How Have Google’s Updates Changed Its Algorithm?

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In late 2010, the New York Times ran an article on the now infamous website and its sinister webmaster-in-chief Vitaly Borker. Twisting every tenet of advertising and customer relations on its head, Borker was able to parlay a history of shoddy service and personal threats to his customers into the number one spot on Google’s SERP. When users queried “eyeglasses,” “new glasses” and similar keywords, Borker’s site was usually the first result they came to. It was only after they encountered his downright disturbing business practices that customers investigated the website and discovered the pages of vitriol heaped on the man and his company.

Borker, however, was unrepentant. He was fully aware that he was the most hated man in eye care and he did everything he could to enhance that perception. The sheer volume of dissatisfied reviews, coupled with the many links back to his site, had fooled Google’s algorithm into rewarding Borker’s bad behavior. The crawlers for “eyeglasses” calculated all this attention to mean that DecorMyEyes was extremely popular and the site rocketed to the top of its SERP. When the New York Times brought this to light, Google was not amused.

Wishing to cut this poor SEO practice off at the head, Amit Singhai, a Google Fellow at the time and now the Senior Vice President of Search, wrote on his blog that “being bad to your customers is bad for business.” For a company whose motto remains, “Don’t be evil,” this flaw in their search equation was a very public embarrassment.

While the New York Times did an excellent bit of journalism in exposing this flaw, Google received a great deal of shaming that was without merit. What users often forget is that, despite its apparent omniscience, the Google algorithm is a tool just like any other. A tool can be used for its intended purpose or it can be abused, but it cannot break from the confines of its own parameters. Over the years PageRank has been refined and shaped, each time to deal with new flaws or concerns that have arisen. This has been Google’s defining characteristic, its ability to evolve. The flaw that allowed DecorMyEyes to rise to the top of SERPs has since been eliminated.

Below is a list of prominent Google updates and summaries of how they have revised the Google algorithm.

2003 – Boston, Cassandra, Dominic, Esmeralda, Fritz
This series of updates, named in the fashion of hurricanes, generally updated the algorithm to deliver improved, fresher search results. This was during a very brief period when Google intended to update its algorithm on a monthly basis.

Example: Bob, of Bob’s Beautiful Bouquets, has heard that the best way to reach the top of Google’s SERP is to have as many flower-related keywords as possible and as many backlinks to his site as he can fit on his pages. But Bob already has an example of each of the flowers he sells in his gallery. After taking a tip (and some candy) from a mysterious stranger, Bob hides flower-related keywords throughout his website and includes several links to the stranger’s own site, the stranger in turn creating multiple backlinks to Bob’s Beautiful Bouquets. For several months this goes great for Bob, until April 2003. The Cassandra update rips through his website, counting each hidden keyword and link as a major strike against him. Trying desperately to rebuild, Bob is then hit again in May. Dominic’s Google bots, “Freshbot” and “Deepcrawler,” scour the web for questionable backlinks. The mysterious stranger’s help is suddenly a poison, and all of those redundant links melt Bob’s search advantage to nothing.

2003 – Florida
This update was infamous for downranking a number of small businesses and is responsible for a good deal of lingering anxiety over Google updates ever since. Florida was actually a revision that targeted unethical SEO and backlinking tactics as well as spam sites. Though a punishment for the black hats, many naive SEOs were penalized, a good reminder to stick to the most professional and appropriate organic marketing strategies.

Example: Bob learned his lesson. He removed all the invisible links and keywords on his site and was looking forward to doing SEO the right way. Following the example of other businesses in his area, he made sure all of his keywords were front and center where everyone could see them. He filled his URLs and page titles with keywords and made sure every outbound and inbound link on his site had plenty of keywords and phrases. He also made sure to only link to similar businesses and sites as his own. Then November rolled around. With its massive ad database, Google was now able to study keywords and determine which were likely to be overused by spammers. Bob’s overoptimization of keywords in his pages and links raised the algorithm’s suspicions and once more he was plunged to the bottom of the SERP. Though his affiliate links were legitimate, the Florida update no longer assigned them as much weight. Google’s Hilltop algorithm, which assigns higher importance to documents written by experts and authorities, also took Bob’s Beautiful Bouquets to task, prioritizing other sites over him. Though Bob did see his site rise a bit after the initial downranking, he was nowhere near where he’d once been.

2005 – Bourbon
Bourbon followed the the anti-spam cleanups of Austin and Allegra (which cracked down on deceptive page tactics like invisible text, meta-tag stuffing and suspicious links) and the technical improvements of Brandy (an index expansion, higher relevance given to anchor text and an improvement to ranking synonyms in keyword analysis). Matt Cutts revealed that the update made “3.5 changes in search quality,” but little more than that. After the dust settled, it seems that Bourbon targeted duplicate content and how non-canonical (non-www) URLs were treated, as well as content scrapers and link wheels.

Example: Bob took his website back to basics and pared down his keyword links and phrases to more reasonable levels (“Bob’s Cheap Flowers Geranium Flowers and Local Flower Shop” was now “Fresh Geraniums from Bob’s Bouquets”). However, Bob was just starting to implement content marketing, having heard that blogs and articles could bring new visitors to his site. And though Bob was not a writer, he was a great appreciator of the written word. Happily, he found blogs and articles that he liked online and copied parts of them or pasted them whole onto his site. Sometimes he linked back to the original article, but not always. He didn’t always have time. When Bourbon pored over his website, it choked on his duplicate content. Not only did it discover that several of his remaining affiliate links were part of a suspicious “link neighborhood,” it also deemed Bob a content scraper. Penalized for spamming, Bob was flung even further down the Google SERP.

2005-2006 – Big Daddy
An update with twofold purpose. On the spam side, Big Daddy penalized link manipulators, link buyers and link sellers. On the technical side, it upgraded how the algorithm crawled and indexed sites.

Example: By this point, the frazzled Bob was only linking to sites that were 100% legitimate and contained similar content for similar customers to his own. He saw little change to his own website after Big Daddy. If he’d been writing original blogs or articles for his customers, and hadn’t been downgraded so often, the new index may have treated him more favorably.

2008 – Buffy
Named for the teenage vampire slayer? Possibly. A groundbreaking Google update? Inconclusive. This update encompasses a number of small changes that were made to the algorithm.

Example: Bob, a much savvier SEO than five years ago, was terrified of Buffy. But he, as well as most of the internet, remains baffled as to her significance.

2009 – Vince
Depending on who you talk to, this update either favors recognized brands or simply adjusts the weight of “trusted” sites. The result seems to give bigger businesses an edge in the SERPs, but Matt Cutts deemed this a “minor” update overall.

Example: It had been a long road, but Bob was finally clawing his way back to the top of Google’s SERP for local flower shops. True, “Conglomo’s Mondo Flowers” was a publicly traded company with franchises throughout his state, but he’d always prided himself and his employees on giving customers a personalized experience they couldn’t get at the big box stores. Bob may have been a terrible online marketer but he was still a decent human being. Thus, he hoped the good will his customers bore him would translate into decent search rankings. After Vince, Bob was dismayed to see that without any additional SEO, Conglomo’s was now high above him on the SERP.

2010 – Caffeine
A massive jolt to Google’s entire indexing system, Caffeine would supposedly deliver 50% “fresher” results than its previous index. This update can be thought of as the first part of a two-part infrastructure shift. While 2010‘s Caffeine accelerated Google’s ability to crawl pages, 2013’s Hummingbird improves its ability to sort through those individual pages.

Example: Bob’s dismay lead to an almost comical desire for revenge. He returned once more to the mysterious stranger seeking the SEO answers. The stranger sold him a loathsome creature known as a copywriter, one Harold A. Hack. Harry proceeded to write pages and pages of content for Bob, daily churning out keyword strewn blogs on anything even remotely related to flowers and shops. When Caffeine’s revamped algorithm swept the web, Bob’s frequently updated website actually leapt several ranks higher. However, though Bob’s content was indeed “fresher,” his reign at the top of the SERP would be short-lived…

2011 – Panda/Farmer
As its name suggests, this update targeted content farms, penalizing low quality content sites and sites with duplicated content. (Duplicated content can actually be an issue for legitimate sites, and not just spammers. If significant copy is repeated on multiple pages of a website – think mission statements or company history – it can set off red flags that result in the site being demoted or worse). According to Google, this update affected up to 12% of overall search results.

Example: The mysterious stranger had done it again! Harry was a terrible writer, unable to relate even the most mundane trending topics into his daily blogs, plagiarizing his peers and filling Bob’s website with nothing but brief, barely legible foofaraw. Though it included several of the keywords Bob was hoping to score for, the content on his site was not relevant to his business. The Panda and Farmer updates could see that Bob’s Beautiful Bouquets was not a trusted resource for its visitors, in fact little better than spam. The hundreds of pages Mr. Hack had added hung around Bob’s neck like a lead albatross and, once more, Bob’s website plunged into the depths of web obscurity.

2012 – Penguin
This update was termed an “over-optimization penalty.” Questionable SEO tactics were penalized and additional keyword stuffing and spam factors were adjusted.

Example: Because Bob’s copywriter had been a malnourished creature, sustained mainly on a diet of ramen noodles and gummy bears, Bob had entrusted Harry with various SEO duties across his website. While he was busily rewriting Harry’s blogs, Bob completely forgot to attend to his page titles and meta tags. Thankfully, after Florida and Bourbon, he was much more knowledgable about what links and titles Google would consider problematic. Though the Penguin update did drop him in the page rankings, he was able to fix enough pages to mitigate the blow. The last two years had taught him much in terms of what web users wanted to see. He also noticed that his pageviews were much higher for articles that he’d rewritten about his personal experiences working in the flower shop.

2013 – Hummingbird
The most recent update and considered the most substantial adjustment to the algorithm since Caffeine. Whereas previous updates were adjustments to the classic Google algorithm, Hummingbird is almost a complete overhaul. It is intended to improve Google’s conversational search abilities by better incorporating “sentiment analysis.” This means queries as a whole will be taken into account when generating search results.</>

Example: Bob guest blogged for several SEO websites on his experiences with Google updates. Though he still did not consider himself a literary fellow, he was able to relate the ups and downs of his web marketing in a personal way that readers responded to. His byline and personal profile directed new visitors to his website. In addition, Bob established himself on social media so that he could stay in contact with his customers and offer them great deals on flowers. Bob enlisted several guest bloggers from local nurseries that brought their own audiences to his website, in turn blogging for them about his business practices and flower preferences. This organic web of positive feedback gradually solidified into a robust page ranking for Bob’s Beautiful Bouquets, and Hummingbird rewarded him for it. He had become a trusted resource on the web. But Bob did not allow himself to become complacent. He avoided the mysterious stranger like the plague and enlisted the services of a professional SEO firm. It was true that Bob was a much savvier webmaster than he’d been ten years ago, but he also knew that Google would not stop updating just because he’d stopped spamming. There were other spammers out there and many refinements Google still intended for its algorithm. Bob’s SEO firm had one essential job: staying abreast of updates and ensuring that Bob’s Beautiful Bouquets followed the internet’s evolving best practices. The victory was tentative, but Bob savored it. Success had never smelled so sweet.

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