History of Google Algorithm Updates

16 Big Google Algorithms That Have Changed The Web

Table of Contents

What Is The Google Search Algorithm?

Finding what you need on the web would be impossible without some clever way to sort through information and results.

To find the most relevant, useful results in a fraction of a second, and to present them in a way that helps you find what you are looking for, is what the Google Search Algorithms are designed to do.

So, the Google Search Algorithm is a set of rules that determine how search results are ranked.

The Google algorithm works like a giant computer program that analyzes millions of websites and digital assets, and ranks them based on how relevant they are to a particular search query. This process is called “crawling” the internet, and it takes place automatically when someone types a keyword into the Google search box.

The Google algorithm considers 200 + different variables before deciding whether or not your website should be listed at all.

What this means for anyone with a Business or Online presence is that you need to be aware of changing algorithms, so you can adapt your organic search strategy accordingly.

What Are Google Algorithm Updates? How Many Times Does Google Update Its Algorithms In a Year?

The Google algorithm has been changing since the beginning of the internet. Back then, Google was just indexing websites, and now it is doing much more than that.

Google releases new algorithms every month or two, and releases minor algorithm tweaks throughout the year. But it doesn’t always announce them in advance. 

Chances are that if you’re browsing on Google in a parallel Browser window, you’re part of a Google experiment which may eventually lead to a minor update.

The core algorithm updates are the big changes that Google makes to its algorithms. These updates are usually announced in advance, and they affect how Google ranks pages.

For example, in 2021, Google rolled out the Page Experience Algorithm Update, from June to early August 2021. The impact of this update was felt in Search Results – many Sites across the Web experiencing ranking fluctuations.

Why Does Google Release Search Algorithm Updates?

Google Algorithm Updates are mainly in response to some of the following factors:

1. To Accomodate What Users Want

Google uses machine learning to determine what is relevant for users, how they respond and interact with different Sites, user’s purchasing behavior etc. So, the search engine learns from each user’s behavior and adjusts the results accordingly.

2. To Factor And Address Known Manipulations

Such manipulations may come from hackers, spammers and malicious elements on the Web, wanting to game the search results and exploit them for their benfit. This also includes misuse and abuse of certain known ranking factors.

Examples: Spam or Irrelevant Content, developed mainly for the purpose of advertising, phishing etc, is an ongoing issue that Google algorithms fight against.

Paid Backlinks to manipulate search results are another form of manipulation, and unfortunately there is an entire linl-building industry built around it.

3. To Stay One Step Ahead of Web-Masters & SEOs From Figuring Out The Secret Sauce That Is Google Search

Organic Search, as we know it, is a democratic system that aims to provide free and fair results that best match a User’s query.

Many SAAS (Software As a Service) Businesses such as Ahrefs, SEMRush, Majestic, Sistrix, offer sound business and competitor intelligence related to SEO. 

Tools such as Cora, take a reverse-engineered approach to SEO. The tool calculates close to 2000 metrics for a Top Ranking Site, and an SEO Specialist then attempts to reproduce similar metrics for a target site.

While some of the best minds and IT infrastructure are backing these SAAS Tools, the real mix of factors that weigh into taking a Site to position one on Google isn’t something that anyone can claim to know with absolute certainty.

It’s not in Google’s best interest to divulge details related to their exact search ranking methodology, and it’s likely to stay that way.

Does Google Provide Any Advisory Regarding Algorithm Updates?

Yes, the Google Search Team periodically makes announcements on the Search Central Blog regarding any Google Algorithm Updates.

In 2011, soon after the release of the Panda algorithm, the Google Team released an advisory blog titled What Counts as a High Quality Site, to provide guidance & direction for site self-evaluation.

In 2015, Google also made available the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, a compilation of factors that Google uses to help rank websites. 

They conduct evaluations with the help of feedback from a global team of third-party Search Quality Raters (People who manually rate Sites based on a Google Rubric, as defined in the Search Evaluator Guidelines).

Core Google Algorithm Updates From 2011 - 2021

1. Google Panda Update - February 2011 | Penalise Low Quality Content

This was the first major SEO Core Update released since the launch of SEO in 1999. It impacted the Search Rankings of nearly 12% of all search results.

The Panda Update was aimed at penalising thin, duplicate, or plagiarised content and return high quality Sites on top of Google Search Results.

This algorithm update was mainly targeted at content farms that were producing low quality, thin content for no reason other than making money from them. 

The Result? A significant drop in traffic to low-quality sites as they lost their rankings overnight. While the algorithm down graded poor content sites, it also rewarded Sites with high-quality, unique content.

CNET, an American Media Site, reported an increase in Search Rankings for News and other Social Networking Sites, and a drop in rankings for Sites containing large number of Ads.

How does the Google Panda algorithm work?

The Google Panda algorithm creates a ratio using a Site’s reference queries (branded queries about the Site on Google) as well as it’s inbound links. It’s not clear how this ratio is calculated. 

The ratio is used to create a Site-wide modification factor, which in turn is used for scoring every Page on the Site.

2. Google Venice Update - February 2012 | Display Location Based Search Results

In February 2012, Google made 40 algorithm updates. Venice was a significant change due to the fact that it brought into focus the concept of Local Search Results.

After the Venice update, search results included pages based on the location you set and your internet Protocol address while relying on the ranking of main search results as a signal.

3. Google Penguin Update - April 2012 | Penalise Sites Using Grey Hat/Spammy Backlinks

Penguin update is one of the most talked about Google algorithm Updates from 2012. It led to massive search fluctuations over time.

The main focus of this update was to reduce the search rankings of sites violating Google’s quality guidelines. In pursuit of higher traffic and rankings, such sites used questionable SEO practices such as spammy back links, keyword-stuffing and web spam.

Up until then, many sites used to pay for links as a way to artificially boost the ranking of their sites.The Penguin update attempted to discourage exchange or creation of low-quality paid links.

If the search engine algorithm found artificial links, a negative value was assigned to the site concerned, rather than the positive link value it would have received previously.

Since it first appeared, the Penguin update has gone through seven iterations, and was added to the core algorithm in 2016.

As a result of the Google Penguin Core update, it’s no longer enough to get low-effort, low-value, paid backlinks anymore. In order to get relevant links from valued sources you have to invest in a link building strategy.

Why Is The Penguin Google Update Called That?

Its not clear where the name comes from but drawing a parallel from the names of other updates, I think it may have something to do with a Penguin’s quality of Preening or cleaning itself to look attractive.

Google’s efforts were targeted at cleaning up the Search Results to make them better & more attractive for Users, hence the name Penguin.

4. Google knowledge graph - may 2012 | discover new information quickly

The Knowledge Graph was a new Search feature that allowed users to search for people (celebrities, leaders, scientists, historical figures and so on), places (cities, landmarks, buildings) and things, and access informtaion, relevant to their query, pulled in from a variety of sources.

The information appeared in the form of a Knowledge Box Panel, next to the Organic Search Results. 

The Knowledge Graph Algorithm Update brought in a new era of staggering and integrating information and answering direct spoken questions in smart devices such as the Google Home and Google Assistant.

The Knowledge Graph Update has gained more and more traction over the years, and has gone through several iterations and updates.

5. Google Pirate Update - August 2012 | Protect Copyright Material

The Google Pirate update targeted websites that copied others’ material without permission. This is an important factor when determining how much weight should be given to a particular result.

Through this algorithm Update, Google announced that any valid copyright removal notices against a site would result in lower rankings for that site.

For example, if someone copied all the text from Wikipedia articles into their own blog post, they might not deserve any credit for writing original content. However, if they took a new spin on some of the content, then this may count towards the site getting better rankings.

6. Google HummingBird Update - September 2013 | Better User Experience With Natural Language Processing

Hummingbird is one of the most important updates ever made by Google.

This update aimed to improve user experience by paving the way for semantic search through natural language queries, giving weightage to context and meaning over specific keywords.

What was the reason for this update? To understand a user’s query in a more intelligent way and to be able to give them an answer.

The HummingBird update marked one of the most powerful changes to Google Search, bringing the “human search” element into the mix.

As a result of this update, the SEO industry at large started to lay emphasis on optimising sites with natural writing rather that the forced use of keywords.

Why Is The Google Hummingbird Update Called That?

The Hummingbird Google Update derives its name from the speed and accuracy of the hummingbird

7. Google Pigeon Update - July 2014 | Improve Local Search Results

The Pigeon Algorithm Update was focused on Local Search Engine Optimisation. The update was designed to reward businesses with a strong local organic presence.

This algorithm had location and distance as the key criteria for local search results. It was also to answer navigational user search queries with accurate local map results.

The Pigeon Update resulted in better results near the user’s location. It also affected the Local Search Results shown in Google Maps.

Why Is The Google Pigeon Update Called That?

The algorithm update most likely derives its name from a Pigeon’s homing skills – to maneuver geographies and find its way home, regardless of location.

Similarly, the Google Pigeon Update was meant to find the best local search results for a User’s query, regardless of their geographical location.

8. Google HTTPS/SSL Update - August 2014 | Site Security Becomes a Ranking Signal

Google considers security as their top priority.

To emphasize the importance of security, Google decided to give a small ranking boost to sites that correctly implemented HTTPS (an internet security protocol) to make the connection between website and user secure.

In 2014, Google introduced HTTPS as a ranking signal and during the Google I/O conference in the same year, they advocated for HTTPS everywhere.

The HTTPS/SSL Update was a phased roll-out over a 3 year period. In late 2016, Google announced that starting January 2017, the company would start marking all http sites as non-secure.

9. Google Mobilegeddon - April 2015 | Mobile-Friendliness Becomes a Ranking Signal

In 2015, more than 50% of search queries were coming from mobile devices. This update announced Mobile-Friendliness as an official ranking signal, giving priority to sites that were optimised for mobile devices.

However, the update did not affect searches made from laptops and desktop computers.

It was nicknamed Mobilegeddon as the SEO industry thought it would massively shake up the search results.

However, this update didn’t affect most people’s rankings or as significantly as it was anticipated. Mobilegeddon was an important update that acknowledged the increasing importance of mobile.

Today, Google has moved entirely to Mobile First Indexing, so the mobile-friendliness of your Site impacts how you rank for every query.

Why Is The Google Mobilegeddon Update Called That?

Chuck Price, an SEO industry insider, wrote about the term in an article for Search Engine Watch. Later, Web-developers and webmasters adopted the term.

10. Google Rank Brain Update - October 2015 | Machine Learning Becomes a Ranking Signal

RankBrain is Google’s most sophisticated algorithm so far that uses machine learning to handle queries. It helps Google analyse search results and provide more appropriate results for users.

According to a 2015 interview, RankBrain was the third most important factor in the ranking algorithm, along with Content and Links.

In order to find words with similar meanings, RankBrain can make guesses about words it doesn’t know.

In order to improve accuracy, RankBrain also analyzes past searches and finds the best possible results.

This algorithm release is a big step towards better understanding the meaning behind searches and serving the best-matched results.

You can’t really maximize for RankBrain if you don’t write quality content. It has a significant impact on the results pages.

11. Mobile-First Indexing - November 2016 & March 2018 | Prioritise Indexing a Site's Mobile Search Results

This algorithm update meant that Google would use the mobile version of Site pages for crawling, indexing and ranking.

The Mobile-first indexing update was a phased roll-out that went into initial testing in 2016. In March 2018, Google announced that they’d started migrating sites that followed Mobile-First Indexing best practices.

The intent was to better optimise the Web for an ever increasing percentage of Web Mobile Users.

In 2018, at the time of release of this algorithm, the Google Search Central Blog mentioned the following:

“Having mobile-friendly content is still helpful for those looking at ways to perform better in mobile search results. As always, ranking uses many factors. So, we may show content to users that’s not mobile-friendly or that is slow loading if our many other signals determine it is the most relevant content to show.”

12. Mobile Interstitial Update - 2016 | Penalising Sites Showing Intrusive Interstitials

This algorithm update aimed to make mobile results more friendly and accessible by minimising content with intrusive pop-up styled interstitials.

As the user’s view of a certain page gets blocked by sites running interstitial ads, it can frustrate them while browsing. This is more troublesome on mobile devices that have a smaller screen size.

However, Google also clarified that this wasn’t a punishment for all interstitials. The focus was on intrusive interstitials that required the user to manually dismiss them, and made the browsing experience frustrating.

13. Google Medic Update - 2018 | Improve Authority and Expertise In Search Results

This broad core Algorithm Update was aimed at providing greater leverage to Sites with higher authority and expertise.

Even though Google claimed that the Algorithm was a Broad update (meaning it impacted all Sites & niches across the Web), it disproptionately impacted sites in specific niches negatively.

These niches included Wellness, Medical, Financial, and Legal – also termed as YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) owing to the massive influence they can have on a user’s physical, mental and financial health.

Additionally, Google released an official statement stating: “There’s no “fix” for pages that may perform less well other than to remain focused on building great content. Over time, it may be that your content may rise relative to other pages.”

As an advisory to evaluate, optimise and recover from this update, Google pointed Webmasters to their Search Quality Rating Guidelines, originally released in 2015.

After the Google Medic Update, the Google’s Search Guidelines received a lot of renewed interest from the Search Industry.

14. Google BERT Update - October 2019 | Understand Searches Better Than Ever Before

BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. It was a neural-network based algorithm update, aimed at better understanding the language in which people used search engines.

It’s name came from the research Google conducted on Transformers – to process words in relation to all other words in a sentence.

Based on Google announcements, BERT could figure out the full context of a word by looking at the words that precede and follow it.

Google also claimed that applying BERT models to search would help generate more useful information and featured snippets, in search results.

The rich Featured Snippets and PAA (People Also Ask) Boxes we see in Search Results today are a consequence of the BERT algorithm update.

15. Page Experience Update - May 2020 & June 2021 | Use Page Experience As a Ranking Signal

The Page Experience update was originally announced in May 2020, but wasn’t actioned until June 2021, given the impact of Covid-19 on the global Business community.

This Update is designed to positively impact pages that offer a great User Experience.

You might wonder what constitutes great User Experience? Well, Google considers certain page experience signals as part of User experience. These include factors such as Page Speed and Mobile-friendliness.

This was a phased algorithm roll-out between June 2021 – August 2021.

The main Page Experience Signals include:

Core Web Vitals – These Metrics are focused on aspects of Page Loading (LCP), Interactivity (FID), and Visual Stability (CLS).

Mobile-Friendliness – The page should be mobile-friendly. You may want to check if your page is mobile-friendly by taking the Mobile-Friendly Test.

HTTPS – The Page must be served over a secure HTTPS connection

No Intrusive Interstitials – Site Pages should be easily accessible to users, and be available without intrusive interstitials.

16. Google MUM Update - May 2021 | A New AI Milestone For Understanding Information

MUM stands for Multitask Unified Model. The Google MUM update was announced at I/O 2021.

It’s a new AI Search algorithm which is meant to be 1000 times more powerful than Google’s most advanced algorithm at present (BERT).

MUM aims to accomplish some of the following:

  • Interact with a person like an Expert Consultant or Guide would – responding to questions based on prior responses
  • The MUM algorithm is trained across 75 different languages & many tasks at once. This will allow it to develop a more comprehensive understanding of information & the World, and an ability to transfer knowledge from sources across multiple languages
  • This algorithm can also understand information across text and images seamlessly, and will eventually expand to more modalities like video and audio

It’s not clear yet when Google will officially launch MUM but since they’ve already made the announcement, we’re likely to see a release in the very near future.

Summary

In summary, these Google algorithm updates were made to improve user experiences, increase relevance, and provide better answers. 

They’re not intended to harm SEO practices, but rather to make sure they work well together and reward Sites that have consistently worked hard to improve the quality of their Content and offer their target market a good experience.

For any Site looking to stay on top of any potential issues, following the SEO best practices is the most sure-shot way of ensuring long term SEO health.

Medha Dixit
[email protected]

Hi, my name is Medha Dixit. I'm an eCommerce SEO Consultant and Founder of Digital Chakra, a UK based Digital Marketing Agency, focused on helping small & mid-sized eCommerce Businesses with SEO and Conversion Optimisation. I'm a Computer Engineer and have an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, India's Top Business School. Solving problems related to SEO & Conversion Optimisation excites me and I hope to make a positive Business Impact through my work. I take pride in what I do and consider myself to be a sponge, absorbing knowledge whilst also constantly striving to build & improve. I have helped UK eCommerce Businesses generate millions in revenue through SEO and Conversion Optimisation. Say hello on LinkedIn or feel free to drop me an email at [email protected]

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