Zebras, PMDs and General Doom: What’s Going On With Google?

According to a number of sources, Google are currently rolling (or have rolled) out a massive update to their algorithm, completely changing the SERPs for certain keywords.

Unlike the Panda and Penguin updates, however, this update appears to have struck with little to no warning (which would seemingly put paid to Google’s transparency drive that started with Penguin 2.0). To make matters worse, no-one is exactly sure what the update is targeting.

What there isn’t any doubt about is the fact that something major is currently bubbling in the Google algorithm, and it appears to be having huge effects on certain SERPs.

The only solid indications as to what could possibly be happening with Google at the moment comes courtesy of a post from Dr. Pete over at Moz covering fluctuations in Mozcast (which tracks algorithm changes and creates a ‘weather report’ from them, with hot and stormy meaning big changes) and a couple of quotes and tweets from Google’s head of webspam Matt Cutts (who else?).

There is also speculation that the changes in results could be due to Google rolling out the Panda update, with the update now rolling out over ten days of every month. Some have said that the fluctuations don’t appear to be conducive with this theory, however.

Google Zebra

One of the main theories that is emerging is that this is the appearance of ‘Google Zebra’, a much-mythologized update targeting online merchant websites. This is based on something Matt Cutts said at SMX West:

“We have a potential launch later this year, maybe a little bit sooner, looking at the quality of merchants and whether we can do a better job on that, because we don’t want low quality experience merchants to be ranking in the search results.”

In theory, then, this update is targeting ‘low quality experience merchants’. As ever, there’s very little on how a site would be considered a ‘low quality experience merchant’ but a section in Google’s Search Guidelines, under the heading ‘recognising true merchants’ provides a bit of hint (with thanks to Search Engine Journal):

  • A “view your shopping cart” link that stays on the same site.

  • A shopping cart that updates when you add items to it.

  • A return policy with a physical address.

  • A shipping charge calculator that works.

  • A “wish list” link, or a link to postpone the purchase of an item until later.

  • A way to track FedEx orders.

  • A user forum that works.

  • The ability to register or login.

  • A gift registry that works.

Pretty extensive, although Google do emphasise that a site doesn’t need to comply with all of these factors to be considered ‘quality’.

Partial Match Domains

Another theory being suggested, and one that seems to have more solid evidence behind it, is that Google is targeting partial match domains. A partial match domain is essentially a URL that utilises a ‘money’ keyword somewhere in the URL (but isn’t the entire URL). There would certainly be precedent for this, with Google previously cracking down on exact match domains.

Dr. Pete’s post on Moz goes in depth on the evidence supporting this theory, although the post is keen to emphasise that this is far from a definitive theory. However, with top tens changing completely for certain keywords – with PMDs being particularly affected – there does seem to be something to this theory.

Dr. Pete also presents a graph tracking the influence of PMDs on rankings, which you can see below. The graph illustrates a steady decline in influence over the past month, with a massive drop over the past couple of days.

So what exactly are we dealing with here? Unfortunately, there is no straight answer. The most obvious answer would be some kind of update targeting partial match domains, although correlation does not necessarily equate to causation.

Either way, something big is happening with Google. Hopefully the next few days will reveal just what SEOs will have to contend with next.

Chris Smith
  • Written by on 1st July 2013 at 13:56
  • “Chris Smith is a copywriter and social media manager at Fluid Creativity.”
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  • http://www.colinmcdermott.co.uk/ Colin

    Very interesting stuff, thanks!

  • http://cm.org.uk/ Colin

    Very interesting stuff, thanks!