Google’s algorithms are a complex system designed to retrieve data from its search index and instantly deliver the best possible results for a search query. The search engine uses a combination of algorithms and numerous ranking factors to sort web pages by relevance on the search engine results pages (SERPs).

In the early years, Google made only a handful of updates to its algorithms. Today, Google makes thousands of changes every year.

Most of these updates are so minor that they go completely unnoticed. Occasionally, however, the search engine makes major algorithm updates that have a significant impact on SERPs.

Overview of the most important Google updates

  1. Google Panda (February 2011): This update aimed to penalize websites with low-quality content and reward websites with high-quality content.
  2. Google Penguin (April 2012): The goal of this update was to penalize websites that attempt to influence search engine rankings through the use of excessive or manipulative linking practices.
  3. Google Hummingbird (August 2013): This update introduced improved natural language processing and semantic search to better understand the intent behind search queries.
  4. Google Pigeon (July 2014): This update improved local search results and better integrated them with traditional web search signal parameters.
  5. Google Mobile Friendly Update (April 2015): Also known as “Mobilegeddon”, this update favored websites that looked and worked well on mobile devices.
  6. Google RankBrain (October 2015): A machine learning system that helps understand the meaning of search queries.
  7. Google Possum (September 2016): This update changed the way the searcher’s location affects search results.
  8. Google Fred (March 2017): An update that penalizes sites that pass over high-quality content in favor of affiliate links and ads.
  9. Google Mobile First Indexing (March 2018): Google started using the mobile version of websites for indexing and ranking.
  10. Google BERT (October 2019): An update to improve the understanding of natural language in search queries, especially for longer, more conversational queries.
  11. Google Core Updates (regular): These updates refer to changes in Google’s main algorithms and systems used to rank search results. They occur several times a year.
  12. Google Page Experience Update (May 2021): This update focuses on user experience on websites, including load time, interactivity, and stability of visual content.

The Panda Update

All this changed fundamentally in February 2011 with Google’s Panda update. Google had recognized the problem and wanted to improve the quality of the content with this update, so that users can also benefit from the quality of the texts. So, those who had bad content or hid it from their users were the clear losers of the Panda update. Until 2016, there were always new versions of this update to achieve that the content became better and better.

Since 2016, the criteria of the Panda update have now been transferred to Google’s so-called core algorithm. That is, they are always refined and rolled out very regularly. The advantage is that you don’t have to wait for the next update to get ranking improvements through optimizations.

About the Google Panda update

The Panda update is a filter that is regularly applied to the entire Google index and significantly reduces the visibility of poor-quality websites, i.e. shifts their rankings in the search results pages significantly backwards.

The algorithm change was first introduced in the U.S. market on Feb. 23, 2011, and then played out globally for all English-language search queries on April 11, 2011.

On 2011-08-12, the change to the ranking algorithm was adopted globally for all available languages except Chinese, Japanese and Korean. In this context, people talk about the worldwide release of the Google Panda update.

By the way, the algorithm change is not named after the Panda bear, as is often assumed, but after Google engineer Navneet Panda, whose contribution was largely responsible for the completion of this filter.

Further improvement with the Hummingbird update

In August 2013, Google explicitly addressed the misspellings and synonyms of keywords with the help of its Hummingbird update. Since then, Google recognizes semantic relationships much better and you only need one page for each topic.

The aim of Google’s new search algorithm “Hummingbird” was to be able to better interpret user search queries and thus improve the quality of search results.

The code name “Hummingbird” is intended to indicate that search results will be presented quickly and accurately in the future.

The new search algorithm is able to interpret the entire search query (better), instead of searching only for individual words within the search query as before. Google thus understands the intention of a search query as well as the content of a web document even better. These two factors are fundamental factors for improving search results.

About the Hummingbird Update

“Hummingbird impacts all types of queries, but it’s especially effective for long queries, which are on the rise.”

– Amit Singhal, Google VP Software Engineer

What is the Google Hummingbird update?

To mark the 15th anniversary of Google Search, it was announced on September 26, 2013, that Google had undergone a major overhaul of its search algorithm and that a new algorithm, Hummingbird, had already formed the basis of all Google Search since August 2013.

Why was this algorithm change so special?

The Google Hummingbird update is different from other Google algorithm changes because it is a fully new search algorithm that forms the basis of Google search. Google updates such as the Panda update or the Penguin update were significant changes (updates) to Google’s ranking algorithm – which is a part of the search algorithm.
The last time Google made a similarly significant change was in 2010 with the Google Caffeine Update. According to the then head of Google search team, Amit Singhal, the last time a Google algorithm was so fundamentally changed was in 2001.

What was the goal of the Hummingbird update?

The aim of Google’s new search algorithm “Hummingbird” was to be able to better interpret user search queries and thus improve the quality of search results.

The code name “Hummingbird” is supposed to indicate that the search results will be as fast and precise as a hummingbird in the future.
The new search algorithm is able to interpret the entire search query in terms of content, instead of only searching for individual words within the search query as was previously the case. Google thus understands the intention of a search query as well as the content of a web document even better. These two factors are fundamental factors for improving search results.

So Hummingbird pays more attention to each word in a search and makes sure that the entire query is considered, not just specific words. The goal is to have pages that match the meaning perform better than pages that contain only a few words. So Hummingbird was the final entry into semantic search.

How did the Hummingbird update manifest itself?

According to Google, the Hummingbird update should vastly improve the quality of search results for long and complex queries. In these searches, the user’s entire search query is better interpreted and more relevant results are returned accordingly. Accordingly, the search results are sorted differently than before and ultimately provide a more targeted response.

Did this make other Google updates irrelevant now?

Since the Hummingbird update was a completely newly developed algorithm that henceforth formed the basis of Google search, other ranking algorithms such as Panda and Penguin were most likely integrated into the search algorithm as an elementary part of it.

Fight spam with Penguin

In 2012, Google officially introduced the “Webspam Algorithm Update”, which specifically targeted link spam and manipulative link building practices.

The webspam algorithm later became (officially) known as the Penguin algorithm update through a tweet from Matt Cutts, then head of Google’s webspam team.

Although Google officially named the algorithm Penguin, it is not known where this name came from.

Ten years have passed since Google introduced the Penguin algorithm and took a tougher stance against manipulative link building practices.

The algorithm has been updated several times and has become a real-time component of Google’s core algorithm. As a result, penalties have become less frequent, but they still exist both in relation to individual URLs and complete domains.

By and large, Google claims to ignore many low-quality online links, but is still vigilant and watches for unnatural patterns such as link schemes, PBNs, link exchanges, and unnatural outbound linking patterns.


Then, in early 2015, Google rolled out RankBrain. RankBrain was directly named the third most important ranking factor by Google.

RankBrain refers to an algorithm used by Google to deliver primarily relevant search results for previously unanswered search queries using machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The big difference to the Google updates to date is that the RankBrain itself learns new things and the adjustments to the algorithm are not carried out by humans.

There is a discussion among SEOs about how RankBrain should be classified in the systematics of Google updates. Some SEOs – such as Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand – refer to RankBrain as part of the Hummingbird search algorithm.

Ultimately, RankBrain is also another step towards better understanding the semantics of language. Google brought this capability down to a simple denominator with the words “things not strings.” Accordingly, since RankBrain, Google can not only find “strings”, i.e. chains of words, but also recognize “things”, i.e. the meaning of words.

Even though RankBrain ranks third in Google’s ranking factors, it remains only one of several hundred factors that Google uses to determine the relevance and quality of a website in relation to a search query and to calculate search results accordingly.

Then came BERT

With the BERT update, Google is trying to better recognize the context within a search query and deliver appropriate results accordingly. Bert is the biggest algorithm change since Hummingbird and affects one in ten search queries.

With the Google BERT update, Google aims to improve the understanding of complex long-tail search queries and display more relevant results. With the help of Natural Language Processing, Google can now understand the semantic context of a search query much better.

BERT is therefore a further development of Panda, Hummingbird and Rank Brain. Also with BERT, Google tries to recognize the context within a search query and deliver matching results.

As with all updates by now, Google emphasizes that there is no need or even possibility to react to the BERT update directly. Rather, he said, it is more crucial than ever to create high-quality content and make users happy.

Fred update against low quality websites

The update to Google’s Fred algorithm sought to remove what Google considers to be low-quality results, i.e. websites that rely on thin content and aggressive ad placement.

Many of these were affilitae sites, but not all.

Most used content as their primary traffic driver. However, the quality of content on the affected websites was mostly very low, and advertising was very prominent.

However, the impact of the Fred updates was greater for some websites than it was after the roll-out of the Panda update. Thus, some pages lost up to 100 positions in the ranking. For webmasters and SEOs, this makes it even clearer that high-quality content as well as compliance with Google’s guidelines are absolutely necessary for webmasters in order not to be penalized.

Because Google does not specify the individual algorithm changes and only refers to quality in general, website operators had to ask themselves all the more after the Fred update whether their pages are user-friendly and meet user needs. Accordingly, one consequence of the Fred updates could be that the motto “What’s good for users is good for Google” should become the unrestricted credo of every search engine optimization today.

Fight against AI Content: Helpful Content Update

With the Helpful Content Update, Google is consistently following the path it has already taken with BERT and the Page Experience Update: The search intention and satisfaction of the user are decisive for the search engine titan.

This update, rolled out between August 25 and September 9, 2022 in the U.S. and December 2022 globally, added a new signal for the entire website that Google takes into account, among many other ranking factors. After this update, Google’s algorithm can automatically identify content that provides little or no additional value to searchers or is considered unhelpful for a variety of reasons.

Google advises all content creators to take a human-centric approach rather than creating content specifically for search engines. Original content created “by users for users” is the focus. With this update, Google is also making a statement against automatically generated content (e.g. by AI).

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