Google’s Spicy Algorithm Updates Explained

The way that Google ranks content has shaped the internet, dramatically affecting the way people create and consume content.

Personally, I can’t think about high-ranking content without thinking about Fred, which is not only the name of the Google algorithm update rolled out on March 7, 2017, but also the name of my primary school bully.

  • Black hat
  • Aggressive monetization
  • Jumping out at you without warning

These things were of special interest to both Freds. Except one represented them, while the other one dealt vigilante justice.

The Freds of this world make people do things. For instance, this article is about Google algorithm updates, but talking about bullying is tempting, because I need to try to connect with you, my reader. If the post is a bit longer, I’ll have more room to be interesting and valuable. Right?

Unfortunately, sometimes, the algorithm thinks that listing major Google ranking updates and then writing THE END isn’t valuable enough to give an article good SERPs placement.

The Google Fred update was all about improving the quality of blog posts. Length is one of the factors it takes into account. 

This is why marketers recommended writing longer texts, less so now. It’s also why potentially straightforward checklists have a tendency to turn into long-winded stories.

But why?

Well, when people spend longer on a webpage, it’s a signal that they are finding what they want — useful information or entertainment. Also, writers can fit in more subheadings and relevant keywords.

I’m just trying to make pancakes, why am I reading about backpacking through Europe?

Depending on the subject matter, long-form content can boost a page’s search ranking significantly.

Food bloggers know this well. 

Which is why you can be trying to make pancakes and you end up reading about backpacking through Europe.


Back in the old country, the children – Marika, Paulina, and Igor – used to pick the fruits that my great-great-grandmother then used to make pies, jam, juice… the dog, Polko, chased a duck into the woods… but Marika no longer spoke to them due to an inheritance dispute…

Adding length to the post with a personal story is also their way of adding value. But it’s just one way of doing it. Google takes many factors into account when ranking webpages.

Sometimes, we just want to read something written solely for search intent – to succinctly answer our question. Sometimes we want a great recipe without the “added value” of the history of each ingredient and details about the shoes the chef was wearing the first time she ate it.

To understand why food bloggers drone on about ingredients, preparation techniques, and their pet’s eating habits, we need to analyze the Google algorithm and some of its major changes over the years.

How the Google algorithm works

Google uses bots and human checkers (i.e., humans that check things, not a reference to a new season of Squid Game) to assess and monitor the quality of web content according to its general page quality rating guidelines. It uses algorithms – processes, instructions, and rules – to react to ranking factors and deliver the most relevant search results to its users. 

In the early years, there were just a few updates to the algorithm. More recently, they’ve been rolling out thousands of tweaks and changes every year. 

Some of the updates had the power to close businesses overnight  (damn you, Fred), but just like the bully Fred, what doesn’t destroy us only makes us stronger (even if we do need a therapist in adulthood). 

Google’s “ranking signals” are the characteristics of websites that determine how Google ranks them on SERPs (search engine results pages). We can surmise a lot about these characteristics, but Google hasn’t revealed everything.

In fact, how the Google algorithm works is secret.

However, we can use what we learn from changes to the algorithm and their announcements about these changes to create better web content. Writing content for Google tends to lead to content that’s more accessible, useful, and authentic. 

Ultimately, Google makes money from pleasing searchers. So, like us, Google wants to deliver experiences that readers love or at least appreciate. This refers to content they describe as helpful, reliable, and people-first.

Learning from Google algorithm updates

Web content has evolved with a consistent focus: giving users what they want, the way they want it

We can learn a lot about content and about connecting with people by looking at the changes over the last ten or so years.

The most well-known, impactful Google algorithm updates and their funky names, are as follows:

Panda – 2011

This is one of the most important Google algorithm updates for content creators as it set the bar for site quality, prioritizing authentic pages with quality content that is trustworthy and accurate.

Page Layout – 2012

Also known as “Top Heavy,” this update targeted websites that bombarded users with too many ads “above the fold,” which forced users to scroll down to access the content they sought.

Penguin 2012 – 2016

Penguin — also known as the webspam algorithm update — targeted link spam and manipulative link-building, including link schemes and keyword stuffing.

Before Penguin, the number of links pointing to a site played a significant part in how that site ranked.


“This backlink is absolute bull, isn’t it Sebastian?”
“It absolutely is Philip, it absolutely is.”

Post-Penguin, the quality of those sites became a big deal. Google rewards links from authentic and authoritative sites while downgrading links that bear the stench of spam.

In 2016, Penguin became part of Google’s core algorithm.

The Phantom Update (AKA Quality) – 2015

The quality update aimed to help users get more trustworthy and authoritative results. Google advised content creators to write straightforward, organized, and original content.

This major update was not officially announced, which earned it the Phantom moniker. It quietly and noticeably targeted thin content with little information, clickbait, ad-heavy content, content farm articles, and mass-produced content. HubPages reported a drop of almost a quarter of its traffic following the Quality Update.

Mobilegeddon – April 2015

This update reflected the cultural shift to mobile-first search. Since so many people were searching via mobile, it made sense to provide content they could use. 

If your content wasn’t designed to be mobile-friendly in April 2015, it was sliding down the rankings.

While the cultural shift to mobile-first was massive, the fallout from the change was minimal. Google warned everyone about this update in advance and businesses readily complied with the new mobile-friendly guidelines. 

RankBrain – Spring 2015

RankBrain considered the grammatical environment to determine the meaning of the search. This is how you can do a search for orange and Google knows if you want to know the price of the fruit, how to get in touch with your telephone service provider, or how to get a better tan. 

(EAT) Core Update – February 2017

Google stated that Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness were all top metrics for page quality. The core update in February 2017 visibly rewarded sites that satisfied these three factors.

This update had a significant effect on health and finance webpages, which is just as well, given that inaccurate information could seriously impact users’ lives.

At the close of 2022, Google added an extra E for Experience, renaming its guidelines E-E-A-T.

Fred – March 2017

The Fred update was not announced by Google but appeared to target sites with:

  • Low-quality content
  • Lack of content
  • Lots of pop-ups
  • Too many affiliate links
  • Too many or deceptive ads
  • Black hat SEO tactics

The result: Content didn’t drive traffic anymore. Quality content drove traffic. 

It still stands today: When in doubt, create the best quality content you can and publish it as consistently as you can.

Despite the practice of many bloggers, like the food bloggers we’ve unfortunately sunk our teeth into, you don’t always need to tell a story to reach your audience.  

Do what makes sense for your brand and your customers.

Do use keywords. 

Don’t be afraid to be different. 

Note that many readers like longer, meatier content. Except for the ones that like shorter, snappier content.

Be true to your brand and satisfy your customers. The page ranking will take care of itself.

Featured Snippets Update – August 2019

This concerned the relevance of Google’s “featured snippets” functionality, where it delivers answers to questions directly on the SERP.

Google search: how to get red wine off white shirt
Website: “When I was a young bachelor-“


Google snippet: Use baking soda to soak it up, then a soapy towel to finish.

The algorithm tweak helped Google find the most current information in situations where that would be relevant to users. 

BERT – October and December 2019

The Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers update was considered the largest change since 2014. Its focus was to interpret search queries more effectively. 

Google said it would affect about 10 percent of searches in US English in October. In December, the update went global.

Product Reviews Update – April 2021

This update rewarded in-depth product reviews over “thin content that simply summarizes a bunch of products.”

Page Experience – June 2021

This update comprised four vital ranking factors:

  • Core web vitals – comprises metrics relating to user experience, including page loading speed, visual stability, and interactiveness of a site;
  • HTTPS;
  • Mobile optimization;
  • No intrusive interstitials – pop-up ads and the like that appear when visiting a site.

Spam Updates 1 and 2 – June 2021

A welcome and self-explanatory update. Don’t spam or Google won’t rank your content.

This was followed by further spam updates, including the Google Link Spam Algorithm update in July 2021.

Local Search – November 2021

Once again anticipating and responding to the needs of its users, Google released this impactful update to its algorithm. It included guidance to businesses on how to improve their local rankings.

Helpful Content – August 2022

This is the update that makes spammers quake in their boots. It detects low-quality pages, spam, and machine-generated content.

Interestingly and ironically, the algorithm uses machine learning to continually improve its ability to spot “original content by and for real people.”

Pros and Cons of Google Algorithm changes

Bad? Good? Annoying but essentially useful? Yes, to all.

The Pros

Quality matters

One of the major benefits of Google’s algorithm is that it has made consistent improvements in the quality of both the search engine and the content it displays.

Think about the Mobilegeddon update. All Google had to do was tell people that because more people were using mobile than ever, they would reward pages that worked well on mobile devices. The shift was momentous and achieved in part by Google’s code. 

The changes reflect our needs

Again, we can think about the cultural shift to mobile-first search and design, the anti-spam updates, Fred, and other quality-focused updates. Google’s algorithm is part of codifying the web to help web designers, content creators, and business owners meet users’ needs. 


Google gets to decide what we write and what we see

When Google says jump and content creators ask how high, is this too much power for one company to have? Google’s general guidelines on page quality determine what content rises to the top, giving the search engine incredible power over what we see and what content we get used to or consider to be good quality.

While the algorithm is led by user data, it does raise some ethical questions, such as whether or not this will always be the case and how Google interprets user data.

Changes can destroy businesses

Business owners and marketers wake up in a cold sweat after dreaming about Google tweaking its algorithm. Sometimes those tweaks destroy web traffic overnight, which is enough to damage revenue for firms that rely heavily on online visitors.

Algorithm updates, therefore, do not only affect content quality. They also affect the livelihoods of people in businesses all around the world.

Many algorithm changes have taken SEO specialists, digital marketers, and business leaders by surprise because Google does not always announce their updates. Even when they are announced, they don’t always disclose what has been changed. Businesses have had to reverse engineer the damage to work out what changed and how they can fix it.

google-updates-disrupt-businessesSadly, spouses Willow and Mark, both marketers, had their family weekend ruined by a Google update.

Many marketers focus on the 1s and 0s instead of the users

Google is deliberately cagey about its search ranking factors. Nonetheless, many marketers are fascinated by the 1s and 0s of the algorithm and checking off boxes to the exclusion of focusing on creating authentic, genuinely useful, people-first content.

Takeaways and predictions

  • Google’s algorithms are constantly changing
  • Those changes always aim to help search users

While it’s useful to be aware of Google’s algorithm and how its major changes have affected the relationship between search, searchers, and web content, chasing every one of them is about as much fun as herding cats. Doing it, not watching it. You’d be better off putting down a saucer of milk and coming back in five minutes.

Content creators would be wise to focus on creating content their users want to see. For most people, that’s informative, entertaining, easy-to-access content that they can trust.

They should downgrade any thinking about tricks and hacks regarding length and keywords. These lead to unnecessarily circuitous introductions about primary school bullies, arid plains of repeated content, and disappointing deviations from the thing you wanted to know. If you can do it authentically, you should go ahead.

Algorithm updates relating to AI will be of increasing importance. The 2019 BERT update uses AI and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to interpret context and search intent. The March 2023 core algorithm update further refined the use of AI to deliver higher-quality search results, which will be significant in the success of voice search and the ever-growing use of smart devices.

Understanding what your customers want and delivering content that they need will be key in the future.

As it is now. 

As it always has been for many businesses.

Whatever the next changes to Google’s algorithm will be, they will almost certainly be about providing faster, more efficient, and more relevant search results for its users. 

Genuine, reliable, people-first content, which is exactly what we do.

To be one of the sites that Google points to more often:

  • Consider what your customers need and what they want to know
  • Use your expertise and authority to give it to them how they want it, or
  • Work with someone who can help you get there.

That’s it.


Written by Dean Edwards

Dean lives in Southern France but was born in the UK, where he studied business and IT, and earned a degree in Writing. When he’s not creating content, he’s writing fiction, making music, and practicing martial arts. This is part bio and part affirmation.

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