If you look up an SEO firm these days, the majority of them are posting things like 'Penguin' friendly links and 'Panda' based content strategy. Often there's little to no explanation as to what this means! In my work, I try to make sure everyone has at least a basic understanding of what I'm doing and why. So I'd like to dedicate an article to providing a brief and client friendly explanation about Google's infamous algorithm updates from 2011-2013.
Backlinks have been the bread and butter of SEO for over a decade, and many would argue that it still is. When another website links to you, it's a vote of confidence for your site. But of course, spammers eventually took advantage of the power of backlinks. Black hat SEO practitioners were spinning up site after site with the sole purpose of linking to each other and their paying clients. The Google Penguin update, released in April 2012, placed heavy scrutiny on where your backlinks were coming from. If a website had an unnatural number of outbound links and ads, then the website could be penalized. And the worst part is that if they link to your website, you too get penalized. In addition, if you had an excessive number of links to your website with the same link text, that would also be a penalty due to the spammy nature of the practice.
The good news is that if you have these spammy links, you can actually disavow the links in Google's webmaster tools. That's super helpful because you can't always get someone to take your links down. The disavowing process can take several months to go into effect, so it takes a lot of patience.
Panda was released in February in 2011 and focused on the content of a website. There were a number of SEO 'techniques' happening until this point that Google frowned upon. A few of those techniques were:
So with the Panda update, Google would penalize websites that fit any of the criteria above. This is when the saying 'content is king' started getting thrown around quite a bit in the SEO world. Quality copywriters became quite the comodity when everyone and their brother needed unique articles added to their websites on a regular basis.
Hummingbird was a bit different in that it wasn't a penalty to spammy websites like Penguin and Panda. Instead it was a reworking and improving of the logic behind the keywords you enter into the search box. SEO used to be entirely based around specific keywords. If you engaged an SEO firm, you would pay a price based on how many keywords you wanted to optimize for. Optimizating for the keyword 'Real Estate in Tampa' was twice as much work when you also added the keyword 'Tampa Real Estate'. But they mean the same thing, don't they?
The Hummingbird update in August 2013 made Google searches more semantic friendly. When a search was performed in Google, the engine would actually try to understand what you're asking for instead of just looking for the exact keyword match. In the end, that's much better for everyone involved. So when you searched for 'Real Estate in Tampa', Google understood that you were looking to buy a property in the area of Tampa, FL, and it would provide results that would likely suit your needs.
The major algorithm updates definitely put a lot of people on their heels. The web firm I was working for at the time was one of them. The good news is that you can recover from the penalties if you suffered from them. It definitely requires some work, but it's not unsurmountable. Since the updates, SEO has become more about quality content creation and only pursuing backlinks from quality websites. I always perform detailed reviews of any website I'm interested in receiving a link from.
There are many firms out there still stuck in the past, so you want to be wary of that for sure. The good news is that Google's updates are for the best when you really think about it. We all end up using Google at some point and we want the best and relevant results for ourselves as well.