Everything you need to know about SEO, published jointly with Search Engine Land every Thursday.
The Return Of The Google Dance
Old timers in the SEO world will remember the “Google Dance,” if not fondly, at least with some nostalgia. It was when Google’s rankings went through a change each month, sometimes dramatically, when a new algorithm was launched. The Google Dance eventually disappeared. Who’d have thought it would ever return? But it sure has, and we’re likely to be dancing even more.
The Days Of The Google Dance
The Google Dance took its name from how the results at Google seemed to “dance” around when it unleashed a new search algorithm — Google’s recipe for ranking web pages — on the world. A search for a particular topic suddenly brought up a set of first page listings different than from the previous day. The listings might continue to change for a series of days until stabilizing around a new set.
Who came up with the term “Google Dance?” We’ll probably never know for certain. The oldest reference to “Google Dance” that I can find and trust — since dates on web pages are tough to verify — is here on WebmasterWorld in March 2002. As an aside, the term was also used by Google itself for an annual party that coincided with SES events, when I ran them, and ended two years after I’d left to run SMX. The image above is a T-shirt from one of those parties.
There’s no doubt the WebmasterWorld forum community popularized the term. As a new Google algorithm rolled out — an event generally called an “update” — people would post on the forum about how the results were changing and try to figure out how the algorithm had shifted to favor some content and not other pages.
Eventually, the algorithm updates that caused a particular dance even began being named by those at WebmasterWorld, in the way that hurricanes are named, starting with “Boston” in February 2003 and including the now infamous “Florida” update of November 2003. As I wrote before, those who think the Penguin Update earlier this year is somehow unprecedented simply have no sense of history. The Florida Update, in my opinion, hit sites harder.
The Dancing Stops
Not long after Florida, the monthly Google Dance stopped. That’s because Google stopped changing its algorithm on a monthly basis and instead constantly tweaked it. Here’s the head of Google’s web spam team Matt Cutts talking about this in 2009:
He covers it again in a fresh video from earlier this year:
Because Google was making lots of small incremental changes, as Cutts discusses, the dance became less noticeable.
Changing An Engine Vs. Swapping A Part
A useful metaphor is to think about the “engine” in the search engines that we use. That’s mostly the search algorithm that figures out what documents to retrieve when we do a search and how to rank those.
If you’re not familiar with all the factors that go into Google’s search algorithm, I strongly encourage you to see our Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors. It’ll give you a good overview. Those factors are like all the moving parts within the algorithm engine.
In the Google Dance days, it’s like Google dropped an entirely new engine into its search vehicle. That engine performed differently, sometimes radically so, than the previous engine. It might also have run a bit rough at first, until the engineers did some tuning to get it running in the way they felt was right. When all was done, the dancing of the results would settle down.
Post-Google Dance, it was more like Google kept using the same engine but changed out individual parts. A new fuel pump might go in one month. Maybe the spark plug wires were changed the next. An air filter might get swapped with a better model a few days later. Since the entire engine wasn’t being replaced, there wasn’t some dramatic shift that was reflected in the results.
Occasionally, new algorithm “engines” did get added. Sometimes they caused Google Dances. Some even got names like “Vince” or “Mayday.” Google itself named some of these, over the years. But a monthly dance was pretty much gone until the Panda Update came along last year.
The Panda Dance
The Panda Update targeted low-quality content. But rather than be part of the regular algorithm, constantly running, Panda is a periodic filter that’s used.
Every few weeks, Google sifts all the sites it knows about through a Panda filter. What’s caught gets tagged as low-quality, putting some pages within those sites at risk of having poor rankings.
A few weeks later, after the filter has been adjusted in ways Google deems best, everything’s sifted again. Some sites might escape getting caught; new ones might get trapped. But this change effectively causes a Panda Dance to happen.
Intermission. Did someone say panda dance?
Intermission over! My previous article, Why Google Panda Is More A Ranking Factor Than Algorithm Update, explains more about the periodic nature of Panda. We just had the latest Panda update this week, the 19th confirmed in a series since Panda was first introduced in February 2011. They’re now coming fairly consistently on a monthly basis.
Each Panda update can cause some dance in the results, so the monthly Google Dance is back. It’s not as dramatic as in the past, but it’s definitely back, nor is it restricted to Panda.
Dance Like A Penguin
The Penguin Update introduced earlier this year is also a filter run on a periodic basis, like Panda. That’s why Google says you can’t request “reconsideration” if you’re caught by it. The only way you can escape is if your site is no longer doing things that get it caught in the Penguin filter, or if the filter itself changes. It does.
Google keeps changing the Panda filter to better (Google hopes) perfect it, to catch low-quality content without a lot of false positives. Similarly, the Penguin filter gets tweaked to better catch sites involved in spamming but without many false positives (or so Google hopes).
Unlike the Panda update, however, the Penguin update hasn’t been coming on a monthly basis — that we know of, at least.
Google announced the first Penguin update in late April. The second Penguin update was announced in late May. Then the monthly release stopped. Or maybe it kept going, but Google didn’t announce anything and no one noticed a resulting dance. Or maybe there was a dance but Google never confirmed the reason was because a new Penguin update was released (some believe an unconfirmed Penguin update did happen in early September).
Google doesn’t always announce these things. When the fourteenth Panda update happened, no one knew it. That’s because it came right around the time of the first Penguin update, so it was assumed to be part of Penguin. If Google hadn’t finally spoken up, some hit by Panda might have thought they were instead impacted by Penguin.
Does it matter which Google algorithm animal may have bit you? Definitely. If you don’t know what you’ve done wrong, you can’t make the right efforts to fix things. There’s no sense trying to clean up your backlinks (to please the Penguin filter) if the problem is low-quality content that’s being caught by Panda.
So Many Dance Styles
It gets worse. There are other filters running out there. In January, we got the “Top Heavy” update, which penalizes sites with too many ads “above the fold.” Like Panda, it runs on a periodic basis. It’s probably been refreshed several times since it was first launched — and may have caused some dancing — but these were never announced.
In August, we got the “Pirate Penalty,” which goes after sites that seem to be involved with copyright infringement. Google hasn’t said if this penalty is assessed on a periodic basic as with Panda, Penguin and Top Heavy, but it seems likely. If so, each time it’s updated, there’s going to be a dance. But those who are impacted by that dance won’t know why, unless Google tells them.
In summary, not only is the Google Dance back, but now we have several dances going on at different times. When results are dancing to the Panda beat, we usually know. But we don’t know if it’s Penguin, Top Heavy, Pirate or some other filter jumping things around in the results.
Regular Weather Reports, Please
For publishers, this is a bad thing. As I explained, you can’t solve the problem correctly if you don’t know what it is. One thing that will help is more consistent “weather reports” from Google.
The company started issuing weather reports for Panda in last October, reviving a valuable service that both it and Yahoo had done in previous years. We also got one for the second Penguin update. But we need them to continue, for each type of update that might cause a dance to happen.
In lieu of this, there are two new services that can help those trying to predict if stormy search weather is coming: MozCast (see our Mozcast review) and the SERPs Volatility Index (see our SERPs review). Unfortunately, these services can’t tell you the exact reason for the weather, whether it’s Panda, Penguin or something else.
Also, if you’re trying to keep track of past updates and major algorithm changes with Google, SEOmoz’s Google Algorithm Change History page is an exceptionally well done resource.
For Panda, my story on our sister-site Search Engine Land about the latest Panda Update gives you the dates of each one as well as the estimated impact from Google, when provided. It also sets the framework for numbering future Panda updates. We’re switching from “point” versions like 2.2 or 3.6 in favor of a straight whole number increase (Panda 1, Panda 2, Panda 3, Panda 20….).
Remember, while the Google Dance is back and happening in various ways, you don’t have to go out on the dance floor. The more you stick to best practices in SEO and avoid risky techniques, the less likely Google will want to play jitterbug with your rankings.
- What Is SEO / Search Engine Optimization?
- Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors
- The Google Dance / Updates Infographic
- Pages With Too Many Ads “Above The Fold” Now Penalized By Google’s “Page Layout” Algorithm
- The Emanuel Update: Google Will Penalize Sites Repeatedly Accused Of Copyright Infringement
- Google Launches “Penguin Update” Targeting Webspam In Search Results
- Google Releases Penguin Update 1.1
- Penguin’s Reminder: Google Doesn’t Owe You A Living, So Don’t Depend On It
- They’re Back! Google Issues Weather Report For Panda Update
- MozCast Automates Google “Weather Reports”
- SERPs.com Google & Bing “Weather Report” Tool
- Infographic: The Google Panda Update, One Year Later
- Why Google Panda Is More A Ranking Factor Than Algorithm Update
- Panda Update 3.92 Rolling Out (Or Is It Panda 20 Time?)