A decade in SEO: How Google algorithm updates changed the game

Adam Smith
By Adam SmithSEO & Content Executive
8 minutes to read

The way we consume media has changed massively over the last decade.

At the start of 2010, smartphones were still in their infancy, YouTube’s unique selling point was its cat videos, and cramming keywords into the first line of online news articles could send you skyrocketing to the top of the rankings.

Now, smartphones are almost a necessity, YouTube is the third most-watched channel in the UK behind BBC 1 and ITV, and there’s no longer a simple fix to send you to the top of Google.

Google’s algorithm is more sophisticated than ever before and, while the power of Google’s algorithm is often criticised, the search behemoth’s changes have been made for the greater good of content.

What have been the key ranking changes?

Google’s search algorithm takes into account a range of factors to determine where a website will rank in the search results. No one knows the specific number, but experts have estimated that there are around 200.

Nevertheless, over the last decade, four developments have been key: Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird, and E-A-T.

Panda clears out the clutter: 2011

Almost nine years ago to the day on February 24th 2011, the Panda update was rolled out and aimed to prevent low-quality, thin content from ranking high in the results pages. The change was seismic in the marketing industry, with thousands of sites seeing their rankings and traffic drop.

Before Panda, content farms (companies that produced large amounts of low-quality, keyword-heavy content) ranked highly. Ask anyone who worked in SEO before 2011 and they will have numerous horror stories about being advised to cram irrelevant keywords into page copy.

This approach produced a poor user experience and the first page of results didn’t always show the most trustworthy and authoritative sites. By focusing on quality, Panda forced marketers to try harder and users began seeing content that answered their questions.

Before Panda,  poor content was regularly rewarded by Google and the industry dealt with a black-hat stigma for years as a result. Panda saw Google take content seriously for the first time. This opened the door for SEO to become the nuanced, strategic marketing field it is today.

Penguin addresses link schemes: 2012

After Panda addressed keyword cramming, Google’s next natural step was to look at manipulative link schemes. A link scheme is when companies fill high-authority forums and websites with links to their sites. It didn’t matter if the business’ products or services were relevant, Google would often read the link as a sign that it was an authority on the subject.

Penguin caused sites adopting these practices to drop in the search results. This helped make results pages more relevant to keyword queries and pushed better quality sites higher up the rankings.

The update also continued the work of Panda and lowered the rankings of sites that used keywords unnaturally. Even if the terms were relevant to the subject, repetition was another way to exploit the algorithm.

As a result of these changes, marketers had to focus on producing content that met the needs of users, rather than Google’s algorithm.

Hummingbird prioritises search intent: 2013

After Penguin looked keywords in copy, Hummingbird took things a step further by placing a greater emphasis on context and meaning.

The change aimed to make search interactions more human. Conversational terms became more important and page content was crucial. Part of the reason for this change was the increase in smartphone users. When using a phone, people didn’t have the time to search through a full site, so instead began using more question-based, conversational terms.

This meant that the answers users wanted were often situated deeper in site hierarchies, so Hummingbird considered the authority of individual pages rather than full domains. As a result, high-quality informational pages saw a bump in rankings, while thin and keyword-stuffed content continued to fall down the results pages.

Introduction of E-A-T and YMYL: 2015

Rather than having one set of rules for all sites, Google knew in that different sectors had to be treated differently and announced new advice in their Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.

The document officially introduced E-A-T (Expertise, Authority, Trustworthiness) to the search landscape. These guidelines were put in place to encourage marketers to write better content and protect searchers from low-quality content that could be harmful.

E-A-T was an admission that Google’s algorithm had a responsibility to provide trustworthy information. Its introduction saw low-quality pages drop in the rankings, while authoritative pieces received a lift.

While E-A-T applies to all pages, it is particularly important for sites related to finances, safety, health or happiness. In the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines,  Google referred to these as Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) sites.

After the introduction of Penguin and Hummingbird, E-A-T was common-sense advice to most SEO experts who were already following similar guidelines. However, the official introduction of E-A-T and YMYL was when Google started taking moral responsibility for its algorithm, prioritising users and preventing manipulation.

Other updates

Since the introduction of E-A-T, Google has continued to roll out updates.

Here are some of the key developments that have impacted SEO.

Pigeon: 2014

  • This update connected Google’s local and traditional algorithm, meaning traditional organic techniques could now impact local rankings. This highlighted the importance of link-building and high-quality content.
  • Seven-pack local results were replaced by a pack of three listings, including links to Google Maps directions.
  • Reviews and directory citations became more important.

Mobile-friendly update: 2015

  • Mobile-friendliness became a ranking signal, meaning sites without a mobile-friendly site saw their rankings suffer.

RankBrain:2015

  • The first introduction of AI into Google’s algorithm, RankBrain looked at the meaning of words and enabled Google to produce relevant results even when the search terms were unclear.
  • This meant Google could answer questions more clearly:

Fred: 2017

  • This update was never officially confirmed by Google but appeared to impact sites that had heavy advertising and thin content.
  • For example, pages with pop-ups that blocked content saw a drop in rankings.

Site Diversity update: 2019

  • A common issue for marketers is that the most authoritative brands tend to dominate the top-ranking positions for keywords. This update aimed to address this by providing a more diverse set of results from different domains.

BERT: 2019

  • BERT is an evolution of the RankBrain update, introducing new ways for Google to understand user queries with multiple meanings.
  • Google announced the update in a blog post, describing it as “one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of search”.

An example of how BERT operates is shown below. Before BERT, Google could not understand how the word “stand” factored into the user’s intent, but BERT understands the true meaning of the word and delivers more relevant results.

 

SEO in 2020: What does the future hold?


It’s been a long journey since Panda, but Google’s many updates have had a mostly positive impact on online content.

Rather than allowing marketers to get away with black-hat techniques, Google has become more and more sophisticated over the last decade, encouraging marketers to adopt detailed strategies and provide a better user experience.

It’s only recently that Google has started taking its social responsibilities more seriously. As technology has evolved and fake news and deep fakes have become more common, Google must continuously evolve to provide the best results possible.

Governments are also more proactive than ever before when it comes to monitoring the tech industry. The European Union has fined Google $4 billion, and the search engine is under great scrutiny during elections.

Search has changed a lot over the last decade but, given its nature, it’s perhaps the only certainty in the world of SEO. 

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More about Adam Smith

Adam works as a SEO and Content Executive for Enjoy Digital. He loves creating engaging content that delivers coverage for clients.