Google algorithm updates tend to shake up the whole SEO industry

SEO professionals take to Twitter to compare data and look out for signs of what the algorithm update could entail. But more and more recently, Google has been prewarning us of such updates and allowed us some time to prepare for them.

The best example of this is the May Page Experience update.

We were originally told about this update in 2020, a whole six months or so before it was due to roll out. This was something Google hadn’t done before. This update has already been delayed to June 2021. 

On top of the Page Experience update, there are two (yes, two) broad updates coming in both June and July, which means it could be a rocky few months for rankings. Broad updates tend to come a few times a year, but never so close together. 

A Brief History of Google Algorithm Updates

Why Does Google Update Its Algorithm?

Google wants to provide the most accurate results possible for searchers and updates its algorithm to improve user experience.

Google has already explained that the 2021 Page Experience “update is designed to highlight pages that offer great user experiences.”

“Google uses a number of data points and signals to determine whether a site or page offers a good ‘page experience’. It may use things like the time it takes for a page to load, whether it’s mobile-friendly, whether content or images jump around the page as it loads, and if the site runs on HTTPS. All of these things (and probably more) helps Google to determine whether the page experience for the user is good or bad.” —  The All Blog

The easiest way to see how Google views your site from an experience perspective is Google Search Console.

A Brief History of Google Algorithm Updates

With such big algorithm updates arriving, it seemed like a good time to dig a little deeper into some of the bigger Google updates of the past. Knowing what these included could continue to help your site in the future. 

Florida Update, 2003

The Florida update in November 2003 was the first-ever major algorithm update, and Google made sure it was a good one. Prior to the update, many websites used spammy tactics in order to drive traffic, including keyword stuffing, invisible text (i.e. text that matched the color of the background so Google could see it, but users couldn’t), and hidden links. This update aimed to eradicate all of these spammy sites from the rankings, so users may have gone from receiving lots of traffic to almost nothing in one day.

Jagger Update, 2005

The Jagger was a series of updates that happened over approximately three months, from September to November 2005, and its main focus was on backlinks, as well as duplicate content. The update meant that Google could now take into account anchor text and how many links were coming to a website.

Lots of links in a short space of time could now be deemed as spammy, and therefore many sites were impacted. For the first time, Google started to seriously crackdown on predictable link-building patterns and bought links, too. 

Panda, 2011

There were a few mini updates between Jagger and Panda, including Vince and Caffeine, but Panda was the next big one. The Panda update meant that every web page could be assigned a quality score, which is then used as a ranking factor.

The update, like the Jagger, focused more on duplicate content, as well as plagiarized or thin content. This was the first time content needed to be good quality and in-depth instead of just a few short sentences, ending the ‘content farm’ industry.

The Panda update was amended around 13 times between its release and April 2012.

Penguin, 2012

The Penguin update attacked many sites that had tried to over-optimize themselves. It affected sites that continued to use keyword stuffing and unnatural linking, even after Florida and Jagger. Over-optimized anchor texts were used as a tactic, particularly when sites were buying links through link farms or participating in low-effort link building, and it’s these that were hit hardest.

A month after Penguin, Google released Penguin 1.1 that allowed websites to be re-ranked if they had made an effort to clear up their unnatural or paid-for links.

Hummingbird, 2013

While some algorithm updates are there to prevent spam, others have been created to help Google better understand what users are searching for and what they want. Hummingbird allowed Google to understand search queries in a different way so that they could provide the most relevant results that matched search intent.

Whereas previously, you’d need to specifically write out your keywords in full, Hummingbird meant that a webpage could rank for a query even if it didn’t have that query written in full within the content. This is also known as Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI). Google now understands that ‘car’, ‘automobile’, and ‘vehicle’ all mean the same thing, so you don’t have to worry about cramming each variation into your content.

This update was huge as it affected an enormous 90% of all searches. 

Mobile-Friendly Update, 2015

Now, a mobile-friendly website is a must if you want your site to rank well, but a few years ago, it was still considered unusual for people to browse websites on their mobiles. Desktop computers and laptops were still the best way to do this. So to keep up with moving technology, Google announced the Mobile-Friendly update, or ‘Mobilegeddon’, in April 2015. This rewarded mobile-friendly websites by giving them increased weight over desktop-only sites.

RankBrain, 2015

RankBrain was being worked on for around six months before it was officially introduced as part of a Hummingbird algorithm update. RankBrain is a machine learning system that understands language better than any previous search engine machines.

It is thanks to the system that Google can provide us with the best results when we need them, and Google has called RankBrain the third most important ranking factor. It’s typical that they haven’t told us what the formula involves, but it means that Google can understand more about what a user wants from their query, including implied words and the larger context.

Broad Core Updates, 2018 to now

From March 2018, Google started to refer to any big updates as simply ‘Broad Core Algorithm Updates’. The one that occurred on 12th March was supposed to “benefit pages that were previously under-rewarded” and that everyone should continue “building great content”. They were very vague about what changes had been made to reward pages that weren’t rewarded in the past.

The April 2018 update was also about content relevance, though again, Google remained vague. Another core update in March 2019 was referred to as ‘Florida 2’ but yet again, Google simply recommended that people follow guidance from the previous March 2018 update. There were further broad core updates in June 2019, September 2019, January 2020, May 2020, and December 2020, but we weren’t provided with any specific information about what these could have entailed.

So, there you have our basic and brief Google history in one helpful guide. It can be good to keep an eye on what Google is up to. If you’re unsure of where to find this information, Search Engine Lane and Search Engine Journal are two of the best places to start. When a new update is implied or confirmed, these sites will be one of the first to document it.

Guest author Sarah Macklin is an SEO copywriter at Click Consult. Connect with her on Linkedin