Australian Web Awards

Understanding Google Algorithm Updates: Past, Present & Future

Google makes thousands of changes to their algorithm every year. They are constantly refining and perfecting their search functionality, to provide the best user experience.

If people don’t get what they are looking for when using the search engine, they will go elsewhere, so Google needs to make sure this doesn’t happen.

This means SEO Specialists also need to be constantly refining their methodologies, to ensure search strategies remain relevant to the algorithm changes. SEO tactics which worked a few years ago, do not still work today.

What is the Google Algorithm?

So what is the algorithm? Google was founded way back in September 1998 (fun fact – White Chalk Road was founded in 1999 – right after Google!) by two students in their dorm room, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Their mission was to ‘organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ – so they built the world’s first search engine, which used links to determine the importance of pages on the World Wide Web.

From there, the Google algorithm has been constantly expanded and refined, to continue to improve the search experience for users. Google will continue to improve and change their algorithm, so SEOs must also continue to adapt their methodologies to suit.

What We Know Google Wants

Google notoriously keeps tight-lipped about any changes to their algorithm, primarily to minimise any loopholes Spammers and Black Hat SEOs can use to manipulate the search rankings.

Black Hat SEO is the practice of methodologies that are in breach of Google’s best practises. Breaching these guidelines can result in your business being penalised by Google and at worst, removed from its index with limited recourse.

White Chalk Road is a White Hat SEO company which means we only use methodologies and practises for SEO that complies with Google best practises following specific quality guidelines. This safeguards your business’ brand & online marketing strategy for the long term.

What Google does do, is release guidelines for best practise, so SEOs can use these to guide their strategies. Unique, quality content remains favoured by Google. This is where the E-A-T principle comes in – Google wants to be as certain as possible that they are recommending sites that display a high level of Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness.

This is Google’s way of protecting searchers from low-quality content that has the potential to be detrimental to a searcher. This became apparent in 2018 with the Medic Update (discussed below).

History of Updates

So how did we get to the Google we see today? Well, there have been plenty of updates over the years, which have all served to improve the search experience for users. We look at some of the major updates from the past decade, and how they have influenced SEO Strategies over time.

2011 Google Panda Update

The Panda update was all about fishing out all the black hat sites, which were created to cheat the system. It focussed on the onsite page content, to determine if the site genuinely offered quality information. It weeded out sites they deemed ‘poor quality’ which were there just for ranking purposes.

The Panda update aimed to improve the way search works for its users. They eliminated farmed content with no value, rehashed versions of content (sites there just to link to other sites) and duplicate content. By doing so, the websites which were unique, original and useful to the visitors will see a boost in their rankings.

To combat the Panda Update, SEO Specialists adapted strategies to focus on improving original on-page content, removing duplicate content and removing low-quality backlinks.

2012 Google Venice Update

The Venice update was an interesting one, as it started to take into account the users location when displaying search results. It showed that Google understood users are sometimes looking for results that are local to them – for example, Perth plumbers rather than the top plumbing website.

After Venice, Google’s search results included pages based on the location you set in your browser or by using your IP address. This was the beginning of Local SEO, and optimising your site for local search results.

2012 Google’s Penguin Update

The Penguin update focused on the credibility of links to a website. The purpose was to reward those websites that practice good SEO marketing by obtaining natural links through white hat networking efforts. Conversely, it punished websites with poor SEO practices, such as those who purchase spammy links from link farms or networks which look to artificially inflate SEO rankings.

This spelt the end to ‘buying’ bulk links to rank your website, and put the focus on quality content marketing, improving the overall quality of content found on the web.

2012 Google Pirate Update

The Pirate update was all about cleaning up the web and ridding it of copyright content. It was designed to prevent sites with copyright infringements from ranking in search results.

Google’s algorithm considered DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown requests for a website and many takedown requests were used as a negative ranking factor. The only way to combat this was to remove duplicate content and wait for the infringement notices to be updated over time.

This update put a real focus on duplicate content and ensuring your website only used quality, original content.

2013 Google Hummingbird Update

Hummingbird was introduced to consider the whole search query, not just individual words. By taking into account the whole search query, Google could better understand the search intent and display more accurate results.

This change helped facilitate Voice Search devices, such as Google Home, as it better understands the whole query, rather than picking up on individual words. For SEOs, this meant a renewed focus on ensuring your content was natural and easy to read the language, not keyword-stuffed.

2014 Google Pigeon Update

The Pigeon Update was all about Local SEO and improving search results in Google Maps.

It started to take into account not only the user’s location but also the quality of the local search results, which appeared as ‘Local Results’. These were the businesses Google determined as most relevant to the user’s location when searching for a query (often showing up more often for localised queries that include a location in the keyword, for example, ‘Dentists Perth’).

This put on an emphasis on Search Marketers to ensure their Google My Business listing was optimised and they included local keywords in their content.

2014 Google HTTPS Update

This technical SEO update was encouragement from Google, for everyone to improve the security of their websites. Adding a Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) certificate to your website was and still is, a way to make your website more secure. 

This update gave a small ranking boost to sites that correctly implemented HTTPS, which you will now find on almost all sites on the web.

2015 Google Mobile Update

Mobilegeddon, which started rolling out April 21st, 2015, was actively promoted by Google to webmasters, SEO’s and business owners alike to ensure their websites were mobile-friendly – or face a decline in rankings for mobile traffic. It started rolling out in Australia in April 2015.

Google could see that mobile devices were becoming the go-to for search (which is still growing today). This triggered a lot of updates to websites to ensure they worked well on mobile devices.

2015 Google Rank Brain Update

Google introduced “machine learning” into their search algorithm in October 2015. So essentially, the algorithm could learn from data it is given, to improve search results. So you can feed it data such as searches location and other personalisation based on the user, to help it understand and deliver a personalised result.

For SEOs, there wasn’t much to be changed for this, it just reinforced that natural, quality content, rather keyword stuff content, was the way forward, with the algorithm now able to learn and adapt results, based on user data.

2016 Google Possum Update

Possum was another Local SEO update, which focussed on providing local search results, which didn’t necessarily match organic results.

Google would show local listings, to people in the same physical location, even if these websites were not ranking organically. For SEOs, this reinforced the focus on optimising Google My Business and local listings to appear in Map and local pack results.

2018 Google Mobile Page Speed Update

Fairly self-explanatory, the mobile page speed update was introduced as a ranking factor, to encourage all website owners to provide fast-loading mobile sites.

Half of the web searches are now done via mobile devices, so it makes sense that the fast and easy to use sites will be given priority in the rankings.

2018 Google Medic Update

This was a hugely controversial update, that hit a lot of websites hard. It was dubbed the ‘Medic’ update, as it affected a large number of medical sites, although it wasn’t necessarily aimed at these sites specifically. From what we can tell, Google aimed to clean up the large amounts of unqualified misinformation on the web, so started looking into the trustworthiness of the information source.

The E-A-T principle is all about checking the information on a website for expertise, authority and trust. So understandably, a lot of websites giving unqualified medical advice were affected. For a site to provide health advice, Google wants to see that this information is coming from a trusted source (ie government website or someone with qualifications in this area).

For SEOs, this means any websites that fall into health, wealth or happiness criteria, need to build up their authority and trust, in Google’s eyes.

2019 Google BERT Update

BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) was another machine learning update. The purpose of BERT was to teach the algorithm how to understand ‘context’ of words in long-tail search queries, to help them display the most relevant results.

As an example, the word ‘crawling’ can be used to mean a baby crawling on the floor or a web spider crawling the web, so the algorithm knows to understand the word in the context of the sentence, to provide the best search result.

2020 Google COVID-19 Pandemic Response

While not an algorithm update, COVID-19 dramatically shifted consumer search behaviour, with many reports of increases in search traffic, particularly to e-commerce sites. Google announced there would be no algorithm changes during the pandemic, as businesses rightly focussed on to the effects of COVID-19.

2021 & Beyond

What does the future of Search hold? Google has already indicated the next big algorithm update will focus on Core Web Vitals, which is likely to be implemented in 2021. This is all about Google providing a ‘better web’ with a focus on-page experience.

For SEOs, this update is going to shine a spotlight on-page user experience, so there is a focus on auditing current sites and improving the key areas highlighted in the Core Web Vitals report.

Check out our in-depth look at Core Web Vitals here.

Speak to a Search Expert

One thing we know for sure is Google will continue to update and improve their search algorithm, to provide the best user experience. It is the job of SEO specialists to keep abreast of any industry changes and update SEO Strategies to remain relevant and effective.

White Chalk Road have an expert team of SEO Specialists who create and refine Search Strategies in line with Google updates. Have a chat with one of our friendly team today, to see how you can benefit from our industry expertise.

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