David Amerland

40 Google SEO Changes in February and What They Really Mean

40 SEO changes Google made in February
I wrote just last week that Google changes its search algorithm practically every single day and with 500 plus planned changes in the year you’d expect about 40 changes a month to be put into effect. February did not disappoint in that department so here are 40 changes Google made and what they really mean for your website. The list is long and I know it takes time to get through but it has some important changes you need to know about:


01. More coverage for related searches. [launch codename “Fuzhou”] This launch brings in a new data source to help generate the “Searches related to” section, increasing coverage significantly so the feature will appear for more queries. This section contains search queries that can help you refine what you’re searching for.

Translation: Google is not revealing the new data source for related searches but given the fact that at the end of January it launched “Google Plus your World” integrating Google Plus social data directly with the Google search feed (and kicking off the entire “evil or not?” debate with SEOs, Facebook and Twitter) it is more than likely that Google’s Related Searches is using nuanced social data to broaden the related fields which it displayed on the ‘Related Searches’ link which appears on the left hand side of search.

02. Tweak to categorizer for expanded sitelinks. [launch codename “Snippy”, project codename “Megasitelinks”] This improvement adjusts a signal we use to try and identify duplicate snippets. We were applying a categorizer that wasn’t performing well for our expanded sitelinks, so we’ve stopped applying the categorizer in those cases. The result is more relevant sitelinks.

Translation: Snippets are important to Google because they affect Click Through Rates (CTRs) on results displayed on the Google search page in response to search queries. They also help users find the content they want quickly. How these appear has a direct impact upon the perception end-users form of Google search and its credibility. Where website data architecture may lead to some duplication in sitelinks (frequently an unfortunate by-product of the data layering of some popular CMS platforms) Google will now automatically spot and remove these in the expanded search results.

03. Less duplication in expanded sitelinks. [launch codename “thanksgiving”, project codename “Megasitelinks”] We’ve adjusted signals to reduce duplication in the snippets for expanded sitelinks. Now we generate relevant snippets based more on the page content and less on the query.

Translation: Google has increased the number of sitelinks (they can now be up to twelve) which can appear under a main web page. More than that each sitelink now has its own URL and content appearing and Google now ranks sitelinks in a complex sitelink ranking metric which now feeds into the search ranking for a particular page. In even plainer speak if you have sections of your website where the content feeds directly into and boosts the content and relevancy of a particular web page this will boost your search results ranking over another page of similar quality (or maybe even slightly better) which however is not supported by relevant sitelinks.

04. More consistent thumbnail sizes on results page. We’ve adjusted the thumbnail size for most image content appearing on the results page, providing a more consistent experience across result types, and also across mobile and tablet. The new sizes apply to rich snippet results for recipes and applications, movie posters, shopping results, book results, news results and more.

Translation: Image optimization is important. Ideally you should always use high quality but web-optimised images on your website so that they load fast and make sure you label each one of them using meta tags.

05. More locally relevant predictions in YouTube. [project codename “Suggest”] We’ve improved the ranking for predictions in YouTube to provide more locally relevant queries. For example, for the query [lady gaga in ] performed on the US version of YouTube, we might predict [lady gaga in times square], but for the same search performed on the Indian version of YouTube, we might predict [lady gaga in India].

Translation: YouTube is a search engine in its own right. Google has been constantly refining this as it will play an ever increasing role in rich-media content and Google TV. If you are using video to drive traffic to your website the titles, description and tags you use are now as critical as any other SEO work you undertake.

06. More accurate detection of official pages. [launch codename “WRE”] We’ve made an adjustment to how we detect official pages to make more accurate identifications. The result is that many pages that were previously misidentified as official will no longer be.

Translation: Google’s focus on authority has, for some time now, created a trend where Official Pages are given more weight for particular search queries relating to them. This is just more of the same with the fixing of errors which delivered non-Official Page content.

07.Refreshed per-URL country information. [Launch codename “longdew”, project codename “country-id data refresh”] We updated the country associations for URLs to use more recent data.

Translation: Google is looking to increase localisation in its search results. Unless it is relevant it does not want to show US results in a UK search, for instance and vice versa. The way it decides where a website is based and whether it is relevant to the country-specific search it is shown in, is becoming more nuanced.

08. Expand the size of our images index in Universal Search. [launch codename “terra”, project codename “Images Universal”] We launched a change to expand the corpus of results for which we show images in Universal Search. This is especially helpful to give more relevant images on a larger set of searches.

Translation: Images (as Pinterest has shown) are playing an ever increasing role in delivering traffic to a website. Google made changes to its search to reflect that last month and it is continuing now.

09. Minor tuning of autocomplete policy algorithms. [project codename “Suggest”] We have a narrow set of policies for autocomplete for offensive and inappropriate terms. This improvement continues to refine the algorithms we use to implement these policies.

Translation: Autocomplete is now faster, more accurate and more persistent than before (apparently it will work even if you have disabled Google Instant!).

10. “Site:” query update [launch codename “Semicolon”, project codename “Dice”] This change improves the ranking for queries using the “site:” operator by increasing the diversity of results.

Translation: If, like most webmasters you have typed in search: site:http://mysitename.com in order to see what’s in the Google search index on your website. This has been sensitized even more now so you should be able to get a clearer picture, which is very useful.

11. Improved detection for SafeSearch in Image Search. [launch codename "Michandro", project codename “SafeSearch”] This change improves our signals for detecting adult content in Image Search, aligning the signals more closely with the signals we use for our other search results.

Translation: If you happened to type “Russian Blog” when at work and were inundated with images of, shall we say, mature audience content, this change makes it safer to use the search queries with the Safe Search turned on and not have to explain to your boss who happened to see your monitor from across the office that you were really doing work related research.

12. Interval based history tracking for indexing. [project codename “Intervals”] This improvement changes the signals we use in document tracking algorithms.

Translate: Google ‘s Panda update made fresh and recently updated content important. This is a refinement in the way updated web pages are tracked and how they are re-assessed.

13. Improvements to foreign language synonyms. [launch codename “floating context synonyms”, project codename “Synonyms”] This change applies an improvement we previously launched for English to all other languages. The net impact is that you’ll more often find relevant pages that include synonyms for your query terms.

Translation: For some time now English speakers have had an advantage when it came to finding synonyms to a search query in English. This functionality has now been expanded to include other languages.

14. Disabling two old fresh query classifiers. [launch codename “Mango”, project codename “Freshness”] As search evolves and new signals and classifiers are applied to rank search results, sometimes old algorithms get outdated. This improvement disables two old classifiers related to query freshness.

Translation: This is a tweak on how fresh content is found, indexed, assessed and ranked. Unclear what impact it will have until more data is accumulated but expect Google to continue to promote fresh content.

15. More organized search results for Google Korea. [launch codename “smoothieking”, project codename “Sokoban4”] This significant improvement to search in Korea better organizes the search results into sections for news, blogs and homepages.

Translation: This only affects Korea and Korean language characters.

16. Fresher images. [launch codename “tumeric”] We’ve adjusted our signals for surfacing fresh images. Now we can more often surface fresh images when they appear on the web.

Translation: Again a signal on the importance images play in search. Fresh images, whether they are product related or news related are now an important part of traffic building and sire ranking. Generic product images, for instance, will work against freshly written content for a new product line. Similarly, stock images which appear all over the web signal that the website content may not be as original as it at first appears to be. Ideally, with your products, you should have fresh, unique photographs taken to illustrate the content.

17. Update to the Google bar. [project codename “Kennedy”] We continue to iterate in our efforts to deliver a beautifully simple experience across Google products, and as part of that this month we made further adjustments to the Google bar. The biggest change is that we’ve replaced the drop-down Google menu in the November redesign with a consistent and expanded set of links running across the top of the page.

Translation: Google has been looking at several designs of the Google bar which helps access its services through a central Google account. Nothing here to affect your SEO or, indeed social media marketing.

18. Adding three new languages to classifier related to error pages. [launch codename "PNI", project codename "Soft404"] We have signals designed to detect crypto 404 pages (also known as “soft 404s”), pages that return valid text to a browser but the text only contain error messages, such as “Page not found.” It’s rare that a user will be looking for such a page, so it’s important we be able to detect them. This change extends a particular classifier to Portuguese, Dutch and Italian.

Translation: 404 or error messages can affect your website’s ranking. Google hates returning them because they affect the end-user experience. Detecting 404 pages on your site, typically moved or now deleted pages should be your job as a webmaster. A site that delivers a lot of 404s is not likely to be up to date or high-quality and Google knows that. Some webmasters have been trying to get round the problem by having code deliver a page that contains an error message for the visitor but delivers text the browser can read so that it does not appear as 404 page. Google now can detect them too and, depending on the extent of the problem it finds, may create a penalty for them.

19. Improvements to travel-related searches. [launch codename “nesehorn”] We’ve made improvements to triggering for a variety of flight-related search queries. These changes improve the user experience for our Flight Search feature with users getting more accurate flight results.

Translation: Flight search is now more sensitive. Not an SEO thing, great if you are looking for a flight and it now appears Google is finding ways to sensitize its search for the much smaller amount of text one typically finds on a flight information page.

20. Data refresh for related searches signal. [launch codename “Chicago”, project codename “Related Search”] One of the many signals we look at to generate the “Searches related to” section is the queries users type in succession. If users very often search for [apple] right after [banana], that’s a sign the two might be related. This update refreshes the model we use to generate these refinements, leading to more relevant queries to try.

Translation: Thematic linking has always been important where your site’s content and keywords are concerned. Now Google is pulling data from universal search to generate better relevancy so if you are selling running shoes and one type is laces-free and this is something users ask for after typing ‘running shoes’ then your site will come as on related even if ‘laces-free running shoes’ is a term you have not optimised your site for. Obviously better optimisation and some clear thinking behind what you are promoting and how it is most likely to be looked-for will remove any element of chance when it comes to indexing the content on your website.

21. International launch of shopping rich snippets. [project codename “rich snippets”] Shopping rich snippets help you more quickly identify which sites are likely to have the most relevant product for your needs, highlighting product prices, availability, ratings and review counts. This month we expanded shopping rich snippets globally (they were previously only available in the US, Japan and Germany).

Translation: Rich snippets for eCommerce sites have a new format which shows price, availability, and product reviews on pages offering a product for sale at a glance, right on the search results page itself. This means that if your meta tags have not been properly formatted so that the rich snippet shows up in search you are most probably losing out on traffic and sales.

22. Improvements to Korean spelling. This launch improves spelling corrections when the user performs a Korean query in the wrong keyboard mode (also known as an "IME", or input method editor). Specifically, this change helps users who mistakenly enter Hangul queries in Latin mode or vice-versa.

Translation: Self explanatory. Affects those using Latin characters to transliterate Korean words.

23. Improvements to freshness. [launch codename “iotfreshweb”, project codename “Freshness”] We’ve applied new signals which help us surface fresh content in our results even more quickly than before.

Translation: The criteria for indexing websites with constantly updated content have changed. Faters indexing is now possible.

24. Web History in 20 new countries. With Web History, you can browse and search over your search history and webpages you've visited. You will also get personalized search results that are more relevant to you, based on what you’ve searched for and which sites you’ve visited in the past. In order to deliver more relevant and personalized search results, we’ve launched Web History in Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Morocco, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Kuwait, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Nigeria, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Bosnia and Herzegowina, Azerbaijan, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Republic of Moldova, and Ghana. Web History is turned on only for people who have a Google Account and previously enabled Web History.

Translation: Google’s drive for the localisation and personalisation of search results is relentlessly moving forward. Google is focusing on Google Account holders for this as web privacy is a hot issue right now. As a webmaster you need to know that your business needs to be targeted to a very specific audience and may well include a locale, in which case you need to take the appropriate steps to make your business show up in local searches.

25. Improved snippets for video channels. Some search results are links to channels with many different videos, whether on mtv.com, Hulu or YouTube. We’ve had a feature for a while now that displays snippets for these results including direct links to the videos in the channel, and this improvement increases quality and expands coverage of these rich “decorated” snippets. We’ve also made some improvements to our backends used to generate the snippets.

Translation: Rich snippets will feature more and more in search. Google has data which shows that they can increase web traffic by as much as 30%. Video is an increasingly important means of online marketing and Google is including it in its rich snippets scheme. If you have video on YouTube and want it to show up properly you need to make sure you have used all the tools YouTube gives you to generate rich snippets.

26. Improvements to ranking for local search results. [launch codename “Venice”] This improvement improves the triggering of Local Universal results by relying more on the ranking of our main search results as a signal.

Translation: The ranking of your web pages in the local search results is now influenced by the ranking of your web pages in Universal search. If your website is really nowhere in Universal search and never gets much traffic in the first place it is highly unlikely that you will end up being on Google’s first page for local search. Do not rely on low competition to get there. Optimize your website and make sure it hits all the notes you need to get on the first page for search queries related to your industry sector.

27. Improvements to English spell correction. [launch codename “Kamehameha”] This change improves spelling correction quality in English, especially for rare queries, by making one of our scoring functions more accurate.

Translation: Good news for webmasters. When searchers misspell a word and cannot find it, Google corrects it on the fly.

28. Improvements to coverage of News Universal. [launch codename “final destination”] We’ve fixed a bug that caused News Universal results not to appear in cases when our testing indicates they’d be very useful.

Translation: Good news for publishers of news content and news organisations. This change reflects Google’s focus in bringing near real-time results to search as news breaks, from a variety of sources.

29. Consolidation of signals for spiking topics. [launch codename “news deserving score”, project codename “Freshness”] We use a number of signals to detect when a new topic is spiking in popularity. This change consolidates some of the signals so we can rely on signals we can compute in realtime, rather than signals that need to be processed offline. This eliminates redundancy in our systems and helps to ensure we can continue to detect spiking topics as quickly as possible.

Translation: They are not explicitly saying it but it sounds like social media signals are now being used to guide trending topics. Google has been looking at various ways to mine social media sentiment to support spiking stories with content and this looks like one of them.

30. Better triggering for Turkish weather search feature. [launch codename “hava”] We’ve tuned the signals we use to decide when to present Turkish users with the weather search feature. The result is that we’re able to provide our users with the weather forecast right on the results page with more frequency and accuracy.

Translate: Turkey is a very popular holiday destination. There is a huge volume of search queries regarding its weather (amongst other things). Just another sign of Google’s data-driven development.

31. Visual refresh to account settings page. We completed a visual refresh of the account settings page, making the page more consistent with the rest of our constantly evolving design.

Translation: Google is creating brand consistency across all its products in order to increase engagement and gain more members. The data Google obtains from logged-in users helps it aggregate data and generate nuanced ads.

32. Panda update. This launch refreshes data in the Panda system, making it more accurate and more sensitive to recent changes on the web.

Translation: The moment Panda is mentioned webmasters quake and the SEO industry draws its wagons in a circle. The pithy announcement, practically buried in the list of other changes now more formerly links the algorithm implemented during the Panda update to the social signal and, in all likelihood, the social signal from G+.

33. Link evaluation. We often use characteristics of links to help us figure out the topic of a linked page. We have changed the way in which we evaluate links; in particular, we are turning off a method of link analysis that we used for several years. We often rearchitect or turn off parts of our scoring in order to keep our system maintainable, clean and understandable.

Translation: Link building as an SEO strategy is dying and true PageRank (as opposed to the one publicly displayed) as a website ranking factor is a thing of the past. Link building, which spawned some of the most notable Black Hat SEO companies has been under review since 2007 with Google edging further and further away from it. In keeping with Google’s practices it is never going to be ignored but it will be increasingly discounted on its own and will acquire value only within a complex web of social re-sharing. Google does not make clear whether this is a permanent turn-off of a particular characteristic of a link’s assessment or an experiment to see if the accumulated data they will get will be sufficient to maintain or increase relevancy of search results while stopping abuse and spam. Bear it in mind and we shall see, I guess. PageRank is likely to be succeeded by TrustRank which is harder to game and sits very well with Google’s concentration upon assessing authority on the web.

34. SafeSearch update. We have updated how we deal with adult content, making it more accurate and robust. Now, irrelevant adult content is less likely to show up for many queries.

Translation: You are now more likely to get porn when you look for it and less likely it will crop up in your open-plan office social data, work-related searches.

35. Spam update. In the process of investigating some potential spam, we found and fixed some weaknesses in our spam protections.

Translation: Just because Google is concentrating on social media do not think that its spam filters are not working. You should be focused on generating high-quality, socialised content as much as ever.

36. Improved local results. We launched a new system to find results from a user’s city more reliably. Now we’re better able to detect when both queries and documents are local to the user.

Translation: Google’s localisation vertical is getting better. Now the search engine knows where you are in an area and what’s around you. For the webmaster or small business owner now is the time.to employ Geo Tagging and localisation rules to help your online business be found locally by locals.

37. Since we launched Flight Search back in September, we’ve been hard at work improving the features, increasing coverage and making it easy to find flight results directly from google.com on your desktop. Starting today, we're also making it easier to find flights departing from the US on your mobile device.

Translation: Google mobile services are set to become even more functional, helpful and ubiquitous. Google knows that the way to win in the mobile platform is through one-click services that are easy to use and answer a pressing need. This is one of them. Google’s Flight Search http://www.google.com/insidesearch/flights.html offers the same powerful, seamless experience in the mobile version http://www.google.com/insidesearch/features.html#mobilecamera of it as it does on the desktop.

38. To make the health check process easier, now when you search for a symptom or set of symptoms, you'll often see a list of possibly related health conditions that you can use to refine your search. The list is generated by our algorithms that analyze data from pages across the web and surface the health conditions that appear to be related to your search.

Translation: Health, like travel is an area which drives huge volumes of traffic on the web. Google is refining its data scoring there to take into account many variables and bring in results and, in the process, it is learning how to further refine in other areas on the web. Webmasters should take note and maintain a high level of relevance in the content of their websites.

39. To find upcoming concert tour dates, we aggregate relevant data for events from multiple websites and show it under the band’s official website with links to the event sites where you can find out more about the event or purchase tickets.

Translation: This is the “authority on the web” testing lab. At some point in the future big brands like Nike and Wetherspoons might leverage their brand power to offer higher visibility to some of their affiliates.

40. We’re making it easier for you to hone in on that perfect image or explore your topic visually with an update to related search links. Related search links have been around for awhile—they’re the row of blue links running across the top of your image search results—but we’re making them more visual to help you find exactly what you’re looking for or just have fun exploring.

Translation: A picture can tell a thousand words. Optimisation of images is crucial and they now appear in related search as suggestions. This is why you need to be very clear with your Alt Tags detailing what photographs on your website are and, if possible, use captions to better describe the photograph and make it more relevant to your content.

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