This post is the fifth in a series about the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) for your law firm website. For links to the other posts in this series, refer to the first installment, titled “Can Google Find Your Law Firm Website?

When Google was founded in 1998, search engine optimization (SEO) was dependent primarily on two factors: 1) the presence of keywords on a page and 2) the presence of links around the web pointing to a particular site. These factors were known as on-page and off-page SEO, respectively.

But, since Google quickly became a household name for internet searches, it did not take long for SEO “experts” to find ways to game Google’s search algorithm. So-called “black hat” SEO practices like keyword stuffing and link exchanges soon became commonplace, and Google reacted by making adjustments to its search algorithm to target sites that employed tactics outside of its webmaster guidelines for deranking.

With each successive update, black hat SEOs were forced to modify their deceptive methods, and thus new updates were applied to combat those tactics as they arose. The arms race between search engine algorithms and black hat SEOs has been ongoing ever since and Google now considers hundreds of factors when determining how to return results on search engine results pages (SERPs) for relevant search queries. Below is an incomplete list of some of Google’s most noteworthy updates throughout the years, as well as a brief description of the tactics targeted by those updates.

Timeline of Google Updates

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December 2000 [Toolbar]

Google took a big step toward search engine and general internet domination by introducing its Toolbar, which allowed users to search within any page or anywhere on the internet without having to first navigate back to the Google homepage.


February-November 2003 [Boston, Cassandra, Dominic, Esmeralda, Fritz, Florida]

This was the year that basically marked the beginnings of Google’s battle against spammers. The engine began targeting hidden text and links with the ‘Boston’ update in February, then went after shady link structures with Cassandra in April, and finally attacked keyword stuffers with Florida in November. August marked a transition from incremental to rolling (or constant) algorithm updates.


August 2004 [IPO]

Not an update, but Google’s IPO was introduced with a $20 billion evaluation. Stock prices would double by January 2005.


December 2009 [Real Time]

SERPs go live with instant incorporation of news and social media feeds.


December 2010 [Negative Reviews]

After a NYT expose revealed that an eyewear company’s SEO was apparently benefitting from large numbers of negative reviews, Google repaired the problem, saying “Being bad to your customers is bad for business.


February 2011 [Panda]

Initially dubbed “Farmer” in webmaster forums, this update appeared to target content farms and other sites benefitting from generally thin content. An apparent expansion of the ‘May Day’ update from May of 2010, Panda saw a total of 28 separate updates through July, 2015.


January 2012 [Top Heavy]

Dubbed “Page layout algorithm improvement” by Google, this update targeted pages with a high concentration of ads at the top of the page, which made it hard for users to find the content they were seeking.


April 2012 [Penguin]

Originally called the “Webspam Update,” Penguin went after keyword stuffing, link scheming, and other so-called “webspam,” or “black hat” SEO tactics. Updates under the Penguin heading continued through October, 2016.


August 2012 [Pirate]

Google began penalizing sites with multiple copyright infringements with this update. Pirate saw improvements through October, 2014.


June 2013 [Payday]

This update was geared specifically toward queries which tended to return “spammy” results. Specifically mentioned were queries for payday loans and pornography. The update rolled out over the course of a few months, with tweaks to the algorithm ultimately ending in June, 2014.


August 2013 [Hummingbird]

Hummingbird was described by Google’s then search chief Amit Singhal as the biggest rewrite of the company’s algorithm since he began working there in 2001. Its focus was on speed and precision of the engine, hence the name, and included efforts to improve “conversational search” in lieu of literal matches made by previous algorithms.


July 2014 [Pigeon]

Though it had no official title from Google itself, the update dubbed ‘Pigeon’ purportedly tied local search results to pre-existing core algorithms, meaning that standard SEO practices would apply more directly to local results, moving forward.


April 2015 [Mobile]

Dubbed “Mobilegeddon” by the SEO community, this update was pre-announced by Google. The intention, the company said, was to expand their “use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal” for searches performed on mobile devices.


October 2015 [RankBrain]

At this time, Google announced that machine learning had been part of their algorithm for months. RankBrain was called the third most important ranking factor (behind links and content), and ensured that the algorithm would adopt a self-improvement model which allowed it to adjust itself based on inputs of unique searches.


September 2016 [Possum]

Though unconfirmed by Google, this update was picked up by the SEO community and reportedly affected local results by returning those based more intensely on a searchers actual location.


March 2017 [Fred]

This unconfirmed update appeared to hit “low-value content sites that put revenue above helping their users,” according to Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz.

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