Google Algorithm Updates Through The Ages

From Google Dance to Penguin in fifteen years

Google Campus2 cropped
The Googleplex, as photographed in 2007. Image by Sebastian Bergman. (Creative Commons License – Some Rights Reserved).
In its seventeen year history, no other search engine has had the same cultural impact as Google. Not to mention numerous businesses like ours, whom have thrived on the back of Stanford’s greatest export. Like Tannoy and Hoover, its name has become a verb (as in “I need to google the nearest pizza place”).

It could have easily been “I’ll Bing to the next pizza shop” or “I shall Alta Vista my mister”. The former is likely, but Bing is a very distant second place behind Google. Alta Vista went in 2013, latterly as part of Yahoo!, whose results are provided by Microsoft’s Bing. Today, Google is the world’s Number One search engine, though its dominance is dented by Yandex in Russia and Baidu in China.

Before Google introduced its Toolbar PageRank, search engines were less advanced beasts. Sometimes the results would lack the integrity of Google’s listings. It was possible to get to the top of Yahoo! and its contemporaries by cannily placing Manchester United or Britney Spears into the Meta Keywords tags. Google was unimpressed with these practices and began its crusade of improving the overall search experience for its users.

Enter what has now become an institution itself: the regular Google update. There has been numerous updates over the last fifteen years. Some have been given female names; of late, animals. Even an iconic wrestler. There is a love/hate relationship with Google’s updates. Some clients complain about their site’s position and possible ranking penalties.

On the other hand, anyone browsing for a new car or self-help website has benefited from more accurate results. Then there’s the fortunes which Google have made from paid advertising options and all the other spin-offs. With an 88.9% market share in the UK (ComScore statistics for September 2015), where would we be without it? In the words of Talking Head David Byrne, how did it get there?

Here’s how…

Timeline of updates

2000: First Update

2000’s update was the one which started it all. This saw the first usage of Google’s PageRank mechanism, launched after the SES Boston Conference. The phenomenon was known as the Google Dance.

2002: First Documented Update

This was the first year where Google’s updates were publicly announced.

2003: Out With The Old

For the first part of 2003, there was monthly updates. They were named Boston (February), Cassandra (April), Dominic (May), Esmeralda (June) and Fritz (July).

Google’s fifth year of business saw an end to outdated SEO practices, as websites using hidden text and keyword stuffing were elbowed out. This was courtesy of the Florida Update in December of that year, their most controversial algorithm update at the time.

2004: AI, LSI and the Algorithms

After the backlash from the Florida Update, 2004 was a quieter year for Google. To improve its delivery of results, Artificial Intelligence was enhanced in its algorithms. There was a shift towards LSI [Latent Semantic Indexing] and page relevance. The days of being top of the listings with hidden text and irrelevant – traffic driving – keywords were over.

2005: It’s Canonicalisation

At 26 stone and 9lbs, the Big Daddy update saw changes to URL canonicalisation and page redirections. Websites with a 302 server side redirection (Object Temporarily Moved) would see results suffer with Google preferring 301 redirections (Object Permanently Moved).

Another part of its bid to improve search results saw support for XML sitemaps and Google, within its Webmaster Tools section, enabled you to do just that. The nofollow attribute was introduced, which made for an improvement in outbound link quality.

Anticipating the rise of social media, Personal Search was relaunched, making search results more relevant to individual users.

2006 – 2007: Google Goes for World Domination

After carving out a niche in the world of straightforward search queries, Google introduced additional search options. As well as the ‘traditional’ Web search functions, searches were made available for Images, Maps, Video, localised results and Shopping.

From 2007, the foundations were made towards the search engine we know and love today. We think nothing of going to Google Maps if we search for pizza shops on Peter Street. Any purchase can be easily compared on Google’s Shopping results; from air fares to zimmer frames. Its Images search function is a godsend for photo editors.

2008: Google Suggest integration

With broadband speeds rising, Google decided to integrate its Google Suggest function within its main search engine. This was known as Google Instant Search.

2009: Vince update

February 2009 saw the Vince update. Though Matt Cutts considered it to be a minor update, some SEO commentators thought otherwise, claiming bigger brands took preference over smaller ones.

With social media sites coming of age (and the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube usurping MySpace), social media accounts were given a fillup. Real time search results were introduced for Twitter feeds, Google News, and newly indexed content.

2010: Long tail tall tales

Updates rather than a single update dominated Google throughout 2010. The most significant being May Day which led to a drop in long tail traffic. The Caffeine update saw changes to its indexing methods, making for faster speeds and more accurate indexing.

By the end of 2010, changes to Google’s algorithms saw sites being penalised for offering a bad experience for its users. Websites with little content would also be penalised. There was also concerns over the number of review sites depicting bad reviews. Algorithms were changed, so such sites would no longer be ranked higher than the products or services that triggered the bad reviews. (Which, in other words meant a complaint about an iPad wouldn’t be ranked higher than Apple’s page on the said device).

Building on 2009’s developments, December 2010 saw the use of ‘social signals’ on Facebook and Twitter as a factor for search engine results.

2011: The Year of the Panda

Though 2011 was the year of the Rabbit in the Chinese calendar, for many SEO professionals, it was The Year of the Panda.  With the first Panda update content became king, a line advocated by many webmasters for more than a decade.  Google acknowledged this when link farms and scraper sites were the biggest losers of the Panda update.

This helped Google to maintain its position as the world’s number one search engine. Some SEO commentators thought the Panda Update was Google Dance revisited. December 2011 saw updates for query refinements, blog and image search freshness, and parked domain detection.

Aiming to raise standards across the board, Google teamed up Yahoo! and Microsoft, aiming to offer richer results.  Under the name of, this provided richer results via structured data. With the social media scene buoyant, Google wanted a piece of the action and introduced Google+ in July 2011.

2012: The Penguin cometh

This part of the story brings us up to the present day. 2012’s introduction of the Penguin update saw more constant algorithm changes. There was also speculation of Google+ social data being pushed.

As it turned out, Penguin pecked at sites with copious amounts of keyword stuffing and purchased links. This was among a 30-change pack of updates. Some sites, particularly those with too much advertising space above the fold, were being penalised under last year’s Panda update. Panda continued to index pages within the Google search index.

In February 2012, the Venice Update saw a shift towards more localised results. With affordable smartphones entering the marketplace, this neatly tied in with the rise in popularity of Google’s Android operating system. Using the device’s GPS settings, the Venice update enabled you to get local results straight away. A search for the local pizza shop would emerge in seconds, thanks also to GPS and Google’s apps.

2013: Hummingbird

The introduction of Hummingbird saw a shift towards semantic search and more responsive algorithms. There was also positive changes for long form articles thanks to a new feature called “in-depth articles”.

2013 also saw a blitz on pornographic websites and those of payday loan companies. This would continue the following year as the Payday Loans algorithm. With the Penguin and Panda updates, it was business as usual with the latter having 10-day blocks of algorithm changes per month.

2014: The Year of the Pigeon

Sixteen years on from Google’s formation by Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the Google of 2014 became a real behemoth. Not only for its search engine but also the Android operating and its palatial offices. Its web browser, Chrome, has overtaken Internet Explorer as the world’s favourite.

2014 saw its quest for authoritative search results continue. This was exemplified by the Pigeon Update in July, and continuous updates from Panda and Penguin. The Pigeon Update increased the quality of local results; besides finding our favourite pizza shop, we would also know about its opening hours. Via Google Maps, which train, tram or bus would take us there, with actual times and – in some cases – real time information.

Though more profound for users of e-commerce websites, Google began giving priority to sites hosted on HTTPS (secure) domains. Extraneous advertising above the fold would also see ranking penalties. Courtesy of the Pirate Update, peddlers of pirated digital content (including software and MP3 downloads) would see a dramatic drop in rankings.

2015: Mobilegeddon

By the start of 2015, Google Pigeon completed its rollout with British, Australian and Canadian search engine results the previous December. In April, there was one update that had the SEO world in uproar. Dubbed Mobilegeddon, Google would penalise websites that weren’t ‘mobile friendly’. In other words, websites that didn’t use Responsive Web Design techniques. Therefore, any site using responsive web design techniques would be denoted in the results as being ‘mobile friendly’.

As well as Mobilegeddon, July 2015 also saw a minor Panda update hailed as a data refresh. The results of which have yet to be felt by webmasters.

The end of this year – at this time of writing – is set to see another Penguin update. This will build upon the quality based algorithm changes that have been key to Google’s goal since 1998. In advance of this, webmasters have been advised to create an intuitive navigation system with a mix of non-descriptive and descriptive links. Linking structure and optimisation is set to be another area which this year’s Penguin update is set to touch upon.


As we know ourselves, no webmaster cannot afford to ignore Google’s amount of algorithm changes. Not only the Pandas and Penguins. Some SEO commentators think Google has 500 algorithm changes a year – equivalent to one a day with double time on weekends and Bank Holidays. Obviously, we cannot afford to get complacent. It is bad for business: our own as well as our clients’ businesses.

Beyond 2015, there’s no way we shall be hearing the last of Google (or Alphabet and its search based subsidiary given its recent reorganisation). Certainly no shortage of Google gripes either as each algorithm change polarises webmasters from Aabenraa to Zzyzx.

In the long run, Google’s algorithm have been aimed towards improving our search experience and the quality of its results. That, along with speed, was, is, and remains its raison d’etre. It will, but concerns over Google’s privacy and targeting have led some users to consider alternatives. The Mozilla Organisation’s Firefox no longer has Google as its default search engine: their default is DuckDuckGo.

Even so, Google is going to be with us for a very long time. We don’t know how long, but owing to the success of its browser and the Android operating system, another decade at the very least.

Net66, 02 December 2015.