A Brief & Juicy History of Google’s Most Sizzlingly Scandalous,* Shake-in-Your-Booties Algo Updates
The slaps, the scorn and the scorchers that went down...
*Not really scandalous. Just a bit hyped, come to think of it.
They can either shake you in your booties or slip on by without a thought, but dramas and gossip aside, with the development of AI, Google’s algorithmic changes are becoming far more interesting and educational. Plus, they’ve got cute names.
Fun fact: one report suggested Google made more than 3,200 algorithmic changes in one year! Why should you care? Because you can learn great stuff from these updates, and if your ranking suddenly takes a hike, you can quickly find out if the cause was an algorithmic shuffle, and what you can (possibly) do about it to improve your SEO.
Here’s a brief history of our most notable algorithms and how they’ve affected us over the last few years.
June 2019 Core update & site diversity update
Launched: June 3-8, 2019
This algo was pre-announced and focused on making a correction to the way their algos assessed incoming links, putting more emphasis on the DA and trustworthiness of incoming links. Note, trustworthiness is a word you’ll hear a lot of in the future. Keep it in mind.
And something interesting – they simultaneously released a separate site diversity update. Remember how you could punch in a search result and see the same domain name appear perhaps four or five times? It was fun if you were winning. For most queries, this algo meant that users would no longer see a single domain more than twice. It was a sad move for those of us who loved to boast amongst our colleagues, “Look at what I’ve done! Five listings on PAGE #1! Christ, I’m in love with myself!”
But ego aside, this algorithm was a practical move for the community at large.
The losers: Those with loads of poor-quality links suffered, and those hogging the SERPS for a single query had their egos put in check. Like me.
The winners: The underappreciated.
March 2019 Core update
Launch date: March 12, 2019
This update was a fine-tuning of some previous updates, the most notable one being the Medic update which ‘threw a few people around’. Google also decided to give this puppy a name, so none of us got the thrill of making up stupid ones.
Researchers noted that those who had increased search traffic benefited even if they hadn’t increased their number of keywords. So traffic was the bomb.
The losers: People with crappy sites with loads of annoying pop-ups and over optimisation got stung, and YMYL sites (an acronym for Your Money or Your Life – you’ll also be hearing about these) took a bit of a hit, along with those participating in “un-trusted activities”.
The winners: The reputable folk. The ones who had answered to queries about sensitive topics, particularly health-related. SearchMetrics reported that “websites with a strong brand profile and a broad topic focus” also benefited.
Get used to hearing that TRUST matters. Google is big on trust, given all the shenanigans of the last couple of years - think health and vaccine/fluoride conspiracies, climate change deniers and fake news.
Launched: March 8, 2017
This March update was sarcastically named Fred and had a broad focus on quality over a variety of areas. Fred got a bit pesky with untrustworthy sites, poor-quality links and aggressive monetisation. Fred appeared to be a liberal.
The Losers: No surprises here – money-focused, affiliate-heavy, add-centred and thin content. But none of you would have a website like that, would you?
The winners: A bunch of websites with high-quality, high-value content with minimal ads were the winners. I feel like I’m repeating myself.
Possum (Isn’t he beautiful?)
Launched: September 1, 2016
Darling possum brings back fond memories, especially as she was another algos starting with ‘P’. (Excellent potential for algorithms starting with a ‘P’ remain.)
Gorgeous, diversity-loving Possum was a bit of a scatter-brain though, and her focus remained unclear, but she appeared to be centred on the Local Pack. Rumour has it she bought more variety to the local search results, giving more love to local companies.
Possum was also a busy little thing; she got to work and madly filtered out listings that shared the same address – causing a ruckus between neighbouring or location sharing businesses. It had to happen. The writing was on the wall. I warned you all.
The losers: Highly competitive local businesses that were vulnerable to being pushed off their perch.
The winners: Businesses outside the normal parameters of city limits had a chance to appear. It was their moment of validation, and their star could finally shine brightly in Google’s blue screen skies.
Launched: October 26, 2015 (Yes, that long ago!)
I think I’d like to give a five-star rating for some of these names. I’ll give this one a 4 ½.
This algorithm was given a name that sounded so clever, so almost sexy, yet profane at the same time (“Don’t push me, RankBrain!”) Hip and progressive, RankBrain introduced live AI into Google search results, which was pretty cool.
Although RankBrain was hailed as one of Google’s most important ranking components, officially it’s not a true ranking signal. What is it then? It’s a processing mechanism; a machine that helps Google understand our queries better. And, it helps with the significant 15% of never-before-searched queries that poor Google faces daily.
Speaking of sexy, RankBrain has been described on Reddit as follows:
“RankBrain is a PR-sexy machine learning ranking component that uses historical search data to predict what would a user most likely click on for a previously unseen query. It is a really cool piece of engineering that saved our butts countless times whenever traditional algos were like, e.g. “oh look a “not” in the query string! let’s ignore the hell out of it!”, but it’s generally just relying on (sometimes) months old data about what happened on the results page itself, not on the landing page. Dwell time, CTR, … those are generally made up crap. Search is much more simple than people think.”
The losers: Apparently, there weren’t any specific losers. But those with shallow content, pitiful UX or unfocused subject matter didn’t win any favours.
The winners: Those with niche content, and those focusing on keyword intent had a better chance of ranking. The launch of RankBrain unofficially promised that from now on, things were going to get cleverer.
Launched: April 21, 2015
“Even clinging to the once towering bridge, the only thing Kayce could see was desert. Yesterday, San Francisco hummed with life, but now there was nothing but the hot hiss of the wind. Google’s Mobilegeddon blew out from Mountain View like Death’s last exhale, and for the first time since she regained consciousness, Kayce wondered if she was the last SEO left alive.”
Dr Pete Meyers, MOZ. “7 Days After Mobile Geddon: How Far Did the Sky Fall?”
Nicknamed MobilEgeddon, no one had seen such drama since Y2K. We’re talking front-page newspaper headline, fill up the bathtub and batten down the hatches full-throttle panic stations. Mobilegeddon got web designers paying off their swimming pools and sending their kids to private schools. Threats of Mobilegeddon reached establishments as archaic as the local papers and even government departments. Yet surprisingly, after the launch date, we were all still here.
At the time, Google said:
“We’re boosting the ranking of mobile-friendly pages on mobile search results. Now searchers can more easily find high-quality and relevant results where the text is readable without tapping or zooming, tap targets are spaced appropriately, and the page avoids unplayable content or horizontal scrolling.”
It certainly read like there were going to be some pretty big changes. But if you go back and read the text very carefully, you’ll notice that nowhere does it say HOLY SHIT IT’S TIME TO PANIC AND FREAK OUT!!!
But, they did give us the impression that pretty big stuff was going to happen.
So nothing much happened, initially. Well, not for a lot of us. Not if you don’t include all the wicked pool parties the web designers enjoyed while their kids were locked up in boarding school.
The losers: The same people as before, IMHO. The official verdict? Some websites without responsive design or with poor mobile usability suffered. But it was pretty minor. Initially. But today? It’s very important, so don’t get me wrong. Today mobile-friendly is extremely important.
The winners: Allegedly, responsive sites and pages with existing mobile-friendly versions benefited. Not my words though. My observations were that it took quite a while to come into effect, with many websites holding the same search engine positions as before.
AU Launch date: December 22, 2014
Back to the cute names starting with ‘P’. This one was back to local stuff, shaking up the local organic results in both organic and map searches.
Pigeon was keen on the “near me” results - because Pigeon. She honed in on distance and location ranking parameters. In other words, if you were close to a pizza shop and said “pizza shop near me” you’d get a better response. Pigeon was very handy after a few drinks on a Friday night.
The losers: Local businesses with poor on-page AND off-page results. And those who got sh*t on.
The winners: Local yokels that’d been savvy enough to have updated their name/ address/phone details and were ready to roll.
Launch date: August 22, 2013
A great name, despite not starting with ‘P’ , Hummingbird represented a “brand-new engine”, completely overhauling Google’s existing ranking algorithm and was based on semantic search. Google describes Hummingbird as an algorithm rewrite, not an added on update.
Although ‘user intent’ has become trendy now, the thrust for user intent appeared to have started back in 2013. Google realised they needed to have a better understanding of user intent behind a search query. They needed to do better.
So first, before they launched Hummingbird, they introduced Google Knowledge Graph, which was created to try and map the relationships between different pieces of information about “entities”. It filled the gaps, connected the dots and improved logic.
Back to Hummingbird. This overhaul used semantic search to give us better results that match the searcher’s intent. Notice that word again? Intent. Write it down. Hummingbird helped the robots understand conversational language and impacted some 90% of searches including conversational language queries, voice search and others.
The losers: Sites with just plain dumb stuff – old-fashioned keyword stuffing and low-quality content couldn’t get away with it anymore. Bring out that tiny violin.
The winners: Webpages with natural, conversational writing and – another wake-up – Q&A style content benefited. And this Q&A thing was the beginning of something big.
Launch date: April 24, 2012
The infamous Penguin was big, and I loved it. It started with a ‘P’, and put all those link-loving spam heads in their place. Specifically, it targeted link spam, web spam and manipulative link building practices. Also: black hat SEO. Their time was up.
It was bad luck for some offenders though because even when they cleaned up their acts and promised to be good kids forever and ever (until they could get away with the next rort) they stayed in Google jail for months. That’ll teach them.
Penguin went on; then in 2016, he became a bit softer on people. Rather than demoting a sight for bad inbound links, Penguin morphed into a more forgiving creature and chose to ignore the bad stuff.
Penguin’s attitude change was seriously good for people whose sites had been hacked by unscrupulous folks which was good. Because previously, they would take months to recover for something that wasn’t their fault. And that’s not nice or funny at all.
But, if a website had a hideous backlink profile, Google said they may still apply a manual action for unnatural links to your site. So watch out.
The losers: All the morons that have bought a bunch of links and thought this SEO thing was a piece of cake.
The winners: The sites that had always had natural inbound links got a raise in results. Water always finds its level, I like to think.
Launch date: February 24, 2011
Panda was all about quality content, and consequently, what are my favourites. Plus, it started with a ‘P’ and there were so many great Panda memes. It targeted meaningless content and hence, marked the time where we started to see all the boring, useless rubbish disappear. And not a moment too soon. It was also a celebratory time for copywriters because it meant that we became indispensable overnight. And boy, did the phones ring.
The losers: All those boring types with boring, thin, repetitive content.
The winners: The unique, interesting, hard-working people that had high-quality, high-relevance content.
Got a great idea for an Algo name? Got a great idea for an Algo?