A History of Google’s Core Algorithm Updates

Erik Helm
February 1, 2021

These days, it can be hard to keep up with the seemingly endless Google’s Algorithm updates. It’s as if they’ve started doing their best Oprah impression: “You get an update! You get an update!” 

In fact, as it stands, Google releases an average of nine algorithm updates per day. For comparison, Google only released between 350-400 “changes” in 2009, a little more than one every day. 

Most of these updates don’t get formally announced, making it difficult for SEOs to keep up. Instead, most are rolled out unknowingly to us without any fanfare, forcing the industry into a constant chase for the top rankings as things randomly change.

However, there are major Google algorithm updates that warrant an announcement. These are known as Core Algorithm Updates.

While most changes come and go into the ether without a blip on the radar, the Core Algorithm Updates were sizable and impactful enough to mark a notable change in search.

Let’s walk through each of Google’s Core Algorithm Updates in order of release to better understand the evolution of search.


Google’s Core Algorithm Update History 


1. Panda – February 2011

It’s hard to believe, but we are now 10 years separated from the first major Google Core Algorithm update

What now looks like child’s play when compared to the complex updates we see today, the Panda update was a big step towards eliminating keyword stuffing. Plus, it addressed issues with thin and duplicate content on sites

This major algorithm update also marked the first instance of Google internally assigning “quality scores” to pages to use as a ranking factor.


2. Penguin – April 2012

Continuing with the black-and-white flightless animal theme, the second major Google algorithm update came in April of 2012, and was named Penguin.

The Penguin update introduced off-page SEO as an important ranking factor. Instead of focusing on on-page elements like content (as seen in the Panda release), the Penguin update put links under a microscope, and determined those that were spammy and irrelevant. With Penguin, gone are the days of buying links and low-effort link building.


3. Hummingbird – August 2013

In 2013, the Google Core Algorithm updates took flight with Hummingbird. 

While it doesn’t match the power of today’s natural language processing, the Hummingbird update is an early instance of Google moving past literal interpretation of queries and instead focusing on user intent. 

As a result, the exact keyword doesn’t need to appear in the ranking page to be deemed an adequate result for the query, meaning today we can search for “pizza” and get the closest Papa John’s rather than the 2005 film Pizza starring Ethan Randall and Kylie Sparks.


4. Mobile – April 2015

2014 was a quiet year for releases (presumably because Google was trying to think of another animal to call their newest update). But the major algorithm update silence was broken in 2015 with the introduction of Mobile

With smartphones now American as apple pie, the Mobile update places a higher priority on rewarding pages that have evolved with the times. Now, not having a mobile version of your site or having a poor UX for mobile users officially becomes a penalty for your site.


5. Rankbrain – October 2015

Rankbrain is essentially a machine learning system developed by Google to process search results and sort through webpages. 

Although Rankbrain isn’t necessarily a core algorithm update on its own, this expansion on the Hummingbird Update turned heads when Google confirmed that it was the third-most important ranking factor for web pages. 

While we don’t know for sure what the first two are, or where exactly on the list of ranking factors Rankbrain falls today, it’s a sign that searcher intent is here to stay. 

The specifics of how Rankbrain works weren’t released, but there’s plenty of reason to believe that this update also starts to personalize SERPs based on personal search history.


 6. Medic – May 2018

Perhaps the most aptly named core algorithm update, Medic was a core algorithm update that mainly impacted medical websites. This is in part to emphasize the importance of quality “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) pages and further push Google’s E-A-T guidelines. 

With the introduction of Medic as a major algorithm update, Google has recognized that searches such as “What is this rash on my foot” carry a much larger potential to impact a life than “why are cat videos so dang cute”.

As a result, searches that could seriously impact your finances and/or your health place a higher value on pages that perform well under the EAT guidelines.


7. BERT – October 2019

By October 2019, Google’s AI was able to understand the quality and nuance of a page’s content rather than the simple presence of keywords. This birthed the major algorithm update known as BERT.

BERT was one of the hardest updates for SEOs to react to, mostly because of how simple the solution was: post very well-written, detailed, and accurate content. This, as many SEOs know, is a task that’s much easier said than done.

My colleague Stephanie wrote a fantastic post about this puppet-named update when it first launched, so check it out for the full story.


Is your site keeping up with all of Google’s algorithm updates–big and small? Contact the experts at Perfect Search, we’ll help you optimize your site every step of the way!

Erik Helm
Manager, Search Engine Optimization

Erik Helm is an Ohio native who once spent nine hours at the Louvre in Paris. His favorite drink is a Bourbon Old Fashion Sour and he’d love to geek out with you about all things concerning baseball statistics.

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