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Google Updates Through The Years

Many SEO professionals fall victim to Google’s continuous algorithm tweaks. Although nobody is immune to the ranking fluctuations caused by these updates, understanding Google’s goal of providing quality results to its visitors is key to minimizing damage from these fluctuations. Google makes 3-400 changes a year to its algorithm and the vast majority of these go unnoticed even by experienced pros. There are many that we do notice though and as the famous George Santayana quote goes: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

When Google changes their ranking methods they often do so publicly with fair warning. They will place the update on an isolated server and allow people in the industry to test drive it before making it live on all data centers. These are the fun ones. Other Google updates hit the search world like a ton of bricks sending unsuspecting webmasters reeling. Most SEOers that have been around for all of these updates have taken the advice of George Santayana, we simply give Google what they want and most updates go unnoticed by our clients .

The below list of updates is taken from my own SEO database, from notes gathered through the years.

Boston, March 2003

This is regarded as Google’s first update. Boston was so named because it was announced at the Search Engine Strategies Conference in Boston MA. This update removed any value Google was placing on links from expired domains. It also addressed the value given from links on directories but Google was vague on which directories were still useful.

Cassandra, February 2003

This update hammered sites with hidden text and hidden links. Google also started noticing that it was passing too much PageRank to web sites with multiple inbound links from the same source.

Dominic, (AKA Your guess is as good as mine update) Summer 2003

Nobody ever knew why but SEOers were convinced something was up at Google. What used to be up was down and what used to be down was up. This was a huge update that was never fully explained by Google despite thousands of posts at Google’s webmaster forums. During this time the Google Dance was a real phenomenon as the Google crawlers named Freshbot and Deepcrawler visited web sites around the www.

Esmeralda (AKA Fritz), June 2003

Provided a more continuous update process to its index that lessened and eventually eliminated the monthly Google Dance which sent web sites jumping up and down in the results pages.

Note: During this time Google was preparing for their initial public offering. The bad press from all the updates was not welcome!

Florida, November 2003

Finally Google was doing something about webmasters that had built hundreds of web sites for the sole purpose of giving a link to another web site. This devaluation was sudden and unexpected and put many blackhat SEOers straight out of business. Link Farms were now dead.

Brandy, (AKA Vince) January 2004

This update did not affect the vast majority of queries but did rearrange results pages where a brand name was used in the query. Prior to the update a search that included a brand name like “Mustang” might return lots of car related web sites. After the update different sites were displayed that could have included cars, horses or sports teams with Mustang as their nickname.

Allegra, February 2005

I always thought this was simply an update to Florida as we saw another decrease in importance of unnaturally gained links. Also rumored to decrease relevance to meta data. Also from this update the term over-optimized was made popular to explain keyword stuffing.
Note: After Florida most SEOers had stopped all spammy, obvious link building methods so this update had little to no impact on most people’s ranks.

Bourbon, May 2005

(named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, site of the 2005 Webmaster world conference) This was (as far as I know) Google’s first attempt to filter out content scrapers. Quickly building a web site with text stolen other people’s sites (which I always considered theft) was now seen as web spam. Google has done a good job of filtering out sites that steal content but it is still a problem today. The Bourbon Update also started looking at web site families (lots of sites all linking to each other) aka link wheels. This update also addressed unnatural link building when otherwise static sites suddenly gained hundreds of links.

Jagger August 2005

This was a huge update that sent SEOers spinning! This update rolled out many changes all under the Jagger umbrella. Inbound Links have always been the most important element of SEO once the on-site elements are addressed. The Jagger update increased the importance of relevant links and decreased the value of seemingly non-related random links. This means if you own a landscaping business a great link from a interior designer will provide much less value. On the other hand a link from a landscape supply center would be more valuable. This addressed much of the reciprocal linking (you link to me and I’ll link to you) problem Google was dealing with. This devaluation of non-reciprocal links had tons of associated fallout and bad press for Google however after the dust settled most agreed that the update significantly improved search results.
The Jagger update also gave surfers the ability to report low quality sites that were running adsense ads in violation of Google’s TOU.

BigDaddy January 2006

Sites with excessive reciprocal links, links to bad neighborhoods and those that engaged in link buying and selling were filtered.

Googlebomb February 2007

The Googlebomb fad of 2007 showed the world the importance of anchor text (the words used in a link to another page or web site) and also became fodder for nefarious political attacks. In 2007 you could Google the words “Miserable Failure” and Whitehouse.gov came up as the first result. This rank was caused by tens of thousands of George Bush hating webmasters all linking to the whitehouse using the anchor text miserable failure. Another Googlebomb listed John Kerry first for the word “Waffle”. Google fixed it after an article on a political blog exposed the dirty deed.

Interface Updates 2008-2010

Instead of the earth shaking updates we have grown accostomed to, Google is making more changes in the way their results pages provide data to users. Google Places, Google Instant, Google Suggest, Real Time and Personalized search are all rolled out giving users more ways to use Google. In February 2009 Google announced support for the canonical tag whci allowed webmasters set a preferred location for a page. Important on sites where duplicate URLs are a problem.

Mayday: June 2010

A change in rankings as opposed to an algorithm change. The update gave increased value to quality web sites for “long tail” key phrase searches. The result was pages on web sites that had earned little authority on its own (as opposed to authority flowing from the home page) were listed far lower in the results pages.

Caffeine June 2010

When you perform a search on Google you are not searching the world wide web but instead are searching Google’s library of sites it has in its index. The Caffeine update was an infrastructure change that allowed for faster indexing of new and updated pages and a result provided much fresher results to Google surfers.

Décor December 2010

An update that devalued sites that were purposely mistreating people in an attempt to fire them up to such a degree that they blogged about their displeasure thus providing a link to the site. Before this there were no bad relevant links from quality sites regardless of the reason for the link.

Farmer / Panda Update February 2011

Content Farms / Article Marketing sites have been devalued along with the links.

Freshness Update November 3rd 2011

Google promises fresher results in its pages. This is long overdue for many SEOers. So time to dust off those old blogs and update that last post from 2007!

Google OOPs Update March 2012

Every Google update gets a name from people in the industry and this one has been coined the OOPs Update for Over OPtimization Penalty. Google is not good at giving specifics but what this means to SEOs is to be very careful with anchor text. Anyone who is building links to a site that uses the same anchor over and over to attempt to “target” a specific key phrase is getting very poor results.

The Next Update

Who knows what it will do? I would love to see Mayday diminished as many great web pages were unfairly devalued. Nowhere above did I mention Latent Semantic Indexing which is a term used to describe words similar to the searched keyword appearing in the results pages but Google is surely using it. Guest blogging, blogmenting, directory linking, forum links, tri-ciprocal linking and the like will all probably fall someday as Google’s spam team continually looks to devalue unnaturally gained links. To this end the webmasters best course of action is to give Google what it wants to give to its visitors, the best, most informative web site possible. That should always be the goal!