Sep 29, 2011
The ‘Secret Sauce’ of Google
An update takes place when a search engine reorganize their ranking algorithm and starts to re-rank all the Web pages in their database based upon the most recent ranking criteria. Since its inception about 1.2 decade ago, Google have attempted thousands of alterations to their algorithm, or “secret sauce” which makes the search tycoon actually function.
The news making the rounds that at any given instance no single person has complete knowledge of all of the pieces to the algorithm, but those that do have a handsome knowledge about it are paid lavishly, in order to restrain them from forsaking the company.
Google has a notorious reputation of constantly making piddling changes, however infrequently still it unleashes a major change once annually or biannually that can virtually mess up search results on search engine results pages (SERPs). Few of the bigger algorithm changes have been calamitous for certain types of Web sites or SEO practices and are now ascribed names akin to those given to tropical storms.
Google Updates from 2000 to 2011
The following are a few historic Google updates spanning a little over a decade i.e. from 2000-2011 that encompasses major algorithm changes:
Google Toolbar – December 2000Guaranteeing SEO arguments for years to come, Google launched their browser toolbar, and with it, Toolbar PageRank (TBPR). As soon as webmasters started watching TBPR, the Google Dance began.
1st Documented Update – September 2002Before “Boston” (the first named update), there was a major shuffle in the Fall of 2002. The details are unclear, but this appeared to be more than the monthly Google Dance and PageRank update.
Florida – November 2003This was the update that put updates (and probably the SEO industry) on the map. Many sites lost ranking, and business owners were furious. Florida sounded the death knell for low-value late 90s SEO tactics, like keyword stuffing, and made the game a whole lot more interesting.
Supplemental Index – September 2003In order to index more documents without sacrificing performance, Google split off some results into the “supplemental” index. The perils of having results go supplemental became a hotly debated SEO topic, until the index was later reintegrated.
Fritz – July 2003The monthly “Google Dance” finally came to an end with the “Fritz” update. Instead of completely overhauling the index on a roughly monthly basis, Google switched to an incremental approach. The index was now changing daily.
Esmerelda – June 2003This marked the last of the regular monthly Google updates, as a more continuous update process began to emerge. The “Google Dance” was replaced with “Everflux”. Esmerelda probably heralded some major infrastructure changes at Google.
Dominic – May 2003While many changes were observed in May, the exact nature of Dominic was unclear. Google bots “Freshbot” and “Deepcrawler” scoured the web, and many sites reported bounces. The way Google counted or reported backlinks seemed to change dramatically.
Cassandra – April 2003Google cracked down on some basic link-quality issues, such as massive linking from co-owned domains. Cassandra also came down hard on hidden text and hidden links.
Boston – February 2003Announced at SES Boston, this was the first named Google update. Originally, Google aimed at a major monthly update, so the first few updates were a combination of algorithm changes and major index refreshes (the so-called “Google Dance”). As updates became more frequent, the monthly idea quickly died.
Google IPO – August 2004Although obviously not an algorithm update, a major event in Google’s history – Google sold 19M shares, raised $1.67B in capital, and set their market value at over $20B. By January 2005, Google share prices more than doubled.
Brandy – February 2004Google rolled out a variety of changes, including a massive index expansion, Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI), increased attention to anchor text relevance, and the concept of link “neighborhoods.” LSI expanded Google’s ability to understand synonyms and took keyword analysis to the next level.
Austin – January 2004What Florida missed, Austin came in to clean up. Google continued to crack-down on deceptive on-page tactics, including invisible text and META-tag stuffing. Some speculated that Google put the “Hilltop” algorithm into play and began to take page relevance seriously.
Big Daddy – December 2005Technically, Big Daddy was an infrastructure update (like the more recent “Caffeine”), and it rolled out over a few months, wrapping up in March of 2006. Big Daddy changed the way Google handled URL canonicalization, redirects (301/302) and other technical issues.
Jagger – October 2005Google released a series of updates, mostly targeted at low-quality links, including reciprocal links, link farms, and paid links. Jagger rolled out in at least 3 stages, from roughly September to November of 2005, with the greatest impact occurring in October.
Google Local/Maps – October 2005After launching the Local Business Center in March 2005 and encouraging businesses to update their information, Google merged its Maps data into the LBC, in a move that would eventually drive a number of changes in local SEO.
Gilligan – September 2005Also called the “False” update ? webmasters saw changes (probably ongoing), but Google claimed no major algorithm update occurred.
Personalized Search – June 2005Unlike previous attempts at personalization, which required custom settings and profiles, the 2005 roll-out of personalized search tapped directly into users? search histories to automatically adjust results. Although the impact was small at first, Google would go on to use search history for many applications.
XML Sitemaps – June 2005Google allowed webmasters to submit XML sitemaps via Webmaster Tools, bypassing traditional HTML sitemaps, and giving SEOs direct (albeit minor) influence over crawling and indexation.
Bourbon – May 2005“GoogleGuy” (likely Matt Cutts) announced that Google was rolling out “something like 3.5 changes in search quality.” No one was sure what 0.5 of a change was, but Webmaster World members speculated that Bourbon changed how duplicate content and non-canonical (www vs. non-www) URLs were treated.
Allegra – February 2005Webmasters witnessed ranking changes, but the specifics of the update were unclear. Some thought Allegra affected the “sandbox” while others believed that LSI had been tweaked. Additionally, some speculated that Google was beginning to penalize suspicious links.
Nofollow – January 2005To combat spam and control outbound link quality, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft collectively introduce the “nofollow” attribute. Nofollow helps clean up unvouched for links, including spammy blog comments. While not a traditional algorithm update, this change gradually has a significant impact on the link graph.
False Alarm – December 2006There were stirrings about an update in December, along with some reports of major ranking changes in November, but Google reported no major changes.
Supplemental Update – November 2006Throughout 2006, Google seemed to make changes to the supplemental index and how filtered pages were treated. They claimed in late 2006 that supplemental was not a penalty (even if it sometimes felt that way).
Buffy – June 2007In honor of Vanessa Fox leaving Google, the “Buffy” update was christened. No one was quite sure what happened, and Matt Cutts suggested that Buffy was just an accumulation of smaller changes.
Universal Search – May 2007While not your typical algorithm update, Google integrated traditional search results with News, Video, Images, Local, and other verticals, dramatically changing their format. The old 10-listing SERP was officially dead. Long live the old 10-listing SERP.
Google Suggest – August 2008In a major change to their logo-and-a-box home-page Google introduced Suggest, displaying suggested searches in a dropdown below the search box as visitors typed their queries. Suggest would later go on to power Google Instant.
Dewey – April 2008A large-scale shuffle seemed to occur at the end of March and into early April, but the specifics were unclear. Some suspected Google was pushing its own internal properties, including Google Books, but the evidence of that was limited.
Real-time Search – December 2009This time, real-time search was for real- Twitter feeds, Google News, newly indexed content, and a number of other sources were integrated into a real-time feed on some SERPs. Sources continued to expand over time, including social media.
Caffeine (Preview) – August 2009Google released a preview of a massive infrastructure change, designed to speed crawling, expand the index, and integrate indexation and ranking in nearly real-time. The timeline spanned months, with the final rollout starting in the US in early 2010 and lasting until the summer.
Rel-canonical Tag – February 2009Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo jointly announced support for the Canonical Tag, allowing webmasters to send canonicalization signals to search bots without impacting human visitors.
Vince – February 2009SEOs reported a major update that seemed to strongly favor big brands. Few called VInce a “minor change”, but others felt it had profound, long-term implications.
Social Signals – December 2010Google and Bing confirmed that they use social signals in determining ranking, including data from Twitter and Facebook. This was a relatively new development for Google, although many SEOs had long suspected it would happen.
Negative Reviews – December 2010After an expose in the New York Times about how e-commerce site DecorMyEyes was ranking based on negative reviews, Google made a rare move and reactively adjusted the algorithm to target sites using similar tactics.
Instant Previews – November 2010A magnifying glass icon appeared on Google search results, allowing search visitors to quickly view a preview of landing pages directly from SERPs. This signaled a renewed focus for Google on landing page quality, design, and usability.
Google Instant – September 2010Expanding on Google Suggest, Google Instant launched, displaying search results as a query was being typed. SEOs everywhere nearly spontaneously combusted, only to realize that the impact was ultimately fairly small.
Brand Update – August 2010Although not a traditional algorithm update, Google started allowing the same domain to appear multiple times on a SERP. Previously, domains were limited to 1-2 listings, or 1 listing with indented results.
Caffeine (Rollout) – June 2010After months of testing, Google finished rolling out the Caffeine infrastructure. Caffeine not only boosted Google’s raw speed, but integrated crawling and indexation much more tightly, resulting in (according to Google) a 50% fresher index.
May Day – May 2010In late April and early May, webmasters noticed significant drops in their long-tail traffic. It was later confirmed that May Day was an algorithm change impacting the long-tail. Sites with large-scale thin content seemed to be hit especially hard, foreshadowing the Panda update.
Google Places – April 2010Although “Places” pages were rolled out in September of 2009, they were originally only a part of Google Maps. The official launch of Google Places re-branded the Local Business Center, integrated Places pages more closely with local search results, and added a number of features, including new local advertising options.
516 Algo Updates – September 21, 2011This wasn’t an update, but it was an amazing revelation. Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Congress that Google made 516 updates in 2010. The real shocker? They tested over 13,000 updates.
Pagination Elements – September 15, 2011To help fix crawl and duplication problems created by pagination, Google introduced the rel=”next” and rel=”prev” link attributes. Google also announced that they had improved automatic consolidation and canonicalization for “View All” pages.
Expanded Sitelinks – August 16, 2011After experimenting for a while, Google officially rolled out expanded site-links, most often for brand queries. At first, these were 12-packs, but Google appeared to limit the expanded site-links to 6 shortly after the roll-out.
Panda Goes Global – August 12, 2011Google rolled Panda out internationally, both for English-language queries globally and non-English queries except for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Google reported that this impacted 6-9% of queries in affected countries.
Panda 2.3 – July 23, 2011Webmaster chatter suggested that Google rolled out yet another update. It was unclear whether new factors were introduced, or this was simply an update to the Panda data and ranking factors.
Google+ – June 28, 2011After a number of social media failures, Google launched a serious attack on Facebook with Google+. Google+ revolved around circles for sharing content, and was tightly integrated into products like Gmail. Early adopters were quick to jump on board, and within 2 weeks Google+ reached 10M users.
Panda 2.2 – June 21, 2011Google continued to update Panda-impacted sites and data, and version 2.2 was officially acknowledged. Panda updates occurred separately from the main index and not in real-time, reminiscent of early Google Dance updates.
Schema.org – June 2, 2011Google, Yahoo and Microsoft jointly announced support for a consolidated approach to structured data. They also created a number of new “schemas”, in an apparent bid to move toward even richer search results.
Panda 2.1 – May 9, 2011Initially dubbed “Panda 3.0”, Google appeared to roll out yet another round of changes. These changes weren’t discussed in detail by Google and seemed to be relatively minor.
Panda 2.0 – April 11, 2011Google rolled out the Panda update to all English queries worldwide (not limited to English-speaking countries). New signals were also integrated, including data about sites users blocked via the SERPs directly or the Chrome browser.
The +1 Button – March 30, 2011Responding to competition by major social sites, including Facebook and Twitter, Google launched the +1 button (directly next to results links). Clicking [+1] allowed users to influence search results within their social circle, across both organic and paid results.
Panda/Farmer – February 23, 2011A major algorithm update hit sites hard, affecting up to 12% of search results (a number that came directly from Google). Panda seemed to crack down on thin content, content farms, sites with high ad-to-content ratios, and a number of other quality issues. Panda rolled out over at least a couple of months, hitting Europe in April 2011.
Attribution Update – January 28, 2011In response to high-profile spam cases, Google rolled out an update to help better sort out content attribution and stop scrapers. According to Google, this affected about 2% of queries. It was a clear precursor to the Panda updates.
Overstock.com Penalty – January 2011
In a rare turn of events, a public outing of shady SEO practices by Overstock.com resulted in a very public Google penalty. JCPenney was hit with a penalty in February for similar bad behavior. Both situations represented a shift in Google’s attitude and foreshadowed the Panda update.
After analyzing the changes Google has made in the previous years, the biggest conclusion to draw is that Google is in constant activity. A dynamic that causes some anxiety for those SEO professionals who remain alert to the traffic data of their sites every time it announced a major upgrade of the browser.
Therefore it is better to comprehend that all search engine ranking algorithms are proprietary and when changes to ranking algorithms are made, it takes a while before the effects are understood. If search engines divulged how their algorithms work, site owners would easily circumvent them. It can be difficult to pinpoint the issues with a new algorithm until after it stabilizes. What you need is the flexibility in your approach and definitely should not focus on a specific ranking factor. The algorithm is tweaked hundreds of times each year, and what works today might not work tomorrow or in extreme cases, even be considered spam. It’s clear from Google’s relentless pursuit to remove spam from the index that your efforts really should be producing quality content and establishing credibility and authority by attracting natural, relevant links from authoritative sites.
However fundamentally the basics still remain the same, and will never change with the wind, which first is continually provide unique and interesting content; secondly be social (search engines follow people) and lastly if you have good enough content, people will ultimately link to it.