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Google Algorithm Updates And What They Mean For Your Content

Google algorithms tend to be updated multiple times a year, and these updates are instrumental in changing how professionals execute SEO.

Google has released at least eleven noticeable algorithm updates since 2011; 2020 was the year with the least so far.

Chart of the number of Google algorithms per year

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has been around for a while, and being skilled at understanding it offers employment to many people - more importantly, it is essential to track the changes to SEO.

Content marketing firms have to keep an eye on these changes. If you are part of one and notice a drastic dip in visitor traffic, it may be because of an unexplained Google algorithm update.

Here we have curated a list of nine landmark updates that have shaped the way we make and consume content.

The Updates That Affected Content Generation

1. Panda Update

This update was first released on 23rd February 2011.

What It Did
The panda update allotted each web page with a score derived from the quality of the content it had. This score became a factor used to rank web pages, which either rewarded them or penalized them on the search engine result pages (SERPs).

The Panda updates kept coming until Google decided to make it part of their core algorithm. Panda became a core ranking method on 11th January 2018 and was no longer a separate filter in the Google algorithm.

How It Affects Content
It was released to crack down on keyword stuffing, plagiarized content and duplication. Keyword stuffing was a heavily abused method in order to try to rank higher than your competition.

At times, it was accidental for website owners, but mostly, it was something that marketers took advantage of.

2. Penguin Update

This update was first released on 24th April 2012.

What It Did
This update was charged with looking for web pages that had a dodgy history of backlinks. The purpose was to down-rank the web pages that were paying for backlinks, participating in Private Blog Networks (PBNs) and link farms.

Links with heavily optimized anchor text, spam links, and web pages with irrelevant backlinks were all seen to violate Google's Webmaster guidelines.

How It Affects Content
Backlinks is a deciding factor used by Google to rank web pages - it increased the website's credibility. The more backlinks a web page had, the higher it would generally rank.

The Penguin update changed things and is now considered a big part of removing spam content (and websites) off the SERPs.

3. Hummingbird Update

This update was released on 26th September 2013.

What It Did
The Hummingbird update altered the way we had to think about websites and Google. It was no longer simply a search engine that would return results based on keywords; it would now consider user intent and offer the best web pages to answer searchers queries. Like a human would!

The conversational search possibilities of Hummingbird also laid the foundations of voice search and helped evolve local search.

This update was considered a milestone for Google and impacted nearly 90% of searches worldwide and on release.

How It Affects Content
With the release of the Hummingbird update, pages began ranking higher according to the quality of content.

As Google had changed the way pages ranked, content marketing changed too:

  • Marketers began making content that offered solutions to their audience's queries
  • Content became geared towards long-tail search queries
  • Google showed that it continues to prefer unique content and long-tail keywords

4. Mobile Update

This update was released on 21st April 2015.

What It Did
By 2015, it was known that more people were consuming information on their mobile phones as compared to other devices. Thus, Google had to make sure that web pages were optimized for our beloved, tiny, handheld screens.

This update, often known as "Mobile-geddon", introduced a new signal to rank web pages - through the degree of their mobile-friendliness.

Although Google said it only affected how searches were ranked on mobile devices, the sheer number of mobile users meant that marketers had to optimize their web pages for mobile viewing.

How It Affects Content
The mobile-friendly update compelled marketers and blogs to optimize their pages for mobile consumption. This meant that they also had to optimize their written content for mobile consumption.

Therefore, content had to be altered to grab the consumer's attention due to how fast it is to scroll through a mobile phone web page.

Google did announce this update two months before rolling it out so that website owners could prepare themselves.

5. Phantom Update

This update was released on 3rd May 2015.

What It Did
Known as the Phantom update because it came without an announcement or warning, it seemed to target duplicate and irrelevant content on over optimized websites.

This was part of Google's concerted effort towards de-ranking web pages which were optimized for traffic, and replicating solution based content, to seem informative.

How It Affects Content
The Phantom update caused some chaos in the content writing world.

Paul Edmondson, the CEO of HubPages, claimed to have suffered a 22% drop in traffic over a week, losing visitors from 68 of the top 100 pages on the website.

This happened because the Phantom update targeted mini-blogs with informational content that was easy to duplicate. Websites such as and Wikihow had also suffered a significant drop in traffic.

6. BERT Update

This update was released on 25th October 2019.

What It Did
Known by Google as "…one the biggest leaps forward in the history of search." BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) was merely a language model employed by Google to better interpret text and search queries.

This advanced language processing technology streamlined voice searches with text-based searches according to user data.

On 9th December 2019, Google announced that BERT would be rolled out worldwide, including most global mainstream languages.

How It Affects Content
The B in BERT stands for bidirectional; this allows BERT to understand textual context the way Google has never been able to before.

Google uses roughly 200 factors to help in ranking websites. This update resulted from years of effort by Google to relegate 'keywords' as one of the main ranking signals, to one that only supports ranking signals.

Since adopting BERT, Google has begun to reward well-written content by ranking it higher in contextual query results.

7. RankBrain

This update was released on 26th October 2015.

What It Did
RankBrain is a machine learning system which helps Google decipher the intent behind user queries. It assists by providing the most closely matched search results from those queries.

While RankBrian does incorporate a query processing aspect, there's also a ranking aspect to it. When it was launched, Google termed it as the third-most significant factor affecting rankings.

Presumably, the Rankbrain update can determine what a web page is about, evaluate search results and their relevancy, and educate itself to be better at it as time goes by.

Nevertheless, the general understanding is that RainBrain somewhat relies on traditional search engine optimization (SEO) factors such as on-page optimization, link building, etc., but also pays attention to other specific elements of a query.

It then determines the relevancy of indexed pages and arranges results accordingly in SERPs.

How It Affects Content
RankBrain affects content with keyword stuffing and zero relevancies to the user's queries. In addition to that, it also adversely affected those websites and blogs that have a poor user experience.  

8. Speed Update

This update was released on 9th July 2018.

What It Did
Google started updating its algorithm towards mobile user experience well before. But what makes Speed update so unique?

Well, Google confirmed officially for the first time, beginning with the mobile speed algorithm update, that web page speed has become the ranking factor in mobile search results.

Recognizing the users' need for fast dissemination of information, Google put this update into practice, making 'page speed' a ranking factor in mobile search results, as well as, desktop search results.      

How It Affects Content
The mobile speed algorithm update mostly affected websites with a predominantly slow mobile-version. To put it simply, sites with slow-loading mobile pages got hit the worst.

9. Fred Update

This update was released on 7-8th March 2017.

What It Did
The Fred algorithm update was named by Gary Illyes of Google, who jokingly proposed that every new update be titled 'Fred.'

Upon release, Google confirmed that the update Fred had taken place; however, they refused to elaborate on its details.

Nevertheless, this algorithm update is termed as one of the major algorithm updates, which targets and punishes websites that violate the Google webmaster guidelines.

It is believed that the Fred update also affected blogs and websites with low-quality content, published solely to increase turnover or generate additional revenue.  

How It Affects Content
This algorithm update affected blogs and websites with ad-centered and low-value content. It targeted sites that have thin, affiliate-centric low-quality content.  


Over the past nine years, there has been an apparent trend by Google's algorithm updates to be more inclined towards content relevancy as opposed to keyword optimization.

So, it's not about how you're saying it - it's about what you're saying.

Google's primary focus has been to develop and improve the end users experience (i.e. the searcher).

While these updates may seem like an inconvenience to businesses with a set content strategy, they are essential for the long-term betterment of Google's service.

Category: Marketing

About the author

Ian Haynes (Featured Writer)

Ian Haynes (Featured Writer)

Ian Haynes is a professional content writer, providing a clientele spread across the United States and Europe. He is a strong believer in content marketing, having witnessed how excellent content can allow your business to increase conversions.

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