The Evolution of Google’s Algorithms: How Search Engine Rankings Have Changed Over Time

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By tom.baldridge

Google processes over 3.5 billion searches per day. The secret sauce behind matching billions of queries to the most relevant web pages lies in Google’s ever-evolving search algorithms.

Understanding how Google’s ranking signals and algorithms have evolved over the past two decades provides key insights for modern SEO success.

BackRub – 1996

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford University in 1995. While researching a project on web page relevance, they became fascinated by the potential to analyze interlinking between web pages to gauge importance.

In 1996, Page and Brin named their new search engine BackRub. BackRub analyzed “backlinks” pointing from one web page to another as votes of confidence. Pages with more backlinks ranked higher in results.

This focus on inbound links as a ranking factor formed the genesis of Google itself.

PageRank Patent – 1998

Page and Brin officially founded Google in 1998. One of their first milestones was PageRank – their patented link analysis algorithm.

PageRank assigns a numeric weighting from 0-10 for each webpage. This PageRank is derived from both the quantity and quality of links pointing inward.

For example, a page linked from the high authority New York Times site would gain more PageRank than one linked from Joe’s Blog.

This PageRank number dictated the core of early Google rankings. More links from reputable sites equaled a higher PageRank and better search visibility.

Florida Update – November 2003

As the web kept growing, some companies tried gaming Google results by buying links or swapping links en masse solely to boost PageRank.

In response, Google rolled out the “Florida Update” in November 2003. This update aimed to stop link scheme spam by reducing the influence of specific link patterns.

For example, sites receiving tons of links from the same network of sites got devalued. Buying links from random low-quality sites didn’t help anymore.

The Florida Update initiated a shift toward focusing on relevancy and organic links versus manipulative linking tactics.

Brand Update – April 2005

In 2005, Google noticed brands were ranking inconsistently for their own names. For example, searching “Canon” wouldn’t always surface first.

Google released a “Brand Update” in April 2005 putting more weight on branded keywords and domain authority. Brands ranking for their own name became more consistent.

This marked the growing emphasis on domain authority signals – not just inbound links, but who the links come from.

Penguin Update – April 2012

The first Penguin algorithm update launched in April 2012 targeting webspam. Penguin aimed to stop manipulative SEO tactics like:

  • Keyword stuffing
  • Hidden text or links
  • doorway pages built solely for SEO
  • Enormous keyword-rich site footers

Penguin demoted sites engaging in spammy practices while rewarding quality content creators. As a result, exact match keywords became less important than topic relevance.

Hummingbird Update – August 2013

With Google processing complex conversational queries, Hummingbird focused on semantic search and natural language processing.

Traditional keyword targeting grew ineffective as search became more conversational with phrases like:

“What is the best Mexican restaurant in Austin?”

Hummingbird could parse semantic intent within longer natural language queries. Rankings shifted to pages satisfying the searcher’s full contextual question, not just matching keywords.

Panda Update – September 2019

Starting in 2011, Google’s Panda algorithm rollout aimed to downrank “thin” content like scraped material, duplicate pages, and low-quality affiliate sites with minimal original value.

Panda rewarded in-depth, comprehensive content while penalizing pages with only a few hundred words of light information.

High-quality content became imperative. Long-form articles, research-backed studies, and detailed guides performed better than thin “top 10” posts.

BERT Update – October 2019

In October 2019, Google’s BERT algorithm overhaul caused the biggest search shakeup in years.

Based on Google AI research, BERT analyzes words relationally within a sentence to better interpret natural language. So “New York” understands “New York” is a city.

Google could now parse searches like “flights from boston to new york” differently than “new york airport is busy today.”

The BERT upgrade focused heavily on semantic search context beyond just matching keywords.

Multitask Unified Model – June 2022

Google’s latest Multitask Unified Model (MUM) taps into deep learning across images, text, and more.

MUM allows Google to interpret complex multimedia-style queries like “show me cake recipes with raspberries” and return relevant results.

The MUM update also incorporated content from across the entire web as “world knowledge” for better comprehension. Rankings shifted more toward “helpful content” versus keyword optimization.

Core Web Vitals – May 2020 – Present

Alongside its ever-evolving algorithms, Google places growing emphasis on site performance as a ranking signal.

Core Web Vitals became a key component of page experience ranking factors in May 2020. Metrics like Largest Contentful Paint, First Input Delay and Cumulative Layout Shift gauge real-world site speed and responsiveness.

With mobile searches surpassing desktop, site performance and mobile-friendliness remain imperative for high Google visibility.

The Future of Google’s Algorithms

So what’s next? Expect even greater focus on conversational queries, contextual understanding, and satisfying searcher intent with comprehensive content and answers.

Title tags, meta keywords, and other simplistic targeting will become less reliable as semantic search intelligence improves.

However, foundational factors like fast site speed, great content, and genuine user engagement never go out of style. Keeping pace with Google’s core algorithm updates creates the winning formula for long-term SEO success.

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