Search Algorithms in 2020: How Google’s SEO Rules Have Changed

Over the years, Google’s PageRank algorithm has undergone a series of changes that have fundamentally altered how we search the internet. For search engine optimization (SEO) experts and digital marketers, Google updates rock our world because they change the rules we’ve got to play by if we want our websites to rank. 

Search algorithms are like living, organic entities. They change with time and adapt to external circumstances as they develop. Beginning with the infamous Panda update in 2011, PageRank has modernized in an effort to weed out black hat SEO tactics, copyright abusers, unsecured websites, and low-effort content. Even today, minor tweaks and updates to search algorithms are bringing new content to the fore while penalizing content that abuses the algorithm or tries to cheat its way to the top of search engine results pages (SERPs). 

Google’s search algorithm could change tomorrow, next week, or next month. There’s really no telling when the next core update will strike. And if you don’t think the next update will change the way you conduct SEO, then you’ve got another thing coming. Check out our guide to the past decade’s major Google updates to see for yourself how the algorithm has radically changed over the years. 

The Panda Update (2011) 

The first groundbreaking update of the “modern” era is Panda, which has first rolled out in 2011 and sought to eliminate the abundance of low-effort, spammy, and keyword-stuffed content that ranked at the top of search results. 

Panda mostly updated how Google treated on-page SEO elements, such as keywords, formatting, and other ranking factors that are determined by the text on the page. After this update, websites that existed solely for the purposes of promoting affiliate products were largely penalized and slipped in their SERP position. 

After Panda, SEOs and webmasters now have to work hard to produce quality content if they want to rank highly on SERPs. Keyword stuffing and other malicious attempts to manipulate search algorithms no longer go unpenalized thanks to the Panda update.

Although other updates have taken place before Panda, as depicted in the graphic below, Panda was the first of the modern SEO era. 

Source: Click Consult

Venice, Penguin, and Pirate (2012)

2012 was a busy year for Google Search with the rollout of the Venice, Penguin, and Pirate updates. The first of these updates, Venice, was responsible for ushering in “local SEO” in which the geographical location of one’s device changed the ranking position of the results they receive on a SERP.

The second update, Penguin, radically changed how backlinks were counted by PageRank. In the past, SEOs could purchase backlinks from private blog networks that passed “link juice” from their authoritative website to one’s own. However, after Penguin, only genuine unpaid links count positively toward one’s ranking position. 

In the wake of the Google Penguin update, SEOs have had to produce quality content that top authority websites or media platforms link to organically. To score do-follow outbound backlinks, many SEOs pitch quality content to publications and media networks. 

Pirate, the third update of 2012, changed PageRank such that copyright takedown requests made under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) counted negatively toward one’s ranking position. 

Hummingbird (2013)

Hummingbird took a close look at the specific language used in a website’s content and scrutinized the overuse of keywords in favor of synonyms. This update sought to make websites more readable, scannable, and flow in natural language as opposed to dense, repetitive, and keyword-stuffed text. 

Pigeon and HTTPS (2014)

In 2014, the Pigeon update focused on expanding local SEO that was first introduced two years prior. This update infused data from Google Maps to inform PageRank of a user’s geographical location and curated content accordingly. 

Later in the year, an update was rolled out that focused on web security and establishing a secure connection backed by the latest security standards. This update changed PageRank such that security certificates and HTTPS connections were considered positive ranking factors for one’s SEO performance.

RankBrain and Mobile (2015)

Perhaps the most radical changes to Google’s search algorithm occurred in 2015 when RankBrain unveiled and mobile-first indexing was first rolled out for some websites. RankBrain introduced machine learning to Google’s algorithm to determine the best results for users based on their previous search history and the frequency of words with similar meanings used on the page. 

As more Google search users started using the platform with their mobile devices, Google started dramatically boosting websites that had a mobile-friendly interface and were optimized for mobile and tablet devices. 

Possum and Medic (2016, 2018)

These two small updates, Possum and Medic, made slight impacts on Google’s search algorithm in 2016 and 2018, respectively. In the former case, Google improved local SEO and local search functionalities so make it easier for Google My Business pages to rank highly for users near them. Medic, on the other hand, penalized medical websites and those in the healthcare sector if they provided unreliable or unsubstantiated information. 

BERT and May Update (2019, 2020)

The introduction of bidirectional encoder representations from transformers (or, well, BERT for short) in 2019 introduced how “intent” is prioritized by PageRank. With the advent of BERT, neural networks discover the entire context of every word used in a page of web content to find out the intent of every search query and match the best content with the user once the intention of the search is found. 

Last, Google’s May 2020 core update created widespread volatility in search rankings by changing how local content is organized and favored authoritative sites with high web traffic over less-frequently visited websites. 

Google At A Glance

Search algorithms aren’t set in stone. There’s no telling when the next major core update will occur and, when it arrives, there’s no guarantee that your top-performing websites will still rank. 

Your best line of defense against a Google update is to hire professional SEOs to regularly perform SEO audits on your website and reinforce your web properties with highly-optimized content that beats out your competitors’. Hiring SEOs and digital marketing professionals to optimize your website will help ensure your website stays competitive in the years to come. 

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