Google Algorithm Updates: Understanding the Changes

Google is the search engine your firm needs to be prioritising with its web presence.

Although it’s not the only search engine used, Google had a 91.85% global market share in January 2021. This means that if you don’t understand Google, your firm could struggle to show up in results pages.

Its algorithm is famously a firmly guarded secret, with even the company’s well-known search liaisons only sharing the vaguest details about how to improve sites or what Google is looking for.

However, it has revealed certain pieces of information about its algorithm updates, helping website owners identify what broad actions they need to take to help themselves.

Some updates are more significant to the way websites are created than others – but all have an impact.

Frequency of changes

Google updates its algorithm hundreds of times a year. The vast majority of these updates are small changes – improvements that most users won’t even notice. But once or twice a year, the search engine introduces a major update that shakes up the rankings.

And more rarely – every year or two – Google introduces changes that completely alter the way we create websites and the content that goes on them.

The major updates all change the way Google values websites. This means shake ups with how sites are ranked, so you could see yours go up or down. And that can ultimately affect your traffic.

It highlights how important it is to pay attention to Google’s algorithm updates.

The biggest updates

Google’s biggest algorithm updates have become known by various names – whether they were bestowed by Google or those who study the field.

The biggest updates introduced by Google have been:

  • Panda – 2011

Introduced to tackle ‘content farms’ and the low quality pages they were producing, Panda rewarded unique and relevant content and punished duplicate or plagiarised pages and keyword stuffing.

  • Penguin – 2012

Targeting links, Penguin went after sites that had unnatural backlinks – links that point back from other sites to yours. It aimed to stop link-buying and spam links.

  • Hummingbird – 2013

Hummingbird made it possible for a page to rank well for a search term even when it doesn’t contain the exact words used by the searcher. It was introduced to provide results that match the searcher’s intent, rather than pages that contain the search terms but might be irrelevant.

  • Mobile – 2015

There have been further iterations of the Mobile update, which rewarded sites that had a fast and user-friendly mobile version. Google has since moved to a mobile-first indexing system, which means it checks the mobile version of a site rather than the desktop version.

  • RankBrain – 2015

Building on the Hummingbird update, RankBrain is a machine learning system helping Google to understand the context – like search history and location – behind a user’s search query and provide relevant results.

  • Medic – 2018

Highly relevant to law firms, the Medic update targeted sites that focus on topics that affect users’ “future happiness, health, financial stability, or safety”. It highlighted the importance of expertise, authority and trust for these websites.

  • BERT – 2019

BERT – or the very catchy Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers – was introduced to help Google better understand the context of words used in search terms to provide more relevant results.

  • Core Web Vitals – Coming 2021

Google has set out its plans to update its algorithm to prioritise sites that have strong ‘core web vitals’. This means it’ll be rewarding fast, user friendly sites.

Understanding the algorithm

Google is a mysterious beast, but it’s one that every website owner has to try to understand or risk being shoved further down the rankings.

But not every firm has the ability to devote time to learning about algorithms and what Google favours one day compared to the next.

One of the advantages of partnering with a team of experts like First4Lawyers is that you can focus your attention on your clients while we worry about search engines and their updates, guaranteeing you leads.


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