Google Search Algorithms Explained

Confused about Google search algorithms and how they affect a business website’s visibility? Business owners, content writers, and marketers can all benefit from understanding how Google decides which pages to display when users enter search queries.

Below, we’ll explain the nature of algorithm updates and why content and site quality are increasingly important. We’ll also take a look at some of the significant historical updates, how AI platforms might impact search, and provide some tips to help you stay in Google’s good books.

What exactly is a ‘Google algorithm’?

Google has developed algorithms to improve the results people receive and the content people find when doing searches on the internet.

Algorithms are programs that are designed to help people get quality answers to their queries rather than just having hundreds of pages and links – some of which may not be relevant at all – appear in front of them.

In a nutshell, algorithms are involved in improving the search function, and Google is constantly refining and improving this process.

There are also specific Google algorithms designed to fight spam and low-quality sites. In the past, there were site developers who were familiar with the ‘tricks’ that could improve the chances of a site getting great rankings – such as the use (and sometimes overuse) of specific keywords and link schemes. Google caught on, and now makes many changes every year to combat these trends.

Search browser algorithm illustrated.

Important Google algorithm updates

There are numerous updates to algorithms every year. Some are announced, some are not. Many impact only a small percentage of websites, and the intention behind each update is typically to improve the user experience.

If your focus is to publish high quality content that is well targeted to your audience, then your chances of being negatively impacted by most updates will be low.

To provide context, here’s a summary of some of the most significant algorithm updates over the past 15 years:

  • Panda – this 2011 update was designed to provide higher rankings to sites were trustworthy and provided good quality content for their audience. Prior to Panda, article directories that published high volumes of low-quality content created for SEO backlinks were flourishing. Content from these sites was appearing high in the search results – which wasn’t the best experience for users.
  • Penguin – the Penguin algorithm focused on unnatural backlink use – dodgy link schemes, paid-for links and so on.  It was a natural extension of the Panda updates. The combination of Panda and Penguin left many SEO practitioners scrambling to find new strategies and regain lost SEO ground for their clients.
  • Hummingbird – with this 2013 update, Google’s aim was to better decipher the meaning behind search queries that users make, improving experience for users by serving up more relevant results.
  • Local Search – a 2014 update focused on local search. This was a pleasing update for many small local businesses, as it improved their visibility in search results.
  • Rank Brain – search got smarter in 2015 when Google improved its ability to understand the intent behind a user’s search, in order to present better results.
  • Mobile Friendly – another 2015 update, Google pre-warned this one was coming. If you were around in 2015, you might remember your SEO or website manager insisting it was time to make your website mobile-friendly to retain visibility with mobile searches. With more people searching from mobile devices, it was a necessary change to improve the user experience.
  • Bert – stands for ‘Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers’. In 2019, it was a significant leap forward in processing words in relation to all the other words in a sentence, rather than one-by-one in order. This improved the user experience, particularly with longer queries that might have previously resulted in displayed listings that didn’t align with the searcher’s intent.
  • Featured Snippets – another win for the user experience, this 2019 update recognised that many featured snippets related to information that could date. This update was designed to ensure that users were not served with featured snippets that were no longer relevant to their queries. For website owners who were doing well with featured snippets, it meant paying more attention to content that needed updating, or losing out to a competitor who was.
  • Helpful Content – this 2022 update was an extension of Google’s efforts to reward sites that publish ‘people-first’ content that is genuinely helpful for users, rather than prioritising SEO. It also supported Google’s E-E-A-T factors, with Google alluding to the value of having first-hand experience and depth-of-knowledge on topics you publish.

Updates across 2023 and 2024 have been relatively minor. You can stay up to date with algorithm roll outs by visiting the Search Engine Journal. You’ll also find a more comprehensive list of historical updates on their blog.

(If you regularly publish articles on your company blog, you might like to read our article Content Writing with Authority: EEAT Factors and Author Attribution.) And if you have a lot of very old content on your blog, it’s probably time to engage a blog management service, or conduct a thorough content audit to make improvements.

Will generative AI impact search and Google algorithms?

There’s no doubt that the emergence of generative AI tools will result in an increase in the amount of content being created – and some of it will be low quality. Google seems well prepared for this. Current indications are that they won’t penalise or downgrade AI-generated content merely because it’s been generated by AI – but they will downgrade low quality content.

Only time will tell exactly how AI-generated content impacts the online search environment. Governments are yet to make laws to deal with AI issues. Copyright issues are currently being tested in courts. Many companies don’t yet have a policy on AI use.  And the jury is still out on whether AI writing tools will improve to a level where it’s hard to distinguish between an article prepared by AI, and an article written by an experienced journalist or topic expert.

Currently, producing long-form content using an AI tool requires substantial input from a professional writer or editor to obtain a high-quality result. If you’re currently using an AI tool for content, be aware of the limitations in terms of quality – don’t sacrifice quality for quantity!

What about search within AI platforms?

Sesrch query AI illustration

Something new to consider is that many people now ask an AI tool such as Chat GPT to answer their questions or research something, rather than using Google search.

The downside of this is that AI tools can provide that information without mentioning the websites or businesses they sourced the information from. That could mean less website visitors.

The upside is that people can also ask for recommended solutions or services to fit a particular problem, or for a list of events in their town, or  ‘best businesses for…’ . That means that in some cases, your business or website could feature in a list of options presented to users.

How much impact AI platforms have on our search habits and on business visibility will become more apparent as use of those platforms becomes commonplace. If you’re involved in marketing or you’re an ‘early adopter’ by nature, you might think that time is already upon us – but the reality is that many people remain completely unaware of ChatGPT, Gemini and other platforms, or know they exist but haven’t felt the need to use them.

That said, it pays to be ahead of the curve.  Ensuring your website is professional, clearly showcases your offerings, and publishes high quality content may benefit you with AI searches in the same way it does with Google.

Avoiding the ire of Google

Most Google algorithm updates are likely to have little or no effect if you have good content marketing strategies in place and always aim to provide a quality experience to site visitors.

Here are 6 things you can do to stay on the right side of Google:

  1. Publish great content that puts your human audience first.
  2. If you do use AI to generate content, be sure to review, improve, and fact check the content before publishing.
  3. Keep an eye on your site speed and other factors that impact user experience.
  4. Avoid ‘black hat’ tricks to get ahead – such as keyword overuse, or suspect link schemes.
  5. Understand Google’s E-E-A-T program, and how the E-E-A-T factors might apply to your content.
  6. Stay up to date on search issues by following authority SEO blogs like Search Engine Journal, MOZ and SEMRush. You might also like to check out Google’s blog. There’s a section on search, but you’ll find plenty of other interesting information, particular around AI developments.

If that sounds like hard work, think of it this way: when you produce quality content and your website offers a good experience for visitors, your search visibility is likely to improve, and your visitors are likely to stay on your website for longer.  More visitors are likely to form a positive impression of your business, and engage when they’re ready to make a purchase.

Need to improve your content? The professional copywriters and editors at Article Writers Australia can help! Contact us to discuss your requirements.

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Leonie Seysan is the Director of Article Writers Australia, and manages the team of professional writers and editors. She holds a Bachelor of Communications Degree (Media Studies).

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