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These days, keeping up with all of Google’s search algorithm changes is harder than Chuck Norris’s abs. For example, there is one algorithm named Hummingbird that goes through hundreds or even thousands of small changes each year. The vast majority of these changes are imperceptible even to SEO experts. However, there are always a few major updates a year where everyone in the SEO industry sits up and takes notice. This blog post will cover the 5 largest changes to the algorithm in 2015. Enjoy!

Mobilegeddon

The first major update to Google’s search algorithm came on April 21st, a day SEOs fondly refer to as ‘Mobilegeddon’. Google’s Mobile-Friendly Update gives a boost to websites that are deemed mobile-friendly by Google. In order for a website to be mobile-friendly, it needs to pass the following rules, per Google’s blog post on the subject:

  • Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash
  • Uses text that is readable without zooming
  • Sizes content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally or zoom
  • Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped

Websites that followed these rules received a boost in mobile search results. Now that there are more mobile searches on Google in 10 countries (including the United States) than desktop, websites need to make sure that they can pass Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test. If your site does not pass this test, I strongly recommend taking a long hard look at it and evaluating how you can make these fixes.

Additionally, mobile search results have been gradually distinguishing themselves from desktop results, and this divergence is even more pronounced after the mobile update. In June of 2014 BrightEdge stated that mobile results were 62% different than desktop results, and this has only grown since. It has become clear that simply optimizing your desktop site isn’t enough to really run a complete SEO campaign – you need to also have all of your technical and usability ducks in a row.

It should also be noted that Google is now penalizing mobile websites that immediately serve an interstitial that prompts users to download their app. Make sure your website isn’t doing that as well! This update came a few months after Mobilegeddon, but should still be noted when evaluating your mobile site.

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If your website is not yet optimized for mobile, get on it!

Phantom II

Phantom II was a stealth update in late April/early May that targeted low-quality pages, with many sites gaining or losing upwards of 20% of their organic traffic. Google did not confirm this update until a few weeks after it was released, but industry experts were able to see the effects immediately.

As stated, Phantom II was a quality update that penalized sites with thin or unhelpful content, similar to Panda. However, Phantom II looks for different quality signals than Panda does: Phantom II is all about user experience. So, things like autoplay videos and popup ads, poorly designed pages (poorly designed, not ugly; ugly pages generally won’t be penalized by Google), as well as thin or duplicate content may result in a visit from Phantom II. Other studies have suggested that sites with ‘tag pages’ saw significant ranking decreases, along with directory sites.

In order to fight off the Phantom, you need to take a close look at your website and its content. Visit your site as if you were a regular user and evaluate your experience. Are you constantly being bombarded by ads and videos? Remove them. Is your site confusing or difficult to navigate? It’s time to change up your site structure. Does your content provide unique or useful information? If it doesn’t, you need to evaluate why and then develop a plan to change that.

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Phantom II destroys all thin, duplicate, and unhelpful content in its way.

Panda 4.2

This is far from the first time we’ve seen Panda, but in mid-July, the Panda 4.2 rollout began. Unlike other Panda updates, Google stated that for ‘technical reasonsthis update would take several months for its presence to be totally felt. What this means for webmasters is that Panda recoveries or penalties could happen at any time, thus making it more difficult to know if a site was affected by the update. Additionally, while Panda has previously affected entire sites, this time, it is affecting pages on a page-by-page basis, thus making it even more difficult to observe.

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Google Panda is coming for your weak content, again! But this time, it’s doing it slowly…

Luckily, Panda 4.2 apparently doesn’t introduce any incredibly different wrinkles to the update, meaning that if you were already following Panda’s best practices, you won’t need to make any changes. Essentially, your content needs to be valuable, in-depth, and relevant. If you are still struggling with Panda though, I highly recommend checking out this awesome infographic on how you can please the Panda. Making great content is, unfortunately, more difficult than you might imagine.

RankBrain

Very little is known about Google’s RankBrain, other than it uses artificial intelligence to filter search results. Nobody outside of Google knew what RankBrain was until Bloomberg broke the story in late October. In that story, Google revealed that the AI has become the 3rd most important ranking factor in determining search results. RankBrain has been active for several months now.

RankBrain is already better at predicting what the top result for a search query is than experts at Google. Google experts predict the top result 70% of the time; RankBrain predicts it 80% of the time. Because of this, it is likely that its importance will continue to grow as it becomes more sophisticated.

So, you might be asking how exactly RankBrain works. Google provided an example of a search query that it might help with: “What’s the title of the consumer at the highest level of a food chain?” RankBrain can help simplify long-tail search queries like this and still provide excellent results that will answer the question.

Because there is such little information about how RankBrain works we, unfortunately, can’t properly react to it. For now, just stay posted for new information about the AI.

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We still have a lot to learn about RankBrain, but we do know it’s the 3rd most important ranking signal.

Phantom III

Phantom III was the final major update of the year. It was not officially confirmed by Google, but experts across the industry saw significant fluctuation in search traffic to their sites as well as keyword rankings, indicating a major algorithm change.

One of the major factors Phantom III went after was low-quality content. Search queries are now turning up pages that are extremely focused and relevant to the query. While before it was possible for sites to rank for hundreds of keywords without specifically targeting them, Phantom III seems to make ranking for keywords the site isn’t optimized around much more difficult.

While Phantom II indiscriminately punished duplicate content, this update was a little more selective; in some context, duplicate content made sense, such as for dictionaries, transcripts, and lyrics. Of course, if a site had duplicate content when it shouldn’t have, it likely saw keyword drops.

Thanks for reading all the way through, and I hope this review was helpful! When you’re planning your SEO efforts for 2016, make sure you don’t forget everything that happened this year. Let me know in the comments below if there were any other updates you think people should remember!

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