In 2017 alone Google ran over 200,000 experiments in Google search results, which resulted in over 2,400 changes to the Google algorithm. No wonder as SEOs we struggle to keep up! That’s over 6 changes to how Google works every single day of the year.

Google is evolving at lightning speed, so much so that sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Fortunately, each year only a couple of the Google updates actually impact the overall direction that search engine optimization takes.
I’m going to highlight the most significant core Google algorithm developments since 2011, so that in less than an hour you’ll have painlessly caught up with all the important Google updates and have a fighting chance of keeping up with Google’s AI-based algorithm.

THE BIGGEST GOOGLE UPDATES

If you’re looking for the biggest Google updates from the last five years there are some obvious names that jump out straight away:

  • Panda (2011)
  • Penguin (2012)
  • Hummingbird (2013)
  • Pigeon (2014)
  • Mobilegeddon (2015)
  • RankBrain (2015)
  • Fred (2017)
  • Medic (2018)

These eight updates are those that I personally feel have shaped SEO the most over the past five years, not only updating the Google algorithm but also shaping the overall direction and intent of Google’s whole organic search team.

Understanding Google’s intentions when releasing new updates gives us some great insight into the minds of the Google team and what we could potentially expect from future updates. Knowing where Google is heading will give us the understanding we need, not just to optimize websites for what will work today, but also in a way that will avoid future algorithmic penalties.

This guide will discuss each of the Google updates listed above and how they have changed the face of modern SEO.

THE PANDA UPDATE

The Google Panda update first rolled out in February 2011 and caused massive shifts in rankings for a wide variety of websites (primarily those with low-quality content). This was the first of the big Google updates that shaped modern SEO and dramatically changed the direction of the optimization work we undertake today.

Several different types of low-quality content were hit in this update:

  • Gateway pages – Previously, content was frequently rewritten with multiple variants for different keywords. Some of the most popular tactics included writing similar content but targeted to different cities or simply switching out keywords in content to target synonyms directly. Now it’s pretty common to see a single page rank for 100+ keywords, the time of 1 page 1 keyword is dead.
  • Article farms – Some websites existed exclusively to gain traffic by targeting high traffic keywords with content and then earning income through advertising. Often these article farms were low quality and several were article directories where people submitted articles in exchange for a backlink in the article, breaking Google’s backlink guidelines.
  • Poor-quality English – One of the most obvious factors in determining the quality of content is the quality of the writing. Obvious spelling mistakes, poor grammar and other signs that indicate that content was quickly compiled and hadn’t been proofread. As of 2018, there are almost 2 billion websites online (double the 1 billion mark which was first hit in September 2014). Ask yourself, why would users want to read poorly written content when the volume of content online is growing so rapidly?
  • Syndicated content – The process of republishing content on other sites is still quite common and can be effective if done correctly. However, the old form of content syndication, where you republished your content on several of your own domains, died with the original Panda update. The primary goal was to reduce the amount of duplicate content in SERPs, and sites with high volumes of duplicate content were hit hardest. However, those syndicating small volumes of content alongside high-quality unique content still perform well today.
  • Overly brief content – It’s a common assumption that Google made a change so that short content was penalized in favor of longer content, but this isn’t the whole truth. Instead, Google moved more towards content length being relevant to the search query. Typical quick-fire questions and answers still rank well with short content, however, an in-depth question deserves an in-depth response. The key here is ensuring the content length is suitable for the user’s intent.

So what are the biggest lessons learned from the original Google Panda update and its subsequent updates?

  • Produce original content – If your content is similar to existing content on the web, or even worse, identical, then why would Google want to rank your site over the existing original version? It wouldn’t. So to even get your foot in the door with Google, you have to start by producing original content.
  • Write content for people, not for search engines – If you’re writing content to gain rankings in Google, then you’re doing it wrong. Stop writing for Google and start writing for users of Google. This means stop trying to spin content for different keywords. Write a single piece and promote it well rather than multiple variants of similar content. Create content that excites, entertains and encourages website visitors to read all the way to the end.
  • Ensure your content is fit for purpose – Once again this comes down to writing for your users, not just for the sake of ranking in Google. One of the key factors is ensuring that content is the right length to cover the topic and the user’s search intent. You’re also rewarded by Google for adding value to the web by producing quality content that exceeds existing content. Remember the quality of content is judged primarily on two factors; the dwell time (the time the user spends on your website) and the frequency of return to search results (if you answer a question completely then there’s no need to go back to Google).

This was the start of a massive mindset shift in the search engine optimization community where for the first time in years, Google gave us the harsh reminder that we exist to serve Googles users not simply to game the Google algorithm. The release of Panda was an obvious warning of things to come. It showed that Google was all too aware of the shady practices of the SEO community and was aiming to ensure that users received the best search results regardless of what SEOs were doing to try and beat the system.

THE PENGUIN UPDATE

In April 2012, just over a year after Google released the Panda update, the Penguin update was released. Once again shaking up search results and encouraging better SEO practices. The overall goal of this algorithm update was to prevent large-scale and automated link building tactics from impacting search results, therefore ensuring that users could find the most relevant content.

Amongst the link building tactics hit were:

  • Directory submissions – Link building using directory links was a common tactic to gain a lot of links quickly. Lots of website directories were created simply for SEO purposes to provide links with no intention of adding value. Prior to the existence of search engines such as Google, directories were a useful tool for finding new websites, but as search engines became more popular they were used much less frequently and primarily abused for SEO purposes.
  • Press release links – Creating press releases on press release sites came with the handy benefit of easily acquiring relatively high authority links. However, things quickly escalated and started to get a little silly with fake news being created on a regular basis simply to gain the press release links.
  • Social bookmarking – Social bookmarking is the process of storing internet bookmarks so that they can also be shared, with many sites expanding this so that bookmarks could be annotated and tagged to help form communities and discover people with similar interests to you. Bulk link building via social bookmarking sites was easy to do on large scales and was frequently abused for SEO purposes.
  • Guest blogging – Publishing content on a large scale on other people’s websites in exchange for links was another manipulative tactic for gaining backlinks. This was especially a problem in cases where the articles were of poor quality and did not add value to the receiving website, or if the theme of the content didn’t match that of the receiving website. Guest blogging still lives on (and is thriving) but these days primarily as high-quality articles displaying thought leadership on other people’s websites, not just poor content in exchange for a link. Remember if you wouldn’t pay to advertise on a website for the traffic then it’s probably not worth placing a guest post on it.
  • Forum and comment links – Links in forum profiles and signatures, and in blog comments are all forms of link building that were extremely popular prior to Google’s Penguin update. The vast majority of these links were of a low quality and it was easy to build a lot of low-quality links quickly. This scalability meant it was easily abused and resulted in the method being penalized. Forum and comment links still exist, but as a general rule of thumb you should only build these links in low volume, and they are only worth having if you expect them to drive traffic to your website. It makes sense when developing a brand to engage in online communities on blogs, but ensure you are posting useful inciteful comments not just spamming backlinks.
  • Paid links and private networks – Paying to rank higher in Google is obviously something that Google wants to prevent (or monopolize depending on how you view PPC). This meant that paying for links whether directly with cash or free products was bound to be penalized due to the manipulative nature of it. In addition, private networks of sites (PBNs) that existed purely to provide links were penalized; these networks can be discovered both manually and automatically. As a rule of thumb remember; links should be earned not paid for.
  • Links from bad neighborhoods – What is a bad neighborhood when we’re talking about links? Well, there are some obvious candidates such as hacked websites. Link networks such as SAPE relied on hacking websites to provide bulk backlinks, so if Google can tell the site is hacked you can guarantee the link will either be reduced in value or marked against you. In addition, it’s also important to avoid links from porn, gambling, payday loan, and other grey industry websites unless you’re part of the niche in question.
  • Links from irrelevant niches – If your website is about bodybuilding then what relevance is a link from a gaming website? None! You should only try to build links from your niche and surrounding niches. For example, it would be OK to build links from a men’s lifestyle blog to a bodybuilding affiliate site, as there is some relevance for the audience. The key is trying to associate yourself with websites that have clear tangible benefits and that are an obvious source of real potential customers – not just links. Whilst links outside your niche still pass rank, you’re much more likely to receive a manual penalty for manipulative link building as it’s obvious your bodybuilding website isn’t relevant to the fashion blog you’re placing backlinks on.

What lessons can we learn from the types of link building activities that were penalized?

  • If it scales easily it will be penalized – If you have a method that allows you to build a lot of links with relatively low effort then eventually everyone will do it. When this happens Google will detect it and penalize the method. If a link building strategy is easily scalable then don’t do it; even if it works now it will most likely result in a penalty in the future.
  • Links should be earned – Google wants to be able to treat links as a vote of confidence in another website. If someone links to you, they are showing two things; that you are an authority on the subject and that they trust your website. Trust and authority are things that should be earned, so paying for links simply isn’t good enough, as it doesn’t demonstrate to Google that it should trust your site and let you rank for a specific keyword.
  • Links should be relevant – If you’re looking to associate yourself with other websites, then they really should be related websites that have a similar target audience to your own. While it’s good to build links from the same niche, sometimes this is difficult so, at the very least, the target audience should overlap and people should want to read your content. Remember the aim is to gain exposure and traffic; the link should be the secondary benefit.
  • SEO should never be the only reason for a link – This really continues from the last point. If you’re creating a link, it should have a purpose beyond search engine optimization. If you believe a link on a website, forum, blog post, social bookmarking site or social media will help drive traffic to your website, then it’s useful. The bottom line is: if a link won’t drive traffic, then it’s unlikely to be of much value and it’s much more likely to be flagged with a manual link building penalty from the Google Search Quality team.

If the original Google Panda update wasn’t enough to show the SEO community that things were changing, then Penguin did. While the Panda Google update targeted manipulative content tactics, and for many, this was relatively easy to recover from, the Penguin update hit the much more manipulative and competitive link building SEO strategies. It was around this time that the whole SEO community really started to wake up. They realized that instead of competing against Google they too needed to add value to the web – they had to earn, rather than manipulate the rankings by improving sites for the benefit of users.

THE HUMMINGBIRD UPDATE

Hummingbird was released in August 2013 and was a major update to the way in which Google works. While other updates improved aspects of Google’s search algorithm, Hummingbird dealt with the very core of it. With Hummingbird no one really received penalties but some did benefit, especially those who wrote content which matched users’ needs and those who had little SEO experience.

Google’s switch to Hummingbird saw improvements in the way that Google handled synonyms and also, importantly, was the start of Google beginning to understand the intent of each search query. Not only did this mean fully understanding the intent of each word in the search query, but also general user intent based on implicit factors such as the time of day and the user’s location. Implicit factors are becoming more and more important, everything from your device type and location to your previous search queries impact personalization of search results for individual users.

The most important aspect of the Hummingbird update was Google’s jump into semantic search so that it was able to better understand natural language and prevent confusion over a user’s search query. This has continued to improve since the Hummingbird update. For example, for the first time in 2018, we’re seeing Google treat queries about testosterone, test and t levels as all being the same thing.

So although we didn’t learn much that was new from the move to Hummingbird, we were reminded of a few things about Google:

  1. Put the user first – When it comes to producing website content the user must come first; if your content is rich and descriptive, you’re much more likely to get an accurate match with a search result even if your content does not exactly match the keywords. Google can understand your content, and latent semantic indexing means that it’s important to use supporting words in your content, not just the words you’re looking to target. This means that if you’re writing about legal steroids, then including words like ‘anabolic’ or ‘bodybuilding’ helps Google understand the content’s theme and prevents it from confusing your content with something more medical.
  2. SEO shouldn’t have to exist – As an SEO it pains me to write this, but our profession shouldn’t have to exist as a separate aspect of online marketing. If you write useful content, have an easy-to-use website and market your content, then it should simply work and you should rank.
  3. Stop thinking about single keywords – So you’ve spotted that “test boosters” is lower competition than “testosterone boosters” but have you actually looked at the search results? A lot of the sites ranking for test boosters are actually testosterone booster pages simply because Google understands they are the same thing.

SEO has become more of a multidisciplinary practice that crosses the lines between marketing, user experience, and conversion rate optimization. If you care about your website visitors and look after some basic technical SEO factors, then you should (eventually) rank in Google.

Shortly after the Hummingbird update the conversation of SEO being dead began once again. The reality is simply that SEO is evolving. It was also around this time that SEO started to become mentioned much less frequently, and people began to talk more about content marketing and white hat strategies instead of simply how to manipulate search results.

THE PIGEON UPDATE

The Google Pigeon update was released in July 2014 originally in the US and was later extended to other countries. This update specifically targeted local searches and took many of the factors from Google’s core search algorithm and integrated them into local search results and Google Maps.

While this update didn’t massively impact affiliate marketing, it did show us one very important thing:

  • Distinct types of searches have different algorithms – Although this may seem obvious, it’s something that is often forgotten: different types of search queries have different layouts for results and ways of ranking, and in general, everything is personalized if it benefits Google users. This applies not only for different user intent but also for different niches. It’s important to remember that if something works for one website in a specific niche, it doesn’t guarantee that it will work for a different site in a completely different niche.

Learn from experience. One size does not fit all websites when it comes to ranking in Google. It’s only by testing changes and adapting to the changes in search results that we can truly begin to understand how to improve rankings. Don’t expect to simply replicate other peoples SEO success; every keyword should be treated differently. Even the best of SEO experts can’t give generic advice to every market and see flawless results.

THE MOBILEGEDDON UPDATE

In April 2015, the next of the big-hitting Google updates was released, nicknamed Mobilegeddon by the SEO community. This update unsurprisingly targeted websites that were not mobile friendly which was to be expected with mobile traffic surpassing that of desktop traffic for the first time in 2014.

Mobile Desktop traffic

This update originally impacted only mobile search results, but recently Google has started to push further by using mobile content as the primary content for the indexing and ranking of websites. In 2018 indexing is mobile first so you simply can’t ignore the importance of your mobile site. There are only a couple of important lessons to be learned here:

  1. Keep up with the technology your website visitors use and ensure your website meets their needs! – If users can’t access your website and view your content easily then Google won’t rank it. Care about your users and Google will care about you.
  2. Ensure you don’t use a stripped-down mobile site – If you strip down your website for mobile users then Google might not be seeing all of your content. Google crawls and indexes as a mobile device so if your 2,000-word article is cut down to 10 bullet points on mobile devices then you shouldn’t expect it to perform as well. Ensure both desktop and mobile devices have similar rich experiences.

Really, this is the most straightforward of the updates, but it served as another quick reminder that in order to ensure rankings, our job is to keep website users happy and to treat SEO as just another part of online marketing.

THE RANKBRAIN UPDATE

If I had to choose a personal favorite Google update then it would be RankBrain. Released in October 2015, and (unusually) announced on Bloomberg Google executives confirmed it was starting to hand over control of the rankings to RankBrain – it’s latest machine learning algorithm.

So what does this update mean for us as SEOs? A few things:

  1. Googles AI tests us – So you’ve done everything right, promoted your new piece of content, and some authorities in your niche have linked to your latest article. Awesome! This doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to rank. If people read your article and go back to Google search then your article may not fully answer their question. You can’t expect to hold onto the #1 spot in Google if your competitors have better content.
  2. SEO encompasses both UX and CRO – Search engine optimization, user experience, and conversion rate optimization have been closely related for a long time. RankBrain made this crystal clear; if you want a high performing website you need people to read your content and stay on your site for as long as possible. A poor experience or lack of progression to other pages is the easiest way to ruin this and prevent your page from ranking.

The RankBrain update takes testing at Google to the extreme, we now see websites bouncing around search results more frequently whilst Google A/B tests where they should rank. The faster Google learns, the more real-time we can expect to see ranking updates in the future. Also, with Chrome usage being so common Google are collecting real user data of website engagement from users so it’s hard to cheat the system and engagement metrics really matter.

THE FRED UPDATE(S)

An update that wasn’t really an update, Google Fred is important because… well it isn’t important.

When Barry Schwartz (an SEO journalist of sorts) noticed a large change in rankings (based on a small dataset that different websites gather) he immediately went to Gary Illyes (a prominent webmaster trends analyst at Google) to ask for a name for the update. The name given by a rather sarcastic Gary was ‘Fred’, the name he gives to everything without a name (take a look at this article if you want to know more).

But can we actually learn something from this update?

Yes, simply put Google make multiple updates on a daily basis to try and improve search quality. Some of these will have bigger impacts than others, but fluctuation and constant testing is at the core of Google. If your traffic isn’t fluctuating then someone else’s is. As SEOs, we have to be able to adapt to a constantly changing environment.

If you’re looking for insights to give yourself a heads up on your competition then the Google search quality evaluator guidelines are the best place to start. You don’t need to understand the algorithms and the updates just the direction in which Google is going to be an awesome SEO.

THE MEDIC UPDATE

A terrible name for an interesting Google algorithm update, Google ‘Medic’ went live on August 1st, 2018. This update dramatically hit sites with ‘your money your life’ (YMYL) themes but wasn’t totally focussed on medical sites as the name suggests.

Google confirmed that a ‘broad core algorithm update’ went live. As an SEO community, we gave it a terrible name. But what does this update actually mean for SEO in 2018? Several things:

  1. Trust matters – It’s importance is referenced several times in the Google quality guidelines as ‘EAT’ (Expertise, Authority, Trust). Sites that look more trustworthy are increasing in rankings whereas those that look a little shady are decreasing in rankings. How Google actually quantifies ‘trust’ is another matter…
  2. Authority matters – If you’re a big brand (that behaves responsibly) then you’re more likely to rank in Google. As you develop a brand, you naturally earn press mentions and other signals that show your authority. Even getting links directly from sites that themselves have press mentions makes you more trustworthy.

So how can you make this actionable? And what do you have to physically do to rank better in a post ‘Medic’ update world? Here are some pointers:

  1. Network – The closer you are to trusted bodies, the more trustworthy you are. You should be looking to network with government bodies and mainstream news sites (or sites that have mentions from them).
  2. Linkbuild (network again) – If the six degrees of separation theory holds true, then we’re no more than six connections away from anyone in the world. Link building is the visual representation of this on the web and the more links we have the closer we are to authorities in our niche (and the more weight our websites have online).
  3. Improve time on site – When you’re running an eCommerce website, trust is a massive factor that influences conversion rate, with security seals such as McAfee Secure being used on a regular basis to improve conversion rates and keep people on site. Similar factors also apply to non-financial transactions. Who should you trust to provide important advice on big life decisions? We’re getting better at spotting biased and untrusted websites online. If you want people to trust you then you need to say who you are and become a public figure or brand they can believe in.

Ultimately everything in SEO is moving towards two factors; user engagement and networking. These things are measured in multiple ways, but now more than ever SEO is simply becoming online marketing crossing multiple disciplines such as UX, PR, and CRO.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?

Google is continually updating its algorithm to improve the quality of the results it provides. At its core this means Google wants to:

  1. Identify websites’ trust and authority and to compare them with each other.
  2. Prevent people from cheating the system to achieve high rankings.
  3. Match people’s search queries to the most relevant content.

With this in mind, Google will continue to update its algorithm to benefit users and provide them with the best possible results. So when undertaking SEO work, it’s normally better not to think of it as SEO, but rather as improving your website and content on your visitors’ behalves.

As time goes on, we should expect to see further updates that continue the trend of preventing manipulation of search results, while also better understanding users’ search queries and matching them to our content. This means that producing excellent content is perhaps the most important aspect of modern SEO, once the basics of setting up a user-friendly website are complete.

Over time Google will become much better at matching content that doesn’t even contain the search query’s keywords, and we’ll be able to focus exclusively on the quality of the content that we produce.

Bonus Lessons From 2018

In 2018 Google have once again shook up the world of SEO, especially affiliate marketing in health and wellbeing niches. The most recent changes, especially from the ‘Medic’ update, have taught us a couple of things that every affiliate marketer needs to know:

  1. Google wants to protect people – We use Google for everything from finding the cheapest mortgage provider to finding remedies for our health problems. This puts a lot of responsibility in Google’s hands, especially for YMYL (your money your life) search queries. If you want to rank for health-related terms your site needs to be trustworthy. It really helps to have links from other high authority trustworthy websites.
  2. AI is at the heart of Google search – Whilst this is impossible to confirm (or deny), AI is becoming a much bigger part of Googles search algorithms. As SEOs, we’re now trying to keep up with the learning ability of a machine. Right now Google is just an adolescent, but it’s learning fast. Recently we’ve seen spammy link building and other blackhat methods work. Again, don’t expect this to last – Google will always catch up with black (and grey) hat SEO methods eventually.

The web is firmly part of our daily lives, and Google is the gateway to that world. Don’t expect this to change anytime soon.

With this in mind, expect Google to continue to take more responsibility for the results it serves to users as corporate social responsibility becomes more important and we as consumers demand more from the businesses we put our faith into to help us make the best life choices.