Everything You Need to Know About Mobile App Search

Posted by Justin_Briggs

Mobile isn’t the future. It’s the present. Mobile apps are not only changing how we interact with devices and websites, they’re changing the way we search. Companies are creating meaningful experiences on mobile-friendly websites and apps, which in turn create new opportunities to get in front of users.

I’d like to explore the growth of mobile app search and its current opportunities to gain visibility and drive engagement.

Rise of mobile app search

The growth of mobile device usage has driven a significant lift in app-related searches. This is giving rise to mobile app search as a vertical within traditional universal search.

While it has been clear for some time that mobile search is important, that importance has been more heavily emphasized by Google recently, as they continue to push
mobile-friendly labels in SERPs, and are likely increasing mobile-friendliness’s weight as a ranking factor.

The future of search marketing involves mobile, and it will not be limited to optimizing HTML webpages, creating responsive designs, and optimizing UX. Mobile SEO is a world where apps, knowledge graph, and conversational search are front and center.

For the
top 10 leading properties online, 34% of visitors are mobile-only (comScore data), and, anecdotally, we’re seeing similar numbers with our clients, if not more.

Mobile device and app growth

It’s also worth noting that
72% of mobile engagement relies on apps vs. on browsers. Looking at teen usage, apps are increasingly dominant. Additionally,
55% of teens use voice search more than once per day

If you haven’t read it, grab some coffee and read
A Teenagers View on Social Media, which is written by a 19-year old who gives his perspective of online behavior. Reading between the lines shows a number of subtle shifts in behavior. I noticed that every time I expected him say website, he said application. In fact, he referenced application 15 times, and it is the primary way he describes social networks.

This means that one of the fasting growing segments of mobile users cannot be marketed to by optimizing HTML webpages alone, requiring search marketers to expand their skills into app optimization.

The mobile app pack

This shift is giving rise to the mobile app pack and app search results, which are triggered on searches from mobile devices in instances of high mobile app intent. Think of these as being similar to local search results. Considering
mobile searcher behavior, these listings dominate user attention.

Mobile app search results and mobile app pack

As with local search, mobile app search can reorder traditional results, completely push them down, or integrate app listings with traditional web results.

You can test on your desktop using a
user-agent switcher, or by searching on your iOS or Android device. 

There are slight differences between iPhone and Android mobile app results:

iOS and Android mobile search result listing

From what I’ve seen, mobile app listings trigger more frequently, and with more results, on Android search results when compared to iOS. Additionally, iOS mobile app listings are represented as a traditional website result listing, while mobile app listings on Android are more integrated.

Some of the differences also come from the differences in app submission guidelines on the two major stores, the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Overview of differences in mobile app results

  1. Title – Google uses the app listing page’s HTML title (which is the app’s title). iOS app titles can exceed 55-62 characters, which causes wrapping and title truncation like a traditional result. Android app title requirements are shorter, so titles are typically shorter on Android mobile app listings.
  2. URL – iOS mobile app listings display the iTunes URL to the App Store as part of the search result.
  3. Icon – iOS icons are square and Android icons have rounded corners.
  4. Design – Android results stand out more, with an “Apps” headline above the pack and a link to Google Play at the end.
  5. App store content – The other differences show up in the copy, ratings, and reviews on each app store.

Ranking in mobile app search results

Ranking in mobile app search results is a
combination of App Store Optimization (ASO) and traditional SEO. The on-page factors are dependent upon your app listing, so optimization starts with having solid ASO. If you’re not familiar with ASO, it’s the process of optimizing your app listing for internal app store search.

Basics of ASO

Ranking in the Apple App Store and in Google Play is driven by two primary factors: keyword alignment and app performance. Text fields in the app store listing, such as title, description, and keyword list, align the app with a particular set of keywords. Performance metrics including download velocity, app ratings, and reviews determine how well the app will rank for each of those keywords. (Additionally, the Google Play algorithm may include external, web-based performance metrics like citations and links as ranking factors.)

App store ranking factors

Mobile app listing optimization

While I won’t explore ASO in-depth here, as it’s very similar to traditional SEO,
optimizing app listings is primarily a function of keyword targeting.

Tools like
Sensor Tower, MobileDevHQ, and App Annie can help you with mobile app keyword research. However, keep in mind that mobile app search listings show up in universal search, so it’s important to leverage traditional keyword research tools like the AdWords Tool or Google Trends.

While there are similarities with ASO, optimizing for these mobile app search listings on the web has some slight differences.

Differences between ASO & mobile app SEO targeting

  1. Titles – While the Apple App Store allows relatively long titles, they are limited to the preview length in organic search. Titles should be optimized with Google search in mind, in addition to optimizing for the app store. Additionally, several apps aggressively target keywords in their app title, but caution should be used as spamming keywords could influence app performance in Google.
  2. Description – The app description on the App Store may not be a factor in internal search, but it will impact external app search results. Leverage keyword targeting best practices when writing your iOS app description, as well as your Android app description.
  3. Device and platform keywords – When targeting for app store search, it is not as important to target terms related to the OS or device. However, these terms can help visibility in external search. Include device and OS terms, such as Android, Samsung Note, iOS, iPad, and iPhone.

App performance optimization

Outside of content optimization, Google looks at the performance of the app. On the Android side, they have access to the data, but for iOS they have to rely on publicly available information.

App performance factors

  • Number of ratings
  • Average rating score
  • Content and sentiment analysis of reviews
  • Downloads / installs
  • Engagement and retention
  • Internal links on app store

For iOS, the primary public metrics are ratings and reviews. However, app performance can be inferred using the App Store’s ranking charts and search results, which can be leveraged as proxies of these performance metrics.


The following objectives will have the greatest influence on your mobile app search ranking:

  1. Increase your average rating number
  2. Increase your number of ratings
  3. Increase downloads

For app ratings and reviews, leverage platforms like
Apptentive to improve your ratings. They are very effective at driving positive ratings. Additionally, paid tactics are a great way to drive install volume and are one area where paid budget capacity could directly influence organic results in Google. Anecdotally, both app stores use rating numbers (typically above or below 4 stars) to make decisions around promoting an app, either through merchandising spots or co-branded campaigns. I suspect this is being used as a general cut-off for what is displayed in universal results. Increasing your rating above 4 stars should improve the likelihood you’ll appear in mobile app search results.

Lastly, think of merchandising and rankings in terms of 
internal linking structures. The more visible you are inside of the app store, the more visibility you have in external search.

App web performance optimization

Lastly, we’re talking Google rankings, so factors like links, citations, and social shares matter. You should be
conducting content marketing, PR, and outreach for your app. Focus on merchandising your app on your own site, as well as increasing coverage of your app (linking to the app store page). The basics of link optimization apply here.

App indexation – drive app engagement

Application search is not limited to driving installs via app search results. With app indexing, you can leverage your desktop/mobile website visibility in organic search to drive engagement with those who have your app installed. Google can discover and expose content deep inside your app directly in search results. This means that when a user clicks on your website in organic search, it can open your app directly, taking them to that exact piece of content in your app, instead of opening your website.

App indexation fundamentally changes technical SEO, extending SEO from server and webpage setup to the setup and optimization of applications.

App indexation on Google

This also fundamentally changes search. Your most avid and engaged user may choose to no longer visit your website. For example, on my Note 4, when I click a link to a site of a brand that I have an app installed for, Google gives me the option not only to open in the app, but to set opening the app as a default behavior.

If a user chooses to open your site in your app, they may never visit your site from organic search again.

App indexation is currently limited to Android devices, but there is evidence to suggest that it’s already in the works and is
soon to be released on iOS devices. There have been hints for some time, but markup is showing up in the wild suggesting that Google is actively working with Apple and select brands to develop iOS app indexing.

URI optimization for apps

The first step in creating an indexable app is to set up your app to support deep links. Deep links are URIs that are understood by your app and will open up a specific piece of content. They are effectively URLs for applications.

Once this URI is supported, a user can be sent to deep content in the app. These can be discovered as alternates to your desktop site’s URLs, similar to how
separate-site mobile sites are defined as alternate URLs for the desktop site. In instances of proper context (on an Android device with the app installed), Google can direct a user to the app instead of the website.

Setting this up requires working with your app developer to implement changes inside the app as well as working with your website developers to add references on your desktop site.

Adding intent filters

Android has
documented the technical setup of deep links in detail, but it starts with setting up intent filters in an app’s Android manifest file. This is done with the following code.

<activity android:name="com.example.android.GizmosActivity"
android:label="@string/title_gizmos" >
<intent-filter android:label="@string/filter_title_viewgizmos">
<action android:name="android.intent.action.VIEW" />
<data android:scheme="http"
android:host="example.com"
android:pathPrefix="/gizmos" />
<category android:name="android.intent.category.DEFAULT" />
<category android:name="android.intent.category.BROWSABLE" />
</intent-filter>
</activity>

This dictates the technical optimization of your app URIs for app indexation and defines the elements used in the URI example above.

  • The <intent-filter> element should be added for activities that should be launchable from search results.
  • The <action> element specifies the ACTION_VIEW intent action so that the intent filter can be reached from Google Search.
  • The <data> tag represents a URI format that resolves to the activity. At minimum, the <data> tag must include the android:scheme attribute.
  • Include the BROWSABLE category. The BROWSABLE category is required in order for the intent filter to be accessible from a web browser. Without it, clicking a link in a browser cannot resolve to your app. The DEFAULT category is optional, but recommended. Without this category, the activity can be started only with an explicit intent, using your app component name.

Testing deep links

Google has created tools to help test your deep link setup. You can use
Google’s Deep Link Test Tool to test your app behavior with deep links on your phone. Additionally, you can create an HTML page with an intent:// link in it.

For example
:

<a href="intent://example.com/page-1#Intent;scheme=http;package=com.example.android;end;"> <a href="http://example.com/page-1">http://example.com/page-1></a>

This link would open up deep content inside the app from the HTML page.

App URI crawl and discovery

Once an app has deep link functionality, the next step is to
ensure that Google can discover these URIs as part of its traditional desktop crawling.

Ways to get apps crawled

  1. Rel=”alternate” in HTML head
  2. ViewAction with Schema.org
  3. Rel=”alternate” in XML Sitemap

Implementing all three will create clear signals, but at minimum you should add the rel=”alternate” tag to the HTML head of your webpages.

Effectively, think of the app URI as being similar to a mobile site URL when
setting up a separate-site mobile site for SEO. The mobile deep link is an alternative way to view a webpage on your site. You map a piece of content on your site to a corresponding piece of content inside the app.

Before you get started, be sure to
verify your website and app following the guidelines here. This will verify your app in Google Play Developer Console and Google Webmaster Tools.

#1: Rel=”alternate” in HTML head

On an example page, such as example.com/page-1, you would add the following code to the head of the document. Again, very similar to separate-site mobile optimization.

<html>
<head> 
... 
<link rel="alternate" href="android-app://com.example.android/http/example.com/page-1" /> 
...
</head>
<body>
</body>
#2: ViewAction with Schema.org

Additionally, you can reference the deep link using Schema.org and JSON by using a 
ViewAction.

<script type="application/ld+json"> 
{ 
"@context": "http://schema.org", 
"@type": "WebPage", 
"@id": "http://example.com/gizmos", 
"potentialAction": { 
"@type": "ViewAction", 
"target": "android-app://com.example.android/http/example.com/gizmos" 
} 
} 
</script>
#3 Rel=”alternate” in XML sitemap

Lastly, you can reference the alternate URL in your XML Sitemaps, similar to using the rel=”alternate” for mobile sites.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" ?>
<urlset xmlns="http://www.sitemaps.org/schemas/sitemap/0.9" xmlns:xhtml="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml"> 
<url> 
<loc>http://example.com/page-1</loc> 
<xhtml:link rel="alternate" href="android-app://com.example.android/http/example.com/page-1" /> 
</url> 
... 
</urlset>

Once these are in place, Google can discover the app URI and provide your app as an alternative way to view content found in search.

Bot control and robots noindex for apps

There may be instances where there is content within your app that you do not want indexed in Google. A good example of this might be content or functionality that is built out on your site, but has not yet been developed in your app. This would create an inferior experience for users. The good news is that we can block indexation with a few updates to the app.

First, add the following to your app resource directory (res/xml/noindex.xml).

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?> 
<search-engine xmlns:android="http://schemas.android.com/apk/res/android"> 
<noindex uri="http://example.com/gizmos/hidden_uri"/> 
<noindex uriPrefix="http://example.com/gizmos/hidden_prefix"/> 
<noindex uri="gizmos://hidden_path"/> 
<noindex uriPrefix="gizmos://hidden_prefix"/> 
</search-engine>

As you can see above, you can block an individual URI or define a URI prefix to block entire folders.

Once this has been added, you need to update the AndroidManifest.xml file to denote that you’re using noindex.html to block indexation.

<manifest xmlns:android="http://schemas.android.com/apk/res/android" package="com.example.android.Gizmos"> 
<application> 
<activity android:name="com.example.android.GizmosActivity" android:label="@string/title_gizmos" > 
<intent-filter android:label="@string/filter_title_viewgizmos"> 
<action android:name="android.intent.action.VIEW"/> 
... 
</activity> 
<meta-data android:name="search-engine" android:resource="@xml/noindex"/> 
</application> 
<uses-permission android:name="android.permission.INTERNET"/> 
</manifest>

App indexing API to drive re-engagement

In addition to URI discovery via desktop crawl, your mobile app can integrate
Google’s App Indexing API, which communicates with Google when users take actions inside your app. This sends information to Google about what users are viewing in the app. This is an additional method for deep link discovery and has some benefits.

The primary benefit is the ability to appear in
autocomplete. This can drive re-engagement through Google Search query autocompletions, providing access to inner pages in apps.

App auto suggest

Again, be sure to
verify your website and app following the guidelines here. This will verify your app in Google Play Developer Console and Google Webmaster Tools.

App actions with knowledge graph

The next, and most exciting, evolution of search is leveraging actions. These will be powerful when
combined with voice search, allowing search engines to take action on behalf of users, turning spoken language into executed actions.

App indexing allows you to take advantage of actions by allowing Google to not only launch an app, but execute actions inside of the app. Order me a pizza? Schedule my meeting? Drive my car? Ok, Google.

App actions work via entity detection and the application of the knowledge graph, allowing search engines to understand actions, words, ideas and objects. With that understanding, they can build an action graph that allows them to define common actions by entity type.

Here is a list of actions currently supported by Schema.org

For example, the PlayAction could be used to play a song in a music app. This can be achieve with the following markup.

<script type="application/ld+json">
{
"@context": "http://schema.org",
"@type": "MusicGroup",
"name": "Weezer", "potentialAction": {
"@type": "ListenAction",
"target": "android-app://com.spotify.music/http/we.../listen"
}
}
</script>
Once this is implemented, these app actions can begin to appear in search results and knowledge graph.

deep links in app search results

Overview of mobile app search opportunities

In summary, there are five primary ways to increase visibility and engagement for your mobile app in traditional organic search efforts.

Mobile apps in search results

The growth of mobile search is transforming how we define technical SEO, moving beyond front-end and back-end optimization of websites into the realm of structured data and application development. As app indexing expands to include iOS, I suspect the possibilities and opportunities associated with indexing applications, and their corresponding actions, to grow extensively. 

For those with Android apps, app indexing is a potential leapfrog style opportunity to get ahead of competitors who are dominant in traditional desktop search. Those with iOS devices should start by optimizing their app listings, while preparing to implement indexation, as I suspect it’ll be released for iOS this year.

Have you been leveraging traditional organic search to drive visibility and engagement for apps? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

Your Google Algorithm Cheat Sheet: Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird

Posted by MarieHaynes

If you’re reading the Moz blog, then you probably have a decent understanding of Google and its algorithm changes. However, there is probably a good percentage of the Moz audience that is still confused about the effects that Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird can have on your site. I did write a post last year about the main 
differences between Penguin and a Manual Unnautral Links Penalty, and if you haven’t read that, it’ll give you a good primer.

The point of this article is to explain very simply what each of these algorithms are meant to do. It is hopefully a good reference that you can point your clients to if you want to explain an algorithm change and not overwhelm them with technical details about 301s, canonicals, crawl errors, and other confusing SEO terminologies.

What is an algorithm change?

First of all, let’s start by discussing the Google algorithm. It’s immensely complicated and continues to get more complicated as Google tries its best to provide searchers with the information that they need. When search engines were first created, early search marketers were able to easily find ways to make the search engine think that their client’s site was the one that should rank well. In some cases it was as simple as putting in some code on the website called a meta keywords tag. The meta keywords tag would tell search engines what the page was about.

As Google evolved, its engineers, who were primarily focused on making the search engine results as relevant to users as possible, continued to work on ways to stop people from cheating, and looked at other ways to show the most relevant pages at the top of their searches. The algorithm now looks at hundreds of different factors. There are some that we know are significant such as having a good descriptive title (between the <title></title> tags in the code.) And there are many that are the subject of speculation such as 
whether or not Google +1’s contribute to a site’s rankings.

In the past, the Google algorithm would change very infrequently. If your site was sitting at #1 for a certain keyword, it was guaranteed to stay there until the next update which might not happen for weeks or months. Then, they would push out another update and things would change. They would stay that way until the next update happened. If you’re interested in reading about how Google used to push updates out of its index, you may find this 
Webmaster World forum thread from 2002 interesting. (Many thanks to Paul Macnamara  for explaining to me how algo changes used to work on Google in the past and pointing me to the Webmaster World thread.)

This all changed with launch of “Caffeine” in 2010. Since Caffeine launched, the search engine results have been changing several times a day rather than every few weeks. Google makes over 600 changes to its algorithm in a year, and the vast majority of these are not announced. But, when Google makes a really big change, they give it a name, usually make an announcement, and everyone in the SEO world goes crazy trying to figure out how to understand the changes and use them to their advantage.

Three of the biggest changes that have happened in the last few years are the Panda algorithm, the Penguin algorithm and Hummingbird.

What is the Panda algorithm?

Panda first launched on February 23, 2011. It was a big deal. The purpose of Panda was to try to show high-quality sites higher in search results and demote sites that may be of lower quality. This algorithm change was unnamed when it first came out, and many of us called it the “Farmer” update as it seemed to affect content farms. (Content farms are sites that aggregate information from many sources, often stealing that information from other sites, in order to create large numbers of pages with the sole purpose of ranking well in Google for many different keywords.) However, it affected a very large number of sites. The algorithm change was eventually officially named after one of its creators, Navneet Panda.

When Panda first happened, a lot of SEOs in forums thought that this algorithm was targeting sites with unnatural backlink patterns. However, it turns out that links are most likely
not a part of the Panda algorithm. It is all about on-site quality.

In most cases, sites that were affected by Panda were hit quite hard. But, I have also seen sites that have taken a slight loss on the date of a Panda update. Panda tends to be a site-wide issue which means that it doesn’t just demote certain pages of your site in the search engine results, but instead, Google considers the entire site to be of lower quality. In some cases though Panda can affect just a section of a site such as a news blog or one particular subdomain.

Whenever a Google employee is asked about what needs to be done to recover from Panda, they refer to a 
blog post by Google Employee Amit Singhal that gives a checklist that you can use on your site to determine if your site really is high quality or not. Here is the list:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?
  • Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  • Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  • 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?
  • Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  • Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  • Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  • Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

Phew! That list is pretty overwhelming! These questions do not necessarily mean that Google tries to algorithmically figure out whether your articles are interesting or whether you have told both sides of a story. Rather, the questions are there because all of these factors can contribute to how real-life users would rate the quality of your site. No one really knows all of the factors that Google uses in determining the quality of your site through the eyes of Panda. Ultimately though, the focus is on creating the best site possible for your users.  It is also important that only your best stuff is given to Google to have in its index. There are a few factors that are widely accepted as important things to look at in regards to Panda:

Thin content

A “thin” page is a page that adds little or no value to someone who is reading it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a page has to be a certain number of words, but quite often, pages with very few words are not super-helpful. If you have a large number of pages on your site that contain just one or two sentences and those pages are all included in the Google index, then the Panda algorithm may determine that the majority of your indexed pages are of low quality.

Having the odd thin page is not going to cause you to run in to Panda problems. But, if a big enough portion of your site contains pages that are not helpful to users, then that is not good.

Duplicate content

There are several ways that duplicate content can cause your site to be viewed as a low-quality site by the Panda algorithm. The first is when a site has a large amount of content that is copied from other sources on the web. Let’s say that you have a blog on your site and you populate that blog with articles that are taken from other sources. Google is pretty good at figuring out that you are not the creator of this content. If the algorithm can see that a large portion of your site is made up of content that exists on other sites then this can cause Panda to look at you unfavorably.

You can also run into problems with duplicated content on your own site. One example would be for a site that has a large number of products for sale. Perhaps each product has a separate page for each color variation and size. But, all of these pages are essentially the same. If one product comes in 20 different colors and each of those come in 6 different sizes, then that means that you have 120 pages for the same product, all of which are almost identical. Now, imagine that you sell 4,000 products. This means that you’ve got almost half a million pages in the Google index when really 4,000 pages would suffice. In this type of situation, the fix for this problem is to use something called a canonical tag. Moz has got a really good guide on using canonical tags 
here, and Dr. Pete has also written this great article on canonical tag use

Low-quality content

When I write an article and publish it on one of my websites, the only type of information that I want to present to Google is information that is the absolute best of its kind. In the past, many SEOs have given advice to site owners saying that it was important to blog every day and make sure that you are always adding content for Google to index. But, if what you are producing is not high quality content, then you could be doing more harm than good. A lot of Amit Singhal’s questions listed above are asking whether the content on your site is valuable to readers. Let’s say that I have an SEO blog and every day I take a short blurb from each of the interesting SEO articles that I have read online and publish it as a blog post on my site. Is Google going to want to show searchers my summary of these articles, or would they rather show them the actual articles? Of course my summary is not going to be as valuable as the real thing! Now, let’s say that I have done this every day for 4 years. Now my site has over 4,000 pages that contain information that is not unique and not as valuable as other sites on the same topics.

Here is another example. Let’s say that I am a plumber. I’ve been told that I should blog regularly, so several times a week I write a 2-3 paragraph article on things like, “How to fix a leaky faucet” or “How to unclog a toilet.” But, I’m busy and don’t have much time to put into my website so each article I’ve written contains keywords in the title and a few times in the content, but the content is not in depth and is not that helpful to readers. If the majority of the pages on my site contain information that no one is engaging with, then this can be a sign of low quality in the eyes of the Panda algorithm.

There are other factors that probably play a roll in the Panda algorithm.  Glenn Gabe recently wrote an 
excellent article on his evaluation of sites affected by the most recent Panda update.  His bullet point list of things to improve upon when affected by Panda is extremely thorough.

How to recover from a Panda hit

Google refreshes the Panda algorithm approximately monthly. They used to announce whenever they were refreshing the algorithm, but now they only do this if there is a really big change to the Panda algorithm. What happens when the Panda algorithm refreshes is that Google takes a new look at each site on the web and determines whether or not it looks like a quality site in regards to the criteria that the Panda algorithm looks at. If your site was adversely affected by Panda and you have made changes such as removing thin and duplicate content then, when Panda refreshes, you should see that things improve. However, for some sites it can take a couple of Panda refreshes to see the full extent of the improvements. This is because it can sometimes take several months for Google to revisit all of your pages and recognize the changes that you have made.

Every now and then, instead of just
refreshing the algorithm, Google does what they call an update. When an update happens, this means that Google has changed the criteria that they use to determine what is and isn’t considered high quality. On May 20, 2014, Google did a major update which they called Panda 4.0. This caused a lot of sites to see significant changes in regards to Panda:

Not all Panda recoveries are as dramatic as this one. But, if you have been affected by Panda and you work hard to make changes to your site, you really should see some improvement.

What is the Penguin algorithm?

Penguin

The Penguin algorithm initially rolled out on April 24, 2012. The goal of Penguin is to reduce the trust that Google has in sites that have cheated by creating unnatural backlinks in order to gain an advantage in the Google results. While the primary focus of Penguin is on unnatural links, there can be other 
factors that can affect a site in the eyes of Penguin as well. Links, though, are known to be by far the most important thing to look at.

Why are links important?

A link is like a vote for your site. If a well respected site links to your site, then this is a recommendation for your site. If a small, unknown site links to you then this vote is not going to count for as much as a vote from an authoritative site. Still, if you can get a large number of these small votes, they really can make a difference. This is why, in the past, SEOs would try to get as many links as they could from any possible source.

Another thing that is important in the Google algorithms is anchor text. Anchor text is the text that is underlined in a link. So, in this link to a great 
SEO blog, the anchor text would be “SEO blog.” If Moz.com gets a number of sites linking to them using the anchor text “SEO blog,” that is a hint to Google that people searching for “SEO blog” probably want to see sites like Moz in their search results.

It’s not hard to see how people could manipulate this part of the algorithm. Let’s say that I am doing SEO for a landscaping company in Orlando. In the past, one of the ways that I could cheat the algorithm into thinking that my company should be ranked highly would be to create a bunch of self made links and use anchor text in these links that contain phrases like
Orlando Landscaping Company, Landscapers in Orlando and Orlando Landscaping. While an authoritative link from a well respected site is good, what people discovered is that creating a large number of links from low quality sites was quite effective. As such, what SEOs would do is create links from easy to get places like directory listings, self made articles, and links in comments and forum posts.

While we don’t know exactly what factors the Penguin algorithm looks at, what we do know is that this type of low quality, self made link is what the algorithm is trying to detect. In my mind, the Penguin algorithm is sort of like Google putting a “trust factor” on your links. I used to tell people that Penguin could affect a site on a page or even a keyword level, but Google employee John Mueller has said several times now that Penguin is a sitewide algorithm. This means that if the Penguin algorithm determines that a large number of the links to your site are untrustworthy, then this reduces Google’s trust in your entire site. As such, the whole site will see a reduction in rankings.  

While Penguin affected a lot of sites drastically, I have seen many sites that saw a small reduction in rankings.  The difference, of course, depends on the amount of link manipulation that has been done.

How to recover from a Penguin hit?

Penguin is a filter just like Panda. What that means, is that the algorithm is re-run periodically and sites are re-evaluated with each re-run. At this point it is not run very often at all. The last update was October 4, 2013 which means that we have currently been waiting eight months for a new Penguin update. In order to recover from Penguin, you need to identify the unnatural links pointing to your site and either remove them, or if you can’t remove them you can ask Google to no longer count them by using the 
disavow tool. Then, the next time that Penguin refreshes or updates, if you have done a good enough job at cleaning up your unnatural links, you will once again regain trust in Google’s eyes.  In some cases, it can take a couple of refreshes in order for a site to completely escape Penguin because it can take up to 6 months for all of a site’s disavow file to be completely processed.

If you are not certain how to identify which links to your site are unnatural, here are some good resources for you:

The disavow tool is something that you probably should only be using if you really understand how it works. It is potentially possible for you to do more harm than good to your site if you disavow the wrong links. Here is some information on using the disavow tool:

It’s important to note that when sites “recover” from Penguin, they often don’t skyrocket up to top rankings once again as those previously high rankings were probably based on the power of links that are now considered unnatural. Here is some information on 
what to expect when you have recovered from a link based penalty or algorithmic issue.

Also, the Penguin algorithm is not the same thing as a manual unnatural links penalty. You do not need to file a reconsideration request to recover from Penguin. You also do not need to document the work that you have done in order to get links removed as no Google employee will be manually reviewing your work. As mentioned previously, here is more information on the 
difference between the Penguin algorithm and a manual unnatural links penalty.

What is Hummingbird?

Hummingbird is a completely different animal than Penguin or Panda. (Yeah, I know…that was a bad pun.) I will commonly get people emailing me telling me that Hummingbird destroyed their rankings. I would say that in almost every case that I have evalutated, this was not true. Google made their announcement about Hummingbird on September 26, 2013. However, at that time, they announced that Hummingbird had already been live for about a month. If the Hummingbird algorithm was truly responsible for catastrophic ranking fluctuations then we really should have seen an outcry from the SEO world of something drastic happening in August of 2013, and this did not happen. There did seem to be some type of fluctuation that happened around August 21 as reported here on Search Engine Round Table, but there were not many sites that reported huge ranking changes on that day.

If you think that Hummingbird affected you, it’s not a bad idea to look at your traffic to see if you noticed a drop on October 4, 2013 which was actually a refresh of the Penguin algorithm. I believe that a lot of people who thought that they were affected by Hummingbird were actually affected by Penguin which happened just a week after Google made their announcement about Hummingbird.

There are some excellent articles on Hummingbird here and here. Hummingbird was a complete overhaul of the entire Google algorithm. As Danny Sullivan put it, if you consider the Google algorithm as an engine, Panda and Penguin are algorithm changes that were like putting a new part in the engine such as a filter or a fuel pump. But, Hummingbird wasn’t just a new part; it was a completely new engine. That new engine still makes use of many of the old parts (such as Panda and Penguin) but a good amount of the engine is completely original.

The goal of the Hummingbird algorithm is for Google to better understand a user’s query. Bill Slawski who writes about Google patents has a great example of this in his post here. He explains that when someone searches for “What is the best place to find and eat Chicago deep dish style pizza?”, Hummingbird is able to discern that by “place” the user likely would be interested in results that show “restaurants”. There is speculation that these changes were necessary in order for Google’s voice search to be more effective. When we’re typing a search query, we might type, “best Seattle SEO company” but when we’re speaking a query (i.e. via Google Glass or via Google Now) we’re more likely to say something like, “Which firm in Seattle offers the best SEO services?” The point of Hummingbird is to better understand what users mean when they have queries like this.

So how do I recover or improve in the eyes of Hummingbird?

If you read the posts referenced above, the answer to this question is essentially to create content that answers users queries rather than just trying to rank for a particular keyword. But really, this is what you should already be doing!

It appears that Google’s goal with all of these algorithm changes (Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird) is to encourage webmasters to publish content that is the best of its kind. Google’s goal is to deliver answers to people who are searching. If you can produce content that answers people’s questions, then you’re on the right track.

I know that that is a really vague answer when it comes to “recovering” from Hummingbird. Hummingbird really is different than Panda and Penguin. When a site has been demoted by the Panda or Penguin algorithm, it’s because Google has lost some trust in the site’s quality, whether it is on-site quality or the legitimacy of its backlinks. If you fix those quality issues you can regain the algorithm’s trust and subsequently see improvements. But, if your site seems to be doing poorly since the launch of Hummingbird, then there really isn’t a way to recover those keyword rankings that you once held. You can, however, get new traffic by finding ways to be more thorough and complete in what your website offers.

Do you have more questions?

My goal in writing this article was to have a resource to point people to when they had basic questions about Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird. Recently, when I published my penalty newsletter, I had a small business owner comment that it was very interesting but that most of it went over their head. I realized that many people outside of the SEO world are greatly affected by these algorithm changes, but don’t have much information on why they have affected their website.

Do you have more questions about Panda, Penguin or Hummingbird? If so, I’d be happy to address them in the comments. I also would love for those of you who are experienced with dealing with websites affected by these issues to comment as well.

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