Major Changes to the Google Algorithm Since 2015

Since the launch of Google in 1988, the company has spent a massive amount resources on continually refining and improving its flagship product, Google Search. Some of the biggest and most significant changes have come in the last couple of years, and have left business owners scratching their heads as they watch their SEO efforts come to nothing. In order to succeed in SEO, it’s important to keep an eye on what Google’s up to, at least in terms of its search engine.

Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird: Pre-2015

Since Google’s inception, the company has focused on producing fast, relevant search results, and on developing a search algorithm that favours content that is useful for searchers. In recent years, a series of significant updates have been rolled out in order to favour websites that produce quality content, and penalise sites that don’t.

  • Panda, 2011: This update promotes sites with quality content and penalises those with plagiarised or keyword-stuffed content.
  • Penguin, 2012: Designed to address spam linking, the process of inflating search rankings by paying for website links.
  • Hummingbird, 2013: Virtually a complete replacement of the Google search algorithm, Hummingbird introduced a new focus on the context of search queries as well as the content. For instance, the word “place” has different contexts depending on what other words it’s grouped with: “1-bedroom place” versus “pizza place”. Hummingbird makes it easier for Google to differentiate between different usages of a word.

Google Search Since 2015: What’s Changed?

Google rolls out updates to its search engine algorithm fairly frequently. Along with regular updates that refine how the algorithm defines and responds to quality content, one or more updates per year introduce new features to the algorithm, or make major changes to existing features.

Mobilegeddon: April 2015

In this update, Google introduced a broad-reaching algorithm update that impacted mobile versus desktop versions of websites. Essentially, when users search on their mobile devices, websites that are mobile-optimised are more heavily favoured in the search results. This means that when you perform the same search on both a mobile and a desktop device, the results you get may be subtly different.

RankBrain: October 2015

In 2015, Google started using a machine learning artificial intelligence system to sort search results. In a machine learning system, the machine is a computer that essentially teaches itself a new skill; in the case of RankBrain, the relevant skill is interpreting search queries.

Unlike most other Google updates, RankBrain has nothing to do with the search engine algorithm. Instead, RankBrain is all about interpreting and fulfilling people’s search engine queries. RankBrain is an important part of the search engine because around 15% of daily search queries are entirely unique—queries that the search engine has never seen before. Over time, RankBrain is learning how to handle these unique queries such that people get the results they’re looking for.

RankBrain doesn’t make much of a difference to the way website owners and marketers develop web content—the results it produces are all on the back end—but it’s a critical ranking factor, and is now an integral part of the search engine.

Mobile-friendly 2: May 2016

After Google’s first mobile-friendly update in 2015, this second smaller update was rolled out just over a year later. This update increased the effectiveness of mobile-ranking signals, to help mobile users connect with the sites that would be of most use to them.

Possum: September 2016

This update affected how the search engine treats local business listings, primarily to diversify local results, and to prevent spam listings from gaining a foothold in the rankings.

Penguin Update: September 2016

This update made Penguin part of the core algorithm, and as of this update, Penguin began to exert its influence in real time. Previously, Penguin had to be “refreshed” every so often in order to update its impact on the web. As of this update this was no longer necessary. The new-look Penguin is also somewhat less harsh in the way it penalises sites that harbour link spam.

What these Changes Mean for Businesses

Over the last several years Google has made a number of broadly impactful changes to its search engine algorithm. For business, however, the end result is the same: quality content is the key. It’s always more beneficial to focus on delivering a high quality functional website. Do that, and the search engine rankings take care of themselves.

Business owners should also take care that they don’t underestimate the importance of mobile customers. In order to continue ranking across all kinds of devices, it’s important to ensure that your business’s website is mobile-optimised. This means that a website should function equally well across as many different devices and platforms as possible, from Windows desktops to Android to iOS devices.