How SEO evolved throughout the years?

by | May 18, 2023 | SEO

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A new version of this article was published on May 18th, 2023. The Google Algorithm Updates for 2023 have been added.

The early beginning before SEO became a thing


Before SEO there was the beginning of world wide web. In on March 6th, 1991 the first ever website – – was launched by Tim Berners-Lee.


Stanford University students Jerry Wang and David Filo start Yahoo, the first Search Engine to be used by masses followed by AltaVista, Excite, and Lycos.


Backrub search engine is created that ranks sites based on inbound link relevancy and popularity. Backrub would ultimately become Google.


The King is born. Google launches in September, and so the story of SEO really begins. Before it, search engines positioned results based on on-page content, domain names, directories and breadcrumbs. Google introduced PageRank algorithm that also took into account the quantity and quality of links pointing to a website and anchor text.

The Google SEO revolution


First Google algorithm update named Florida takes down a lot of websites in their ranking, especially those that would stuff keywords. Repeating keywords would be hidden at the bottom of a page in a font colour that matches the background. That way reader would not see them, but the bots would feed off them and rank websites position higher. Actions like that became to be known as Blackhat SEO tactics. Around this time a new tactic of link building is born. A race to build as many backlinks as possible begins as the savvy marketers quickly learn how to abuse the system.


Google makes its first attempt to fight back linking exploitation and launches its “rel=nofollow” attribute preventing the authority of websites to be passed on. Following this update, Google launches the Jagger and Big Daddy algorithms just before the end of 2015 to prevent link farming and other suspicious SEO tactics.


YouTube gets acquired by Google for the whopping amount of $1.65 billion. Eventually, it would become the second most used search engine in the world. In the same year, Google also launches Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools giving developers profoundly deep insight on how Google sees their websites.


Suggestion Box is finally launched after four years of development and testing. Continuing its path of improving the user experience, Google focuses on understanding better how we surf the web and interact with content. It may seem like the most obvious Google feature these days, but back then showing related searches to automatically appear below, after you start typing in the search box, was a major hit.


Bing goes online or rather Microsoft gives a new name to its Live Search tool. By then Google has nearly 70% of the search engine market in the USA.


Google announces that site speed is a ranking factor following “Caffeine” update, dubbed a next-generation search architecture that is faster, more precise and provides more relevant results. All that thanks to fast “spider-bots” that can quickly crawl website and cover larger parts of the internet.


“Panda” update causes a notable impact on SEO which resulted in affecting optimisation field to this day. In an attempt to clean up search results, 12% of them were impacted. Websites with low quality and irrelevant content (better known as “content farms”) drop down in the rankings. A similar thing happens to websites with unoriginal, static and auto-generated content.


The following “Penguin” update doubles-down on eliminating aggressive, black-hat SEO spam tactics. Gone are the sites that violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines such us buying links, keyword stuffing and keyword matching anchor text to the dot. Eventually, Penguin and previously mentioned Panda release become part of Google’s real-time search architecture.


Hummingbird” release centres around the growing market of mobile users. It is the biggest update to Google’s algorithm since 2001 and deals better with natural language questions, conversational search, and it lays the foundations of Voice Search. Original content becomes a major factor in ranking along with blogs. Google starts to reward websites that provide useful, unique and lengthy answers to visitor’s queries. “Long-tail keywords” or, in other words, detailed and specific search queries become a thing.


The release of “Pidgeon” is all about better local search results. Google improves location and distance ranking parameters to provide relevant results to users based on proximity. Local businesses with strong organic presence showed higher in traditional search within the area of the searching person’s location. The “Local SEO” finally gets its own genre, now distinct from the general SEO.

AI & Machine Learning algorithms


2015 Some would say a breakthrough year in which Google reported more mobile searches in comparison to desktop search. “RankBrain” – a self-learning AI search architecture is introduced as part of the Hummingbird algorithm. It determines the most relevant results to search engine queries. At first, it runs only on 15% of searches that the system had never encountered before, but eventually, it applies to all of them.


Google confirms that the search engine’s top three ranking factors are: links, content, and RankBrain.


Google “Fred” update hits mostly websites with poor content. In general, Google tries to deal with aggressive monetisation, misleading and deceptive ads, poor mobile compatibility and poor content. Fred is not a stand-alone algorithm update, rather a catchall name for every quality tweak to Google system intended to improve it and get rid of the content that violates the Webmaster Guidelines. It’s been a known fact for a while that Google does quality updates on a regular basis and most go unnoticed and are unannounced.


A year of Webmaster Tools modernisation. Google Search Console, Google My Business and, most notably for SEO, Google’s PageSpeed Insights tools receive their updates. There are of course multiple changes to Google’s ranking algorithm done almost every day, but there were three Broad Core Algorithm Updates that were actually announced. PageSpeed update becomes a significant player in ranking and slow sites with low optimisation score on mobiles are affected. Google announces nine factors that influence Optimisation Score.


The 2019 is the year of many Broad Core updates. After small Valentine’s Update released in February that impacted rankings in mostly positive ways the March release was one of the most significant Google updates in years. It was a kind of rollback that caused previously penalised websites retrieving their traffic and positions in search results. In June core update seems to have boosted sites focusing on their content quality and September release affected links. The latter was most likely related to Google’s changes in nofollow links policy. However, the biggest change came with BERT Broad algorithm update introduced in October and rolled out worldwide in December, which was designed to understand search queries better.


The year started with Google announcing that URLs in featured snippets will not show on the first page of organic search results any more. However, early May release, which turned out to be the second-highest Core

Update after August 2018, and the first one since COVID-19, was much more significant. Although it is still early to say the full scope of its impact, as these updates take 1-2 weeks to roll out fully, we noticed relatively high volatility around 4-6 May. The industries that were impacted the most are health, travel, real estate, animals, people and society. Marcus Tober from Search Metrics advised,

“(…)it seems that Google was working again on content factors combined with brand factors (…)”.

In October 2020, Google BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) became available worldwide for SEO purposes. This programme processed all search results on Google in English within a year of launch. It also translated search results into seventy more languages, which improved the accuracy of search results and SEO.

December 2020 saw the final core update of the year, bringing with it a wider range than the smaller local rankings update in November. This affected businesses’ SEO rankings across all languages, with benefits being seen in the music, health, news and e-commerce sectors.


The first update of 2021 was in February, bringing with it a 7% increase in SEO rankings as the algorithm changed. This was called “passage ranking” and made queries of less specific information more likely to find the result a user was looking for on Google.

May 2021 saw the largest and most significant update of the year- what would later be known as the Google Page Experience Update. This is the first time that Google has counted user experience in SEO page rankings for search results. One of the things this update took into consideration was the load time of a website and the possibility of intrusive ads disturbing the user experience.

In June/July 2021 there was a two-month core update that impacted rankings across all sectors of business in multiple languages. It was during this update that websites with spam links saw a huge drop in SEO rankings.

The Google November 2021 update was released just hours before Black Friday, impacting businesses at a prime time of the year. The largest benefits from this update were travel, real estate, vehicles and science industries.

The final update of 2021 was in December, which focused on Product Reviews. This aimed to promote product reviews in order to benefit businesses’ rankings, as originally seen in April of 2021 as well. Some businesses were more badly affected than others.


In 2022, Google released ten confirmed algorithm updates, similar to 2021. These included two core updates in May and September, which were significant and caused noticeable volatility in rankings. Google introduced a new ranking system, the ‘Helpful Content Update’, aimed at demoting content written for search engines rather than users. Two of these updates were released in August and December.

Three product review updates were rolled out in March, July, and September, focusing on enhancing Google’s ability to identify high-quality product reviews. The March update was particularly impactful, while the July and September updates were less so.

Google also released two spam updates in October and December, utilising an AI called SpamBrain to better detect and neutralise spam and link spam.

A single page experience update was launched in February, extending page experience signals to desktop searches.

Other changes included the evolution of the Panda update into the Coati algorithm, the use of MUM in more areas, and updates to Google’s title algorithm for multi-lingual or transliterated pages. Google also replaced the Webmaster Guidelines with Google Search Essentials and added ‘Expertise’ to E-A-T in the quality raters guidelines.


Google’s March 2023 core algorithm update, which was significant and took weeks to roll out, has now completed. The update aimed to enhance Google’s understanding and ranking of content, delivering increasingly relevant, high-quality search results.

The impact of the update was seen in fluctuating search rankings, with SEO professionals and website owners advised to monitor organic traffic and keyword rankings, focus on quality content tailored to their audience’s needs, and optimise technical aspects such as site speed and mobile-friendliness.

This is where the story continues. How will the rest of 2023 unfold? The Google SEO evolution has changed a lot since its inception. Keyword-based systems have evolved into sophisticated learning machines that think like humans. It’s no longer just about content, but also about mobile device accessibility that is shaping ranking algorithms.

Stay tuned for updates as we analyse some more data in the upcoming weeks to see how the rest of 2023 progressed with Google Algorithm updates.

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