The SEO realm is a dynamic place. You probably already know that Google changes its algorithm 500 – 600 times a year. That comes out to more than 1.4 updates each day!

It should come as no surprise that some pretty epic changes have occurred throughout the course of 2016.

The constant flux makes way for plenty of opportunities, but it can also be a little maddening at times trying to keep up with everything.

I know that I’ve personally had my fair share of SEO strikeouts this year. But at the same time, I’ve had several home runs as well.

At the end of the day, SEO requires constant learning and adaptation. Those who thrive are the ones who are able to perpetually adapt and never get stuck in a single mode of thinking.

I’d like to share an overview of everything that went down in the industry this year — the failures, the victories, and the algorithm explosions.

This isn’t for entertainment purposes. This is for business success. By understanding what went down in 2016, we’ll be better able to approach 2017 and beyond.

Google Gets Even More Mobile-friendly

So I think we all know that Google values sites that are mobile-friendly. And it’s easy to see why.

Just look at how the usage of mobile devices has spiked over the past seven years.

growth in internet usage and engagement

The initial Google Mobile-Friendly Update (also known as Mobilegeddon) happened in April of 2015.

But in 2016, Google expanded on this with “Mobile-Friendly 2.” This was basically a ranking signal boost that rewarded mobile-friendly sites on mobile search.

Although the impact wasn’t nearly as significant as the first update, it shows that those who make efforts to accommodate mobile users should definitely see the fruits of their labors.

Penguin Becomes Part of Google’s Core Algorithm

Penguin made quite a stir when it was launched back in 2012. This was the update that primarily targeted black-hat SEO tactics and penalized sites who used unscrupulous link building schemes in an attempt to climb the rankings.

And while Penguin has had a considerable impact on SEO for several years, Google took it one step further and “rolled out an update to the Penguin algorithm in all languages.”

According to the Google Webmaster Central Blog, Penguin is now in real-time, meaning changes occur much more quickly than they used to.

Besides this, it’s more granular where “Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals.”

So the bottom line is that we should being placing a bigger emphasis than ever on creating outstanding, high quality content.

If you’ve been using any technique that could be considered black-hat (even with the best of intentions), you need to ditch it immediately.

Long-Form Content is Your Way to the Promised Land

In my opinion, one of the more interesting phenomenon of 2016 is the trend where long-form content consistently outranked shorter posts.

This graph illustrates it perfectly.

average blog content length in 2016

As you can see, the average word count for content in the number one spot is 2,416 words.

Although it may seem a little counterintuitive to some marketers because of our instant gratification, microwave meal culture, there’s no denying that long-form content is here to stay.

It’s important to note that simply writing longer content doesn’t make it better. It obviously needs to deliver real value.

Rand Fishkin of Moz points out that long-form content in and of itself won’t get the job done. Content needs to do the following:

  • Serve visitors’ intent by answering their questions and helping them complete their goals
  • Deliver an easy, pleasurable, accessible experience on every device and every browser
  • Get the right information and experience to visitors FAST
  • Do all of the above better than any of the competitors in the space

“Comprehensive Content” is Integral to Surpassing Competitors

Piggybacking off the topic of long-form content, Rand Fishkin wrote a post that highlighted the importance of “content comprehensiveness.”

In it he mentions his three step methodology to being more comprehensive with your content than the rest of the pack.

Here’s what he suggests:




Going the extra mile and following these specific guidelines can be the catalyst for SEO success moving forward.

Google “Possum” Algorithm Update Impacts Local Search

There was also a bit of a shake up for local search results as well.

On September 1, 2016, there was an update known as “Possum,” which affected the way that local brick-and-mortar businesses ranked.

The name was coined because many local business owners thought that Google My Business listings were gone, but they had merely been filtered or were “playing possum.”

Search Engine Land reported that this update was an effort from Google to “diversify local results and prevent spam from ranking as well.”

One of the most noticeable changes was that businesses outside a physical city limit began ranking higher.

For instance, a business with a physical address in Coral Gables, FL could potentially rank as high or even higher than a company located right in the heart of Miami.

Google’s Top 3 Organic Ranking Signals Were Revealed

Google is known to have roughly 200 different ranking signals that influence precisely where content ends up in SERPs.

But it’s essentially been a mystery as to which ones had the biggest influence.

However, that all changed in 2016 during a WebPromo where Andrey Lipattsev, the Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google (Ireland) blew the whistle on what the top three ranking signals are.

The funny thing is that it’s much more simple than you might think.

According to Lipattsev, here are those three:

  • Links
  • Content
  • RankBrain (Google’s AI)

You can learn more about RankBrain here.

It all seems a little anticlimactic, but it’s nice to definitively know what’s most important when creating content and running your overall SEO campaign.

User Engagement Influences Rankings (Sort Of)

There’s an interesting post on Search Engine Watch that discusses user engagement metrics.

It specifically states that these are not a direct ranking signal but we should be treating them like they are.

In fact, some testing was performed to determine how a few key user engagement metrics impacted rankings.

Here are the results:

organic ranking signals in 2016

It’s a little hard to see the details because the font is so small, but the data suggests that things like the average time spend on a site, daily unique pageview, Facebook click-through-rate and bounce rate all play a role in positioning in SERPs.

More specifically, the average time spend on a site is a major factor.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s important to note that Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller said, “I don’t think we even see what people are doing on your website” and “so from my point of view, that is not something I’d really treat as a ranking factor.”

It’s hard to dispute that there’s at least some level of correlation between user engagement and rankings. Therefore, it’s something that should definitely be on your radar.

Click-Through Rate has at Least Some Impact on Rankings

Here’s another interesting little tidbit from the same post on Search Engine Watch.

A website’s click-through-rate (CTR) appears to have some level of impact in a controlled test environment.

Here’s what I mean:

organic search clickthrough rate curve

By examining this data, there’s no denying the correlation between a higher CTR and higher rankings.

After all, the sites that reached the number one spot had an average CTR of 18.2 percent, while the ones that averaged the number 10 spot only had a CTR of 1.04 percent.

Due to the fact that CTR is so gameable, Google can’t exactly make it a straight up ranking factor. However, it’s definitely clear that the higher your CTR is, the better.

Page Load Speed & Experience for Mobile Site Matters

Another thing you’ll notice in the graph above is that page load speed is just behind average time spent on side in terms of signals that currently correlate strongest with higher rankings.

And according to Gary Illyes of Google, “the speed of your mobile pages currently doesn’t impact your mobile rankings, but soon it may, says.”

Illyes went on record to say that “Google will be updating the page speed ranking factor to specifically look at the page of your mobile pages when it comes to the mobile-friendly algorithm.”

While the details are a little murky, it’s safe to say that having fast loading mobile should be a priority in 2017.


2016 was no doubt a wild and woolly year for SEO.

While there weren’t any algorithm upsets as big as, say, the original Penguin or Panda, there was still lot going on.

With several different algorithm shakeups and patterns emerging, it’s important to take notice when developing your game plan for 2017.

Growth Marketing Manager at |

Andrew has serviced SEO clients across a variety of industries including large-scale e-commerce, retail, home services, and more. As Growth Marketing Manager for UpCity, he works every day to improve our Marketplace experience for agencies and business owners alike.