The Google History from an SEO Consultant’s Perspective
Several weeks ago marked the 12 year anniversary of Google’s IPO. It was valued at some 30 billion dollars then and today sits on top of the world at over 500 billion dollars. It’s no accident that Google has optimized its network to achieve this level of success when you consider the company’s historical past. Google has done a tremendous job monetizing its platform over the years and keeping webmasters on their toes with Google rankings.
I have attempted to document my take on key Google algorithm changes over the years and internal insights that I have garnered from working in the competitive SEO industry since 2005.
You might be saying, “But Brian, there are 185 posts already documenting Google’s supposed History. What’s new with yours?” Well most, if not all of them outside of a few, are devoid of any sort of filter/analysis from industry experts.
This is my take:
- Ahh the good old days. When link building caused pages to move no matter what the anchor text said and no matter what landing page it was on. The more the merrier, as it were.
- Nofollow launched via the major Search Engines (Yahoo, Google, Microsoft) [Src] and Matt Cutts was starting to be a name at Google that people were paying attention to.
- Google starts personalizing search in some capacity. [Src]
- If there was 1 Golden Year where things were pretty damn consistent for Google with very few updates, this was the year of years.
- Vanessa Fox (along with Matt Cutts) was pushing/owning Google Webmaster Central as it used to be called, which gave Google a platform to further communicate to the world. [Src]
- Google started making it known inside of the community that they did not want you directly influencing links.
- Matt Cutts was heavy onto the scene at this point and was Google’s webmaster voice.
- Universal search launched and it was clear from Google that showing a diversified list of results was what users (and Google) wanted. Google started heavily tinkering the SERP layout. [Src]
- Hidden deep beneath most conversations was the start of what invariably would turn into Google’s Penguin algorithm. I had the benefit of seeing first hand and ‘hearing from a few selective acquaintances at the time in other highly competitive verticals’ that Google had just manually checked entire SERPs (1-10 for some $$ terms) for over-aggressive link manipulation.
- Sidebar: Overnight, the Secondary Ticket market in Q1 2008’s entire top 15-20 competitors were booted from Google. Rumors suggested that similar scenarios happened in the Real Estate verticals, but I could never confirm that with Greg Boser, Nathaniel Broughton, Brian Provost or Rae Hoffman.
- The dawn of the age of ‘blending in’ was upon us. The need to NOT stand out with over-manipulation was as obvious as night and day to me. This event set my Google strategy for the next 10 years. I had always assumed since this time that Google would find another way to tilt its algorithm to actually try and feature the best content that doesn’t have tons of backlinks pointing to it.
- Rel canonical tag launched as duplicate content was starting to get out of control. Magento, Drupal, WP etc. were in part to blame. [Src]
- Google Real Time launched and QDF became a thing webmasters were starting to notice in Google’s search results. Although QDF was first brought up by Amit Singal in 2007.
- For the first time, Google starts inserting bias towards brands (perceivedbly company’s long term that will line up for Google’s advertising products) [Src]
- Google starts hitting sites that have content problems. [Src]
- Caffeine launches, allowing Google to innovate much faster and roll out changes/tests much quicker. [Src]
- Google instant launches. [Src]
- Google quietly launches encrypted search queries on the back of privacy concerns causing webmasters to start seeing ‘Not Provided’ instead of inbound keywords in Google Analytics. [Src]
- Google Panda launches. Google started attacking content farms through manual reviewers and undoubtedly automated the process along the way over the years. [Src] (page 132, footnote 156)
- Google has generally not liked scraping, and at one point, even documented defining a scraper site as one that has less than 15% authored content. [Src]
- Google restricted adwords API access to 3rd party vendors looking to build tools for multi-channel Advertising management. [Src]
- 10 web sites generated almost 80% of Google AdSense revenues in 2011. [Src]
(Goodbye small websites making 500$/month off AdSense – say hello to Panda. Google can make up the 20% elsewhere.) Personally, I think most ‘Made for Adsense’ sites are less than ideal. I can see why Google wanted to weed them out.
- Google doesn’t tend to favor search results inside of search results. [Src]
- Amit Singal gave you the keys to where Google was headed, did you catch it? [Src]
- 2011 was a very busy year for Google, as they were under heavy scrutiny by the FTC that year and into 2012.
- Google’s FTC probe was ongoing and the company decided to become very vocal through ongoing monthly blog posts documenting Google algorithm changes. This was a rare chance to see how Google would explain updates to the laymen webmaster crowd. At the very end of the year (and at the beginning of 2013), Google got the clearance that they hadn’t committed any wrongdoings according to the FTC. Here is an example of one of those blog posts. Unfortunately, Google stopped doing these blog posts shortly after the FTC investigation.
- Google Penguin 1.0 launched in April. [Src] If you were in the initial demotion brought by Penguin 1.0 you were done, for good. No pun intended, but Google wanted you out of its index. The latter Penguins proved to be much ‘nicer’. Follow up with Joe Sinkwitz on this.
- The Disavow specialist is born and overnight many new pop-up experts emerge and start pushing Google’s Penguin (and soon to come Panda) initiatives. Penguin and Panda are cornerstone vehicles towards pushing Google’s core message: Don’t manipulate links and build the best quality content for your users at a natural pace.
- Link Disavow tool was launched to help Google discount your bad backlinks. [Src] My theory on this tool was that Google launched it to feed their Machine Learning algorithm example sets of manipulative pages that had dodgy backlinks added to them, thus years later allowing the ability to automatically ignore backlinks that represent similar characteristics.
- Link warnings and the build up of quite possibly a 4-year strategy of Google’s Webmaster tool allows Google to very effectively contact sites that have engaged in overly manipulative link building practices over the years. Link manipulation is spreading legitimate fear across the internet marketing communities. In the early years, I chalked this up from Matt Cutts as typical FUD, but Google eventually started executing what they were preaching from the hills throughout the Index. [Src]
- Link sellers started monetizing their sites by charging for links to be taken down off of websites.
- Hummingbird algorithm update came out and the way sites/content was surfaced through Google, more or less, would never be the same again. The start of a multi-year death march of the proverbial exact match keyterm and exact page matching algorithm. Era of Semantic SEO was born.
- Penguin 2.0 launches, hitting additional sites. [Src]
- The Knowledge graph started turning into something you would spot for the terms you might get traffic from. [Src]
- Google started depreciating Google Authorship photos in the SERPs. [Src]
- Link penalties were at their height. All the Matt Cutts preaching from 06’-10’ came to a massive fruition over 2013 and into 2014/2015.
- What I deemed to be another of the biggest shake ups to date (Panda 4.0). The sites I noticed starting doing really well were sites that showcased the types of things Amit Singhal wrote about in 2011. The month Semantic content optimization came to fruition. [Src]
- Negative SEO had a short lived, massive exploit for some months until Google started more heavily ignoring inbound link blasts off of Fiverr, SAPE etc. Folks might argue that Negative SEO happened to them in 2015 and more recently in 2016, but its undoubtedly much harder. Please don’t also lump this into other general Spam tactics that folks try to negatively hurt you, there will always be people trying to spam Google. I am specifically talking about negative link blasts that might de-credit or sink a site’s rankings.
- Google depreciates Authorship photos out of its index completely as it starts removing all the markup added to the SERPs over the years. Probably in advance of the mobile first, card based layout of today. [Src]
- HTTPS as a ranking signal is touted via Google. [Src]
- I spotted big brand site demotions in early 2015 that were not, for the most part, blogged about. Almost appearing vertical by vertical, Google went through and cleaned house on the most aggressive link manipulated sites. My theory was the SMB community was complaining so much in 2013/2014 that Google had to go after larger sites so the game didn’t appear so obviously tilted towards favoring larger brands.
- Sites that were hit by link based penalties started appearing to come back on certain occasions and timelines. (Variations were seen on the magnitude difference of 1 month to 3 years to never, in some instances.)
- Mobile Update AKA “Mobilegeddon” proves to mainstream Google webmasters that you can’t trust what Google tells you out of Google Webmaster Tools. [Src]
- Matt Cutts was out and Gary Illyes/John Mueller were on the scene to help diffuse the lighting rod that Matt had turned into (mainly from webmasters bitching about lost traffic/demotions during the years Penguin/Panda were rolling out)
- Not many link penalties and SERP wide shakeups like what was seen from 2012-2015.
- Google has gotten very aggressive at ‘hacking’ their SERP display and layout. Ads are almost invisible and many queries have content injected above all listings through the knowledge graph.
- In a feedback session at Google’s Palo Alto campus I went to, it was mentioned by Illyes that they may never do one of those meetings again. Read into that as you may per the next bullet.
- The year 10 blue links via Organic Desktop search crested. [Src]
- Penguin 4.OHH came out and most folks were left scratching their heads. Namely because most links (unlike yesteryear) are not being counted today anyways. And then officially stated by Google a few days ago.
- Google starts becoming comfortable with openly admitting they prefer to keep users on Google vs. sending them off to your website. [Src]
- Sites slammed/demoted by Penguin in 2015/2016 seemed to have the demoting effect turned off in March of 2017. Some sites popped back to their former glory after waiting years in the dog house. [Src]
- Hyper competitive head term phrases no longer seem to be pulling rank off of homepages, requiring users to build links to internal pages.
- Although not an organic update, its worth mentioning none the less that Product Listing Ads had major increases in visibility in May. [Src] PLA + other right hand side knowledge boxes have drastically altered the F shape eye tracking pattern for desktop SERPs [Src]
- Panda has largely changed and is no longer propping up sites the same way it might have been in 2016 [Src] Content quality seems to be assessed more on a page by page basis vs. sitewide.
…updated Oct 9, 2017
first noted on Oct 3, 2016
- Less reliance on links as a ranking mechanism
- Increase in reliance on usage signals to rank content. Better have good UX.
- Continued optimization of Google’s Semantic Analysis of content and feeding that back into Hummingbird.
- Increase in Mobile search and new disconnected screens from IoT which further cements the importance of understanding how, why and where your audience is consuming your content.
first noted on Oct 9, 2017
- Increase in organic competition in your vertical. The days of sites dominating a vertical and controlling a large % of SERP real estate across keyword sets are being systematically targeted by algo updates, perhaps on the back of rankbrain entity identification and SERP diversification KPIs.
Other Google Timelines
Other Google Timelines I would put vested credibility in. I warn others that there are a ton out there, most created by people whom I have never heard of. Be weary of historical outlooks on Google and documented historical accounts.
Links worked really well in 2005. They still work today but they come with some risks. The sites ranking in Google in 2005 are not what, in large part, are ranking today in 2016. When you look at the sites that still rank today, it’s the ones that have great user experiences and were not undermined by years of ‘we must rank #1 link building’ but instead were focused on building content assets that their competitors we’re afraid to give away.