A Brief History of Google Algorithm Updates (And What They Mean For Your Business)

In some ways, the Google algorithm is like the deep sea giant squid of SEO marketing. We all know it's out there, somewhere. But what the algorithm is doing at any given moment is often shrouded in mystery. Like researchers looking for evidence in washed-up debris, search engine optimization analysts and experts look at how traffic is routed to websites in order to figure out what changes have been recently made to the algorithm.

While Google doesn't completely publicize the entirety of its algorithm, it often does make the public aware of major implemented changes. Over the years, changes to the Google algorithm have helped shape the course of the web itself; certain websites were exempt from search results forever, while others were promoted.

The average person may not understand just how frequently Google algorithm updates occur -- or how impactful they can be. Whether you run your own digital marketing agency or you own a small business, it’s important to have at least a basic working knowledge of these algorithm updates, as well as how your site might be impacted by them. That way, you can ensure you have a plan of action if your site (or a client’s site) experiences a ranking change as a result.

Why Do Google Algorithm Updates Happen?

First, let’s talk about algorithm updates. Any platform that uses an algorithm will periodically change how calculations are made. The aim here is to provide the best possible experience for the end-user. Google will frequently make adjustments, both large and small, to its list of 200+ ranking factors. These ranking factors are calculated to determine how a website appears in search engine results pages (SERPs).

To be clear, Google doesn’t update its algorithm for the purpose of upsetting business owners (though they can certainly have that effect!). Instead, they make these updates because they’ve learned new information about what web users are looking for and how they interact with search results. Because the internet evolves so rapidly, Google needs to change right along with it.

Google algorithm updates are essentially a sign that they’re trying to stay on top of new developments and address existing problems. Does Google get it right every time? Absolutely not. But the fact that these advanced systems are updated so frequently tells us that Google is always trying to improve on its processes and provide the most relevant, authoritative, and valuable information for web users.

And really, that’s what good SEO is all about. Although search engine optimization could be (and has been) used to game the system, the sites that see success in the long term understand that they need to provide useful content in a convenient way. For many businesses, continuing to use this concept as a driving force can help brands weather any storm -- even if they are initially impacted by one of Google’s algorithm updates. And there can be some pretty significant impacts, as we’ll discuss next.

What Can Occur After a Google Algorithm Update?

After a suspected Google algorithm update, SEO forums start to light up like a switchboard. Everyone scrambles to confirm whether an update has occurred and what the impacts might be. And because Google isn’t always the most forthcoming source (though they will often confirm that an update has happened), SEO experts may have to come to a conclusion among themselves about whether they’ve been hit by an update.

It’s important to note here that Google algorithm updates are not inherently bad for SEO. In theory, they should have a positive effect on sites that are trying to do all the right things. But because no one receives advance warning of an algorithm update before it occurs, it can be frustrating to realize you have very little control over the situation when it happens.

In the event of an algorithm update, you might assume that all your hard work was for naught. In some cases, you or your clients might notice some sudden and massive spikes or dips in ranking factors. That can be a scary experience, particularly when your livelihood is on the line. But it’s essential to realize that one expected result of an algorithm update is rankings volatility. There might be a lot more activity in your analytics than before -- and it may be that not all of that activity is what you want to see. However, any spikes and dips that you see will typically even out following an algorithm release. After a brief period of “what on Earth is happening?,” you’ll start to see things even out again.

That said, certain websites may see permanent rankings drops or increases. Depending on the circumstances, an algorithm update may mean penalizations for a site that Google sees as providing very little value. In some cases, certain sites may even be deemed harmful. As a result, the rankings of these sites may decrease. On the flip side, websites that have made major improvements over time may be rewarded with improved rankings due to an update. While you shouldn’t panic if you see major changes after a suspected update, you’ll want to gain insight into what’s going on -- and find out whether you can fix any problems that exist -- to inform your strategy.

Google algorithm updates will often feature new or improved best practices for site owners to follow. Most of Google’s updates target a specific aspect of the user experience. Even when sites experience a decrease in rankings, learning about newer best practices from Google can allow businesses to change their approach and figure out what users really want to see. SEO professionals learn a lot from each new update -- and what they learn can inform how they run marketing campaigns for themselves or their customers.

How Many Google Algorithm Updates Are There?

We’ve mentioned that Google updates its algorithm fairly frequently. But just how often do these updates take place? According to Google itself, hundreds or even thousands of updates are made to the algorithm every year. It’s worth noting that we hardly notice many of these updates, as they may be too small or too niche to impact us.

However, there have been a number of major Google algorithm updates -- many of which have caused a bit of an uproar in the digital marketing sphere. We’ll be delving into a handful of these updates below to give you an overview of Google’s update history.

Panda (February 2011)

Panda is often cited as one of the early Google algorithm updates with a huge reach. This update was geared toward websites that were created for the sole purpose of ranking in Google. In other words, it targeted websites that were trying to cheat the system by using subpar content (thin, duplicate, or plagiarized), keyword stuffing techniques, spam, and non-valuable affiliate links. Basically, this was an attempt to weed out low-quality pages that had previously been rewarded in SERPs. This update has really changed how we optimize websites, as it was incorporated into Google’s core algorithm in 2016.

Penguin (April 2012)

The Penguin update aimed to ensure that sites featuring spammy or irrelevant links, as well as overly optimized anchor text, weren’t being unjustly high rankings. The update was intended to decrease the rankings for sites with unnatural-looking backlink profiles in an effort to stop poor-quality link building techniques (like the use of link farms and low-value media sites). This Google algorithm update analyzed backlinks to determine whether they were genuine or whether they were obtained in an effort to trick Google into bestowing a higher ranking. Sites with a lot of artificial links experienced massive drops in rankings -- and some even disappeared from SERPs altogether. As you might have guessed, Penguin has transformed how digital marketers execute link-building strategies and how we assign value to link juice from websites.

Hummingbird (August 2013)

Hummingbird was actually intended to help search engines gain a better understanding of user search queries. In retrospect, we can see that the Hummingbird update plays a crucial role in how we use voice search today. But at the time, it was really about providing better context for search engines. Instead of serving up results for every individual word in the search query, search engines would now offer results that better aligned with user intent. This was a huge step towards helping search engines understand natural language through latent semantic indexing (LSI) and other related terms. Unlike the two previous updates, this one wasn’t to punish websites for wrongdoing; it was to help search engines provide improved results that mirror how we use language.

Pigeon (July 2014)

Adding another “bird” to Google’s menagerie, Google released its Pigeon update to target local SEO. In many cases, this was a boon for small businesses (which might otherwise have trouble competing). It was also a major development for web users, many of whom were seeking nearby solutions to their problems. With this update, results for queries that contained “near me” became a lot more accurate based on location data. Pigeon also impacted Google Maps, allowing web users to physically see relevant results close to their current location. Pigeon also took organic ranking factors into account, allowing for more relevancy among local results. Google’s Possum update, which has never been officially confirmed, reportedly built on providing improved local search results (particularly in regard to duplicate listings).

Mobile (April 2015)

Dubbed “Mobilegeddon,” this update sent shockwaves throughout the SEO community when it was released in 2015. Its purpose? To reward mobile-friendly websites in searches conducted on mobile devices. It makes sense that those who use their phones to search for solutions would be frustrated to find websites that can’t even be viewed on their devices. Google knew that mobile web use would only become more prevalent -- so this update might have also acted as an incentive for those businesses that were dragging their feet on embracing responsive design. This also laid the groundwork for mobile-first indexing, which debuted just this year.

RankBrain (October 2015)

By the time Google had announced its RankBrain update, SEO professionals guessed that its effects had already been felt for several months prior. It was revealed by the company that RankBrain, Google’s artificial intelligence system, made up one of the top three ranking factors for websites. Technically, the RankBrain update builds on Hummingbird’s foundation, as it’s all about understanding the semantics involved in web searches. Basically, RankBrain is Google’s learning machine; the more it takes in about how users interact with search engines, the better it gets at guessing what users are looking for. Not only is it better at understanding user intent, but it’s helped Google to actually predict user intent and behavior.

Fred (March 2017)

While its name came from a joke, this update was no laughing matter. Many sites saw major dives in their rankings as a result of this update, which most believe was intended to de-rank sites that were prioritizing monetization over creating a positive user experience. In many cases, sites that featured thin content and aggressive advertising were hit the hardest. Some site owners finally saw improvements after removing or drastically reducing advertising inventory. Sites with low-quality backlinks were also targeted by this update, as were so-called “portal websites.” This just goes to show that Google does care about the quality of content, user experience, and backlinks.

Medic (May 2018)

A broad core algorithm update that made a splash upon its release, Medic (as its name suggests) affected a number of sites operating in the medical sphere. These weren’t the only websites affected, though. This update essentially targeted websites that are related to major life decisions. Sites that publish healthcare content -- as well as sites dealing with law, finance, and education -- saw big changes in their rankings. It’s possible that Google was attempting to better match user intent with this update, but some have speculated that the search engine was trying to protect users from disputable information. Representatives for Google have alluded to the fact that the Medic update operates on the principle of E-A-T (which stands for expertise, authority, and trust) and rewards sites that align with those concepts.

BERT (October 2019)

Google changed the name of its internal learning system to BERT, which stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. This update was announced as being one of the biggest changes in over five years and was slated to impact 10% of all searches. Improving upon its natural language processing capabilities, BERT is better at understanding context using all of the words in a given sentence, regardless of their order. Basically, this means that Google has gotten even better at interpreting the true meaning behind search queries (rather than being too literal or too limited).

Google Core Updates (2017–)

In addition to the Google algorithm updates mentioned above, there have also been a number of even larger updates made. The company refers to these widespread updates as core updates (or broad core updates). These updates don’t come with nearly as much transparency as some of the smaller, confirmed updates, making it more difficult for digital marketers to make necessary changes. However, Google has explained that most of these updates have to deal with relevance -- which means that if you continue to produce incredible content and track your analytics, you may be able to figure out what you’re doing wrong (or doing right!).

You can typically expect Google to roll out a core algorithm update a few times a year, though you can’t necessarily set your watch by it. In 2020, these updates took place in January, May, and December. But we didn’t really see any updates to the broad core algorithm this year until midway through.

Google recently announced that they’d immediately roll out a core algorithm update in early June, with a second to follow in July. Because they weren’t quite ready to roll out all their intended changes with the first update, Google decided to go ahead with certain aspects and delay others until a month from now.

While the changes related to this update may still be felt, experts are reporting a few emerging trends so far. Analysts have noticed that websites in the automotive, retail, health, travel, science, and animal/pet verticals are seeing the most significant impacts. Some have even suggested that this core algorithm update may be even more significant than the one that took place back in December 2020, which could be major news for many site owners.

Reportedly, even well-known sites like HuffPost.com, LifeHacker.com, and MentalFloss.com lost a lot of visibility following the update -- but it’s entirely possible that the second update in July could settle any volatility.

If you’ve been impacted by a core algorithm update, you don’t need to panic. Stay calm, but evaluate your site based on Google’s recommendations and what we know about these updates. It may be necessary to make some changes, but it could also be that the next core update could smooth things out again.

Page Experience Update (June 2021)

We’ve created a separate blog post that explains Google’s forthcoming Page Experience algorithm update in-depth. If you aren’t already familiar with the details of that update, we recommend that you take a look before it rolls out in mid-June 2021.

While the update was initially slated to take place a month earlier, in May 2021, Google delayed the launch by a few weeks to give website owners even more time to get ready. We’ve known about this particular update for quite some time, which is pretty rare. Since this update involves some new metrics, it’s likely that it could have a big effect on site rankings.

Namely, this upcoming update centers around the visitor experience -- specifically, the experience a user has on a particular webpage. In short, you’ll want to prioritize page loading speed, mobile-friendliness, and interactivity rates while eliminating intrusive interstitials and unexpected layout shifts.

Page experience isn’t everything, of course. You’ll still need to provide high-quality content and address other best practices. But when it comes down to measuring ranking signals between two similar websites, the one that provides a better page experience will likely win out.

With so many Google algorithm updates to keep track of, you might feel overwhelmed by how quickly the SEO world can change. But if you know where we’ve already been, you can feel more prepared to determine where we’re headed. Whether you need help deciphering what’s going on with your rankings or you want to help a client that’s been hit hard by an algo update, you deserve to partner with a team of SEO professionals. For more information about joining our white label reseller program, please get in touch with us today.