If you’re in the SEO business, you’ve probably spent some time fielding questions like what is Google algorithm and why does it change so often? While the answer to the what is Google algorithm is simple, the answers to how it works and why it changes are not. The only thing that’s certain is that there is a lengthy history of google algorithm updates.
The history of google algorithm updates shows a progression in how the web works and what Google’s priorities have been. Each update has been a sea change for the world of SEO as well, requiring a fair bit of adaptation in order for sites to survive. Looking at each of these major updates can give users of all backgrounds a better idea of how these updates have worked.
2003: The First Update
Google’s first real update, called Florida, was a huge moment in the history of SEO. Not only did it start the familiar process of Google changing up its algorithm in order to improve user experience, but it also changed the way SEO itself worked. Gone were many of the ‘black hat’ practices of years past, replaced by the earliest versions of the search engine optimization practices that are used by current professionals. This update also began the now-common phenomenon of user outrage surrounding updates, as Florida launched right before the beginning of the holiday season.
2005-2006: Cracking Down on Black Hats and New Infrastructure
2005 began with a series of five updates, all of which went under the codename of Jagger. The Jagger updates were mostly focused on what Google considered to be unnatural linking, a fairly common scheme in black hat SEO of the time. While Jagger was launched in September of 2005, it once again had its biggest impact on the industry just before the holidays when the second phase of Jagger launched in November. Here is what message from Google would look like after the banning of unnatural linking:
(Image Credit: Moz)
Big Daddy came about just after the second phase of Jagger, lasting all the way through March of 2006. While this was largely an infrastructure update, it once again had a huge impact on those sites that made use of spammy SEO practices. Sites that had relied on paid links and other shady practices could suddenly find themselves unlisted, leading to a huge drop off in traffic and the demise of the businesses that relied on those sites. Big Daddy was also a harbinger of Google’s future – more updates come at a more rapid pace, which in turn would cause the SEO industry to have to stay on its toes.
2009: Keywords and Speed
2009 was another year that saw two major updates. The first of them, Vince, was likely the wildest change for those in the SEO world. While previous years had seen SEO efforts allowing even smaller pages to dominate the search engine rankings if they used the right tricks, Vince started putting more weight on bigger brands. This meant that users were more likely to actually find what they needed when searching for brand-related terms, of course, but it suddenly meant that the playing field for SEO wasn’t nearly as slanted in favor of the smaller, more agile businesses as it had been in the past.
The other major update is one that Google users likely saw even if they were not involved in the world of SEO. Caffeine started to roll out in August of 2009 and it boasted the ability to bring in “fresher” search results than the older methods. While users could easily see this as a major improvement to the search process, those in the SEO industry would also be forced to contend with an algorithm that moved much more quickly than those in the past. Pages couldn’t hang around at the top of the list quite as long when others made changes, so professionals were forced to become much more active.
2010 was a relatively sedate year for Google’s updates. It only rolled out one major algorithm update, Mayday. This mostly surrounded results for long-tail queries, so it didn’t necessarily have as much of an impact as some of the other updates that came before or that would come afterward. In many ways, Mayday was really the calm before the storm for those who were in the SEO industry.
2011: Panda Begins
There are few updates that have changed the course of the SEO industry quite as much as Panda. The Caffeine update of 2009 had made Google faster, but it also led to some serious problems that needed to be fixed. Rather than just making a few tweaks under the hood, Google radically refined how SEO would work going forward with the implementation of Panda.
Panda was a long-lasting change that continued to have updates all the way through its incorporation in the Google core algorithm in 2016. This incredibly long-lasting series of updates would seek to make Google search results more friendly by prioritizing sites that were more human-centric. Sites that had previously been built around tricks that would attract Google’s mechanical needs would fall out of favor, replaced by those that would actually be useful for human users.
While Panda is rightfully cited as the big update that came out in 2011, it’d be foolish not to mention the Freshness update. This update, which impacted over a third of all search results, started prioritizing “fresher”, or newer” content over old content for many searches.
2012: Page Layout, Venice, and Penguin
2012 would still see a number of updates to Panda, but it would have some of its own major changes to the SEO world as well. The Page Layout Update was perhaps one of the more frightening to many, but it actually only impacted a smaller number of websites. This website pushed sites down in the ranking if they top loader added content at the top of the page, forcing users to scroll through ads if they wanted to get to real content. This was a blow to those who overloaded their sites with ads, but it only ended up impacting about one percent of all searches. The image below shows a website that has been top loaded with ads:
Venice seemed like a small update compared to the ever-growing Panda, but it has ended up being one of the most important updates for modern SEO. It was Venice that started looking at the location of the user or of the user’s IP address when returning search results, beginning the modern focus on local SEO. Though this wouldn’t play quite as big a role until the later mobile updates, it’s still interesting to note that Google was already moving towards this field as early as 2012.
The final update seemed incredibly dire in 2012, and indeed it was Google’s most obvious push back against unfriendly SEO thus far. Penguin was the over-optimization update, one that punished sites for stuffing themselves with keywords or trying other tricks that were practically effective but that flew in the face of Google’s guidelines. This cleaned up a number of the practices that had held on in the wake of Panda, especially among those who clung to the belief that using enough keywords would make their sites get to the top of the search results page. Penguin, in concert with Panda, signaled a major sea change for the world of search engine optimization.
2013: Predatory Websites and Hummingbird
Panda and Penguin would both continue to update throughout 2013, further refining their goals and making changes in the way that SEO worked. There were, however, some other algorithm changes that impacted the field. On was the Payday Loan update, which took aim at sites that promoted certain unsavory businesses. Though it didn’t only go after payday loans, sites that offered high-interest loans were among the hardest-hit when this update came out.
The other non-Panda and Penguin update to hit in 2013 was Hummingbird. Whereas most of the updates listed so far would end up impacting no more than a third of searches worldwide, Hummingbird impacted about ninety percent of all searches on Google. This update was an overhaul of Google’s algorithm that focused more on conversational searching. Given that voice searches were becoming more popular around 2013, this update was necessary for Google to stay up to date with the technology of the time. As one might imagine, this update did wreak havoc across the board, upsetting a number of the tried-and-true keyword strategies and forcing professionals to take another close look at the way they structured their online presence.
2014: Page Layout and Pigeon
2014 was mostly a year of updates. Panda and Penguin would update, as would the Page Layout and Payday Loan changes. It largely looked like this year would be the year Google took the time to refine its existing content rather than making any sweeping changes, but that was not to be. Google was still in the process of adapting to the world of local searches, and that meant another update to make location-based searches a little more relevant to the average user. For instance, look what pops up when women’s shoes is searched:
2015: A Year of Major Changes
2015 was a major year for Google’s algorithm. The big change was known in the industry as Mobileggedon, and it was meant to reward those sites that were more mobile friendly. As more search traffic came from mobile sources, it made sense that Google would make moves to court this traffic in order to keep its stranglehold on the search engine game. Though SEO professionals had been touting the importance of being mobile friendly for a few years at this point, those who didn’t heed their advice quickly found their sites plummeting in the search results. This was a devastating move for many, as it impacted searches across the board.
Following closely on the heels of the Mobileggedon was the Quality update, which was another overhaul to the core algorithm. The big losers in this case were those low-quality sites that seemed to be filled with ads and black hat SEO content, making the web just a little bit friendlier for everyone who actually wanted to conduct a search without pulling up useless sites.
Rankbrain was the other big update. This machine learning tool started out by handling queries that Google had never used before, but it’s now one of Google’s most important tools. How a site interacts with Rankbrain has been confirmed as one of the most important factors in how highly a site shows up on the search results page, so it’s clear that this change would go on to have a major impact on SEO. Check out this image showing a little bit more about Rankbrain:
(Image Credit: Neil Patel)
2017: The Quality of Life Updates
While 2016 notably saw Panda integrated into Google’s core algorithm, much of that year was spent improving the various updates that had already rolled out. It wouldn’t be until 2017 that a radically new wave of changes came on the scene. For the most part, these changes impacted the kind of quality of life issues that made users less likely to visit a website.
The first big update in 2017 targeted annoying popups and other ads that adversely impacted those who searched on mobile devices. Though users had been calling for some kind of help against these types of ads, it didn’t have as much of an impact as one might think. Advertising had largely moved on by this point, and only a minimal number of sites were impacted.
The next update, Fred, seemed to be another strike against those sites that had somehow been snuck by Penguin. It targets low-quality websites and those that had poor content. Much like Panda and Penguin, it wasn’t initially clear what the problems were with those sites – just that they had run afoul of Google’s rules at some point. Fred might have had a silly name, but it was a big deal in some SEO circles.
There were also a number of both confirmed and unconfirmed updates over the course of this year. The search rankings seemed more volatile during some months than others, though Google wouldn’t always confirm changes. Some lasted only a brief period, while others would have major impacts.
2019: Back to the Beginning and Bert
2018 saw a broad algorithm shift (which some called Medic), but none of the changes that it wrought seemed all that big. It wouldn’t be until March that Google would see another big swing with an update many called Florida2. This update caused a number of big sites to lose rankings, though it wasn’t necessarily targeting bad content. Instead, this update came into play as an attempt to further refine Google’s search results and to provide human users with the data that they needed.
Bert was the other big release in 2019, though there were several smaller updates. Impacting about one in ten results, it changed the way that Google determined which results were the best answers for given questions. As one might imagine, it caused a fair bit of chaos as many in the profession were scrambling to figure out new ways to stay in the algorithm’s favor.
Google Algorithm Update 2020
2020 has already been a year full of updates. The Google algorithm update January 2020 brought with it dealt with a snippet position, but it wasn’t quite as catastrophic as some might have feared since Google Algorithm Update January 2020 came with a fair bit of warning.
As for Google Algorithm Update March 2020, it’s rather hard to figure out exactly what it did. There was some chatter that Google Algorithm Update March 2020 caused some kind of volatility in the ranking system, but exactly what it targeted isn’t particularly clear. Google Algorithm Update May 2020, on the other hand, was a well-documented core update. The Google Algorithm Update May 2020 ended up being fairly volatile, causing a number of positions to change across almost every niche.
Google Algorithm Update June 2020 seemed to largely impact government and information websites, likely in response to COVID-19. The Google Algorithm Update June 2020 didn’t see many other sites lose place ranking by much, but these information sites did see fairly substantial results rise across the board. Google Algorithm Update 2020 story really seems to be one of big changes. Informational websites like these could be affected by the June 2020 update:
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Google changes their algorithm 500-600 times a year, possible more. Most of these updates are so small you may not even notice a change, however, there are larger ones released periodically that can significantly affect your website traffic.
Google Search utilizes PageRank for their search engine results algorithm. It was named after Larry Page, one of the early founders of Google. This is likely the #1 of measuring the importance of web pages.
There are 5 major algorithm updates Google has issued. In chronological order they are: Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, Pigeon, and Fred.
Google is constantly updating their algorithms to prevent non-relevant information or schemes from harming those who genuinely put out good information for their customers. As SEO practices are constantly changing, Google has to change with the times.
Google’s algorithm does the hard work for you by retrieving and sorting through the millions of webpages to find the keyword or phrase you are searching for. They rank them on many factors, including keywords and the # of times they are used.