Google Algorithm Updates and Changes Explained
If you're not on the internet, you don't exist. Simple as that. And since more than 92% of the world’s online searches happen on Google, it’s crucial for you to do all you can to improve your chances of driving business results. But as is usually the case, this is easier said than done. It all starts with a thorough search engine optimization process as you create a website, which allows you to grow your visibility from the get go. However, the constant changes and updates to the Google algorithm mean that you’ll need to make periodic tweaks to your SEO practices in order to ensure your site’s traffic keeps on growing.
Being aware of the latest Google algorithm updates will allow you to assess the areas of your online presence that need improvement, and continuously grow your exposure. Since we’re well aware that you have enough on your plate without having to check for algorithm changes on a daily basis, we’ve put together a comprehensive summary of the most important Google algorithm updates and changes throughout its history.
While the updates listed in this article have the largest impact on Google's algorithm, it’s important to keep in mind that several other broad changes are implemented once or twice a year. These are known as ‘core updates.’ They are modifications that are notable enough to have an effect on the way that search results are ranked, but not strong enough to be considered turning points in the algorithm's functionality. You can read more about Google algorithm core updates on the company’s Webmaster Central Blog, and stay on top of new announcements by following Google SearchLiaison on Twitter.
What are Google’s algorithms?
Google’s algorithms are a series of complex computer programs used to rank websites and determine which ones to display in Search Engine Results Pages. The goal of Google’s algorithm is to provide searchers with an ordered list of the most relevant websites for their query. In order to do so, Google sends out bots or automated web crawlers to scan every website and determine where to display them in results pages based on over 200 different factors.
One of the most interesting facts about Google’s algorithms is that it goes through over 600 modifications every year, with most of these changes being so subtle that they go unnoticed.
Launched: October 25, 2019
Main target: Thin content
Google's latest algorithm update is known as BERT, which stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. BERT is a deep learning algorithm that uses natural language processing to better understand the meaning of words in sentences, paying special attention to their conversational context.
Google called the BERT algorithm update “the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search,” as it’s expected to have a direct impact on at least 10% of all search queries.
Launched: July 7, 2017
Sites affected: Ad-centered content
Fred was a major Google algorithm update that seemly targeted low-quality content meant to generate revenue, such as excessive advertising on sites providing poor content. Google only spoke up about this update after weeks of incessant buzz around it and a sarcasm-filled Twitter thread that eventually led to this update’s name. Even then, Google refused to share any specifics on what this algorithm update targeted, referring users to Google’s Webmaster Quality Guidelines instead.
Launch date: September 1, 2016
Main target: Location-sensitive results
The Possum Google algorithm update focused on location-sensitive search queries, primarily affecting business sites. Possum was widely defined as a local filter that takes into consideration both the business and the user’s address in order to pick the most relevant results. While local SEO has been one of the most popular SEO tips to follow for quite awhile, its relevance became much stronger after this algorithm update.
Launched: October 26, 2015
Sites affected: Unnaturally written content
RankBrain is a machine learning algorithm that uses artificial intelligence to interpret the intent of search queries in order to determine which results are most likely to meet users’ expectations. Initially handling only around 15% of searches, RankBrain grew to become involved in almost all of Google’s search queries. In order to select the most relevant results, this algorithm update takes into account user interaction with certain topics and features for each search query.
At the time of its launch, Google defined RankBrain as the third most important ranking factor (out of more than 200), and it was widely considered the most important change in the Google algorithm update history until the introduction of BERT in October 2019.
Launched: April 21, 2015
Sites affected: Pages not optimized for mobile
Jokingly known as Mobilegeddon, the Mobile Google algorithm update might just be the most well-known one in this list. With this new mobile-first index, Google’s algorithm started ranking websites based on their mobile version first. Unlike other algorithm updates, Mobile created a significant buzz on mainstream media as business of all sizes scrambled to optimize their sites for mobile browsing.
Launched: July 24, 2014
Sites affected: Relevant local pages
The main goal of the Pigeon Google algorithm update was to increase the ranking of local search results, affecting the sites’ listings as well as Google Maps’ pins. Pigeon takes into account not only in-site practices, such as writing a strong SEO title tag, but also each business’s outreach and backlinking efforts, for example by listing themselves in local business directories. This algorithm update caused one of the most significant changes of Google’s local results ever seen.
Launched: August 20, 2013
Sites affected: Keyword stuffed content
Hummingbird was the first major Google algorithm update. In other words, it was the first time the algorithm was entirely changed. With Hummingbird, Google’s algorithm started focusing on the meaning behind each word on the query and how they relate to each other, rather than treating each as a separate entity. Consequently, page results match the searcher intent even if they do not contain the exact words entered. This redefined the way keywords were used on sites, leading to much more natural uses in detriment of keyword stuffing.
Launched: April 24, 2012
Sites affected: Webspam pages
Penguin, also known as the “webspam algorithm update,” was meant to detect and penalize sites engaged in manipulative link practices. Prior to Penguin, link volume played a much more significant ranking factor than content quality, favoring sites buying links or involved with link networks. This algorithm update, now part of the core algorithm, gave Google better control over spamming techniques and low-quality content.
Launched: February 23, 2011
Sites affected: Low-quality content
The Panda algorithm was the first big step in Google’s war on low-quality pages and content farms. The main goal of this update was to reward high-quality pages and significantly reduce the presence of poor sites in search engine results pages. Among other factors, Panda addressed problematic website practices such as thin text, duplicate content, lack of authority, content farming, ad-heavy pages, and mismatching search queries.
By Judit Ruiz Ricart
Blog Content Expert