Nothing is more fervently anticipated yet simultaneously feared in the SEO world than an upcoming Google algorithm update. For years, these mammoth changes to the SERPs determination factors have led to instantaneous, overnight upheavals. Sometimes, it helps to begin in the present with what’s most familiar and reverse the clock from there to fully understand how we got where we are right now. Without further ado, here’s the top ten most significant Google updates that have rolled out, from most recent to oldest.
Like the protagonist from Entourage, Google’s Vince left a bad taste in more than a few people’s mouths. Arriving on the scene in February 2009, it appeared to benefit large corporate brands in the results disproportionately. The idea was to punish charlatans looking to piggyback on the recognisable identity of big companies and cut out shoddy sites with marginal content from the first page of the SERPs. Though unpopular, it ultimately improved search for end users and has fed into the modern concept of authority: if you’re not a brand, become one.
The latest rumbling to shake the SEO firmament, the Emanuel or DMCA Penalties update hit the scene in early August 2012. Named in honour of the infamous talent agent Ari Emanuel, the update removes copyrighted material from search results upon request. Piracy impacts Google’s bottom line, even though it’s often via an indirect route as with BitTorrent. If unoriginal content isn’t securely attributed to its creators, it disincentivises the creation of the best content possible online. That’s bad for Google, creators and users as well.
Launched in October 2005, Jagger really represented the first of what we’ve come to recognize as a “classic” algorithmic sea change. It was in many ways the spiritual godfather to Panda much like Neil Young was to the grunge movement. Tenuous simile? Yup. Regardless, Jagger in some cases halved the organic referrals seen by many “thin” sites that were affiliate-based or simply lacked quality content. Even back in 2005, gaming Google’s algorithms was in vogue. In essence, Jagger tweaked how backlinks could be used to boost PageRank and SERPs positioning.
Despite fierce competition in web search, it’s not unusual for the top competitors to come together and jointly agree to use neutral standards for some things. That’s where schemas like sitemaps and standardized HTML markup tags come in. The Schema.org update of June 2011 relied on the collaboration project that is the schema.org website to deliver a uniform set of guidelines for indexing raw data on the web. Ultimately, it provided the foundation on which all future updates will rest.
For an algorithm update that actually impacted results for everyday users to a greater extent than most, it’s actually surprising that Venice didn’t get a lot of press or recognition. Rolling over 40 updates into one compact package, it focused on refining local search results that are highly dependent on the national and regional location of the searcher. Released in February 2012, it was largely overshadowed by what would eventually become Penguin. Regardless, it improved search quality and overall user experience for the average Joe and Jane.
5. Google Instant
In addition to being a helpful search tool for those who don’t know what they’re searching for, the Google Instant update of September 2010 brought some interesting changes to SEO. The initial fear among marketers was that long tail keywords would be hurt if searchers couldn’t ever get to see obscure terms in the first place. While that was true to some extent, the bottom line is that Instant saved searchers time, made results more relevant for many and didn’t impact niche marketers and smaller sites that continue to prioritize quality.
Late to the social media party, Google got in the game with its own version of Yelp. Rolled out in April of 2010, the Places update made Google Places more than just an adjunct to the already full-featured Maps. Eventually incorporating the accumulated expertise of Zagat in user-generated review feedback, Places would go on to become a real threat in the social sphere. The important point with Places’ official coming out party was that local entrepreneurs and marketers gained an important ally in the SERPs game.
3. Universal Search
Though Google was really the first company to do search the right way, their approach was becoming dated by May of 2007. That’s when the Universal Search update, aka “Google 2.0″, crashed the party and completely rejuvenated the search market for the second time. The Universal Search update brought us the concept of vertical search, which locates all manner of content from blogs to images to articles on any specific, narrow topic. Basically, Universal benefited end users without massively inconveniencing site owners.
While the problem had been building since the early days of search, the gaming of the entire PageRank system had reached a critical juncture not too long ago. SEOs began to wonder what PageRank was even worth any more. Penguin gave them their answer. Debuting in April 2012, Penguin made authority relevant again, kiboshed a million link schemes, sneaky cloaking tricks and keyword-matching shenanigans that hurt honest SEOs and site owners. It did, however, bring negative SEO to the forefront of everyone’s thinking… so wasn’t all good!
Also known as the Farmer Update, Panda was Google’s first sledgehammer of an update in years and, for me, the most important of all time. In February of 2011, it hit both honest marketers and underhanded shysters like a freight train by down-ranking sites with weak content and low value to end users. Using human testers to evaluate the results, Google was able to leverage Panda to effectively squash “content farms” from dominating the SERPs.
Affecting an initial 12% of all sites, it was the biggest algorithm tweak seen in a very, very long time. Why was it more important than Panda? Because it’s all about content – something that we, as site owners, need to take far more seriously than building links. As Rand says – stop building links and start earning them.
What Does It All Mean?
Since Google became a ‘big boy’ company half way through the previous decade, it’s become far better at managing how its upgrades roll out. By necessity Google has to keep SEOs on our toes because, for all that is good in our vastly misunderstood industry, there are a hundred spammers who will do pretty much anything to take advantage of gaps in the algorithm.
In my opinion, it now seems like they’re starting to strike a balance that’s satisfactory. Still, if Google’s updates prove one thing, it’s this: their primary goal will always be to deliver the most relevant results possible while making as much cash as they can – something that we should all be very careful to remember.
Got a favourite? Think I’ve got it wrong? Let me know below…