Major Google Algorithm Updates: Your Guide Through History

Google Algorithm Updates

It may seem like Google algorithms are difficult to keep up with, but it’s worth learning a little about them to make sure your site is ranking as well as it possibly can. Here’s what you need to know about the major updates.

First of all, what exactly is an algorithm? Well, an algorithm sets the stage for a computer to perform a very specific task, and Google algorithms are no different. When you search for something on Google, for example, “boots” or “cute dog videos”, the search engine delivers millions of results. How it chooses these results and in what arrangement is what is described as an algorithm.

With us so far? Great. Here’s where it gets complicated. Algorithms are an intricate set of rules, and Google tends to change those rules almost every day. These changes can be the tiniest of tweaks, or there can be massive disturbances, better known as core updates. However, these algorithms do not override each other; they work in tandem.

Just because an update happened in 2011 doesn’t mean it’s no longer valid; it remains relevant in 2024 as it has become a part of Google’s algorithm.

For example, if you take the Pigeon algorithm, the local and web algorithm work together to help small local businesses rank higher.

But frequent changes mean you can’t stop your digital marketing efforts. Just because a certain company is number one on Google one day, does not mean that they will stay in this position the next. Plus, it’s much easier to work in-sync with Google’s best practices rather than being hit and trying to recover from a Google algorithm update, which can be a daunting task.

Major Google Updates

1. Florida

  • Date: Launched in November 2003
  • Risks: Keyword stuffing, low-quality content, excessive use of doorway pages

The Florida update was the first big shift in Google’s algorithm. It aimed to stop websites from using poor SEO tactics (such as keyword stuffing) to boost their rankings. Doorway pages were also a target – instead, Google looks for pages that are used by its users, rather than ones created to rank on search engines. Websites that engaged in these poor practices were targeted in this update and found themselves further down the search rankings.

What does this mean for me? Avoid stuffing your content full of keywords in an unnatural manner. Instead, design your webpage for your users – full of meaningful pages, information rich content and naturally positioned keywords.

2. Jagger

  • Date: Launched in September 2005
  • Risks: Low-quality backlinks, excessive requited linking

This update was actually a series of changes that targeted links within web content. It penalised pages that had low-quality backlinks and pages that simply linked with each other with poor content. Pages that had genuine, high-quality backlinks were ranked highly. Natural high-quality links are what Google looks for now, without pages being too link heavy or filled with spam.

What does this mean for me? The quantity of your backlinks is no longer important. Instead, it is about their quality. Creating organic, natural links within your content is better than stuffing your content with irrelevant or low-quality links. It is important to audit the links within the content that you already have, before adding in natural ones to new content. Google’s Links Best Practices document can help with this.

3. Big Daddy

  • Date: Launched in November 2005
  • Risks: No canonical tags, poor website structure, duplicate content.

Canonicalization is how search engines know what the main version of a webpage is, and it is a way of indexing your site, allowing it to have a clear structure. The Big Daddy update looks for webpages to be well-structured, have canonical tags and wants sites to avoid duplicate content.

What does this mean for me? Google wants web pages to have unique content, so make sure that your web pages are different, rather than just a few titles changed. Ensure that your webpage is indexed, and proper canonicalization is in place.

4. Vince

  • Date: Launched in January 2009
  • Risks: Lack of expertise and trustworthiness in content.

The Vince Google Update was put in place in an attempt to ensure their users can access high-quality content. This update prioritises expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness in order to get the most for its users. This negatively affected smaller pages that used lots of keywords, while larger brands, which may not have been SEO optimized, were boosted up the rankings. Google looks for pages that are experts in the topics they write about so that they provide information that is both trustworthy and reliable.

What does this mean for me? It’s important that the content on your website demonstrates a high level of knowledge and expertise. Having rich, detailed content that is both up-to-date and packed with information will benefit your page. Your content should also include quality media – whether this be photos or videos that illustrate clearly the information that you are trying to get across.

5. Caffeine

  • Date: Launched in June 2010
  • Risks: Old, outdated content, slow loading pages, poor website structure.

The Caffeine update was perhaps the biggest update to date when it launched back in 2010 – it focused on several different factors including outdated website content and bad website organisation and structure. Slow-loading content was penalised, while websites that were properly indexed and organised moved up the rankings.

What does this mean for me? Your content needs to stay relevant, so add content often to keep it relevant. Increasing your page loading speed will impress both users and Google itself. Most importantly, the structure of your website needs to be easy to navigate. Share only pages that should be visible to users with Google, and index pages to help search engines navigate your site. Google has some good advice on how to control what you share with it, so start there.

6. Panda

  • Date: Launched in February 2011
  • Risks: Duplicate, plagiarised or thin content, user-generated spam, keyword stuffing

Keyword stuffing is a black-hat SEO technique; however, it is also considered webspam. Webspam is a phrase used to describe web pages that are designed to spam Google search results – for example, when keywords are crowded into web page meta tags, visible content or backlink anchor text. Many businesses have used this technique to achieve an unfair advantage in search engines. The Panda appoints a quality score to web pages, and this is used as a ranking factor. Google is looking for quality and original content that is relevant and interesting. This, however, does not mean you shouldn’t use keywords: they are still very important, and are key to your ranking position. Up until 2016, Panda was just a filter, however, it was then integrated into the core algorithm.

What does this mean for me? You need to make sure your site is using keywords but avoid keyword stuffing.

7. Freshness Algorithm

  • Date: Launched in November 2011
  • Risks: Out-of-date or irrelevant content

Google wants its users to always have accurate, up-to-date content. Therefore, the Freshness algorithm launched in 2011, aims to prioritise content that is recent and fresh in its search results. Content that is linked to news and current events ranks highly with this update. Websites that have good content but are old and not updated will drop further in the rankings.

What does this mean for me? You need to make sure that your web content is kept up-to-date, with pages being updated regularly or new content added. Add in new information about your product or industry as it happens to stay at the top of the search rankings. Consistent publishing is also great for this update.

8. Page Layout Algorithm

  • Date: Launched in January 2012
  • Risks: Too many ads

This update is known as the ‘Top Heavy’ update. Google wants its users to look at high-quality content. Therefore, this update penalized websites with too many ads – especially at the top of their web pages before any content can be read. Above-the-fold ads should instead be replaced with ads that align with the Page Layout Algorithm’s guidelines. This was aimed to better users’ experiences of websites to allow them to better access high-quality content.

What does this mean for me? Make sure that your web pages have a good ratio of content to ads. Ads should be well-placed, and not above the fold. Your content should be easy to read and visible. Make sure to check the search engine’s Page Layout Algorithm. The layout should be user-friendly, clear and easy to use.

Find out more about the Page Layout Algorithm from Google Help Pages.

9. Venice

  • Date: Launched in February 2012
  • Risks: Page not optimised for local searches, no location info.

MMany of the topics users search on Google are related to the local area, and Google’s Venice update aimed to make this even easier for users. The update aimed to give searchers local search results, even if they didn’t add a location to their initial search query. After this update, websites that utilised local SEO techniques and had content that was tailored to their specific location were boosted up the rankings.

What does this mean for me? Choose to include location-specific keywords in your content, and highlight your product or service location. Keep any addresses or contact information up-to-date and make sure that you are linked with as many online directories as possible.

10. Penguin

  • Date: Launched in April 2012
  • Risks: Spam or irrelevant links, links with optimised anchor text

The Penguin came about to reward high-quality sites and down-rank the pages using manipulative links and keyword stuffing. It was created to combat businesses which were using backlinks that were unrelated to the product or service in order to advance in search engine optimisation, creating false relevance. As mentioned before Google will no longer tolerate keyword stuffing.

What does this mean for me? Using quality links will help improve your businesses ranking.

11. Exact Match Domain Update

  • Date: Launched in November 2012
  • Risks: Low-quality exact match domains

Before this update, many websites were ranking highly on Google’s search results unfairly. This is because their domain names were deliberately phrased to match popular search queries exactly. The EMD update means that Google will now look at the quality of the content within the site, as well as the domain name, when ranking search results.

What does this mean for me? If you have a domain that exactly matches a popular search, this is not a bad thing. You just also need to ensure that you have high-quality content on your page. To find out how Google scans content to rank search results, take a look at their guide on how a Google search works.

12. Payday

  • Date: Launched in June 2013
  • Risks: Spam content, manipulation tactics

This update was brought in by Google to target Google searches that are often filled with spam results – such as Payday Loans. It aims to reduce the visibility of websites that manipulate users to try and rank highly on searches.

What does this mean for me? If your site is for one of the specific industries, it is important that your SEO meets Google’s guidelines. The content on your site should be informative rather than manipulative. Adhering to ethical SEO practices will help your website maintain visibility and credibility in the long term, even in industries targeted by algorithm updates like the Payday Loan update. It is worth reading through Google’s spam policies to ensure you avoid being dropped down their search result rankings.

13. Hummingbird

  • Date: Launched in August 2013
  • Risks: Keyword stuffing, low-quality content

Hummingbird enables Google to better understand searches and allow them to supply results that better match the purpose of the search. It allows a page to rank for an inquiry, even if it doesn’t include the exact words requested in the search. This is accomplished with natural language processing.

What does this mean for me? Natural language processing means you don’t have to rely on keyword stuffing to get your site to rank.

14. Pigeon

  • Date: Launched in July 2014
  • Risks: Poor on- and off-page SEO

Pigeon was created to link Google’s local search algorithm closer to its web algorithm, and to improve ranking quality based on distance and location. Its link to the web algorithm highlights the need for local businesses to have a persistent organic web presence. This way they can compete for local rankings. Both algorithms are used in conjunction with one another.

What does this mean for me? The Pigeon algorithm means that potential customers within your locality will be more likely to be directed to your site.

15. Mobile

  • Date: Launched in April 2015
  • Risks: Inadequate mobile version of the page, poor user experience

The Mobile update (Mobilegeddon) guarantees that websites have mobile-friendly pages. More and more people are using their mobiles to search on Google which means websites need to invest in mobile. Mobile-friendly pages rank at the top of the mobile search, whereas pages not optimised for mobile are down-ranked.

What does this mean for me? Make sure your site is mobile-optimised to avoid being down-ranked by Mobile.

16. Quality Updates

  • Date: Launched in May 2015
  • Risks: Poor quality content, low readability

This update is often known as the Phantom update as it has been working in the background since May 2015. The update focuses on quality content for its users. It looks at multiple factors of website content such as length, expertise and originality, rewarding pages with content like this. The content should be well-structured and easy to read.

What does this mean for me? Make sure that your site has unique, high-quality content that has a good readability rating. This update is a more continuous update than others on our list, so keep up to date with Google’s content guidelines. To help create high-quality content, check out Google’s advice on how to create helpful content.

17. RankBrain

  • Date: Launched in October 2015
  • Risks: Lack of query-specific relevance features, poor UX, sketchy content

Read also: UX/UI Design in Digital Marketing

RankBrain works with Google’s Hummingbird algorithm. It’s a machine learning system that enables Google to perceive the meaning behind the queries and deliver the top search results. Google refers to RankBrain as the third-most important ranking factor.

What does this mean for me? If your user experience is lacking, consult a marketing or design agency to revamp your customer journey.

18. Possum

  • Date: Launched in September 2016
  • Risks: Tense competition in your target location

This ensures that local results differ more depending on the location of the searcher. Therefore, the closer you are to a business address, the more likely you are to see local results. The Possum update promoted businesses outside of the city areas.

What does this mean for me? Depending on the location of your business, Possum could help you compete with local rankings.

19. Fred

  • Date: this update was launched in March 2017
  • Risks: Thin, affiliate-heavy or ad-centred content

This is Google’s latest confirmed algorithm update. This is targeted at sites that are in breach of the webmaster guidelines. Blogs with low-quality posts are most affected by this update, as they are perceived to be created only to generate revenue.

What does this mean for me? Make sure you are posting quality content. Articles written solely to generate revenue will be penalised.

Conclusion

We will never fully understand every single piece of the Google Algorithm, but keeping up with the major updates will give you an edge. If you bear in mind the customer journey and the quality of your content, you will be ahead of the game.

Branislav Nikolic

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