Quick Guide to Google Algorithms

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We’ve all been there. I definatley have. A client, or someone you are trying to impress, asks about a certain algorithm. And you can’t remember which one that one is.

Google has had so many algorithms since its launch, it’s hard to keep track of their whimsical names and what they do. Which is why I’ve had this list of the most important (or most talked about) algorithms tucked onto a desktop stickynote for the last year. Use ctrl+F whenever somebody asks and you need your memory refreshing.

Ordered by most recently updated first.


Google Pigeon

Release: July 2014

UK Release: December 2014

Pigeon is meant to improve local search; it ensures that users receive local results where relevant. Results in Google Maps were also affected by this. Pigeon expanded to the UK, Canada and Australia on December 22 2014.

Location and distance are a main consideration in this algorithm. Local directory sites are often reported as being given preference. This algorithm is currently being rolled out to all English-speaking locales, barring India.


Everything You Need to Know About Google’s Local Algorithm, Pigeon (Search Engine Land – January 9 2015)


Google Penguin

Release: April 2012

Updates/ refreshes:

Penguin 2 – May 2012

Penguin 3 – October 2012

Penguin 4 – May 2013 (Also known as Penguin 2.0)

Penguin 5 – October 2013

Penguin 6 – October 2014  (Also known as Penguin 3.0)

Penguin Everflux – December 10 2014

Pengiun is all about links. Mainly, it’s about rewarding sites with ‘natural’ links and chucking those with paid links back down to the bottom of the SERPs where they belong. As the algorithm has grown, it has become considerably harder for black hat spammers to see their sites at the top of search.

Updates aimed at ensuring that sites which were buying spam links were penalised, as evidenced by unrelated anchor texts, porn links, sidebar links, and links from blatant link farms.

Penguin 6 was rolled out in December 2014. Google has since confirmed the update to be still rolling out. Less than one percent of queries were affected. This may be because of the panic cleanup of business sites tanks to penalties and algorithm-based drops in visibility. Penguin penalises sites with a high number of paid (such as directory, link network and content farm) links. However, unpaid links from poor quality sites can also drop websites in the SERPs.

Poor links can be removed by disavowing, and if a manual penalty has been applied to the site thanks to links, a reconsideration request is required.


Google Talks Penguin Update, Ways to Recover and Negative SEO (Search Engine Land – May 10 2012)

Penguin 4 is Now Live (Search Engine Land – May 22 1013)

Google Says Penguin Update to Shift to “Continuous Updates” (Search Engine Land – Dec 10 2014)


Google Pirate

Launch: August 2012

Update: October 2014

Pirate was updated in late 2014 after a long break, aiming at penalising torrent sites. Only piracy sites were affected by this, with big names in the field such as Torrent Freak seeing massive drop in visibility.

This was really more of a move thanks to copyright infringement. Google noted in 2014, at the time of the second update, that they still receive a massive amount of copyright removal notices. They were to use this data for ranking, presumably by hitting the most featured sites in the removal notices.


Penguins and Pirates: Google’s Latest Crackdown on the Web (SEOkitty – October 27 2014)


Google Panda

Release: February 23 2011


Panda 2.0 – April 11 2011

Panda 2.1 – May 9 2011

Panda 2.2 – June 21 2011

Panda 2.3 – July 23 2011

Panda 2.4 – August 12 2011

Panda 2.5 – September 28 2011

Panda Flux – October 5 2011

Panda 3.1 – November 18 2011

Panda 3.2 – January 18 2012

Panda 3.3 – Febrary 27 2012

Panda 3.4 – March 23 2012

Panda 3.5 – April 19 2012

Panda 3.6 – April 27 2012

Panda 3.7 – June 8 2012

Panda 3.8 – June 25 2012

Panda 3.9 – July 24 2012

Panda 3.9 refresh 1 – August 20 2012

Panda 3.9 refresh 2 – September 18 2012

Panda 20 – September 27 2012

Panda 21 – November 5 2012

Panda 22 – November 21 2012

Panda 23 – December 21 2012

Panda 24 – March 14 2013

Panda Dance – June 11 2013

Panda 4.0 – May 19 2014

Panda 4.1 – September 23 2014

This algorithm is one of the big ones, as you can probably tell by the massive amount of updates/refreshes (27 altogether). Mainly targeting onsite content, it as released in order to separate the wheat from the chaff; the spam-filled sites from the legit ones.

The algorithm aimed to show higher quality sites at the top of search, and at first seemed to give precedence to news sites and social networking sites. Sites packed with ads or full of spun content don’t get a look in. Or at least, they show up about 10 pages into the results. Unique and well-written content (content which was written by a human) is rewarded.

Panda was all about onsite content quality and the ability of landing pages to present relevant content to a query. Updates have been rolled out mainly once a month since the original release before it was integrated into Google’s core algorithm, although Panda 4.1 showed up in September 2014.


Panda 2.0: Google Rolls out Panda Update (Search Engine Land – April 11 2011)

Panda Update 3.0 Live and Panda ‘Flux’ (Search Engine Land – October 19 2011)

Google Panda #22 Update (Search Engine Roundtable – November 30 2012)

How Google’s Latest Panda Algorithm Should Change your Content Strategy (Marketing Land – October 21 2014)


HTTPS Update

Launch: October 2014

Not strictly an algorithm, but in 2014 Google announced that sites with HTTPS encoding may be given preference in rankings. However, the ranking boost was admitted to be minor.


HTTPS as a Ranking Factor (SEOkitty – August 26 2014)


Payday Loan Algorithm

Launch: June 2013


Payday Loan 2.0 - May 2014

Payday laon 3.0 - June 2014

The Payday Loan algorithm was intended to penalise spam results, meaning payday loan-type results and pornography.

The third version of this rolled out in 2014, and focused on penalising spam sites and businesses in the payday loan sector, which are notorious for spammy link building tactics. No win no fee-type business were also affected.


Google Clamping Down on Payday Loans (BlueClaw Search – August 2014)


Page Layout Algorithm (‘Top Heavy’)

Launch: January 19 2012


Page Layout 2 – October 9 2012

Page Layout 3 – February 6 2014

In order to return results which provide content above the fold, this algorithm was rolled out and updated most recently in 2014. The aim is to provide higher rankings to sites which don’t provide a slew of adverts above the fold of landing pages. It is meant to affect only ad heavy sites; having just one or two ads at the top of the page is fine.


Page Layout Algorithm Improvement (Google Webmasters, January 2012)


Google Hummingbird

Release: August 30 2013

Hummingbird intended to make search results more relevant according to search semantics; the exact intention of the query. This is done by assessing the entire query, like a sentence, rather than single keywords. Semantic analysis is meant to provide the user with more appropriate content according to the context of the query.

The algorithm encouraged webmasters to plan content according to why people are looking for something, rather that what they are looking for. Their potential queries need answering rather than being presented with lists of hard-sell facts.


All About the New Google Hummingbird Algorithm (Search Engine Land – September 26 2013)



Launch: May 2013

This unofficial algorithm was noticed by webmasters pretty much as soon as it hit. According to reports, it made a significant hit on websites with thin content or low quality content. It also seemed to hit owned sites which cross-linked.


Exact Match Domain

Launch: September 2012

Released the same day as a Panda refresh but unrelated, the EMD algorithm hit domains with exact match names. An exact match domain would be, for example, nowinnofeeclaims.com for a no win no fee lawyer group.


Low Quality Exact Match Domains are Google’s Next Target (Search Engine Land – September 2012)


Google Venice

Launch: June 2010 (following a trail period starting in August 2009)

Venice was a particularly important update and really changed the game for SEOs. The update changed search by offering localised search results, where previously local searches needed to be specified. Now, you didn’t need to type in ‘Wedding planner in London’, just ‘Wedding planner’ to get a nearby wedding planner.


Why Google’s Venice Update Fundamentally Changes Global SEO (Search Engine Land – May 24 2012)


Freshness (‘Caffeine’)

Launch: June 2010 (following a trail period starting in August 2009)

Google’s web indexing system was given an overhaul after months of testing; caffeine was meant to ensure a fresh index by integrating crawling and indexing. It would form the base on which fresh result algorithms would build.


Our New Search Index Caffeine (Googleblog – June 8 2010)

Written by Sarah Chalk

Sarah Chalk

Sarah is an SEO Account Manager at 360i and has a keen interest in all things SEO. She has also written for a number of sites, including Vue cinema’s film blog and a number of tech websites.

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