SEO Has Changed Forever: My First Year At Wonderlabs

The Dawn of a New Era with Captain Kirk, Unwanted Snow Days, and one Cheeky Penguin. My Breakdown of a Turbulent Year in the Sometimes Challenging but Always Rewarding World of Digital Marketing.


A Little over a year ago if you had described to me how the landscape of SEO would change over the next 12 months, I would have laughed at you whilst trying to comprehend, in theory, just how it were possible for an industry to change so dramatically in such a short span of time. 

March – And So It Begins.

March of 2013 would see a nervous version of myself approach the Sussex Innovation Centre; in which resided, amongst others, three individuals that soon I would call friends.

As I sat in reception early (that’s right, punctual. A redeeming feature in any individual) I began contemplating the possible questions that would be thrown at me and the vast array of potential forms that the individuals posing the questions could take. Suited CEO to Middle aged middle management being the worst of them, never once did I consider being interviewed by Captain America himself, albeit a slightly shorter geekier version. (Sorry Kirk)

As soon as I saw Kirk (as in captain) striding toward me with a captain America T-shirt peeping through a blazer as if Superman had a mixup at the launderette, I already knew that I HAD to make sure that I got this job. This was the kind of guy I could see myself working for. Little less than a week later this goal had been achieved and I had arrived for my first day at Wonderlabs.

After the tour of the building it was time to settle down to work and become engaged with our clients. This was where Kirk and I began to form our own strategies to achieve the best results for the current SEO and digital marketing landscape sculpted by Google.

We set out to formulate the cleanest and most transparent SEO strategies possible in order to comply with Google Webmaster guidelines but also so that our work aligned well with our own moral compasses. Providing the finest and most engaging content for our clients specific niches. Our work mostly entailed the cleaning up of the clients back-link profile, long and arduous work involving the manual attempt to remove any toxic link and then the oh so wonderful Google Disavow tool to ensure that any links that could not be manually removed were at least flagged to be ignored by Google.

As days passed, it became even more apparent that Winter was drunk, and should probably go home. With snow falling heavier than Thors Hammer (carrying on the avengers theme) my second day at the job would be a snow day; the first snow day in my life that was truly unwelcome. I had stumbled into a company that had led me to re-think my view on “work”. This wasn’t a room containing a boring list of tasks that I would be carrying out every day it was a place that I could come to learn and be creative. Snow? Jog on.

Our new strategies were working superbly and things were looking rosy at the labs; little did we know that just around the corner one of Google’s biggest ever algorithm updates Penguin 2.0 was lurking in the shadows…watching…waiting.

May – Penguin 2.0 Unveiled.

Google Penguin Update

April was going superbly, The North Koreans real-world game of Risk had become that little bit too real, NASA had observed the most distant supernova on record and most importantly our clients had continued to show the benefits of our newly appointed strategies. It was the following month of May that Google’s latest algorithm update would come around and begin to shake up the world of SEO and Digital Marketing. It all started with a tweet…

Ordinarily such an update from the worlds leading search engine is a welcome change to guys like Kirk & myself, however this update would be the first of many points of learning for us over the next 12 months, let’s cover the basics.

1. What was Penguin 2.0?

Essentially from what we know now, Penguin 2.0 much like it’s predecessors of the same name was largely focused on the back-link profile of a site, specifically making their stance clear against SPAM.  Since it’s release there have been numerous case studies that give a differing opinion into the inner workings of the update, studies such as this superb post on SearchEngineWatch from Jessica Lee looking into MathSight’s intriguing findings, suggesting that the update looked a lot deeper than simply the back-link profile of a domain. Results suggested that the update looked at many on-site factors too.

However one factor remained true, this update was largely rolled out to tackle the ongoing issue in our industry of “black-hat” tactics to build links through. Tactics such as mass automated link-building with exact phrase keyword rich anchors, and links coming from known low quality domains, such as irrelevant non-industry directories.

2. What did we learn?

Thankfully our work in the previous months disavowing bad back-links and cleaning up our clients websites our  existing clients were mostly unmoved by the updates. Some usual ranking fluctuations that surround any update but nothing disastrous that could effect traffic numbers. This couldn’t be said for many other sites who would later become clients in the coming weeks looking to recover from the penalty that Google had lashed them with for their past poor experience with less than savory SEO tactics.

Google were signifying that they were now considering links (a metric often used to grossly inflate ranking performance) in the same way that they looked at the content within the site, if it didn’t have a certain quality then it could certainly be regarded as grounds for penalisation.

This was a huge moment for our industry as is marked a change in attitude from Google’s search engine division. It signified a change in attitude toward the content it served, no longer was SPAM going to simply link-build it’s way to the top of the rankings. A change that would be re-enforced heavily later in the year when Penguin would show it’s face for a second time.

August – Hummingbird Spreads it’s Wings.

As another lowly British summer rolled on by, Russia were offering asylum to Edward Snowden, the worlds least intimidating most wanted man, and Yemen changes its weekend from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday! Mind blown. Meanwhile, Hummingbird quietly buzzed it’s way into our lives almost two months before it would be officially announced in September. It’s silence was a direct indication of the updates impact on SERPS, technically there were none. Here I will attempt to explain why I think Hummingbird may have been one of the most important Algorithm updates in recent years.

hummingbird update

What was Hummingbird?

The world of online like any living organism grows, it develops and evolves into something new. So does it’s audience. Google’s Hummingbird update was largely targeted at addressing this evolution of its user, and especially of the technology the users were utilising to access their service. It really consists of two main core elements.

  • Semantic Search – The algorithm would now allow a search term to  be read in a conversational manner, meaning that it could serve results based off of the particular meaning of a search phrase.
  • Knowledge Graph Results – A feature that Google implemented in 2012 really came into fruition with Hummingbird, a feature that could now be fully utilised by the deeper levels of search provided by Semantic Search.

What did we learn?

With a younger generation of user comes an evolution in the way that those users access the internet. The continual growth in the use of Mobile technologies such as tablets and phones played a huge role in Hummingbird being implemented. No longer would using a search engine be a flat and two dimensional experience involving  ‘input’ and ‘output’. Google’s search engine technologies were now about to offer more depth to the users experience by combining semantic search and knowledge graph to deliver it’s richest results yet.

How did this effect us at the labs? It once again put the use of ‘keywords’ and keyword tracking under the spotlight, no longer could you rely on the user typing a generic set of keywords to get their result, conversational search terms would now begin to become more and more prevalent, and Google’s Algorithm can fully comprehend meaning in the phrase used. This led to an oh so familiar conclusion, provide the content that the people want, answer their questions, make as much information available about your brand as possible. It is no longer about gaining traffic through directly targeting the rank of a specific keyword. Create authority in your brand, and authority in the content that you provide.

October – Penguin 2.1 (Wrath of The Penguin)

Come October many SEO’s that rested on their laurels post Penguin 2.0 had a bit of a shock when our Black & White friend returned with a vengeance. Google had struck again in their attempt to fight the spammers.

penguin 2.1

What was Penguin 2.1?

As with all Penguin updates 2.1 was rolled out to further protect the SERPS from websites that used unsavoury and manipulative link schemes to rank above competitors. This is achieved through the penalisation of any websites that use one or more of the following link-building tactics:

  • Low Quality Back-linking – Usually generated using automated software, pumping out blog comments, articles, and social bookmarks on relatively low quality sites.
  • Paid Back-linking – Links that are built through paid link schemes, usually resulting in a back-link from an irrelevant and link stuffed domain.
  • Excessive Exact Anchors – If a domains back-link profile is heavily biased towards a particular anchor text it can be regarded as link spamming.
  • Excessive Link Exchanges – Link exchange programs building links from irrelevant sources.

What did we learn?

The main outcome from the latest iteration of the Penguin update, is the reminder that your back-link profile should be monitored at all times. Whether you have just taken on a client or  you have maintained a sites SEO for a long period of time, ensuring that said client has a strong and clean back-link profile is paramount to surviving an update.

Here are my top tips for ensuring your rankings survive the next Penguin update.

  • Keep an eye on the SERPS  – Keeping your eye on the SERPS and specifically your own search rankings in the aftermath of a Penguin update is often the easiest way of spotting an unannounced Penguin update. If you notice strong fluctuations then you may want to check your clients back-link profile.
  • Bookmark MOZcast – Mozcast is just one of many great tools from Digital Marketing gurus MOZ. It uses complex monitoring of thousands of keywords every 24 hours to check any strong movements in the SERPS, this will give you a pretty good early warning to expect some shifts in the coming week. The benefit of this to us in the UK is that many google updates hit the states before they cross the pond, so is a superb early warning system. Interesting huh? Here you can learn more about how Mozcast works .
  • Know Your Back-link Profile – Ensuring that you keep on top of your back-links is vital for any SEO campaign, the awful truth is that the bad-guys in SEO will target your site with negative backlinks, enforcing penalisations on your site. There are many great tools to allow you to keep on top of things, it’s all down to your preference, I would always say Open Site Explorer, another great MOZ tool, but fellow Wondernaught Gokhan is a fan of which also provides a superb tool.
  • Identify and Clean up Toxic Links - This is the next sensible step in ensuring your site remains undamaged by any negative SEO, get rid of those back-links! We have a blog post coming pretty soon explaining the various ways that you can do this but in the mean time check out this great post from Tom Ewer, it’s a little old now but still holds up and provides great tips on cleaning up a backlink profile using Google’s Disavow tool.

The Future of SEO: A Conclusion.

So… It was the year that Google and the other big search engines made things very clear. It was about time that they delivered  the best content to the user and make finding that content an all-round more fulfilling process. Fighting SPAM with the two Penguins and broadening the Search Engines Technology with the implementation of Hummingbirds Semantic Search would open up more opportunity for clearer and more useful results to the searcher. As an SEO this meant change, huge amounts of change. No longer could we rely on tactics of old, link-building had evolved to what it should have always been, a tool to supplement the sharing of great content. The creation and distribution of content now requires more research and greater care, this can only be a good thing. We now know that in 2014 we have to adapt, rather than distributing content for content sake and building links for seemingly no other reason than to build a metric. Knowing a clients industry is no longer the be all and end all, we need to understand the individuals who are part of the industry and how, why, and where they look for content, the questions they ask, and the answers that they currently are not able to attain. Our job is now to research and deliver that content.

So no matter how disgruntled and twitchy every Google update can make us as SEO’s, we have to utilise the strength of the changes to allow us to ensure that the content we deliver is of the highest standard. From Rich Snippets to an active Social presence, taking advantage of these changes and not abusing them is the key. For so many years our job was to find loopholes in the system and manipulate the rankings, finally it would appear we can step out of the stone age and finally make the web a truly better place.

  • Gene Eugenio

    Penguin 2.1 took most SEOs by surprise. In fact, some are saying that is different enough from Penguin that it should have its own numbering scheme. Regardless, expect more quality and context-based algo changes now that Hummingbird makes switching algos very smooth-as far as Google’s infrastructure is concerned. Going forward, most of the weight for getting a page ranked shifts back to the content not the link builds. Link building is pretty much in doubt right now.

    • Joe Sturgess

      It certainly did Gene, and you are right. The impact it made was big enough to be considered a separate update in itself. In regards to what you say about the shift toward on-site elements such as content and context I would agree, however Kirk’s post on here Is the End Nigh for Backlinks has some concerning insight into Googles current on-site rank weighting. Worth a read.

      • Gene Eugenio

        Thanks for the link share. I’ll check it out. I am not saying linkbuilding is dead per se. But given the recent crackdown on MBG and guest posting, building links has to morph to ‘earning’ or ‘drawing’ links instead. Matt Cutts is on the record as saying G is not moving away from links as signals anytime soon.

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