Celebrate Google’s 25th birthday with SEO stories from industry veterans, exploring challenges, lessons, and the future of search.
How has it only been 25 years? Am I the only one who feels like there can’t have been a world without Google?!
The search and technology behemoth has undoubtedly impacted most human experience across the globe in some form or another, but none more so than for the SEOs of the world.
The SEO industry effectively shares its history with Google.
Once search engines like Google started to become the primary method through which people accessed information online, it became crucial for businesses to have a digital presence and be listed on search engine results pages (SERPs).
Evolution of the algorithm: Changes in SEO focus
Thanks to ever-evolving algorithms and expectations, search is a relentless journey of adaptation and resilience for SEOs.
Each update feels like a new puzzle, urging the industry to delve deeper, understand better and refine strategies to ensure sites continue to shine organically.
It’s about trying to anticipate the subtleties of algorithm changes, predicting what will come next and constantly innovating to keep content relevant, user-friendly and, importantly, visible.
Every change is a new opportunity to learn. Here are just some of the many algorithm changes that SEO has (mostly) survived, as told by industry veterans themselves.
When we talk about Google shaking things up in the SEO world, the Penguin update of April 2012 is one for the books.
It was the kind of wave that reshaped how we all thought about links and rankings and made us rethink our game plans.
Mark Williams-Cook, co-owner of search agency Candour, has some pretty vivid memories about this time. “The April 2012 Penguin v1 Update… it made such profound and lasting changes in the industry,” he said.
Before Penguin rolled out, the more, the merrier was the mantra regarding links. It was all about piling on those links, and aggressive link building was the way to go.
There were places where you could buy links, and services promising to boost your rankings actually worked! But then, Penguin happened. It was like a switch flipped overnight.
Williams-Cook saw it all – big names in affiliate marketing saw their traffic go down the drain, agencies were getting the boot from clients whose rankings tanked, and suddenly, folks were charging money to remove links. Major web players like Expedia didn’t escape the penalties either.
He shares his own brush with Penguin quite candidly. “I personally had a few of my money websites tank (deservedly), and it was a great lesson in ‘it works until it doesn’t’.”
It’s a reminder of how strategies that seem to work can suddenly backfire if they aren’t sustainable or authentic.
Let’s hop back to August 2018, which is likely to be well remembered by many SEO enthusiasts with health-related sites – all thanks to the Medic update.
Brady Madden, founder at Evergreen Digital, had a CBD commerce website under his wing. He enjoyed the fruits of ranking well, with sales soaring over $100,000 monthly.
Then Medic hit, and it was like the rug was pulled out from under him, leading to a loss of around $50,000 in sales in just a month.
“Since this ‘Medic’ update was so new, we didn’t know where or what to address,” Madden said
He and his team took about six months to revamp their strategies, reassess their content, strengthen their link building campaigns and make several other crucial adjustments to bounce back.
“At the time, I had been around SEO and digital marketing for 5+ years… This whole event really got me going with SEO and has become my top marketing channel to do work for since then,” Madden shares as he reflected on the journey that this update had led him on.
Medic was termed a “broad, global, core update” by Google, with a peculiar focus on health, medical, and Your Money Your Life (YMYL) sites.
Google’s advice was straightforward yet frustrating for many – there’s no “fix,” just continue building great content and improving user experience.
The update was a learning curve and a revelation of SEO rankings’ dynamics and core algorithm updates’ impacts.
“I also learned that while they’re tedious to read, docs like Google’s Quality Raters Guidelines provide a wealth of knowledge for SEOs to use,” Madden said, highlighting the invaluable lessons to be learned from Google’s documentation.
Olivian-Claudiu Stoica, senior SEO specialist at Wave Studio, has been in the SEO game since 2015. He fondly remembers this transformative update.
“The Diversity update from 2019 was a nice touch from Google… This clearly helped smaller sites gain visibility,” Stoica said.
The Diversity update ensured a more equitable representation by limiting the presence of the same domain to no more than two listings per search query, striving to bring balance to search results.
It was a shift toward a richer, more diverse search experience, offering users a wider array of perspectives and information sources.
Stoica also sheds light on the updates that profoundly impact businesses today. He highlights the Helpful Content, Spam, and Medic updates as pivotal changes defining the contemporary SEO landscape.
“Holistic marketing, brand reputation, PR-led link building, well-researched content, customer experience, and proven expertise are now the norm to succeed in Google Search,” he said, outlining the multifaceted and often multi-disciplined approach required from modern SEOs.
Product reviews update, May 2022 core update and more
After Penguin, things didn’t get any smoother, and Ryan Jones, marketing manager at SEOTesting, has quite the tale about rolling with the punches of Google’s relentless period of updates.
“The site hovered between 1,000 and 1,500 clicks per day between November 2021 and December 2021,” he shares.
But then, it was like a series of rapid-fire updates came crashing down: December 2021 Product Reviews Update, May 2022 Core Update, and more.
And the impact? It was like watching the rollercoaster take a steep dive.
The traffic went from those nice highs to around 500 clicks per day.
“Between half and more than half of the traffic was gone,” Jones said.
But it wasn’t just about the numbers but about figuring out where the ship was leaking. Turns out, most of the traffic loss was from the blog.
“Google was no longer loving the blog and was not ranking it,” Jones said.
It was a wake-up call, leading to some tough decisions, like removing around 75 blog posts – a whopping 65% of the blog.
It wasn’t just about cutting the losses but about rebuilding and re-strategizing. Diving deep into content marketing, investing in quality writing, and focusing on truly competitive content became the new game plan.
“We also invested in ‘proper’ link building… which we believed helped also,” Jones added.
And the journey didn’t end there. The uncertainty and stress continued with the next series of updates, including the July 2022 Product Reviews Update and the October 2022 Spam Update.
“It took a while, but we achieved a 100% recovery from this update,” Jones said.
Link spam and helpful content updates
Jonathan Boshoff, SEO manager at Digital Sisco, recounts the experience of turbulence when algorithms threw curveballs one after the other.
“In my previous role, I ran SEO for one of Canada’s largest online payday loan companies. We got hit by three algorithm updates in a row (2022 link spam and helpful content, and one in Feb.) This was the comedown from all-time highs. The company was thrilled to be making lots of money with SEO, but the algorithm updates destroyed all our rankings. Essentially, the whole company was scrambling. Everyone became an SEO all of a sudden.”
Boshoff’s story is a snapshot of the collective experiences of the SEO community.
The excitement of top rankings. The scramble when they plummet. And the continuous endeavor to decode and master the changing goalposts.
“Ultimately, another algorithm update rolled out and fixed everything. Since then they have continued on to have even better results than ever before. It was a very hectic couple of months!” he shares, underscoring the resilience and adaptability that define the spirit of SEO professionals.
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