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Each year, Google changes its search algorithm up to 500 – 600 times. While most of these changes are minor, every few months Google rolls out a “major” algorithmic update that affect search results in significant ways.
For search marketers, knowing the dates of these Google updates can help explain changes in rankings and organic website traffic. Below, we’ve listed the major algorithmic changes that made the biggest impacts on search. Understanding these updates can help with search engine optimization.
Google announced that they would start penalizing sites with repeat copyright violations, probably via DMCA takedown requests. Timing was stated as “starting next week” (8/13?).
An update to our search algorithms (Google)
After a summer hiatus, the June and July Search Quality Highlights were rolled out in one mega-post. Major updates included Panda data and algorithm refreshes, an improved rank-ordering function (?), a ranking boost for “trusted sources”, and changes to site clustering.
A month after Panda 3.8, Google rolled out a new Panda update. Rankings fluctuated for 5-6 days, although no single day was high enough to stand out. Google claimed ~1% of queries were impacted.
In a repeat of March/April, Google sent out a large number of unnatural link warnings via Google Webmaster Tools. In a complete turn-around, they then announced that these new warnings may not actually represent a serious problem.
Google rolled out another Panda data refresh, but this appeared to be data only (no algorithm changes) and had a much smaller impact than Panda 3.7.
Google rolled out yet another Panda data update, claiming that less than 1% of queries were affect. Ranking fluctuation data suggested that the impact was substantially higher than previous Panda updates (3.5, 3.6).
Google released their monthly Search Highlights, with 39 updates in May. Major changes included Penguin improvements, better link-scheme detection, changes to title/snippet rewriting, and updates to Google News.
Google rolled out its first targeted data update after the “Penguin” algorithm update. This confirmed that Penguin data was being processed outside of the main search index, much like Panda data.
In a major step toward semantic search, Google started rolling out “Knowledge Graph”, a SERP-integrated display providing supplemental object about certain people, places, and things. Expect to see “knowledge panels” appear on more and more SERPs over time. Also, Danny Sullivan’s favorite Trek is ST:Voyager?!
Google published details of 52 updates in April, including changes that were tied to the “Penguin” update. Other highlights included a 15% larger “base” index, improved pagination handling, and a number of updates to sitelinks.
Barely a week after Panda 3.5, Google rolled out yet another Panda data update. The implications of this update were unclear, and it seemed that the impact was relatively small.
After weeks of speculation about an “Over-optimization penalty”, Google finally rolled out the “Webspam Update”, which was soon after dubbed “Penguin.” Penguin adjusted a number of spam factors, including keyword stuffing, and impacted an estimated 3.1% of English queries.
In the middle of a busy week for the algortihm, Google quietly rolled out a Panda data update. A mix of changes made the impact difficult to measure, but this appears to have been a fairly routine update with minimal impact.
After a number of webmasters reported ranking shuffles, Google confirmed that a data error had caused some domains to be mistakenly treated as parked domains (and thereby devalued). This was not an intentional algorithm change.
Google posted another batch of update highlights, covering 50 changes in March. These included confirmation of Panda 3.4, changes to anchor-text “scoring”, updates to image search, and changes to how queries with local intent are interpreted.
Google announced another Panda update, this time via Twitter as the update was rolling out. Their public statements estimated that Panda 3.4 impacted about 1.6% of search results.
This wasn’t an algorithm update, but Google published a rare peek into a search quality meeting. For anyone interested in the algorithm, the video provides a lot of context to both Google’s process and their priorities. It’s also a chance to see Amit Singhal in action.
Google published a second set of “search quality highlights” at the end of the month, claiming more than 40 changes in February. Notable changes included multiple image-search updates, multiple freshness updates (including phasing out 2 old bits of the algorithm), and a Panda update.
As part of their monthly update, Google mentioned code-name “Venice”. This local update appeared to more aggressively localize organic results and more tightly integrate local search data. The exact roll-out date was unclear.
Google Venice Update – New Ranking Opportunities for Local SEO (Catalyst eMarketing)
Google released another round of “search quality highlights” (17 in all). Many related to speed, freshness, and spell-checking, but one major announcement was tighter integration of Panda into the main search index.
Google updated their page layout algorithms to devalue sites with too much ad-space above the “fold”. It was previously suspected that a similar factor was in play in Panda. The update had no official name, although it was referenced as “Top Heavy” by some SEOs.
Page layout algorithm improvement (Google)
Google announced a radical shift in personalization – aggressively pushing Google+ social data and user profiles into SERPs. Google also added a new, prominent toggle button to shut off personalization.
Search, plus Your World (Google)
Google announced 30 changes over the previous month, including image search landing-page quality detection, more relevant site-links, more rich snippets, and related-query improvements. The line between an “algo update” and a “feature” got a bit more blurred.
Google outlined a second set of 10 updates, announcing that these posts would come every month. Updates included related query refinements, parked domain detection, blog search freshness, and image search freshness. The exact dates of each update were not provided.
After Panda 2.5, Google entered a period of “Panda Flux” where updates started to happen more frequently and were relatively minor. Some industry analysts called the 11/18 update 3.1, even though there was no official 3.0. For the purposes of this history, we will discontinue numbering Panda updates except for very high-impact changes.
This one was a bit unusual. In a bid to be more transparent, Matt Cutts released a post with 10 recent algorithm updates. It’s not clear what the timeline was, and most were small updates, but it did signal a shift in how Google communicates algorithm changes.
Ten recent algorithm changes (Google)
Google announced that an algorithm change rewarding freshness would impact up to 35% of queries (almost 3X the publicly stated impact of Panda 1.0). This update primarly affected time-sensitive results, but signalled a much stronger focus on recent content.
Google announced they would be encrypting search queries, for privacy reasons. Unfortunately, this disrupted organic keyword referral data, returning “(not provided)” for some organic traffic. This number increased in the weeks following the launch.
Making search more secure (Google)
Matt Cutts tweeted: “expect some Panda-related flux in the next few weeks” and gave a figure of “~2%”. Other minor Panda updates occurred on 10/3, 10/13, and 11/18.
After more than month, Google rolled out another Panda update. Specific details of what changed were unclear, but some sites reported large-scale losses.
This wasn’t an update, but it was an amazing revelation. Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Congress that Google made 516 updates in 2010. The real shocker? They tested over 13,000 updates.
To help fix crawl and duplication problems created by pagination, Google introduced the rel=”next” and rel=”prev” link attributes. Google also announced that they had improved automatic consolidation and canonicalization for “View All” pages.
After experimenting for a while, Google officially rolled out expanded site-links, most often for brand queries. At first, these were 12-packs, but Google appeared to limit the expanded site-links to 6 shortly after the roll-out.
Google rolled Panda out internationally, both for English-language queries globally and non-English queries except for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Google reported that this impacted 6-9% of queries in affected countries.
After a number of social media failures, Google launched a serious attack on Facebook with Google+. Google+ revolved around circles for sharing content, and was tightly integrated into products like Gmail. Early adopters were quick to jump on board, and within 2 weeks Google+ reached 10M users.
Google continued to update Panda-impacted sites and data, and version 2.2 was officially acknowledged. Panda updates occurred separately from the main index and not in real-time, reminiscent of early Google Dance updates.
Google, Yahoo and Microsoft jointly announced support for a consolidated approach to structured data. They also created a number of new “schemas”, in an apparent bid to move toward even richer search results.
Google rolled out the Panda update to all English queries worldwide (not limited to English-speaking countries). New signals were also integrated, including data about sites users blocked via the SERPs directly or the Chrome browser.
Responding to competition by major social sites, including Facebook and Twitter, Google launched the +1 button (directly next to results links). Clicking [+1] allowed users to influence search results within their social circle, across both organic and paid results.
Recommendations when you want them (Google)
A major algorithm update hit sites hard, affecting up to 12% of search results (a number that came directly from Google). Panda seemed to crack down on thin content, content farms, sites with high ad-to-content ratios, and a number of other quality issues. Panda rolled out over at least a couple of months, hitting Europe in April 2011.
In response to high-profile spam cases, Google rolled out an update to help better sort out content attribution and stop scrapers. According to Matt Cutts, this affected about 2% of queries. It was a clear precursor to the Panda updates.
Algorithm Change Launched (Matt Cutts)
Latest Google Algorithm change (Search News Central)
In a rare turn of events, a public outing of shady SEO practices by Overstock.com resulted in a very public Google penalty. JCPenney was hit with a penalty in February for similar bad behavior. Both situations represented a shift in Google’s attitude and foreshadowed the Panda update.
Google and Bing confirmed that they use social signals in determining ranking, including data from Twitter and Facebook. Matt Cutts confirmed that this was a relatively new development for Google, although many SEOs had long suspected it would happen.
After an expose in the New York Times about how e-commerce site DecorMyEyes was ranking based on negative reviews, Google made a rare move and reactively adjusted the algorithm to target sites using similar tactics.
A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web (NY Times)
A magnifying glass icon appeared on Google search results, allowing search visitors to quickly view a preview of landing pages directly from SERPs. This signaled a renewed focus for Google on landing page quality, design, and usability.
Expanding on Google Suggest, Google Instant launched, displaying search results as a query was being typed. SEOs everywhere nearly spontaneously combusted, only to realize that the impact was ultimately fairly small.
About Google Instant (Google)
Although not a traditional algorithm update, Google started allowing the same domain to appear multiple times on a SERP. Previously, domains were limited to 1-2 listings, or 1 listing with indented results.
After months of testing, Google finished rolling out the Caffeine infrastructure. Caffeine not only boosted Google’s raw speed, but integrated crawling and indexation much more tightly, resulting in (according to Google) a 50% fresher index.
Our new search index: Caffeine (Google)
In late April and early May, webmasters noticed significant drops in their long-tail traffic. Matt Cutts later confirmed that May Day was an algorithm change impacting the long-tail. Sites with large-scale thin content seemed to be hit especially hard, foreshadowing the Panda update.
Video: Google’s Matt Cutts On May Day Update (SERoundtable)
Although “Places” pages were rolled out in September of 2009, they were originally only a part of Google Maps. The official launch of Google Places re-branded the Local Business Center, integrated Places pages more closely with local search results, and added a number of features, including new local advertising options.
Introducing Google Places (Google)
This time, real-time search was for real- Twitter feeds, Google News, newly indexed content, and a number of other sources were integrated into a real-time feed on some SERPs. Sources continued to expand over time, including social media.
Google released a preview of a massive infrastructure change, designed to speed crawling, expand the index, and integrate indexation and ranking in nearly real-time. The timeline spanned months, with the final rollout starting in the US in early 2010 and lasting until the summer.
Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo jointly announced support for the Canonical Tag, allowing webmasters to send canonicalization signals to search bots without impacting human visitors.
Learn about the Canonical Link Element in 5 minutes (MattCutts.com)
SEOs reported a major update that seemed to strongly favor big brands. Matt Cutts called Vince a “minor change”, but others felt it had profound, long-term implications.
In a major change to their logo-and-a-box home-page Google introduced Suggest, displaying suggested searches in a dropdown below the search box as visitors typed their queries. Suggest would later go on to power Google Instant.
A large-scale shuffle seemed to occur at the end of March and into early April, but the specifics were unclear. Some suspected Google was pushing its own internal properties, including Google Books, but the evidence of that was limited.
Google’s Cutts Asking for Feedback on March/April ’08 Update (SERoundtable)
While not your typical algorithm update, Google integrated traditional search results with News, Video, Images, Local, and other verticals, dramatically changing their format. The old 10-listing SERP was officially dead. Long live the old 10-listing SERP.
There were stirrings about an update in December, along with some reports of major ranking changes in November, but Google reported no major changes.
Google Update Debunked By Matt Cutts (SERoundtable)
Throughout 2006, Google seemed to make changes to the supplemental index and how filtered pages were treated. They claimed in late 2006 that supplemental was not a penalty (even if it sometimes felt that way).
Confusion Over Google’s Supplemental Index (SERoundtable)
Technically, Big Daddy was an infrastructure update (like the more recent “Caffeine”), and it rolled out over a few months, wrapping up in March of 2006. Big Daddy changed the way Google handled URL canonicalization, redirects (301/302) and other technical issues.
Indexing timeline (MattCutts.com)
Google released a series of updates, mostly targeted at low-quality links, including reciprocal links, link farms, and paid links. Jagger rolled out in at least 3 stages, from roughly September to November of 2005, with the greatest impact occurring in October.
A Review Of The Jagger 2 Update (SERoundtable)
After launching the Local Business Center in March 2005 and encouraging businesses to update their information, Google merged its Maps data into the LBC, in a move that would eventually drive a number of changes in local SEO.
Also called the “False” update ? webmasters saw changes (probably ongoing), but Google claimed no major algorithm update occurred. Matt Cutts wrote a blog post explaining that Google updated (at the time) index data daily but Toolbar PR and some other metrics only once every 3 months.
What?s an update? (MattCutts.com)
Unlike previous attempts at personalization, which required custom settings and profiles, the 2005 roll-out of personalized search tapped directly into users? search histories to automatically adjust results. Although the impact was small at first, Google would go on to use search history for many applications.
Search gets personal (Google)
Google allowed webmasters to submit XML sitemaps via Webmaster Tools, bypassing traditional HTML sitemaps, and giving SEOs direct (albeit minor) influence over crawling and indexation.
“GoogleGuy” (likely Matt Cutts) announced that Google was rolling out “something like 3.5 changes in search quality.” No one was sure what 0.5 of a change was, but Webmaster World members speculated that Bourbon changed how duplicate content and non-canonical (www vs. non-www) URLs were treated.
Google Update “Bourbon” (Batelle Media)
Bourbon Update Survival Kit (SERoundtable)
Webmasters witnessed ranking changes, but the specifics of the update were unclear. Some thought Allegra affected the “sandbox” while others believed that LSI had been tweaked. Additionally, some speculated that Google was beginning to penalize suspicious links.
To combat spam and control outbound link quality, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft collectively introduce the “nofollow” attribute. Nofollow helps clean up unvouched for links, including spammy blog comments. While not a traditional algorithm update, this change gradually has a significant impact on the link graph.
Although obviously not an algorithm update, a major event in Google’s history – Google sold 19M shares, raised $1.67B in capital, and set their market value at over $20B. By January 2005, Google share prices more than doubled.
Google rolled out a variety of changes, including a massive index expansion, Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI), increased attention to anchor text relevance, and the concept of link “neighborhoods.” LSI expanded Google’s ability to understand synonyms and took keyword analysis to the next level.
Google’s Brandy Update Exposed (WebProNews)
How To Beat Google’s “Brandy” Update (SitePoint)
What Florida missed, Austin came in to clean up. Google continued to crack-down on deceptive on-page tactics, including invisible text and META-tag stuffing. Some speculated that Google put the “Hilltop” algorithm into play and began to take page relevance seriously.
Google Update Austin: Google Update Florida Again (Search-Marketing.info)
This was the update that put updates (and probably the SEO industry) on the map. Many sites lost ranking, and business owners were furious. Florida sounded the death knell for low-value late 90s SEO tactics, like keyword stuffing, and made the game a whole lot more interesting.
In order to index more documents without sacrificing performance, Google split off some results into the “supplemental” index. The perils of having results go supplemental became a hotly debated SEO topic, until the index was later reintegrated.
The monthly “Google Dance” finally came to an end with the “Fritz” update. Instead of completely overhauling the index on a roughly monthly basis, Google switched to an incremental approach. The index was now changing daily.
Explaining algorithm updates and data refreshes (Matt Cutts)
This marked the last of the regular monthly Google updates, as a more continuous update process began to emerge. The “Google Dance” was replaced with “Everflux”. Esmerelda probably heralded some major infrastructure changes at Google.
Google Update Esmeralda (Kuro5hin)
While many changes were observed in May, the exact nature of Dominic was unclear. Google bots “Freshbot” and “Deepcrawler” scoured the web, and many sites reported bounces. The way Google counted or reported backlinks seemed to change dramatically.
Google cracked down on some basic link-quality issues, such as massive linking from co-owned domains. Cassandra also came down hard on hidden text and hidden links.
Google – Update “Cassandra” is here (Econsultancy)
Announced at SES Boston, this was the first named Google update. Originally, Google aimed at a major monthly update, so the first few updates were a combination of algorithm changes and major index refreshes (the so-called “Google Dance”). As updates became more frequent, the monthly idea quickly died.
Before “Boston” (the first named update), there was a major shuffle in the Fall of 2002. The details are unclear, but this appeared to be more than the monthly Google Dance and PageRank update. As one webmaster said of Google: “they move the toilet mid stream”.
Dancing The Google Dance (Level343)
Guaranteeing SEO arguments for years to come, Google launched their browser toolbar, and with it, Toolbar PageRank (TBPR). As soon as webmasters started watching TBPR, the Google Dance began.
Google Launches The Google Toolbar (Google)
There’s been no single rhyme or reason to how Google updates are named. The first named update was christened “Boston” by Webmaster World users, as it was announced at SES Boston. The next few updates (“Cassandra”, “Dominic”, “Esmerelda”) were also named by WMW users, in a style similar to how hurricanes are named. Once the monthly “Google Dance” ended, that system fell into disuse. Later updates were named by various sources, including WMW, and major search blogs and forums. Google themselves have coined the occasional name (“Caffeine”), while a few names have been Google-inspired (“Vince” and “Panda” were named after Google engineers).