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Google Algorithm Updates: An Overview of the last decade

What is Google Algorithm Update? 

A Google algorithm update refers to the change made to Google’s Search Engine in order to improve the quality, relevance, and overall user experience of its search results. Google pushed search algorithm updates many times a year. Some are too small and often go unnoticed, whereas updates referred to as “core algorithm updates” often make the website analytics go haywire. 

Google describes core updates as "significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems ... designed to ensure that overall, we’re delivering on our mission to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers." 

In this article, we are going to look at the most significant algorithm updates which changed the search forever. 

Google Algorithm Updates Over Past 10 Years


Webspam Algorithm Update (Penguin Update) 

The Penguin Update was one of the most remarkable algorithm updates by Google. Many guidelines are still relevant today. The update rolled out on the 24th of April 2012. This update was an attempt to primarily tackle webspam. It was observed that many websites were using black hat SEO techniques to manipulate their rankings, as a result, these kinds of sites were penalized. 

The Penguin algorithm was an extension of the Panda algorithm update which was again rolled to penalize websites practising black hat SEO techniques. The Penguin update worked towards ensuring, that authoritative and relevant links rewarded the website they point to, whereas spammy links were downgraded. 


Hummingbird Update

The Hummingbird algorithm update had been said to change the way search works and is regarded as one of the most important algorithm updates. The Hummingbird update was released on the 20th of August 2013. The update had signaled Google’s commitment to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the intent of searchers’ queries with the goal of matching them to more relevant results. 

The Hummingbird did not have any significant negative impact on the search results, but it focused mainly on the knowledge graph and the semantic search sections. Hummingbird extensively used context and the intent of the query to deliver results that matched the need of the users and thus local searches also became precise. 


Pigeon Update 

The Pigeon update was first rolled out on the 24th of July 2014. One of Google’s stated purposes for the Pigeon update was to connect their local algorithm more deeply to their traditional web algorithm to take full advantage of the ranking signals that go into the web algorithm. These new ties to the web algorithm further increased the need for local businesses to have a strong web presence in order to compete for local rankings. 

To significantly boost local search capabilities, Google updates hundreds of rating signals for Google Search and Maps. This helped in improving Google’s location and distance ranking parameters which provide users local results based on proximity.  

Panda 4.1 Update 

The Panda 4.1 algorithm update was the 28th update and was rolled out on the 25th of September 2014. Google announced that this update was a filter designed to penalize thin and poor content. Due to this update, it becomes very essential to regularly evaluate and update the content on the website. In this case, the “content depth” also plays a very important role. From the first launch of the Panda update (back in 2011), Google has been identifying and targeting “scrappers” and “content farms”. 


Mobilegeddon  Update

The Mobilegeddon update was rolled out on the 21st of April 2015. The update focused on the mobile-friendliness of the web pages. In February 2015, Google announced the importance of mobile-friendly pages and how they can serve a better user experience. The Mobilegeddon did not have any impact on the desktop and tablet versions.  

Google introduced this algorithm update in order to enhance its user experience, as it is evident that mobiles make up about half of Google searches. The update affected all the mobile searches in all languages worldwide and had a significant impact on mobile searches. 

There are certain ways to check whether the webpage is mobile-friendly or not: 

  • Check through Google’s mobile-friendly testing tool 

  • Check whether your site has an AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) label in the mobile searches. 

  • Check your mobile usability reports within Google Webmaster Tool. 

Rankbrain Update 

Google’s RankBrain update was rolled out on the 26th of October 2015. It is a component of Google’s core algorithm which uses machine learning (the ability of machines to teach themselves from data inputs) to determine the most relevant results to search engine queries. 

The algorithm focuses on the user intent by “noticing” and “studying” various signals such as the user’s location and content freshness, which becomes very important to interpret the intent and deliver results that would satisfy searchers. The machine learning algorithms that drive RankBrain are matching signals to query intent, and SEOs must do this, too. 


Penguin Update 4.0 

Google’s Penguin 4.0 Algorithm update rolled out on the 23rd of September 2016. As discussed earlier, the Penguin update was rolled out to penalize sites that use black hat SEO techniques. Penalizing websites practicing spam link building was one of the major objectives of the Penguin update. 

The Penguin 4.0 algorithm update was able to evaluate websites and links in real-time, which indicates that a website can get reasonably quick results from its link-building activity. 

Possum Update 

Google’s Possum update was released on the 1st of September 2016. It was an unconfirmed but well-documented update that significantly impacted Google’s local pack as well as local finder results. It was observed that the businesses that fall outside the city limits experienced a huge spike in their rankings. 

The main objective of the Possum update was to filter out spam results and diversify the local search results that may have been previously ranking. Due to the update, businesses that were operating from the same location were filtered out. For example, if five lawyers are operating from the same building, only two to three lawyers were able to gain visibility in the local results, which had a negative effect on most of the businesses. 

With the Possum update, the physical location of the user became very important, as this would alter the results shown to that specific user. To summarize, Google’s Possum update had a huge impact on the local search results.  


FRED Update 

Google’s Fred update was rolled out on the 7th of March 2017. This update was rolled out as an attempt to remove low-quality results i.e the sites which heavily depended on thin content and ad placements, thus many affiliate sites were affected due to this update. The goal of the affected websites was to build high-quality content that attracts high-quality links. 

The sites which were affected were advised to review the site structure in order to revisit their ad layouts and content. After the Fred update, Google continued to bring more updates focusing on the quality of the website. 

Following were the recommended ways to combat the Fred update: 

  • Revisiting site structure 

  • Reviewing ads layout 

  • Managing deceptive ads 

  • Eliminating/Improving low-quality and thin content 

  • Managing overwhelming interstitials 


March Broad Core Algorithm Update 

Google’s broad core update was rolled out on the 7th of March 2018. Once again, this Broad Core Update was primarily based on E-A-T factors that we discussed earlier. Many websites which had been working on improving their content quality and authoritativeness gained a good amount of traffic during this time period. 

2nd Broad Core Algorithm Update (April 16, about Content Relevance) 

Google’s Second broad core update of the year 2018 rolled out on the 16th of April. It primarily targeted low-quality content websites, which was later confirmed that the update was primarily regarding content relevance. Google adjusted rankings to make sure that the users continue to get the best answers to their search queries. 

The search community concluded that if the website has got negatively affected due to this broad core update, it does not necessarily mean that the site’s content needed to be improved. Rather it means that the content needs to be more relevant to the user’s intent.  

3rd Broad Core Algorithm Update 

Also referred to as “Medic” by the search community, the 3rd broad core update of the year 2018 was rolled out on the 1st of August 2018. It became evident from the community chatter that creating content around the user intent is an ideal way to align on-page elements. 

Websites that were negatively affected due to this broad core update were recommended to follow Google’s Quality Raters Guidelines, later Google also clarified that quality raters inputs are not a part of the actual algorithm. Google’s Quality Raters Guidelines can be summarized in the following points: 

  • User Intent is of utmost importance 

  • Have a comprehensive content 

  • Elements of Quality Shopping Pages 

  • Tasks on the websites to be easy to complete for users. 


March Core Algorithm Update 

The Core update began on the 12th of March 2019. The update mainly continued to fine-tune Google’s search results which primarily dealt with health topics. The websites that were said to show a higher level of ‘trust’ gained a good amount of visibility in the YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) niche. 

The analysis made it clear that the algorithm has increased its weighting on user signals when evaluating the rankings. The winners of the core update had higher values for time-on-site and pages per visit and also had a low bounce rate. Some of the key takeaways from the core update were: 

  • Optimize for user intent 

  • Follow Google’s quality rater guidelines 

  • Build more trustworthiness 

Broad Core Algorithm Update 

The Core update rolled out on the 3rd of June 2019. The Google June Core update was the second core update in 2019. Several sites which were negatively affected due to the broad core updates were news providers. It was also observed that the trust aggregator sites displayed a boost in their rankings. 

The broad core update resulted in an increase in video carousels. Google was also seen raising the bar for news sites. Many ‘authoritative’ news sites like DailyMail, CNN, and Coindesk showed a drop in their rankings. It was also evident that low-quality and smaller sites were affected. 

BERT Update 

The BERT update was rolled out on the 25th of October 2019. BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) is widely described as a natural language processing pre-training approach that can be used on a large body of text. It handles tasks such as entity recognition, part of speech tagging, and question-answering among other natural language processes. Bert helps Google understand natural language text from the Web. 

Google’s BERT update improved the way it understands the search queries thus the On-Page elements became of utmost importance in terms of using words in a precise way. BERT had an impact on around 10% of all searches as well as featured snippets across multiple languages. 


Core Update 

The core update rolled out on the 13th of January 2020. Sports & News, Arts & Entertainment, Games, and Finance were among the top niches which experienced volatility during the update, apart from this it was experienced in almost every category. 

The YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) sites were re-evaluated by the algorithm and gained or loosed visibility as a whole. The core update mainly targeted the websites having low-quality content. 

May 2020 Core Update 

The Core update began on the 4th of May 2021 and fully rolled out on the 18th of May 2020. It is said to have affected the E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) metrics of the website. Google worked on combining content and brand aspects once more and may have also factored in user data such as click-through rates. Some of the key takeaways from the core update were: 

  • User signals are of utmost importance 

  • E-A-T factors became more vital 

  • Page link profiles and brands were among the top winners 


Broad Core Algorithm Update  

Google rolled out its core update which started on the 2nd of June 2021and ended on the 12th of June 2021. The update was rolled out in two parts, the second part of which was rolled out from the 1st of July to the 12th of July 2021. It was a global update and was not specific to any region, language, or specific category of the website. Some websites experienced growth in their rankings, while some experienced a nosedive in the SERPs. The new update is forecasted to put a better greater focus on the domain age, domain authority, backlinks, and other classical On-page and Off-Page factors. 

The “People also Ask” of the SERP has been improvised to better solve the queries of the users. Which is a clear hint to the SEOs to improvise the structured data of the website. This will create an opportunity for better ranking in turn bringing a good amount of traffic to the website. 

The Google News section has also experienced changes, wherein Google has made it mandatory for the author to furnish his/her details with the article/blog (this won’t be mandatory in the geographies without press freedom rights!) 

Page Experience Update 

The Page experience update primarily considered page experience signals, including the three core web vitals (LCP, FID, CLS). Google said the sites should not expect any changes and thus any sudden spikes or drops should be reduced with the gradual rollout of the update. 

The page experience update was rolled out to provide an optimized user experience, wherein it assesses each signal and rates the website on an overall page experience score which depended on the following metrics: 

  • Core Web Vitals 

  • HTTPS Usage 

  • Ads Experience 

  • Mobile Friendliness 

  • Security 

June 2021 Spam Update 

The Google Spam Update rolled out on the 23rd of June 2021 and was concluded on the same day. This update was all about filtering suspicious and harmful content and an attempt to improve the user experience. Google has been highly spending and developing on AI technologies to combat spammy websites and prevent its users. 

Google Link Spam Algorithm Update 

The Google Link Spam Update rolled out on the 6th of July 2021, in an attempt to identify websites practising black hat link-building techniques. Google identified many businesses which created numerous other websites or links, in order to improve their own rankings. 

Using AI technology google was able to identify these malpractices such as link wheels, mutual backlinking, and closed link networks. The best way of not getting penalized is to build original backlinks, the process may be exhaustive but can surely help in the long run. 

Broad Core Update 

The Broad Core update was rolled out on the 17th of November, which was concluded after 13 days. The update was said to have been more volatile than the July Update. Several niches like Healthcare, Real Estate, People & Society, and Science experienced increased volatility in their rankings.   

Notably, Google released an article on AI in the month of October which mainly focused on the usage of AI in the search environment to better eliminate spam content and provide a better user experience. It also speaks about how google can drastically scale question answering tasks. 

Product Review Update 

The Product Revie Update rolled out on the 1st of December 2021. It took 20 days for the update to fully roll out and was concluded on the 21st of December 2021. As the name suggests the update mainly focused on product review content. Google also released ‘guidelines’ for websites publishing review content. 

  • Expertise in product knowledge under review 

  • Investigating strengths and weaknesses of the products. 

  • Emphasizing key factors that would go affect purchase decisions. 

  • Utilizing quantitative measurements to evaluate the product. 

  • Evidence demonstrating personal experience with the product 

  • Links to multiple sellers to assist users in purchase decisions