Between the long-awaited rollout of Penguin 4.0, a strengthening of Google’s mobile-friendly ranking signal and the ‘Possum’ algorithm update impacting local search, 2016 was an interesting year for Google algorithm changes.
And with an upcoming move to a mobile-first search index already on the cards, as well as a penalty for intrusive mobile interstitials coming into effect on the 10th, 2017 promises to be just as eventful.
Looking back at 2016, which algorithm changes were the most impactful for marketers in the industry? And how can brands best prepare themselves for what might be around the corner? I spoke to Sastry Rachakonda and Ajay Rama of digital marketing agency iQuanti, along with Search Engine Watch’s regular mobile columnist Andy Favell, to get their thoughts on what’s to come in the search industry.
The most impactful algorithm updates of 2016
“Mobile-first indexing is probably the most significant change that happened this year,” said Rachakonda, who is the CEO of iQuanti, a data-driven digital marketing agency, “since companies were creating unique mobile content that was not the same as their desktop content. They did that for user experience. There were smaller snippets that were design friendly, but weren’t relevant and optimal for the search query.”
But while Google’s shift to emphasise mobile search even more heavily – which has included a much fuller rollout of Accelerated Mobile Pages into organic search results – was probably its most noteworthy update overall, Rachakonda believes that a different update was actually more impactful from a brand perspective: Possum.
‘Possum’ is the name given to a major update to local search on Google which came into effect on 1st September 2016, and which is thought to be the most significant algorithm update to local search since Pigeon in 2014. The name was coined by Phil Rozek of Local Visibility System, who thought it was fitting as after the update, many business owners thought that their Google My Business listings were gone, when in fact they were only filtered – hence, ‘playing possum’.
The apparently ‘dead’ Google My Business listings gave the Possum algorithm update its name. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The update seemed mostly aimed at improving the quality of the local search results and removing spammy listings, which meant that some businesses who had engaged in less-than-kosher practices in order to rank found themselves demoted.
“Possum has been the most impactful update for brands by far,” said Rachakonda. “One of our Fortune 500 clients in the insurance industry saw a 7% drop in keyword rankings, which resulted in a 13% loss of month-on-month traffic. We believe this was due to some outdated tactics their previous agency used to get them ranked, which clearly Google wasn’t fond of.”
While some businesses saw their traffic drop off as a result of Possum, others were seeing a remarkable recovery thanks to Penguin 4.0, which deployed after much anticipation in late September. The original Penguin update in 2012 targeted and devalued inorganic links, such as links which had been bought or placed solely to improve rankings, which led to significant losses in traffic for businesses who had engaged in those practices.
As Chuck Price explained in an article for Search Engine Watch in December 2015, “After Penguin, bad links became ‘toxic’, requiring a link audit and removal or disavow of spammy links. Even then, a Penguin refresh was usually required before one could see any signs of recovery.”
But thanks to the Penguin 4.0 update in 2016, these refreshes now take place in real-time, leading to significant recovery for brands who had already taken action to remove and disavow the bad links. Marcela De Vivo took a look at how this recovery works in practice, and what site owners can do to improve their situation if they haven’t already done so.
What’s on the cards for 2017?
As I mentioned in my introduction, at least two updates in 2017 are already certain, both of them relevant to mobile search. One, Google’s penalty for mobile sites with annoying interstitials, is due to go live tomorrow, and our search news roundup last Friday featured some new clarifications from Google about what kind of interstitials will be affected by the penalty.
The other is Google’s move to a mobile-first search index, a major shift which reflects the fact that the majority of Google search queries are now coming from mobile devices. While we don’t yet have a date for this change, Google confirmed in October that the change would take place within the next few months, which means that Google’s primary index could switch to mobile any day now, and brands would do well to prepare themselves. I asked Andy Favell, Search Engine Watch’s resident mobile specialist, what advice he would give to brands who want to be prepared.
“Google has done an excellent job of focusing companies’ minds on the importance of having a mobile-friendly website. The stick approach – the fear of harming the search ranking – has worked wonders for driving adoption of mobile or mobile-friendly sites.
“However, companies should have been focusing on the carrot – building websites that would appeal to some of the billions of mobile web users out there. The beauty of mobile first is that a mobile-friendly site is often a much better desktop site. That is still true today.
“Rather than worrying about trying to make Google happy, brands should concentrate on the mobile users, consider who they are, their context, and what they want, and provide that the best possible way – i.e. intuitive, fast-loading, good UX and usability. Businesses that do this will get more traffic, more happy users and more conversions.
“That’s not just good for business, it’s good for your search ranking also. Because Google wants what’s best for the search user.”
Brands will need to prepare themselves for mobile search becoming Google’s primary index some time soon in 2017.
Those are the changes we know about so far. But what do those in the industry think is coming for search in 2017? Ajay Rama, Senior Vice President of Product at iQuanti, believes that the mobile-first index will take up most of SEO mindshare over the coming year, but he also has a number of predictions for how voice search – which has become a huge part of the search landscape since 2015 – may evolve and change things.
“As voice search starts becoming mainstream, we might see the beginning of a SERPless search – search without a SERP page,” predicts Rama. “We could see early tests in this space where we will see Google Assistant and search being seamlessly integrated into an interactive search experience. Assistant interacts with the user to ask the right questions and take him to the target page or a desired action, instead of showing a SERP page with various options. In this new experience, ads would have to be reinvented all over.”
Given that Google’s innovations of the past few years, from semantic search to Quick Answers, have increasingly been geared towards understanding users’ exact intentions with the aim of finding a single, ideal result or piece of information to satisfy their query, it’s not hard to imagine this happening. Rama also foresees a much more extensive rollout of Google’s voice-controlled Assistant to go along with this.
“Google Assistant will become part of Android, and will be available on all Android devices. Talking to the device in local languages becomes mainstream, and Google Assistant will lead this space. Their machines will learn all accents and all languages, and will soon become a leader in the voice devices, especially in non-English speaking nations.”
Can you imagine Google search without the SERP? With the expansion of voice search, it could become a reality.
While it’s hard to imagine that all of these developments will take place in 2017 alone, there’s definitely a possibility that we’ll see them begin. Google Assistant is already reported to be learning Hindi as a second language, and more languages could well follow if the uptake of Hindi is a success. However, Google Assistant is fairly late to the game compared to established voice assistants like Siri and Cortana who have been around much longer, and have had more time to refine their technology. So is it still possible for Google to pull ahead in this race?
With this change in the way we search comes a change in the way we market, as well; and if the search results page is to disappear one day, advertising will have no choice but to colonise whatever takes its place. We’re already seeing a shift towards an ‘always-on’, always-connected culture with devices like the Amazon Echo constantly listening out for voice commands. Rama believes that Internet of Things-connected devices could easily start to ‘spy’ on their owners, collecting data for the purposes of marketing – “Advertisers would love to get into living room and dinner table discussions.”
This might seem like sobering food for thought, or a whole new world of possibilities, depending on your perspective. Either way, it will be extremely interesting to see whether search continues to develop along the path it seems to be taking now – or whether it veers off in other, even more unexpected directions.