A Brief History of Google Algorithms

Google algorithms have perplexed and stretched SEO-types since they began. The search giant have a thing for changing the way your page ranks on what seems a very regular basis, and this can sometimes have a detrimental effect on where you appear on a SERP.

In this blog, we’ll go through a brief history of Google Algorithms, and keep an eye out for the future blogs on our tips to create content Google finds.

Google Algorithm

What is an algorithm?

In layman’s terms, an algorithm is the formula which Google uses to decide how results appear on a search engine results page. To appear at the top of the results means Google has deemed your page to be the best match to the user’s query. Over the last 14 years, the algorithms have changed many times, all to try and get the best results for each user.

Where did it all start?

Google began life in 1996 as BackRub, and was registered in 1997 as Google, a play on the mathematical term ‘googol’. In 2000, Google launched the first browser toolbar Toolbar PageRank (TBPR). This allowed anyone to search with Google from any page rather than have to go back to Google.com.

The first major update wasn’t until February 2003 and was named ‘Boston’ after the place the update was announced in. At this stage, Google were planning monthly updates, and these began life as algorithm changes and major index refreshes, known as the ‘Google Dance’. Throughout the rest of 2003, there were six updates, named in the same way as hurricanes, and these tackled issues like link quality, and keyword stuffing. By the end of the year, the SEO industry was a big and known player in the marketing world.

Through the beginning of 2004 Google kept cracking down on the ‘dodgy’ tactics used through the late 90s. They also began to understand synonyms, allowing more pages to be relevant to a query. In early 2005, Google joined with Microsoft and Yahoo to fight spam and poor quality, and unvouched for links such as ‘nofollow’ on spam blog comments. Later in October, this style of update continued with Jagger, which targeted reciprocal links, link farms, and paid links. There were several other minor updates through 2005 and 2006 and SEOs saw lots of changes but Google said there had been no major changes.

2007 saw just two changes, and we only really know what happened in one of them. In May, Google integrated news, video, images and local results in the SERPs. Later on in the year there was an update called ‘Buffy’ but this was really just a cumulation of smaller changes. The next year, 2008 passed with very few changes, apart from Google suggest, which has fuelled many a Buzzfeed article since…

Through 2009 we saw lots of changes to Google. In February came Vince, which looked to favour big brands. This was followed by a preview of Caffeine in August which carried on until late 2010. It involved big changes to the infrastructure to make crawling and indexes quicker and happen in real time. The last change of the year continued in the real-time theme by adding twitter and Google news into results.

The Google Algorithm in the 2010s

2010 had a massive set of changes. Google local launched officially making it easier to advertise locally. Then May Day came along and punished some long-tail rankings. Next, Google allowed the same brand or website to rank more than once on a page, so brands could potentially dominate if they were producing quality pages. Google instant took Google suggest to the next level, showing results as you typed – not as big a change as it initially seemed. The end of 2010 was the first sign of social signals, with Google and Bing confirming they were altering results based on impact of social networks. Google would go on to make many more changes based on their own social network, Google Plus.

In the beginning of 2011, Google punished companies for dodgy SEO tactics in the first public naming and shaming of black hat SEO. Then we had the famous Panda update. Panda affected lots of pages and targeted thin content, content farms and pages with a poor ad-to-content ratio. Panda occurred in a series of updates and continued to be changed through 2011 and into 2012.

2011 also saw the introduction of Google+, and Google’s direct attempt to knock Facebook off the top spot of the social networks. Google+ revolves around circles and it’s been suggested that content can climb up the SERPs when it has reached more people in your circles and been +1’d by them. Linking it with Gmail accounts meant around 10 million people jumped on board straight away. At the end of the year, Google released another 10-point update to refine some aspects across their services.

If a 10-pack of updates in December wasn’t enough, Google launched a 30-pack in January. They also made Google+ results more prominent, and continued Panda changes. February saw two sets of pack changes, a 17-pack and a 40-pack and the famous missed change, Venice. Venice was an update which focused on localisation, meaning Google would show you businesses and services in your area. This led to many SEOs creating multiple pages on sites to make sure no matter who searched from where, there would be a service page close enough to appear on their results. Localisation was refined further during the course of the year.

In April 2012, the Penguin update was released, which targeted spammy content and keyword stuffing, affected around 3.1% of English queries. A 52-pack update later in the moth linked extra changes to Penguin, and in May, Penguin 1.1 saw a data update. Updates through the rest of the year were minor refreshes, affecting a very small percentage of queries.

The last Panda update took place in 2013, with Matt Cutts announcing it would be integrated into the algorithm. In June, Google launched a change which targeted sites offering payday loans and porn, clearing up spammy results and pages. In August, we saw a change to news results, with Google dedicating more space to long-form content, great for those feature pieces. Later that month, Hummingbird was announced, though it had been used for around a month before Google spoke about it. Hummingbird was so named because it was ‘precise and fast’ and has been compared with Caffeine as a big update to the main algorithm. By the end of the year, authorship was under threat, disappearing from around 15% of queries. According to Matt Cutts, this would give a higher quality to search results.

Finally, so far this year, we’ve seen a refreshed page layout, and changes which target spammy queries. Given how many changes we’ve seen each year since 2010, it could be there are far more to come!