A Complete Guide to Google's Core Algorithm Updates

• updated on
September 11, 2023
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What Are Google Core Algorithm Updates?

Since its founding, Google has routinely updated and refined its search algorithm, typically making hundreds of small changes each year. However, the company has occasionally rolled out major "core updates" that significantly shake up search results globally. These updates aim to improve search quality and relevance by better matching queries to high-quality, authoritative results.

Brief History of Google Core Updates

Florida Update - 2003

The Florida update in 2003 was one of the first major Google algorithm updates. It aimed to combat web spam and make sure low-quality sites weren't ranking above authoritative sites. The update helped sites rich in valuable content, especially news sites, gain more prominence in results.

Jagger Update - 2005

The Jagger update in 2016 targeted sites with duplicated or scraped content across multiple domains. It aimed to downgrade sites reusing content at scale through automated means to manipulate search rankings.

Big Daddy Update - 2005

Prior to the Big Daddy infrastructure update in 2005, Google had been testing major algorithm changes on a small subset of servers. SEO professionals analyzed these servers to evaluate changes. Big Daddy marked a move towards expanding new algorithm data to a much wider selection of Google's servers. This allowed Google to quickly roll out and test changes at a larger scale going forward.

Vince Update - 2005

In 2005, the Vince update helped combat "keyword stuffing," where sites would repeat keywords to try to rank better. This update helped sites that focused on relevancy without over-optimizing keywords.

Austin Update - 2007

The 2007 Austin update introduced a more semantic and contextual approach to search. The update could better understand meaning and concepts rather than just matching keywords. This helped improve the relevance of results.

Caffeine Update - 2010

The Caffeine update in 2010 allowed Google to crawl and process the web faster than ever before. It also made results more real-time and timely. This shakeup helped fresher content rank faster.

Panda Update - 2011

One of the most significant updates, 2011's Panda update targeted low-quality "thin" content and content farms. It better detected sites producing mass-generated, unoriginal content, helping increase the quality of search results.

Penguin Update - 2012

2012's Penguin update took aim at over-optimization and manipulative techniques like keyword stuffing and excessive link exchanges. It helped sites rank better through ethical optimization and building natural links.

Hummingbird Update - 2013

Another major update, Hummingbird focused on semantic search, understanding meaning and concepts more than just keywords. The improved algorithm could interpret more complex natural language queries.

Payday Upadate - 2013

In 2013, Google rolled out a major algorithm update broadly referred to as the Payday Loan Update. This update targeted spammy queries and shady industries like payday loans, debt consolidation, and pharmaceuticals.

Pigeon Update - 2014

The Pigeon update in 2014 improved local search results, ensuring queries returned more relevant local results and businesses. Location and proximity became more important ranking factors.

Mobilegeddon - 2015

Mobilegeddon was an update specifically aimed at boosting mobile-friendly pages in search results on phones and tablets. Sites that weren't mobile-optimized saw significant drops in mobile rankings.

RankBrain - 2015

RankBrain leveraged Google's machine learning capabilities to help better interpret search queries based on meaning and concepts. This AI integration improved result relevance.

Fred Update - 2017

The Fred update provided a renewed improvement to Google's abilities to interpret complex search queries and return highly relevant search results.

Medic Update - 2018

Google's Medic update was targeted at the healthcare and medical niches, improving results for health-related searches to ensure high-quality, authoritative medical information ranked well.

BERT Update - 2019

The BERT update built on RankBrain and Hummingbird, significantly improving Google's natural language processing capabilities and ability to discern intent behind queries.

Core Update Timeline - 2020 to present

In more recent years, Google has shifted its strategy around announcing algorithm updates. Previously, major updates were given distinct names like Panda, Penguin, etc. However, since 2020, Google has moved to more consistently rolling out "core updates" that refresh their search algorithms globally.

These core updates aim to improve Google's abilities to match queries to relevant, authoritative results. While they don't have flashy names anymore, Google's core updates have continued to significantly impact search results.

In 2020, Google released several unnamed core updates in January, May, June, July, and December. These updates focused heavily on ensuring quality content ranks well and reducing manipulative techniques. Sites with thin, low-value content were often hit by these updates.

Google continued releasing regular core updates throughout 2021 and 2022 as well, usually announcing them shortly after widespread ranking fluctuations were noticed. Some of the most impactful updates came in April 2021, June 2021, and two updates in consecutive months in April and May 2022.

While Google doesn't preview what its core updates target anymore, common consensus is they continue cracking down on sites trying to "game" the algorithm through shady SEO tactics. Producing quality content, building ethical links, and providing value to users seem to be the best ways to maintain rankings through Google's ongoing core updates.

One exception to this was the MUM update which was introduced in May 2021.

MUM Update - 2021

Google's new MUM technology represents a major shift in search, combining multiple AI models into one powerful multitasking model. MUM allows Google to better understand complex queries across texts, images, audio and video.

MUM builds on previous innovations like BERT that brought more semantic search capabilities. The unified model is more efficient, trained on 75 languages simultaneously. This allows Google to surface more relevant multimedia information from its vast index.

For SEOs, MUM means further evolving from just targeting keywords to focusing on topics, entities and expertise/authority signals. As Google grows more capable of semantic search, technical factors may become less important.

Content strategy should shift as well, from keyword-focused to anticipating user questions and needs along their journey. With MUM powering features like Lens, featured snippets and shopping integrations, Google aims to keep users within its products.

The impacts on organic traffic volumes remain to be seen. But high quality, up-to-date, in-depth content covering topics from multiple angles appears vital. Google will likely continue rewarding unique value and expertise, but SEOs face adapting to new paradigms.

Product Review Updates - 2021 to present

In April 2023, Google expanded its product reviews algorithm to now evaluate all review content, not just product reviews. The update is now called the Google Reviews Update rather than the Product Reviews Update.

Google updated its review system guidance to remove references to only "products" and make the recommendations apply to any reviewable thing, service, business, destination, or media. Reviews can now cover any topic.

This expanded reviews update aims to better determine high quality, authoritative review content across all verticals. Google provided updated tips for writing helpful reviews, like demonstrating expertise, providing evidence and personal experience, comparing competitors, and focusing on key decision factors.

The reviews update impacts English and 11 other languages. It builds on the previous product reviews updates Google has rolled out since 2021 to improve review relevance in search results.

Sites publishing reviews should check their Google search traffic and rankings to gauge the impact of this April 2023 expansion of Google's review algorithm. High-value, in-depth reviews are likely to be rewarded under this latest update.

Identifying If Your Site Has Been Affected

Using Google Search Console

Google Search Console provides data on your Google search traffic and performance. Look for drops in impressions and clicks around core update roll-out dates. Check your top pages report to see if core pages were impacted. The performance report can show ranking declines.

Monitoring Rank Tracking Tools

Rank tracking software will visually display ranking fluctuations across keywords over time. Tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, Moz, and Keyword.com can help uncover pages and keywords losing rankings from an update. Ensure you are tracking rankings daily to catch volatility. Check out our resource on the best rank tracker tools.

Analyzing Traffic Sources Reports

Your Google Analytics account can confirm Search Console data. Look for declines in organic traffic and sessions to indicate a Google update impacted your site. Check landing pages and geographic reports for more granularity. Compare Google organic to other channels.

Tips For Recovering From Core Update Penalties

Improving Page Quality

Google's updates aim to reward high-quality content. Review impacted pages and improve the depth of information, uniqueness of analysis, structure, and overall user experience. Add more multimedia and visuals. Ensure pages satisfy user intent. You can also use tools like Surfer SEO that will provide recommendations on how to improve your on-page signals.

Building More Authoritative Backlinks

Earning links from reputable sites in your industry helps regain lost authority. Outreach to quality sites to see if they would be interested in referencing or linking to your content. Build a strong link profile of diverse, high-quality domains.

Cleaning Up Technical SEO Issues

Google cares about page speed and technical health. Check forcrawl errors, broken links, duplicate content issues. Improve site speed and mobile optimization. Implement proper structured data markup. Resolve any technical problems using Screaming Frog.

Freshening Existing Content

Adding new data, analysis, images and videos to old content can help regain relevance. Make sure your best content stays up to date. Consider surveying users on what additional info would improve outdated pages.

Preparing For Future Google Core Algorithm Updates

Have an SEO strategy focused on great content, user experience, and building trust/authority - not shortcuts. Understand your analytics and monitor rankings regularly. Stay on top of Google's algorithm news. Review impacted sites and gauge opportunities. Execute plan to improve site.

Key Takeaways and Looking Ahead

Google's major core updates aim to promote quality content. By identifying impacted pages using Google Search Console, rank trackers and analytics, you can diagnose issues. Building great content focused on ranking factors like E-E-A-T and improving technical site health are key to prepare for future updates. Stay tuned into Google's algorithm changes and be ready to refresh your SEO approach accordingly.


When does Google announce new core updates?

Google typically does not provide much advance warning about upcoming core updates. They are usually announced 1-2 weeks after rollout and impact is noticed. Follow Google search liaison accounts on social media for real-time update announcements.

How long do core update effects last?

Google cores updates cause lingering fluctuations for 2-12 weeks usually. The effects are not permanent or one-time changes. Rankings can shift around for months after as Google continues tweaking the new algorithm.

Do core updates target specific niches or verticals?

Core updates are global and affect all niches, though some may notice larger impacts if they violate quality guidelines more prominently. Google does do more niche-specific algorithm updates occasionally.

Are core updates related to Google's quality raters guidelines?

The quality raters guidelines shape how Google evaluates page quality and authority. Core updates aim to better align ranking results with those human quality standards.

Can new sites or pages recover faster from core updates?

Newer sites with less authority may find it harder to regain lost rankings from an update. But improving content and backlinks can help speed recovery versus more established sites.

How do I request a manual review after a core update?

Unfortunately Google does not offer manual reviews for algorithmic ranking declines. You need to identify issues on your end and fix them to regain rankings organically.

Do core updates only impact organic rankings, not paid ads?

That's correct, Google core ranking updates only impact organic search results and rankings. Paid search ads are not directly affected by organic algorithm changes.

How do I sign up for notifications about new Google updates?

Subscribe to SerpFocus' newsletter for up to date information on when Google has an update.

Can a Google algorithm update cause my site to get a penalty?

Generally, Google algorithm updates are not designed to penalize sites directly. However, some updates are aimed at demoting low quality, spammy or thin content sites in the search results. So it is possible that if your site has relied on manipulative techniques or low-value content, a core algorithm update could cause your site to decline in rankings. This is sometimes informally referred to as a "penalty", but it's not an actual manual action penalty.

From The Author

Terry Williams

With over 10 years optimizing sites, I've boosted search visibility for brands through customized strategies. Currently, I develop effective SEO solutions for a top agency, immersed in the latest trends and innovations. Read my full bio.

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