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Google’s Biggest Search Algorithms

Category: Search Engine Optimization


In September 2002, Google announced it made its first change to its search algorithm. 

At the time, a number of Internet commentators predicted this as the death of PageRank (the name for Google’s system for ranking pages) and a decline in the quality of Google’s search results. 

To an SEO marketer today, that is comical as Google makes thousands of changes every year to its algorithm to improve its user experience. Most of these changes are so minor they can go completely unnoticed. 

However, every now and then, Google rolls out a major algorithm that significantly impact search results. Today we’re breaking down Google’s biggest algorithms throughout the years.

Boston Update

In February 2003, the Boston update became the first named Google update. It was named at SES Boston, an engineering science conference put on by Northeastern University. Google’s initial goal was to change its algorithm every month. It soon changed that goal to day-to-day changes. It’s last monthly update was Esmeralda and it came out in June 2003.


In April 2003, Google announced the Cassandra update, which cracked down on link spam. It focused on mutual links between co-owned websites as well as hidden text and hidden links.


In May 2003, the Dominic update came about. It affected the ways backlinks were counted.


Florida was announced in November 2003. It was a game changer in that it completely destroyed the the value of 1990s SEO tactics and started a new era of search engine optimization. Marketers learned they would have to constantly learn about Google in order to retain organic search rankings. Businesses realized SEO could be a full-time job. A big thing Florida cracked down on was keyword stuffing.


In May 2005, the Bourbon update came about to improve the filtering of spam from SERP (search engine result page). It focused on duplicate content, irrelevant links, and links with less credibility.


In September 2005, Google announced Jagger and rolled out the Jagger update in three stages. One in September, one in October, and one in November. It negatively impacted duplicate content across multiple domains, hidden text, redirects, and cloaking (cloaking is when content presented to search engines is different than the content presented to a user’s browser).


Vince is an algorithm update that came out in February 2009. Google called it a minor change, but some SEO commentators believe it was major. Many big name brands started appearing for broad-level, high volume keyword searches. SEO professionals presumed the reason brands were doing well organically is because they tend to generate a lot of links from external sites and get a lot mentions from the media. An accumulation of news, social media, and blogs provided the trust signals for a relevant first-page ranking.


On August 10, 2009, Google introduced Caffeine. It brought about faster crawling, an expansion of indexing, and near-real-time integration of indexing and ranking. Caffeine’s focus was determining reputation and authority, and returning more relevant results quicker. 

Caffeine provides 50 percent fresher search results, and has the largest collection of web content Google has ever offered.  It wasn’t so much an algorithm update but a new way Google began indexing websites.


Panda came out on February 23, 2011. This algorithm is focused on reducing low-quality, thin content in search results and instead rewarding compelling, unique content. This algorithm assigns each page a quality classification.  Panda cracked down on spam and high ad-to-content ratio. The Panda update was a response to the growing number of complaints in the search community that low-quality content sites rank higher than high-quality sites with positive user experiences.

Above The Fold/Top Heavy

On January 19, 2012, Google rolled out Above The Fold/Top Heavy. Just like it sounds, this algorithm impacted page layout, in particular above the fold layout. Above the fold is the section of a webpage that is visible without scrolling. 

Above The Fold/Top Heavy targeted websites with too many static ads above the fold. Essentially these ads would force users to scroll down the page to see content. Google found websites with an excess supply of ads gave users a poor user experience. In March 2017, Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed this algorithm still plays a big role in search results.


Penguin, also known as the web spam algorithm update, came out on April 24, 2012. Penguin targeted websites that practiced manipulative link building. The websites impacted by Penguin did blackhat techniques.


On August 10, 2012, Google announced it would start penalizing websites with repeat copyright infringements. This algorithm update was called ‘Pirate’ among SEO commentators.

Exact Match Domain Algorithm

Exact Match Domain Algorithm was released on September 27, 2012 and it impacted exact match domain names. This algorithm targeted poor quality websites with exact match domain names. What made these sites poor was their thin content offered little to no value to users. 

Payday Loan Algorithm

The Payday Loan Algorithm rolled out on June 11, 2013. This algorithm targeted questionable industries like super high interest loans and payday loans. Payday loans, debt consolidation sites, casinos, pharmaceuticals, non-bank loan companies, and insurance companies were affected along with spammy search queries.


Pigeon was created for local searches and it was released on August 20, 2013. Pigeon aimed to offer better local search results for local businesses. Google enhanced hundreds of ranking signals for both Google search and Google Maps.


Hummingbird entered the world on September 27, 2013. Hummingbird’s aim was to get better at understanding context when it comes to search queries as it noticed users’ searches were becoming more conversational. It was a predecessor for BERT. 

Hummingbird marked a huge advancement in Google’s search technology. It impacted 90% of searches worldwide. Hummingbird has three focuses: conversational search, human search, and the foundations of voice search. During the early days of the Internet, it was hard for Google to find what you were searching for. Hummingbird focused on synonyms and theme-related topics.


RankBrain is a machine-learning artificial intelligence system that helps Google sort through search results. It goes through billions of pages and deems what is most relevant to a search query. RankBrain went live on April 2015, but wasn’t introduced to the world until October 2015. SearchEngineLand believes RankBrain is a part of Hummingbird’s search algorithm. So RankBrain is not so much an algorithm, but an important signal for Hummingbird. In fact, it’s the third most influential ranking factor.


Having a mobile friendly website became important on April 21, 2015 as Google dropped Mobilegeddon that day.  This algorithm was coined by Search Engine Land. The algorithm gave a boost to mobile-friendly pages in Google’s mobile search results.


Possum was never announced nor confirmed by Google, but it supposedly impacts Google My Business listings. It positively affected businesses outside of a city’s limits. Prior to Possum, businesses not technically within a city’s limits had a difficult time ranking well for those keywords. For example, a general contractor in Somerville that does a lot of work in Boston would not show for searches like ‘contractors in Boston’ even though Somerville is close to the city and makes up the Greater Boston area.

Intrusive Interstitial Penalty

Intrusive interstitial penalty was announced in August of 2016. Content that is not easily accessible to users using mobile search would not rank as highly.


The ‘Fred’ update happened in March of 2017. Its purpose is to crack down on sites that prioritize monetization over user experience. Websites with low quality user engagement, thin content, content heavily geared toward conversions, and UX barriers (pop ups, navigational obstacles, etc.) were all impacted.

At Sperling Interactive, we’re focused on staying ahead of the curve when it comes to SEO. We understand providing users with the best experience possible is what helps keep businesses visible in search. If you’d like help appearing organically, give us a call at (978) 304-1730.  Or check out our popular SEO seminar on December 12th.

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