The Times They Are a Changin’ (Pt. 1)

An in depth look at the changing face of the Google Algorithm

As SEOs, we often shudder at the news of a Google Algorithm update: What will this mean for the links we’ve just built? What will happen to our content? How will our rankings be affected? Will our clients be slapped by the proverbial sandbag and fall off the face of the online search world? What we never stop to consider is why Google is updating its algorithm. Below is the history of Google’s search algorithms, how they’ve changed the face of SEO and how they’ve invented an altogether new breed of online marketers.

In the beginning:

In December of the year 2000, when we were all supposed to driving hovercrafts and calling our neighbours in space, the team at Google launched the very first Google Toolbar, and part of it was the Toolbar Page Rank (TBPR).

“The Google Toolbar provides fast access to Google’s best search tools from any web page on the Internet…Additionally, the powerful feature set enables users to save time while searching for information.” – Larry Page, Google CEO and co-founder at the launch

And so, the SEO industry and the ever-long dance to navigate through to the top of the results pages began.

2002/2003: Making Waves

While Paris Hilton was enjoying her heyday, SEOs were being hit by the first of a long list of updates. While the first ever update was and still is unnamed, it has been described by many as a surprising move that caught everyone off guard. Moving into 2003, a list of 7 now famously named updates were released. The major ones include:

Cassandra: Aka the Link Police, this update cracked down on basic link-quality issues including mass linking from co-owned domains. This update also heavily targeted hidden text and hidden links.

Florida: Basically the only update out of these 7 that was worthwhile (in hindsight, anyway!), this algorithm change saw the immediate end of what is now referred to as ‘black-hat SEO’. Rife in the late 90s, SEO tactics such as keyword stuffing, duplicated content, and other dodgy ‘strategies’ were targeted by this update and it was, as they say, a game changer.

Supplemental Index: It seemed the guy in charge of naming updates was away the day this update was released. However, this change saw the separation of certain search results into a “supplemental index”. Despite it being overturned a while later, this move by Google saw some SEOs getting hot under the collar as it segmented their results and as we all know, you mess with one SEO’s results, you mess with us all!

Enter the new world of SEO: 2004

2004 was a tumultuous year in a lot of regards, none more so than SEO. While Janet Jackson had us gasping at her infamous “wardrobe malfunction” and George W. Bush was voted in for a second term, Google was planning something much more puzzling.

Following on from the Florida update the year previous, it released the Austin update: Page relevance was taken seriously for the first time, there was a huge spotlight placed on deceptive on-page tactics such as invisible text and META-tag stuffing, and SEOs were beginning to sweat: this was Google’s warning to shape up and start implementing legitimate strategies that are relevant to each page, or risk being left out.

Following on from Austin there was Brandy. We’re not talking late 90s RnB singing sensation – we’re talking a massive index expansion including Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI), increased attention to anchor text relevance, and the concept of link neighbourhoods. The new LSI expanded the search engine’s capability to understand synonyms and took keyword analysis to a new frontier.

2005/2006: Search engine updates just got real

2005 saw names such as Big Daddy, Bourbon, and Jagger thrown around and 2006 told us it was a False Alarm. This period of online search saw the transformation of a lot of now common SEO practices, and the sophistication of Google’s moderation.

Important updates to take out of this period in history include:

Nofollow: Not necessarily an update per se, this change cleaned up unvouched for links such as spam blog comments, effectively controlling outbound link quality.

XML Sitemaps: Allowing webmasters to submit XML Sitemaps via Web Master Tools gave them direct influence over crawling and indexation.

Personalised Search: While the impact of this tweak wasn’t appreciated at the time, it is now a major basis for modern SEO. This update allowed the search engine to access the search histories of users to automatically adjust results.

From here we can see Google is starting to wise up to the underhanded tactics and old tricks that SEOs had been guilty of using to manipulate the results, however, there is a sense of change in the winds. How will the next algorithm update affect and impact SERPs to create a more refined and legitimate search results for our users? Tune into the next installment to find out!

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