Staying ahead of Google’s ranking algorithm is tough. But it’s not impossible. The trick is understanding the practices Google has targeted with every previous update.
That’s where this guide comes in.
I’ll walk you through a brief timeline of Google updates, explain what happened, and show you some tried and true Google search hacks that you can use to keep (or even improve) your rankings with every future update.
I highly recommend reading this article front to back if you’re new to algorithm updates. But feel free to jump ahead using the table of contents below.
- What Do We Know About Google Algorithm’s Ranking Factors?
- How Often Are Google Algorithm Changes Released?
- My Brief Timeline of Google Algorithm Updates
- The Google Algorithm Updates You Need to Know About
- How Do I Know When Google Releases a New Algorithm Update?
- How to Determine Which Google Algorithm Update Hit Your Website
- Is Google’s Algorithm Different From Other Search Engines?
- How to Succeed With Google’s Algorithm
What Do We Know About Google Algorithm’s Ranking Factors?
Let’s start by looking at what we know about Google’s algorithm and its ranking factors.
The truth is that it’s not much.
That’s because Google won’t reveal its top ranking factors. In other words, no one’s entirely sure what boxes to tick to rank well. That said, here’s a rundown of the ranking factors we do know about:
- Page speed: Google likes fast websites because they result in a great user experience. Your rankings could take a hit if your website is slow to load.
- Content relevance: Google rewards relevance. While you shouldn’t stuff your website with keywords, you should use relevant keywords and create relevant content around those terms.
- Site design: Your website should be user-friendly and easy to navigate.
- Link quality: Backlinks are a core ranking factor, but not just any links will do. High-quality links from authoritative websites matter.
- Mobile-friendliness: Google uses the mobile version of your website first for ranking and indexing, which makes “mobile-friendliness” a ranking factor.
- HTTPS status: Google prefers secure websites since they’re more trustworthy. HTTPS is more secure than HTTP, so having an SSL certificate can help your ranking.
- User engagement: Finally, Google may penalize websites with high bounce rates since they suggest a poor user experience.
How Often Are Google Algorithm Changes Released?
Google makes minor changes to its ranking algorithm daily. They might even release multiple updates in 24 hours.
Google search changes are usually small, and you probably won’t notice a drop in page rankings due to these updates alone.
However, the same can’t be said for the “core” updates. Google makes these larger, more sweeping changes a few times per year, and they can directly impact your page performance.
Look out for a core update at least once or twice a year.
My Brief Timeline of Google Algorithm Updates
Below is my concise Google algorithm update history. I’ve compiled a list of the most important Google Algorithm Updates sorted by their release date, with clickable hyperlinks so you can learn more about each one. Google may change its algorithm on a daily basis, but these are the large-scale updates that have had a lasting impact on how Google and SEOs operate:
- Search Generative Experience, October 2023
- How-to and FAQ, September 2023
- Product Review Update, April 2023
- Link Spam Update, October 2022
- Helpful Content Update, August 2022
- Google RankBrain, October 26, 2015
- Google Hummingbird, September 26, 2013
- Google Penguin, April 24, 2012
- Google Panda, February 24, 2011
The Google Algorithm Updates You Need to Know About
To help you better understand Google algorithm updates, here’s a rundown of some key historical updates and their impact on ranking strategies.
Search Generative Experience
Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE for short) isn’t so much an algorithm update as a comprehensive change to the way the platform operates. SGE is a new way to search that uses generative AI to produce in-depth responses to questions and answer follow-up questions.
SGE provides links to resources and helps users take the next steps with their queries. That could be booking a ticket or visiting an online store. Take the example above, for instance. Users can ask automatically generated follow-up questions to their initial query about Bryce Canyon, they can click on one of the accompanying links to learn more, or they can book a ticket using the links below.
Not just anyone can use SGE just yet. Users must opt-in to SGE, and it is only available in the U.S.
How-To and FAQ Changes
This update, released initially in August 2023 and upgraded in September 2023, changed how Google displayed rich search results like Frequently Asked Questions and How-Tos.
Specifically, Google reduced the visibility of FAQ rich results and limited How-To rich results on both desktop and mobile devices. As of September 13, Google no longer shows How-To rich results on desktop at all.
Where FAQ rich results are shown, they will be sourced from “well-known, authoritative government and health websites.”
There’s no need for websites to remove existing structured data that highlights FAQs and How-Tos from their website, but if you do, it won’t have an impact on their rankings.
Product Review Update
The April 2023 Product Review Update focuses on experience. It leans heavily into E-E-A-T guidelines, aka Google’s new level of content quality. It prioritizes review content that goes above and beyond much of the formulaic results you generally see. Google says its ranking algorithm will reward these types of product reviews in search results.
So, if you’re writing product reviews, make sure to put in the extra effort to make them informative and helpful. This means enhancing experience with:
- Visual evidence: Original photo content and not stock images
- Audio experience: Including original audio likely for accessibility
- Evidence of experience: Link to evidence of use of the product
- Quantitative measurements: Tracking performance of product
Link Spam Update
Between October 19 to 21, 2022, Google released an update targeting websites that buy and sell links. This was the first time Google used its AI-powered spam detection tool, SpamBrain.
Any benefit previously given to a purchased link was nullified. As Google’s John Mueller stated on X (formerly Twitter), there was no need to manually disavow spammy links.
Keeping a clean link profile is essential to avoid getting hit by this update. Don’t buy links and only use white hat techniques to generate them going forward.
Helpful Content Update
Google’s August 2022 Helpful Content Update is a new ranking algorithm update that rewards websites that produce high-quality content for visitors. Google wants to make sure that the top search results are filled with helpful and informative content that users will actually find useful. So, if you’re creating content, make sure to focus on quality and user-friendliness.
The initial update targeted English pages but was expanded globally to pages in all languages during a successive rollout from December 5, 2022, onwards.
In 2015, Google released a Hummingbird extension, RankBrain. It ranks pages based on whether they appear to answer a user’s search intent. In other words, it promotes the most relevant and informative content for a keyword or search phrase.
You can pass RankBrain’s scrutiny by researching the user intent behind every keyword and writing rich, quality content to meet their expectations.
This 2013 ranking algorithm update was all about bridging the gap between what keywords people used and the type of content they actually wanted to find. In other words, it aimed to humanize the search engine experience and move the most informative and relevant content to the first page.
In response, marketers leveled up by including more keyword variations and relevant search phrases to improve their chances of meeting readers’ expectations.
This update, introduced in 2012, directly combated “black hat” SEO tactics such as link directories and spammy backlinks. Like the Panda update, it also looked at keyword stuffing.
The goal was to move away from the emphasis on link volume to boost a page’s search ranking and move instead towards high-quality content that attracts valuable, engaging links.
Released in 2011, this SEO algorithm update targeted bad practices such as keyword stuffing and duplicate content. It introduced a “quality score” that helped rank web pages based on how people would perceive the content rather than how many keywords it included.
To “survive” Google Panda, marketers needed to create educational, quality content, rewrite underperforming articles, and use keywords strategically.
How Do I Know When Google Releases a New Algorithm Update?
There’s no need to track every single tweak Google makes to its ranking algorithm. However, it’s crucial to track core updates so you can adapt your SEO strategy accordingly.
First, set up a Google Alert for algorithm changes. With Google Alerts, you’ll receive a notification straight to your inbox whenever SEO algorithm updates are mentioned online so you can start preparing for the changes as soon as possible.
Next, follow Google SearchLiaison on X (formerly Twitter). It’s an official account where you’ll see notifications of core algorithm updates. Google Alerts don’t work on social media, so following this account gives you another way to track any mentions of ranking algorithm changes:
Here, you can read the official announcements to learn more about how these SEO algorithm updates affect you. You can also learn more about planned improvements to Google, which may help you improve your SEO strategy more generally.
Thirdly, you can use Google Analytics to help you spot changes to the ranking algorithm. Google Analytics can help you identify unusual fluctuations in traffic and conversions, for one thing. You can then take a closer look at your performance to see if you’ve been “affected” in some way by a Google algorithm change.
Finally, try an algorithm analytics tool like MozCast or Google Grump by Accuranker. These tools track changes to the Google algorithm on a daily basis to help marketers like you stay ahead of any updates.
With Grump, for example, you can track algorithm changes by device, so if you’ve noticed a drop in mobile traffic or conversions, you can use this tool to see if Google’s “grumpier” than usual, which suggests there’s been a change to its ranking algorithm:
How to Determine Which Google Algorithm Update Hit Your Website
Have you noticed a steep decline in traffic recently? An SEO algorithm change could be responsible. Here are the two best ways to determine which update just hit your website and how to recover from the penalties:
- First, check out Google Search Central (formerly Webmasters). This platform contains multiple resources to help you diagnose common performance problems and identify possible algorithm penalties.
- Next, log on to Search Console, a free analytics tool from Google. Whether you want to identify mobile usability problems or monitor your site’s performance, Search Console has the resources you need.
Combined, these tools can help you easily track changes to the Google algorithm for your SEO benefit.
Is Google’s Algorithm Different From Other Search Engines?
Yes. For one thing, we don’t know how often search engines like Bing or Yahoo update their algorithms, whereas we know that Google updates its algorithm very frequently.
There’s also a little more transparency around Bing’s key ranking factors, which include:
- Page loading time
- Quantity and quality of backlinks
In some ways, it’s easier to understand the Bing SEO algorithm and tweak your strategy to match.
Since Yahoo is closely tied to Bing, the principles are very similar, but the difference is that they’ve published a transparent and useful guide to help marketers better understand their search engine algorithm and key ranking factors.
How to Succeed With Google’s Algorithm
Ready to tackle Google’s algorithm and boost your page rankings? Try these 13 Google search hacks.
1. Optimize for Mobile
Thanks to Google’s mobile-first index, you must optimize your website for mobile if you want to rank.
To check how your website appears on mobile devices, visit the Mobile-Friendly Test by SmallSEOTools, input your URL, and analyze the results. For example, here’s mine:
2. Audit Your Internal Links
Next, check your internal links. Do they all work properly, and do they link to relevant, up-to-date content? If not, fix the links and ensure they’re redirecting to useful posts to improve the user experience on your website.
Good quality internal links can improve your rankings.
3. Boost User Engagement
User engagement matters. After all, while it’s great if you generate large amounts of traffic, it’s less than ideal if you have a high bounce rate.
Focus on doing quality keyword research so you’re always answering the right search intent, and ensure you fill your website with trustworthy content to keep users engaged for longer. This can help you hack the Google algorithm.
4. Decrease Site Load Time
A slow website with poor loading times can hinder the user experience, affecting your Google rankings. Check your page loading times using Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool:
Once you run the analysis, Google will offer tips for improving page speed.
5. Avoid Duplicate Content
Whether it’s only a few lines of text or huge blocks of copy, duplicate content on your website can attract a penalty.
To identify duplicate content, try the Duplicate Page Finder. Input the URLs you want to compare, check the results, and make any relevant changes.
You can also see if someone else is using your content on their site by visiting Siteliner and checking your URL:
6. Create Informative Content
If someone clicks on your website and stays there, Google knows you probably answered the user’s search query. In other words, you’re creating useful, informative content.
The result? Higher page rankings than if your articles are superficial or don’t target the right search intent.
7. Avoid Keyword Stuffing
Keyword stuffing means cramming the same keyword into your content multiple times just to boost your chances of ranking. This type of content is often distracting and difficult to read, and it falls foul of the Google algorithm.
Want to avoid keyword stuffing and stay on Google’s good side? Just use a keyword naturally within the text.
8. Don’t Over-Optimize
SEO matters, but don’t go overboard. Don’t include unrelated, irrelevant links in your content, don’t buy links, and avoid over-optimizing your anchor text.
It’s hard to strike a balance between effective SEO and over-optimization, but as long as you steer clear of aggressive link-building practices and black hat tactics, you should be fine.
9. Improve Site Navigation
Prioritize the user experience at all times by:
- Streamlining website menus and navigation
- Creating a site map
- Ensuring all your navigation links work
10. Increase Page Security
If you haven’t moved from HTTP to HTTPS yet, do it now. HTTPS sites are more secure, which means they’re more trustworthy. Google rewards trustworthy websites with higher rankings, so from a marketing perspective, it’s worth the move.
All you need to do is buy an SSL certificate, install it on your site’s hosting account, and update your URLs to HTTPS rather than HTTP.
11. Update and Refresh Old Content
Google’s ranking algorithm is constantly evolving, and it’s important to make sure that your content is up-to-date. One way to do this is to regularly update and refresh your old content. This means adding new information, fixing any errors, and making sure that your content is still relevant to your audience.
Updating your old content can help you improve your search engine ranking, attract new visitors, and keep your existing visitors engaged. So, if you haven’t updated your content in a while, now is the time to do it!
12. Monitor Your Website Metrics Frequently
One of the biggest indicators of an SEO algorithm update is a change in website metrics. Did your views drop suddenly? Are you seeing massive organic traffic out of nowhere? This can happen because the algorithm decided to reward or penalize your website based on its new rules.
13. Use External Google Algorithm Update Trackers
If you’re having trouble tracking the latest Google search changes, try using external resources like blogs and websites that track such changes. Here are a few that may help:
- Neil Patel Blog: I frequently discuss the latest updates to the Google algorithm, so feel free to check back in any time you suspect a recent update has happened.
- Moz Update History: Moz maintains a quick, up-to-date list of ranking algorithm updates to help you look back and predict trends.
- Semrush Sensor: This tool measures volatility in search results to track potential updates.
Frequently Asked Questions
There are a combination of factors that make up Google’s algorithms. It’s constantly being updated and improved to reflect changes in the web and in user behavior. Some of the factors that it takes into account include:
Relevance: This is done by looking at the keywords in the user’s query, the content of the web page, and the links to the web page from other websites.
Quality: Meaning the author’s expertise, accuracy of the information, and overall user experience.
Popularity: Number of links to the page, visitors to the page, and amount of time that people spend on the page.
Freshness: Latest date updated and the update frequency.
Location: Looking at the user’s IP address or the location settings on their device to match them with relevant results.
Google algorithm updates are changes made to the set of factors Google uses to rank websites. They’re important for website owners because they can significantly impact a site’s visibility and traffic. These updates aim to improve the relevance and quality of search results, making it essential for website owners to adapt their strategies to maintain or improve their search ranking.
Google frequently updates its algorithm, with small changes occurring almost daily and major updates several times a year. The purpose of these updates is to refine the search experience by delivering more accurate, relevant, and useful results to users. This involves penalizing low-quality content and rewarding sites with high-quality, user-focused content.
Google’s algorithm update history is extensive. There have been several significant updates in recent years, including the following:
The Product Review Update (April 2023)
The Link Spam Update (October 2022)
The Helpful Content Update (August 2022)
Website owners can stay informed about upcoming Google algorithm changes by setting up a Google Alert, following Google SearchLiaison on X (formerly Twitter), or regularly reading industry publications.
There are several steps you should take in response to an algorithm update:
Review the specifics of the update to understand its focus.
Analyze your website’s analytics to identify any changes in traffic or rankings.
Make necessary adjustments to the website’s content, design, and SEO strategies based on the update.
Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Make data-informed decisions instead.
Keep an eye on industry responses and recommendations for best practices.
Recovering from an algorithm update can be difficult, but there are steps you can take to improve your odds of success:
Conduct a thorough audit of your website to identify areas for improvement.
Focus on creating high-quality, user-focused content.
Enhance your website performance, including mobile-friendliness and page speed.
Build a strong backlink profile with reputable sites.
Regularly update and optimize the website in line with SEO best practices.
The bottom line? Google’s search engine algorithm updates frequently, and it can directly affect your SEO strategy. When Google announces its next core update, be sure to read up on how it might impact your page rankings, and check out my consulting services if you need any extra help.
Finally, to avoid algorithm penalties, focus on crafting rich, valuable content for users, fix any broken links, replace low-quality backlinks with fresh ones, and implement an SSL certificate if you don’t have one.
How do you track Google algorithm changes?
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