website by other websites. This was what Google proposed, as one of the methods to find best of the websites.
Google Algorithms — What you should know
All these are now covered and monitored through the various algorithms. Google keeps releasing updates and sometime new algorithms, and has released and updated many over the years.
All these updates or new releases have different objectives. For example, some are there to decide and influence the way search results are ranked, some decide how the results will be displayed. Then some are there to monitor on page factors, while some only focus on how and from where a site gets its backlinks. There have been updates and algorithms which added new features to search results pages, while some were not at all related to organic results and focused on adwords or paid search advertising.
But yes, when take these updates collectively and look at the factors that they influence or focus upon, then those become important factors in process of making that page rank higher in search results.
Hence, these factors also become or point towards what people call critical ranking factors which Google and also other search engines consider while evaluating and ranking websites and pages in organic search result pages.
Major Google algorithms and updates
Let us discuss some of the major search engines algorithms and updates that changed and influenced the way page optimization and link building was approached and brought a change in the way search is seen or displayed.
Google Florida update (November, 2003)
Google released its first major update in November 2003 which was called as Florida update. This was more of a filter. It is believed to have dealt with spam tactics basically related to high volume commercial search phrases. It covered heavy keywords based link tactics and the heavy use of affiliate sites. It covered issues like keyword stuffing, invisible text, hidden links, sites without a consistent theme.
Google Austin update (January, 2004)
Austin was somewhere between the end of 2004 and the start of 2005. This was again an update which seemed to have covered things left unfinished in the previous update, Florida.
Austin update was again about the spam tactics in optimization and link building. It covered using invisible text in pages; stuffing meta tags and especially meta keywords tag with link unlimited keywords, to improve keyword targeting and optimization; using link farms to gain backlinks.
Google Brandy update (February 2004)
With the Brandy update, what Google did was that it expanded its index enormously. The Brandy update brought to the SEO world the all important Latent Semantic Indexing or LSI. What LSI does is that it tries to understand the concept and them of a page by considering synonyms and natural language. It expanded and evolved keyword analysis. It also brought the concept of link neighborhoods (inbound & outbound links).
Nofollow attribute (January 1, 2005)
In a kind of a one off and revolutionary move, all the major search engines of the world: Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft introduced the "nofollow" link attribute. This was a move to tackle and reduce the link spamming that was being done by site owners who were freely getting all kind of easy links from blog comments, forums, guest post site, etc.
Typically sites where users can generate content easily were being used for spamming and links from these were to be considered as "nofollow" links.
A nofollow attribute tells search engines that the link should not pass on the page's authority and that the link is not trusted or vetted by the site owner in some way.
Google Personalized search (June 2005)
Google introduced personalization concept in search. With every new search we do using search engines our search history starts building and taking shape. It records what all we searched and the patterns & preferences.
Google will now take note of a user's personal search history and also their language, location, and other proprietary information to provide unique search results.
Google Universal search update (2007)
While this was an algorithm update, the Universal Search completely changed the traditional search results landscape.
This Universal Search system changed the format of search results, shifting it from a traditional list of results to a now more dynamic mix of results which also show results from other searches like images, videos, news results, local results, books and more.
Google's Vince (February, 2009)
Vince, which was not an update but a "minor change" according to Google's Matt Cutts, actually changed the search results for some selected type of queries where Google thought factors like quality and trust were important when showing results.
As a result generic type of queries started showing more results from top brands, rather than small and relatively unknown smaller brands or websites. This way more quality and trusted results were now showing in the search results for these queries.
Google was hence also seen as strongly favoring big brands above smaller, less well known sites.
Google Caffeine update (August 2009-2010)
Caffeine was a major infrastructure update by Google with which it aimed to improve and expand it's index system, speed up the crawling process and do more like accuracy.
Google proposed to launch a new and upgraded version of it's search engine. Caffeine was proposed in August 2009 and launched in June 2010, after a long testing through a developer preview.
Google's Panda update (February 2011)
The Panda algorithm update, came as perhaps the most important filter with largest and widest impact. This update affected about 12% of all search results. Rather than a one time change, this is a search filter, rolling out updates from time to time. It was announced in 2011 and since then Google has brought many updates to it.
Panda was mainly aimed penalize sites with low quality content, and especially content farms, and prevent sites with low-quality content from ranking well in search. The various content related issues it aims to tackle are thin content, low quality content, content farms, websites which had too much ads but very less content i.e. with high ad-to-content ratios.
Since, it is a search filter with regular updates it also means regular reviews. So, if a site was penalized during an earlier update, it has the chances of recovering in the next updates by improving content and correcting related things.
Google Penguin update (2012)
Just like Panda, Penguin algorithm update is also a filter. Penguin basically deals with backlinks and not with content.
The penguin algorithm was released in 2012 to deal with sites that were following various types spam practices to manipulate and boost their search results. The main focus of Penguin was keyword stuffing and spam link practices or link schemes.
Penguin aimed to deal with all the black hat practices and remove sites practices from search results or penalize them who were following these types of manipulative.