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Deciphering the Google Algorithm: Core Updates & the Impact on SEO

Picture of Chris Kirksey
Chris Kirksey

CEO, Direction.com

how to understand and decipher the Google algorithm for SEO success

Understanding the Google Algorithm

Google’s search algorithm is a mysterious, ever-evolving entity that holds the keys to search marketing success. Unlocking its secrets and cracking the code of its inner workings is an ongoing quest for SEO professionals. But while the exact parameters of Google’s ranking calculations for SEO remain opaque, they have provided guidance.

By analyzing Google algorithm updates over the years, we can decipher the core pillars and principles that underpin the engine. Google has reinforced that meticulous optimization using ethical best practices is rewarded in the long run. While the playing field constantly shifts, adhering to these proven SEO fundamentals provides the best chance for search visibility.

In this guide, we will demystify the Google algorithm by examining the enduring SEO strategies that it values most.

Major Google Algorithm Updates Over the Past 10 Years

Panda Update – Launched in 2011, it targeted low-quality content by heavily penalizing thin, scraped, duplicated or keyword-stuffed pages. Emphasized unique, valuable content.

Penguin Update – Rolled out in 2012 to fight webspam and penalize manipulative link practices. Focused on quality over quantity of backlinks.

Hummingbird Update – Released in 2013 to parse semantic search queries better. Focused on natural language processing and context of full queries.

Pigeon Update – Introduced in 2014 to improve local search results with enhanced business listings, reviews, and geo-signals.

RankBrain – Google’s machine learning AI system introduced in 2015 to better interpret search intent. Processes language more like a human.

Mobilegeddon – Made mobile-friendliness a stronger ranking factor in 2015. Prioritized responsive, fast-loading sites.

Fred Update – Launched in 2017 to further tackle low-value, thin content. Greater emphasis on E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness).

Bert Update – Released in 2019 to understand language and intent better in search queries. Advanced Google’s NLP capabilities.

Core Updates Since 2020

2020 Core Updates – These massive updates disrupted many rankings to promote sites with content that directly matched search intent. Businesses had to improve relevance and quality to recover rankings.

2021 Page Experience Update – This made site speed, mobile friendliness, and other technical page experience metrics more integral in rankings. Businesses had to optimize site performance.

2022 Product Reviews Update – To rank now, product review content needs to be well-researched, original, and offer depth beyond just specs. Affiliate-style shallow reviews were demoted.

2022 Helpful Content Updates – These updates reward authoritative, high E-A-T advice content that provides actionable guidance to match search intent. Businesses have to create robust guides.

2023 Helpful Content Update 2 – The second iteration further boosted search visibility for sites publishing detailed, trustworthy advice content for searchers’ queries and needs.

Some other notable updates include MUM, the Multitask Unified Model, rolling out along with continued BERT and RankBrain enhancements focused on natural language processing.

Google averages one broad core update per year, with other updates targeting more specific areas to polish the search experience.

The main theme is that Google continues raising the bar for value, quality, originality, expertise and user experience. Black hat tactics are increasingly penalized while thoughtful optimization gains rewards.

What Do These Algorithm Updates Mean for SEO?

Google’s major search algorithm updates over the years provide invaluable insights into its evolving ideals and preferences. By analyzing these updates collectively, we can deduce the core principles and best practices that Google cares about most for SEO success.

While the exact ranking formulas are proprietary, the algorithm updates make clear which optimization strategies align with Google’s goals versus those it seeks to penalize. Understanding these signals guides SEOs in ethical, effective directions. So what lasting lessons can be drawn from these updates to inform ongoing SEO efforts?

  • Create high-quality, in-depth content that offers unique value for users. Thin, duplicated, or keyword-stuffed content is heavily penalized.
  • Earn backlinks through ethical practices by providing valuable resources. Prioritize relevant niche links over general links.
  • Optimize pages for natural language search queries based on intent, not just keywords. Provide useful answers for full question phrases.
  • Incorporate strong local SEO signals like address, business info, and reviews for local pack rankings.
  • Leverage AI and machine learning to interpret queries closer to how humans think and search. Adapt to semantic search capabilities.
  • Make mobile optimization a top priority, with fast loading, responsive design on all devices. Mobile is key for higher visibility.
  • Demonstrate expertise, authority, and trustworthiness through high-quality content and community building. Thin content lacks E-A-T.
  • Understand and accommodate increasingly intelligent search behaviors powered by AI like RankBrain and BERT.

The 2011 Panda Update

Google Panda evaluates websites based on content quality. If your site has higher quality content, it will rank higher. But what actually determines the difference between quality or lack thereof?

Panda looks at how your site’s content answers a search request. If there’s an explicit answer somewhere on your page, you’ll automatically rank higher. (But this has to be relevant, of course!)

google panda

Panda also looks at things like errors, untrustworthy content, or duplicate content. It’s important to keep your website fresh and not copy from other sites onto your pages.

To fight against this update and make sure your site is ranking well, do SEO overhaul on all your posts and pages to improve content quality.

 

The 2012 Penguin Update

This update is primarily focused on profiles rather than content. This relates to where your information or sources are coming from. Any shady or untrustworthy links on your site will directly affect you. If you have multiple links with the same anchor text, for example, that can penalize you. If you stuff keywords to the point that they seem unnatural, that will hurt your ranking, too.

It’s best to scan your website for strange or bad links and update them. It’s also good to look through your keyword usage and make sure it’s natural.

google penguin link building 351x253 1

The 2013 Hummingbird Update

The Hummingbird update was focused on better understanding the full context and intent behind search queries. Previously, Google largely matched keywords. Hummingbird enabled parsing more conversational, natural language queries.

Some key effects this had:

  • Phrase Matching – Google could match pages based on full long-tail question phrases, not just keywords. Pages optimized for conversational queries ranked better.
  • Semantic Search – The algorithm interpreted meaning and concepts more accurately. Synonyms and related words could drive visibility for pages.
  • Context & Intent – It focused more on serving pages fulfilling the searcher’s context and intent rather than just matching keywords. Relevance became vital.
  • Quality Signals – Hummingbird factored in more ranking signals like engagement time, bounce rates, social shares etc as indicators of quality content.
  • Localization – Performance in local search improved as Google discerned geographic intent and tailored results accordingly.
  • Question Answering – Pages that directly answered natural language questions prominently saw a boost in visibility. Informative content was rewarded.

This marked a major shift to natural language processing and semantic search. Hummingbird forced SEOs to focus less solely on keywords and more on crafting content tailored to full question intents. High-quality, useful content became imperative for strong rankings.

The 2014 Pigeon Update

The Pigeon update was designed to improve Google’s local search results, specifically the packed local business listings at the top. It had significant effects on local SEO best practices:

  • Stronger weight to local signals – More emphasis was placed on providing clear business location signals like address, phone number, business hours and more to rank locally.
  • Reviews influence – User reviews and recommendations became vital ranking factors for measuring local reputation and popularity.
  • Mobile optimization – With local queries shifting mobile, having a responsive mobile site became critical to rank for local searches.
  • Increased pack competition – Pigeon led to 7-pack local listings, intensifying competition for securing one of the coveted top spots in the local pack.
  • Local content – Populating sites with locally-optimized content like city pages and location-specific information helped improve local targeting.
  • Citations and GMB – Having complete and consistent NAP (name, address, phone number) information across key sites and Google My Business became more important.
  • Link localization – Earning links from local sites strengthened relevance for ranking locally. Geo-targeted links are ideal.

Pigeon forced businesses to optimize specifically for ranking in the critical local pack. Stronger local signals, reviews, citations and mobile experience became necessary to compete locally. It also increased competition for coveted local map rankings.

The 2015 RankBrain Update

RankBrain was a major update that incorporated Google’s artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities into the search algorithm. This allowed Google to better interpret the intent behind queries in a more humanlike way.

Some of the key effects RankBrain had on SEO included:

  • Understanding intent – RankBrain’s AI helped discern searcher intent and meaning much more accurately. Pages that satisfied intent ranked higher.
  • Semantic matching – By processing language more like humans, RankBrain could match words with the same meaning to a query even if the keywords didn’t match exactly.
  • Natural language queries – Complex natural language queries were better interpreted based on context provided by RankBrain’s machine learning models.
  • Personalization – RankBrain enhanced personalization of results based on a user’s search history, location, and preferences. Personal signals grew in influence.
  • Fresh content – AI helped identify high-quality, useful new web pages faster to potentially boost their rankings, making freshness more significant.
  • Mobile friendliness – RankBrain improved detection of pages offering the best mobile-optimized experience. Mobile UX became more integral to rankings.
  • Data-driven SEO – With AI driving results, data and testing became crucial to tune pages perfectly to RankBrain’s machine learning patterns.

Overall RankBrain cemented the importance of natural language optimization focused on searcher intent rather than just keywords. Producing high-quality content scaled in importance.

The 2015 Mobilegeddon Update

The Mobilegeddon update was designed to prioritize mobile-friendly pages in Google’s search results. With mobile searches surpassing desktop, Mobilegeddon signaled mobile optimization as a decisive ranking factor.

Some key impacts on SEO included:

  • Mobile-first indexing – Google largely switched to indexing the mobile version of pages, using the mobile HTML for ranking evaluation.
  • Responsive web design – Creating a fully responsive website became vital to ensure a flawless experience on all devices with resized/reflowed content.
  • Mobile page speed – Optimizing site speed took on greater urgency, as slow loading mobile pages were flagged in rankings.
  • Mobile content – Content not just had to be mobile-friendly, but tailored and condensed with small-screen users in mind.
  • AMP pages – Google’s accelerated mobile pages format was introduced to optimize page loading on phones. AMP provided a significant mobile ranking boost.
  • Mobile UX – Minimizing pinching/zooming and using large touch targets boosted usability signals. Avoiding interstitials and popups prevented friction.
  • Separate mobile URLs – Although not mandatory, implementing separate mobile URLs helped detect mobile-friendly status.

Mobilegeddon firmly established mobile optimization as an imperative for SEO. Having a fast, flawless mobile experience became core to maintaining visibility in search. Non-responsive sites saw major declines in mobile traffic and conversions.

The 2017 Fred Update

The Fred update, named after Google’s Fred Algorithm, was aimed at low-value, thin content. It significantly affected SEO by:

  • Penalizing thin pages – Pages with little substantive, unique information saw major drops in rankings. More in-depth content was favored.
  • Rewarding E-A-T – Expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T) became stronger signals. High E-A-T sites with subject matter expertise ranked better.
  • Mitigating keyword stuffing – Over-optimizing pages with keywords was flagged. Natural language and readability were prioritized.
  • Curbing ad-heavy experiences – Intrusive pop-ups and ads that distracted from the content were demoted in rankings.
  • Value-based content – Offering true value, utility, and deeper information through content became more integral to rankings. Fluff pieces declined.
  • Original reporting – Aggregated or rewritten content from other sources was undervalued compared to original, added-value reporting.
  • Multimedia – Use of images, videos, charts etc to complement text content helped demonstrate expertise and authority.

Fred firmly shifted Google’s algorithm to favor pages with expertise and depth. High E-A-T sites with robust multimedia content benefited while sites with recycled or thin content were penalized. Value became core to SEO.

The 2019 Bert Update

Google’s BERT algorithm update significantly improved its natural language processing capabilities and understanding of search intent. Here’s how it impacted SEO:

  • Semantic search improvements – BERT allowed Google to better interpret synonyms, context, and intent behind queries to match pages with similar meaning, not just keywords.
  • Long-tail rankings boost – Pages optimized for full natural language questions and long-tail keyword phrases saw major improvements in rankings.
  • Localization enhancements – Geo-targeting of results improved based on better understanding of local intent and context.
  • Featured snippet gains – Fact-based content with statistics, lists, tips, and definitions had greater opportunity for ranking in featured snippets by answering queries directly.
  • Voice search growth – With BERT powering improvements to spoken natural language understanding, voice queries saw expanded SEO impact.
  • Content depth value – In-depth, authoritative content scored more highly as BERT better recognized quality signals. Thin content was undervalued.
  • Increase in E-A-T – Expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness remained core ranking factors with BERT’s NLP advancements.
  • Faster indexing – Pages which satisfied intent well saw faster indexing thanks to BERT’s improved content processing speed and accuracy.

The BERT update cemented the importance of optimizing for semantic intent with natural language and high-quality content. It also demonstrated the growing impact of voice search and AI in SEO.

What Happens Without Strong SEO?

SEO is something that is continually changing, and therefore needs to be continually updated, too. This is a process, not a temporary fix. Without strong SEO, your website will fall down the pages in search engine results. (Even if it started at a high rank!)

With SEO, it’s also important to focus on the navigation of your site. This goes beyond how menus are working and into the structure of the site itself. Regardless of what stage you’re in with website-building, it’s important to layer your pages so that they are easily navigated by users and search engines alike.

For example, an author page should be nested within the main ‘Authors’ page. Other pages should also be ordered by date, content, or relevant main or sub-pages. You can also build navigation through ‘breadcrumbs’ which is a row of internal links that appear somewhere on your site. This helps users to easily flip-flop between pages and know where they are.

Without navigation or strong SEO, the credibility of a site falls apart. Thus it ranks lower and is harder to find in the search engine results pages. And this hurts your business!

Implementing SEO Best Practices

Aside from boosting on-page SEO, external links, and navigation, it’s extremely important to focus on the content of your website. The content is the ‘meat and potatoes’ that builds your site and engages users and potential clients alike.

When it comes to creating blog posts for your website, you want to create a combination of long-form content and educational content. According to Forbes, blog posts that contained over 1,500 words are 68% more likely to be shared on Twitter and 22% more likely to be shared on Facebook.

Although it’s smart to have different lengths of content to keep things varied, having long-form guarantees users will be on your page(s) longer. Keeping the tone informative and engaging, too, will reflect that your site is credible as well.

Here are the best practices for website content:

Remove Unwanted Content from the Google Algorithm

An important component of boosting your rank is removing certain pages and content from being crawled. If a page contains sensitive or non-relevant information, you may want to hide it from being indexed by Google.  

Google Search Console offers a robotx.txt generator that helps you create a file to prevent search engines from crawling certain pages. When you create a txt file for a subdomain, it’s not crawled.

Here’s where you can learn more about using the robots.txt files for your site.

Make Your Site User-Friendly

Your site should be clear. It should be very apparent what you offer or sell and ways the consumer can engage with, or purchase your products. There should also be an aspect of fun, too, that shows why your company differs from the rest.

You can use images, infographics, videos, quizzes, calculators and more to help you achieve a transformation of your website to be highly-engaging for visitors.

Showcase Your Expertise

Convey a tone of an informative, yet trusting nature. You should appear to be an expert—but not a condescending one! As users read your content, they should be educated and confident in pursuing your services.

Cater to Users Over Search Engines

Although keeping SEO in mind is invaluable, you shouldn’t feel pressured to write to engines over an audience. You want your site to be a relevant landing page for potential customers. Design your site around your visitors’ needs first.

Avoid Overdoing It

Keep your site distraction-free.

Remove or modify unwanted ads, especially if they consume the site content. If there are links that pull viewers quickly from your page, be sure to include them in more productive ways by ensuring they open in a new tab.

Be sure that your content is an appropriate length for the subject. And don’t worry about explaining everything with your words. That’s what diagrams, pictures, and videos are for!

Prioritize Mobile

Beyond clear web navigation, it’s important to consider mobile usability as well. Over 5 million people have mobile devices. You want to be sure that those people are reaching your site with ease and can navigate your pages without issues in layout or page positioning.

Ready to Power Your Website?

You’ve done the research into what SEO best practices involves. Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of the Google algorithm and what that really means. We’ve reviewed on-page optimization of your posts and pages, and what components make a strong blog. You’ve read about developing simple site navigation and even the dire importance of mobile-friendliness.

Although understanding the Google algorithm and the ever-changing world of SEO can seem difficult at first, it’s manageable when you break down the components and assign them to different members of a team.

Plus, once a campaign has started, keeping on track with SEO by understanding the deliverables you’re receiving from the company you’re working with will ensure you understand how and why your site is continually climbing higher on the search engine rankings (or the other way around).

For more information about SEO, schedule a free consultation with our team.

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