Google Algorithm Updates

Google algorithm updates

Ever wondered what all the fuss is about Google algorithm updates? Read about some of the main algorithm updates including BERT, Fred, Possum, RankBrain, Mobilegeddon, Pigeon, Hummingbird, Penguin and Panda below. Cute pictures included!

Google BERT Update – 2019

When did this Google update happen?

The Google BERT update was rolled out in the United States on October 22nd, 2019. It’s still being implemented internationally and expanded to include additional languages.

How big a deal is the BERT update?

Google believes that this update will affect one in ten searches. So yeah, it’s a pretty big deal and perhaps the biggest update Google has made in almost five years.

Why is it called ‘BERT’?

BERT is an acronym of Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. This is an open-sourced Google technology which is used to train an artificial intelligence-enabled question answering system to better understand natural language.

What exactly is the BERT update?

BERT supports Google’s new natural language processing model. Basically, it allows Google to not just understand the context of words in a search query from left to right but also look back at an entire phrase to understand the context and intent behind the search.

BERT affects how Google interprets search queries not how sites are indexed or ranked.

BERT is likely to improve the results from longer search queries. This will in-turn result in people entering more and more naturalistic searches. The additional data should help us better understand search intent – and create content, products and services that match it.

BERT has us all thinking about a future where voice search is the norm.

Google BERT update

Google Fred Update – 2017

When did this Google update happen?

This update took place on March 8th, 2017. Fred was never confirmed by Google.

Why is it called ‘Fred’?

This is a joke name given when Gary Illyes at Google who said in 2017 that from now on all unnamed quality updates were to be called ‘Fred.’ The name itself is entirely arbitrary.

What was the Fred update?

This was a series of updates that are believed to have taken place in March 2017. The update negatively impacted the ranking of sites with high levels of affiliate or ad content which interfered with the user’s experience. In this update outbound links to poor quality, sites and other aggressive monetisation tactics were added as negative ranking factors.

Intrusive interstitials (aka pop-ups), especially on mobile, were also in the firing range.

Fred made us more mindful of how we monetise our content.

Google Fred update

Google Possum Update – 2016

When did this Google update happen?

This update took place on September 1st, 2016. Although the effects of Possum were widely reported in the SEO community this update was never confirmed by Google.

Why’s it called the ‘Possum’ update?

In many cultures to play possum means to play dead – i.e. pretend to be dead. When this update went live many local businesses found their listings no longer visible on Google. They were still there but they were being filtered out from Google search results.

What was the Possum update?

This was a Google local business update which filtered out search results from many perceived ‘spam’ local business listings. It particularly impacted inner-city listings where two or more similar businesses were listed at the same address. Businesses belonging to the same parent company or using virtual addresses were also negatively impacted.

Many lost their maps listings and associated reviews creating a devastating impact.

Some business listings outside of city limits benefitted from the Possum update.

Possum stopped us gaming the Google reviews and local listings.

Google Possum update

Google RankBrain Update – 2015

When did this Google update happen?

This update was announced by Google on October 26th, 2015. However, it’s believed that the actual RankBrain update probably took place up to six months previously.

Why is it called the ‘RankBrain’ update?

This update was called RankBrain because it used ranking options to train the AI brain.

What was RankBrain?

RankBrain changed the way things were indexed by Google rather than what was indexed.

With RankBrain Google introduced artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyse queries – including the 15% of daily searches that have never before been entered. When Google is uncertain of the intent behind a given search RankBrain allows it to rank a variety of results and learn from the click-through behaviour of the searcher.

RankBrain allowed Google to understand longer, more complex and colloquial searches.

RankBrain got us thinking about an artificial intelligence-enabled world.

Google RankBrain update

Google Mobile Update – 2015

When did this Google update happen?

This update, also known as ‘Mobilegeddon’, took place on April 22nd 2015. Unusually, Google gave us more than two months warning that this update was coming.

Why is it called ‘Mobilegeddon’?

Mobilegeddon is a blending of the words ‘mobile’ and ‘armageddon’ (the final battle before the end of the world). It was given such an over-the-top name because we heard about it coming so far in advance and many felt its effects would be dramatic.

What did the Mobile update change?

Google gave very clear guidelines prior to this update, indicating which elements made a site mobile-friendly: easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate, easy-to-click on a smaller screen etc. Sites which didn’t comply began to suffer in the rankings, however, the effect was not immediately as dramatic as anticipated. More updates were to come…

On April 12th 2016, about a year after the initial update, there was a further update rewarding sites that were mobile-friendly and penalised those which weren’t.

Then two years later, on March 26th 2018, Google began indexing sites on mobile-first. A few months later, on July 9th, Google made mobile page speed a ranking factor.

‘Mobilegeddon’ made us prioritise the mobile user experience.

Google Mobile update

Google Pigeon Update – 2014

When did this Google update happen?

This update took place on July 24th, 2014 in the US. On the 22nd of December, it was rolled out to other English speaking territories including the UK, Canada and Australia.

Why’s it called the ‘Pigeon’ update?

This update was called Pigeon because, like pigeons, who are great navigators, this update marked a major improvement to Google’s distance and location ranking parameters.

What did the Pigeon update affect?

Pigeon had a massive impact on local and Google map search results. Suddenly results were tailored to show businesses that were physically near the person searching. Local businesses such as shops and restaurants which had accurate local listing benefitted.

Pigeon made us sit up and pay attention to our local listings.

Google Pigeon update

Google Hummingbird Update – 2013

When did this Google update happen?

This update took place on August 20th, 2013 but was not announced until a month later.

Why’s it called the ‘Hummingbird’ update?

Like a Hummingbird which is fast and very accurate in collecting nectar, this update greatly improved Google’s speed and accuracy in producing relevant search results.

What did the Hummingbird update affect?

Hummingbird was a complete algorithm rewrite which took into account semantic search. Semantic search aimed to better understand the intent and the content of a search.

Hummingbird made use of the Knowledge Graph which Google had produced a year previously to associate terms with intent. Following this update sites which were previously benefiting from keyword stuffing practices stopped getting away with it. Those with quality knowledge or action-based content often saw an improvement in ranking.

Hummingbird got us thinking seriously about the search intent.

Google Hummingbird update

Google Penguin Update – 2012

When did this Google update happen?

This update took place on April 24th, 2012.

Why’s it called the ‘Penguin’ update?

Nobody really knows why this update was called Penguin by Google. Perhaps it’s because penguins are social animals who tend to travel in packs similar to spam links?

What effect did the Penguin update have on search?

This was one of the first big updates that penalised sites for dishonest factors such as spam link building practices. Following the initial implementation of Penguin, a lot of sites which had purchases links to their webpages or had links from low-value ‘spam’ link directories were penalised. Meanwhile, quality natural links to websites continued to be rewarded.

Minor updates to Penguin took place throughout 2013 and 2014 but in 2016 there was a major update to the Penguin algorithm. In this so-called ‘friendly’ update low-value or spam links no longer resulted in penalties but were simply ignored as a ranking factor.

Penguin taught us to focus on link quality over link quantity.

Google Penguin update

Google Panda Update – 2011

When did this Google update happen?

This update took place on February 23rd, 2011.

Why’s it called the ‘Panda’ update?

This update was called Panda after the engineer Navneet Panda who developed it.

What did Panda mean for writers?

Panda was created to deal with the problem of ‘content farms’ which were producing low-quality and generic content. Panda rewarded sites with higher quality, original and more in-depth content with better rankings. Those with ‘thin’ content, duplicated content or plagiarized content found themselves dropping in Google search results.

Like many Google updates, Panda had various iterations. Throughout 2011 Panda was rolled out internationally with smaller tweaks continuing to take place in 2012. More significant updates which further strengthened Google’s ability to identify quality content took place in May and September of 2014. The last Panda update was in 2015.

Panda got us writing in-depth, niche and quality content.

Google Panda update

There’ve been plenty more updates to the Google algorithm over the years which you can read about on Moz. However, the important thing to remember is not to get too obsessed.

Google is simply getting better and better at serving the searcher’s needs and if we also focus on that, rather than trying to ‘game the system’ we’re more likely to succeed.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? 
Take another look at the cute pictures above 😉 or check out our SEO Basics series.