By Nikki Buergel (General Manager & Head Of Paid Media)

2016 has seen a couple of huge paradigm shifts – who would’ve thought Brexit would happen and that Trump would actually become the US President?! Well, it happened and it seems almost inline with these shifts, the American multinational technology company Google, is following suit.

Did you know that Google changes its search algorithm around 500–600 times each year? Whilst most of these are fairly minor, every now and then Google rolls out a “major” algorithmic update e.g. Google Panda and Google Penguin.  These updates can affect search results in very noticeable and important ways and leave the search engine optimisation (SEO) industry with sleepless nights.  

2016 has been an eventful year in our industry – Google introduced a number of major updates which have impacted the way search results are displayed, as well as how web pages are indexed and ranked.  It is becoming increasingly important to stay abreast of these changes and the impact that they have on your SEM efforts.

Below is an outline of the key updates for 2016:

AdWords Shake-up (23 February 2016):


One of the biggest changes ever was made to Google’s SERP layout in February – they removed the Desktop right hand side ads and rolled out four top of the page ads (previously, the top ad block had 1–3 ads), with the other ads being pushed to the bottom of the page (maximum of seven paid search ads on the desktop). Based on this article in Tech Crunch, Google did attempt this in 2012.

There are a number of speculations as to why Google made this change, namely:

  • Commercially driven.
  • Eye-tracking studies have shown that users engage with the top left hand side of the result page, and is thus the hot spot for user interaction (“Golden Triangle”).
  • Apparently this change was based on years of testing which showed that no one was really clicking on right hand side ads. Google has also made a public and measurable move towards mobile-first design and since mobile didn’t support the right hand column ads they may be trying to provide a standardized advertising ecosystem across all devices.
  • Many new right-hand elements have appeared over the last couple of years e.g.  Knowledge Panels and paid shopping blocks (PLAs, which push right-hand column ads down, sometimes even below the fold. Knowledge Panels have also begun to integrate with niche advertising in verticals e.g.  hotels, movies, music, some consumer electronics etc.

This change has made it increasingly important to rank organically and has also made it more difficult for companies with small budgets to advertise on Google via AdWords.

Google Gets Serious About Mobile (12 May 2016):


Google has been pushing mobile for a number of years and 2016 has certainly been the year for mobile! In  May Google increased the impact of the mobile-friendliness ranking signal in order to help their users find more pages that are relevant and mobile-friendly on mobile devices. Whilst speed currently isn’t a ranking factor, it was confirmed at the Search Marketing Summit in Sydney in June that page speed would be a factor in the next mobile update.  Maile Ohye, developer programs tech lead at Google advised : “Two seconds is the threshold for e-commerce website acceptability.  At Google, we aim for under a half second.”

Google realised the importance of streamlining content on mobile devices so they found a new solution for their  global users – Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) results were introduced into mobile search (AMP is a project from Google and Twitter that enables users to make really fast mobile pages).  Increasing the speed for your mobile site should be one of your top priorities!

Possum (1 September 2016):


Possum is the nickname given by the SEO community to one of the biggest Google updates to rock the local SEO rankings in a long time and it has been said  to be the biggest change to local search results since Pigeon in 2014. The name was suggested by Phil Rozek because a lot of  business owners thought their Google My Business listings had disappeared, when in fact they hadn’t. Instead, they had been filtered — they’re playing possum. Google did not announce this update, instead the local SEO community noticed behavioural changes in search results.

Unlike other updates, Possom only affects local search results in that it affected the way local businesses are displayed and also potentially ranked in search results. Google location searches grew 50% faster than general queries and the Possum update is a reflection of this. It appears that the aim is to add more diversity to the local search results and tighten up the signals for spam listings so that the system is less simple to game i.e. diversify the local results and also prevent spam from ranking.

The update has put a lot more emphasis on the user’s location and they are therefore  getting more accurate results, which is great news for companies that have a physical address in the suburbs or rural areas because they can now rank with businesses in the centre of town.

Penguin 4.0 (Real-time) — 23 September 2016:


Google announced a long-awaited (almost 2 years) Penguin update. The new Penguin is now real-time and baked into the “core” algorithm and is also “more granular.” In  short, by using spam signals it devalues spam by adjusting ranking, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site. This update has totally replaced all previous Penguin updates and Google also said with this update, it will no longer confirm future Penguin updates.

Google has been introducing this update over the course of a few years in order to discourage overly aggressive link-building tactics.

2016 is not yet over and Google usually makes a major change over the Christmas period.  Stay tuned folks!