The last word on Fred from Google’s Gary Illyes

This month’s Brighton SEO delegates all hoped for Google’s Gary Illyes to enlighten them on the major talking points in search this year. They weren’t disappointed. 

Google algorithm updates are frequently on the minds of SEOs and webmasters, and have been a hot topic for years. We are always on tenterhooks, waiting for the next change that could damage our site’s rankings.

We are never able to rest, always at risk of being penalized by the next animal to enter Google’s zoo of updates.

Past assumptions about Google Fred

Back on March 7th 2017, many webmasters reported unexpected fluctuations to rankings. The name Google Fred then began to circulate following a chat on Twitter between Barry Schwartz and Google’s Gary Illyes where Gary joked about future updates being named Fred.

We safely assumed there was an adjustment to the algorithm as Google confirmed there are updates happening every day. As usual, Google did not confirm any details about this particular update, but analysis of affected sites suggested it focused on poor quality content sites that were benefiting from monetization tactics.

As this update felt larger than the normal day-to-day algorithm changes, it seemed only natural it should be worthy of a name. As a result, the name “Google Fred” officially stuck, despite Gary Illyes intending his tongue-in-cheek comment to refer to all future updates.

So how can we tell the difference between the Fred update in March and other updates?

What is Google Fred, really?

In a Q&A session at September’s Brighton SEO, Google Fred was brought up once again, and we got the final word on Fred from Gary Illyes himself. Here’s what Fred’s creator had to say:

Interviewer: Let’s talk about Fred.

Gary Illyes: Who?

Interviewer: You are the person that created Fred. So Fred is basically an algo that…

Gary Illyes: It’s not one algo, it’s all the algos.

Interviewer: So you can confirm it’s not a single algo – it’s a whole umbrella of a bunch of different changes and updates that everyone has just kind of put under this umbrella of “Fred”.

Gary Illyes: Right, so the story behind Fred is that basically I’m an asshole on Twitter. And I’m also very sarcastic which is usually a very bad combination. And Barry Schwartz, because who else, was asking me about some update that we did to the search algorithm.

And I don’t know if you know, but in average we do three or two to three updates to the search algorithm, ranking algorithm every single day. So usually our response to Barry is that sure, it’s very likely there was an update. But that day I felt even more sarcastic than I actually am, and I had to tell him that.

Oh, he was begging me practically for a name for the algorithm or update, because he likes Panda or Penguin and what’s the new one. Pork, owl, shit like that. And I just told him that, you know what, from now on every single update that we make – unless we say otherwise – will be called Fred; every single one of them.

Interviewer: So now we’re in a perpetual state of Freds?

Gary Illyes: Correct. Basically every single update that we make is a Fred. I don’t like, or I was sarcastic because I don’t like that people are focusing on this.

Every single update that we make is around quality of the site or general quality, perceived quality of the site, content and the links or whatever. All these are in the Webmaster Guidelines. When there’s something that is not in line with our Webmaster Guidelines, or we change an algorithm that modifies the Webmaster Guidelines, then we update the Webmaster Guidelines as well.

Or we publish something like a Penguin algorithm, or work with journalists like you to publish, throw them something like they did with Panda.

Interviewer: So for all these one to two updates a day, when webmasters go on and see their rankings go up or down, how many of those changes are actually actionable? Can webmasters actually take something away from that, or is it just under the generic and for the quality of your site?

Gary Illyes: I would say that for the vast majority, and I’m talking about probably over 95%, 98% of the launches are not actionable for webmasters. And that’s because we may change, for example, which keywords from the page we pick up because we see, let’s say, that people in a certain region put up the content differently and we want to adapt to that.

[…]

Basically, if you publish high quality content that is highly cited on the internet – and I’m not talking about just links, but also mentions on social networks and people talking about your branding, crap like that.

[audience laughter]

Then, I shouldn’t have said that right? Then you are doing great. And fluctuations will always happen to your traffic. We can’t help that; it would be really weird if there wasn’t fluctuation, because that would mean we don’t change, we don’t improve our search results anymore.

(Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity)

So there we have it: every update is a Fred unless otherwise stated. The ranking drops in March may well have been triggered by the “original” Fred update, but so will all fluctuations, for they are all Fred.

How can we optimize for Fred?

Gary says that 95-98% of updates are not actionable for webmasters. With two or three updates a day, that accounts for a lot of updates each year! So what do we do?

The answer is simple – do what you were doing before. Build great websites, build your brand and produce high quality content aimed to satisfy the needs of searchers whilst adhering to the Webmaster Guidelines.

As Simon Ensor wrote in his recent article on the SEO industry and its sweeping statements, SEOs shouldn’t fear algorithm updates from Google:

“Many may complain that Google moves the goalposts but in actual fact, the fundamentals remain the same. Avoiding manipulative behavior, staying relevant, developing authority and thinking about your users are four simple factors that will go a long way to keeping you on the straight and narrow.

The Google updates are inevitable. Techniques will evolve, and results will require some hard graft. Every campaign is different, but if you stick to the core principles of white-hat SEO, you need not take notice of the sweeping statements that abound in our corner of the marketing world. Nor should you have to fear future Google updates.”

What does it mean for SEOs?

Sage advice aside, this explanation from Gary Illyes may still leave SEOs feeling slightly frustrated. We appreciate that not every small update warrants a name or set of webmaster guidelines, but we still have a job to do and a changeable industry to make sense of.

We have stakeholders and clients to answer to and explain ranking fluctuations to. It doesn’t help us to put all updates under the carpet of Fred.

Of course we would find it really useful if each major update came with clear guidelines immediately, not leaving us for days in the dark, figuring it out and stabilizing our rankings.

But maybe – as Gary may have been alluding – where would the fun be if it were that simple?

To read the full transcript of the Q&A with Gary Illyes or watch a recording of the interview, check out this blog post by iThinkMedia.

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