How Google Changes Over Time

Have you tried Googling it?

Like Kleenex is to tissues, Google has become synonymous with online search. Nearly 70% of digital experiences begin with a search engine. With over 83% of the search market share, Google dominates.

But Google search, much like its results, is not a static thing. Since its inception in 1998, Google search has undergone several significant changes meant to bring users the best results for their search queries.

To maintain your ranking in search results, you have to stay up-to-date on Google changes. Google’s ranking factors determine SEO best practices and, if you’re not keeping up, you’re going to be left behind.

2023 was one of the most volatile years for Google search, with updates rolling out regularly, picking up in frequency as the year went on.

We are just a few months past the 25th birthday of Google search. In this article, I will dive into a brief history of the world’s most popular search engine - how Google came to be, how it changes, why it changes, and what we can expect from Google as we look ahead.

The Beginning of Google

Google was founded in 1998. Though there were other search engines out there, Google stood out against the rest with its PageRank algorithm, which decided where results would rank in search for a particular query. The basis of PageRank was simple: the better pages were more likely to have both a higher volume of backlinks and higher quality backlinks.

Google revolutionized online search not only with its incorporation of ranking factors, but also due to its simplicity, accessibility, and accuracy when it came to giving users the results they were looking for. Even in its earliest iterations, Google had a simple, user-friendly design with ads that were well-integrated into the layout.

Google’s early history already saw regular updates and changes, often in response to one of two things:

  1. Opportunity to improve user experience
  2. Decreasing opportunities to game the system

Users were - and are - invaluable to Google. In using the search engine, and changing how they use it, they give Google valuable insights into how Google can better serve users and how user trends are changing, keeping Google relevant and useful as time goes on.

Those who are attempting to rank their websites through search engine optimization (SEO) also provide Google with key insights, highlighting areas that are easily exploitable and leading to a more complex approach when it comes to where things show up in search. Although authoritative backlinks were the initial Google ranking factor, Google eventually grew to consider over 200 ranking factors.

Google has been one of the most steadfast players when it comes to our online world. In 2006, “Google” was added to both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary, a verb meaning “to use the Google search engine to obtain information on the internet.”

Why Google Changes

When we talk about Google changes, we’re generally talking about either Google guideline updates or, more often, Google algorithm updates. Google algorithm updates are changes on the backend that impact why and where things are ranking in Google search results. Sometimes, these changes are subtle and won’t have a clear or immediate impact on results. Other times, these changes can be major, shifting what are considered best practices and rendering certain SEO strategies ineffective.

As said above, Google has two primary reasons it updates or changes its algorithms: 1) to keep up with user trends and provide relevant information for their queries, and 2) to limit opportunities to unhelpfully “game” the system.

These two reasons are very related, as SEO is not inherently seen as negative to Google. Google becomes concerned about SEO when people try to implement Black Hat SEO (SEO strategies that violate Google’s guidelines) or attempt to rank content that is spammy or not valuable to the user.

As such, Google has established best practices over the years, related to improving user experience, that will give your website a better chance of ranking. High-quality content, websites optimized for positive user experience, and mobile-friendly websites all can improve user expeirence, thus improving your ranking in search engine results.

Google Update Timeline

I won’t list every Google update here. I’m not even sure that I can, as many Google updates are unconfirmed and difficult to pin down. That said, to give you a sense of just how much Google has changed over the years, I’ve highlighted a few of the most impactful Google updates (if you’re really curious, you can go down the rabbit hole here).  

  • Panda (2011): a content quality update, Panda rewarded high-quality, non-duplicate content to reduce the prominence of low-quality content in search results.
  • Penguin (2012): this update targeted manipulative (or, spammy) link-building practices by penalizing results that seemed to rely on this strategy to rank.
  • Hummingbird (2013): one of the most significant Google updates, Hummingbird changed how Google processed search queries. Instead of keyword matching, Google would not take into account the intent behind a query.
  • RankBrain (2015): a continuation of Hummingbird, RankBrain takes into account both search intent and users’ specific information to give users the best results for their query.
  • Bert (2019): another continuation of Hummingbird, Bert focused on search intent, and led to a shift in online content being written more for users than being solely optimized for search engines.

How Google Changes

Although many Google updates can be more technical, obsessed over by SEOs and website owners, many Google changes are because of and for the average user. As Google’s user base evolves, Google does as well, showing the connection between the search engine and its users.

Give the People What They Want: The Dress

Google Images (originally called Google Image Search) was introduced following the 42nd Grammy Awards when the search engine experienced high demand for pictures of Jennifer Lopez in her iconic green Versace dress.

Source: Scott Gries/Getty

J-Lo wore the dress in February 2000, and Google Image Search was launched in July 2001. By the end of that year, there were 250 million images indexed. By 2005, there were over 1 billion images indexed. Today, there are more than 20 billion images indexed.

Made Personally for You: Personalized Search

In 2005, Google released the first personalized search update, which allowed it to read users’ search histories to provide more relevant results. At this time, it only applied to users who were logged into Google accounts, but expanded to all users in 2009.

The aim of personalized search was - and is - to provide users with better results for their queries by taking into account the context of how they are online to improve relevance. The factors that personalize your search results are called signals by Google, and include information categories such as location, search history, and social media engagement.

Personalized search has received some scrutiny. There have been concerns about the bias it can inform for users who aren’t aware that their information is informing their results and the hand it plays in creating a bubble for certain users (although a recent study seems to indicate this impact could be overstated). There have also been concerns raised about the impact on SEO, as different users being shown different results can complicate SEO strategies.

Just Text it to Me: Mobilegeddon

Mobile phones have permeated our lives. We use them as calendars, calculators, televisions, and, occasionally, for phone calls. We also use them to access the internet.

There are 5.18 billion people online -  4.97 billion of these people access the internet via their mobile devices.

As I said earlier, Google boasts roughly 83% of the search market share. The numbers are even greater when it comes to mobile traffic, where Google gets nearly 95%.

In 2015, Google rolled out the Mobilegeddon update. Also called the Mobile-Friendly Ranking Factor Update, this update was a response to the rise of mobile searches on Google. It rewarded sites that were well-formatted for mobile devices and penalized those that were not. Just a year later, Google released Mobilegeddon 2.0, giving a greater boost to mobile-friendly websites.

But Google didn’t stop there. In 2018, Google released the Mobile-First Index. This update, anticipated since 2016, prioritized the mobile version of websites over the desktop version, meaning that mobile-friendliness became a top priority ranking factor.

How Google Will Change

It can be difficult to guess how Google will change in the future. Google is notoriously private when it comes to algorithm updates and ranking factors, and the search engine’s almost collaborative relationship with its userbase also shows that Google may not be able to anticipate how it will change until it is time to do so (again, thinking of J-Lo in the green dress).

That said, the changes that Google rolled out in 2023 and announcements that Google has made looking forward give us some insights into what we should pay attention to in 2024.

  • User-Generated Content: in August of 2023, Google rolled out a core update that seemed to prioritize user-generated content (UGC). This is unique content created by users and shared on social channels and can encapsulate pretty much anything, from images to videos to reviews. This update also seemed to benefit Reddit, which has historically not ranked all that well for queries that don’t include “reddit” in the query. This may be a reaction to users, particularly younger users, seeking out information from other users as opposed to experts, as well as the explicit inclusion of “reddit” in queries when seeking information. As such, keeping an eye on relevant conversations around you, your brand, or your industry will only be more important as these conversations become more prominent in search.
  • AI: AI and its use in SEO and online marketing, as well as by general users, has been on the rise, particularly since the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022. Though the initial, intuitive response from Google seemed that it would be to penalize AI content, the prevalence of it and potential difficulty in identifying it caused Google to, instead, redefine quality content. While AI integration will continue to rise, as well as the prevalence of AI content, understanding what Google deems quality content is imperative for anyone trying to rank for specific keywords online, shown in part by a focus on reducing spammy and low-quality content in 2023 Google updates.
  • User Experience: At the heart of Google’s updates, user experience will continue to be a primary consideration for ranking. Several of Google’s 2023 updates prioritized users, and this is likely to continue. Google has many resources outlining the priorities for user experience, as well as tools to check page performance. Additionally, you can ask users for feedback on your site to ensure you are providing the best experience possible.
  • Search Generative Experience: Perhaps more commonly referred to as SGE, this is Google’s new way to search. This will provide users with an AI-generated answer for queries, aiming to be simultaneously more comprehensive and better at getting to the answer users are searching for more quickly. It is possible to beta-test SGE, and anyone who works in SEO or has a stake in this substantial change to search should familiarize themselves with it.

Although predictions are not set in stone, we can be certain that Google will continue to change. To reach your audience, grow your business, or establish yourself as an authority in your industry, you have to stay informed on the search engine’s evolution.

As experts in SEO and digital reputation, Status Labs studies these changes and updates our strategies to reflect the ongoing shifts and best practices established by Google to help our clients take control of their digital reputation.

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