The History of Google Algorithm Updates
If you own a website, you likely rely on search engines for organic traffic and conversions. And by search engines, I mean Google. With over 84% of the global search market, Google is by far the most popular search engine in the world. And they’ve achieved that by providing an especially great experience for their users.
To maintain that position, Google constantly makes updates to their algorithm to provide the best search results. While some of these updates are minor, others are huge changes that significantly impact the ranking of your website in search results. Knowledge of these big updates are important since, as SEOs, the more we know about what Google and their users want, the more accurately we can provide that, and the more likely Google is to reward us with higher rankings.
Even if you have a team that takes care of your SEO, being knowledgeable about these changes helps you anticipate what future changes may come, and can help make SEO reports more meaningful to you. Here are some of the most significant algorithm updates Google has made, and how they can continue to impact your rankings today.
- Florida – November 2003
- Jagger – September 2005
- Big Daddy – December 2005
- Vince – January 2009
- Caffeine – June 2010
- Panda – August 2011
- Penguin – April 2012
- Hummingbird – September 2013
- Mobilegeddon – April 2015
- RankBrain – October 2015
- Medic – August 2018
- BERT – October 2019
- Page Experience – June 2021
- Product Reviews – April 2021
- Helpful Content – August 2022
1. Florida – November 2003
Wayyyy back in November 2003, when Beyonce’s “Baby Boy” ft. Sean Paul was the biggest song in the U.S., Google’s first major algorithm update was released. It was dubbed Florida because of how hurricane-like and chaotic it was.
Florida was meant to penalize sites that used SEO tactics that we now consider bad, like keyword stuffing and hidden links. Those sites saw their rankings tank – some of them legitimate retailers coined “false positives” – in the middle of the holiday season. Some of these retailers went out of business overnight. Google said they would try not to release another major algorithm update during the holidays, which they didn’t until Panda in 2011.
What We Learned: Trying to game the system with text or links that are viewable by search engines but not users will hurt rankings.
2. Jagger – September 2005
Ahhh September 2005. Fall is creeping in, “Everybody Loves Raymond” wins Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmys, and the Jagger update was released. What a time to be alive.
The update was named Jagger because the Rolling Stones played in Vegas at the same time as the PubCon marketing conference. Jagger was aimed to penalize websites that used manipulative backlink tactics. Websites that were affected had backlinks from spammy websites, sudden jumps in the quantity of backlinks, and irrelevant anchor text.
What We Learned: Trying to game the system with unnatural link building practices will hurt rankings.
3. Big Daddy – December 2005
SEOs were warned of the Big Daddy update, which was announced by Google’s webspam team lead Matt Cutts and were even tasked with testing it. Big Daddy was an extension of the Jagger update and was aimed to further improve the way Google assessed websites based on links.
Big Daddy was Google saying that sites with tons of unnatural reciprocal or paid links or involvement with spammy link networks is a sign that they are not trustworthy, and they won’t be rewarded with high rankings. Matt Cutts gave an example of a real estate site that was whacked by the update: “Linking to a free ringtones site, an SEO contest, and an Omega 3 fish oil site? I think I’ve found your problem.”
What We Learned: Trying to game the system by pursuing as many irrelevant links as possible will hurt rankings.
4. Vince – January 2009
The Vince update improved rankings of big brand sites for generic keywords. These big organizations had a hard time ranking for competitive keywords like “refrigerator” or “microwave” because they were getting beat by smaller, niche sites that had optimized their content more effectively for these terms.
Vince was Google rewarding sites that had inherent brand-related trust, even if their content was less optimized. Google’s CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt, said: “Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”
What We Learned: Big brand websites now have an SEO advantage because they’re considered especially trustworthy.
5. Caffeine – June 2010
The Caffeine update addressed how Google crawled and indexed websites. The indexing system before Caffeine couldn’t optimally handle the billions of websites on the internet today, or the different kinds of media that was online in 2010 vs. 1998, when the original indexing system was created.
After Caffeine, Google was able to discover and rank fresh content in seconds. According to Google, it now provided “50 percent fresher results for web searches than our last index,” which allowed users to find the latest relevant content and site owners to expect to be found much faster after publishing. Google illustrated how the old indexing system worked compared to caffeine:
What We Learned: Google could now discover and rank content faster than ever before.
6. Panda – August 2011
The Panda update continued to penalize low quality websites that attempted to manipulate rankings. After Caffeine, sites that mass produced low value content to make money from ads (or content farms) were able to get in front of Google’s users even easier than before. Panda fought this decrease in the quality of Google’s search results and impacted 11.8% of search queries.
Panda whacked untrustworthy sites that had low quality content, an excessive number of ads, and small backlink profiles. Some speculate that it may have also considered engagement metrics like bounce rate to determine whether users found value in the content. Content farm Dear Media posted a $6.4 million loss in the fourth quarter of 2011, after Panda.
What We Learned: Trying to game the system by mass producing crap content will hurt rankings.
7. Penguin – April 2012
The Penguin update was an extension of Panda that focused heavier on links. Before Penguin, sites were rewarded with higher rankings if they simply had numerous backlinks. This allowed many low-quality sites to rank highly by using manipulative backlink tactics.
Penguin established that natural, relevant, quality backlinks are a much more credible vote of confidence than unnatural, irrelevant, spammy backlinks. Websites that had backlink profiles with a bunch of garbage links were hit by this update.
What We Learned: Trying to game the system by accruing a quantity of links as opposed to quality links will hurt rankings.
8. Hummingbird – September 2013
Hummingbird was one of the biggest changes to Google’s algorithm, named after the Hummingbird’s ability to be “precise and fast.” It used natural language processing (NLP) to understand the context and intent behind a search query to deliver the best results – as opposed to simply matching keywords in a query to keywords in results.
Hummingbird had a huge effect on the way pages were ranked and what they ranked for. According to Google, it impacted more than 90% of searches worldwide to a small degree. It paved the way for subsequent algorithm updates (RankBrain, BERT) to further understand more conversational search queries.
What We Learned: Google now has a better understanding of complex search queries and long-tail keywords.
9. Mobilegeddon – April 2015
Google announced this mobile-friendly update dubbed Mobilegeddon by us SEO drama queens about two months before its roll out. Mobilegeddon was the first time Google dealt with the huge increase of mobile searches and considered an individual webpage’s mobile friendliness. The objective was to present content to mobile users that was easy to read and interact with.
As you can guess, pages that were not mobile-friendly were hit. Some elements of a page that are not considered mobile friendly include having text that’s too small to read, clickable elements that are too close together, content that didn’t scale to fit a screen size, and plugins that aren’t supported by most mobile browsers. (You can test your page’s mobile friendliness with Google’s Mobile Friendly Testing Tool.) Google provided this example of a page that is mobile friendly vs. one that is not:
Surprisingly, the update didn’t yield huge ranking shifts (so much for Armageddon). Maybe since people had time to prepare. Now, Google primarily indexes the mobile version of webpages first.
What We Learned: Google requires a page be mobile-friendly for it to rank in mobile search results.
10. RankBrain – October 2015
RankBrain was an extension of Hummingbird that uses machine learning to dig deeper into figuring out a searcher’s true intent. It considers the searcher’s location, search history, and implied words to understand what they’re really looking for and returns even more relevant results for a search query. Like when I search “pink flower trees in DC,” I get information about Cherry Blossoms even though I never mentioned it in my query.
So, content that didn’t contain much context naturally didn’t use many semantically related keywords (pink flower, tree, springtime, peak bloom, blossoms, etc.) and saw less success than content that did.
What We Learned: Content with comprehensive information and keyword variations perform better.
11. Medic – August 2018
The unannounced Medic update was coined after it seemed to primarily affect medical websites. The objective of this update was to highlight websites that contained content that affected Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) that had high Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness (EAT… now it’s EEAT — they’ve added added Experience). Of course, medical websites fall into this category as well as finance, news, science, housing, etc.
Websites that were not considered EAT that contained YMYL content dropped in rankings. For example, I couldn’t rank for an article about “the best diet for someone with heart disease” because I have no medical studies, no relation to regulatory organizations, and no links from other trusted medical sites. That’s why the Harvard School of Public Health ranks #1 for that one. That’s a relief.
What We Learned: YMYL content performs better on websites with especially high EAT.
12. BERT – October 2019
BERT was another extension of Hummingbird and RankBrain that further improved Google’s natural language processing technology to understand search intent even better. BERT stands for Bi-directional Encoder Representation Transformers. “Bi-directional” refers to how the algorithm views the text (before and after a word) and “Transformers” refers to how the algorithm processes words in relation to all the other words in a sentence.
In short, BERT helps Google figure out the true meaning of on-page content and search queries to return better search results. It mostly impacted more complex or conversational queries that depend on context. An example is searches where words like “for” and “to” totally change the meaning of the search. Content that isn’t focused, written well, or logically structured suffered after BERT.
What We Learned: Google is better at returning a search query with the most relevant, highest quality content.
13. Page Experience – June 2021
Google’s users enjoy websites that provide a great experience (surprise surprise). The Page Experience Update added a set of metrics called Core Web Vitals that considered a webpage’s Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) or how fast a page loads, First Input Delay (FID) or how long it takes to become interactive, and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) or how long it takes to become visually stable.
No one wants to wait forever for a page to load (and by forever I mean more than 2.5 seconds). No one wants to wait forever for a page to become responsive (and by forever I mean more than 100 milliseconds). And no one wants to wait for a page to become visually stable enough so the text or clickable elements stop moving (and by stable enough I mean a CLS score of under .01). Pages that are especially fast were rewarded. You can test your webpage’s Core Web Vitals with Google’s PageSpeed Insights Tool or field data with GTmetrix.
What We Learned: Page’s with especially fast loading times have an SEO advantage.
14. Product Review – April 2021
The Product Review Update was designed to reward ecommerce websites that go above and beyond to share informative reviews regardless of their consensus. The point was that Google’s users want to consider real, useful, credible reviews about a product before purchasing. Don’t we all?
Some factors the Product Review Update considers include whether the reviews:
- Have any credibility
- Provide any information that isn’t already provided by the business
- Describe any differences versus competitors
- Discuss any downsides
Websites that shared less valuable reviews than their competitors were affected. You want to ensure that you put more detail and effort into your product review content to provide more user value than the competition.
What We Learned: Websites with reviews that provide more user value than their competitors perform better.
15. Helpful Content – August 2022
A recurring theme here – Google wants to present its users with the most helpful content that is written for people and not search engines. The Helpful Content Update rewards content with satisfying information that goes beyond the obvious. Content will see more successes if it covers a focused topic better than the competitors, has an audience that would find it useful, and is from a source that is clearly knowledgeable.
Websites with content that is aimed to satisfy search engines rather than people will receive lower rankings. We’ve all come across those cookie cutter content pieces that just regurgitate what other people say without adding any value. It’s frustrating, and Google doesn’t want their users to be frustrated. If you’re an expert, it should be easy to add value about a topic you’re an expert on. And if you’re not an expert, Google doesn’t want to serve up your content to their users. One of the examples Google presented with this update is articles that promise a particular movie’s release date, and only at the end of the article after hundreds of words admit that no release date has yet been set.
What We Learned: Trying to game the system with unoriginal content that doesn’t add more value than competitors will hurt rankings.
What to Expect from Future Google Algorithm Updates
If there’s one thing Google isn’t, it’s boring. Google always has SEOs and marketers on their toes waiting for the next big algorithm update. By understanding past updates, we can gather where Google is headed. I hope you’ve noticed a very simple trend here by now – Google wants to provide their users with the best possible experience, and if we provide that, they will reward us.
That’s easier said than done. You can probably understand the saying “SEO isn’t one-and-done” now, since there are always constantly moving parts. If you need any support with making Google happy, contact us or view some of the companies we’ve provided real results for.