Andrew Raso April 3, 2023

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 updates in 2024. What do we know so far? 

Every company dreams of securing the top spot on Google search results, but 2024 has made one thing crystal clear Google’s algorithm is smarter than ever. Gone are the days of manipulating search rankings with quick fixes and shady tactics. While these might have yielded temporary results in the past, they ultimately damage a brand’s online reputation and hinder long-term success. 

March 2024 — Core update and spam update 

Google kicked off 2024 with a one-two punch — a major core update and a spam update, both rolled out in March. The core update, one of the most extensive in recent memory, refined how Google assesses helpfulness, user experience and content quality. 

The spam update specifically targeted manipulative tactics like expired domain abuse, scaled content abuse and site reputation abuse. It rolled out globally, impacting all languages and regions. Sites found to be violating these new policies faced penalties ranging from lower rankings to complete removal from search results. 

May 2024 — Site reputation update 

Following up on March’s spam update, Google continued its crackdown on manipulative SEO practices in May with a focus on site reputation abuse. This update involved manual actions against sites engaging in link schemes, thin content and other deceptive tactics. If your site’s reputation is questionable, Google is making it clear that rankings will suffer. 

This heightened scrutiny underscores the growing importance of establishing and maintaining a positive online reputation. Sites with a history of spammy tactics, misleading content or negative user experiences are increasingly at risk. Google’s message is clear build trust with your audience through genuine engagement, valuable content and ethical practices, or face the consequences. 

May 2024 — The rise of AI-generated overviews (previously search generative experience) 

In a move that signals a shift towards AI-powered search, Google introduced AI-generated summaries in May. Powered by their new Gemini model, these summaries aim to provide quick answers at the top of search results. While this feature is still evolving, it clearly indicates that Google is investing heavily in AI to enhance the search experience. For content creators, this means focusing on in-depth, authoritative content that can still shine in a world of AI-generated snippets. 

2023 – Search refined for relevance and experience 

In 2023, Google continued its mission to deliver the most relevant and helpful search results by focusing on passage indexing and user experience (UX). Passage indexing allowed Google to understand specific page sections, improving results for complex queries. Meanwhile, UX updates aimed to make search faster and more accessible on mobile devices, emphasising that a smooth user journey is key to ranking well. 

February 2023 — Product reviews update 

This update aimed to reward high-quality product reviews that offered in-depth analysis, original research and genuine user or expert opinions. Sites that provided comprehensive reviews with unique insights and a clear understanding of the products they discussed saw a boost in rankings. Conversely, sites with thin or overly promotional reviews experienced a decline. 

March 2023 — E-E-A-T

The March 2023 core update, a broad algorithm refresh, aimed to improve how Google assesses content overall. Sites with high-quality, relevant content saw a boost, while those with lower-quality or outdated content might have experienced a drop. This update emphasised the importance of E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness) and user experience in ranking well. 

The focus on E-E-A-T signals Google’s increasing emphasis on content created by knowledgeable sources with proven expertise and a positive track record. This shift highlights the importance of building authority and trust through in-depth, well-researched content that demonstrates a deep understanding of the subject matter. It’s no longer enough to simply have information you need to showcase your credentials and prove that your content is reliable and trustworthy. 

April 2023 — Reviews update 

This update targeted review content on a page-level basis, aiming to reward authentic, insightful reviews while penalising thin or unhelpful ones. Sites that provided detailed, informative reviews with clear pros and cons likely saw improved visibility in search results. 

Google broadened the scope of this update beyond product reviews, extending it to services, local businesses, destinations and media. This expansion underscores the growing importance of experience-based reviews in establishing trust and credibility. To thrive in this new landscape, businesses need to focus on gathering authentic feedback from customers and fostering a community of engaged reviewers who are willing to share their in-depth experiences. 

October 2023 — Spam update

Google’s October spam update aimed to improve spam detection across multiple languages, including Turkish, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Hindi and Chinese. This update tackled various spam types, including cloaking, hacked, auto-generated and scraped content. Sites with genuine, original content benefited, while those relying on spammy tactics suffered.  

November 2023 — Core update & reviews update

Google ended the year with a double update, combining a broad core algorithm refresh with a targeted focus on reviews. The core update aimed to improve the overall quality of search results, while the reviews update refined the way Google assesses product, service and local reviews. Sites that consistently produced helpful, high-quality content and detailed, informative reviews saw a positive impact, reinforcing the importance of user-centric content creation as a core SEO strategy. 

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.

About the Author

Andrew Raso

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