To the everyday user, Google’s search engine might seem pretty unremarkable. Type in “corgi,” and you’re going to get a bunch of corgi-related results. You’ll see a page called, “10 Facts about Corgis You Paw-bibly Didn’t Know.” You’ll see a Knowledge Panel featuring the life span and temperament of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi. You’ll get a dropdown suggestion for the query, “corgi butt.” These aren’t tremendous cognitive leaps. The goal of Google Search is to provide you with results from which you’ll derive value. Most reasonable people value corgi butts.
Fact is, however, that Google’s search algorithm didn’t always have such a keen understanding of what most people find valuable. It’s evolved quite a bit over the years. Our goal today is to paint a more in depth picture of that evolution.
Below is a to-date list of the most impactful Google algorithm updates since 2003. We’ll keep adding to this list as time rolls along.
Check out the top Google algorithm updates of 2021 here.
Let’s hop in!
Image via Search Engine Roundtable
Google’s “Fred” Update (unofficially named) occurs in March of 2017. Its purpose is to crack down on sites that prioritize monetization over user experience. The name “Fred” is arbitrary, and is jokingly assigned by Google analytics expert Gary Illyes. The results of the update are not arbitrary.
Image via GSQi
Sites with low quality user engagement—thin content, content heavily geared toward conversions, UX barriers (popups, navigational obstacles) and aggressive on-page advertising tactics—lose organic search traffic overnight. Some sites report up to 90% traffic loss.
Image via Google Webmaster Central Blog
Google announces the Intrusive Interstitial Penalty in August of 2016, writing, ”Pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as highly.” The update itself rolls out in January 2017, and cracks down on sites with intrusive mobile interstitials. Google gives the following examples of techniques that will negatively impact a page’s organic search ranking:
1. Showing a popup that covers the main content, either immediately after the user navigates to a page from the search results, or while they are looking through the page.
2. Displaying a standalone interstitial that the user must dismiss before accessing the main content.
3. Using a layout where the above-the-fold portion of the page appears similar to a standalone interstitial, but the original content has been inlined underneath the fold.
Glenn Gabe tracks the ramifications of the Intrusive Interstitial Penalty, and records some interesting insights in this blog post.
Penguin 4.0: the Penguin we deserve. Image via Pew Trusts.
Google announces Penguin 4.0 in September of 2016. The two main revisions to the original Penguin update are:
1. Penguin goes real time, and becomes a part of Google’s core algorithm.
2. Penguin now devalues “spammy” links at a granular level, reversing earlier-enforced site-wide penalties.
Sites that see search visibility reductions after Penguin updates 1.0-3.0 now see improved rankings—so long as they’ve taken the necessary steps to clean up their spammy links.
Image via Tech Critic
Unannounced and unconfirmed by Google, Possum gets its name from the impact it has on Google My Business listings. Google’s newly refined location filter filters out businesses based on certain criteria. Thus, the listings themselves “play possum.” Possum impacts local search rankings in the following ways:
1. Businesses outside of a city’s limits experience higher rankings for local search keywords. Prior to Possum, businesses not technically within a city’s limits have a difficult time ranking well for those keywords.
2. A new location filter filters out locations that share the same address.
3. The physical location of the person typing the query has a larger impact on results.
Image via The Next Web
Bloomberg breaks the news that RankBrain, a machine-learning artificial intelligence system, has been incorporated into Google’s core algorithm. Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist at Google, tells Bloomberg that RankBrain has been live for months, and has quickly become Google’s third most important ranking signal. The new system gives Google’s search algorithm the ability to understand relationships between words, and deduce results for never-before-seen queries.
In February of 2015, Google announces the expansion of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. Dubbed “Mobilegeddon,” the new algorithm goes live in April, and provides more mobile-friendly websites and relevant app content in search results. Sites given the tag “mobile-friendly” experience improved search visibility.
Image via Search Engine Land
In July of 2014, Google releases a significant local search algorithm update. Search Engine Land dubs it “Pigeon,” because “pigeons tend to fly back home.” The new local algorithm ties deeper into Google’s web search capabilities—including hundreds of core algorithm ranking signals, as well as features like the Knowledge Graph, spelling correction, synonyms, etc.
Google notices that queries are becoming more and more conversational. People have begun to treat their desktops and devices like humans. To keep up with the growing need to understand user intent, Google releases Hummingbird in the Summer of 2013.
Hummingbird is less a change to Google’s core algorithm than a total revamp—it has the ability to discern both context and intent when returning results for a query. Matt Cutts of Google estimates that 90% of all search results are affected.
Google introduces the Knowledge Graph in May of 2012. The goal, according to Google, is to help users discover information more quickly and easily. The Knowledge Graph appears in the form of panels to the right of a user’s results. Google says the Knowledge Graph has the ability to understand real-world entities and their relationships to one another—to understand the world a bit more like people do. When it’s launched, the Knowledge Graph contains more than 500 million objects, as well as more than 3.5 billion facts about relationships between those objects.
Google announces Penguin in April of 2012 with a blog post entitled, “Another step to reward high-quality sites.” In fact, the primary goal of Penguin is to decrease rankings for sites that violate Google’s quality guidelines. Sites partaking in webspam techniques like keyword stuffing and link schemes see reduced organic search traffic. The update levies penalties at a site-wide level, rather than on specific pages. Google makes a point of distinguishing “white hat SEO” from “black hat webspam,” and encourages webmasters to continue creating high quality sites that create positive user experiences.
Image via Search Engine Land
Initially dubbed “Farmer” for its crack down on content farms, Panda gets its name from one of engineers who helps develop the algorithm—an engineer named Panda. The Panda update is a response to the growing number of complaints in the search community that low-quality “content sites” rank higher than high-quality sites with positive user experiences. Panda goes primarily after sites with thin content, sites that have outsourced content to third-party “farms,” and sites with high ad-to-content ratios.
Image via Google’s Official Blog
Announced in 2009, Caffeine goes live in June of 2010. It provides 50 percent fresher search results, and is the largest collection of web content Google has ever offered. It’s less an algorithm update than an entirely new system of web indexing. Prior to Caffeine, Google’s index consists of layers, some of which are refreshed faster than others. Caffeine analyzes the web on a continuous, global basis, allowing users to find fresher information than ever before. “If this were a pile of paper,” Google’s Carrie Crimes writes, “it would grow three miles taller every second.”
After nearly four years of testing, Google Suggest drops in August of 2008. Suggest looks in aggregate at searches related to a given query, then lists popular searches containing that query in a dropdown panel. It’s a precursor to Google Instant (2010), which returns results as users type their queries. Google drops Google Instant in 2017 because of complications it poses mobile users. Suggest remains a mainstay.
Danny Sullivan writes a post for Search Engine Watch in 2003 describing what he calls “tab blindness”—the tendency on behalf of Google users to ignore tabs like News, Images, Video, etc. when making queries. With the release of Universal Search in May of 2007, Google provides a solution to tab blindness. Universal Search integrates results from all Google verticals to provide a more accurate and diverse SERP. The traditional 10-link results page becomes a thing of the past.
Introduced in 2005, Personalized Search draws on a user’s search history to deliver more personalized results to him or her. Previous attempts at personalization drew on customer settings and profiles; Personalized Search marks the first time Google has tapped directly into its users’ search histories.
Thanks to Roberto Sotelo for this gem of an image.
To get an idea of just how seminal the Florida update is, you need look no further than Danny Sullivan’s article, “What Happened to My Site on Google?”—a Q&A style blog that includes the question, “How can Google be allowed to hurt my business in this way?” The Florida algorithm update occurs before algorithm updates are really “a thing.” The notion that Google’s algorithm is a kind of “dance” that webmasters have to keep pace with in order to retain their organic rankings—and that that in itself could be a job (SEO)—is entirely new. Florida cracks down on late 90s tactics like keyword stuffing. Webmasters everywhere are befuddled. SEO becomes a necessity.
Google’s first official update, Boston is announced in 2013 at SES Boston, an engineering science conference put on by Northeastern. Google’s initial goal is to change its algorithm every month or so. It soon abandons that goal in favor of day-to-day changes. SEOs and webmasters everywhere begin an indefinite head-shake.
For an in-depth look at the development of search engines in general, please don’t hesitate to check out our History of Search Engines! And if you’re interested in a list of every Google algorithm update since 2000, big or small, Moz has put together a useful list here.
Have an algorithm update you think should be added to the list? Let us know in comments below!
Gordon Donnelly is an SEO jedi who proudly honed his chops at WordStream for 5+ years. Today, you’ll find him in a hockey rink, on a mountain, or at home in Boston, building Triple Whale’s world-class e-commerce analytics platform.
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