Google’s March Updates: Anchor Text, Image Search, Navigational Search & More

google-g-logoGoogle’s latest round of search quality updates is now available, and — at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old SEO — this month’s seems even more difficult to grasp than normal. There are a lot of words in this month’s list of 50 changes, but it appears to me that there’s not really a lot of explanation.

So be it, though. The monthly updates are a welcome thing from Google’s search team, and they’re always good to get discussion and speculation going.

With that in mind, here are a few of the items that stand out to me on first perusal of Google’s blog post.

Anchor Text Tweaks

There are two items on the list that make specific reference to how Google processes anchor text. Here they are, word-for-word from the announcement:

Tweaks to handling of anchor text. [launch codename "PC"] This month we turned off a classifier related to anchor text (the visible text appearing in links). Our experimental data suggested that other methods of anchor processing had greater success, so turning off this component made our scoring cleaner and more robust.

Better interpretation and use of anchor text. We’ve improved systems we use to interpret and use anchor text, and determine how relevant a given anchor might be for a given query and website.

The first mentions a specific classifier (i.e., signal) that’s been turned off; the second mentions a new way (signals?) for determining anchor text relevance.

Your guess is as good as mine re: what exactly that means. Comments are open if you want to speculate or tell us (and other readers) what you’ve noticed lately regarding links and anchor text.

Image Search Changes

There are also a couple items related to image search, and more specifically related to the quality of the pages on which images appear:

More relevant image search results. [launch codename "Lice"] This change tunes signals we use related to landing page quality for images. This makes it more likely that you’ll find highly relevant images, even if those images are on pages that are lower quality.

Improvements to Image Search relevance. [launch codename "sib"] We’ve updated signals to better promote reasonably sized images on high-quality landing pages.

In one case, lower quality pages are rewarded; in the other, “reasonably sized” (I read that as “smaller”) images on better quality pages are rewarded. I think.

Indexing Symbols

Google is no longer ignoring several punctuation marks and symbols. As the owner of a website whose name begins with the @ symbol, I love this one. (It used to be that searches for “@U2″ led to the official site,, not my independent site.)

Improvements to handling of symbols for indexing. [launch codename "Deep Maroon"] We generally ignore punctuation symbols in queries. Based on analysis of our query stream, we’ve now started to index the following heavily used symbols: “%”, “$”, “\”, “.”, “@”, “#”, and “+”. We’ll continue to index more symbols as usage warrants.

I would think this will also benefit searches for Twitter usernames, for example. And maybe hashtags? Haven’t checked on that. Feel free to ignore me.

Navigational Queries

There are a pair of updates regarding navigational queries:

Improvements to results for navigational queries. [launch codename "IceMan5"] A “navigational query” is a search where it looks like the user is looking to navigate to a particular website, such as [New York Times] or []. While these searches may seem straightforward, there are still challenges to serving the best results. For example, what if the user doesn’t actually know the right URL? What if the URL they’re searching for seems to be a parked domain (with no content)? This change improves results for this kind of search.

Better handling of queries with both navigational and local intent. [launch codename "ShieldsUp"] Some queries have both local intent and are very navigational (directed towards a particular website). This change improves the balance of results we show, and helps ensure you’ll find highly relevant navigational results or local results towards the top of the page as appropriate for your query.

On that second one, I did a search for the word “twigs.” When my location was set local to my hometown, Google showed results for a local restaurant named Twigs at the top of the results page. When I changed my location to New York City, it showed an East Village hair salon named Twigs. Results related to actual twigs (branches) were further down the page. If that’s what they’re referring to, this is an interesting change.

Other Changes Worth Reading Closely

Here are a few other things that caught my eye:

More accurate short answers. [project codename "Porky Pig"] We’ve updated the sources behind our short answers feature to rely on data from Freebase. This improves accuracy and makes it easier to fix bugs.

Improvements to freshness. [launch codename "Abacus", project codename "Freshness"] We launched an improvement to freshness late last year that was very helpful, but it cost significant machine resources. At the time we decided to roll out the change only for news-related traffic. This month we rolled it out for all queries.

Better indexing of profile pages. [launch codename "Prof-2"] This change improves the comprehensiveness of public profile pages in our index from more than two-hundred social sites.

There are also several updates related to synonyms and universal search results.

But what stood out to you as you read through the 50 search updates for March? Comments are open.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | Top News


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • Richard Anthony Ortiz

    What you described here is exactly what stood out for me plus their “Improvements to processing for detection of site quality.” The more Google gives us, the more vague they are. 

  • Simone Luciani

    I’m a bit confused about the anchor text update, which should be a big impact one…

  • Amy Fanter

    Re: Symbols

    I have an set of search terms that have always had better PPC performance with the use of a “hyphen” than without. Perhaps the user, perhaps the visibility, etc.

    While I’ve been told for ages the “hyphen” wont make a difference when we are doing SEO … it does… maybe from a behavior standpoint: maybe users are more apt to see it, click on it, etc.

    All I know is that using them them made a difference for us. Glad to see that Google is going to incorporate

    Perhaps some symbols may inform semantic searches. 

  • Rich Greenwood

    I expect anchor text data will be combined more with the contextual content surrounding the tags. Also think by ‘reasonable’ size images they mean of decent resolution and size, not small images such as thumbnails. Very interested to see feedback and findings from others on the impacts.

  • Dino Gomez

    The biggest update seems to come under the project name, “Porky Pig”. Improvements to Freshness further emphasizes the importance of generating content on a frequent basis for website owners in all industries.

  • Gloyns

    Seeing tweaks to both the treatment of anchor text and the emphasis of indexing social profiles, it sounds to me like Google are continuing to add more weight towards social metrics

  • benlanders

    I hope the anchor text update reduces Google’s reliance on the keywords found in the anchor text itself and the overall volume of links and instead places more weight on the authority and relevance of the linking sites!

  • Muneeb Ahmed

    i would totally agree with Gloyns as i’ve seen it myself that google has given some good importance to social metrics wheather its g+ or fb+

    Social presence is important in today’s SEO 

  • Clint Spaulding

    I think the anchor text changes rolled out with the ‘Panda refresh’ that Google tweeted about, if not a few days before it.

    I noticed a drop in rankings for some over-anchored pages, which is actually good news. I shouldn’t have to worry about which anchors I’m getting as long as the link is relevant and authoritative.

  • SEM Media

    The Word “Anchor Text Updates” it little confusing to me. Can some one explain me after this update Does Google will not give value to anchor text?


  • Karthik kumar

    …comprehensiveness of public profile pages? Gonna see Facebook, Twitter and others in SPYW?

  • Kittu K

    “Tweaks to handling of anchor text.”  was rolled out either in last 2 weeks of feb or between 1 – 11th march 2012. I know this for a fact because of all the testing that I was doing on a site. A keywords ranking dropped in one pc & 2 weeks later it hit all other pc. It took a lot of time for the change to reflect in the data centers. 

    One Update not mentioned in this article is: High-quality sites algorithm data update and freshness improvements. [launch codename “mm”, project codename "Panda"] 

    Funny thing here is webmasters shows me “crawl errors” that don’t exist. I don’t know what to make of it.

  • Jen Bac

    “Better interpretation and use of anchor text”. I guess that Google also looks into  the surrounding contents of the anchor text . If it is found relevant or has semantic relationship to the queries then it has higher chance to appear in SERPS.

    This anchor text thing confused me. Would love to hear more about this from here.

  • Aiden Moor

    Great to know about this update. Google is trying a lot for betterment and so it takes so much moves like Panda  update. Obviously Google wants to satisfy its users to give a better and relevant results.

  • megganGG

    As a link builder I write quite a bit of content for article directories, and mainly use relevant anchortext in the authors bio- will Google now be eliminating all value from these efforts? Or will it be fine as long as the article written relates? 

  • Simon Dalley

    I think it’s likely that if you’re writing good quality content that is unique and relevant to the destination site – and the sites you’re adding them to have high editorial standards then you’ll be fine. 

  • Simon Dalley

    Really exciting times for SEO I’ve thought they’ll get rid of anchor text as a ranking factor for some time now.

  • Gareth_Sear1

    There are many ways that they will keep tweaking and I think that the anchor text one is important to stop spam in things such as blog comments, instead of using your name which is much more ethical. Anyone testing this?

    With regards to the images, even though no one seems to mention this, I have a few sites where images drive a large amount of traffic. Danny, I’m going against what you say and I reckon that image size relavance is not going to mean that they are smaller, more that they are a usable size. There are a huge amount of images on the web that you just cannot really see very well (perhaps my galsses need changing!) and I think that a relevant size means that you should be able to see well what is in the image. Perhaps you will be rewarded if you click on an image and it opens up into a larger image?

  • Visnja Zeljeznjak

    Also, it’s worth to test what happens if we intentionally *keep the best old content updated and fresh,* along creating new content.

  • Chande

    also to avoid keyword cannibalization for new content

  • iWebSquare

    So the anchor text which is a part of linkbuilding process, is now become more essential as Google will look where it contains to see its relevancy first.

  • dan jeffers

    Can’t help thinking that they suddenly decide to index symbols, including the “+” symbol, at the same time that they’re pushing Google+. 

  • Marat Gaziev

    don’t forget about stop words and bigram breakage

  • Agência Macan

    If Google is working increasingly on user intent, I believe, as stated above, the value of the text-anchor will be measured according to the content that includes the link.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    “The more Google gives us, the more vague they are.”
    Unfortunately you are right on that one. I appreciate that Google is at least giving us an idea of what’s going on, but it often only leads to more speculation. Some hard and fast facts would be nice!

  • Guillermo Ortiz

    Better indexing of profile pages definitely caught my eye. I think you’ll get a bit more credit now for being active across a broad spectrum of social sites. Glad to see any type of improvement for anchor text, as this is one of the biggest things that are abused.

  • Zachary Reiss-Davis

    I’d presume you have this backwards: 

    “In one case, lower quality pages are rewarded; in the other, “reasonably sized” (I read that as “smaller”) images on better quality pages are rewarded. I think.”I would expect that larger images are what they are referring to by “reasonably sized” — aka thumbnails are “unreasonable”.  

  • Phil Caines

    Complete speculation regarding the anchor text updates, but I think that this is a progression from both symantic search as well as cracking down on link farms. I speculate that what they turned off is the importance of having a specific keyword in multiple anchor text links (ala link farms) and are now looking for a diverse set of link text with the same search intent from contextually relevant websites.

    My $.02

  • Arsham Mirshah

    Unrelated question .. how come you’re putting rel=”author” on links to your SEL profile and not your G+ profile..  just curious :)

  • pnaybour

    I think the main themes are clear. They are

    Flight to quality sites, this is a continuing theme, which builds on the PANDA updates. Quality sites with lots of unique and valuable content continue to do well in rankings. The difficult question is what is quality?  This is moving more towards the values of journalistic measures, is it interesting to read, retain visitor interest, and answer the key questions who, what, why, when and how.
    Increasing reliance on personal reputation, both for the author and those who recommend the site. You can see this in the increasing focus on personal profiles, and the linkages to google plus one recommendations. In the future it looks like who writes content and who recommends it will be important in ranking.
    Freshness seems to be increasingly important, several of the updates seem to relate to presenting the most uptodate relevant articles

  • pnaybour

    Flight to quality sites, this is a continuing theme, which builds on the PANDA updates. Quality sites with lots of unique and valuable content continue to do well in rankings. The difficult question is what is quality?  This is moving more towards the values of journalistic measures, is it interesting to read, retain visitor interest, and answer the key questions who, what, why, when and how.
    Increasing reliance on personal reputation, both for the author and those who recommend the site. You can see this in the increasing focus on personal profiles, and the linkages to google plus one recommendations. In the future it looks like who writes content and who recommends it will be important in ranking.
    Freshness seems to be increasingly important, several of the updates seem to relate to presenting the most uptodate relevant articles.

  • Jaan Kanellis

    I dont really think they turned off anchor text all together.  They just tried a new method, didn’t like it and are handling it in a different manner.

  • Matt McGee

    You could be right. But I recall moderating a session years ago at SMX on image search, and the Google rep specifically said that they did fine with assessing quality of large images, and he recommended webmasters not use really small images if they were hoping to gain traffic via image search.

    Ergo, I can only assume now that they’re doing better with smaller (i.e., reasonable) images.

    But that was a few years ago, so who knows….

  • Zachary Reiss-Davis

    Let’s simply: All things being equal, a 50×50 px image is less helpful than a 500×500 px image which is less helpful than a 1000×1000 px image, to a “normal” searcher, right?  Thus, why would Google be encouraging smaller, and thus less helpful, images?

    NOTE: Yes, there are exceptions, like when all you want is a thumbnail; yes if the image is *HUGE* it can be unwieldy; but in the general case.

  • Oliver Powell

    I can assure myself that building links on anchor text is not going to help me anymor. Perhaps building links with some special characters can help us. This updated is much updated and might be the biggest for the season 2011-2012.

  • Babynology Babynames

    It is confirmed that Anchor text for a specific link is not useful anymore but what the pattern changed, still undisclosed.

  • Ash Smith

    Adding the symbols into search is great for developers, if I’m searching for a particular line of code stripping the punctuation ends up with far too many irrelevant results, whereas now I hope to see some better results showing up.

  • Jim Smith

    All though all of these updates are interesting, the freshness update appears to be the most important IMO. This goes to show you that content marketing is king, and that without fresh, relevant and new content your website will not be found in Google search queries. Death to the Static Site!!!

  • handmadejewelry

    Regarding image search, we have quite a few images on every page so we made about 200×200 to increase loading speed. When looking at image search results most are around 450×450. Which do you think is a bigger factor to concentrate on image search or loading speed?

    As for anchor text relevancy I think google is pushing toward the author tag for content and more toward the overall page content  rather than relying on anchor text.

  • Jimmy iGennie

    Thanks you all guys who share the views about latest Google changes..I have also lost my keyword ranking and have in big trouble.. so please tell me what new steps should I taken to regain the previous ranking in Google?

  • Alexander Slover

    Anchor text I 

  • Effective Site

    Personally I’m a fan of the vagueness. If they told us exactly what was done then people would adjust the bare minimum amount to compensate for the changes. As it is hopefully people go a little farther to be safe and those with high quality seo resources can exceed more in the industry. Maybe it’ll even scare spammers from wasting peoples time! (wishful thinking, probably not)

  • Workout Supplements

    There is absolutely no way they can ignore links.  Impossible.

  • Derar Barqawi

    I have the same issue as Jimmy and I lost my keywords ranking! what shall I do to recove them


  • Daniel Sheehan

    Google reminds me of Allen Greenspan’s explanations for the economy.

  • Daniel Sheehan

    Google is reminding me of Allen Greenspan.

  • Robin Jennings

    Mainly working with artists I really hope the image search results improve.

  • Bradley Davis

    Google has always loved playing with our SEO minds by being vague! I think it just keeps us on our toes and the sport in the game! 

  • Josh Kohlbach

    Freshness definitely stood out to me, it’s going to get harder for people to slap up niche sites with a handful of articles and just let them sit dormant for months or even years at a time.

  • Tuấn Hà

    In previous time, such symbol is belong to stop words and not indexed, now Google split symbols and stopwords, i think that

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