Google is a strong influencing factor for online business success. This holds true even in the face of stiff competition from social media sites that have sprouted throughout the online landscape. Many business owners, Internet marketers and SEO professionals have leveraged their knowledge of Google’s search algorithm to reach the number one spot in the results. Here we'll take a look at Panda, a key update released in February 2011, and the souped up new search architecture rolled out by Google in 2010 - code named Caffeine. (For background reading, see Intro to SEO: What You Need to Know.)

The Impact of Google Search Updates

For quite a while, search engine optimization professionals and marketers thought they had it all figured out. Google worked on link authority, PageRank and other similar criteria. All you needed to do was to pump your site with content filled with the right keywords and build outbound and inbound links. But while Google kept emphasizing the importance of quality content, SEO experts knew there was more to the story.

Then the search giant rolled out the Caffeine indexing system, which, as the name implies, made Google's indexing of new Web pages faster. Carrie Grimes wrote at Google's official blog that the Caffeine update allowed Google to add fresh content to searches at a much faster rate.

As far as interested parties could see, the update was just like any other update, and it came with all the usual drama: Some sites slipped in PageRank; others did not. But overall, the number of affected sites was negligible. At the time it was rolled out, Caffeine did not significantly impact search results, and things went on as always in SEO land.

What many people did not realize was that Google had laid the groundwork for a lot of changes to come in the next few months that would turn SEO and search upside down - or right side up - depending on how you look at it.

Caffeine Turns Search on Its Head

One morning in February 2011, SEO professionals and marketers woke up screaming, as a number of sites plummeted in search rankings, and some even disappeared in searches. What was going on?

Google had just deployed what would later be known as the Panda update. Google also confirmed that the Panda update impacted 11.8 percent of all searches made in the U.S.

What this meant was the burying of lot of sites that used to enjoy top ranking on Google searches. Why? Because these sites were identified as having low quality content.

Sites that scraped for content or displayed duplicated content also lost top rankings.

Just a few months later, Google again had yet another earth-shaking update. This time around, Google announced the Freshness update, which was designed to deliver newer pages to search results. The update affected 35 percent, or more than one in three, searches. It took a while, but people began to more clearly understand the speed at which Caffeine could index millions of pages. Because Google could now handle a lot of new pages, it had the ability to show the freshest content first. So, for example, if you searched for "Consumer Electronics Show," Google would be able to show 2012 results first, even if the year was unspecified. (Discover some of the key SEO tricks Google loves in 3 SEO Tactics That Google Loves.)

Caffeine Perks

So just what is Caffeine, and why does it matter?

Caffeine is not an algorithm update at all, but more of a new indexing system. Simply put, Google threw out its old way of indexing Web pages, and used this instead. Google used to run its search spiders every couple of weeks, analyze everything on the WWW and then update its index.

Without going into too much detail, Caffeine simply allowed Google to index Web pages in much less time and update its index continuously, rather than periodically.

With this, even the latest breaking news now shows up on the first pages of your Google search result.

Another salient feature of Caffeine is that it allowed the search giant to process hundreds of thousands of pages almost simultaneously.

But, most importantly, Caffeine became the foundation for succeeding Google updates, such as the Panda and Freshness updates.

Pondering the Panda

The Panda update is simply Google's way of categorizing which sites do not have strong, original and useful content.

Google's aim for its search engine service is to deliver quality and relevant content to users. With the Panda update, Google tries to clamp down on sites that skirt Google's filters to achieve high search ranking without delivering the high quality user experience Google attempts to reward.

With the advent of Caffeine, Google gave itself more pages to work with, and it became painfully obvious which sites offered duplicated, spammy and otherwise low quality content - hence, the Panda update.

So what do you need to know about Panda to help your site and pages rank well on Google? Here are five things to keep in mind.

  1. Focus on delivering quality content
    Gone are the days when you could buy spammy links from different sources to fool Google into thinking that you have an authoritative and quality site. Right now, you should solely invest in great site content and rest easy that you will (eventually) rank well.

    Also, content is no longer just about text. Quality content may be in the form of an image, video or other multimedia content.


  2. Fresh content is better
    When Panda first made its appearance, CNET came out with an analysis of how it affected different kinds of sites. It found that news sites literally jumped out of the abyss into the first two pages of search results.

    What's more, the emphasis on freshness later became obvious when Google rolled out the Freshness update, proving that newer content works better than old content. This means that if you run a website, you should be rolling out great content as often as possible.


  3. Social signals play a part in search
    It used to be that Twitter retweets and Facebook likes and shares did little to improve search rankings because they carried virtually no link juice. But with Panda, it became apparent that such social networking site shares were now considered a way of gauging page authority and relevancy.

    With the recent introduction of Search Plus Your World, you not only get better rankings from sharing behavior on Google+ but you have a special section in Google search designed especially for this purpose.


  4. It's just an update
    While some not-so-savory practices, such as indiscriminate link building and spam content, have effectively been thwarted by the Panda update, this does not mean that you should retire everything that you have learned thus far about SEO.

    Instead, focus on the things that still work. For example, create a better link profile, or do better keyword research.


  5. It IS an update
    Panda continues to be tweaked over time; this is not a one-time thing. It has been rolled out several times, and updates generally take between three weeks and two months to complete.

    What this means is that if you are negatively affected by Panda, you could try to correct everything that you did wrong and regain your ranking during the next rollout.

How to Beat Google

Google's always tinkering with its algorithms in an attempt to put the freshest, most relevant pages at the top of each and every search. So, while understanding how to leverage those changes has its advantages, the only real way to SEO nirvana is to avoid shortcuts to the top. Google has become increasingly nimble at quashing those, which means that for those with a long-term business plan, working around - rather than within - Google's parameters just isn't worth the risk.