As the year comes to a close, we take a look at the algorithm updates and changes to search that Google rolled out in 2021.
Google results are constantly changing. While fluctuations vary for different search queries, search results are never static. New information, an uptick in interest, or current events can all have an impact on what you see when you Google something.
But there’s something else that can impact what you see. Multiple times a year, Google updates its algorithms. While many of these updates go unnoticed, the larger algorithm changes can have a significant impact on what you see in search results. With over 95% of people going online to learn more about a business, ranking well in search is vital to reach online users, and to rank well in search results, you have to understand and adhere to Google’s guidelines, which are subject to change with these algorithm updates.
In this article, we’ll take a look at Google algorithm updates and the nature of these updates, as well as notable updates from the past few years, before diving into the most notable updates of 2021 and how they could change how you approach search results and your SEO strategy.
What is a Google algorithm update?
A Google algorithm update refers to a change implemented by Google to the processes and ranking factors that determine how websites show up in search results. Google updates its algorithms several times every year to improve user experience, as well as the quality and relevance of results for any particular query.
The importance and impact of these algorithm updates range significantly, with some updates going completely unnoticed while others change results dramatically and immediately. Over the years, many of Google’s algorithm updates have been catalysts for change when it comes to SEO best practices.
Why stay up-to-date on Google updates?
Google is the world’s most popular search engine, with an over 92% market share reported as of June 2021, and billions of searches conducted every day. With nearly 70% of user experiences online starting with a search engine, and over 50% of website traffic coming from organic search, the importance of showing up in search results is clear.
And it’s not just about showing up, but where things show up. The top three results on Google earn over 75% of clicks, and over 99% of users only click page 1 links. You read that right – fewer than 1% of users click on page 2 results.
Google has over 200 factors that determine where certain pages or websites rank in search results for any particular query. As Google has updated its algorithms, these factors have shifted, evolved, or changed completely. As these ranking factors change, so do SEO best practices.
What is SEO?
SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of improving the visibility – or rank – of your website in search results for a particular keyword or search query. SEO strategy is generally made up of a combination of tactics to influence where your website ranks in search results.
What are SEO best practices?
Put simply, SEO best practices are the SEO strategies that are effective in improving the rank of your website in search results. In the world of SEO, not all strategies are created equal. Strategies that used to be common practice may not be as effective as they once were, while other strategies may go against Google’s guidelines and can result in penalties.
What do SEO best practices have to do with Google updates?
Because SEO is all about the visibility of your website in search results, the factors that determine that visibility determine best practices – and those factors are determined by Google.
Black Hat vs. White Hat
Different SEO strategies are often categorized as Black Hat or White Hat:
- Black Hat SEO refers to any SEO strategies that violate Google’s (or any search engine’s) terms of service. Sometimes these are practices that were rewarded in the past, but now can result in penalties for your site. Some Black Hat SEO tactics are keyword stuffing, including invisible text on your site, including unrelated keywords to a page, etc.
- White Hat SEO refers to any SEO strategies that are accepted or approved by Google (or any search engine). These are strategies that are not considered spammy, manipulative, or misleading, and help Google achieve its goal of providing users with relevant, informative, and well-running sites in results.
Over time, Google has updated its algorithms with the intention of providing users with the best on-page experience, as well as providing users with results that are relevant, informative, and not overly promotional or spammy. Websites that earn authoritative backlinks, load quickly, publish informative, unique content, and are relevant to user search queries are not only better for users, but can rank better in results.
Look at it this way: implementing an SEO strategy made up of SEO best practices not only benefits you by helping your site rank better in results, but will also benefit users by improving user experience and giving them value for their search.
Why does it matter?
In 2021, how you appear online is one of your greatest assets. With the vast majority of people going online to learn more about, well, everything, it’s important you show up. Of the billions of web pages out there, over 90% receive no organic traffic. Even the best businesses can get buried in results without an effective SEO strategy, and as we said, ranking isn’t enough – you have to rank at least in the top 10 results. With so much competition out there, and more every day, staying up-to-date on SEO best practices and Google updates can help give your online presence an edge.
Notable Updates of the Last 10 Years
What constitutes a notable Google update? While it can be difficult to determine which updates you should be paying attention to, some updates demand your attention:
- 2011, Panda: this update was released to reduce the prevalence of low-quality content in search results. This update did not only penalize low-quality content, but resulted in rewards – or better ranking – for unique, high-quality content. The Panda update was one of the first major steps in prioritizing quality content to improve user experience and provide users with relevant, informative content for their queries.
- 2011, Freshness: this update gave a boost in ranking to newer or more recent pages, particularly those related to time-sensitive search queries. Though this update did not render evergreen content completely obsolete by any means, Google stated that this update noticeably impacts up to 10% of results. This update aims to protect users from outdated content and information.
- 2012, Penguin: similar to the Panda update, this update sought to improve the quality of search results by targeting spammy and manipulative link-building practices. Backlinks are a major ranking factor, as they can improve your website’s authority. This update sought to invalidate low-quality backlinks or manipulative link building practices by penalizing spammy results.
- 2013, Hummingbird: another update with an animal namesake, Hummingbird was an update aimed to improve user experience by changing how the search engine processed search queries. Following the Hummingbird update, Google’s search engine produced results related to the intention of search queries, as opposed to just vocabulary matching. As a result, though it did not render keywords irrelevant, this update removed the absolute necessity for an exact keyword match to rank for particular keywords.
- 2015, Mobilegeddon: perhaps one of the most significant updates to Google’s algorithm, this update, also known as the Mobile-Friendliness Ranking Factor Update, gave a boost to sites that are well-formatted for mobile. A response to the increasing number of mobile searches, this update also penalized websites not formatted well for mobile (pop-ups, images that don’t scale, slow loading times, etc.). The impact of this update has only become more relevant as more people access the internet with mobile devices, with mobile search making up 55% of organic website traffic in 2021.
- 2015, RankBrain: this update was similar to the Hummingbird update in that it took into consideration search intent. In addition to search intent, RankBrain also takes into consideration a user’s own search history to provide them with the most relevant results. In 2021, RankBrain is central to Google’s core algorithm, and utilizes machine learning to determine what the most relevant results are to submitted search queries. This is one of the reasons why search results are not static – and in some cases, can fluctuate daily or hourly – as the “best” answer for a particular query can be subject to change.
- 2019, Bert: similar to RankBrain, the Bert update functioned as a continuation of Hummingbird. This update continued to improve Google’s understanding of nuances in words used in search queries and results. Although the Bert update did not have a significant impact on rankings at the time of its release, it had a significant impact on online content, as content that is written with users in mind (as opposed to search engines) is rewarded as a result of this update.
These are just a handful of the updates that have impacted Google search results and SEO best practices over the years. To get a comprehensive list of Google’s algorithm updates, check out Moz’s update history.
Major Google Updates of 2021
Passage Indexing Update, February 2021
The first major update of 2021, the Passage Indexing Update was released to help find “needle in the haystack” information for more specific searches for English and US queries. This update focuses on information within certain passages of a webpage, as opposed to focusing on the page as a whole.
According to Google, this update only impacted about 7% of queries, but should make specific details or information more findable in search results.
Product Reviews Update, April 2021
The first of two product review updates in 2021, this update rewards in-depth reviews over shorter, more general, or spammy reviews. Focused on quality, the specific factors that Google takes into account when determining the quality of a review were not released; however, Google did publish questions for users to ask themselves to determine how high-quality a review is.
As with any quality content online, this update seemed to reward reviews that are informative, verifiable, and provide a unique take on a product, service, company, or organization.
In 2021, it’s no surprise Google focused some updates on reviews. Reviews are a valuable resource and tool for consumers and businesses online, and their importance is growing. Nearly 90% of consumers report reading online reviews to learn more about businesses, and over 80% report trusting reviews as much as recommendations from family and friends. By cutting down on reviews that don’t provide valuable information, or reviews that may not be authentic, Google has ensured that the power of reviews will only grow as a reliable resource when researching a business.
Core Update, June 2021
First things first: a core update is a type of Google update, generally referring to algorithm updates that change key processes or factors of how Google ranks things. Core updates tend to have a tangible impact on search results, though they often are not targeting a specific type of issue or content.
This year, the June core update seemed to impact websites with weak or thin content, as well as sites that offer advice on sensitive topics, such as health, money, purchasing advice, etc.
Page Experience Update, June 2021
Arguably the most significant update of the year, the Page Experience update placed greater emphasis on the functionality of a site when it came to ranking, particularly regarding how functionaily affects user experience.
This update led to a new tool being released in Google Search Console (GSC) called Core Web Vitals. This tool allows you to monitor the relevant metrics covered by the Page Experience update. These categories are:
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), which measures loading performance,
- First Input Delay (FID), which measures interactivity,
- and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), which measures visible stability.
Some of the other considerations included in this update are whether the page is secure or not (https vs. http), how quickly a page loads, if the page is mobile-friendly, if there are pop-ups, etc. This update was released slowly to give people time to update their websites to avoid penalties.
Core Update, July 2021
In a move considered somewhat uncommon for Google, the July core update acted as a continuation or part two of the June update. As with the June update, Google did not release many specifics about the July update, but the update appeared smaller than the June update and did seem to shift rankings and SERPs.
Spam Update, November 2021
Actually the fourth spam update of 2021, this update was a broad update targeting spam in search. Earlier spam updates this year also targeted spammy results in search, with one update specifically targeting link spam. This update penalized sites that do not follow Google’s best practices when it comes to outgoing links.
Product Reviews Update, December 2021
The most recent – and potentially the last – update of 2021, the year’s second product reviews update was rolled out in early December. This update highlighted two new best practices to improve user experience with reviews:
- For reviewers, to provide evidence (such as images, videos, etc.) to validate the authenticity of your review.
- In content, to include links to multiple sellers when writing about a product to give readers the option of which merchant they want to purchase from.
This update, similar to the earlier product review update, is in response to the growing dependence of users on online reviews when determining whether or not to buy a particular product or frequent a particular business.
Regarding impact on results, this could have a say in which reviews populate in search, particularly for search queries specifically related to reviews.