The Evolution of Search: Google’s Change History Explored

Adrianna Mieras

Senior SEO Strategist

For the past two decades, Google has been toying with marketers’ emotions as change after change has come down the pipe. Beginning with a general uproar in search algorithm processes in 2002, Google carried out a series of changes that have kept marketers and business owners on their toes for years. Discover the dizzying history of algorithm changes, how they’ve impacted businesses, and how to keep up.

Back in the Day: SEO in Its Infancy

Before SEO was a marketing requirement, savvy marketers were trying to outsmart the search engines. Also termed “black hat tactics,” sneaky techniques, like stuffing keywords onto a webpage and using hidden text to boost SEO, were commonplace and even considered best practices.

The Early 2000s

A short five years after Google was founded, the first official update – named Boston – hit the digital world. In the months to follow, webpages were closely scrutinized by Google’s algorithms in an effort to weed out broken links, hidden links, and inauthentic backlinks. The year 2003 saw seven named updates, with 12 additional updates launched before the end of 2005. Here’s a snapshot of Google’s major accomplishments during this period:

Improved categorization of URLs
Targeted use of paid links and link farms
Cracked down on spammy backlink tactics previously touted by top SEOs
Florida, among the first of Google’s named algorithm changes, targets keyword stuffing
XML sitemap submission begins

In retrospect, Google’s first algorithm updates were just the beginning of what would become the war of the 1st page – Google’s, that is.

Algorithm Changes: 2005-2010

When compared to its first 7 years in business, Google slowed down in the latter half of the decade. From 2005-2008, few updates were made to search engine crawlers or the search engine’s infrastructure. In 2009, Google launched real-time search, a large infrastructure change, and increased its focus on social signals just in time for its slew of major overhauls in 2010. During this transformation, Google completed the following:

Google rolls out “Places,” an indicator that the search engine was beginning to favor locations.
Large sites with minimal content got slammed by 2010 updates.
Google’s speed, crawling efficiency, and indexing is greatly improved.
Social signals were confirmed as an important ranking factor.
Google began to allow the same domain to occupy multiple positions in the search engine results pages.

Though Google clearly refined its standards, 2010 proved to be the last bastion of leniency in Google’s repertoire. As you’ll soon find out, the following year proved to be game changing for marketers.

2011-2014: The Rise (and Staying Power) of Penguin and Panda

Unknown to most SEOs, 2011 was destined to be a record year for Google. Between steep brand penalties given to major retailers and the release of Panda, websites using black hat SEO techniques like keyword stuffing, paid links, and duplicate content faced the wrath of Google’s algorithms. Specifically, these three short years signaled the following accomplishments for Google:

Reduced duplicate content, leading companies to focus on fresh, timely content.
Increased emphasis on quality backlinks.
Refocused importance on local SEO.
Rewarded optimized websites equipped with social sharing buttons.
Improved image search structure.
Long form content and in-depth articles are given preferential treatment in SERPs.

The latter half of 2014 saw significant changes to Google’s algorithms. In July, the company’s newest series of algorithm changes – Pigeon – revamped the importance of local SEO and how it’s registered. Another focus of Google’s updates, mobile-friendly search and secure websites, emerged just before fall began.

Present Day: The Current State of SEO

With updates coming frequently – sometimes three a month – marketers are facing more challenges than ever before to remain on the right SEO path. Based on the latest updates, it seems that Google is favoring websites that play well with mobile devices, include relevant content, and receive high social impressions. Though frequently changing, SEO best practices include:

Optimize for mobile. Whether you like to or not, optimizing your website for mobile users is no longer “nice to have”; it’s a requirement. Between attracting local customers and reducing your site’s bounce rate, optimizing for mobile is a smart marketing move.

Personalize content. Content may be king, but it isn’t new. Readers are overwhelmed with branded messages hitting them from every angle of the Web. Don’t add to the barrage of general content. Use email marketing and segmentation to specifically target different members of your audience and increase engagement, leading to a greater time on page.

Use social media to expand visibility. Social media has the potential to take your content from “okay” to viral in 24 hours or less (just ask any celebrity). Furthermore, it’s a fantastic, real-time way to interact with your audience, provide customer service, and gain additional leads.

Publish fresh, relevant content. Thin, dated content is simply insufficient in the modern SEO world. Ideally, brands should publish content on their websites, social media channels, and via guest posts to reap the most SEO benefits.

Vary your content strategy. Blogging infrequently and sending a semi-annual email newsletter isn’t enough to get your brand noticed in the digital environment. Google’s series of updates has taught marketers that variety is important. Focus on creating original content in a variety of media, such as videos, infographics, and slide presentations, in addition to incorporating curated content.

Get your website redesigned. Poor user experience is among the top reasons a potential customer will leave your site without a second thought. Unfortunately, you can’t convince a customer to stick around once they’ve decided to leave. Inspire visitors to explore your website by completing a redesign.

Spend time acquiring quality links. In the early days of Google, spammy backlinking strategies were a great way to get out of doing real work. However, Google has made it clear that quality backlinks are essential to online visibility. Focus on reaching out to editorial staff, bloggers, and others in your industry to promote thought leadership and gain quality backlinks.

Keeping up with changing SEO trends is difficult – even for the pros! Simply following each search engine algorithm change can become exhausting. Most business owners don’t have the time to take a decent lunch, let alone tackle the ever-changing world where SEO thrives. If you can identify, you may benefit from working with SEO professionals.

About the Author: Adrianna Mieras

Adrianna is an SEO Strategist at SEMGeeks. She holds a BA in Communication Studies with a concentration in Digital Communication, Information and Media from Rutgers University. She takes pride in her work and thrives off of "position one" success. Born and raised at the Jersey Shore, Adrianna spends her free time riding her bike along the beach and swimming in the ocean. She has a passion for people, places and new experiences. It is rare to find her without a smile on her face.

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