By Ryan Knighton
Since it’s inception in 1998, Google has forever done things differently. It’s this difference that has led them to dominate the search industry, but as SEO rose in popularity Google knew they had to adapt in order to maintain their crown. Over time they have become more and more complex in the algorithms they use to form what we know as digital marketing today.
We know that Google has always treated backlinks as one of their most important ranking factors, along with keywords and other things. However, there has been a lot of change to other areas about what is considered good practice and what is not. It is also common knowledge that Google make small tweaks to their algorithms on a daily basis, meaning it is truly always changing. However, there have been lots of much bigger updates and changes that have shaken the foundations of search engine marketing. So we’ve taken the opportunity to go through the biggest and most notable updates.
It all started with TBPR or as it’s more commonly known as ToolBar PageRank. This was the introduction of Google’s browser toolbar that started the SEO community and creating new methods of helping websites perform better. This was a time of trial and error as webmasters and SEO’s experimented with what worked and what didn’t. It was the TBPR that started the ‘Google Dance’, a constant changing in rankings with new priorities.
Boston was also a first for Google, it was the first update they named (it got its name from where it was announced – SES Boston). This was meant to be the first, of what was anticipated to be the first of many, monthly updates to the search algorithm. However as the algorithms quickly became more advanced, the monthly update idea was soon scrapped.
Following Boston, there were several named updates which each bought noticeable changes and updates to the way search was handled. Cassandra, for example, was Google’s way of cracking down on issues surrounding link quality. This was also when Google put a stop to hiding keywords and links against backgrounds.
There was also Dominic which came a month or so after, again reporting changes to backlinks. Esmeralda was the next in line, who bought changes to the infrastructure at Google. Fritz was next in line, marking the end of the monthly updates.
Arguably, one of the biggest and most infamous updates Google announced. It was with this update that what were perfectly reasonable tactics like keyword stuffing, became completely obsolete and actually damaged rankings massively. Florida marked the start of the current age of search.
2004 saw Austin being rolled out. This was essentially the backup crew for Florida, and what was missed by Florida was fixed in Austin, changing the SEO game dramatically. It is rumoured that page relevance factors also began to start being considered more seriously.
It’s thanks to Brandy that the anchor text used on backlinks became much more important. This addition to the algorithm also introduced a feature that changed keyword analysis to the modern analysis we have today; the ability to recognise and understand synonyms. This meant that websites could now rank for keywords they had never even considered before.
As Google headed into 2005, they worked collaboratively with the likes of Yahoo & Microsoft to create the much used “nofollow” attribute. This was done to allow webmasters to tackle the rising issue of spam and link quality. NoFollow was an update that changed the backlink landscape forever, meaning that links were harder to get, but quality links meant much more.
Initially, Bourbon was shrouded in mystery as the anonymous “GoogleGuy” announced some changes without detailing what they will be. However, once it had been rolled out it was speculated that the primary target for Bourbon was duplicate content, and how non-canonical URLs were handled.
Following Bourbon, there was also the introduction of personalised search and XML sitemaps. Previous attempts to personalise search relied on users having individual profiles and settings which never really caught on, however, the new system of looking at browsing history meant personalisation could finally be achieved. Whilst it was slow to roll out, it has stuck around and is now used in many of Google’s applications today. Despite XML Sitemaps being old news, Google allowed webmasters to submit them via webmaster tools for the first time. Finally, SEO’s had more control over crawling and indexing of their websites.
Jagger was released over at least 3 stages, with its sight set on low-quality links like those predominantly found in link-farms. Other bad links, such as those that were paid for, all suffered during this update meaning that the search landscape changed for the better, the sites that deserved the links and rankings – got them.
Very shortly after Jagger, updates were released to the Local Business Centre, more businesses were urged to update and add more to their information. This data was then shortly merged into Google Maps, a combination that provided a basis for lots of change in local SEO.
The following years were remarkably quiet in terms of major updates, instead, digital marketers could focus on the smaller daily updates and what they were happening. However, May 2007 saw Universal Search introduced. It was this update that killed the traditional 10-listing SERP (Search Engine Results Page). This was done by integrating their news, video, image and other search types with their traditional search results.
Dewey was yet another update that’s purpose was unclear. But it is widely believed that this was Google pushing their own properties like Google Books, however, the evidence to support this theory is slim.
This update bought about more collaboration between Google, Microsoft & Yahoo. The result of this collaboration was the rel=”canonical” tag. This allowed webmasters to organise canonicalization with crawlers without affecting the user journey or experience.
Vince came along in February of 2009, and whilst it was claimed to be a small change many believed it had much more significant impacts. One of these being the effect Vince had over the success of big brands; amplifying their presence in search results.
Whilst this was initially just a preview when it launched in August 2009, Caffeine brought a much faster-crawling speed, a bigger index and nearly real-time ranking changes. With all this extra speed, no wonder it was running on caffeine!
May Day is widely known to a distress signal, and it wasn’t much different when Google rolled out this update. It was widely observed that rankings were dropping like flies, especially for the long-tail keywords that are so often associated with good conversion rates. May Day was a precursor for the impending Panda update.
Now, we didn’t jump straight to Panda from May Day – there were plenty of smaller changes and tweaks along the way, such as the announcement of using social signals in rankings and the release of Google instant. But Panda was a BIG update.
Panda consisted of a large number of updates that affected sites dramatically. With thin content, sites with ad content and anything else that will affect the quality of a users experience in its scope, Panda was big news. But it wasn’t a quick roll-out (spanning over a few years), so from here on out, expect a few discrepancies between the timeline.
Panda 2.0 was rolled out to all English queries, not necessarily just English speaking countries. This brought along new signals that were used to determine quality.
Originally nick-named Panda 3.0, this was a smaller rollout of changes but nothing was detailed by Google.
This was rolled out separately from the main index, making it similar to how Google used to roll out updates.
As time went by, Google kept making tweaks and changes to Panda. Whilst this one was confirmed by Google, nothing was said about what changed.
Panda 2.4 effected between 6% & 9% of queries, which was everywhere except countries that spoke Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
Over a month passed between 2.4 & 2.5, digital marketers were mostly unclear about what changed but they do know some sites had losses on a large scale.
After 2.5, there was a large amount of flux within Panda. There were more frequent and smaller updates, which many people group together under the name 3.1. But as time went on over the following years, there were several more changes and tweaks to Panda. So many that the 3rd series of updates ran of out numbers so the later ones became 3.9.1 & 3.9.2.
Panda 20 was released alongside updates to the Exact-Match Domain. Bringing changes to the algorithm and data, as well as a new naming system as the 3.x series was becoming hard to keep track of!
As updates 21, 22, 23 & 24 came and went with relatively small updates, changes and effects 25 was announced to be the last Panda update before Panda became integrated into the core algorithm.
Panda was infamous for being incredibly harsh, but with this update, some of the hard blows and losses previously inflicted were softened by this update, hence the name Recovery.
Following the previous Panda Updates, this was more significant – affecting about 7.5% of English queries. It was mainly a data refresh but there were also updates to the algorithm. Whilst this wasn’t the last Panda update, the remaining were mostly small tweaks and changes that had very little noticeable effect on how search worked.
If we flash-back to 2011 (we warned you it might get confusing!), we find another great collaboration from Google, Yahoo & Microsoft. A collaboration that would create Ryan’s favourite bit of digital marketing: Structured Data & Schema.org. In order to provide rich search results, search engines began to understand new bits of information that could be highlighted through Schema.org.
Are you ready for another big series of updates? Well, this is where Penguin was announced. This update, or series of, bought about the idea of over-optimisation. Penguin targetted more spam factors like keyword stuffing.
This update to penguin revealed that the algorithm was acting separately to the main search index, similar to how Panda began.
After several small updates, the numbering system for Penguin followed Panda and restarted the names with number 3.
Penguin 2.0 (yes the name system is really confusing for Penguin), seemed to be targeted more at a specific page level, but other details are unknown.
Nearly 5 months passed between 2.0 & 2.1, but when the next update came it hit hard. With changes to the data, it was definitely a noticeable update.
Skipping past all the small changes between 2.1 & 4.0, Google announced that Penguin would become real-time and integrated into the core algorithm to join the likes of Panda. After a multi-phase operation, a variety of big impacts and little ones were recorded.
May 2016 saw the introduction of the knowledge graph. This focused more on semantic search with the SERP display that provides additional details on people, places and things. The knowledge graph has since undergone different expansions and developments to provide the best search experience.
This update saw Google pick a fight with spammy niches and the results they were achieving – mentioning specifically Payday Loan websites and adult content. About 2 months of work later and Google rose victorious, having severely damaged the rankings and results these sites could generate and protecting its users.
Similar to caffeine, Hummingbird was all about speed and size increases, making Google into an even bigger, better, fast search machine. With these came improved semantic search as the algorithm became smarter and improved knowledge graph.
Google really likes animals that begin with the letter P apparently. Pigeon landed in July 2014 and shook the local SEO world. Local results looked different, they were triggered differently and it’s claimed that Pigeon bought local SEO closer to the core algorithm.
By now we all know the importance of having HTTPS installed on your website. And it was in August 2014 that Google made sure people knew how important it is, by giving preference to sites with HTTPS installed.
Pirate came along as a 2 part update. The latest of which happened in 2014. The purpose behind this was to help combat piracy of software and digital media. With such a defined purpose, Google created a very targeted list of who to effect and these small groups were very heavily impacted; seeing large drops in rankings.
2015 was another quiet year for updates. More general updates regarding Panda that we have already discussed and some unnamed updates. But there were 2 big updates worth mentioning. The first being Mobilegeddon. It’s very rare for Google to announce an update before it happens, so when they do, you know it will be big. But this was different. The actual effect was very small. Mobilegeddon saw sites that were mobile-friendly get a boost in SERPs.
The second big update of 2015 was RankBrain. This revealed that machine learning had been contributing to Google’s algorithm for a while, meaning that the big ranking factors were even more mysterious to SEOs and digital marketers alike.
Back at it again with the animals beginning with the letter P! Possum is an unconfirmed update but there is evidence to show big shake-ups in rankings as well as local pack results having less impact on the SERPs.
Another unconfirmed – but highly likely – update was Fred. This had all the warning signs of a major update, with lots of fluctuation between search results but as for what changed nobody knows. Even the name started as a joke that stuck!
November 2017 saw an unexpected increase to the recommended length of meta descriptions. In fact, the recommendation nearly doubled (from 155 to 300 characters), Google also revealed an update with how this information is handled but nothing specific. This has since been reversed to the original limit.
It’s not often that Google updates the core algorithm directly in a large way, but Brackets was an example of this. Despite being confirmed by Google, they weren’t keen on releasing any details about the change so we are still in the dark about what exactly the change was.
Google pretty much rely entirely on serving up a list of results for a search query. So when it was discovered that they are testing results with zero listings made everybody raise an eyebrow. For queries relating to conversions, calculations and questions that Google could answer – they wouldn’t show any organic listings – instead, solving the query themselves. Whilst this test only lasted a week it could be a foreshadowing for things yet to come.
We are starting to get into the more modern updates now! In fact, we’d be surprised if you hadn’t heard of the mobile-first index (you can read more about it here). But as mobile-traffic has grown and changed over the years, Google has decided it’s time to reflect this with a new index made for mobiles.
The most recent, and a potentially controversial update was called Google Medic. Rolling out in August 2018. This targeted sites with content focused around health, medical and wellness themes but it affected other sites on the way.
And there you have it, a (very) brief history of the Google updates. We haven’t covered every update ever, because we don’t know them all and not everything is worth noting. But we are always staying up-to-date and spotting trends in search patterns and changes to make sure we are still achieving the best for our clients. If you want to find out more, get in touch with our team today!