How and Why Does Google Change its Ranking Algorithm?

Over the years, Google has cemented its place as the top search engine in the world, with over 3.5 billion searches a day.

Google has become more than a search engine though. It's seen as the body that controls how businesses reach their customers, thanks to the Google ranking algorithm.

With time, Google has become more structured, organized and reliable in its indexing. It continues to refine this process to achieve its ultimate aim of showing users the most relevant answers to their search inquiries.

The search engine achieves this refinement by sending out regular updates to modify its algorithm. Some of these updates have been minor while some of them shook the internet and paved the way for the developing field of search engine optimization.

What is the Google Ranking Algorithm?

Generally, an algorithm is a set of steps that guides a process. Algorithms are highly important no matter how simple or complex a task may be. They ensure that a process is structured and can be repeated.

The Google ranking algorithm is basically a recipe that Google uses to rate pages and select the ones that best meet a user’s needs. There are many ranking factors that are taken into consideration with Google’s algorithm including page rank, quality content, and context.

How Does the Algorithm Work?

Google crawls through pages on the internet and checks for certain qualities. It assigns numerical values to these qualities and derives a total based on their sum. This final value determines how good the quality of a site is, compared to others.

The higher a page ranks, the more likely it is to reach the top of the search results. Pages are promoted, demoted or even penalized in the process. The algorithm is always crawling pages and because of process, page ranking may fluctuate. A page that was the number four result can jump to number 10 or number one at any time.

Notable Google Algorithm Updates

These are some of Google’s updates that changed the entire game and shook the marketing world. There are other updates but most of them are improvements on these and are not as significant.

Caffeine Update, 2010

The caffeine update was one of Google’s 2010 updates and focused mainly on its web index. Although it came out in 2010, it was announced in 2009 and developers were given a chance to preview it.

This update wasn’t a complete algorithm change, just a small part that made a huge difference. To understand it better, picture your most used work bag. You always carry a lot of load in it and the handles aren’t as strong as you’d like. You send the handles for maintenance, a stitch (update) here and there. But now you want improved functionality so you change the handles to stronger ones without replacing the bag. Now you have a bag that is better than it was, but is still the same bag.

The Caffeine update changed the speed, size and relevance of Google’s indexed results. Result load time was reported to have risen by up to 50% after the update rolled out.

The search engine was also able to index more pages and store more data, leading to fresher content being seen. Due to more pages being crawled, it was easier to fish out the most useful ones.

Panda Update, 2011

Panda, originally known as “Farmer”, was one of the updates to the Google ranking algorithm that spelled doom for a lot of sites. The update targeted the following:

  • Duplicate content on several pages, even on the same website
  • Low quality content that is short, thin and doesn’t contain enough information to answer a user’s search inquiry
  • Sites with low authority and trust
  • Pages that are not secure
  • Web pages that have more ads than useful content
  • Misleading headlines that don’t lead to content specified in the headline
  • Content farming, especially from unreliable sources

The Panda update changed the way internet marketing was done and paved the way for better methods.

Penguin Update, 2012

Another major modification to the Google ranking algorithm is the Penguin update. It was launched in April 2012 and has undergone 10 updates to date.

The main function of the Penguin update was to tackle black hat link building practices and keyword stuffing, which Panda had been unable to capture.

Keyword stuffing refers to the practice of overpopulating a page with a keyword to make that page rank higher. At one point, keyword stuffing got the job done and sites that practiced it ranked high in search results. The Penguin update tackled the problem by penalizing sites and pages that had been stuffed with keywords, forcing marketers to use different methods.

Websites that practiced link schemes like buying low quality inbound links and outbound links from unrelated websites were also weeded out.

Hummingbird Update, 2013

The hummingbird update, so-called because of its speedy release in August, 2013, wasn’t just an update, it was a total revamp of Google’s algorithm.

The update changed the way Google looked at search requests. Instead of just searching for keywords, it checked for context. By understanding and checking for what a user really means, the algorithm is able to match the inquiry to the high-quality content.

Due to the need for better context in an article, it has become common practice to use latent search indexing (LSI) keywords. These are phrases that relate to the original keyword that appears in an article. 

Rankbrain Update, 2015

Google called Rankbrain its 3rd most important ranking signal, and for good reason. This update implemented the use of machine learning to adjust the Google ranking algorithm, as opposed to a team of engineers.

It is a part of the Hummingbird update and helps Google understand search queries and the interaction between users and search results.

Mobilegeddon Update, 2015

Google’s mobile friendly update, Mobilegeddon, favors websites that are responsive on mobile devices. In 2017, Google stated that most of its daily searches come from mobile and it wants to give priority to sites that are optimized for mobile.

Quality Update, 2015

The quality update, also known as Phantom II rewarded sites with high quality content and good user experience. User-generated sites with thin content and too many ads were dropped while user-generated sites with high quality content saw a rank boost.

How to succeed with Google’s Constant Updates

With all the changes that Google has made to its algorithm, content has become a war game. Marketers and SEO experts continue to have sleepless nights, working hard to make sure their sites are not penalized by Google. Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to stay on top of these changes.

  • Focus on bringing users satisfaction more than focusing on search engines
  • Optimize for mobile
  • Stay far from black hat SEO tricks like buying backlinks

Final Thoughts

As time goes on, the Google ranking algorithm will continue to undergo changes to make it better. There’s no telling how this will affect brands in the future. SEO continues to be an important part of so many businesses and the more updates that are released, the further brands are pushed to be more competitive.

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About the Author: Gregg Anderson

Gregg Anderson

Gregg is principal and senior advisor of 41 Orange.

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