Google Zebra Update: Fact or Fiction?

Repeat After Me: There Is NO Google Zebra Update

For over a year now, we’ve been seeing a slew of blog posts on the web hyping up a supposed Google Zebra update that is “on the horizon”. This update has been rumored to target everything from social media to ecommerce merchants. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen shares of this topic on social media pick up steam, so I feel compelled to chime in on this discussion.

The million dollar question on this topic is simple: Is it real?

I’m not omniscient, but I can attest to one thing: Google has never once confirmed any such thing (if you have a link that disproves this, I’m all ears). Let me take you through the history of what I’ve observed. You will find that it is highly suspect after reading this write up.

Original Speculation

I first saw mention of Google Zebra as pure speculation by Jonathon Colman, via Google+. Check out the original status update below:

Google Zebra Speculation by Jonathan Colman on Google+

Notice the date on this one – just a few days after Google Penguin was unveiled.  At that time, webmasters and SEOs alike were smarting from their first exposure to Penguin 1.0. Speculation about what they’d throw at us next was rampant! I chuckled when I saw this update, but moved on without pause.

By the way, Jonathon has one of my favorite profiles on Slideshare. Check out his work for your self.

More Speculation Two Months Later

Back in June of 2012, a blog post finally hit the web kicking around guesses of what zoo animal Google would use to brand their next big algorithm upheaval. Of course, Zebra was front and center on this fun piece. Take note that this was never meant to say Zebra was for certain, just that it was one of several options which fit the bill.

ABC’s of SEO – Z = The Google Zoo: What Will Google’s Next Move Be?

Was this influenced by Jonathon Colman’s update from two months earlier? Possibly, but regardless, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think they came up with it on their own. Either way, we then had multiple possible sources to draw from on future speculation.

Late 2012 Hype

Quite a few posts started to pop up later in 2012. There were two in particular that I saw frequently making the rounds on social media.

The following post doesn’t cite a source at all, but given his commentary, I am convinced he had seen the June 2012 brainstorm above. He mentions “Zebra (or whatever black and white animal is next in line)” in it. As you can see, he never claims it is a fact, only that he’s ready for whatever it is.

Waiting For the Zebra: Why I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love The Google Updates
(EDITOR’S NOTE: He must have seen our post discrediting the original post, because this one has magically vanished!)

Then came the big dog. The below piece was the first widely distributed post about Google Zebra that I witnessed. Even I got taken with this one, as I included a reference to it in a blog post (I did caveat it as not having a source, but included it to be thorough in a 2013 predictions piece).

New Google Zebra Update Attacks Social Marketing

This post claims it has a source, but fails to share it. Looking back, this is a classic case of using speculation to drive hype and traffic.

Give a serious look at this guy’s blog. He started it in 2010 and didn’t make a single post until November 4, 2012. If you read the backlog, he then added his own resume (a job hunter, ah, he needs traffic). Next, you see a list of 7 hype-laden posts that went live within a week of this Google Zebra speculation (November 14, 2012), which itself was 10 days after the posting began.

And if you follow it through, the last post he made was just over a month later. This wasn’t a serious blogger covering industry news. He was a job hunter making a land grab for traffic and attention. My guess is that he found a job in December and went back to business as usual. Meanwhile, a bunch of SEO and web folks ran with his thought process.

I won’t share any of the dozens of blog posts and articles that drew from Darrin’s blog here. They all shared one crucial failing point – their source had no credible ground to stand on.

April 2013 – The Hype Re-Ignites

After January of 2013, the hype started to die down. It seemed we had managed to move past this Google Zebra rumor, until April. At that time, it reared its ugly head again via the following guest article on Search Engine Journal:

Online Merchants Beware: The Google Zebra Update Is Coming

Here we go again. If you read this article, she stakes claim to the name “Google Zebra” as though it was new and original. Really? Ms. Coleman herself states the following:

Webmasters have dubbed this update the “Merchant Quality Update”, but I’ve dubbed it “The Zebra”.

The link in the article goes to a piece that does talk about an update targeting merchants, but it never once mentions the word Zebra. Because of this piece, I’ve seen SEO pros argue that Matt Cutts was the first one to mention the Google Zebra update. That’s in no way true!

Please folks, put some critical thought into the process of reading content on the web. Always look for a credible source, and at least TRY to vet out speculation from reality. It will save you a lot of time and effort chasing your tail on fallacies.

Of course, this led to a slew of copycat posts talking about Google Zebra again, all citing her article. See the problem here?

Repeat after me: There. Is. No. Google. Zebra. Update.

Deep breaths. It’s okay, everyone gets taken from time to time.

Mockery ensues…

Of course, bloggers who see through the ruse were quick to make fun of it. Here are a couple of my favorites. I hope you find them as amusing as I did:

Google Zebra Algorithm Update? Or… (UPDATE – post removed so inactive link)

I love how this post takes the speculation one level deeper, just because they can. And then there was the following, which decided to call out the absurdity by going waaay far over the top:

Google Zebra Update will Wipe all Websites off of the Web

You may find this far-fetched. That’s because it is! Can you really say that all the previous Zebra hype isn’t far fetched? I can’t.

What is Google Zebra really?

A spam link directory, of course: (Website vanished around 2015, we the link has since then been removed)

But don’t worry, Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. You shouldn’t get one worrying about this update either.

And yes, I know I’m giving link love to all of these websites, so their hype tricks work at least a bit. I’d love to hear commentary from anyone who gets a pingback on this post. Conversation and debate are both welcomed!

Picture of Zebras provided courtesy of user puliar via Flickr.

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As Founder and President of Return On Now, Tommy Landry provides the vision behind our SEO and SEM methodologies. With over 25 years of business experience and a deep understanding of modern internet marketing techniques, he spends his time providing hands-on consulting, insightful content, and engaging public speaking appearances to Online Marketers of all skill levels.
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