There have been some major fluctuations in the Google search results over the weekend and at this point it’s still unclear exactly what changes Google has made. Steering clear of wild and baseless speculation, let’s look at what little information we do have right now.

Update: 18-01-2016

We’re almost one week into this update now and there is still no concrete information to be seen! It has been confirmed that this was a core algorithm update and Panda is now part of that core but exactly what that means for the industry is still a secret.

What we do know so far is the update has “absolutely nothing to do with panda or other animals”, according to a tweet from Gary Illyes, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst. For us, things are going to continue on as normal, focussing on the same onsite and offsite quality signals we always have. With the potential for an even stronger Panda focus, if your onsite SEO has been lacking recently, now might be a good time to revise your efforts!

The ranking fluctuations have continued and it would seem that Gary’s tweet is accurate since there appears to be no correlation between onsite or offsite strength and their rankings amongst any of our clients.

Our Observations

In Australia, we have seen terrible websites dominate the top half of the SERPs for a broad range of search terms over the last couple of days. Our initial reaction was that this must be Google’s latest Penguin rollout but after checking the link profile of some of these low-quality sites, this seems very unlikely. Looking at the referring domains for the top-ranking sites in a few competitive niches saw either 2 or 3 referring domains or long lists of offshore directories, PBNs and forum spam – exactly the opposite of what Penguin looks to reward!

Obviously, this is not the Penguin rollout we’ve all been expecting, so we began looking for other leading indicators like page load speed, content volume and quality, site layout and internal linking, etc., but there appeared to be no definite correlation. Some of these newly top-ranking sites were quite good while others were filled with keyword spam from the page title to the excessive footer links. Again, we saw no real explanation as to why these sites saw such big ranking improvements.

Split Testing or Staged Rollout Revoked?

Repeated incognito searches throughout the day would display wildly different results that alternated between normal results and these upside-down SERP results. Whether this was simple split testing of a new change or an official update that was being rolled out is also unclear at this point.

Mobile and Desktop

These same changes were observed in mobile results as well, with the same low-quality sites hitting the top results for multiple users in different locations across the country. Again, there was no clear correlation between mobile-friendly sites and these rankings – some of these sites weren’t even responsive but outranked some very slick and responsive designs.

What is Clear Right Now

Frustratingly, the only clear info we have at the moment is that Google was testing a dramatic update to their algorithm across mobile and desktop and whatever this change was, it was a drastic failure that they’ve since pulled back.

There does appear to have been some small change between Friday and now (Monday 11-01-16) that rewards the usual ranking factors in some way, but Google hasn’t confirmed anything and may not for some time yet.

Order Mostly Restored

Whatever it was that caused these fluctuations, it seems the user data demonstrated just how bad these changes were. The SERPs haven’t completely returned to the state they were in on Friday, but they do at least fit with Google’s intentions of showing strong and helpful sites at the top of their results.

By this morning, the vast majority of our clients have seen ranking improvements that are great for them, but this also suggests that Google has applied some quality signals, just not the ones that turned the results on their head.