Google SEO news: Google algorithm updates

Google has a long history of famous algorithm updates, search index changes, and refreshes. Below is a history of the major Google search algorithm updates.

How many times does Google update its search algorithms?

Google seems to be changing more often than it stays the same. Most experts estimate that Google changes its search algorithm around 500 to 600 times each year. That’s somewhere between once and twice each day.

While most of these changes don’t significantly change the SEO landscape, some updates are significant and may change the way we go about writing for SEO.

How do I keep up with Google algorithm changes?

There are several ways to keep up with Google’s constant changes. One way is to regularly check your site’s web traffic in your analytics platform and search rankings for your target keywords. You can also go straight to Google’s site, where they outline their named updates as they roll them out.

Google Algorithm Updates

Here are some of the most critical recent updates from Google that you need to know about.

The so-called “link spam update” rolled out on July 26, 2021. It is a more comprehensive attempt by Google to nullify spammy links across the web and multiple languages.

Google’s language here, very specifically, is “nullify.” Due to this update, websites with spammy links will see (or have likely already seen) a drop in their rankings. 

Google’s advice to websites remains consistent: with an emphasis on high-quality content and user-oriented web services, rather than link manipulation, keyword stuffing, or otherwise black hat SEO, websites will see themselves rise in the rankings. 

Google July 2021 core update

Over June and July 2021, Google launched two core updates back-to-back. Before this, the last core update was in December of 2020.

As is typical of the core updates, the July 2021 core update was a comprehensive update that changed the whole algorithm slightly, but not any single function specifically. 

The July 2021 core update rolled out over twelve days, from July 1st to the 12th. Websites that saw their rankings change during that time may attribute this change to the new core update. 

If your rankings were negatively impacted, you could always review our SEO best practices.

Google June 2021 core update

The June 2021 core update was the first of two back-to-back monthly updates that Google rolled out midway through 2021. Google decided to release two separate updates because some of the core updates they planned to roll out weren’t ready in June 2021. 

Like other Google core updates, the June 2021 update was comprehensive and wide-reaching. It’s likely many sites felt the impact of this update in the form of an impacted SEO ranking.

If your site was impacted by this update, we recommend reviewing Google’s best practices advice to improve your ranking.

Google Page Experience Update (May 2021)

The Google Page Experience Update is revolutionary in the history of Google updates as Google gave us the information about the update LONG in advance. After May of 2021, Google began to officially count user experience as a metric by which they rank websites.

How does Google determine user experience on your site? Several factors are included under the umbrella of “Core Web Vitals.” Factors that the Google algorithm will consider when judging how user-friendly a web page include… 

  • load time
  • whether or not annoying ads might intrude with the user’s mission
  • if content moves around on the page as the site is loading.

Page experience consists of several existing Google updates that users will likely be familiar with, including the mobile-friendly update (detailed below) and the HTTPS Ranking boost, among others.

Google Passage Ranking (February 2021)

As of February 2021, the Google passage ranking update went live. This was a potentially huge update, with Google estimating it could impact a site’s rating by up to seven percent.

The google passage ranking is the result of what Google first called “passage indexing.” In passage indexing, Google can take information buried in the body of web passages and proffer it up in response to a short query. 

This update makes specific queries a lot more accurate on the site and reduces time spent searching for very specific information for Google users.

Although Google first called this “passage indexing,” it is more accurate to describe this passage as a passage ranking update, which is the name Google officially gave the update. Read more about the semantics and other Google indexing info here.

December 2020 Core Update

The 2020 Core Update was the last major update of 2020 and the first major update since May of that year. 

Like all of Google’s core updates, the December 2020 core update was wide-reaching, impacting websites and SEO across all languages.

It’s important to track Google’s updates, as understanding a dip in your rankings can be as simple as seeing that Google has just rolled out an update. It may not be something you need to fix, however. Rankings can rebound after taking a hit from a core update, sometimes without a new core update.

Google BERT Expands (October 2020)

While this update didn’t directly impact SEO, it remains an important moment in the history of Google and its search algorithm. In October of 2020, Google announced to the public that BERT now processed nearly all the search results in English on the site at that time.

This was a big jump, as when BERT was first announced in October of the year prior, the system only powered ten percent of all search results on the site.

BERT now powering almost all English language search results and search results in nearly 70 other languages is a big jump for machine learning and Google’s ever-improving accuracy.

BERT, short for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, can process language more naturally, understanding better how humans encode information in a passage. Read our deep dive on BERT here.

May 2020 Core Update

Google rolled out its relatively strong May 2020 broad core algorithm update over a few weeks in early May of 2020. 

This update was broad and comprehensive. Like other core updates, it was not targeted at any specific aspect of the algorithm.

January 2020 Core Update

A relatively weak core update, the January 2020 Core Update wasn’t felt very strongly by SEO experts. It was followed up just four months later by the much more robust May 2020 core update.

Google BERT Natural Language Processing Update

In late October of 2019, Google launched a major update that would come to have a massive impact on search queries throughout 2019, 2020, 2021, and continues to impact SEO today.

On this day, Google released BERT, which at the time only covered 1 in 10 searches. BERT was a significant change to how Google interacted with web pages, using a neural network to read webpages and learn as humans do.

In practical application, BERT can better understand natural language on web pages and relate this information to search queries. 

September 2019 Core Update

The September 2019 Core Update was another broad core algorithm update of the kind that Google rolls out every few months. It was the first major core update since the June 2019 update and was followed up by the January 2020 update at the start of the following year.

June 2019 Core Update

June pre-announced the June 2019 update, which at the time was an unusual practice. The June 2019 core update covered broad aspects of Google’s algorithm and was intended to improve user experience in multiple areas. It was followed up by the September 2019 core update and succeeded the March 2019 core update.

March 2019 Core Update

The March 2019 Core Update was somewhat confusing, briefly disrupting the usual equilibrium of the SEO world. The March 2019 Core Update was released without a name, giving users all across Twitter to speculate about the update and why it wasn’t named.

Google, catching wind of the confusion, quickly jumped on social media to right the wrong. On Twitter, they wrote, “Our name of this update is March 2019 Core Update.” Not loquacious, but certainly to the point.

August 2018 Core Update aka Medic Update

The August 2018 core update, alias Medic Update, was a core update that shook up the SEO world. In this update, Google made major fixes to their algorithm that rewarded previously under-rewarded pages on the web.

In practice, this meant that many webmasters saw their rankings rise and fall.

Unfortunately, Google wrote that there was “no fix” to any observed drop in the rankings. The ranking drops were simply due to other under-rewarded sites finally making gains. 

Google’s advice to webmasters with a ranking drop? Keep making excellent content, and you may very well see your site rise back in the rankings.

April 2018 Core Update

In April 2018, Google launched another core update, something it generally does two, three, or four times per year.

The April 2018 core update, like other updates, was aimed at improving the end-user experience by delivering the most relevant content for search queries.

Google didn’t announce this update and only came out with its announcement after speculation that there may have been a core update. 

March 2018 Core Update

The March 2018 Core Update, quickly followed by 2018’s April Core Update, was a broad and far-reaching core update meant to improve Google’s query results. 

The March 2018 Core Update had a significant impact on some sites, and webmasters who witnessed a drop in rankings were advised to continue to develop excellent content and not to try to game the system. As always, only through excellent content are durable ratings attained.

January 2018 Core Update

The January 2018 Update was a comprehensive core update aimed at all aspects of the site’s SERPs. It was followed by the March and April core updates of that year.

December 2017 Core Update

The December 2017 Core Update occurred right before the holidays of that year and had a wide-reaching impact on mobile SERPs. It also negatively affected sites that had no Schema.org integration. 

Typically Google tries to keep the volatility of search engine results pages calm before big holidays. However, in this case, they released a core update right before the start of the holiday season. This update dramatically impacted many categories, including Hobbies & Leisure, Science, and Auto & Vehicles.

Google Local August 2017 Hawk Update

The 2017 Update, nicknamed “the hawk,” swept on the scene and corrected the Possum update that had inadvertently unfairly impacted local rankings. 

The Possum Update of 2016, which we’ll get into a little more detail further down, was intended to improve SERP relevancy by eliminating redundant search results from the SERPs. To summarize, some local business owners were being eliminated by Google’s filters because their businesses were too close to other similar businesses that already ranked on Google’s SERPs.

The Hawk Update slightly corrected the Possum update, making local businesses that competed with others that already ranked on the SERPs more likely to be seen in a relevant search query.

Google Fred Update – unconfirmed March 2017 update

In March of 2017, Google seems to have released an update that members of the SEO community christened “Fred.” This was the result of a joke by Google CSH (Chief of Sunshine and Happiness) Gary Illyes, who suggested that all future Google updates be called “Fred.”

The Google Fred Update seemed to be an update attacking link accuracy across the web. Many in the “black hat SEO” corner of the internet saw their rankings dip, in some cases significantly. 

Spammy links and practices like keyword stuffing are not the way to attain search engine results. Check out our SEO penalty reminders here.

Google Local September 2016 Possum Update

The Google Local September 2016 Possum Update was an update that affected local listings. In brief, the Possum Update was a change to the way Google’s filters work.

What are filters? Filters for local results on Google eliminate websites that seem to be redundant. For local businesses, this can mean, for example, that if you have two websites for your service, only one of them will appear for a given local search term.

The Possum update was intended to improve the user experience of Google, but it may have gone too far. Certain businesses that were nearby to other businesses that already ranked on Google’s SERPs saw their website drop off significantly.

The Google 2017 “Hawk Update slightly rectified the negative impacts of the Possum update.”

Google RankBrain Algorithm

In 2016, when Google dropped its RankBrain Algorithm on the world, the SEO community was agog. This was a major changeup in the way Google processed search results.

You can read more about RankBrain from our writeup here, but in a word, RankBrain is a machine-learning artificial intelligence system that helps Google process its search results. 

Google Mobile-Friendly Algorithm

Google’s Mobile-Friendly Algorithm update, released in May of 2016, boosted SERP rankings for mobile-friendly sites in mobile rankings.

In this update, Google continued its trend of rewarding mobile-friendly sites for mobile searches. As so many searches occur today on mobile devices, mobile optimization is extremely important for webmasters to keep up-to-date on.

This update wasn’t as big as mobilegeddon (detailed below), but it did have a substantial impact. Read more here.

September 2013 Google Hummingbird

“Hummingbird” is the name of the new search platform that Google is using as of September 2013; the name comes from being “precise and fast” and is designed to better focus on the meaning behind the words. Read our Google Hummingbird FAQ here.

Hummingbird is paying more attention to each word in a query, ensuring that the whole query — the whole sentence or conversation or meaning — is taken into account, rather than particular words. The goal is that pages matching the meaning do better, rather than pages matching just a few words.

Google Hummingbird is designed to apply the meaning technology to billions of pages from across the web, in addition to Knowledge Graph facts, which may bring back better results.

April 2015 Google Mobile-Friendly Update:

On April 21, 2015, Google released a significant new mobile-friendly ranking algorithm designed to boost mobile-friendly pages in Google’s mobile device search results.

It was a significant change and has taken on mythical proportions in the SEO community’s imagination. Here at Search Engine Land, we called it mobilegeddon, but sometimes it’s also referred to as mobilepocalyse, mopocalypse, or mobocalypse.

One of the best ways to prepare is to test that Google considers your web pages to be mobile-friendly by using its Mobile-Friendly Test tool. You can find more about Google’s algorithm, including ways to improve the mobile-friendliness of your pages here.

February 2011 Google Panda Update:

Google’s Panda Update is a search filter introduced in February 2011 meant to stop sites with poor quality content and duplicate content from working their way into Google’s top search results. Panda is updated from time to time. When this happens, sites previously hit may escape if they’ve made the right changes. Panda may also catch sites that escaped before. A refresh also means “false positives” might get released.

April 2012 Google Penguin Update:

Google launched the Penguin Update in April 2012 to better catch sites deemed to be spamming its search results, particularly those doing so by buying links or obtaining them through link networks designed primarily to boost Google rankings. 

When a new Penguin Update is released, sites that have taken action to remove bad links (such as through the Google disavow links tool or to remove spam) may regain rankings. New sites not previously caught might get trapped by Penguin. “False positives,” sites that were caught by mistake, may escape.

Google Penguin Update: Recovery Tips & Advice

If you find yourself impacted by an update and think that the algorithm got it wrong, there are pathways for you to correct the error. When Google makes logarithmic changes, they do so, not intending to make manual exceptions.

That said, there is a feedback form you can find on the Google site. Click the link above to read more about the feedback form specific to Penguin.

July 2014 Google Pigeon Update:

Launched on July 24, 2014, for U.S. English results, the “Pigeon Update” was a new algorithm to provide more useful, relevant, and accurate local search results that are tied more closely to traditional web search ranking signals. Google stated that this new algorithm improves their distance and location ranking parameters.

June 2013: Google Payday Update

Launched on June 11, 2013 – the “Payday Update” was a new algorithm targeted at cleaning up search results for traditionally “spammy queries” such as payday loan, pornographic, and other heavily spammed queries. 

August 2012: Google Pirate Update

Google’s Pirate Update is a filter introduced in August 2012 designed to prevent sites with many copyright infringement reports, as filed through Google’s DMCA system, from ranking well in Google’s listings. 

The filter is periodically updated. When this happens, sites previously impacted may escape if they’ve made the right improvements. The filter may also catch new sites that escaped being caught before, plus it may release “false positives” that were detected.

September 2012: Google EMD (Exact Match Domain) Update

The EMD Update — for “Exact Match Domain” — is a filter Google launched in September 2012 to prevent poor quality sites from ranking well simply because they had words that match search terms in their domain names. 

When a fresh EMD Update happens, sites that have improved their content may regain good rankings. New sites with poor content — or those previously missed by EMD — may get caught. In addition, “false positives” may get released.

January 2012: Google Top Heavy Update

Top Heavy was launched in January 2012 by Google as a means to prevent sites that were “top-heavy” with ads from ranking well in its listings. Top Heavy is periodically updated. When a fresh Top Heavy Update happens, sites that have removed excessive ads may regain lost rankings. New sites deemed too “top-heavy” may get caught.