Google in 2011: An Analytical Retrospective in Search

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As both a business and a crucial Internet utility, Google has expanded in some tremendous ways in 2011. Not all of those changes have been welcomed by the Internet community, however. The much feared Panda updates and the heavily criticized keyword encryption move are still the source of some derision for the search giant.

In most ways we believe that when Google grows, the Internet benefits, as well as the billions of individuals and businesses who traffic it. We’d like to take a moment to look back on some of the biggest changes Google released in 2011 and recap how those changes have affected the Web, the way we search, and how we’re found.

The folks over at SEOmoz put together this wonderful infographic on the Google algorithm changes of 2011, and we’re going to explore some of the most important changes in some more depth.

February 23 – Google Panda’s First Update
The first Google Panda update (which, at the time, was known as the Google Farmer update) was devised to weed out low-quality sites, content farms, sites with too-thin content and too-heavy advertising, and scraper sites.

The first update impacted a staggering 12% of total search results and prompted a massive shift in focus for SEO Web content providers
 and Webmasters across the board, as organic and custom content finally got the credit it deserved as a crucial traffic driver. (But hey, you don’t have to tell us twice. At We Do Web Content, we have long been the evangelicals of organic Web content!)

March 30 – Launch of the +1 Button
This represented the first time a search engine had attempted to add a social component to search on a broad scale, although the term first started emerging in 2004. The +1 button allowed users to give their recommendation of a site to users who were connected to them, and search engine result pages (SERPs) began to reflect those changes.

Later on, the +1 data was integrated to users’ Google+ profile, and the button is now a hallmark on most pages. Unlike Facebook Likes or Twitter’s Re-Tweets, the +1 button is the only social ranking feature that has the potential to directly impact a final SERP for a user, and it’s also placed increased importance on Google+ circle expansion. The more people to whom you are connected, the more influential your +1 votes really are.

June 28 – Google+ Released by Invitation-Only
SEOmoz didn’t include this landmark on their infographic, but we couldn’t possibly write a 2011 wrap-up without including it. Google changed the game by introducing Google+ for individuals (and shortly after, for businesses), which has thus far been the only social network to viably compete with Facebook and its 800 million-strong user base.

Special Vice President of Social at Google, Vic Gundotra, has said that “Google will be a social layer over everything else, built into all of Google’s Web products,” so don’t expect this update to go the way of Google Buzz, which was phased out in 2011.

October 18 – Secure Socket Layer Encryption of Keyword Referrer Data
In one of the most controversial moves of the year, Google opted to encrypt the search queries of all logged-in users. They did this by re-directing all users who were logged in to, the secure socket layer version of the site. This had the effect of removing valuable query data from site analytics, replacing the keywords that users had typed into the search fields that led them to a website. Matt Cutts of Google initially promised that the impact would be small, and that only single-digit losses in data would be sustained, but some sites have reported more than 30% data loss since the change was fully implemented.

Although Google claimed that the privacy of their users was their primary motivation, this valuable data was not extracted from the analytics of AdWords customers, meaning that the data was taken away from all but people who were willing to pay for it. This prompted many to accuse Google of violating its unofficial motto: “Don’t be evil.”

November 3
 – Google’s Freshness Update
Google released the Freshness update in an effort to make search results more responsive to the search’s need for fresh content. For example, if you’re looking for a summary of the Civil War, the “freshness” of an article may be of little importance, since it’s an event fixed firmly in the past. But if you’re looking for information on a topic or subject that’s currently evolving, you are probably looking for the latest developments, not last week’s news. As well-respected Googler Amit Singhal explained, “Different searches have different freshness needs.”

The Google Freshness update indexes the freshness of documents by inception, amount of change to the site since its inception, the rate of change, the rate of new links, and user behavior on the site
. This was the first major change of its kind from any of the dominant search engines, and it’s no surprise that it was pioneered by Google.

In conclusion, it’s been a big year
, but we expect that 2012 will be even bigger, both for Google and for the millions who use search every day. As we evolve towards a Web that balances raw data processing power against intricate social cues, we inch closer to a new age of information access, one that is streamlined, seamless, and even enjoyable. We don’t know if Google will always be the herald of a dawning digital age, but as for 2012, the ‘plex has it in the bag.


Are You Ready to Be Found on Google in 2012?

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