11 SEO Highlights of 2011

2011 was SEO’s Year of the Panda

The Chinese calendar has 2011 as the year of the rabbit, but on the SEO calendar, it was year of the Panda due to the numerous waves of Panda/Farmer Google Algorithm update. But aside from these updates, there were many other things happening in the SEO world this year.

1. Ranking Penalty Due to Aggressive SEO (JCP & Overstock)

JCPenney & Overstock were two companies that gained the spotlight early in 2011. JCPenney was talked about in the New York Times, where David Segal wrote:  The Dirty Little Secrets of Search which probably also gave the SEO industry a bad image in general since it somewhat had a tone that SEOs try to manipulate search engine results and give some websites higher rankings even if they do not deserve to have a high ranking. In the article, the New York Times reported this to Google with evidence of paid links and Google’s Matt Cutts was quoted that they have tweaked how they trust links with not much details.

About a week after the JCP search result ban in Google, Overstock gained the same spotlight when The Wall Street journal’s Amir Efrati wrote: Google Penalizes Overstock for Search Tactics. Although the reasons were not elaborately mentioned, it seems whatever tweak Google did on how links were trusted was already going into effect as other popular sites were getting hit by the penalty also.

2. Poor Quality Content Penalty: Google’s Series of Panda (Farmer) Updates

Google has been preaching this for years, good content is what is really needed for great rankings. But over the years, SEOs have always tried to find ways around it. Blackhat, Grayhat, or aggressive borderline Whitehat SEOs have always tried to find ways around the ranking algorithm, finding shortcuts without using great quality content. Google’s years of experience and where their sophistication in understanding languages & grammar is continuously getting better and better from the day they acquired Applied Semantics back in 2003.

Almost the whole year of 2011 was a series of several updates related to content. Initially observed closely by SEO practitioners talking about the decrease of ranking of various sites and asking each other in forums if there was an observed algorithmic change and was dubbed as the Farmer Update which I believe the name probably came from Webmaster World where most group named algorithm updates come from. The changes were too evident already that when Google decided to talk about it already, they said they already have a name for the update and it was the Panda Update. And then this is were the series of updates came in.

  • Algorithm Change on Original vs. Scraped Content
    Matt Cutts says 2% of the SERPs were affected.
  • 1st Panda Update
    12% of SERPs affected. Decrease in rankings of content farms, thin content, large amount of advertisements and less content.
  • Panda 2.0
    Sites that are blocked by users in search results and in Google Chrome are now part of the algorithm updates. Since user feedback is now used, we can almost be 100% assured that Google’s manual reviewers also play a big role in this. Aside from this, Google’s Panda update now goes international but only for the English language.
  • Panda 2.1
    Minor updates not elaborated by Google.
  • Panda 2.2
    Again minor updates not elaborated by Google, but Matt Cutts announced the roll out at the SMX Advanced conference. Although most Panda updates were more on disasters of ranking, Barry Schwartz he reported that some sites are actually recovering in the initial decrease in ranking. So is Panda 2.2 more of a fix of falsely tagged sites to be penalized by Google’s earlier Panda updates? That’s what it sounds like to me in my opinion.
  • Panda 2.3
    There were no elaborate details about this update, except the fact that all the Panda updates, were rolling out slowly and manually. So this may just be a continuation of all the previous update propagation.
  • Panda 2.4
    Google’s Panda update runs for all languages worldwide except for Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
  • Panda 2.5
    Another update with not much details, but new reports of winners and losers after this update has included many popular, sites which have been considered authorities in their respective spaces.
  • Panda 2.5 Flux
    As the name implies, it is an update of the 2.5 update. A minor update as well, which Matt Cutts tweeted about but didn’t give much detail. They just seem to be all part of the gradual roll out of all Panda Updates, this specific Flux update spanned several dates, two in October and one in November and Matt Cutts claims it affected about 2% of the SERPs. Former Google Webmaster Team member Vanessa Fox blogs about it after she had talked to some of her former coworkers.
  • Panda 3.1
    The last of the Panda update of the year 2011 which seems to coincide with one of the Panda 2.5 Flux updates also called Panda 2.5.3. SEOMoz’ Algorithm history already decided not to number the minor updates anymore for historical purposes. Probably to avoid any type of confusion.

3. Google +1 Button

Google +1 was a button that appears beside search results. This was Google’s style of Facebook’s Like button.  Any kind of like, vote is not a new concept. Ever since social bookmarking came out with Delicious, Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit and many others, this already existed, although all these other platforms had a separate website to see where all the popular votes of other people. Google does not have this, instead it directly influences the search engine results among the people within your social circles.

4. Google+, Google takes a shot with Social Media

Not to be confused with his is not Google’s +1 button, Google+ is a whole separate social media platform. This is not Google’s first try of coming with some kind of social media platform.  There is Google Friend Connect> which was tied it together with the Google OpenID and Google Profile. Google also owns Orkut which seems to be a hit mainly in Brazil. But all didn’t seem good enough to go against the current day social media giant, Facebook. Google then launched Google+ which gain a very significant amount of members right after it launched. Several features on Google Plus started rolling out one by one throughout the year, such as Social Gaming, Hangout for group YouTube viewingbrand pages, direct connect, and ripples. YouGov survey suggest that Google+ will be the #2 Social Networking site in 2012.

5. Schema.org: the Rich Snippets Guide

Google has been coming up with a variety of rich snippets which are additional meta information displayed in SERP descriptions. Google has been looking at a variety code in the past and was pulling this information to improve how SERP descriptions appear. The bottom line was giving the users a better informed decision on what the destination pages were all about. But how to make these rich snippets appear before was a combination of special codes, special code guides, different microformat standards such as the RDFa and hCard markup. Similar to XML Sitemaps, Google, Yahoo/Bing and also Yandex recognized acceptance of the schema.org microformats to make it more of a set standard for webmasters that want to take advantage of this markup code. For those that do not use this does not mean search engine will not use rich snippets on these sites. Google says it will still recognize all previous code signals that suggest rich snippets and will add them if needed. Although if you really want to gain proper control, might as well implement the standard from the guide created by the search engines themselves.

6. Google Sitelinks on Steroids

Sitelinks isn’t something new on Google, and has been existing for several years already. But today last year, in 2011, Google decided to give sitelinks a new look, they now consume a large portion of screen real estate. They increase in size and each link displays their own meta descriptions below each link.

7. Rel = Prev and Rel = Next Pagination Tags

Pagination was always a special case in SEO. Sometimes a view all page that is also broken down into different pages are sometimes present duplicate content issues. Aside from that the “no page” and “page 1” seemed to be a duplicate content issue also. As for a single article or blog post that is split into several pages, if a specific page is ranking for a keyword, do you supposed to canonical link tag this to page 1 or not? Google wanted to get a better insight also on what pagination pages are so they decided to properly interpret the W3C markup link rel=prev and link rel=next.

8. Rel = Alternate Tag Specificity

The link rel alternate tag, again is not a new tag, and Google has announced the acceptance of this tag to properly interpret websites with alternative content in another language which can also help in duplicate content issues. But in 2011, Google announced that you can be more specific not only mentioning the language, but also the country.

9. Keyword Data Encryption – Data Not Provided

Google decides to comply with several possible privacy issues and makes search queries more secure. Users logged into a Google account, will have encrypted search queries. So in Google Analytics, incoming search traffic will not provide the specific keyword phrases and will be listed as “Not Provided.” Google claims that about 12% of online searches are logged into a Google account, so whatever trends you see in Google Analytics should still be sufficient to get a good understanding of what are the main keywords that provide good traffic & conversions to a website.

10. Freshness Update

Somehow, we already knew in the past that Google does not only like the very old, but also the very new. So blog post and websites tagged as news sources were crawled and indexed quicker than others that they also rank relatively higher than others when they are new pages. Aside from that back in 2010, Google announced Google Caffeine and also Real-Time Search (which was stopped) that shows that Google really is up-to-date with very recent, hours or minutes ago events. So like other updates in 2011, Google has already been looking at fresh content and does not seem to be a anything new. Google has been doing this for more than a year already. Although as Amit Singhal of Google mentions, it impacts 35% of searches. Which the remaining majority may not really see any difference.

11. Last Month Algorithm Changes

On the very last month of 2011, Scott Huffman, Google Engineering Director posted 10 new algorithm updates. All related to different items, such as improvements for users in the following areas: related results, comprehensive indexing for long tail keywords, better detection of domain parking pages for automatic exclusion, fresher blog results, original content detection, better results on football rich snippets, user experience factors like better auto-complete predictions, better layout on tablet PCs and avoiding host crowding within the SERPs.

12. Yahoo Site Explorer Bye Bye

Although Google is still the mainly used search engine which always maintained about 60 to 70 percent market share or usage year after year, so you would really expect most news highlights to be all about Google, but Yahoo also deserves to be mentioned where the Yahoo Site Explorer has already discontinued. Everyone had a hunch it was going away from the day Microsoft purchased Yahoo’s search engine. Everyone was just waiting when it would happen. In the early days of SEO, the link: operator worked in all major search engine. Google limited it to only what it wants to show, and shows a little more but still not complete in Google Webmaster Tools. Bing’s link operator was long gone for a very long time, and Yahoo was the last one standing that still had a very long list of backlinks to look at for all the link analysis purposes it may serve. Many tools scraped it, and some used the API, and now it is gone. Now Bing Webmaster Tools is the replacement, but still the information was not as good as Yahoo Site Explorer. We are now left with Google’s Webmaster Tools and other 3rd company crawlers such as SEOMoz’ Open Site Explorer, MajesticSEO and other tools that use either 1 of the two or both of their APIs.

2011 is the past, but everything is still important to remember in 2012

This year was a year of tons of search engine updates, predominantly Google updates, or if ever there were other search engines other than Google with significant updates, they were overshadowed with the many updates Google has rolled out. Although this is all in the past, it will still definitely be all part of the SEO future. Happy New Year to everyone in the SEO industry!

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