A Complete History of Google Algorithm Updates
An enormous part of maintaining your competitive edge online and making sure you reach more customers is ensuring you are in line with SEO updates and adjusting your search engine optimisation strategy accordingly.
As the dominant search engine worldwide, Google’s search algorithm plays a significant role in your website’s online visibility. And as users’ online behaviour changes and new challenges arise, Google’s algorithm has adapted to more effectively ranking websites for usefulness and quality.
Why is it worth knowing about Google updates?
Google constantly reiterates its core algorithm, with updates happening several times a year. Some of these may be more or less significant than others, but the fact is even a small change in a behemoth like Google can have significant consequences for the digital landscape around you.
If you’ve received a bump or a drop in your page rankings, it could be because of an update or change you’ve made or the impact of a Google algorithm change. Knowing which is which will define how you respond and ensure your website maintains a competitive ranking on the queries that matter most to you.
Sometimes, Google updates greatly impact where sites land in search — such as Google Panda in 2012, which sent many websites plummeting in search. Panda and Penguin (which targeted phoney paid backlinks) were major updates in the last decade that set out to target a malicious SEO practice that ‘cheated’ the system to artificially inflate a site’s visibility.
Ever since these major crackdowns, it’s much less likely that you’ll be downranked into oblivion overnight and more likely that your place may rise or fall by a few spots after a Google update is implemented.
Think of this movement less as a punishment for doing something wrong and more as a refresh of a best-of list. New entries appear on the list that may be more deserving of the top spot. But armed with the knowledge of what each core update focuses on, you can ensure that your content is optimised to rank as highly as it deserves.
If you haven’t stayed on top of all the Google updates and how they’ll affect your web presence, let us give you the complete Google history of updates and algorithm changes, starting with the latest Google update this year.
The latest Google update in 2023. What do we know so far?
It’s no secret that most companies want to grab that elusive number 1 spot on Google. What’s clear in 2023 is that the algorithm is now far too sophisticated to fall for any cheap tricks and dodgy SEO tactics — if these were ever successful, it was only in the short term, and in fact, it would likely do more harm than good when it came to building a trusted brand online.
As Google uses more and more technological innovation to understand the full context surrounding a keyword and prioritises user experiences, your focus needs to be on quality content and optimising all possible technical aspects in order to keep your site on the first page of search results.
In many ways, each update by Google makes it easier to be genuinely rewarded for offering quality, relevant information on topics you’re authoritative in. Plain language is increasingly rewarded, as are genuine, satisfying answers. Valuable content will ultimately always be your strongest asset in the face of future algorithm updates.
2022 – Helpful Content
Last year, Google increased its focus on the quality of content appearing in search results. The updated SEO algorithm for 2022 shows the long-term focus of the company, wanting to reward sites that think ‘people-first’ — genuinely answering questions and leaving searchers feeling satisfied that they found what they came for.
2021 – MUM (Multitask United Model)
Google’s update in 2021, known as ‘MUM’, introduced some major changes in search. Namely, it allowed Google to do more than one thing at once. The algorithm learned how to read, understand and learn in over 75 languages simultaneously while also interpreting video and audio sources for information.
MUM sought to develop a more comprehensive understanding of information than Google could, vastly improving on previous models. For example, imagine you’ve just done a bushwalk in Victoria, and next year you’re planning on making a trail at the same time of year in Tasmania.
Deciding what you might do differently to plan your trip would require numerous different searches, comparisons of geography and temperature and manually finding points of comparison yourself.
With MUM, all these separate queries could be answered using the nuance of AI, simply by querying: ‘I’ve done bushwalks in Victoria and want to do walks in Tasmania next year; what should I do differently to prepare?’
How AI impacts search
Google has traditionally been a country-specific and monolingual experience for its users. However, as the trends in web culture more broadly tend toward integrated spaces and diverse international communities, this way of operating is potentially limiting.
MUM broke down language barriers to give users knowledge from a variety of language sources and could also understand information from different formats simultaneously. It reflected Google’s aims for the future, where it anticipates its AI technology could understand the varied, organic ways people communicate and interpret information.
2021 – Page Experience Update
Along with MUM, the Page Experience Update debuted this year, introducing a new ranking signal that preferences pages based on user experience. Loading performance, interactivity and visual stability were all used as metrics for search ranking.
2019 – BERT
With this algo update, Google started to move towards machine learning and AI technology in a significant way. BERT is a machine learning algorithm, a large language learning model which uses neural networks to better process language.
Perhaps the biggest change with BERT was its ability to glean the full context of a keyword by looking at what words came before and after it. Rather than assessing words individually in the order they appear, the algorithm could use context and the relation between all the words in a sentence to better establish meaning, relevance and readability for users.
2018 – Medic
Medic was one of those Google updates that spelled big shifts in search rankings. As one of the broadest core updates, it tackled medical sites and information with a keener eye. Many of these medical-related sites were slugged with lower rankings, focusing on better catering to searcher’s needs and intent.
2018 – (Mobile) Speed Update
This is another one of Google’s updates for 2018 that reflected user behaviour. The SEO update acknowledged that users want information delivered fast. Page loading speed for mobile searches became a ranking factor in meeting this need, and mobile-first web design has only grown in popularity since.
2016 – Possum
Possum was all about improving Google’s local ranking filter to provide better local search results. By taking into account the physical location of the user and the phrasing of the query, local results became a lot more varied.
2015 – RankBrain
RankBrain was the start of machine learning playing a role in Google’s search algorithm. It could make educated guesses about words it doesn’t know, find words with similar meanings, and offer relevant results based on these connections. As a machine-learning model, RankBrain analysed the volume of past searches to determine how it could improve its results.
2015 – Mobile Update
By 2015, iPhone was onto its sixth iteration, and mobile data was transforming the way searchers sought information. In response to the increased use of mobile for searches, Google launched its first update, which rewarded mobile-friendly sites with better rankings in search results.
2014 – HTTPS/SSL
Very much an SEO update that focused on webmasters getting their house in order, HTTP/SSL was all about website security. The update gave a small ranking boost to sites that followed proper protocol and correctly implemented HTTPS, providing a more secure connection between the site and the user.
2014 – Pigeon
The results page and Google Maps were affected by Pigeon, a local SEO update that led to more accurate localisation favouring results near the user’s location. Organic ranking factors were also considered to give searchers more relevant, higher-quality search results.
2013 – Hummingbird
Hummingbird laid the foundations for voice search as the rise of devices like Alexa and Google Home increased in popularity. Before this Google update, only particular words in a query were taken into account for search. After Hummingbird, the whole phrase was assessed to give users a clear answer rather than just a list of results.
Its biggest impact was enforcing as SEO best practice that copy should always read naturally, be clear and easily comprehensible, and not over-optimised in an artificial sounding way.
2012 – Pirate
As the name suggests, this Google update clamped down on illegally spreading copyrighted content. How copyright functions online, in general, is still a contentious topic, but Google’s line in the sand established a somewhat traditional publishing approach.
2012 – Penguin
Penguin is one of those Google algorithms changes that people seem to have heard of, but may not understand the details around. Essentially, it introduced backlinks as a ranking factor but also applied more scrutiny to them.
Whereas in the past, any link from a website might have boosted your ranking, Penguin assessed whether these backlinks were genuine or if they’d been bought to artificially inflate a site’s rank. Overnight, sites that had been engaging in this practice were removed, making bought links a useless metric for ranking highly.
2012 – Venice
Venice was one of the earliest changes that reflected user needs. Based on the understanding that searchers were often looking for results local to them, the local SEO was born. Following the Venice update, Google’s search results included pages based on a location set by the user, or their IP address.
2011 – Panda
Panda brings us all the way back to the beginning of Google’s history of algorithm updates. Focused mainly on on-page factors, Panda was designed to determine whether a website genuinely offered relevant information to a search term, and it permanently affected how we approach SEO.
In the Panda update, two types of sites were hit hardest; affiliate sites, which existed mainly to link to other pages, and sites with very thin content. The length of SEO copy, the number of links used on a page and other on-page factors were still a huge component of SEO best practice.
What is the future of Google algorithm updates?
At this point, Google is a highly effective, ubiquitous and powerful search engine. Gone are the days of transformative core updates, which change rankings completely overnight. In the future, Google algorithm updates will be more about fine-tuning a well-oiled machine than turning the internet on its head.
Predicting the future of Google updates means looking at its key focus areas:
- Perfecting search queries and styling results pages — Google is continuously working to better interpret the information it indexes and present the results in ways that provide an integrated user experience. E-A-T, featured snippets and other information syntheses can be expected to continue.
- UX and user-friendliness — This point goes hand in hand with the one before. Providing answers without having to navigate off the page, summarising information sources and contextualising results to give a better user experience are all coming down the pike.
- Mobile experience and mobile search — Mobile is, by far, the dominant device used by searchers, and a mobile-first approach will likely become the future for all but a handful of sites as Google prioritises the mobile experience.
- Continued integration of AI and search — With the recently announced soft launch of Google’s Bard AI, machine learning is moving firmly from behind-the-scenes elements of the search algorithm to be front and centre of the user experience. Conversational results and added context will likely become the norm as Google anticipates the future of AI virtual assistants, voice search and other changing user behaviours.Wondered how other search engines fair? Discover Yandex’s ranking factors.
Future-proof your SEO with OMG
At OMG, we don’t just sit back and wait for the latest Google update to shake things up — we actively anticipate the future of SEO and craft bespoke strategies for our clients that will produce sustainable, long-lasting results.
Get in touch with us today to organise your free web audit and see how our Gurus can skyrocket your SEO success with a targeted expert strategy.