The world of SEO never remains the same, thanks to the ever-changing nature of Google’s algorithm. Every time an update rolls out, SEO experts and digital marketers scramble to see how their sites are affected and what they can do to climb and stay on top of search engine results pages (SERPs).
These updates come often. In fact, there are generally 500 to 600 Google algorithm updates each year. While most of these changes are minor, they do impact you and your SEO efforts in some way, which is why you should stay in the loop.
What the Hell Is a Google Algorithm?
Before we dive into the major updates of the last several years and the big core update in recent months, let’s first start with a common question for SEO novices.
What is the Google algorithm?
An algorithm is simply a set of rules for solving a problem within a set number of steps. In terms of computer science, an algorithm dictates how the computer performs a certain task.
And in the context of SEO, we are talking about algorithms in search engine technology.
Search engine technology permeates all human interaction with the internet. A search engine is simply a program that retrieves information. The search engine crawls, transforms, and stores information on the internet for the purpose of presenting it to users who submit queries.
Therefore, a Google algorithm is simply the rules and steps their technology follows to present results for searchers. But the company never makes their algorithm public, and it’s an incredibly complex algorithm.
As the world’s leading search engine, Google is always striving to be more intuitive, hence the amount of updates.
The Most Notable Google Algorithm Updates In Recent Years
Founded in 1998, Google became the first web-based search engine. Since its massive growth, they’ve practically achieved world domination in the digital age.
Net Market Share’s research found that Google owns a whopping 76 percent of search engine market share. Being the best requires consistent improvement efforts, which is where Google algorithm updates come into play.
Let’s run through the most notable updates within the last several years and explore what they achieved at the time.
In response to mounting complaints about the influence content mills were having on high ranking sites (basically thin content and low value sites were being delivered to searchers), Google introduced their Panda update in February 2011.
They developed the algorithm by comparing ranking signals against human quality rankings, which they gathered by sending test documents to human quality raters who answered a series of questions that revolved around the quality of the content they see, the credibility of the source, their feelings of safety, and more.
Page Layout Algorithm
Launched in January 2012, this update focused on sites using too many static advertisements above the fold. Whenever visitors landed on such sites, they often had to scroll down to actually see the content.
This was a big shift in the age of ad-filled websites. The intent here was to encourage webmasters to deliver a better user experience – a major area of focus for Google.
EMD (Exact Match Domain)
Another big update in 2012, the EMD update targeted spammy sites that used exact match domains to create sites with thin content and poor quality.
This was an important attack on gray hat SEO tactics that allowed people to manipulate search results by simply buy exact match domains without delivering any valuable content or information to searchers.
Most of the 2012 updates were significant for Google, and Penguin stands out as among arguably the most impactful in this year. This specific update targeted manipulative link building practices and other link spam.
Essentially, this was an extension of Panda in Google’s fight against low quality content. Simply put, Penguin aimed to ensure that links that were natural, authoritative, and relevant were rewarded, and spammy, manipulative links were hurt.
This 2013 Google algorithm update focused primarily on spammy sites built for shady industries, like pornography, high-interest loan and payday loan services, and other heavily spammed niches within the financial world.
Other versions of the Payday update addressed links and centered on keywords that had high volume and CPC that likely lead to spammy results.
In the fall of 2013, Hummingbird impacted nearly 90 percent of worldwide searches, which is a massive effect. In simplest terms, it addressed three components:
- Human search – added focus on synonyms and topics related to themes, which was particularly helpful for situations where searchers had limited knowledge about a subject.
- Conversational search – improved interpretations of semantically related keywords, so Google could use natural language processing.
- Local search – centered more on context and intent and when combined with location data, users got more relevant results when searching for local information.
This July 2014 update was a big game changer for small businesses. The purpose was simple: to reward small businesses that had brick and mortar locations relevant to local search queries. Basically, users were given a much better search experience, and companies that took local SEO seriously won big in gaining visibility.
Generally speaking, this update created a big tradeoff for users and local businesses. While users could find the information they needed, like location information and contact information (referred to as NAP in the local SEO world), businesses potentially lost website traffic as users no longer had to dig through sites to find this information.
I know, this one sounds especially daunting. But in April 2015, mobile-friendly sites won big in SEO. A few key areas were impacted, including search rankings on mobile devices, results in global languages, and individual webpages (not the whole site).
This was a massive cultural shift – it proved Google’s dedication to responding to consumer behavior. They knew the prevalence of mobile search, and they responded by rewarding mobile-friendly pages.
The only live AI that Google uses in delivering results to search queries was first launched in April 2015.
Basically, RankBrain uses AI to embed written language into mathematical entities computers can understand, which allows the machine to guess what the searcher means if it doesn’t recognize words or phrases being used. It infers a best fit for queries that Google doesn’t know yet. So lesser-used queries can still generate intelligent, relevant results
Intrusive Interstitials Update
Launched in August 2016, this change took aim at interstitials that could potentially disrupt the user experience. This was especially devalued for mobile sites that crowded screens with pop-ups, modals, and overlays.
Again, this shows Google’s commitment to user experience first and foremost. Not all interstitials are bad though – the only ones that get devalued are those that are hard to dismiss from the user perspective and act as spam.
What is collectively referred to as “Fred” is actually just a catchall name for all quality-specific algorithms and updates that Google won’t identify as anything specific.
Basically, a Fred hit to your site occurs when Google doesn’t name a core algorithm update. So basically, SEO experts and marketers can identify Fred issues if their site and others are impacted. This suggests an unnamed update that is geared toward site quality was quietly rolled out by Google.
The Latest Google Algorithm Update: June 2019 Core Update
In a rare circumstance, Google pre-announced their core update in early June 2019 before rolling out the latest core update. The most noteworthy impacts include their restriction of two listing from the same domain for search results.
This way, users aren’t hit with the same domain results. However, this update only impacts core results, not top stories, image carousels, or snippets.
So what does this Google algorithm update mean for you?
You should already be tracking your rankings, so this update further emphasizes the importance of doing this. Keep an eye on your pages that rank for the same query in Google to track the impact this update will have on you.
But keep in mind that this might not even impact you too much. In fact, Danny Sullivan from Google said:
“Personally, I wouldn’t think of it like an update, however. It’s not really about ranking. Things that ranked highly before still should. We just don’t show as many other pages.”
Stay Informed on Google Algorithm Updates
With these latest updates in mind, you’re better equipped to create content that ranks well and maintains a strong standing in top SERPs positions.
Don’t let Google algorithm updates cause any stress or concern for you and your team. There will always be updates, and it’s up to you to simply track how each one impacts your site, to do your research on SEO industry blogs, and to evolve your SEO strategy as needed.