A useful guide

An SME guide to understanding Google Search algorithms (and ways to improve rankings)

SEO  |  13 min read

For SME and Singapore companies that want to be “found” and rank highly in a Google search, the idea of investing in an SEO service can seem mysterious.

One reason is that Google Search algorithms affect the rankings of webpages and are mysterious – they change over time and new ones are developed. Search algorithms are rules that dictate what results are returned, when specific terms are searched, as most relevant, local, clicked by other users.

Search ranking factors are corporate top-secret – each search engine has its own recipes for ranking different priorities – and they evolve over time. Several times a day, actually.

Changes are often shared with the world as they occur, sometimes by industry watchers who are scouring Google’s patents or financial filings. Others come from Google itself with explanations and objectives such as reducing spam, improving speed. Google’s search algorithm updates are announced via the company’s blog and social accounts and at times cause a stir around the world. They’ve also published guidelines primarily for webmasters and SEO professionals.

Worldwide, Google sees an estimated 5.6 billion searches daily, according to Ahrefs, so it’s important to your business but not within your control. Sorry about that. But there are ways that search engine strategies and keywords and SEO services help your website to support your organisation.

Even Google tries to outwit Google

Google’s own marketing team of specific products, such as web browser Chrome or Google Maps, try to be the most popular and searched-for terms by optimising the product pages for prominent display on Google Search or purchasing Google Ads.

Sometimes, the company imposes short-term bans on tactics or SEO practices when they appear to have an unfair intention. Google had penalised its own product teams and companies ranging from Expedia to retailer J.C. Penney or Wix.com.

Companies are always competing to improve their search ranking and website visibility (visitors, time on page, click-through rate, and other metrics). Organic website search traffic is often a goal because ranking on the first page of a search engine results page (SERP) is what users click on most often.

Illustration depicting major Google search algorithm updates - Panda, Penguin, Pigeon, Hummingbird

Why does Google update its search algorithms?

Subtle, local trends in search terms drive small-scale differences that grow over time and cause updates as trends or patterns emerge in Google search results. Local language or culture differences also play a role for Singapore SMEs who know the difference between “coffee shop” (which means an eatery made up of food stalls located in housing estates) and “coffee shop” (which means cafe in Western countries).

Another reason for making changes is that Google tries to prevent companies and individuals from trying to “game the system” by stuffing keywords, purchasing backlinks, faking reviews, or other strategies to gain higher rankings or other benefits. Offering discounts in return for links, redirected pages, or other tactics is forbidden, such as when BMW tried in 2006 to make searches for “used car” bring more visitors to its websites.

In one update, Google aimed for more accurate, relevant, meaningful search results by removing low-quality “thin content” – pages containing very little material. Also, companies that depend on scraping data from other websites – travel prices, car sales, real estate sales – or even gather reviews or comments from third-party sites to create content are setting themselves up for trouble.

Other changes have been required by the rise in audio and video content, the shift from desktop to mobile-first searches that are more sensitive to time of day (traffic, weather, nearby business) or voice searches via Alexa, Siri, or other platforms.

Major Google Search algorithm updates that impact website rankings

Google’s public liaison for search, Danny Sullivan, mentioned that in 2020 alone Google made more than 4,800 improvements to search.

Some of what Google calls “Core Algorithm” updates are significant corporate events – at least for IT industry watchers and SEO service providers. They’re sometimes given names or advanced notice press releases to advise companies to watch their search results for potential impacts.

There are constant, ongoing experiments to see how trends, user experience, emerging technologies, and other user inputs all play a role in search results. Here are other major changes:

Page Experience Update (June 2021)

How does Google rank webpages that are similarly relevant for a search query? By page experience.

Although a known ranking factor, page experience is not a deal-breaker. Google relies on Core Web Vitals, mobile-friendliness, HTTPS, and compliance with intrusive interstitial guidelines to figure out the user experience a webpage provides.

MUM (May 2021)

Google announced a Multitask Unified Model (MUM) that would be multilingual and process information from different media formats, meaning that images, video, and audio contents could be searched – not just titles and keywords. Hailing MUM as 1,000 times more powerful than BERT, Google claims this natural language understanding offers more context-based answers in up to 75 languages.

Product Reviews Update (April 2021)

Hoping to separate high-quality product reviews from thinly written comments, Google now searches for the benefits, or drawbacks, described in greater detail. Emphasis is on reviews from people who have actually used products and services and show examples – with visuals, audio, or video. Attention to comparisons or competing products also is an evaluation criterion.

BERT (October 2019)

Calling this the most important update in 5 years, Google said this would improve natural language understanding and make search conversational. Search would better comprehend user purposes such as “For” (to explain a reason why) or “To” (achieving a desired outcome) as search user reasons that would also impact search engine optimisation efforts.

RankBrain (October 2015)

It’s a machine learning toolkit (that’s part of artificial intelligence (AI)) added to address novel or ambiguous search queries. Results from proven, reliable websites gain added credibility. In a rare admission, Google confirms RankBrain is a major ranking factor.

Mobile-friendly Update (April 2015)

The shift to mobile-friendly websites, and penalties for pages that weren’t designed to be viewed on phones or tablets, led to a significant reshuffle where rankings would be negatively affected by website design. Global, massive change gave better scores to mobile-friendly individual pages – not entire sites – and affected all languages around the world.

Because of the repercussions, it was called “Mobilegeddon” by some industry experts who saw this as a major shakeup of rankings and search positions.

Pigeon (July 2014)

This release was seen as a way to focus on users looking for nearby products and services, using “location services” on phones, tablets not just computers. Local results were given higher priority and the search results that appeared in Google Maps also were refreshed thanks to Pigeon.

Hummingbird (August 2013)

This rewriting of core algorithm enabled it to better understand conversational searches, reducing the need to match keywords on a webpage to phrases in an online search enquiry to determine if the page contains a correct answer.

The overhaul helps the search engine understand what searchers mean as they’re typing enquiries – making it precise and as fast as its namesake tiny bird.

Penguin (April 2012)

In a response to spam and link manipulation, Google released an update that could identify plagiarised material copied from other high-ranking pages. Before Penguin, the number of links mattered significantly, but the quality of links has grown as the right way to gain attention from Google.

Page Layout Algorithm Update (Jan 2012)

To help quickly identify high-quality websites, Google launched a change that looks at a webpage layout and the amount of content you see on the page once you click. Users wanted to see search results and content – not ads loaded at the top of pages.

Panda (February 2011)

An update that affected nearly 12% of all searches at the time, Panda identified ‘high-quality’ sites during a stage when content farms were posting “thin pages” with keywords but little else. Many of these pages contained copyrighted material scraped from more reliable news sites or popular social networks.

In late May 2022, Google announced a “core update” with substantial improvements to the overall ranking processes. Making results “more helpful and useful” was the goal according to the Google Search Center blog. Over a period of up to 2 weeks, sites could expect to see drops – or gains – in performance.

Google typically explains the start date, estimated time to completion and then another posting when a change is considered complete, so webmasters can start to evaluate the impacts.

Illustration depicting a person trying to understand how search algorithms and ranking systems work for queries

How do I know if my site is affected by an algorithm update?

Business owners or website managers should check their website performance before and after a major Google update. The more long-range information you have about your site performance, the better you can diagnose problems and solutions.

A good start is using Google Search Console, Google Analytics, or other tools to evaluate performance – and identify which metrics are the ones that matter most to your company. You can’t just call Google and request support, but you might find traffic patterns and reasons to update your pages in ways that function better.

Some pages do see reductions in traffic or rankings within days and (as Google fine-tunes things) might see a complete rebound within 2 weeks of a change. Some sites also recover their rankings when a subsequent Google change alters its priorities (again).

Other responses include getting information from reliable SEO sources – MOZ, Search Engine Journal, and Semrush are some of the largest – to learn what the updates mean and how companies are responding.

These are also the best times to get advice from a local SEO pro who knows how things are affecting searches in your industry or geographic area.

Should I track updates to Google algorithms?

Only if Google and search results can make or break your revenue or business model. For a substantial number of companies, having a partner rendering SEO services means you focus on the operation while the search engine and ranking work gets done for you.

To learn more about the history of changes or see what is coming next, perhaps these links and resources will help. Google user groups, along with other search engines such as Bing, Alibaba, or messages on Reddit groups are other places to track the search industry.

How can Singapore companies safeguard their websites from downgrades and penalties as a result of an algorithm update?

No one has a magic bullet but there are ways to make your website search strategy work for the long-term.

1. Make certain to develop a high-quality website that is optimised for display on mobile devices.

Most users now start their search on a phone or tablet, even if they later do a more in-depth visit using a computer. Being ready for a mobile device user ensures full functionality from any kind of connection.

2. Focus on an easy, user experience – not self-promotion and your story.

Answering a visitor’s question is far more important than ever before.

By understanding why your visitor is searching, you can benefit from a trusted partner who’s keeping an eye on search results and making it easy for Googlebot to recognise and categorise your content.

3. Create in-depth content that is regularly updated. Be a local expert.

Fresh content that reflects new industry knowledge, current events, or local impact all contribute to search results. What do you know that your competitors don’t? Is your organisation one with a recognised brand or reputation?

4. Cluster and group website content by topic.

Make it easier for users to find related information (and better for Googlebot to index your pages). It’s possible to serve your clients and prospects while improving search results and rankings.

Organise material on your website with someone who knows the search business. Cluster and group contents by topics that your customers are using to look for products and services.

What not to do

  • Spammy SEO tactics, like inserting multiple keywords in meta tags (invisible website coding) or auto-generated and scraped content that obviously appears on multiple pages. Fresh (meaning recent), original content is what Google wants to see.
  • Don’t overload your website with ads, copy that is on the edge of being toododgy (Some sites use too many pages – half-filled with content instead of a complete, orderly website plan).
  • Believe there’s a magic one-size fits-all solution. There are plenty of people putting out articles and guides on “How to Beat Google.” Some pointers work, some don’t – they do it to increase their own search visibility and attract visitors. You need to differentiate the good and the bad by first understanding how search engines work.

Google recommends “focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”

Besides making sure webmaster guidelines are followed, Google suggests creators ask themselves these 20 questions about their content:

Content and quality questions

  1. Does the content provide original information, reporting, research, or analysis?
  2. Does the content provide a substantial, complete, or comprehensive description of the topic?
  3. Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  4. If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources and instead provide substantial additional value and originality?
  5. Does the headline and/or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?
  6. Does the headline and/or page title avoid being exaggerating or shocking in nature?
  7. Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  8. Would you expect to see this content in or referenced by a printed magazine, encyclopedia, or book?

Expertise questions

  1. Does the content present information in a way that makes you want to trust it, such as clear sourcing, evidence of the expertise involved, background about the author or the site that publishes it, such as through links to an author page or a site’s About page?
  2. If you researched the site producing the content, would you come away with an impression that it is well-trusted or widely recognised as an authority on its topic?
  3. Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?
  4. Does the content have any easily-verified factual errors?
  5. Would you feel comfortable trusting this content for issues relating to your money or your life?

Presentation and production questions

  1. Does the content have any spelling or stylistic issues?
  2. Was the content produced well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  3. Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  4. Does the content have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  5. Does content display well for mobile devices when viewed on them?

Comparative questions

  1. Does the content provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  2. Does the content seem to be serving the genuine interests of visitors to the site or does it seem to exist solely by someone attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?

Source: What site owners should know about Google’s core updates, Google Search Central, 1 August 2019

Key takeaways
  • Understand how search affects your company – from sales prospects to online reputation and contact details. The more Google knows about your business, your website content, and expert knowledge, the more it can deliver, if you capitalise on it.
  • Search habits change over time and Google adapts. Your company’s usage and search results shift over time. Be prepared with a plan to respond in case your rankings are temporarily downgraded – often they rebound within weeks.
  • Stay current with Google updates via an SEO service to gain regular insights about your company’s vital keywords and online reputation. It’s wise to compare your searches to those of nearby competitors.
  • Do your homework to know what algorithm changes by Google hope to achieve to decide if they will affect your business income, search results, or competitive strategy.

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