I sometimes imagine Google’s search engine as this massive, steam-powered, Jules Verne-esque machine. The machine is constantly guarded, and resides in a secret, subterranean bunker beneath Google’s Mountain View headquarters. As millions upon millions of search queries come in, Google employees feverishly shovel more and more coal into the firebox, and the engine roars and cranks out results.
Sooo it turns out that’s not how Google’s search engine works … at all. Like, not even remotely close.
For starters (and this may come as a shock) there is no super-cool, underground, steam-powered machine that generates search results. (I know, bummer). Ultimately, Google’s search engine could never really take a physical form -- it’s just too dynamic. Google engineers are constantly adding new parts to the engine and removing old parts.
How frequently does Google change its search algorithm? About 500 to 600 times per year (or around 40 to 50 times each month) according to our friends at Moz.
But it’s not just the algorithm that changes. Over the years, Google has changed all kinds of stuff, from how it displays search results to how it handles search privacy.
In most cases, search engine updates fly under the radar: they’re just small tweaks or fixes that nobody notices. But every once in a while, Google rolls out something earth-shattering, completely disrupting the way SEOs go about their business.
I’ve compiled a list of these SEO shakeups below, and have highlighted what impact they’ve had on how we think about SEO today. (Note: if you need a refresher on SEO best practices, be sure to check out our updated guide, Learning SEO From the Experts.)
Florida Leaves Businesses Furious
Florida: the update that started it all. (And by “it,” I mean our fascination with Google’s named algorithm updates.)
Rolled out in November of 2003, Florida cracked down hard on keyword-stuffing and other black hat SEO tactics. As a result, tons of sites saw their search rankings plummet, and online marketers everywhere let out a collective “WTF?”
Ultimately, Google’s goal here was to improve their algorithm by punishing sites and pages that were benefiting from illicit rank-boosting behaviors. But as Search Engine Watch was keen to point out back in 2003, it’s not like Google punished everybody: While some folks saw their rankings drop, others -- naturally -- saw their rankings rise to fill those now-empty slots.
But of course, bad news tends to travel more quickly than good news (especially on the web), which is why Florida was considered a major catastrophe amongst online marketers at the time.
The “Nofollow” Attribute Cleans Up Link Spam
While it didn’t cause an online uproar like Google's Florida update, the introduction of the “nofollow” attribute from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft in 2005 has had a lasting impact on SEO.
To be clear, “nofollow" wasn’t an algorithm update: It was a new type of command that allowed (and still allows) marketers and web masters to flag hyperlinks so search engines know not to pass along SEO authority or anchor text.
Whereas linking to a page usually counts as a “vote” for that page, tagging a link with the “nofollow” attribute tells the search engines, “Nah, ignore this one. Don’t give it a vote.”
From an HTML perspective, a “nofollow” link looks like this:
<a href="http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/google-algorithm-visual-history-infographic" rel="nofollow”>Google Algorithm Changes</a>
The main goal of introducing “nofollow” was to crack down on link spam, specifically in the comments sections of blogs. While spammers used to be able to earn SEO points by dropping a ton of links in the comments section of a third-party site, that third-party site can now set up nofollows, blocking would-be spammers from transferring authority and anchor text.
Nowadays, marketers often use nofollows when linking back to their content from external sources. (This helps let the search engines know, “Hey, I’m just linking to some helpful content -- no spammy link-building going on here!”)
Universal Search Means Major Changes for Google Search Results
In 2007, Google said goodbye to its standard, 10-listing search engine results page (SERP), and said hello to an integrated system that incorporates results from Google News, Images, and other verticals.
While this wasn’t a true algorithm update, it did shake up the way marketers were thinking about SEO at the time.
Instead of being focused solely on optimizing web pages, marketers had to start spending more time thinking about how they could optimize images, videos, local listings, and other content that didn’t used to appear on Google’s main search page.
Google Dubs Big Brand-Boosting Update Vince a “Minor Change,” But Many Marketers Disagree
Should big brands get preferential treatment in Google’s search rankings? That question was central to a debate that began raging in early 2009, when SEO specialists started reporting a major update (Vince) that seemed to favor big brands.
For example, after the Vince update was rolled out, Hallmark.com began ranking for the term “gifts,” Radioshack.com began ranking for the term “electronics,” and the list goes on (source: SEOBook).
Google’s Matt Cutts released a video to address concerns that big brands were suddenly getting special treatment. According to Cutts, Vince wasn’t a true update, but rather a “minor change.” And instead of boosting big brands to the tops of SERPs, Cutts argued that the change was implemented to give more value to the trustworthiness of pages when it came to generic queries.
Does anyone talk about the Vince update anymore? Not really. But some marketers argue that we should be, as Vince continues to shape how we think about the connection between brand-building and SEO.
Panda Gives Google Claws, Content Farms Get Mauled
Rolled out in 2011, Google’s infamous Panda update affected approximately 12% of queries and was specifically targeted at low-quality or “thin” sites, as well as sites with high ad-to-content ratios.
More specifically, article directories (a.k.a. “content farms”) -- including wisegeek.com, suite101.com, and ezinearticles.com -- bore the brunt of Panda’s attack, witnessing major drops in their search rankings.
While the release of Panda sparked outrage among some marketers, who viewed the update as a malicious attack on rankings, other marketers (especially the ones who had been playing by the rules and creating quality content all along) welcomed Panda with open arms.
It’s important to note that Panda hasn’t gone into hibernation: Google is still releasing new Panda updates all the time. To date, there have been more than 25, with the last one, Panda 4.0, happening in May of 2014.
Penguin Ruffles a Few Feathers With Its Crackdown on Webspam
While Panda was the talk of the town in 2011, 2012 saw the emergence of another now-infamous animal update: Penguin.
Penguin affected about 3% of search queries, with link schemes, keyword-stuffing, and other black hat tactics ending up in the crosshairs.
According to Google, this crackdown on “webspam” was designed to decrease search rankings for sites that were violating their quality guidelines. Gaming sites and porn sites ended up being amongst the biggest rankings losers as a result of Penguin.
Google's message to marketers for avoiding Penguin’s wrath? “...focus on creating high quality sites that create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods instead of engaging in aggressive webspam tactics."
Google Encrypts ALL Keyword Data
Keyword research used to be so freaking easy. You’d pull up Google’s keyword tool and BAM: there they were, all of the keywords and phrases that everyone had been Googling.
OK, well not everyone.
Back in 2011, Google started encrypting keyword data for folks who were logged into Google+, Chrome and other Google-operated portals in an effort to increase privacy. But as HubSpot and other organizations with an eye for SEO soon began to notice, the percent of searches that were affected by this keyword encryption soon began to grow.
Then, in 2013, Google dropped the hammer and announced that ALL keyword data would be encrypted. The only exception? Ad clicks. If you use Google Adwords, you can still glean some keyword insights using their Google AdWords Keyword Planner.
Google cited providing “extra protection” for searchers as the primary reason behind their updated keyword encryption policy. But many marketers argued that there were more nefarious forces at work. While some labeled it an attempt to block NSA spying activity, others couldn’t help but think that it was a play to get more folks to sign up for AdWords.
As Google (and Bing and Yahoo) continue to improve how their search engines operate, we'll undoubtedly see more and more of these "SEO shakeups." Want to help ensure you don't get dinged by the next update? Follow the best practices outlined in our updated guide, Learning SEO From the Experts.
Have any SEO shakeup stories you’d like to share. Head down to the comments section below!
Originally published Jul 21, 2014 8:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017