These Are the Most Important Google Algorithm Updates (That Still Matter Today)

Connor Lahey

Mar 30, 202117 min read
Google Algorithm Updates

Google updates its algorithm thousands of times every year. Most of these Google algorithm updates are minor and unnoticeable, but at least once a year, a significant update changes the way websites are ranked and displayed on the search engine results page (SERPs). 

We compiled the most up-to-date list of all of the Google algorithm updates that either significantly changed search at the time or are still important to search today. Our guide covers everything you need to know about Google algorithm updates.

We’ll go over what a core update is, how to tell if you have been affected by an algorithm update, how to prepare for future updates, and what the most important algorithm updates have been over the last two decades.

What Is A Google Algorithm Update?

A Google algorithm update is a change in the way that Google ranks websites in search results. These changes can be small and go unnoticed, or they can be major and impact your rankings overnight. But why does Google need to update its algorithm at all?

Why Does Google Update Its Algorithm?

Since 1998, Google has become the most used search engine globally, partly because of the accuracy and features of its search results.

These search results are chosen by factors in Google’s search algorithm, a complex set of computer programs used to understand what a searcher is looking for and therefore provide the right results to answer their search. 

To provide the best and most accurate results for searchers, Google needs to update and improve its algorithm regularly. It does this in what the industry calls Google algorithm updates.

Previous algorithm updates have changed the way that Google:

  • Understands human language
  • Understands search intent
  • Provides search result with additional features
  • Provides localized results
  • Provides similar search suggestions
  • Judges the quality of content on webpages

What Is A Google Core Update?

A core update is a type of Google algorithm update that has a significant impact on search results. 

These are significant algorithm changes that can impact different types of websites on various platforms in various industries. Whether you have a dedicated team of Search Engine Optimisers (SEOs) or not, a Google core algorithm update can affect your website for better or worse.

So what Google algorithm updates have had the most impact on websites around the world? And how can you tell if you have been affected by a recent update?

10 most important google algorithm updates of all time graphic

The Most Important Google Algorithm Updates Of All Time

Out of the many recorded Google algorithm updates, a few significantly changed SEO and still affect the way that sites appear in search results today.

These updates, usually given affectionate names, were massive news at the time and will forever be a defining moment in search engine history.

Florida Update — November 16, 2003

In November 2003, Google released the very first algorithm update, and it changed search forever.

The Florida update is so-called because of the hurricane-like way that it took search results by storm. It impacted retail sites the most. This included hotels, clothing, jewelry, and businesses ranking for highly commercial terms with significant search volumes. And it hit them right in the middle of the holiday shopping season.

These sites all had one thing in common: they all used keyword tactics that we would now consider spammy. The sites affected used keyword stuffing, which involved repeating the keyword everywhere and as many times as possible, including in-text colored the same as the background. 

These sites saw ranking plummet almost immediately after the Florida update rolled out. They lost their large search volumes to smaller sites that did not use the same spammy keyword techniques.

Summary: The Florida update tackled spammy tactics by penalizing sites that used keyword stuffing, invisible text, and hidden links.

Jagger Update — September and October 2005

In September 2005, Google started to roll out its next big algorithm update and didn’t finish until sometime in October 2005.
The search community informally named the Jagger update because The Rolling Stones were playing in Las Vegas at the time. It primarily impacted newer websites, which led people to believe that Google favored more established sites and more prominent brands.

However, the Jagger update didn’t favor certain websites due to age or business size. This update did tackle the “black-hat” SEO tactics of the time, which were spammy backlinks. 

The sites affected by the Jagger update had backlinks with irrelevant anchor text, backlinks from spammy-looking pages, and sudden peaks in backlink profiles.

Summary: The Jagger update tackled backlink spam by penalizing sites that bought masses of backlinks, had duplicate content across multiple domains, and had links from known link farms.

Big Daddy Update — March 29, 2006

In December 2005, the head of Google’s webspam team, Matt Cutts, did something unheard of. He announced the next big Google algorithm update.

Not only did Matt Cutts announce the update was coming, but he also asked SEOs to test it. It was an SEO that named the update Big Daddy, which was then approved and rolled out from January 2006 to March 2006.

The Big Daddy update was an extension to the previous Jagger update, which tackled spam links. 

Big Daddy penalized sites with low-quality incoming and outbound links to improve the quality of Google’s search results. The sites most affected were those with a new domain and unnatural link building signals.

Summary: The Big Daddy update tackled the quality of search results by penalizing sites that had spammy backlink tactics like reciprocal links and link buying.

Vince Update — January 18, 2009

Early in 2009, the effects of the next big update in Google’s algorithm were starting to be seen in search results all over the world.

The Vince update was named after a Google engineer and was announced by Google just weeks earlier. Big brands with offline businesses were the beneficiaries of the Vince update. 

Despite not always following SEO best practices, brands started to rank for high volume, competitive, and commercial keywords like ‘printer’ and ‘mobile phone.’

According to Google’s CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt, the Vince update was a change to trust — “Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”

Summary: The Vince update expanded on the issue of trust in search results by giving an advantage to big brands.

May Day Update — April 28, 2010

Just before May Day in 2010, the next core Google algorithm update went live. It was completely rolled out by May 3, 2010, which lends to its name.

The May Day update was unannounced, but Google claimed afterward that the update was all about the quality of its search results. It only affected long-tail keywords, particularly impacting big companies.

Long-tail keywords were, and primarily still are, the most profitable keyword to target. So the search results for them were largely dominated by large businesses who knew that traffic from their long-tail keywords was more likely to convert. 

However, the May Day update changed all of this. It changed how it ranked pages for these long-tail keywords, favoring original and valuable content rather than your business’s size.

Summary: The May Day update improved the quality of search results for long-tail keywords, penalizing pages with duplicate or poor content.

Caffeine Update — June 8, 2010

The next big Google update came in June 2010, but it was such a significant change that SEO professionals had months before its release to test it.

The Caffeine update was so named because it was all about recency and speed. It didn’t impact many websites straight away, though, as the update was more of an indexing change than an algorithm change.

It updated the way Google crawled and indexed websites, with Google now being able to discover and rank fresh content in seconds. According to Google, it now provided “50% fresher results for web searches than our last index…[so] you can now find links to relevant content much sooner.” 

Summary: The Caffeine update was all about providing the most up-to-date information by changing how Google found and stored data from websites.

Panda Update — August 12, 2011

The previous year’s Caffeine update also had some negative as well as positive impacts. The speed that Caffeine brought to Google’s algorithm paved the way for masses of poor-quality content and content farms. So in August 2011, Google released its next update to tackle the issues.

The Panda update, named after another Googler, Navneet Panda, was rolled out to combat the decrease in search result quality brought about by the Caffeine update.

It didn’t affect individual pages, but rather whole sites. Websites with bad or low backlink profiles or duplicate and thin content were the worst affected. 

The Panda update was also the first time Google noticeably considered user metrics by penalizing sites with high bounce rates and repetition across pages and many on-site ads.

Summary: The Panda update aimed to improve search results by penalizing sites that had repetitive content and poor user metrics.

Penguin Update — April 24, 2012

In 2012, Google released its next major update, first known as the webspam algorithm update. It was an extension of the Panda update. 

It was later renamed the Penguin Update in a tweet from the head of Google’s webspam team, Matt Cutts. But its former name gives a better indication as to what this update was all about.

The Penguin update attempted to tackle webspam. It penalized sites that sought to manipulate rankings by building links through black-hat techniques.

Black-hat link building includes gaining lots of backlinks from anywhere, whether the linking domain is relevant or high quality. The Penguin update penalized this practice and negatively affected sites that had low-quality links pointing to them.

Summary: The Penguin update tackled low-quality results by penalizing pages that use black-hat link building techniques.

Hummingbird Update — September 26, 2013

In 2013, Google overhauled search by launching its newest indexing change since Caffeine. This algorithm was coined Hummingbird because it was “quick and precise,” according to Google.

The Hummingbird update affected the way that Google understood search queries. Hummingbird helped Google to decipher search intent so that it could give the user more relevant results. 

It used natural language processing (NLP), which relied upon latent semantic indexing (LSI), co-occurring terms, and synonyms. All of which are still a significant part of Google’s algorithm today.

Naturally, this change drastically affected the way that pages ranked and what keywords they ranked for. According to Google software engineer Amit Singhal, “Hummingbird helps with complex queries but also impacts over 90% of searches worldwide now.”

Summary: The Hummingbird update changed how Google understood search queries and search intent to offer users more relevant results.

Mobilegeddon Update — April 21, 2015

In Spring 2015, Google rolled out its next big algorithm update. This time web admins and SEOs were given two months’ notice thanks to an update announced on the Google Webmaster Blog in February 2015.

The Mobilegeddon update, or Mobile-friendly Ranking Factor Update as it is officially known, was so-called because it was Google’s answer to the increase of mobile searches. For the first time, Google started to consider a site’s mobile-friendliness.

It penalized websites that used flash, small text, clickable elements that were too close, or content that didn’t adapt to different screen sizes. But websites that were responsive and mobile-friendly were preferred in search results. This is still true for ranking today.

Summary: The Mobilegeddon update sought to improve user experience for those searching on mobile by preferring to rank mobile-friendly websites.

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RankBrain Update — October 26, 2015

Later in 2015, Google released a tweak to its earlier Hummingbird algorithm.

RankBrain is the machine learning system that Hummingbird uses to understand search intent. Its release added an extra level of personalization to search results by using a user’s search history as well as implied words and context to provide more relevant results to a searcher.

Pages that didn’t make use of related terms or didn’t provide context information were the most affected. 

SEOs and webmasters started using tools to analyze what words and how many times words were used in the pages that were ranking for their intended term. This practice is still in use today.

Summary: The RankBrain update was a tweak to how Google understands search intent by taking into account language and personal search history.

Medic Update — August 1, 2018

The unannounced Google update of 2018 hit millions of websites with new ranking factors taken from Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines document.

The Medic update is so-called because it affected health, medical, and other life-altering decision-based websites. These websites were known as Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) because of their potential effect on either your money or health.

It penalized pages and websites in either of these categories, especially those that were seen to be making medical claims or giving medical advice without substantiating it. If the website had no Expertise, Authority, or Trust signals (E-A-T), it was dropped further down the rankings. 

The worst sites that were hit included retail health sites, vitamin retailers who had no medical studies (expertise), no affiliation with regulatory bodies (authority), and no links from trusted medical sites (trust).

Summary: The Medic update aimed to provide trustworthy results and advice to people searching for money or health-based terms by penalizing sites with no Expertise, Authority, or Trust (E-A-T).

BERT Update — October 22, 2019

The most recent fundamental change to Google’s Hummingbird algorithm came in October 2019.

The BERT Update followed the Hummingbird and RankBrain updates by improving Google’s natural language processing technology to better understand search intent. Google now understands more nuance in words used on-page and in search queries. 

BERT stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers, which is essentially all about natural language processing that was first introduced in the Hummingbird update.

Although the initial impact on websites was minimal, BERT has changed how SEOs and marketers create content. It rewards content that is well written and formatted with users in mind rather than search engines.

Summary: The BERT update is another tweak to Google’s understanding of search intent rewarding well-constructed content. 

Google January 2020 Core Update — January 13, 2020

The Google January 2020 Core update was preannounced on the morning of January 13th and rolled out later that day. The only advice Google gave was: “create website content that users love,” so it wasn’t clear what the update was about yet.

It primarily impacted websites in the health and finance sectors, penalizing those that displayed less trust and credibility from their backlink profile. It became apparent that the update was about domain level trust as an extension of the Medic update two years earlier.

Summary: The January 2020 Core Update was an extension of the Medic update by penalizing sites in the YMYL categories with low credibility levels.

Google May 2020 Core Update — May 4, 2020

The second update of 2020 was again announced the day that the update rolled out.

The Google May 2020 Core Update was another core update closely related to the Medic and E-A-T signals. It readdressed ranking factors, placing more weight on content, brand factors, and user data.

This meant that larger businesses benefited from the update, but sites in the YMYL categories with potentially untrustworthy information about finances and health were negatively affected.

Summary: The May 2020 Core Update was again all about E-A-T signals and put more weight behind content factors and user data.

Google December 2020 Core Update — December 3, 2020

The third and final major update of 2020 came as an early present from Google. It began on December 3rd and took around a week to fully roll out.

The Google December 2020 Core Update didn’t impact many websites, but those affected saw significant changes. It is believed to have focused on content interpretation and search intent, being timed so close to the release of passage indexing.

However, the update mainly impacted reference and news sites, where SERP features became more prominent. However, lots of smaller retail sites also saw losses initially that quickly improved.

Summary: The December 2020 Core Update remains slightly ambiguous but focused on content interpretation and SERP features.

Have You Been Affected By An Algorithm Update?

To keep on top of current Google algorithm updates and whether they impact your website, you can use our Semush Sensor

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The Sensor Tool is constantly measuring for volatility in search results for both desktop and mobile. High volatility will indicate changes in search results over 20+ categories, which indicates possible Google updates.

Or if you want to find out whether any of these major algorithm updates affected your website, you can use data sources from your Semrush (and other) toolsets to analyze three aspects of your site’s organic performance:

  1. Traffic
  2. Ranking
  3. Impressions

You can get this historical data from Google via Google Analytics and Google Search Console — and with us at Semrush. These tools can give you a wealth of information to help you determine if you were impacted and what that impact was.

With Semrush, you can access historical data from 2012 to the present. However, with Google Analytics and Google Search Console, you can only see data from the point you had set them up. 

So you will need to have set up both of these data tools to track data, and you cannot see historical data. However, all of these tools are useful in determining whether you have been affected by a Google algorithm update.

To find out if you have been affected, you should:

1. Check Your Organic Traffic

The first thing you should check is the traffic levels to your website around the time of the algorithm update. If you have been affected, you will expect to see either a drop in organic traffic to your website or an increase in organic traffic to your website.

You can check your traffic using Google Analytics or Semrush Domain Overview.

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But make sure that you are looking only at ‘Organic’ search traffic here. A Google algorithm update will not affect traffic from other sources like social and email.

2. Check Your Ranking

The next thing that you should check is your ranking data around the time of the algorithm update. If you have been affected by an update, you should expect to see a change, either a positive or negative one, to the keywords that are ranking for your website.

You can check your ranking by looking at your average rank in Google Search Console. Or you can check how individual keywords rank in Semrush, which is particularly useful if you have priority keywords that drive most of your business. 

If you have been using Position Tracking, it will be easy to monitor your keyword positions, SERP Features, and more. 

3. Check Your Impressions

The final thing you can check to be sure whether you have been affected by an algorithm update or not is your impressions. 

If you have been affected by an update, you should expect to see some change in the number of impressions your website gets. Impressions are the number of times your search result is seen by a searcher, whether it has been clicked or not.

You can check your impressions using Google Search Console. Search Console will give you total impressions during a particular time frame or impressions by keyword or page. If you see a change in impressions, you can drill down where the change has come from.

How To Recover From an Algorithm Update

When a core algorithm update happens, you will likely see some sort of impact on your traffic, ranking, and impressions. Whether it is a positive or negative impact, you will want to recover or make the most of the update. But how can you recover from an algorithm update?

You need to understand two things to recover from an algorithm update:

1. Understand When the Update Happened

Understanding when an algorithm update has happened and whether you have been affected is the first step in recovering from it.

As a website owner or someone who works on a website that earns organic traffic from Google, you should do your best to keep informed about updates that happen. Sometimes Google will pre-announce the update. Often, you will need to actively monitor the situation on your own. 

But knowing when the update is happening will mean you have a good chance of minimizing its negative impact in advance. For example, if you know there is an update coming in four weeks, you can check your site to make sure you are following best practices.

But knowing when an update is happening doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to act fast or do anything at all.

2. Find Out What the Update Was

You also need to understand what exactly that algorithm update was to either overcome a negative impact or make the most of a positive impact.

Whether Google announces their algorithm update or not, they usually don’t give us a full explanation or rulebook of what the update will change and how it will impact us. Their guidance always remains the same:

We know those with sites that experience drops will be looking for a fix, and we want to ensure they don’t try to fix the wrong things. Moreover, there might not be anything to fix at all.

So it is your job to find this out. Usually, you won’t know what exactly is changing until weeks after the algorithm update has finished rolling out. At this time, you can monitor industry chatter to find out what exactly has been impacted. 

For example, in the first few days after an update, you may hear many web admins and site owners talking about ranking losses on sites with lots of spammy backlinks. Or, in the case of the more recent Medic update, you may hear chatter from people working on websites in the health and wellness industry. It’s essential to keep track of your competitors during an update, too!

You can also learn about what the latest Google algorithm updates are about by keeping an eye on major SEO blogs, like ours at Semrush. SEO specialist blogs will publish the latest findings and case studies as soon as possible after an algorithm update.

How Can You Get Ready For A Core Update?

In the early days, Google didn’t announce when its next core algorithm update would happen. However, now that Google has started to give warnings about when exactly their biggest updates will happen, it is a little easier to get ready for a core update.

Their announcements can be via their spokespeople on Twitter or via an official statement on the Google blog. It can also be a few hours’ notice or a few months’ notice, like the May 2021 core update.

May 2021 Core Update

Google announced in November 2020 that the next core algorithm update was coming.

The May 2021 Core Update, otherwise known as Core Web Vitals update, will consider web vitals as ranking signals from May. This will include aspects of your site like page speed, HTTPS-security, and UX signals.

It’s another update aimed at tackling the quality of search results by providing users with results that are easy and friendly to use. So it will likely negatively impact sites with slow page speed, large image sizes, non-secure HTTP links, to name a few.

More Google Updates Are Sure to Come

As we’ve seen, there have been many Google updates over the years. As Google aims to continue to provide users with quality content, SEOs, webmasters, and marketers need to be prepared for algorithm updates

However, by providing quality content and ensuring that your site is technically sound, you can avoid many headaches that could arise from a Google core algorithm update. Plus, with Semrush and other tools, you’ll be able to monitor how your site is doing at all times.

Measure Volatility in Search Results

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Author Photo
Connor LaheyEditor, SEO strategist, and writer. Enjoys monitoring SERP volatility. You can find me reading Tolkien in the far north of Norway.
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