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Will Google Zebra Hit Social? Speculations Of A New Google Algorithm Update

Emma North

by Emma North on 8th January 2013

New Google Algorithm Update - Google Zebra?Google Panda and Google Penguin are two of the biggest and hardest hitting algorithm updates Google has ever released. With rankings slashed literally overnight after each update, it is clear that the search engine giant will stop at nothing in its efforts to provide the highest quality search experience for its users, in keeping with its mission statement; “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Google’s stern stance on quality now means that link building and content strategies have been completely turned on their head, with once acceptable methods of building rank becoming obsolete in an instant.

To recap, Google’s mission statement, clearly accessible on the Google Company page, reads:

“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

However, Google’s mission will never be complete and many speculate that another major update is already in the pipeline.

Sometimes referred to as Google Zebra by many in the world of web (more on that later), the next algorithm change could completely transform what we know as SEO. However, at this stage, the fundamental concept behind the next update is still nothing more than speculation.

Here is my best idea on what Google might have in mind for its next algo-bomb-drop.

Possible Target: Social Media

Hand Holding A Social Media SphereSocial media is the big fish of SEO today. Its importance has increased dramatically over the last few years. It is believed that Google considers social signals to be a strong, natural indication of site authority and uses this in its ranking algorithm. If everyone is talking about your brand or following your profiles on social networks, there’s a good chance that people will want to see your site over your competitors in relevant searches.

However, this sounds an awful lot like another idea we all once had: that if your site is listed on and linked to from lots of website directories, you should rank highly in search. Even Google seemed to share this belief, as directory listings were treated as backlinks beneficial to websites’ link profiles. This once standard SEO technique is now largely worthless, with the links devalued beyond recognition.

So how long before spammers, now on the back foot after algorithm changes, clog the social platforms for link building purposes? How long can it possibly be before the balance of genuine-vs-spam social profiles tips and fake profiles are filled with bogus mentions and recommendations? Perhaps in the scheme of things, where the art of SEO changes daily, quite some time. Social giants Facebook and Twitter certainly still report strong statistics when it comes to accounts it believes belong to real people. It may be that social media will remain a viable link building technique for several years.

But surely the time will come where social signals will become less and less reliable in the eyes of a search engine and when that time comes, the robots will need retraining.

Enter Google Zebra (maybe).

Considering the above, a good argument could be made that Google will, at some point in the not-so-distant future, introduce an algorithm update to down-rank sites it believes are using fake social signals to deceive them.

So what can we do to future-proof our social strategies?

The best advice is to steer well clear of fake social media accounts, reviews or followers. Encourage genuine engagement and grow your following of real people with real opinions. Keep on top of negative comments about your brand, involve yourself in conversations to resolve any issues as they arise and don’t try to counter negativity with bogus spammy brand glorification.

If we continue to use social media the way it was intended, we may eliminate the need for Google to ever act. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

And how else can we build quality backlinks?

Well this is a whole new topic of its own, and one I may well cover in the coming months. But as a long story cut short; link building strategies should include many different channels, not just social media. Hopefully, you would already know that. But in SEO, perhaps it’s time we got a bit more creative with our link building efforts to secure genuine high-quality links.

Here is a good article by Corey Eridon to get you started.

It’s all about thinking outside the box. By putting in more effort to secure high quality links over quick wins, you are taking the first step to future-proofing your link building strategy.

The Dark Side of Google Authorship

One of the newest SEO opportunities arrived in the form of Google Authorship. Author Rank, believed by some to now be more important than the long-standing Page Rank, is a new tool used by Google to measure the authority of blogs and websites. With organic traffic and rankings disappearing overnight as a result of major algorithm updates, Authorship has provided the industry with a new tool to get back on the map.

An example of Google Authorship as it appears in search results:

Authorship Snippet

However, while Google Authorship is generally well-received and little-abused at these early stages of its life cycle, it isn’t a very big leap to predict that the system could be used by SEOs looking to game the system.

The idea behind authorship is for real people within organisations to be credited for their work so that people writing high quality content that readers engage with are rewarded in the rankings and that Google users get the added functionality of being able to view works by their favourite writers.

So, let’s imagine an organisation has twenty members of staff contributing quality content to the company blog. If implemented properly, Google Author Rank would be attributed to each contributor based on their individual content quality. This would benefit the organisation as they would have twenty people with good Author Rank contributing to their blog and Google may start to take this into account when considering rankings for the website and blog.

But depending on Google’s algorithms, some organisations may believe there is a better way to receive ranking rewards from quality blog content. Rather than listing twenty contributors on the blog, what would happen if their blog only had half a dozen listed contributor profiles with the content written by all twenty people. By distributing written content among a handful of handpicked author profiles, would six ultra-strong quality Author profiles be better than twenty more diluted in quality?

Maybe, or maybe not. Google’s ranking algorithms concerning Authorship are still very much subject for speculation. But if there is one thing we can say for sure it’s that if there is or will be a way to cheat to the Authorship programme, there will be people out there who will. We can only hope any future Google algorithm updates would deal with them accordingly.

And lastly, “Zebra”? Really?!

No, not really. Well, not definitely. With a Penguin and a Panda already checked off, some analysts believe Google will continue the “black and white” animals theme in its algorithm naming process, but it is all speculation at this stage. By that standard, I believe these are the most logical names for the next major release.

Google Zebra

Zebra has been floating about the internet for months now and may be the safest bet at this stage. It is, of course, a black and white animal but it doesn’t follow the “p” theme.

Google Panther

It sounds nice and is in keeping with the “p” theme but being a black animal it may be unlikely as it may been seen to represent black hat techniques.

Google Polar Bear

This is not as obscure as it may first seem. Using black and white animals could be seen to represent black and white hat techniques. If so, surely it’s time to signal the end of black hat and what better way to do so that with a big white polar bear. Simple.

Google Killer Whale

It doesn’t exactly flow off the tongue does it?

Google Pony

Maybe, I guess…

Google Badger

Surely not?

Google Skunk

I just don’t know any more…

Your thoughts?

What do you think Google has up its sleeve for the next big algorithm change? Do you have any other name predictions? Comment below to share your thoughts!

Image credits

Zebra Image from Bigstock
Social Media Image from Bigstock

Emma North

Emma North

Emma has more than 5 years’ digital marketing experience and has worked on dozens of websites in a wide range of industries. She has a passion for both SEO and PPC and is driven by the need to develop her digital skills and knowledge. She is always exploring innovative solutions for new problems encountered in the ever-changing digital world.

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  • Andy Morley 8th January 2013

    With all the rumors about “Author Rank” being important this year, I find it hard to understand how they can hit social? As social shares of content are supposed to be string signals for Author Rank…

    Yes I understand that Google+ is going to play a huge role in Author Rank, but the other social networks are rumored to contribute too?

    Confused over this one guys.

    Great post.



    Reply to this comment

  • Mark 8th January 2013

    With more Google updates than you can shake a stick at these days I wonder what will come next myself. Social Media will be a interesting one.

    What if your niche is selling coat hangers, or something really boooooooring! Social Media wouldn’t be your strongest point of social interaction and community building would it?

    But I do understand why Google would look to Likes, Tweets and Views of Social Media as a better algo indicator than directory links. It makes sense. But.. this can also be contrived.. Black hat central!

    Great read Emma, look forward to the next post.

    Let the Google games begin.

    Reply to this comment

  • Ahmad Farkleet 8th January 2013

    Hi,It is an interesting and informative post.Thanks for sharing your views.I think “Google Zebra” would be the best name.Smile

    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 8th January 2013

    Thanks for your comments. Of course, any suggestions of what a new Google algorithm update might target, and indeed whether we will even see one this year, is nothing more than speculation.

    However, given how important Author Rank is predicted to be this year, it does give Google a new dynamic to measure. For example, if one “author” posts five blog posts in five minutes, alarm bells on the authenticity of the author profile might ring.

    At the end of the day, the introduction of a major new programme such as Google Authorship will give spammers new opportunities and Google’s policing could possibly take the shape of a new algorithm update.

    Reply to this comment

  • Russ Morling 8th January 2013

    Really enjoyed reading this, nice work Emma.

    Personally, I don’t think there will be a ‘major’ algo change during 2013. I think we may see further tweaks and tinkering with Penguin and Panda, but I think Google will be looking to consolidate these updates and make sure they’ve got those absolutely right, rather than muddying the waters with another major change.

    I agree that the Authorship programme may be open to abuse, but I’m sure The Big G can take care of this without a major algo change affecting all social signals.

    It’s gonna be another big year, but I honestly believe it’ll be a period of consolidation and adaptation for SEOs.

    Reply to this comment

  • Gareth 8th January 2013

    ah yes, that’s a really good point about author authenticity (not a great phrase, but it works)… I had a twitter debate with a lad who was creating fake profiles for authorship. I told him he’d get hit eventually and he’d be better off optimising his clients instead of himself… don’t think he listened.

    Authorship’s a gift, I think – and if people abuse it, they’ll find it taken away.

    My take on a social algorithm update is that if Klout can measure someone’s ‘influence’ (while not entirely accurately – e.g. Big Ben Clock), then Google can invest money in doing the same, without need to access login & password details. So it could discern fake account behaviour & activity.

    Love the suggestions for the name, I made some myself a few weeks ago: http://www.cleverlittledesign.co.uk/blog/seo/seo-in-2013-our-clever-little-predictions/ – it has to begin with “p” though doesn’t it! ;)


    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 8th January 2013

    Thanks for your feedback, glad you found the post interesting.

    Authorship is absolutely a gift and I’m confident people will at least try to find ways to game the system. However, as you’ve suggested, I’m equally confident Google can cope with these people and probably without a major algorithm update.

    At the same time however, with social as a whole playing such a big part in the SEO of today, just as links and content did even before Penguin and Panda, I think it is possible that at some point over the next couple of years we could see a major algo update specifically targeting it.

    Reply to this comment

  • Ricky 8th January 2013

    Google Zebra…nice term. It would be somewhat difficult to scan profiles and penalize the bad people. How is Google going to get access to social networking sites like Facebook?
    While author rank is a good social signal, it can’t be just used to devalue wrong-doing…not at this time.

    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 8th January 2013

    Thanks Ricky. I think the future of Authorship will mean many tweaks and developments, many of which I expect we’ll see throughout 2013. Quite how Google will access or use new information on social signals Google only knows, but I’m confident that Authorship will become their next tactic for sweeping up spammers and black-hat techniques.

    Reply to this comment

  • Brian Trepanier 8th January 2013

    While “Google Killer Whale” may not roll off the tongue, “Google Orca” sure does…

    Reply to this comment

  • Luvnish 9th January 2013

    Just as we are having this brainstorming session here, fat chance the people at Google have had it too. And yes, I do think Google will embellish its Zoo soon enough.. just to keep us happy (and keep the SEO whining going).

    Just a peep in the black hat forums will show you the ways people devise to find loopholes in Google’s algorithm. On the plus side, it does not seem like most people have enough time to keep tweaking their malicious softwares to keep up with Google’s whims.

    Reply to this comment

  • Emma North

    Emma North 9th January 2013

    Google Orca; I like that Brian!

    And yes Luvnish, I think you’re probably right; Google will have likely considered all of this and more for a new algorithm update. But wherever there is white hat there will always be those trying to find shortcuts.

    Reply to this comment

  • Mikey 9th January 2013

    Good post Emma.

    Regarding Author Rank, it will be interesting to see how agencies handle it. I am all for transparency in pretty much all aspects of outreach and link building, as such I will generally use my own name and if possible my G+ profile.

    Now lets say I have 15 different clients ranging from ice cream to experiential marketing and I want to write content for them all on varying sites. Would writing about 15 different subjects extensively dilute my Author Rank? Totally. Of course it would.

    The ‘right’ solution would be to persuade those 15 clients to let me use a member of staff in each of their businesses to use as an author. That way you get 15 good profiles and 15 people get a bit of a boost on the web. The only potential issue is that essentially you are creating an asset, if the client were to leave that asset would still live with the client and you would have to start over again.

    Unfortunately I can see agencies getting around this by creating ‘super-authors’. Fictional authors who have one very specialist subject. They can each be attributed to a client (or more if the subject matter crosses over). Then if the client leaves that author can still be retained by the agency and used for other purposes.

    I dont particularly want the web filled with more rubbish to be honest.

    2013 will be an interesting year, maybe not as explosive as 2012 but interesting nonetheless.

    Reply to this comment

    • Gareth 9th January 2013

      Surely we should be creating assets for our clients – not ourselves. If the client leaves, it’s because we didn’t create strong enough assets for them.

      What’s more, you’re effectively blackmailing your client into staying with you because you own the assets – it’s no different from the SEOs who paid for links & took them all down when the client left.

      But there’s nothing to stop unethical SEO agencies is there. Yet.

      Reply to this comment

      • Mikey 9th January 2013

        I agree entirely Gareth. As I stated in my post, the ‘right’ way would be to create the assets for our clients not for ourselves.

        I’m just putting my awkward hat on and looking at it from a different point of view. With any asset there is a period of time needed for creation. That creation phase will have to be billed somewhere, and the books balance better when the argument is used that the asset can be reused if a client leaves.

  • Emma North

    Emma North 9th January 2013

    Thanks for your thoughts Mikey. It is definitely an interesting one. I think the method you have suggested regarding agencies using alias author profiles is likely to be used by many agencies, given that as you rightly point out, if the client leaves you lose the work if your use a member of their staff.

    It will be interesting to see what Google’s idea of best practice is here where it concerns agencies. Perhaps they might consider some way for writers working on behalf of a group of clients to indicate this with some sort of agent profile? It’s a difficult one at the moment, with authorship in its infancy, but I’m sure ideas will start doing the rounds pretty soon.

    Reply to this comment

  • Raviraj 14th January 2013

    Hey Emma,

    You have put excellent points which are not deniable to consider the next animal by google for its updates.

    I personally think that big G’s next animal would be Zebra and it would be attacking on social media looking on the update series

    1) Panda for quality content and thin pages
    2) Penguin for anchor texts and link quality
    3) Zebra for Social activities.

    I really enjoyed reading your post thanks for sharing.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 14th January 2013

      Thanks Raviraj, glad you found it interesting. Zebra seems to be the common consensus and social the most likely target. But who knows what Google has up it’s sleeve? Now is the time to watch and wait; I’m sure if there is to be a major algorithm update, Google will give us some clues.

      Reply to this comment

  • Raviraj 14th January 2013

    Now the only thing is to do is just wait and watch. I don’t think that google would be giving any of the clues about the update, but yes it will definitely tweet about a small weather report mentioning it @twitter.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 14th January 2013

      Sure, I expect Google will hint at what areas of social are important and what we can all do to ensure we’re compliant and operating in best practice ahead of an update.

      Reply to this comment

  • Astro 15th January 2013

    Perfect article i think. Now i have some things to think about it !

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 16th January 2013

      Thanks Astro! Of course, it is all just speculation at the moment but I don’t think it’s unrealistic either…

      Reply to this comment

  • vishal shah 25th January 2013

    its an amazing article. from last 15 days I have communicated many web masters what will be next update from Google. All are saying that this would be major update in 2013.

    from last week my business is so much down I dont know what happend there.. but now, just wait and watch from google. hope google give update soon

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 28th January 2013

      Thanks Vishal, social does seem the most likely target for the next major update at the moment. Just watching and waiting for Google to make the next move!

      Reply to this comment

  • ibnu 5th February 2013

    I was read this article, help me full about google zebra. I think, I must change my social network strategy from now. Thank

    Reply to this comment

  • Mary 13th February 2013

    Well.. I personally believe that Google keep updating its algorithm just to make people sure that Google is very strict about the positions of website. What matters a lot is you adopt totally white-hart SEO Technique. This can never fail and I trust it would always help in improving ranks.
    If I would suggest an animal then why not snipe.. lol :) A colorful version but pretty dangerous.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 13th February 2013

      Thanks Mary, I’m with you regarding white hat techniques. However with Google constantly moving the goal posts, white hat is always changing.

      This is probably exactly what Google want; by keeping us on our toes and changing what is required to stay on top, site owners have to work increasingly hard to succeed and those who don’t will not drop.

      Reply to this comment

  • Mary 15th February 2013

    Yes! You are true as well. I myself experiencing bad days of my site rankings. Google sometimes put me on the top and sometimes it just push my rankings to few pages back. Don`t know the reason of Rank Dance :P

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 15th February 2013

      It is frustrating when rank positioning fluctuates and there can be many reasons for it. If the fluctuation is frequent and dramatic then there should be optimisation techniques you can employ to achieve more consistent rankings such as refining your content, improving your backlink profile or optimising technical aspects of your site.

      However, it could be that your target keywords have multiple meanings and there is new interest in other uses of the word. For example, the confectionery company Mars might expect serious fluctuations in ranking if there is news on a Mars landing.

      Reply to this comment

  • Theodore 17th February 2013

    Hello, Emma!
    I was surprised to discover this new Google update “3) Zebra for Social activities”, because i knew that allready the social-media activities was integrated in the algorithm calculation for SERPs.
    In which way a website will be affected?
    Can be found some corelations with AuthorRank – connected with G+ account?
    It is interesting this approach – with colour of the animals.
    Will still exist SEO in the next few months, especially with the “7 that is the new 10″ in SERP / first page returned?
    Thanks for this enlightening article!

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 18th February 2013

      Hi Theodore, thanks for your comment. Of course, this Google update is just speculation at the moment, but it’s no long shot to think Google will soon begin paying closer attention to our social activities as more importance is given to AuthorRank.

      And of course, the 7-Result SERPs is further proof of Google’s continuing effort to return higher quality search results to the user, making achieving a page 1 ranking more difficult for some industries.

      Reply to this comment

  • Rosa 21st February 2013

    Hello Emma,
    The thinking behind the Google updates is true but there’s no official declaration from Google search quality team yet regarding the Zebra or any such updates.

    It’s quite true that Google will penalize sites for spamming on social media sites because Google is taking social signal for its SERP & people are spamming now the social media to get ranking.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 21st February 2013

      Hi Rosa, thanks for your feedback.

      Absolutely, this is all speculation and a creative insight into what might come next. And of course Zebra is a fictional name; who knows what the next update, if indeed there is one, will be called!

      However if there’s one thing we can [hopefully] be sure of it is that increased spamming of social media platforms and falsified social signals will be increasingly monitored and potentially penalised.

      Reply to this comment

  • Darren Candler 13th March 2013

    I foresaw this last year, I cant wait to see what google does now as Social Media has become the new spammers prefered platform.

    I would like to see the social Media in serps be listed with the relevant website as 1 entry and not the pages and pages we see at the moment.

    Great Article Emma

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 13th March 2013

      Thanks Darren, I think there is definitely going to be something on social over the next year or two. Just a case of watching and waiting now!

      Reply to this comment

  • Gareth Parkin 13th March 2013

    I think the problem is that the majority of updates that Google comes out with get abused by spammers in the end. Currently the search results Google provides are not of such a high quality it seems to be a very mixed bag.

    Maybe one consideration could be that they start to take account of bounce rate in their algo as an angle to determine the true quality of a website. If a website delivered for a particular search is placed at the top yet is a load of junk then the bounce rate will be high. Sites lower down may deliver the user with better information and their bounce rate is low, so it figures that these sites should be higher up than the junk site delivering poor quality which could have been spammed to death to get it there. Just a thought!

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 13th March 2013

      Hi Gareth. You’re absolutely right about bounce rate, it makes perfect sense. It’s a factor they use to assess Quality Score in AdWords but so far there’s no evidence that they use it in natural search results. But they should!

      Reply to this comment

  • sandy 23rd March 2013

    I think google is in the business of creating business. So, there will always be some type of algo change. I believe that people, not embracing change, and understandably so, want a permanent place in the Search results.

    But, those days are over. Permanent search engine results predictability is in the pass. I think what google wants is: fresh material, fresh content and new authors.(Isn’t that what publishing companies want.)

    What is “new and fresh” is what “fast people” want. The techie mindset is driving the industry. So I think the strategy is to look at yourself as an author or journalist,if you will, that publishes new and fresh content.

    Your newspaper(personalized content) will be referred to by your customers(social media networks). If people like your articles and use them, you get major points. Thus, google is providing google plus as a platform for you to begin.

    Those who have the largest network and support will place at the top of the engines, but only until someone else comes along with a newer and fresher content. If google can dominate the mobile universe, television and their own hard products they will help you to achieve your goals.

    Their main goal is to win offline(and with online ads) so you can achieve online. The war is with google and apple. Facebook although popular is more about socializing and passing news along; but it is not about building a new fresh publishing system and supporting authors. At least not yet.

    That’s my take. Think of yourself as a mini publisher and use social media for outreach. If you don’t want to start with a blog or website, then work as a content provider on a social network like, for example, squidoo. Try to build a network from squidoo and get referred to by other networks and or be a source for other publishers.

    Google gives the model, and the answer to your problem, away with the term: author. Just think what an self publishing author would do and therein lies your advantage.

    But, the issue is do you want to be an author or would you rather be a product or service entrepreneur who does or doesn’t author. That is the question. Thank you for your post and inviting comment.

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 25th March 2013

      Thanks for your feedback Sandy, you have raised some very valid points. It is becoming a part of an SEO’s job to be able to write great content too. Authorship is definitely going to play a bigger and bigger part in the SERPs and Google are sending us all the signs!

      Reply to this comment

  • Anime swords 15th April 2013

    Now I understood what is zebra update. Thanks

    Reply to this comment

  • seobynight 21st April 2013

    i cannot be very sure about any google update really related to social… many people think seo is influenced by RT, Like and share but is just correlstion not causation.. i will wait next b/w update with curiosity :)

    Reply to this comment

    • Emma North

      Emma North 22nd April 2013

      Of course it is only speculation at the moment but I do think the time will come when Google will have to find new ways to identify unnatural use of social platforms to manipulate rankings, etc. It is, as always, a case of waiting to see though! Thanks for your comment.

      Reply to this comment

  • Shaiz 8th May 2013

    Biggest problem with social media are fake profiles and accounts being hacked. the most recent example being the AP twitter account hack that made the Dow down by nearly 100 points. It might be possible that Google will try to identify any fake social media accounts and take actions against the misuse. All speculations for now and I don’t think they will they will name this update based on black & white animal theme.

    Reply to this comment

  • Richard 31st July 2013

    Hımm Google Zebra is a good name :) And I think Google can’t win that battle with internet marketers, because it’s so big and there will be always a way to crack the code to get top of the Google.

    They are just wasting time with those updates…

    Reply to this comment

  • Shiv 3rd September 2013

    Good Read Emma.

    in my view, if they update Google zebra algo its definitely for Local business and to avoid spammy social link juice from google +1, facebook share, and likes, and twitter favorites.

    Reply to this comment

  • SeoZebra 29th October 2013

    Google had an evil plan to release Zebra update, but they’ve cancelled it because I’ve successfully escaped from their secret laboratory! :)

    Reply to this comment

  • Andy Morley 14th November 2013

    To add more to the rumors… Search Engine Journal have just released this blog post – http://www.searchenginejournal.com/google-zebra-merchant-doom/74067/

    Reply to this comment

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