Google didn’t start out as the dominant and all-consuming search engine giant it is today. In fact, when it first emerged, there were dozens of other search engines of comparable value, all competing for a share of the internet’s search volume. But what set Google apart was its commitment to excellence, and constantly improving its formula to bring more relevant, authoritative search results to its users.
Those improvements have come in the form of updates to its core ranking algorithm, all of which have improved some component of the search ranking process, or introduced new components to the world of search engines. Understanding these updates is critical to success in SEO (search engine optimization).
Depending on what you qualify as an “update,” Google has released upwards of hundreds of updates over its nearly-20-year history, but these were 8 of the most impactful — and the ones that made Google what it is today:
1. Early smatterings. Google was founded back in 1998, but its first documented update wasn’t until 2002 — a strange and significant shuffling of rankings that occurred in September. Then, between 2003 and 2003, there were several named updates addressing a number of issues, including massive interlinking from domains owned by the same people (Cassandra), daily adjustments to the index instead of monthly (Fritz), and keyword stuffing (Florida). These updates were collectively highly impactful and rolled out over the course of a year or so, so it seems fair to group them and describe them as a single update.
2. Panda. For years, Google rolled out big and small fixes, but nothing dramatically changed how search optimizers approached their craft until Panda rolled out in 2011, setting the stage for modern Google search updates. Panda was intended to clean up the “thin” content that plagued the internet as optimizers tried to cash in on keyword stuffing to earn higher search rankings. Though never specifically listed, Panda introduced stricter standards for content, and forced optimizers to improve content quality instead of focusing on things like keyword density. It triggered the beginning of the rise in popularity of content marketing, and was followed by regular additions (2.0, 3.0, etc.) for several years. It now updates regularly as part of Google’s core algorithm.
3. Penguin. Penguin came out a year later, in 2012, and did for link building what Panda did for content. It immediately penalized sites that had been building low-quality, spammy links to their domains in an attempt to game the ranking algorithm, causing significant ranking volatility over the course of its rollout. Penguin forced optimizers to not only remove all the spammy links they had built, but also focus on building only high-quality links through earning strategies and high-quality guest posting.
4. Hummingbird. Rather than changing evaluative criteria, Hummingbird’s rollout in 2013 changed how Google understood user queries. Instead of dissecting keywords and phrases to find exact matches throughout the web, Hummingbird’s “semantic search” approach allowed Google to analyze the intention behind a user’s query, and find the results most relevant for it. It destroyed the world of keyword stuffing (and the concept of keyword density), and brought us to an era where long-tail keywords, synonyms, and high-quality content were of the utmost importance.
5. Pigeon. Following the cadence of yearly shakeups, Google came out with the Pigeon update in 2014. This update focused on local search results, and introduced us to the modern format of local search that we follow to this day. Local businesses had mixed feelings about the update when it first came out, but the infrastructure it built for local search has functioned incredibly well.
6. Mobilegeddon. In early 2015, Google cautioned webmasters to optimize their sites for mobile devices — or pay the consequences. Google had been rewarding mobile-optimized sites for years at that point, but the “Mobilegeddon” update was the formal push many webmasters needed to pull the trigger on the process. The SEO community overreacted to the sheer scale of this one (if the name didn’t reveal that already), but it still set an important precedent for the future of mobile optimization.
7. RankBrain. Also arriving in 2015, RankBrain served as a kind of extension to the Hummingbird update. Utilizing advanced artificial intelligence (AI), RankBrain improves Hummingbird’s functionality by reducing complex user queries down to more digestible, understandable sequences. It’s self-learning and improving, and it’s been getting better at its job (almost undetectably) since its release. It hasn’t changed the rankings much, but it’s spoiled us as search users; we’re getting better and better results for less effort than ever before.
8. Possum. In September of 216, Google’s Possum update shook up the local rankings one more time. Though never explicitly confirmed by Google, Possum influenced severe ranking volatility, and improved the local 3-pack by increasing rankings for entries based on the user’s proximity to those entries.
What does Google have in store for us next? That remains to be seen, but if I were to guess, we’ll probably see more AI-based updates rolling out to polish and perfect some of the functions that are already in place — especially with regard to semantic search and local results.
In any case, these updates form the foundation of what we now know as Google search, and they set the basic rules you should be following in any SEO campaign. Learn them well, and keep watch for new updates as they roll out in the future.
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