A brief history of Google’s algorithm updates

These days, the way we do SEO is somewhat different from how things were done ca. 10 years ago. There’s one important reason for that: search engines have been continuously improving their algorithms to give searchers the best possible results. Over the last decade, Google, as the leading search engine, introduced several major updates, and each of them has had a major impact on best practices for SEO. Here’s a — by no means exhaustive — list of Google’s important algorithm updates so far, as well as some of their implications for search and SEO.

2011 – Panda

Obviously, Google was around long before 2011. We’re starting with the Panda update because it was the first major update in the ‘modern SEO’ era. Google’s Panda update tried to deal with websites that were purely created to rank in the search engines, and mostly focused on on-page factors. In other words, it determined whether a website genuinely offered information about the search term visitors used. 

Two types of sites were hit especially hard by the Panda update:

  1. Affiliate sites (sites which mainly exist to link to other pages).
  2. Sites with very thin content.

Google periodically re-ran the Panda algorithm after its first release, and included it in the core algorithm in 2016. The Panda update has permanently affected how we do SEO, as site owners could no longer get away with building a site full of low-quality pages.

2012 – Venice

Venice was a noteworthy update, as it showed that Google understood that searchers are sometimes looking for results that are local to them. After Venice, Google’s search results included pages based on the location you set, or your IP address.

2012 – Penguin

Google’s Penguin update looked at the links websites got from other sites. It analyzed whether backlinks to a site were genuine, or if they’d been bought to trick the search engines. In the past, lots of people paid for links as a shortcut to boosting their rankings. Google’s Penguin update tried to discourage buying, exchanging or otherwise artificially creating links. If it found artificial links, Google assigned a negative value to the site concerned, rather than the positive link value it would have previously received. The Penguin update ran several times since it first appeared and Google added it to the core algorithm in 2016.

As you can imagine, websites with a lot of artificial links were hit hard by this update. They disappeared from the search results, as the low-quality links suddenly had a negative, rather than positive impact on their rankings. Penguin has permanently changed link building: it no longer suffices to get low-effort, paid backlinks. Instead, you have to work on building a successful link building strategy to get relevant links from valued sources.

2012 – Pirate

The Pirate update was introduced to combat illegal spreading of copyrighted content. It considered (many) DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown requests for a website as a negative ranking factor for the first time.

2013 – Hummingbird

The Hummingbird update saw Google lay down the groundwork for voice-search, which was (and still is) becoming more and more important as more devices (Google Home, Alexa) use it. Hummingbird pays more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole search phrase is taken into account, rather than just particular words. Why? To understand a user’s query better and to be able to give them the answer, instead of just a list of results.

The impact of the Hummingbird update wasn’t immediately clear, as it wasn’t directly intended to punish bad practice. In the end, it mostly enforced the view that SEO copy should be readable, use natural language, and shouldn’t be over-optimized for the same few words, but use synonyms instead. 

2014 – Pigeon

Another bird-related Google update followed in 2014 with Google Pigeon, which focused on local SEO. The Pigeon update affected both the results pages and Google Maps. It led to more accurate localization, giving preference to results near the user’s location. It also aimed to make local results more relevant and higher quality, taking organic ranking factors into account. 

2014 – HTTPS/SSL

To underline the importance of security, Google decided to give a small ranking boost to sites that correctly implemented HTTPS to make the connection between website and user secure. At the time, HTTPS was introduced as a lightweight ranking signal. But Google had already hinted at the possibility of making encryption more important, once webmasters had had the time to implement it. 

2015 – Mobile Update

This update was dubbed ‘​Mobilegeddon​’ by the SEO industry as it was thought that it would totally shake up the search results. By 2015 more than 50% of Google’s search queries were already coming from mobile devices, which probably led to this update. The Mobile Update gave mobile-friendly sites a ranking advantage in Google’s mobile search results. In spite of its dramatic nickname, the mobile update didn’t instantly mess up most people’s rankings. Nevertheless, it was an important shift that heralded the ever-increasing importance of mobile.

2015 – RankBrain

RankBrain is a state-of-the-art Google algorithm, employing machine learning to handle queries. It can make guesses about words it doesn’t know, to find words with similar meanings and then offer relevant results. The RankBrain algorithm analyzed past searches, determining the best result, in order to improve. 

Its release marks another big step for Google to better decipher the meaning behind searches, and serve the best-matching results. In March 2016, Google revealed that RankBrain was one of the three most important of its ranking signals. Unlike other ranking factors, you can’t really optimize for RankBrain in the traditional sense, other than by writing quality content. Nevertheless, its impact on the results pages is undeniable.

2016 – Possum 

In September 2016 it was time for another local update. The ​Possum update​ applied several changes to Google’s local ranking filter to further improve local search. After Possum, local results became more varied, depending more on the physical location of the searcher and the phrasing of the query. Some businesses which had not been doing well in organic search found it easier to rank locally after this update. This indicated that this update made local search more independent of the organic results.

Read more: Near me searches: Is that a Possum near me? »

2018 – (Mobile) Speed Update

Acknowledging users’ need for fast delivery of information, Google implemented this update that made page speed a ranking factor for mobile searches, as was already the case for desktop searches. The update mostly affected sites with a particularly slow mobile version.

2018 – Medic

This broad core algorithm update caused quite a stir for those affected, leading to some shifts in ranking. While a relatively high number of medical sites were hit with lower rankings, the update wasn’t solely aimed at them and it’s unclear what its exact purpose was. It may have been an attempt to better match results to searchers’ intent, or perhaps it aimed to protect users’ wellbeing from (what Google decided was) disreputable information.

Keep reading: Google’s Medic update »

2019 – BERT

Google’s BERT update was announced as the “biggest change of the last five years”, one that would “impact one in ten searches.” It’s a machine learning algorithm, a neural network-based technique for natural language processing (NLP). The name BERT is short for: Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers.

BERT can figure out the full context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it. In other words, it uses the context and relations of all the words in a sentence, rather than one-by-one in order. This means: a big improvement in interpreting a search query and the intent behind it.

Read on: Google BERT: A better understanding of complex queries »

Expectations for future Google updates

As you can see, Google has become increasingly advanced since the early 2010s. Its early major updates in the decade focused on battling spammy results and sites trying to cheat the system. But as time progressed, updates contributed more and more to search results catered to giving desktop, mobile and local searchers exactly what they’re looking for. While the algorithm was advanced to begin with, the additions over the years, including machine learning and NLP, make it absolutely state of the art. 

With the recent focus on intent, it seems likely that Google Search will continue to focus its algorithm on perfecting its interpretation of search queries and styling the results pages accordingly. That seems to be their current focus working towards their mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But whatever direction it takes, being the best result and working on having an excellent site will always be the way to go!

Keep on reading: Should I follow every change Google makes? »

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the different names and years? Don’t worry! We made a handy infographic that shows when each Google update happened and briefly describes what the purpose was.

Google's algorithm updates 2011-2020

The post A brief history of Google’s algorithm updates appeared first on Yoast.

Ask Yoast: stop words in your focus keyword?

If you want people to easily find your website, you should start by picking the right focus keywords (the keyword or keyphrase you’d like to rank for). Sometimes it can be hard to decide which keywords to optimize for. Do you have to focus on a head or a long tail keyword? Do you have to optimize your post or page for a focus keyword with or without a stop word? In this Ask Yoast we’ll explain in which case it would be better to use a stop word in a focus keyword.

Paul Lewis, a teacher at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia, emailed us asking:

“If I don’t use a stopword in my focus keyword I get a red bullet. “For instance, I use [Hotel Cimaja] instead of [Hotel in Cimaja]. Why is that so? Does it make a difference to Google?”

Check out the video or read the answer below!

Learn how to set up a keyword strategy for your site in our Keyword research training »

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Stop words in focus keyword

Read this transcript to learn more about using stop words in your focus keywords:

Yes, it makes a difference. It really depends on the keyword, though. But for travel related queries, where the competition is usually very high, you’ll see that there’s a different result in Google for the Hotel in Cimaja versus the Hotel Cimaja results, simply because pages are optimized differently.

So it really depends on how high the competition is, but you probably should optimize for the hotel plus location name, phrased just like that, because otherwise you won’t have a chance to rank whatsoever. Because in any hotel space you’re competing against huge sites anyway. You’re competing against the Expedias and the booking.coms of this world, so you have to optimize to your fullest extent to ever have a chance of ranking there.

What you could do though, if you’re writing about travel/hotels and you’re not ranking that well, is write about stuff related to that. Ask yourself: “What do I need to know when I’m traveling there? Or, what sort of keywords could I be searching for when I’m traveling there?” Look at all that stuff, create really unique and original content on those topics, instead of trying to rank for the same keyword that some of the most aggressively optimized sites in the world are trying to rank for.

Good luck!

Ask Yoast

In the series Ask Yoast we answer SEO questions from followers. Need help with SEO? Let us help you out! Send your question to ask@yoast.com.

Read more: ‘Stop words in your focus keywords?’ »

Yoast Vlog: Google Hummingbird explained

In August 2013 Google rolled out the Hummingbird update. Unlike most other updates this wasn’t just a change to the algorithm; it was more like a replacement óf the algorithm. Why this big change?

It’s closely related to Google’s vision of the ‘perfect search engine’, that Larry Page once described as “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” With the Hummingbird update Google wants their search engine to be capable of understanding what the meaning of your query is and even try to provide you with an answer to your query or question.

Watch the video below to learn more about Hummingbird and why it’s so important:

You might also like:

Can’t watch the video?

Here’s the transcript:

I want to explain what the Hummingbird update really was. Google introduced the Hummingbird update by saying that they replaced the engine of their car. And we were unsure why they were changing it and what was happening at that time. But we know now that we’re asking questions to our watch, we’re asking questions to our phone and instead of typing two or three words we’re asking entire sentences. So Hummingbird was Google getting ready to deal with that. It deals with that in two ways: it deals with that by understanding what we’re trying to search for – even if we ask an entire sentence – so it needs to get better at comprehending what we’re searching for. But it also needs to get better at serving us answers instead of a set of 10 results. So instead of giving us 10 blue links, they give us answer boxes now (which got introduced with the Hummingbird update) that give us the answer to our question. If you type 5+5 Google has always told you the answer is 10, with Hummingbird it has improved and expanded the range of questions, where it actually gives you an answer instead of just giving you 10 results. That’s why Hummingbird was very important and that’s why you should read about it a lot more.

Stopwords in your focus keywords?

Stopwords (a, the, of, for) are usually filtered out by Google in a search query. Up until now, the Yoast SEO plugin would advice you to filter the stopwords from your focus keyword as well (and optimize your post or page with a focus keyword without stopwords). In the next major release of Yoast SEO, 3.1, stopwords in your focus keyword will no longer result in an orange bullet. In this post, we’ll explain why we came to this change.

yoast seo - use stopwords in your focus keyword or not

Hummingbird

As Google has become much more apt in dealing with stopwords in the last few years, it simply doesn’t matter that much whether or not there are stopwords between the words you want to be found for. Google is very capable of handling longer search phrases, in fact, Hummingbird was aimed specifically at that. And a keyphrase (including stopwords) is usually much easier to optimize your text for. Often it’s more like a short sentence and it will make the text much more readable than an optimized text for a keyword without stopwords. From a readability point-of-view, you’d definitely want to optimize texts with focus keywords containing stopwords.

Although Google is more capable of handling stopwords in queries, you should really take some time to think about your focus keyword or focus keyphrase. We’re not making things easier, by allowing stopwords. We’re so sorry!

Take the following two steps before deciding on the exact formulation of your focus keyword or keyphrase:

Step 1: Google your focus keyword

The first step in deciding the exact formulation of your focus keyphrase is to Google the two (or three) options you’re considering. Are the results similar? Then it won’t matter much which keyphrase you choose. In some cases, results will really differ. For instance: searching for [notebook], will get you results containing all kinds of portable computers. Searching for [the notebook], however, will get you… Ryan Gossling.

Step 2: decide upon your focus keyword using Google Trends

The second step in deciding whether or not to put a stopword in the focus keyword you’re optimizing for, should be to look at search volume in Google Trends. Check the two (or three) formulations you’re considering and see which one receives the most traffic. For instance, if you’re choosing between [shoes for kids] or [shoes kids], you’ll instantly see that the search volume of shoes kids is much higher. That would be the focus keyword to optimize for. Or… you could optimize for both! That is… if you have Yoast SEO Premium.

Keyphrases versus keywords

Shorter search queries are often the more popular ones, but your competition knows that too! Search volume for keywords without stopwords seems higher than the search volume for keywords containing stopwords. So, in many cases, it could pay off to optimize your text in the way you have always done it (without stopwords). But, search volume for the keyphrases with stopwords seems to be growing. It could therefore really pay off to optimize for both keywords!

In our research on how Google handles stopwords, we found that a search term like [shoes kids] is handled in exactly the same manner as [kids shoes]. The order of the words is irrelevant to Google. However, for [shoes for kids], Google tries to find the exact match (and the order of the word is important). So, search queries with stopwords are handled a bit different by Google. This is also true for how Google shows traffic in Google Trends: [shoes kids] and [kids shoes] have exactly the same volume because Google treats them as the same thing there. You shouldn’t add them up when comparing to your keyphrase with a stopword. Be aware of that!

Conclusion

You should really look into the differences in result pages and in search volume and then make up your mind on how to optimize your post. And, if you cannot decide which focus keyword to choose, just optimize for both keywords using Yoast SEO Premium!

Weekly SEO Recap: Google directions

A couple of interesting small tidbits this week, that all together show the direction (Google) search is heading in. Let’s dive into this weeks news:

Joost's weekly SEO recap

Google bolding answers to questions

Remember the Hummingbird update? Google worked on being able to parse questions better so it knew what you were searching for. This week, some people noticed Google was bolding the answer to their implied “question” in their query. For instance, when searching for “engineer salary”, Google was bolding the answer. I think this is just another sign of Google showing answers, not blue links.

Fetch & render gives a sense of urgency

Google’s fetch & render tool in its webmaster tools suite added a feature last year to also render out the page you’re fetching. Michiel described that in this post in our webmaster tools series. This week it added an urgency to the blocked resources, telling you whether you should go out and fix it immediately or you can put it on the “someday / maybe” list.

It mostly seems to be telling you that the urgency of blocked ads is low. I’m not sure (because I haven’t tested enough) whether this is always the same urgency for the same resource or whether it actually looks on where it is on the page. If it’s always the same it could actually give a false sense of security, as having 3 or more ads on a page above the fold could still get you in trouble…

More HTTPS warnings from Google

Google has been sending out a new type of https warnings, notifying you when the certificate you use on a given domain, doesn’t actually include the domain name. That’s like so much of a “d0h!” moment that I had to read twice whether that was really what they said.

Turns out that right now, according to Google, you get an https ranking boost in the search results when the URL is HTTPS, even when the certificate for that URL is invalid. HTTPS is notoriously hard to get right, but the fact that Google is sending out these messages tells you that they’re wanting to improve something there.

Google News allowing app promotion

If your site is listed in Google News and has an editors picks feed, you can now promote your mobile app to users. If you’re not in Google News, our News SEO plugin might be able to help you get everything you need to get listed. It can also create an editors picks feed for you!

That’s it, see you next week!

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Weekly SEO Recap: RankBrain and Archive Search

This week in search we saw the following important events: Google (finally) got a brain; we’re getting search for the web’s history; Google said Penguin will come before the end of the year.

Joost's weekly SEO recap

RankBrain

In a piece on Bloomberg Google talked about using AI for their search results, something that we’ve been speculating as coming for years now. They call this AI “RankBrain” and seems to be somewhat related to Hummingbird. It took a while for me to realize this, but there’s a reason this was revealed on Bloomberg, not on a search marketing conference or a technical conference. This has a profound impact on the business overall.

The “key phrase” of the whole piece, to me, was this one:

If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.

This means it’s a true aim at semantic search. At relating topics. At finding entities and relating them to each other and thus providing you with results that are truly what you meant.

There is one post so far that does a good job of explaining what RankBrain could be (in my opinion), and it’s this post by Kristine SchachingerThis satirical piece – on Google getting a heart too – hit the ball home as well though!

Wayback Search Machine

The Wayback machine is a huge project that archives pages and has been archiving pages on the web for ages. You can look up the history of any website on it, for instance for yoast.com. This week they announced that they’re building a search engine, which would allow you to do history keyword search.

I think this will get a whole lot of people thinking about how to get rid of pages in those archives, as it will make your mistakes from the past painfully visible.

Google Penguin is coming

I wrote about Google Penguin extensively recently, and Google has now said that a new version will come before the end of the year. I expect a roll out just before the holiday season, as that’s something Google has done more of in recent years. This will force many people who spammed their way to the top of search engines to scramble and possibly pay for ads. I’m personally curious how this update will affect the search results.

That’s it, see you next week!

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