Search engine updates can be either a pleasant surprise or a painful event. An update occurs when a search engine modifies their ranking algorithm and begins to re-rank all the Web pages in their database based upon new ranking criteria.
MSN and Yahoo tend to work subtle changes into their ranking algorithms, and while algorithm changes do occur, they are generally unnoticed. Google is known for continuously making subtle changes, but also unleashes a major change once or twice per year that can literally scramble search results on search engine results pages (SERPs). Some major algorithm changes have been devastating for certain types of Web sites or SEO practices and are now assigned names similar to those given to hurricanes.
The following are a few historic Google updates that contained major algorithm changes
The BigDaddy Update
The BigDaddy Update started in December of 2005 and may have continued to roll out into March of 2006. BigDaddy was mostly a new technology rollout and infrastructure change throughout all of Google’s numerous data centers that manage and display search results. It appears that BigDaddy also focused on correcting issues related to canonicalization, redirects, duplicate URLs, www vs. non-www URLs, and similar issues that have long plagued Google search results with inconsistencies. These are basically corrections to problem areas in Google’s past ranking algorithms.
The Jagger Update
The Jagger Update started in early October of 2005 and continued through three phases which ran until near the end of November. The three phase roll-out of Jagger was fairly unique, but it was probably necessary due to the complexity of the changes. Jagger focused on identifying and penalizing link building schemes, scraped content (stolen duplicate content), hidden text and other forms of search engine spam. Jagger also appears to have placed a much stronger relevance on inbound links to a site from authority sites and industry leader sites. If you have a Web site that sells computers or computer services and the site has a link to it from the IBM or Dell Web sites, that link is now considered to be much more important than in the past. As with most of the recent Google updates, this one was strongly focused on identifying sites that are trying to cheat the Google ranking system and penalizing or eliminating those sites from Google’s search results.
The Allegra Super Bowl Update
Beginning in mid-December of 2004, Google began experimenting with a new ranking algorithm that is believed to be based upon LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing). LSI is an artificial intelligence method used to determine the "meaning" of a page and claims to be able to do so even if the search keywords do not exist on the page. Google also began penalizing sites that have engaged in linking programs and other methods that formerly helped boost a site’s rankings in Google. In addition, they now penalize sites that link to penalized sites, so you now have to be careful who you link to. The combination of all of the above has created chaotic results in Google search results and possibly millions of Web sites have lost their former high ranking positions in Google.
On about February 5, 2005 the search results became even more chaotic when Google launched a modification to their algorithm that has been dubbed the Allegra Update, and also the Super Bowl Update. I’m not sure how the name Allegra originated, but the name Super Bowl Update refers to the update’s proximity to American football’s Super Bowl game. Allegra appears to randomize the search results to a degree so that someone searching for a particular keyword phrase does not see the same search results each time. They do this by periodically switching data centers. A data center is a location where a database is maintained. Google is believed to operate about a dozen data centers in the US. The search results currently displayed in Google can come from any of three or four datacenters at different times of the day. Google has been switching data centers for some time. The difference today is that the datacenters are no longer synchronized. A web page may show up in a top 10 position in the morning, but be in position 350 in the afternoon. Many high ranking sites do not show up in the SERPs at all for some datacenters.
The Florida Update – The First Major Google Update
On about November 14, 2003, Google began running the Florida Update. The Florida Update was Google’s first major focus on ranking pages primarily based upon the content found on individual Web pages. This meant that internal pages in a site now had just as much or a greater chance of obtaining high rankings as the home page. It also meant that a Web page with a substantial amount of informational content had an advantage in the rankings.
The Florida Update placed large numbers of e-commerce sites at a serious disadvantage because most product-oriented e-commerce sites tend to have little informational content. Because the update happened during the peak of the Christmas holiday buying season, e-commerce site owners were driven to the Google AdWords and Overture advertising programs in droves. This was a wake-up call for site owners who depended solely on free or natural search engine rankings for their site traffic.
All search engine ranking algorithms are proprietary and when changes to ranking algorithms are made, it takes a while before the effects are understood. If search engines divulged how their algorithms work, site owners would easily circumvent them. It can be difficult to pinpoint the issues with a new algorithm until after it stabilizes. A significant factor in Allegra Update algorithm is that is appears that Google has almost randomly picked sites as part of their experiment. While many poorly designed or spammy sites have been unaffected by the algorithm, many more have dropped significantly in the rankings without any apparent violation of Google’s guidelines.
The Best Advice
Periodically read the guidelines pages for the major search engines. Look for any new information that may indicate a future penalty situation. See Webmaster Guidelines from Major Search Engines for links to these pages. For many of the issues that arose during the recent updates, Google did provide fair warnings that changes were coming.