Learning Hub Blog Post

Google Algorithm Update History

BLOG POSTS SEO
By Manick Bhan
Oct 21, 2019

The Google algorithm is constantly changing. In 2018 alone, Google ran 15,096 Live traffic experiments, and launched 3,234 updates to its search algorithm.

 

Three variations of google search result layouts being tested with users.


Not all updates have significant impact on the search results. This page covers the top 150 updates to how search results function from 2000-2019. Updates are a blend of changes to:

 

  • Algorithms
  • Indexation
  • Data (aka Data Refreshes)
  • Google Search UIs
  • Webmaster Tools
  • Changes to ranking factors and signals

Before we get into the timeline of individual google updates, it’s going to be helpful to define a handful of things upfront for any SEO newbies out there:

Google’s Core Algorithm

SEO experts, writers, and audiences will often refer to “Google’s Core Algorithm” as though it is a single item. In reality, Google’s Core Algorithm is made up of millions of smaller algorithms that all work together to surface the best possible search results to users. What we mean when we say “Google’s Core Algorithm” is the set of algorithms that are applied to every single search, which are no longer considered experimental, and which are stable enough to run consistently without requiring significant changes.

Google Panda (2011-2016)

The Panda algorithm focused on removing low quality content from search by reviewing on-page content itself. This algorithm focused on thin content, content dominated by ads, poor quality content (spelling/grammar mistakes), and rewarded unique content. Google Panda was updated 29 times before finally being incorporated into the core algorithm in January of 2016.

Google Penguin (2012-2016)

The Penguin algorithm focused on removing sites engaging in spammy tactics from the search results. Penguin primarily filtered sites engaging in keyword stuffing and link schemes out of the search results. Google Penguin was updated 10 times before being integrated into Google’s core algorithm in September of 2016.

RankBrain (2015-Present)

This machine-learning based AI helps Google process and understand the meaning behind new search queries. RankBrain works by being able to infer the meaning of new words or terms based on context and related terms. RankBrain began rolling out across all of Google search in early 2015 and was fully live and global by mid-2016. Within three months of full deployment RankBrain was already the 3rd most important signal contributing to the results selected for a search query.

Matt Cutts

One of the first 100 employees at Google, Matt Cutts was the head of Google’s Web Spam team for many many years, and interacted heavily with the webmaster community. He spent a lot of time answering questions about algorithm changes and providing webmasters high-level advice and direction.

Danny Sullivan

Originally a Founding Editor, Advisor, and Writer for Search Engine Land (among others), Danny Sullivan now communicates with the SEO community as Google’s Public Search Liaison. Mr. Sullivan frequently finds himself reminding the community that the best way to rank is to create quality content that provides value to users.

Gary Illyes

Google Webmaster Trends Analyst who often responds to the SEO community when they have questions about Google algorithm updates and changes. Gary is known for his candid (and entertaining) responses, which usually have a heavy element of sarcasm.

Webmaster World:

Frequently referenced whenever people speak about Google algorithm updates, webmasterworld.com is one of the most popular forums for webmasters to discuss changes to Google’s search results. A popular community since the early 2000’s webmasters still flock to the space whenever major fluctuations are noticed to discuss theories.

Years.
Tags.

 

2021 Google Search Updates

2021 Page Experience Update

Google announced in late 2020 that its upcoming 2021 Page Experience update would introduce core web vitals as new Google ranking factors. Core web vitals are a set of user experience criteria that include page load times, mobile responsiveness, visual responsiveness, and more. Google evaluates these metrics through the following criteria:

  1. Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) – The time it takes a web page to load the largest piece of content on the page
  2. First Input Delay (FID) – A measurement of the users first interaction with the page from interactivity and responsiveness.
  3. Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) – Measures visual stability and how stable the website is when loading and scrolling

This update makes it so Google will evaluate page experiences signals like mobile friendliness, safe browsing, HTTPS security, and intrusive interstitial guidelines when ranking web pages.

Additional Reading:

2020 Google Search Updates

2020 October – Indexing Bugs

From early September to the beginning of October, Google experienced multiple bugs with mobile indexing, canonicalization, news-indexing, top stories carousel, and sports scores breaking. The bugs impacted about .02% of searches. Google fully resolved all impacted urls by October 9th.

Additional Reading:

2020 August 11 – Google Glitch

On Tuesday, August 11th, Google experienced a massive, worldwide indexing glitch that impacted search results. Search results were very low-quality or irrelevant to search queries, and ecommerce sites in particular reported significant impacts on rankings. Google resolved the glitch within a few days.

Additional Reading:

2020 June – Google Bug Fix

A Google representative confirmed an indexing bug temporarily impacted rankings. Google was struggling to surface fresh content.

Additional Reading:

2020 May – Core Quality Update

This May 2020 core update was one of the more significant broad core updates with the introduction of core web vitals and increased emphasis on E.A.T. This update was a continuation of an effort to improve the quality of SERP results with COVID related searches. The update most significantly impacted those sites with low-quality or unnatural links. However some sites with lower-domain authority did appear to see positive ranking improvements for pages with high-quality, relevant content. 

Many SEOs reacted negatively, particularly because of the timing of the update, which occurred at the height of economic shutdowns to slow the spread of coronavirus. Some concerns about the May 2020 core quality update ranged from social media SERP domination and better SERP results for larger, more dominant brands like Amazon and Etsy. Some analysis noted these changes may have been reflecting user intent from quarantine, particularly because the update focused on providing better results for queries with multiple search intents. Google’s responded to the complaints by reinforcing existing content-quality signals. 

Additional Reading:

2020 March – COVID-19 Pandemic

Although not an official update, the coronavirus outbreak led to an unprecedented level of search queries that temporarily changed the landscape of search results. Google made several changes to adjust to the trending searches such as:

  • Increased user personalization to combat misinformation
  • Removed COVID-19 misinformation across YouTube and other platforms
  • Added “Sticky Menu” for COVID related searches
  • Added temporary business closures to the Map Pack
  • Temporarily banned ads for respirators and medical masks
  • Created COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports
  • Temporary limited certain Google My Business listings features

Additional Reading:

2020 February 7 – Unannounced Update

In February of 2020, many SEOs reported seeing significant changes to rankings, although Google had not announced and denied any broad core update. Various analysis of the update showed no clear pattern between websites that were impacted. 

Additional Reading: 

2020 January 22 – Featured Snippet De-duplication

Prior to this January 2020 update, those sites that earned the featured snippet, or “position zero,” also appeared as the subsequent organic search result. This update de-duplicated search results to eliminate this double exposure. This impacted 100% of searches worldwide and had significant impacts on rank tracking and organic CTR.

Additional Reading:

2020 January – Broad Core Update

On January 13th, 2020, Google started rolling out another broad core update. Google did not provide details about the update, but did emphasize existing webmaster guidelines about content quality.

Additional Reading:

2019 Google Search Updates

2019 November Local Search Update

In November of 2019 Google rolled out an update to how local search results are formulated (ex: map pack results). This update improved Google’s understanding of the context of a search, by improving its understanding of synonyms. In essence, local businesses may find they are showing up in more searches.

2019 October 26 BERT

In October Google introduced BERT a deep-learning algorithm focused on helping Google understand the intent behind search queries. BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) gives context to each word within a search query. The “bidirectional” in BERT refers to how the algorithm looks at the words that come before and after each term before assessing the meaning of the term itself.

Here’s an example of bi-directional context from Google’s Blog:

In the sentence “I accessed the bank account,” a unidirectional contextual model would represent “bank” based on “I accessed the” but not “account.” However, BERT represents “bank” using both its previous and next context — “I accessed the… account” — starting from the very bottom of a deep neural network, making it deeply bidirectional.

The introduction of BERT marked the most significant change to Google search in half a decade, impacting 1 in 10 searches — 10% of all search queries.

Additional Reading:

2019 September – Entity Ratings & Rich Results

If you place reviews on your own site (even through a third party widget), and use schema markup on those reviews – the review stars will no longer show up in the Google results. Google applied this change to entities considered to be Local Businesses or Organizations.

The reasoning? Google considers these types of reviews to be self-serving. The logic is that if a site is placing a third party review widget on their own domain, they probably have some control over the reviews or review process.

Our recommendation? If you’re a local business or organization, claim your Google My Business listing and focus on encouraging users to leave reviews with Google directly.

Additional Reading:

2019 September – Broad Core Update

This update included two components:First, it hit sites exploiting a 301 redirect trick from expired sites. In this trick users would buy either expired sites with good SEO metrics and redirect the entire domain to their site, or users would pay a 3rd party to redirect a portion of pages from an expired site to their domain.Note: Sites with relevant 301 redirects from expired sites were still fine.

Second, video content appears to have gotten a boost from this update. June’s update brought an increase in video carousels in the SERPs. Now in September, we’re seeing video content bumping down organic pages that previously ranked above them.

 

We can see this at an even greater scale looking at two purely text and purely video sites – YouTube and Wikipedia. We can see that for the first time, YouTube has eclipsed Wikipedia in the Google search results.

 

Additional Reading:

2019 June – Broad Core Update

This is the first time that Google has pre-announced an update. Danny Sullivan, Google’s Search Liaison, stated that they chose to pre-announce the changes so webmasters would not be left “scratching their heads” about what was happening this time.

What happened?

  • We saw an increase in video carousels in the SERPs
  • Low quality news sites saw losses

What can sites do to respond to this broad core update? It looks like Google is leaning into video content, at least in the short-term. Consider including video as one of the types of content your team creates.

Additional Reading:

2019 May 22-26 – Indexing Bugs

On Wednesday May 22nd Google tweeted that there were indexation bugs causing stale results to be served for certain queries, this bug was resolved early on Thursday May 23rd.

By the evening of Thursday May 23rd Google was back to tweeting – stating that they were working on a new indexing bug that was preventing capture of new pages. On May 26th Google followed up that this indexation bug had also been fixed.

Additional Reading:

2019 April 4-11 De-Indexing Bugs

In April of 2019 an indexing bug caused about 4% of stable URLs to fall off of the first page. What happened? A technical error caused a bug to de-index a massive set of webpages.

Additional Reading:

2019 March 12 – Broad Core Update

Google was specifically vague about this update, and just kept redirecting people and questions to the Google quality guidelines. However, the webmaster community noticed that the update seemed to have a heavier impact on YMYL (your money or your life) pages.

YMYL sites with low quality content took a nose-dive, and sites with heavy trust signals (well known brands, known authorities on multiple topics, etc) climbed the rankings.

Let’s take two examples:

First, Everdayhealth.com lost 50% of their SEO visibility from this update. Sample headline:Can Himalayan Salt Lamps Really Help People with Asthma?

Next, Medicinenet.com saw a 12% increase in their SEO visibility from this update. Sample headline: 4 Deaths, 141 Legionnaires’ Infections Linked to Hot Tubs.

This update also seemed to factor in user behavior more strongly. Domains where users spent longer on the site, had more pages per visit, and had lower bounce rates saw an uptick in their rankings.

Additional Reading:

2019 March 1 – Extended Results Page

For one day, on March 1st, Google displayed 19 results on the first page of SERPs for all queries, 20 if you count the featured snippet. Many hypothesize it was a glitch related to in-depth articles, a results type from 2013 that has long since been integrated into regular organic search results.

Additional Reading:

2018 Google Algorithm Updates

2018 August – Broad Core Update (Medic)

This broad core update, known by its nickname “Medic” impacted YMYL (your money or your life) sites across the web.

SEOs had many theories about what to do to improve rankings after this update, but both Google and the larger SEO community ended up at the same messaging: make content user’s are looking for, and make it helpful.

This update sparked a lot of discussion around E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) for page quality, and the importance of clear authorship and bylines on content.

Additional Reading:

2018 July – Chrome Security Warning

Google begins marking all http sites as “not secure” and displaying warnings to users.

 

Google views security as one of their core principles, so this change makes sense as the next step to build on their October 2017 update that began warning users about unsecured forms.

 

Looking forward, Google is planning on blocking mixed content from https sites.

What can you do? Purchase an SSL certificate and make the move from http to https as soon as possible. Double check that all of your subdomains, images, PDFs and other assets associated with your site are also being served securely.

Additional Reading:

2018 July – Mobile Speed Update

Google rolled out the mobile page speed update, making page speed a ranking factor for mobile results.

Additional Reading:

2018 June – Video Carousels

Google introduces a dedicated video carousel on the first page of results for some queries, and moves videos out of regular results. This change also led to a significant increase in the number of search results displaying videos (+60%).

Additional Reading:

2018 April – Broad Core Update

The official line from Google about this broad core update, is that it rewards quality content that was previously under-rewarded. Sites that had content that was clearly better than the content of it’s organic competitors saw a boost, sites with thin or duplicative content fell.

2018 March – Broad Core Update

March’s update focused on content relevance (how well does content match the intent of the searcher) rather than content quality.

What can you do? Take a look at the pages google is listing in the top 10-20 spots for your target search term and see if you can spot any similarities that hint at how Google views the intent of the search.

Additional Reading:

2018 March – Mobile-First Index Starts to Roll Out

After months of testing Google begins rolling out mobile-first indexing. Under this approach, Google crawls and indexes the mobile version of website pages when addi