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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
A Google representative confirmed an indexing bug temporarily impacted rankings. Google was struggling to surface fresh content.
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.
Later today, we are releasing a broad core algorithm update, as we do several times per year. It is called the May 2020 Core Update. Our guidance about such updates remains as we’ve covered before. Please see this blog post for more about that:https://t.co/e5ZQUAlt0G
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) May 4, 2020
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
In early November, we began making use of neural matching as part of the process of generating local search results. Neural matching allows us to better understand how words are related to concepts, as explained more here: https://t.co/ShQm7g9CvN
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) December 2, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Google begins marking all http sites as “not secure” and displaying warnings to users.
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.
Google rolled out the mobile page speed update, making page speed a ranking factor for mobile results.
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%).
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.
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.
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 adding them to their index. If content is missing from mobile versions of your webpages, that content may not be indexed by Google.
To quote Google themselves,
“Mobile-first indexing means that we’ll use the mobile version of the page for indexing and ranking, to better help our – primarily mobile – users find what they’re looking for.”
Essentially the entire index is going mobile-first. This process of migrating over to indexing the mobile version of websites is still underway. Website’s are being notified in Search Console when they’ve been migrated under Google’s mobile-first index.
Google states that a series of minor improvements are rolled out across December. Webmasters and SEO professionals see large fluctuations in the SERPs.
What were the Maccabees changes?
Webmasters noted that doorway pages took a hit. Doorway pages act as landing pages for users, but don’t contain the real content – users have to get past these initial landing pages to access content of any value. Google considers these pages barriers to a user.
A writer at Moz dissected a slew of site data from mid-december noted one key observation. When two pages ranked for the same term, the one with better user engagement saw it’s rankings improve after this update. The other page saw its rankings drop. In many instances what happened for sites that began to lose traffic, is that blog pages were being shown/ranked where product or service pages should have been displayed.
A number of official celebrity sites fall in the rankings including (notably) Channing Tatum, Charlie Sheen, Kristen Stewart, Tom Cruise, and even Barack Obama. This speaks to how Google might have rebalanced factors around authoritativeness vs. content quality. One SEO expert noted that thin celebrity sites fell while more robust celebrity sites (like Katy Perry’s) maintained their #1 position.
Multiple webmasters reporting a slew of manual actions on December 25th and 26th, and some webmasters also reported seeing jumps on the 26th for pages that had been working on site quality.
Google increases the character length of meta descriptions to 300 characters. This update was not long-lived as Google rolled back to the original 150-160 character meta descriptions on May 13, 2018.
Webmasters noted that this update targeted sites and pages with:
In early March webmasters and SEOs began to notice significant fluctuations in the SERPs, and Barry Schwartz from SEJ began tweeting Google to confirm algorithm changes.
The changes seemed to target content sites engaging in aggressive monetization at the expense of users. Basically sites filling the internet up with low-value content, meant to benefit everyone except the user. This included PBN sites, and sites created with the sole intent of generating AdSense income.
Fred got its name from Gary Illyes who suggested to an SEO expert asking if he wanted to name the update, that we should start calling all updates without names “Fred.”
— Barry Schwartz (@rustybrick) March 9, 2017
The joke, for anyone who knows the webmaster trends analyst, is that he calls everything unnamed fred (fish, people, EVERYTHING).
What those who aren’t friends with @methode don’t realize is that he calls EVERYTHING un-named, fred. Fish, people, whatever.
— Ryan Jones (@RyanJones) March 9, 2017
The SEO community took this as a confirmation of recent algorithm changes (note: literally every day has algorithm updates). Validating them digging into the SERP Changes.
Google announces that intrusive pop ups and interstitials are going to be factored into their search algorithm moving forward.
“To improve the mobile search experience, after January 10, 2017, pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results may not rank as highly.”
This change caused rankings to drop for sites that forced users to get past an ad or pop up to access relevant content. Not all pop ups or interstitials were penalized, for instance the following pop ups were still okay:
The Google announcement of Penguin 4.0 had two major components:
SEOs also noted one additional change. Penguin 4.0 seemed to just remove the impact of spam links on SERPs, rather than penalizing sites with spammy links. This appeared to be an attempt for Google to mitigate the impact of negative SEO attacks on sites.
That being said, today in 2019 we still see a positive impact from running disavows for clients who have seen spammy links creep into their backlink profiles.
This update targeted duplicate and spammy results in local search (Local Pack and Google Maps). The goal being to provide more diverse results when they’re searching for a local business, product, or service.
Prior to the Possum update Google was filtering out duplicates in local results by looking for listings with matching domains or matching phone numbers. After the Possum update Google began filtering out duplicates based on their physical address.
Businesses who saw some of their listings removed from the local pack may have initially thought their sites were dead (killed by this update), but they weren’t – they were just being filtered (playing possum). The term was coined by Phil Rozek
SEOs also noted that businesses right outside of city limits also saw a major uptick in local rankings, as they got included in local searches for those cities.
Google boosts the effect of the mobile-friendly ranking signal in search.
Google took time to stress that sites which are not mobile friendly but which still provide high quality content will still rank.
Google Removes sidebar ads and ads a fourth ad to the top block above the organic search results.
This move reflects the search engine giant continuing to prioritize mobile-first experiences, where side-bar ads are cumbersome compared to results in the main content block.
Google Confirms core algorithm update in January, right after confirming that Panda is now part of Google’s core algorithm.
Not a lot of conclusions were able to be drawn about the update, but SEOs noticed significant fluctuations with news sites/news publishers. Longform content with multi-media got a boost, and older articles took a bit of a dive for branded terms. This shift could reflect Google tweaking current-event related results to show more recent content, but the data was not definitive.
Google starts indexing the https version of pages by default.
Pages using SSL are also seeing a slight boost. Google holds security as a core component of surfacing search results to users, and this shift becomes one of many security-related search algo changes. In fact, by the end of 2017 over 75% of the page one organic search results were https.
in testing since April 2015, Google officially introduced RankBrain on this date. RankBrain is a machine learning algorithm that filters search results to help give users a best answer to their query. Initially, RankBrain was used for about 15 percent of queries (mainly new queries Google had never seen before), but now it is involved in almost every query entered into Google. RankBrain has been called the third most important ranking signal.
Google introduces an algorithm specifically targeting spammy in the search results that were gaining search equity from hacked sites.
This change was significant, it impacted 5% of search queries. This algorithm hides sites benefiting from hacked sites in the search results.
@rustybrick yesr. That’s what we’re aiming for.
— Gary “鯨理” Illyes (@methode) October 9, 2015
The update came right after a September message from Google about cracking down on repeat spam offenders. Google’s blog post notified SEOs that sites which repeatedly received manual actions would find it harder and harder to have those manual actions reconsidered.
Google switches from displaying seven results for local search in the map pack to only three.
Why the change? Google is switching over (step-by-step) to mobile-first search results, aka prioritizing mobile users over desktop users.
On mobile, only three local results fit onto the screen before a users needs to scroll. Google seems to want users to scroll to then access organic results.
Other noticeable changes from this update:
Roll out of Panda 4.2 began on the weekend of July 18th and affected 2-3% of search queries. This was a refresh, and the first one for Panda in about 9 months.
Why does that matter? The Panda algorithm acts like a filter on search results to sort out low quality content. Panda basically gets applied to a set of data – and decides what to filter out (or down). Until the data for a site is refreshed, Panda’s ruling is static. So when a data refresh is completed, sites that have made improvements essentially get a revised ruling on how they’re filtered.
Nine months is a long time to wait for a revised ruling!
This change is an update to the quality filters integrated into Google’s core algorithm, and alters how the algorithm processes signals for content quality. This algorithm is real-time, meaning that webmasters will not need to wait for data refreshes to see positive impact from making content improvements.
What kind of pages did we see drop in the rankings?
In hindsight, this update feels like a precursor to Google’s 2017 updates for content spam and intrusive pop ups.
Google boosts mobile-friendly pages in mobile search results.
This update was termed Mobilegeddon as SEOs expected it to impact a huge number of search queries, maybe more than any other update ever had. Why? Google was already seeing more searches on mobile than on desktop in the U.S. in May 2015.
In 2018 Google takes this a step further and starts mobile-first indexing.
Google’s local algorithm, known as Pigeon, expands to international English speaking countries (UK, Canada, Australia) on December 22, 2014.
In December Google also releases updated guidelines for local businesses representing themselves on Google.
Google releases an “improved DMCA demotion signal in Search,” specifically designed to target and downrank some of the sites most notorious for piracy.
In October Google also released an updated report on how they fight piracy, which includes changes they made to how results for media searches were displayed in search. Most of these user interface changes were geared towards helping user find legal (trusted) ways to consume the media content they were seeking.
This update impacted 1% of English search queries, and was the first update to Penguin’s algorithm in over a year. This update was both a refresh and a major algorithm update.
Panda 4.1 is the 28th update for the algorithm that targets poor quality content. This update impacted 3-5% of search queries.
To quote Google:
“Based on user (and webmaster!) feedback, we’ve been able to discover a few more signal to help Panda identify low-quality content more precisely. This results in a greater diversity of high-quality small- and medium-sized sites ranking higher, which is nice.”
Major losers were sites with deceptive ads, affiliate sites (thin on content, meant to pass traffic to other monetizing affiliates), and sites with security issues.
This change impacted search, but was not an algorithm change, data refresh, or UI update.
Starting mid-to-late September, 2014 Google de-indexed a massive amount of sites being used to boost other sites and game Google’s search rankings.
Google then followed-up on the de-indexing with manual actions for sites benefiting from the PBN. These manual actions went out on September 18, 2014.
Authors are no longer displayed (name or photo) in the search results along with the pieces that they’ve written.
Almost a year later Gary Illyes suggested that sites with authorship markup should leave the markup in place because it might be used again in the future. However, at a later date it was suggested that Google is perfectly capable of recognizing authorship from bylines.
Sites using SSL began to see a slight boost in rankings.
Google would later go on to increase this boost, and eventually provide warning to users when they were trying to access unsecure pages.
Google’s local search algorithm is updated to include more signals from traditional search (knowledge graph, spelling correction, synonyms, etc).
Photos of Authors are gone from SERPs.
This was the first step towards Google decommissioning Authorship markup.
Where Payday Loans 2.0 targeted spammy sites, Payday Loans 3.0 targeted spammy queries, or more specifically the types of illegal link schemes scene disproportionately within high-spam industries (payday loans, porn, gambling, etc).
What do you mean illegal? We mean link schemes that function off of hacking other websites or infecting them with malware.
This update also included better protection against negative SEO attacks,
Payday Loan Update 2.0 was a comprehensive update to the algorithm (not just da data refresh). This update focused on devaluation of domains using spamy on-site tactics such as cloaking.
Cloaking is when the content/page that google can see for a page is different than the content/page that a human user sees when they click on that page from the SERPs.
Google had stopped announcing changes to Panda for a while, so when they announced Panda 4.0 we know it was going to be a larger change to the overall algorithm.
Panda 4.0 impacted 7.5% of English queries, and led to a drastic nose dive for a slew of prominent sites like eBay, Ask.com, and Biography.com.
— Steven Broschart (@optimizingexp) May 21, 2014
This is a refresh of Google’s algorithm that devalues pages with too many above-the-fold ads, per Google’s blog:
We’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away.
So sites that don’t have much content “above-the-fold” can be affected by this change. If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience.
The Page Layout algorithm was originally launched on January 19, 2012, and has only had one other update in October of the same year (2012).
Authorship gets less of a boost in the search results. This is the first step Google took in beginning to phase out authorship markup.
Technically the 5th update to Google’s link-spam fighting algorithm, this minor update affects about 1% of search queries.
Penguin 2.1 launching today. Affects ~1% of searches to a noticeable degree. More info on Penguin: http://t.co/4YSh4sfZQj
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) October 4, 2013
Hummingbird was a full replacement of the core search algorithm, and Google’s largest update since Caffeine (Panda and Penguin had only been changes to portions of the old algorithm).
Humminbird helped most with conversational search for results outside of the knowledge graph — where conversational search was already running. Hummingbird was a significant improvement to how google interpreted the way text and queries are typed into search.
This algorithm was named Hummingbird by Google because it’s “precise and fast.”
Knowledge Graph Expands to nearly 25% of all searches, displaying information-rich cards right above or next to the organic search results.
Panda begins going through monthly refreshes, also kn