Google makes hundreds of updates to its core and periphery search algorithms every year. This timeline looks at the major updates over the last ten years.
February 2011 - Panda Update
The panda update was a major core update which was introduced to combat thin content, plagiarized content, keyword stuffing and other website quality issues. The idea behind the update was to reward websites with unique and high-quality content. The Panda update gave every page a quality score which affects how the site ranks in search and downgraded lower quality content. This update was the start of the change to the way SEO was done and was intended to reward those sites with unique and good quality content and hurt those which relied on less ethical techniques for increasing website visibility.
April 2012 - Penguin Update
The penguin update was released to combat certain black hat techniques related to link-building like spammy links, link directories and keyword stuffed anchor text. These techniques were not considered to be of benefit to website users and falsely improved the ranking of websites which did not deserve a high search engine ranking. Prior to the update, link volumes, regardless of the quality of the links, were a significant ranking factor in search. The idea of the update was to make sure that only high-quality, relevant and trustworthy links were benefitting the sites they were leading to. The Penguin update was only concerned with inbound links – not those leading away from a website.
August 2013 – Hummingbird Update
The Hummingbird update was introduced in an attempt to make search engine results match the intent of the user, rather than simply looking at keyword results. The Hummingbird update enabled more natural language and semantic searches to deliver the results which a user intended rather than simply matching to keywords which didn’t always provide the desired results. Unlike previous search algorithms, which focussed on each individual word in the search query, "Hummingbird" considered the context of the words together in an attempt to match pages with the meaning of the search, rather than simply matching the search term.
December 2014 (UK) – Pigeon Update
The goal of the Pigeon update was to reward local business with a strong organic presence and give them better search engine visibility. By considering the location and distance of the searcher when displaying search results it helped to make sure that the results for local searches were more useful relevant and accurate. The results of this update were seen in both Google map search and Google web search.
April 2015 – Mobile Update (AKA Mobilegeddon)
The Google Mobile Update incorporated the mobile friendliness of a website as a ranking factor when searches were made on a mobile device. Any website which was not mobile friendly would be either penalized or removed from the search engine results, whereas websites which were responsive would be rewarded in better search engine results. Once again, this update was all about improving the quality of search and outcome for the user and providing the best possible search experience.
October 2015 – Google RankBrain
RankBrain is the name given to Google’s machine learning, artificial intelligence system which is used to process search results as part of the wider Google search algorithm. Prior to the introduction of RankBrain the search algorithm was 100% human coded. RankBrain uses AI (Artificial Intelligence) and machine learning to automatically tweak the search algorithm based on the how users interact with search results. If the results which are generated from a search satisfy the user (This can be established by looking at factors like bounce rate and dwell time on a web page) that page may receive a ranking boost.
November 2017 – Google snippet length increase
This update increased the meta description length from 155 characters to 300 characters. This change was intended to provide better descriptions of what was to be found on a web page, resulting in users being able to make a judgement about whether a given search result was what they were looking for. This change was only in action until May 2018 when the meta description length was reverted back to 150 characters.
March 2018 – Google Mobile First Indexing
Mobile first indexing meant that Google started using the mobile version of a web page for indexing and ranking. In a blog post from March 2018, Google said the following: “To recap, our crawling, indexing, and ranking systems have typically used the desktop version of a page's content, which may cause issues for mobile searchers when that version is vastly different from the mobile version. Mobile-first indexing means that we'll use the mobile version of the page for indexing and ranking, to better help our – primarily mobile – users find what they're looking for.”
Google went on to explain that there would be one index for search results and that the mobile first index would not be separate from the main index. This meant then that they were starting to look at using mobile versions of pages to index web content, rather than desktop versions.
August 2018 – Google Medic Update
The August 2018 update became known as the medic update because of the effect it had on sites which deal with YMYL subjects – like medical, health and fitness websites (to understand YMYL -‘your money your life’ subjects better and how to optimise for them – read our blog). It was one of the biggest updates to take place in recent times and affected the core ranking algorithm. It was not intended to target healthcare sites specifically, but, as usual, the intention was to improve the quality of search results in general. Sites which deal with important subjects like healthcare and finances need to make sure that the content on their site is written by trusted professionals and can be trusted by the website user. This update concentrated on putting into practice the EAT (expertise, Authority, Trust) criteria for ranking content.
October 2019 – Google BERT Natural Language Processing Update
BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. This update is concerned with understanding the language people use to search for information on the internet by again making use of machine learning to be able to better understand what information users are actually searching for. This update affected both ranking and featured snippets in search. When searching online, it is not always obvious what is the best form of words to use to get the results you want. The BERT update was particularly relevant for longer, more conversational searches to help Google better understand the context of the words used in the search query. This benefitted the user in that it enabled them to get better, more relevant search results when using language which is more natural to them, rather than having to think about search termsw .
March 2021 - Mobile first indexing, again
Google have previously announced that they would be switching to exclusively mobile first indexing by September 2020. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, this deadline was extended to allow businesses more time to make changes and full mobile first indexing is now expected to be completely rolled out by March 2021. This switch to exclusively mobile first indexing means that after the deadline, Google will only get information from the mobile version of a website to determine the indexing and ranking of the content and that desktop only versions of websites will be completely dropped from the index.
Google have issued information on best practices to follow for mobile first indexing which is available on the Google Developers website. So, if you are yet to make any preparations for this change, now is probably the time to make sure you are ready and that your website ranking won’t suffer as a result.
The above illustrates the major Google updates which have taken place over the past 10 years – there have also been a number of smaller updates over that period of time. It is important to remember that the search landscape is not a static thing and, in line with its philosophy to continually improve online search and deliver the very best results to user, Google is always at the forefront of innovation in this area and will continue to roll out changes and algorithm updates to fulfil its core purpose of always providing users with the most relevant, highest quality results based on their search queries.
If you have suffered a drop in your ranking, you are concerned about your online visibility or you just want to understand things better and make sure your website is performing as well as it possibly can – head over to the resources section of our website to book a free SEO website health check. As well as looking over the technical elements of your website, one of our expert team will be able to advise you on the best approach for keywords, website copy and conversion optimisation and provide you with some simple, actionable ideas for site improvements which you can make straight away as well as ideas for creating a longer term strategy.