September 23, 2022 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
Google is notorious for releasing both named and unnamed updates that shake up how content creators, marketing teams, and SEO experts do their jobs. If you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it, and there are no exceptions for SEOs who don’t know their Google history. Today we’re looking at the collection of named Google updates and how they affect the way we do search engine optimization today.
For this article, we’ve included any updates that have official or unofficial names announced by Google or SEO professionals. All named updates have confirmation from Google that they exist, even if they don’t have an official name from the company. We omitted any unconfirmed by speculated updates and any confirmed updates that simply have names like “January 2015 Update.” We made this choice because if an update wasn’t significant to get a name from Google or SEO sleuths, it’s not significant enough to include in the history of Google updates.
Google releases periodic algorithm, infrastructure, and core updates to ensure the health of the search engine and provide a better user experience. As technology and society both evolve, the way people search and gather information changes. Updated technology allows for more sophisticated and interactive content. When those practices became the norm, the original search engine results, nothing but a list of links, weren’t helpful anymore.
Though it may seem tedious to pay attention to every Google update, the named updates hold the most weight. They’ve brought about the biggest changes in how people search. You have to care about these updates because some of them could completely upend how you do content marketing, SEO, or web development.
If you pay close attention to your analytics, watch for algorithm changes, and read content from experts, Google updates won’t catch you off guard. That means your site has a lower potential to get a penalty and derail any progress you’ve made with brand awareness or your company’s reputation.
To understand how and why content creation and SEO operate the way they do today, we have to look back at all the versions and updates that came before. Below is a list of all of Google’s named updates since 2003:
The Florida update got its name because it debuted just before the Pubcon Florida conference in Orlando in November 2003. This update addressed websites that relied on spammy tactics like keyword stuffing, hidden links, and invisible text to rank for high-profile keywords. Florida was also a link analysis algorithm. It looked at the way content linked across the internet in a way that was helpful, rather than just linking to raise rankings. Retailers and brands that relied on affiliate marketing to gain traffic were the biggest culprits of these marketing tactics.
As a result, many retailers lost their top-ranking search spots right before the holiday shopping season. Though Florida was supposed to target spammy practices, many innocent websites, called “false positives” got stuck in the new algorithm and lost positioning and traffic for over a year. The Google team sorted through the false positives by hand and decided which were spammy and which weren’t. But by then some small businesses already had to close due to lack of visibility and sales.
The backlash from Florida was so large that Google promised not to roll out significant updates before the holiday season again. But you’ll see later in this timeline that the promise didn’t last forever. Most SEOs consider Florida the search engine’s first significant algorithm update. It set the standard for optimizations for more than a decade.
Yes, this update really did get its name from Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. The name credit goes to Brian Tabke of WebmasterWorld. He made a comment referencing then-Google team member Matt Cutts as the Mick Jagger of search. And in epic Stones fashion, the Jagger update was a three-part affair that rolled out from September through November 2005. It focused on backlinks, specifically paid links, unnatural link-building practices, and other link spam.
Jagger dealt hits to websites that shared the same content across multiple domains and even some with internal duplication. This update also marked when Google started approaching the weight and validity of content links. It looked at areas like anchor texts, page content, and speed of incoming links to a website to decide which were “legal” and which weren’t.
Other issues Jagger addressed included spammy practices of using website CSS and style sheets in a way that redirected traffic or cloaked certain websites from search engines to grab more traffic. Within these style sheets, developers used to hide text and keywords that bots and crawlers could find. The extra boost helped these sites rank higher in search even though that content never appeared on pages where users could see it.
The Big Daddy infrastructure update announcement came at an informal meeting in the lunchroom at Pubcon 2005. Many attendees skipped their after-lunch sessions to stay in the cafeteria and listen to Matt Cutts speak instead, and they got the reward of the insider update information. This update got its name suggestion from Jeff in the audience, and Cutts liked it.
As an infrastructure update, this rollout introduced two new data centers for Google under two unique IP addresses. Big Daddy focused on how Google handled technical SEO issues. Some of the biggest changes came to website and page redirects and URL canonicalization, or groups of nearly identical pages on your site and the way Google sorts them. These changes had a major impact on search engine result page (SERP) quality for the user.
Many SEO experts of the time were excited to test the new servers to give Google real-world data about how the infrastructure change worked. This may be the reason there wasn’t public backlash when Big Daddy launched, or through its year of continuous updates. The information collected during this update led to the creation of what we now know as Google Search Console.
The Vince update is best known as the one that gave big companies, brands, and domains a win over the little guy. It got its name from a Google engineer who made most of the update possible. Vince came right after the New Year in 2009, and it changed the way pages ranked for competitive terms on page one of the results.
Bigger brands found their pages rising in the ranks while those who had held top spots for some time saw a decline. Most sites and pages that saw ranking slips were affiliate sites, those with less authority, or ones that scammed the SEO system to rank higher. There’s still debate in the SEO community, even over 10 years later, if Vince happened because Google felt it “owed” big brands a right to rank higher over some bloggers in their basements.
Without getting into the semantics and legality of the change, at the time, Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a simple point: if you want to trust the information you find online, it has to come from a trusted source. Getting information from a company or brand about its own products and services is more credible than from a third party. Questioning content credibility is still a sad fact that internet users battle with every day. Vince was the first to address these kinds of issues, but not the last.
The caffeine update focused on Google’s indexing system. It allowed bots and crawlers to find and store information more efficiently. The naming for this update is obvious. The new infrastructure worked so much faster than the old one like it had its daily dose of caffeine.
This update was so big that Google offered months of “Developer Previews,” which allowed real SEOs to play with the tools and new algorithms and give everything a test before the official release. The developer previews started in August 2009, and the official update went live in June 2010.
Different than algorithm updates, Google never meant for Caffeine to affect SERP rankings for content. Instead, the update rebuilt the internal systems to better alight with technological advances and the increase of websites and content. Despite not directly targeting SERP rankings, some sites saw a change or drop in ranking and organic traffic. These changes happened because other sites with “fresher” content got rewarded and shot up in the ranks.
The MayDay update focused on how to pick the right websites to match with long-tail keywords and queries. Long-tail keywords are those that go more in-depth than basic keywords. For example, “content marketing” is a basic keyphrase, but “what is content marketing” is a long-tail keyword. The second option answers a specific question.
In the end, as expected, some sites saw gains and others had losses, but there wasn’t a concrete reason why. Without real data about why the results changed, SEOs couldn’t be sure if the MayDay update was the cause or if fluctuations were simply due to human behavior.
As far as how this update got its name, the rollout started on April 28 and finished on May 3, 2010. May Day, also known as May 1, occurred during implementation, giving the update its moniker.
Panda was one of the most shocking Google updates since Florida at the time. It affected websites and brands across industries and reframed the way we do SEO. Originally called “Farmer” within the industry because it brought down crappy content farm websites and businesses, Google later revealed the update’s official name was Panda. The Google name came from a nickname for the engineer who discover the algorithm sequence.
Panda was such an extensive update that it continued to have subsequent mini-updates for five years after the initial launch in 2011. The update’s initial purpose was to eliminate spam across the web. It was also supposed to take down black hat, or shady, SEO strategies for good. Panda came in response to the fact that many “content companies” started putting out pages and pages of sub-par, unhelpful content daily to flood the search engines and increase their chances to rank for high-profile keywords.
The initial Panda changes affected about 12% of all queries. It also introduced the concept of E-A-T, an acronym that shares the signal Google looks for to determine where a website is trustworthy and valuable to its audience. The acronym stands for:
To recover from Panda, SEOs stressed out over duplicate and user-generated content and the word count of specific pieces. But fixing these little details was never the answer. Simply creating high-quality, valuable content rather than trying to cheat the system worked better. In January 2016, Google confirmed it incorporated Panda into its core algorithm, meaning Panda wouldn’t have any more singular updates.
Spring boarding off the Caffeine update, the Freshness update further altered the ranking algorithm to determine when to deliver “fresh” content to searchers. This revamp included situations that dealt with recurring events, trending topics, or current, real-time events. The idea behind the freshness update was to deliver information to searchers as close to real-time as possible. For example, severe weather situations or announcing election results are times when people want the most up-to-date information.
With less immediate topics, the freshest information could come on a daily or weekly basis. The update affected about 35% of total searches. Content changes that came from this update included adding time and date stamps to show their recency.
This update narrowed in on websites with too many static ads “above the fold” on a website. In these situations, users saw ads first and had to scroll before they saw real content. Pop-ups and overlays didn’t count. Page Layout was one of the first Google updates that directly targeted the user experience based on the layout of a website.
The initial update launched in 2012 and received a refresh in 2014, to better align the algorithm with changing technology like mobile browsing. Although this update only affected about 1% of websites and content creators, those affected had to make improvements to make browsing easier on searchers, not just lucrative for their own pockets.
The Venice update was the first change that showed search results based on a location or IP address. The algorithm helped detect whether people had an interest or intent to find local search results based on the words they typed in the search bar. Venice had a few bugs in its time, but it gave smaller, local businesses a chance to rank for bigger-value keywords. For example, if someone searched “marketing agency near me,” a smaller local firm could take precedence in the results over a national agency, or one outside the coverage area.
The Venice update increased the need for landing pages or child sites for each location of a franchise. Using these types of tactics allowed bigger, franchised brands to target local search intent for all of their in-person locations, rather than as an overall chain. The downside of Venice was that there were some local SEO spam tactics that the back hats found to scam the system, and they still work today. We won’t share those tricks with you. CopyPress only uses its power for good, not evil.
Google is always in a constant fight against spam across the internet. The Penguin launch in 2012 was the next fighter in that battle that may go on until the end of time. This update, once again, sought to cut down on spammy and illegitimate link-building practices. There’s never been an official announcement about how this update got its name. We speculate it could have come from an elite hockey team, a Batman villain, or possibly the nickname of another project developer.
Most SEOs view Penguin as an extension of Panda to reduce the effectiveness of black hat spam. This update put a high premium on relevant, authoritative, and natural links within content. Those who engaged in shady link-building took penalties and lost positioning. Like Panda, Penguin received updates for the next four years before becoming part of the core algorithm in September 2016.
This abbreviated update worked to weed out low-quality, exact match domains on SERPs. EMM eliminated the process of black hats buying exact match web domains for highly competitive keywords and building out small, thin sites that didn’t provide valuable information to searchers. The game for these SEOs wasn’t to be helpful, it was just to outrank everyone else or steal traffic from real businesses. After launch, Google and SEO sleuths found that .com domains didn’t receive as many penalties as non-.com domains.
Google updates target more than just shady SEO practices. In June 2013, the company launched the Payday Loan update to target spam queries and sites associated with industries like debt consolidation, illegitimate loan companies, and casinos. Though this update affected less than 1% of U.S. searches, companies in other countries took a bigger hit. Payday Loan had two subsequent updates in May and June 2014, which doubled down on finding these spammy queries and addressing counterfeit websites.
Hummingbird was another infrastructure update that revamped Google’s core search. It came in response to changing technology around the world like mobile search or conversational search. Voice search technology like Siri, which Apple had been using for two years by the update’s 2013 launch, was a driving factor. Hummingbird helped the Google team and data researchers better understand how to bring more relevant results for these new types of searches.
The update affected about 90% of searches worldwide, making it one of the more impactful updates Google ever released. But the update showed subtle immediate effects, despite touching so many searches. Results were so subtle that they left some wondering if Google actually rolled out an update at all. Hummingbird set the stage for future updates that allowed Google to get even more precise about finding the right results for more complex queries.
The Pigeon update built on what Venice established to improve local search. Google began using traditional ranking signals to influence its local search results, and it improved ranking based on things like destination distance from your current location. This update’s primary goal was to make local searches look and feel more like traditional searches.
Search Engine Land coined the term for this update because is focused on local search and “pigeons fly home.” Unlike Panda, Google never released an internal name for the update, so SEL’s term stuck. On Google’s books, Pigeon was a one-time update in the summer of 2014. But keen SEOs speculated that the search engine released multiple algorithm tweaks since then to further improve gaps in the initial launch.
Small, local businesses saw the most benefits from this update, along with everyday searchers as they scrolled results. Pigeon also marked greater incorporation of position zero features for local searches, such as knowledge panels and map packs. Pigeon also changed how business directories like Yelp appeared in search results, ranking higher for local queries and those with the key term “Yelp” in the search itself.
Officially called the Mobile-Friendly Update, Mobilegeddon began rewarding websites in search that took a “mobile-first” mentality. Companies and websites that focused on creating mobile-friendly sites and content saw an increase in their ranking positions. Those that weren’t mobile-friendly lost traction. Google clarified on its blog that mobile-friendly sites included top vs. side navigation bars, a more “scroll-friendly” layout, and resizing for images and text for smaller screens.
Image via Search Engine Land
This update affected rankings only on mobile devices at the time on an individual page level, rather than on the domain level. The update affected websites for every industry and in every language across the globe. Mobilegeddon got a refresh in 2016 to further align with changes in technology and mobile search.
More than just an update, these changes showed the sign of the times for search. As more people moved to browse the internet on mobile devices, Google saw an opportunity and need to take action to increase the chances of a favorable user experience.
The Quality Update, aptly named Phantom, affected the Google core ranking algorithm for quality signals. Quality signals tell the search engines how legitimate, or in contrast, how spammy, a website is based on the content and features such as including too many ads. The idea behind these Phantom updates was to provide the most valuable information to searchers.
Low-quality content took hits in favor of pages and domains that provided more trustworthy and helpful results. Clickbait, content with a lot of ads, thin content, and mass-produced fluff pieces saw the biggest drop in rankings.
RankBrain was a machine learning algorithm created to filter search results that best match each query. If you’re thinking, “isn’t that the entire point of a search engine?” you’re not wrong. But as we’ve seen, up to 2015 (and even today) black hat SEOs were always looking for ways to scam the system rather than follow rules and logic.
Building on Hummingbird from two years earlier, RankBrain initially affected about 15% of searches that were new to Google and has expanded to touch almost every term entered into the search engine. Because this update incorporated machine learning, it enabled Google to do more than just “read” characters. The search engine wasn’t looking for exact matches for typed characters alone when pulling results.
For a look at RankBrain in action, search a term like “rock songs.” The content that appears in the featured snippet provides a list of songs in the rock genre. Google knows when someone searches “rock songs,” they’re looking for the names of songs in the genre, not a bunch of web pages that use the exact phrasing.
RankBrain allowed Google to provide search results based on the context of what people wanted to know and do instead of simply just the string of letters or numbers added to the search bar. RankBrain also increased the focus on search intent because the algorithm could now tell the purpose behind a user’s search thanks to semantics.
The Intrusive Interstitials update rolled out in early 2017 and targeted pop-up and interstitial ads. Specifically, it zeroes in on those ads that made for a poor browsing experience on mobile devices. The update didn’t cause a major stir in the rankings, but it did further prove Google’s commitment to a top-quality user experience.
This major algorithm update was the next battle against low-value content. Fred got its name from a joke by Google’s Gary Illyes, and it stuck. The company stayed tight-lipped about the specifics of the update. But trained SEOs saw more of the same that they’d seen with other updates. Affiliate sites, low-quality content sites, and pages with tons of ads took the biggest hit. Other areas Fred aimed to clean up included:
In December 2017, SEOs began to notice changes in rankings. Google confirmed minor changes to its core algorithm during the time, it was what we now call the Maccabees update. This update received its name to recognize Hanukkah, as the updates took place during the holiday that year. Google itself didn’t want to give this update a name, calling it instead a “general flux period” and acknowledging that it wasn’t one update, but a series of small changes.
Perhaps Google was right in not wanting to name this update. SEOs couldn’t find the exact targets or sources of the changes, and many reported seeing no change in rankings or traffic over this period. Still, the update created enough buzz that it’s worth including in this list.
Google released a series of Broad Core Algorithm updates in Spring 2018. The first helped increase rankings for “previously under-rewarded” content, in the company’s own words. Unlike other updates that target specific practices or look to bring down bad content, the BCAs did the opposite. These updates promoted content that provided better information in search results.
Google clarified that there was nothing wrong with sites that lost positioning and that there was no way to fix things if your site lost ranking. Sites were simply beholden to the new algorithm and there was nothing SEOs could do but continue to create quality content and hope for improvement. Google continues to run BCA updates periodically to tweak search results and performance.
Google confirmed a core algorithm update in Spring 2019 that SEOs dubbed Florida 2. This name called back to Google’s first big update, and because the leader of Pubcon got an advanced notice from the company that a big update was coming. Despite being such a big update, Google didn’t release many additional details. The company told SEOs that many of the same rules applied as they did for the 2018 BAC updates. There wasn’t a way to “save” content or “recover” from the Florida 2 update.
The featured snippets update targeted exactly what the name says: featured snippets. Mostly, the update aimed to provide the freshest content for featured snippets where it was most useful. We can see this update in action by looking at an evergreen topic that was recently in the news: the Emmys. This award show takes place each year, but someone searching in 2022 wants to find content from the most recent presentation.
At the time of writing this article, the award show took place earlier in the week. As we can see, most of the Top Stories featured snippet content is from this week.
But it’s not just news articles that become stocked with fresh content. The People also ask box showed updated questions with the year included.
And the video pack includes clips of the ceremony from the past week.
In 2021, Google confirmed a second update that targeted featured snippets. This one removed any page or site that appeared in the featured snippet from a second organic listing on page one. The change affected 100% of all search engine rankings worldwide.
Google announced its BERT update in 2019, calling it the biggest search change in the last five years. The name is an acronym for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. BERT first launched in the U.S. in October, and started a worldwide rollout in December, covering searches in over 70 languages.
The BERT update aimed to better understand language and processing to give more context to long-tail searches and queries. It looked at particular language rules and natural speech patterns, such as the use of the prepositions “to” and “for” in English searches. This research helped the bots and crawlers determine the context of how search intent changes based on the words used.
This update particularly affected on-page SEO, and it encouraged content creators to write pieces for people, not search engines. By having more freedom to write more naturally, content can provide more value and more reliability to a human audience while still ranking high in search. The update affected about 10% of English U.S. searches.
The Passage Ranking update took Google indexing to a new level by indexing whole webpages, but then analyzing individual passages from the content, too. Passage indexing helped long-form content, taking brief paragraphs in a full article and letting them rank higher in search for things like the featured snippets.
Like other updates in the late 2010s and early 2020s, Google cautioned that developers and content creators didn’t need to do anything special because of the passage ranking update. Everyone should simply focus on creating good content.
This algorithm update aimed to reward robust product descriptions with helpful content with a higher search positioning. The Product Review update is just another in a long list of Google’s prioritizing valuable information over cookie-cutter content. Unlike some other updates where SEOs couldn’t do anything to fix their rank slippage, this update gave room for improvement.
The Product Review update encouraged eCommerce and online selling companies to improve their product descriptions and provide information the audience wants to see rather than a basic overview that doesn’t share actual information about the product or its uses.
In early summer 2021, Google’s Vice President of Search announced the company’s commitment to cracking down on sites that exploit searchers. Specifically, the algorithm update targeted slanderous or unconfirmed claims about people or brands. The update came from a New York Times article that documented how the internet and Google search results can affect someone’s reputation, especially if certain claims are untrue.
Google created this update in response, vowing to protect people it named “known victims” or those targeted by unproven and slanderous accusations. This type of search algorithm is imperfect because it’s sometimes hard to prove what is a slanderous claim and what’s something true that people just don’t want on the internet. For that reason, it’s possible there could be an additional algorithm update targeting similar practices in the coming years.
The Page Experience update focuses on the ranking signals for a searcher’s page experience when they visit a website from the SERP. The four focus factors include:
This update is important because it helps sites rank for more than just content. Quality crafted site architecture helps a website rise through the ranks, too. The Page Experience update is just another example of Google’s movement toward a better user experience for its searchers. Google released an additional page experience update for desktop search in March 2022.
Throughout 2021, Google released a variety of confirmed spam-targeting updates. Many were small and affected sites that were still engaging in the spammy practices Google had been trying to weed out for years. Link-building practices were once again on the chopping block.
Different from other spam updates, this group targeted some of what marketers consider “acceptable” link-building practices like guest posting and sponsored content. Google didn’t disavow these practices but encouraged content creators to qualify the link or prove its legitimacy.
Helpful Content is Google’s latest update, and it’s a big one for content marketers. Google bills this update as taking a “people-first” approach to search. It’s not exactly a surprise, given how much time and attention the company put on user experience in previous updates. The point of the Helpful Content update is to make sure content creators are providing unique, valuable, and verified information to searchers.
This update targets websites at a domain level rather than a page level. If bots and crawlers find low-quality content on your site, even if it’s only on one page, you have the potential to take a hit and receive a penalty. Content that’s most likely to receive a penalty in the Helpful Content era includes:
Helpful content is still new, and it’s still in its rollout process. We may learn more about how this update affects domains and content as time goes on.
It’s hard to predict exactly what could be next for a named Google Update. As the world moved into the late 2010s and early 2020s, Google released many more confirmed and unconfirmed updates that made subtle changes to how people interact with search. Quite a few of them earned names simply because SEO experts were persistent with Google on social platforms, poking the account for information until a representative confirmed an update.
Based on what we know about Google, some of its primary goals right now are eliminating AI content and spam and providing a better user experience for searchers. The company addresses all these issues with Helpful Content, but that’s not to say there couldn’t be more in-depth updates on the same topics later. Likely, advances in technology, society, and internet trends will shape the next round of named Google The SEO and content development worlds have to wait and see what comes next.
No matter what the future holds, we’re still living in the Helpful Content era. This update could be like Penguin and Panda, with additional updates rolling out for years to come. But we won’t know for sure until it’s happening. Make sure you stay up to date with all the latest changes through resources on our Helpful Content hub and by listening in on our Helpful Content Podcast.
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