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Columnist Jim Yu explores how Google’s numerous algorithm updates over the years have shaped search engine optimization strategies. Can this information provide a clue for what to expect in the future?

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Since Google was first launched in 1998, the company has been continually refining its search algorithm to better match users with online content.

Over the years, many algorithm updates have targeted spammy and low-quality content in an effort to surface this content less frequently in search results. Other algorithm updates have been aimed at improving Google’s “understanding” of search queries and page content to better align search results with user intent.

The bottom line is that focusing on quality content and the user experience really is the best way to ensure your search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing campaigns are update proactive rather than update reactive.

Panda

The Panda update was first launched in February 2011, though it has been updated several times since then. This update is designed to target sites with low-quality content and prevent them from ranking well in search engine results pages.

Sites that have pages of spammy content, too many ads or excessive duplicate content, for example, often experience Panda penalties.

It was recently announced that Panda was added to Google’s core ranking algorithm, which has caused considerable buzz in the industry.

Penguin

The Penguin update was first released about a year after the Panda update, in April 2012. The two are often grouped together when discussing Google’s big push to raise the quality of content that appears in search engine results.

This update focused largely on targeting spammy links. Google looks at backlinks as a signal of a website’s authority and reputation, taking a site or page’s backlink profile into consideration when determining rankings.

Back when its core algorithm was less sophisticated, people figured out that they could effectively game search engine rankings simply by obtaining significant numbers of (often spammy and irrelevant) backlinks?

Hummingbird

The Hummingbird update followed in the summer of 2013. This update was designed to improve Google’s semantic search capabilities. It was becoming increasingly common for people to use Google in a conversational way, to type their queries as though they were asking a friend.

This update was designed to help Google respond by understanding intent and context.

With this update, the development of content had to shift slightly again. With the emphasis on intent, Google was not simply playing a matching game where they connect the keywords in the query with the keywords in the content.

Content needed now to go beyond just the keyword. It needed to demonstrate an understanding of what users are interested in and what they would like to learn.

Mobile Update

The year 2015 saw several major updates that impacted content development. The first, Google’s mobile-friendly update, occurred in April. This update was unique because Google actually warned website users in advance that it was coming.

With this update, Google recognized that mobile was beginning to dominate much of search and online customer behavior — in fact, just a couple months after the mobile-friendly update was announced, Google noted that mobile searches had officially surpassed desktop. The mobile-friendly update forced sites to become mobile-friendly or risk losing visibility to sites that were.

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