As you’re likely familiar, Google uses an algorithm to populate results in its search engine results pages (SERPs). This algorithm has undergone dramatic transformations in the 20ish years its been active, and it’s still being consistently updated today. If you
But just how often is Google’s algorithm updated, and what does it mean for your business?
The Basics of Google Search and SEO
First, let’s focus on the basic elements of Google Search. Google is interested in giving users the best possible experience, which means providing them with the best possible results for each of their searches. This typically boils down to two broad categories of factors for “good” search results:
- Relevance. The relevance of a query is a measurement of its relatedness to the query. In other words, is there a topic or intention match?
- Authority. Authority measures how trustworthy the result is. Information from reliable sources always ranks higher.
The top-ranking entries in SERPs have always been both highly relevant and highly authoritative. However, Google’s methods of measuring and comparing relevance and authority have changed over time, thanks to updates.
Throughout most updates (especially early ones), Google has refined the way it measures these factors, prioritizing natural, quality content and penalizing people trying to game the system. It’s best to understand this concept with an example.
Authority in the search engine optimization (SEO) community is measured by domain authority and page authority, quantitative scores that illustrate the trustworthiness of a domain or page. These numbers increase proportionally to the number of inbound links to a given domain and the quality of those links. In other words, the more links you have, the more trustworthy you’re seen to be. For business owners, this is a perfect opportunity to get more visibility and traffic for your brand.
In the early days, this was highly exploitable. You could spam links all over the web and increase your rankings proportionally. Through updates, Google found new ways to identify spam and reward high-quality links—which is why modern link building services revolve around building high-quality links.
Other types of Google updates are designed to introduce new features and functionality, making it easier for people to search or unveiling new types of search results in different situations.
Early and Major Updates
Google’s earliest updates were major overhauls to its core ranking algorithm, making it function more efficiently. Ranking volatility was common, and monthly quality-related updates were the norm.
Arguably the biggest updates came in the early 2010s, fundamentally changing how Google analyzed content, links, and even search queries:
- Panda. The Panda update was designed to improve how Google evaluates and weighs content quality in its evaluations of trustworthiness and relevance, with low-quality and spammy content getting penalized.
- Penguin. The Penguin update did something similar with links, penalizing websites that were spamming low-quality links as a way to artificially boost their rankings.
- Hummingbird. The Hummingbird update changed how Google considered queries, with less emphasis on exact match keywords and more emphasis on the semantic context of the query.
These major updates were about a year apart, with smaller updates released monthly (or more frequently) between them.
Modern updates are much subtler and harder to notice, for several reasons. According to Moz, there were an incredible 3,234 updates in 2018.
So why have updates become so smaller and more frequent?
- Confidence in core systems. Part of this stems from the fact that Google has a great system already in place. Google has been the dominant search engine for more than two decades now, and it’s helped billions of people find what they’re looking for. In other words, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Modern updates shouldn’t completely overhaul a system that already works pretty well.
- Machine learning and automated updates. RankBrain and other additions to Google Search are implemented as machine learning algorithms. They’re designed to get feedback and update themselves as they gather and analyze new information. These updates are automatically applied, allowing them to roll out faster.
- Tweaks and functional changes. Some updates function like experiments; Google tweaks something or adds a promising new functionality with the hope to gather data about how it performs. If it functions well, they can keep and/or improve it. But again, these tend to be small updates, and not major overhauls.
How often does Google update its search algorithm? The short answer is that it’s being updated constantly. But on the other hand, the updates that are rolling out don’t have the same dramatic impact on search that previous updates have had. If you’re optimizing your site for search engines, this is both good news and bad news—it means you need to be constantly vigilant about new updates, but your search rankings aren’t likely to be massively disrupted.