One of Google’s contributions to humanity is making the term “algorithm” a familiar one. In Google’s constant quest to deliver better and better search results, they make both minor tweaks and major changes to its search algorithm.
The following is a list of Google’s major updates to its algorithm throughout the years, and the practical takeaways for your SEO (if any):
September 2002 – 1st Major Update
Before July 2003, Google used to update the results sporadically. 10 times a year, Google would update all its data centers, causing fluctuations in the search results and changes in the Toolbar Page Rank for sites. This up-and-down, back-and-forth was named the Google Dance by webmasters, and was celebrated/mourned/analyzed faithfully every month or month and a half. September 2002 saw a more major change than usual, causing consternation among webmasters.
February 2003 – Boston Update
The first update that received a name was Boston, because it was announced at SES Boston.
April 2003 – Cassandra Update
With this update, Google made efforts to reduce the power links had when co-owned domain linked to each other. They also cracked down on hidden text and hidden links.
July 2003 – Fritz Update
With Fritz, the era of major monthly changes came to a close. Google now changed the data on a rolling basis, causing smaller, consistent changes in the search results.
November 2003 – Florida Update
Florida was one of the most impactful updates up until that time. Google seemingly changed the algorithm to try and filter out keyword-stuffed pages and other low-value SEO techniques.
January 2004 – Austin Update
Austin was a follow-up to Florida, Google’s determined attempt to weed out spammy SEO tactics. If your keyword stuffed content or meta-tags, or your hidden text or links were still helping your site, now they didn’t.
February 2004 – Brandy Update
Google’s ability to understand synonyms drastically increased with Brandy. No longer were “cute cat pictures” and “cute cat photos” entirely separate keywords. Brandy also emphasized the importance of links from topically-relevant sites.
January 2005 – The Nofollow Attribute was introduced
The major search engines of the time – Google, Yahoo! and MSN – came together to instate the Nofollow attribute for links. Since a link was considered to be one site giving a thumbs-up to another site, if you didn’t want to be giving that thumbs-up, you could put a “nofollow” on the link. Search engines would then know they could discount it in their algorithm. Nofollow was intended primarily for links where the webmaster didn’t have control over them – for example, links in blog or forum comments.
February 2009 – Vince Update
Vince focused on “trust” signals, trying to give more credit to “trustworthy” sites. The result was that big brands won in the search results, particularly for more general queries. While Google called Vince a “minor change,” many webmasters felt it made a big impact.
May 2010 – May Day
May Day impacted long-tail keywords. The losers were sites with lots of low-quality content, foreshadowing the Panda update.
August 2010 – Brand Update
Prior to this update, each domain was limited in the number of times it could appear for a query. 1-2 times max, with subsequent results indented after the first result. With this update, a domain could have multiple listings return for the same search engine results page.
February 2011 – Panda Update
One of the most wide-reaching algorithm updates ever, Panda impacted 12% of search queries. The update was intended to weed out low quality content in the search results. The losers were content farms, that had lots of content on a wide number of topics, but the content was low quality. It also impacted sites that had many ads (especially above the fold), as compared to actual content.
- High quality, deep content will win out over lots of thin, low quality content
- Tone down the ads on your page, especially above the fold
November 2011 – Freshness Update
Google announced that a new update giving priority to new, fresh, updated content would impact 35% of all queries. While the uproar over this was huge, in actuality the queries were restricted to certain industries and niches where time-sensitive content is important: sports, entertainment, events, news, product reviews.
April 2012 – Penguin Update
While Panda went after low quality content, Penguin targeted over-optimized content and links. Keyword stuffing has become more subtle since the updates of 2003, but sites still try to write unnatural content to get their keywords in an unnatural number of times. Google doesn’t like that.. Sites also try and get links with unnatural anchor text (“best doctor in Birmingham”). Google doesn’t like that. And Penguin came down hard on sites that had used the above techniques, impacting 3.1% of queries.
- Anchor text should be natural – most often your domain name or brand name, not your money keywords.
- Don’t buy links or participate in link schemes or networks.
- Write content that real people would appreciate reading – and not think it sounds odd.
September 2012 – EMD (Exact Match Domain) Update
Traditionally, having an domain that exactly matched a keyword phrase (e.g. www.bestseofirm.com) was almost a shoo-in to high rankings for that keyword. The Exact Match Domain update attempted to crack down on these low quality exact match domains and eliminate them from the search results (or at least from showing up in the top results).
May 2013 – Penguin 2.0
October 2013 – Hummingbird
Most other recorded updates had been improvements or changes to the existing algorithm. With Hummingbird, Google replaced its algorithm entirely. It took the parts that were working, and replaced the parts that weren’t. One of the goals of Hummingbird was to be able to better understand and respond to semantics – the intent of the searcher’s query, and not just the words.
- High quality, deep and comprehensive content is more important than ever, as Google moves away from “how well does this page match the keywords” to “how well does this page answer the question being asked”.
- Produce answer/solution focused content that matches your audience’s needs and questions.
July 2014 – Pigeon Update
Pigeon was focused on local results. One major change was to give priority to businesses based on proximity to the searcher’s real-time location, not proximity to the city center. Another change was to integrate more general web ranking signals into the local ranking algorithm.
- Think of your average local searcher as searching from a smartphone. (Hence the emphasis on the “proximity to searcher”.)
- If your site is general SEO-weak, try to boost the positive SEO signals (i.e. high quality links, not just high quality citations).
August 2014 – HTTPS Update
Google announced that it would give a minor rankings boost to secure sites, but the extent of the impact could increase over time.
- Google thinks security is a big deal. If you can do more to make your site safer for visitors, it’s a good investment to move in that direction.
October 2014 – Penguin 3.0 Update
Unnatural, over-optimized link profiles were again the prime targets, and those were the main sites hit. Although search marketers were surprised to see a good number of spammy sites that still have not been caught.
- Penguin 3.0 didn’t just strew misery in its wake. Sites that have worked to clean up their act since being hit by one of the last Penguin updates (not a small feat), were thrilled to see traffic pick up significantly.
April 2015 – Mobile Update (“Mobilegeddon”)
Most algorithm updates come as surprises – or at most, there were hazy predictions from search engine seers. For months before Mobilegeddon, however, Google was announcing that if your site is not mobile-friendly, you are soon likely to regret it. Google rolled out a mobile-friendly testing tool. It sent warning messages to webmasters of non-mobile-friendly sites through Google Search Console. It even gave the exact date of Doomsday: April 21, 2015.
- The Age of Mobile has arrived. If your site still requires pinching and swiping to view on mobile, fix it. Now.
- While Google is forcing the point, it’s a valid point to make. The majority of searches are now being done on mobile. Even if Google would still be ranking your site #1, a mobile visitor getting to your non-mobile friendly site is going to up and leave. If your site isn’t mobile-friendly, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
October 2015 – RankBrain Announcement
Google announced that machine learning has become an important part of Google’s algorithm. 15% of Google queries daily have never, ever been searched in Google before. RankBrain is an AI (artificial intelligence) technology that enables Google’s algorithm to make sense of these ambiguous, unique queries. In October 2015, Google announced that what RankBrain says is the best result for any given query constitutes the 3rd most important factor of Google’s ranking decision, trumped only by the factors of links and content. The announcement is after the fact, however: RankBrain has been a significant part of the algorithm since early 2015.
If you want to delve deep into RankBrain and how it works, Search Engine Land put together a great FAQ that covers both RankBrain and Google’s algorithm in general. Or take a look at our guide (for total non-techies) to Google and machine learning.
February 2016 – Adwords Shake-up
For as long as most of us can recall Google search results, Adwords have appeared on the right side of the results, sometimes joined by Adwords at the top or bottom of the results. No longer. The right-hand ads have been taken away, and there are now 4 potential ad spaces at the top of the results instead of 3.
While technically this is a PPC issue, it affects even organic SEO. With 4 ads at the top, organic results are pushed further down the page, changing the playing field and adding challenge to already competitive fields.
September 2016 – Possum Update
In an update to local SEO results, Google started filtering business listings that appear to be connected – so only one will appear per keyword search. If you share office space or a physical address with another business in the same niche, only one of you is going to show for any search, even if you were both showing before this update.
- If you share a business address (down to the suite number) with another business in your area of specialty, you’re headed for BIG trouble. Figure out how you can change that.
- If you share a business address (down to the suite number) with any other business, you’re probably also headed for trouble (although maybe not as fast). See if there’s anything you can do to change that.
- If you’re looking for a new location, and it will be in an office building:
- make SURE you have your own suite number. And the suite number needs to signify different physical space – not just a number tacked on to make “Suite 200” into “Suite 200-12.”
- try to avoid a building that has other businesses with the same specialty as your practice
September 2016 – Penguin 4.0 (Real-time)
Google’s Penguin algorithm to eliminate sites trying to rank based on spammy links is no longer an independent update. It’s now a part of Google’s core algorithm. This means that sites using spammy links will be downgraded in real-time, and sites that get their act together will recover in real-time, without having to wait months for an algorithm refresh.
Here’s what a real-time Penguin means for your SEO (with infographic).
January 2017 – Mobile Popup Update
Google actually announced several months in advance that on January 10, 2017 they would begin to algorithmically penalize sites that had intrusive popups or interstitials that disrupted the mobile user experience.
The update affects sites using popups that block content when the mobile user first comes to the site. Interstitials between site pages and exit-intent popups do not put a site at risk for lower rankings. Similarly, popups that are needed for the user experience, such as sign-in forms, etc. are also free from concern.
March 2017 – Fred Update
Sites that contained low value content with the sole goal of revenue generation saw drops in rankings with this update.