When it comes to search engines, Google holds the most market share by far. Since its inception, Google has been focused on providing the most relevant results to its users to gain market share and maintain it. That’s where their algorithm comes in. The Google algorithm determines what websites are listed in the results for which queries and where on the page they appear.
As technology advances and user behavior changes, so does their algorithm in order to keep up. Personalization, localization, context, and many, many more factors are taken into account for each user and query to provide the best results for that person at the time. Because of this, algorithms are always changing and constantly updating. In the earlier days of Google, there were specific algorithm updates that occurred and refreshes that would occur periodically after their initial release.
Now, those updates are rolled into the core algorithm and are constantly changing and updating, which means they work in real-time. Every once in a while, an update may result in large changes or shakeups in the SERPs (search engine result pages), at which point it might receive an unofficial name. However, most of the officially-named updates are from a time when Google would release specific updates to improve results and curb the use of spammy SEO practices. These are some important Google updates to know:
Panda is one of the most well-known algorithm updates because its effects were large and widespread. It also changed the course of SEO to focus more on quality and user experience. At the time, the content with the most keywords tended to win, which led to things like keyword stuffing, thin content, duplicate content, and more. Sites would have a ton of content stuffed with keywords for search engines, but wouldn’t offer anything of value for users attempting to read it.
When Panda was first released early in 2011, it worked as a filter to penalize sites with a lot of duplicate or thin content, or content that was plagiarized. It also targeted keyword stuffing and user-generated spam. Several refreshes occurred over the years until it was rolled into the core algorithm in 2016.
Since the release of Panda, we have seen content become more and more important to ongoing SEO. But, it can’t just be any content – it has to be relevant to users, written well, and, above all, provide value to the user. If it’s not quality content written for users that also provides value to them, it won’t help you.
When talking about Panda, it’s difficult not to mention Penguin. This is another huge Google update that resulted in sweeping changes in both the SERPs and in SEO. It was released in April of 2012 and targeted spammy, irrelevant links and anchor text that was considered “over-optimized”.
Before Penguin, link building was all about getting the most backlinks to your website with the keyword you wanted to rank for in the anchor text. The site with the most links won. This resulted in link directories, link farms, and a bunch of quality issues where sites were focused only on optimizing for search engines without any care for user experience.
After Penguin, sites had to clean up their link profiles. The focus on links started to shift from quantity to quality. Anchor text couldn’t be over-optimized or keyword-stuffed, instead they needed to be balanced and serve the user above all else. It has been part of the core algorithm since 2016 as well.
Hummingbird was released in 2013 and introduced semantic search. This was meant to help Google better understand the context of the queries users were searching and their intent in order to deliver even more relevant results. Sites that were still keyword stuffing or had low-quality content may have found themselves dropping when Hummingbird was released.
This was a definitive move away from the single keyword focus and “ranking for ‘x’” that had been so pervasive in SEO. Once Hummingbird was released, it was more important to start focusing on broader topics and providing context within your content to support that topic. This also had the added benefit of nudging sites towards providing higher quality, more user-focused content because it needed to focus on searcher intent. This meant providing enough content to cover a topic sufficiently and answer users’ questions or solve their problems.
Pigeon was focused on local search and was released in 2014. It specifically targeted sites with poor on-page and off-page SEO, especially for searches where the location was important. This integrated local search into the core algorithm more effectively and also encouraged sites to follow SEO best practices more closely.
After a few years, Google had figured out that if they wanted to improve the quality of their results and the websites listed in those results, they could do so by announcing upcoming updates ahead of time. If they announced an update before it would occur, they knew SEOs would drive the positive change and the quality of Google’s SERPs would increase as a result. So, when websites weren’t becoming mobile-friendly and responsive fast enough, Google announced a mobile-friendly update was coming in 2015. They did something similar with site security in 2016 and again in 2017 to encourage websites to upgrade their security certificates to SSL.
SEOs referred to the upcoming update as “Mobilegeddon”. The update specifically targeted sites that did not have a mobile version of a page or that had poor mobile usability. Essentially, it would give a boost in the SERPs to sites that were mobile-friendly, which would devalue sites that were not.
Responsive website design is a big step towards making your site mobile-friendly, but you also need to ensure mobile UX is integrated into the design. Simply having a responsive site does not automatically make it mobile-friendly or fast. A mobile-friendly, responsive site that focuses on speed and usability should be the goal for your website. This is especially important in the current landscape where search is operating with mobile-first indexing instead of desktop-first indexing.
RankBrain was released in October 2015. Since it deals with context and the meaning behind queries, it could be considered as related to Hummingbird, but it is an important part of how Google’s algorithm operates.
RankBrain is a machine learning system that focuses on relevance factors for queries; basically, it focuses on context and searcher intent while also constantly changing, updating, and improving as it continues to gather data and learn. The appearance of RankBrain shifted the focus of content even more towards comprehensiveness and relevance.
Technology is always changing and evolving, which means search engines are as well to stay relevant. Building a site with good design and user experience principles in mind and following SEO best practices is a good start. Iterative improvements and ongoing SEO and marketing are even better.
A website is not a once-and-done thing. Without improvement and progress, it will be outdated before you know it. Contact the team at MIND for help with your website design, development, and marketing needs – we can help you get up-to-date and stay current!