23/11/23 5 Minute Read

5 minute read

A look back at six of the biggest Google Updates in history

One of the defining characteristics of SEO is that it’s always evolving. A big part of the reason for that is because Google is always tweaking its algorithm, which means that technical SEO experts have to work hard to stay out in front. Every so often, Google rolls out a particularly big change to its algorithm, which can have accordingly dramatic impacts on the rankings of certain sites.

Now, Google itself typically remains fairly tight-lipped about the details of most of these updates – understandably, because having too much detail would make it easier for bad actors to game the system, thereby defeating the point. Therefore, most of what we know about Google Updates comes from analysis in the wake of their rollout, sometimes helped along by Google figures providing more detail where they see fit.

As experts in technical SEO here at 21Digital, we’re well-versed in the mechanics of Google Updates, and how to maximise their positive effects on our clients’ websites. So, in light of our 20th birthday this year, we thought we’d take a quick look back at six of the biggest Google Updates in the last 20 years!

The Florida update (November 2003)

What was it?

Florida changed the way Google looked at links, mainly by targeting ‘unnatural’ linking patterns, and it was a major stride forward for Google in terms of identifying link spam. It addressed manipulative “black hat” SEO tactics like keyword stuffing and hidden text, penalising sites which engaged in these practices. It was also designed to enable Google to identify networks of interlinked sites, removing their ability to pass link authority to each other.

What was the effect?

This update led to a major upheaval in the SERPS (search engine results pages). It successfully managed to remove a lot of spam, but there was an unintended side effect – there was a lot of collateral damage, as it affected a huge swathe of small business owners in the run-up to the busy Christmas season.

Google experienced such a strong backlash from the affair that its engineers spent months afterwards working to identify sites that shouldn’t have been impacted by the update, in order to correct the damage. The company promised not to push a major update just before the holidays again. It kept that promise for 8 years, until the Penguin update of late 2011 (we’ll go into that below!).

The Jagger update (September 2005)

What was it?

What we now call the Jagger update technically consisted of three separate updates, rolled out across September to November 2005. It aimed to combat spam and manipulation by addressing bad-faith or lazy SEO techniques, and did so by a number of means. For example, it identified and removed “thin” content and duplicated content, and also targeted other forms of manipulation such as “cloaking” – i.e. deliberately serving users with different content than what was being shown to search engines.

What was the effect?

The Jagger update put a stop to old school linkbuilding tactics such as link swaps and link farms, and limited the ability of unrelated websites to pass link authority to each other. This helped clean up a lot of spam from the SERPs, and impacted affiliate sites as well as networks of sites using the same content across multiple domains. Essentially, it put an end to a lot of common ‘black hat’ SEO techniques designed to manipulate the search results by tricking Google.

Well-established sites tended to fare reasonably well, as these were considered more trustworthy. It also impacted the speed at which new websites were able to rapidly climb the search engine rankings, as Google wanted to build up a better understanding of a site before recommending it to users.

The Panda update (February 2011)

What was it?

Google’s Panda update was all about content. Specifically, its main goal was to improve the quality of search results by rewarding high quality content, and penalising content that was too “thin”, duplicate, low-quality, or otherwise provided little value to users.

What was the effect?

If you’ll forgive the expression, Panda absolutely mauled low-quality content. It had a particularly significant impact on sites that had lots of pages without much value to users (such as short pages that did not answer users’ questions), as well as retail sites whose content mostly just regurgitated their manufacturer’s descriptions. It also impacted sites with lots of old, outdated content, and businesses with lots of very similar pages on certain topics (just targeting slightly different keywords).

Panda marked a major change in the SEO landscape, as it meant content no longer needed to be heavily laden with keywords – instead, the focus was more on helping the user. Long, detailed pages with well-researched and original content were rewarded, whereas repetitive pages with derivative information were pushed further down the rankings – and those general principles still apply today.

The Penguin update (September 2012)

What was it?

The Penguin update (or the webspam algorithm update, to call it by its less catchy name) was a major step forward for Google in its ability to detect manipulative linkbuilding – in other words, its ability to identify link networks, unnatural anchor text, bought links, and poor quality content created for the sole purpose of linking and driving traffic, as opposed to providing meaningful value for users.

What was the effect?

Websites with a long history of SEO were impacted – often for using techniques that had been perfectly acceptable previously. Sites that were particularly heavily affected included those with lots of links using the exact same non-brand anchor text, sites with lots of links in blog sidebars, or from guest blog posts that were clearly paid for. Also, sites that had been syndicating content to article directories found themselves suffering, as did those who’d previously been making use of online PR distribution sites.

With previous updates, webmasters could somewhat offset the negative impact of algorithmic penalties by promptly identifying and fixing the underlying issue, which meant a site could recover relatively quickly once Google found the changes. With Penguin though, things were different. Even once a site’s webmasters had sorted the issues that Google wanted them to, they still had to wait for Google to refresh the algorithm in order to recover. That became a problem for a huge number of sites when Google went over 2 years between refreshes of the algorithm, which meant that a lot of them had to live with the negative impacts of Penguin for quite a while.

Despite that though, it was undeniably effective – so much so that eventually, Google announced that Penguin had been folded into the core algorithm. In other words, elements of it are still being used to determine search rankings today.

The Fred update (March 2017)

What was it?

Fred was another update aimed at weeding out sites with poor quality content and a bad user experience. It particularly targeted aggressive monetisation tactics, including excessive or deceptive advertising practices. Google was characteristically (and understandably) tight-lipped about this update, to the point that it was another that was released without an official name – ‘Fred’ was given to it by the wider SEO community in the months following its release.

What was the effect?

Fred was largely effective in its primary goal of demoting sites with a poor user experience. Sites that were particularly heavily impacted mostly included those with an excessive amount of ads on the page, including ads masquerading as content, or in the form of numerous pop-up windows.

Sites with thin content but significant numbers of ads also took a major hit – especially affiliate sites, many of which largely existed simply to drive clicks, rather than provide meaningful value to the user. Pages where ads and header / footer content outweighed the main content of the pages often dropped out of the SERPs entirely.

Crucially, the Fred update ultimately encouraged webmasters to place an even greater focus on the user experience, and help users quickly reach the most important (and valuable) information on each page.

The Medic update (August 2018)

What was it?

This update was primarily focused on authority, and introduced the concept of E-A-T (expertise, authority, and trust) to the rankings, which meant that sites now needed to demonstrate these principles to Google in order to rank well. Many of the sites that were most strongly affected by this update were in the healthcare and medical sector, which is how it earned its unofficial moniker from the SEO community: Medic.

What was the effect?

Websites working in what Google deemed to be YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) industries had to prove their credentials by having enough detail about their businesses for Google to understand their level of expertise. Crucially, these sites had to show that they delivered a good user experience, and that they had the trust of their customers. Having plenty of positive third-party reviews was one good way of demonstrating this. Google also required these sites to have a strong brand presence across the web, encompassing PR, social media and thought leadership. Organisations that were not considered to be working in YMYL sectors were also affected, but often not quite as heavily.

One of the most significant long-term effects of the Medic update on the wider SEO landscape was that it forced SEO experts and webmasters to think more about how brands were perceived as a whole, and how different online channels interact with each other.

Of course, this is far from a comprehensive list of all the Google updates the company has released over the years. More than 30 major updates have been spotted since 2020 alone, and it’s thought that Google makes thousands of much smaller adjustments to its algorithm each year. With all that in mind, it’s no wonder that so many business owners find it hard to keep their site at the top of SERPs year after year.

Happily, that’s exactly where we can help here at 21Digital. With more than 20 years of experience behind us, we have a long history of helping our clients get to the top of Google, and stay there. You can find out more about our technical SEO services here, or take a look at our case studies to find just a sample of what we’ve achieved for our happy clients. Feel free to contact us on 01254 660 560, and let’s talk!


Give us a call on 01254 660 560, or email us on hello@21digital.agency and let’s talk!

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