4 February, 2023

The Evolution of SEO in Response to Algorithm Updates

Google’s algorithms serve as the backbone of its search engine, determining which pages are displayed in response to a user’s search query. Their primary aim is to deliver accurate, valuable, and trustworthy information to users. This article discusses how these algorithms have evolved over time and the impact that’s had on SEO strategy.

16 Minute read

Google’s mission statement when it was founded in 1998 was simple: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Fast forward 25 years and Google is the world’s largest search engine. It processes approximately 1.2 trillion searches every year – or 40,000 searches per second – displaying results from an index of somewhere between 30 – 50 billion web pages.

What has allowed Google to reach these types of astronomical numbers is the speed and accuracy of the results it displays. Google wasn’t the first search engine in the world, but it beat out all of its competitors by providing more relevant results for users. And the reason they could do that?

Their algorithm. Which brings us to the topic of today’s article.


The Algorithm

Google is in the business of getting people the information they need, when they need it, in the format they need it. And with the amount of content being added to the internet growing exponentially, Google needed a way to sort through all of this at scale and without manual human input. So they developed an algorithm and ranking factors to score content against specific criteria in order to determine what content to show for each specific search query, and in what order. This algorithm is what made Google one of the most successful companies of all time.

But Google didn’t stop there.

Google continually refines its algorithms to ensure that the best results rise to the top, making thousands of changes to its algorithm each year. That means there are subtle changes happening multiple times per day. It used to be a more manual process with several large algorithm changes per year, but that’s changed now. The types of massive algorithm changes we used to see have mostly been replaced with smaller, more frequent changes that are the result of Google using artificial intelligence to power the ongoing optimisation of its algorithm.

Yet we can (and should) still learn from the biggest algorithm changes of the last decade or so. It gives us so much information on how Google has evolved over time, where they’re putting their focus, what to expect from the future, and how this affects your SEO strategy.


Update Name: ‘Panda’

Date: February 2011

Update Summary: Designed to target poor content.


Panda marked a significant shift in how Google evaluated the quality of website content. Prior to Panda, websites could employ various techniques to artificially boost their rankings, often at the expense of providing valuable content. This update aimed to reward websites with high-quality, original, and relevant content while penalising those with thin, duplicate, or poor content.

When it was first released, it was called the “Farmer update” because it only seemed to affect content farms. But it didn’t take long for everyone to realise the scope was far wider than that. In most cases, the sites that were hit by Panda were hit really hard, leaving little room for doubt as to the cause of their sudden drop in rankings. This is because the Panda update targeted the website as a whole, rather than individual low-quality pages. If you had enough low quality pages, Google marked your entire website as low quality.

SEO Strategy Impact:

Panda operates by assessing factors such as content uniqueness, relevance and user engagement metrics. Websites with high-quality content received a boost in rankings, while those with poor content faced a decline. This update highlighted the importance of investing in content creation and refining the user experience, urging website owners to prioritise user satisfaction over quick optimisation tactics.

Remove thin content.
Remove duplicate content.
Remove poor-quality content.

Get into the mind of your customer and be your own harshest critic. Will they find this page useful? Is this content meaningful and relevant? Is it descriptive, informative and detailed?


Update Name: ‘Penguin’

Date: April 2012

Update Summary: Designed to battle unnatural backlinks.


Penguin was designed to crack down on websites using spammy, unnatural or manipulative link building tactics to boost their keyword rankings. Specifically, they were looking for websites engaging in link schemes, link farms, private blog networks and other black-hat SEO techniques.

In March, not long before the update rolled out, Google launched some pre-emptive attacks on major blog networks and link networks. Following that, they started sending out messages to webmasters via Google Webmaster Tools (now Google Search Console) about “artificial or unnatural” links that they had found pointing to their site. While they didn’t provide specific examples, it was a warning shot across the bow for anyone participating in spam link building activities.

As expected, when the full update was released in April, there were a lot of companies that felt hard done by or wrongly affected. But remember, an algorithm change is a blanket rule, meaning it’s built on a foundation of ‘if this, then that’. There’s no room for human interpretation or compassion. If you violated the rules of the algorithm, you were punished. Simple.

SEO Strategy Impact:

Penguin emphasised the importance of building organic and relevant backlinks from authoritative sources, promoting genuine connections within the digital ecosystem. Find ways of generating links by creating content, resources and a website that’s valuable and shareworthy.

Additionally, it’s good to consistently review and prune your backlink profile to make sure it’s kept clean of poor quality links from poor quality sources. That means combing through your (possibly thousands) of links and identifying which of them might be considered spam. If you have ownership or control of the link, remove it completely. If you don’t have control, then contact the webmaster and ask them to remove the link on your behalf. If the webmaster doesn’t respond or asks you to pay to take it down, just use Google’s disavow tool instead.

If you’re sitting on the fence about whether or not Google would considered a link to be spam, then you’ve answered your own question. If you want to avoid being affected, then it’s better to over-correct than under-correct.


Update Name: ‘Hummingbird’

Date: September 2013

Update Summary: Shifting to conversational search.


Unlike the previous two updates, Hummingbird represented a more fundamental shift in how the search engine understood user queries. To use an analogy, think of Google’s algorithm as a car engine. The Panda and Penguin updates were designed to replace certain parts of the engine that needed some work to help everything run smoother. Hummingbird, however, is replacing the whole engine. It still uses Panda and Penguin as parts, but they’ve essentially rebuilt the whole thing from scratch.

With the rise of voice search and complex search queries, Hummingbird aimed to interpret the context and intent behind searches rather than just matching keywords. Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land fame summarised Hummingbird best:

“Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.”

SEO Strategy Impact:

Hummingbird incorporated semantic search capabilities, allowing Google to comprehend the nuances of human language. It could understand the relationships between words, enabling it to provide more accurate and relevant results even for longer, conversational queries. This encourages content creators to focus on natural language and user intent, fostering a more intuitive search experience.

Furthermore, pages with in-depth content that answer more questions and cover more topics will rank better by being associated to a greater variety of queries, proving once more that content is critical to driving relevance and performance.


Update Name: ‘Pigeon’

Date: July 2014

Update Summary: Designed to improve local search results.


Pigeon had a significant impact on local businesses. It was an upgrade to the accuracy and relevancy of local search results, so users received more geographically pertinent information. It tied local search rankings signals more closely to the traditional search ranking signals.

From Google:

“The new local search algorithm ties deeper into web search capabilities, including the hundreds of ranking signals used in web search along with search features such as Knowledge Graph, spelling correction, synonyms and more.”

SEO Strategy Impact:

This algorithm change affected the way Google interpreted location cues, such as user location and business location data. Consequently, local businesses should focus on optimising their websites and Google My Business profiles to enhance their visibility in local search results.


Update Name: ‘Mobile-Friendly Update’

Date: April 2015

Update Summary: Designed to improve mobile user experience


Also known as “Mobilegeddon”, this update addressed the growing shift towards mobile device usage for web browsing. It aimed to ensure that websites were optimised for mobile users by favouring mobile-friendly websites in mobile search results.

You can read Google’s full statement, but here’s the most important part for you:

“Last year, we started using mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal on mobile searches. Today we’re announcing that beginning in May, we’ll start rolling out an update to mobile search results that increases the effect of the ranking signal to help our users find even more pages that are relevant and mobile-friendly.

If you’ve already made your site mobile-friendly, you will not be impacted by this update … And remember, the intent of the search query is still a very strong signal — so even if a page with high quality content is not mobile-friendly, it could still rank well if it has great, relevant content.”

This is a great example the analogy I gave earlier regarding engine parts being changed versus the entire being changed. Despite many minor changes happening frequently, much of the core remains constant. In this particular case, content is still critical as a ranking factor within the Hummingbird engine, but they’ve increased the value of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal.

SEO Strategy Impact:

This update urged website owners to implement responsive web design, optimise page loading times and ensure that content was easily accessible and readable on smaller screens. It also underscored the importance of adapting to changing user behaviour and the significance of providing an excellent mobile user experience.

You can use the Mobile-Friendly Test tool to see how your website performs on mobile.


Other Google Updates

That was a summary of the best known, most consequential Google algorithm updates. But there were plenty of others that left a mark and continued the process of making Google’s algorithm the most effective in the world. Here are a few more that are worth knowing about:


‘Caffeine’: Improving Indexing and Speed

Caffeine, rolled out in June 2010, represented a major infrastructure update rather than a specific algorithm change. It aimed to enhance Google’s indexing system and improve the speed at which new content was added to the search index.

Caffeine significantly improved Google’s ability to crawl and index the ever-expanding web, ensuring that fresh and up-to-date content appeared in search results more quickly. This update highlighted the importance of regularly updating and publishing content to maintain relevance in search rankings.


‘Venice’: Localising Search Results

Venice, rolled out in February 2012, focused on providing more localised search results. It aimed to better understand the user’s location and deliver search results that were relevant to their geographical area, even when specific location-based keywords weren’t used in the search query.

This update encouraged local businesses to optimise their websites for local SEO by including location-specific information, such as addresses, phone numbers, and city names. It also highlighted the importance of Google My Business listings for local businesses seeking to improve their online visibility.


‘Exact Match Domains (EMD)’: Tackling Spammy Domains

EMDs are domain names that precisely match a user’s search query. Before Google’s EMD update in September 2012, websites with EMDs often received preferential treatment in search results. However, many low-quality websites exploited this by registering EMDs purely for SEO purposes.

The EMD update aimed to reduce the influence of low-quality EMDs by assessing the overall quality and relevance of a website’s content. It made it more challenging for websites with spammy or low-value content to rank well solely based on their domain name. This encouraged website owners to prioritise quality content and user experience.


‘RankBrain’: The Introduction of Machine Learning

RankBrain, rolled out in October 2015, marked Google’s first foray into integrating machine learning into its search algorithm. This AI-powered system aimed to better understand the context and intent behind search queries, especially those containing ambiguous or previously unseen terms.

RankBrain relied on vast amounts of historical search data to make real-time predictions about what users were looking for. It then adjusted search results accordingly. The introduction of RankBrain emphasised the importance of user intent and context in SEO, encouraging content creators to write more comprehensive and user-focused content.


‘BERT’: Understanding Contextual Language

BERT, which stands for “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers”, was rolled out in October 2019. This update represented a substantial leap in Google’s ability to understand the context of words in search queries. BERT, based on neural network technology, allowed Google to grasp the nuances of human language better.

With BERT, Google could comprehend the relationships between words in a sentence and consider the order in which they appeared. This enabled the search engine to provide more relevant results for complex and long-tail queries. Content creators needed to focus on natural language and context, making their content even more user-friendly and relevant.


‘Core Updates’: Ongoing Algorithm Refinements

Core updates are a regular part of Google’s algorithm refinement process. Unlike specific algorithm updates, core updates are broad and encompass a range of changes designed to enhance the overall search experience. These updates often lead to fluctuations in search rankings as Google reassesses the relevance and quality of web content.

Website owners must monitor core updates and adapt their SEO strategies to align with Google’s evolving criteria for ranking web pages. Core updates emphasise the need for ongoing optimisation, user-centric content, and adherence to SEO best practices.

Incorporating these additional algorithm updates into the discussion underscores the dynamic nature of Google’s search algorithms. Each update reflects Google’s commitment to providing users with the most relevant and high-quality content, but it also challenges website owners to continually re-focus their SEO strategy to be user-centric.


The Evolution of SEO Strategies in Response to Algorithm Updates

As Google’s search algorithms have evolved over time, so too have the strategies employed by SEO professionals and website owners. Each major algorithm update introduced by Google has reshaped the digital landscape, influencing the tactics and priorities of SEO strategies. Here’s a quick summary of how SEO has evolved in parallel with each algorithm update:


1. From Keyword Stuffing to User Intent (Panda, Hummingbird, RankBrain):

  • Pre-Panda Era (Before 2011): In the early days of SEO, keyword stuffing was a common practice. Website owners would cram keywords into content without regard for readability or user experience.

  • Post-Panda (2011): Panda revolutionised SEO by prioritising high-quality, user-focused content. SEO professionals shifted their focus from keyword density to content relevance, uniqueness, and user engagement.

  • Post-Hummingbird (2013): Hummingbird emphasised the importance of understanding user intent in search queries. SEO strategies began to align with user needs, focusing on conversational and long-tail keywords.

  • Post-RankBrain (2015): RankBrain’s introduction of machine learning highlighted the necessity of creating content that not only contained keywords but also comprehensively addressed user queries. SEOs began focusing on content that answered questions and addressed user needs effectively.


2. From Manipulative Backlinks to Quality Link Building (Penguin):

  • Pre-Penguin (Before 2012): SEO practitioners often engaged in manipulative link-building practices, including buying low-quality backlinks and participating in link schemes.

  • Post-Penguin (2012): Penguin cracked down on unnatural backlinks, pushing SEOs to prioritise the acquisition of high-quality, relevant, and organic backlinks from authoritative sources. Strategies shifted towards ethical link-building practices.


3. The Rise of Mobile Optimisation (Mobile-Friendly Update):

  • Pre-Mobile-Friendly Update (Before 2015): Mobile optimisation was often an afterthought for many websites, with a focus primarily on desktop experiences.

  • Post-Mobile-Friendly Update (2015): With the mobile-friendliness update, SEO strategies had to adapt to ensure websites were responsive and provided an excellent mobile user experience. Mobile optimisation became a top priority, influencing design, page load times, and content presentation.


4. The Emphasis on Local SEO (Pigeon, Venice):

  • Pre-Pigeon and Venice (Before 2014): Local SEO was not as widely prioritised, and many businesses overlooked the importance of optimising for local search.

  • Post-Pigeon (2014) and Venice (2012): These updates emphasised the significance of local SEO. Businesses began optimising their websites for local search by including location-specific keywords, creating Google My Business listings, and encouraging customer reviews.


5. Expertise and Trustworthiness (Medic):

  • Pre-Medic (Before 2018): Websites in sensitive niches like health and finance often lacked rigorous credibility standards.

  • Post-Medic (2018): Medic stressed the importance of E-A-T factors (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness). SEO strategies evolved to prioritise authoritative content, expert authorship, and transparent trust signals, especially in sensitive niches.


6. Contextual and User-Centric Content (BERT):

  • Pre-BERT (Before 2019): Content often prioritised keyword optimisation over context and natural language.

  • Post-BERT (2019): BERT revolutionised content creation by urging SEOs to focus on context, user intent, and natural language. Content strategies shifted towards addressing user questions, providing comprehensive information, and enhancing readability.


7. Domain Name Relevance (Exact Match Domain):

  • Pre-EMD (Before 2012): Exact match domain names were favoured for their perceived SEO benefits, even if the content was subpar.

  • Post-EMD (2012): The EMD update reduced the impact of exact match domains, leading SEOs to recognise that content quality and relevance were far more important than the domain name itself.


8. Ongoing Adaptation (Core Updates):

  • Pre-Core Updates (Before 2010): SEO strategies were often focused on quick fixes and short-term gains.

  • Post-Core Updates (Ongoing): Core updates have necessitated ongoing adaptation. SEO professionals now understand the importance of staying informed about Google’s evolving criteria, maintaining high-quality content, and adhering to best practices.


In Summary

Google’s algorithms serve as the backbone of its search engine, determining which pages are displayed in response to a user’s search query. The primary aim of these algorithms is to deliver accurate, valuable, and trustworthy information to users.

The major algorithm updates released over the past 15 years have transformed SEO from a practice of manipulation and shortcuts into a holistic and user-centric approach. Today, successful SEO strategies prioritise high quality content, ethical link building, mobile optimisation, local SEO and seamless UX. Each of these strategies converges on the user’s  total experience, because SEO is no longer just about ranking – it’s about providing value and relevance to users.

As a secret weapon, you can also track every single algorithm update the Google has ever made – major or minor – by following Moz’s Algorithm Change History page. You can also follow their Algorithm Weather Report, which will notify you anytime there’s any action.

These updates have not only reshaped search engine rankings but also encouraged a shift toward ethical, user-centric practices. By understanding the philosophy behind these algorithms and embracing their principles, websites can pave the way for sustainable and meaningful online growth.

And as always, if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch and I’d be happy to help.

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