Some people make it their entire life’s work to understand the way Google’s algorithm works. This post is not for those people. This one goes out to digital marketers of all shapes and sizes—executives, interns, content creators, project managers, and designers. Because SEO is important for you, too.

SEO can get complex, but don’t sweat the technical stuff. You don’t need a complete understanding of canonicalization, structured data markup, or JavaScript indexing. There are experts for that.

However, everyone on your team should have a basic understanding of how search engines work, why it’s important and what they can do to contribute to good SEO.

How Search Engines Work

Search engines have two main components: an index and an algorithm.

A search engine index is a giant digital library. Anyone remember card catalogs? Search engines deploy crawlers or spiders that scour every corner of the Internet and compile a vast web of data. This data includes URLs, title tags, meta descriptions, keywords, and much more. Technical SEO makes sure your website is organized and labeled so search engines can find and index all the valuable content on your site.

Search engine algorithms are complex problem-solving operations, but they have a simple purpose: to interpret user search queries and provide people with the most relevant and valuable content from the index.

Google’s Search Algorithm

Google dominates the search landscape. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in digital marketing. Every day, people perform billions (BILLIONS!) of searches using Google’s algorithm. This is no accident. Google has embraced a simple purpose from the beginning. Google’s search mission:

Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

You can’t escape Google. It makes a LOT of money by showing ads around every corner, but it’s free to use and depends on users coming back. It needs to keep us happy.

Google’s algorithm consists of hundreds of components, which often have cute animal names. Each of these components is complex, but understanding their simple purpose is key.

Hummingbird: The Main Algorithm

Hummingbird is the name given to Google’s core search algorithm as of its complete overhaul in 2013. Its main goal is to understand user intent and to interpret the full text of a given query using natural language processing or semantic search. Context matters to Hummingbird. It helps Google better interpret longer and more specific queries.

This is significant because the way people search is evolving. I may type the keywords “tom cruise height” into my browser to find out how tall Tom Cruise is, but I’d ask my Google Home device, “How tall is Tom Cruise?” Google is equipped to respond to either type of query, and your content should be too. Answer the Public is a great tool for researching the relevant questions your audience is asking.

Pigeon: Location

The rise of mobile and location data means Google knows where you are. There are obvious privacy concerns with this, but there’s also a lot of opportunity for marketers. Google’s Pigeon update gives priority to local listings in search results.

If your business has a physical location, make sure it’s accurate in Google’s index. Also, be sure to list your location in directories, like Yelp, that have a higher chance of appearing in the first search results.

Panda: Content Quality

The primary goal of the Panda update is to show the highest-quality sites first. We’ve all clicked on an intriguing link and found ourselves navigating a maze of pages without ever finding anything useful. Google’s Panda update aims to help you avoid this digital nightmare by focusing on content quality.

After Panda, sites with thin content, grammatical errors, or intrusive ads saw a significant drop in rankings.

If your goal is to squeeze value from your client, Panda will negatively impact the site you work on. Provide value for your users first, monetize second. Write content using natural language, not old-school SEO tricks, and don’t stuff it with links.

According to Moz, “The problem lies in the disconnect between the balance of useful content and monetization.” Google wants to tip the scale in favor of the user. Essentially, Panda attempts to give the people what they want.

Penguin: Content Quality

Google Penguin aims to eliminate spammy, over-optimized content. If you follow the rules, you shouldn’t be affected negatively.  However, there are always shady sites out there and they may link to your site, which can hurt your rankings. So, use the Google’s guidelines to disavow links from questionable sites so that doesn’t happen.


The most recent Google algorithm update has been referred to as Fred. This is tongue-in-cheek and plays on the idea that Google’s code names for algorithm updates have often been cute animals. Fred is basic and boring (and according to Google’s Gary Illyes, will be the name of every future Google update unless otherwise specified). As with the last two updates, this one targeted sites with lots of ads and affiliate links and low-quality content.

Algorithms change, but at the end of the day, good digital marketers will weather the storm by producing valuable content designed for people.

Be weird, useful, and significant.

The post Hummingbird, Pigeon, Panda, Penguin, and Fred: A Layman’s Guide to Google Algorithm Updates appeared first on Portent.