The History Of Google’s Updates

timeline of google updates

The way SEO is done today is a lot different to 10 years ago. Over the last decade, Google has introduced several major updates with each having an impact on the organic landscape. There’s a clear evolution to Google’s changes with their focus turning more and more towards the user experience.

Marking 10 years since Panda made its way onto the SEO scene, we’re looking at some of Google’s most important algorithm updates so far.    

What we’ll cover…

  • What an algorithm update is
  • A timeline of Google’s major updates
  • A word from our experts on the changing nature of Google’s updates

What is an algorithm update?

The world of search revolves around Google’s algorithms. This clever system retrieves data from its search index to deliver the best, most relevant results possible for a query.

The search engine giant uses a combination of algorithms and ranking factors to deliver web pages ranked by relevance on the search engine results pages – also known as the SERPs.

In its early days, changes to Google’s algorithm were few and far between. But now, the search engine makes thousands of changes every year, some more significant and impactful than others.

Let’s dive into the timeline of Google’s biggest updates so far.

The timeline of Google’s major updates

Panda – 2011

Panda marked the move to rewarding high-quality websites and diminish the presence of low-quality websites in the SERPs. The update cracked down on websites with:

  • Thin or low-quality content
  • Duplicate content
  • Lack of authority and/or trustworthiness
  • High ad-to-content ratio
  • Content mismatching search query
  • Websites blocked by users

It was reported that the update affected 12 percent of English language search queries when it was released.

Venice – 2012

Venice was a noteworthy update as it highlighted a milestone in Google’s evolution and changed local SEO forever. The update showed an understanding that users sometimes want search results relating to products or services within nearby proximity.

After Venice was released, Google’s search results started to show what are now the familiar 10 blue link results based on your set location or IP address.

Penguin – 2012

Following the Panda update closely, Penguin was introduced to reward high-quality websites and reduce visibility in the SERPs of websites that used bad practices for link acquisition or keyword stuffing.

The Penguin update affected approximately 3 percent of searches and is triggered by:

  • Manipulative link schemes
  • Keyword stuffing

Pirate – 2012

The next update focused on combatting the illegal spreading of copyrighted content, demoting sites in the SERPs that had a large number of copyright removal notices.

For the first time, the Pirate update saw Google consider takedown requests based on the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) as a negative website ranking factor.

Hummingbird – 2013

The Hummingbird update saw Google build the foundations for voice-search, something which is still evolving in our day-to-day lives. This was a significant change to how the algorithm reads content, providing better results for conversational and semantic search queries.

To do this Hummingbird pays more attention to each word in a query, ensuring the whole search is taken into account rather than just particular words. In turn, the search engine can better understand a user’s query to give a more specific answer instead of a list of results.

The impact of the Hummingbird update wasn’t clear straight away as it wasn’t intended to punish bad practices. The outcome was the view that SEO copy should be readable, use natural language and shouldn’t be over-optimised for the same few words.

Pigeon – 2014

Yet another bird-named Google update followed in 2014 with Pigeon. This one focused on local SEO and affected both the SERPs and Google Maps. It led to more accurate localisation, giving preference to results that are closer to the user’s location.

It also aimed to make local results more relevant and higher quality while taking different organic ranking factors into account.

Mobile friendly – 2015

In 2015, Google introduced a mobile-friendly update to the world of search. The purpose was to increase rankings for those pages that provided a mobile-friendly experience for users on mobile devices.

When the update was released, a website’s mobile version became a ranking factor across both mobile and desktop search results.

RankBrain – 2015

RankBrain was introduced as part of Google’s core algorithm that uses machine learning to handle queries. This clever piece of technology can make guesses about words it doesn’t know, finding words with similar meaning to provide the most relevant results.

To improve search results, RankBrain analysed past searches to determine the best result. Its release marked another big step for Google to better pick apart the meaning behind searches and serve the most relevant results.

A year on from the update, Google revealed that RankBrain was one of the three most important ranking signals. But, unlike other ranking factors, you can’t optimise directly for RankBrain other than through the writing of high-quality content.

Possum – 2016

By the time 2016 came around, it was time for another local update. The Possum update applied several changes to Google’s local ranking filter to improve local searches.

After Possum was rolled out, local results became more varied depending on the physical location of the searcher and the phrasing of the query. The impact varied with some businesses who weren’t performing well organically search now finding it easier to rank locally after the Possum update.

Mobile Speed Update – 2018

We’re impatient and Google knows it. Acknowledging the user need for faster information delivery, Google made page speed a ranking factor for mobile searches – something that was already the case for desktop searches. The update mostly affected sites with a particularly slow mobile version.

Medic or EAT – 2018

This broad core algorithm update caused quite a stir. For those affected, the update led to some pretty big shifts in rankings.

The Medic update, also known as EAT, marked a significant change to content requirements with webmasters expected to demonstrate:

  • Expertise: Considering the volume and depth of your onsite content, whether it’s sufficient for the topic and if it has a clear purpose such as the structure and publishing date.
  • Authority: Preventing sites from claiming to be authoritative in an area they are not. This considers the authority of the content creator and the site owner to ensure accuracy and credibility of your content.
  • Trust: Centred around the reputation signals of your website, we ensure on-site E-A-T content follows the accepted consensus of the particular topic.

This update had the biggest impact on Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) sectors – think finance, personal injury, automotive, legal, housing and medical. It’s not 100% clear as to the update’s exact purpose but it’s speculated to may have an attempt to better match results to the search intent or to simply protect users from untrustworthy content.

BERT – 2019

When BERT was rolled out, it was announced as the “biggest change of the last five years” and one that would “impact one in ten searches.”

BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) is a machine learning algorithm that helps Google understand the variations and subtleties of the human language that computers can’t quite grasp.

Essentially, BERT can figure out the full context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it. It uses the context and relations of all the words in a sentence rather than the individual words in order. This marked a big improvement in interpreting a search query and the intent behind it.

Core Web Vitals Update – 2021

The Core Web Vitals update is Google’s most significant step towards providing a better user experience since 2018.

Measuring a site’s loading speed, responsiveness and visual stability through metrics known as Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), Core Web Vitals (CWV) are set to evolve as user expectations develop. Providing guidance on the essential ranking signals for delivering a positive user experience, let’s remove the jargon and break this down a little further:

  • First Input Delay is the time from when a user interacts with the site to when the browser responds.
  • Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) is how often users experience unexpected re-arrangements in the page layout. If the page layout moves around a lot, you’ll have a high CLS and if it barely moves at all you’ll have a low CLS. The lower, the better.
  • Largest Contentful Paint is the largest area of the page that requires loading. Your Largest Contentful Paint can impact your CLS. If your webpage has a large image that takes a long time to load, it will shift the layout around unexpectedly once it’s able to load and cause you to have a high CLS.

In light of this update, our R&D team wasted no time getting to work on creating an auditing tool. This exclusive tool checks a website’s performance against the CWV metrics, highlighting areas for improvement. You can find out more about it in our blog here.

A word from our experts on Google’s updates…

By now, it’s pretty clear that Google is focused on creating the best user experience possible which makes UX an important part of your SEO efforts. Everything the search engine does is aimed at benefitting users and delivering the best result to them.

Of course, Google search is still based on a computer algorithm. Although AI isn’t smart enough at the moment to mimic us humans completely, there’s no denying that the search results are becoming more humanlike by the day.  

WMG head of organic research and insights, James Betts, shared his thoughts on where he thinks Google’s updates could be heading in the future:

“In the earlier years of SEO, there were a lot of underhand techniques that were incredibly commonplace. A lot of the algorithm updates originally released by Google were very much focused around legitimising the search arena. This was to ensure that people who were attempting to “game” the system were less able to rank than those who were doing things properly.

Nowadays, the algorithm updates are less focused around moderating how people do the fundamentals of SEO and more about shifting the web in the direction that Google wants. Whether that’s speeding up the web through numerous Page Speed updates and now the Core Web Vitals update, or through several content-based updates like EAT and their advancements within NLP (natural language processing) seen in RankBrain and now BERT.

Over the next few years, I think we can expect to see a continuation of this trend with a refinement of Core Web Vitals, a push for sites to be using HTTP/2 and further refinement around content analysis. As an off the wall suggestion, I also think we’ll see some focus around them trying to legitimise the eCommerce space to promote trustworthy sellers and demote those with no/poor reviews due to the explosion of eCommerce through COVID.”

Fortunately, we’re here to help you through Google’s changing algorithm. With a team of SEO experts in our ranks, we can work with you to mitigate the impact of Google’s updates. If you have any questions or want to know more about the way we work, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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