Update Florida, which happened twenty years ago this month, completely shook up the search results and changed what it meant to do SEO. The lessons learned in 2004 hold a key to understanding and surviving Google updates today.
Before the update known as Florida, Google had monthly index refreshes that for a few days made the search engine results pages (SERPs) change for a few days as the rankings were updated.
These monthly updates were exciting because all of the new pages that were created since the last update may now start to rank.
Those monthly updates, where the sites in the SERPs bounced up and down in positions for a few days, became known as the Google Dance.
Until the Florida updates, the monthly Google Updates were kind of fun because that was the time to see what worked and what didn’t.
The Florida Update chased those happy days away.
What happened was that Update Florida was was not a monthly refresh, it was an algorithm change.
I think for me, the big lesson I learned, is that Google’s algorithms do not stay the same.
SEOs tend to do SEO the same way, year after year. Some of the things they do, like buying expired domains, are the kinds of things we did back in 2004.
But for SEOs of my generation, Update Florida made it important to read patents and research papers to keep up with what the search engines were doing.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Bill Slawski began reading patents because of those shakeups. His first blog post was on June 2005, a bit over a year after Update Florida.
And more importantly, at least for me, it cemented the idea that we are all nomads, moving from one reality to the next, packing away last year’s SEO ideas and moving on to the new SERPs.
My life less from Florida was to always be ready to forget what you know about SEO in response to the latest changes in search.
What Was Update Florida?
Everyone experienced Update Florida differently. Here is what other people who were there remember.
Brett Tabke is the founder and CEO of the Pubcon search marketing conference and of the influential WebmasterWorld forum.
In my opinion, Brett’s influence in the search marketing community cannot be overstated.
I asked Brett what he thought about Update Florida:
“Link metrics had to be part of the equation. It was so targeted to be only about links.
The entire PPC (Pills Porn, Casino) crowd got decimated from Florida update.
For me, it was clear that they went after those types of Affiliates (I dare say, specific affiliate programs).
I honestly think they went down a list of affiliate programs, and then started looking hard at specific big sites.”
Would you say that Update Florida changed SEO?
“Yes, it really changed SEO.
People were so cautious about sharing information going forward.
You could just tell the flow of information on forums dropped dramatically after Florida.
We were doing something like 7k messages a day on WebmasterWorld and that dropped in half post Florida.
Everyone realized that Google had no problem throwing an elbow.
There is an old saying that you only know who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.
We found a lot of skinny dippers after the Florida update.”
I asked Brett what he thought was the major takeaway about the Florida update:
“As a webmaster, site owners, or sys admins, we have to do what we think is right on our site.
The Florida update let everyone know that this was not a collaboration between sites and search engines, this street ran one way and it was their way or the highway.”
Jeannie Hill, founder of Hill Web Creations
I didn’t know Jeannie at the time of Update Florida, at least not by name. Most of us knew each other by our forum nicknames.
But Jeannie is one of those people in the search marketing community who has a deep understanding of SEO, who continues to evolve along with Google.
This is what Jeannie remembers of that update:
“While general confusion and various theories are still discussed, the predominant early theory was a general sense that this affected link profiles.
However, it was vastly more than just a demotion of improper links.
Google has kept what Florida was about behind closed doors, but in my opinion, it seems to have evolved into a statistical study. I think it changed the world of link-building permanently.”
Jim Boykin, Internet Marketing Ninjas
Jim Boykin has long been a master of scaling up search marketing strategies in order to help clients rank well.
I always admired his ability to create strategies and to scale them.
I asked Jim what he thought about Florida and he said that Florida was flawed and not a smooth launch. I have to agree.
There were many websites that lost rankings and only returned a few months later after Google dialed back some of the algorithm changes.
“I think Florida was google ‘breaking’.
I don’t think it improved anything… I think the follow up update (Brandy) ‘fixed’ most of the bugs in whatever Florida did to break Google.
I can’t remember the exact stats but Florida did something like replace 90% of the top 100 search results, and the 10% it kept, we’re scattered among the top 100.
There were sites that were PageRank 8 or higher weren’t effected, but for the vast majority of the top 100 websites, they were majorly affected.
I’d say that the turning point for SEOs was really just that we all learned that Google could wipe out all your free traffic at anytime.
To my best recollection, Florida didn’t do anything good for rankings.
Whatever they were trying to improve, Google did more harm than good, but I think a lot of that was reversed later.”
I asked Jim what lessons could be learned from that update:
“The biggest lesson would be that Google can take away your organic traffic at any time.
You are not guaranteed anything when it comes to free organic traffic.
I know some might want me to say that Google improved their algorithm with Florida, and so as an SEO, we had to ‘get better’, but 20 years ago it was still the Wild West, and things like ‘thinking of user experience’ or ‘helpful content’ didn’t matter until years later.”
Jeff Coyle, co-founder of MarketMuse, is another master of SEO. His experience ranged from affiliate, to managing the SEO for a major corporate B2B website and handling PPC, plus coding and programming.
Jeff shared what he remembers:
“When I was at the Search Engine Strategies conference (SES), and they were talking about Florida, and Google had people there who knew what they were talking about, I was trying to figure out how to build a vertical search engine by understanding Googlebot.
The idea that major updates were ‘a thing’ Google would talk about and they’d become a ‘thread refresh’ on WebmasterWorld and a daily experience of ~10 years of my life wasn’t something I expected.
The Florida Update was the first time I thought I’d ‘figured out’ elements of Google’s strategy.
I couldn’t wait to get to Pubcon in Orlando to see if anyone else was talking the same talk after the dust had settled.
As an in-house operating a 100+ site network, I didn’t get slammed.
Still, I saw the heavy hand of the update through my customers’ (B2B Tech, mid-market to enterprise) performance reports and dozens of meetings where they were looking for advice.
It was probably the first time I talked about content quality as it related to search.”
Jim is another SEO master who agreed to share what he remembered. His podcast, called Webcology, should be on everyone’s list for keeping up to date with SEO.
“Have you ever had a day when the simple suddenly became complicated? Ever experience a day when the ways you understood something changed so fundamentally you were left observing something completely new?
That was what the morning of November in 2003 was like because that was the day Google revealed its true nature, the day Google broke a bunch of us, leaving the injured by the side of the highway with a detailed set of instructions on how to rebuild.
To be clearer, the Florida update was the day we discovered the true depths and great power of Google’s link heavy algorithm.
It was the day most of our client websites got hosed. Badly.
To make it worse, the update happened on a weekend. You can imagine the hell that was Monday November 17th.
StepForth Search Marketing was growing quickly. Under the tutelage of pioneering SEO Ross Dunn, myself and several other now well known SEOs, we were pumping out SEO augmented pages for over 50 clients.
Google had become the most important search engine a year or so earlier and it was starting its run towards the near complete dominance it has enjoyed since.
SEO practices and techniques were very different in the early days.
Before Google became the most important search engine, Yahoo!, AltaVista, Infoseek, Lycos, and Ask Jeeves were still major search players.
One of our techniques had us developing unique landing pages built to whatever we thought each specific engine liked. Most of the engines were looking at keyword associations with success often as simple as affecting the number of times certain words were mentioned on-page, in titles, metadata, or body text for each engine-specific landing page.
Google’s great differentiator has always been high quality link analysis.
Naturally, SEOs knew that in the early days. Our basic go-to rule was the link had to be relevant to the topic of the site it was directed to, but on a much smaller web where creating a link took about five minutes of effort, relevance was different.
Google didn’t understand the context of a link, it just knew the link existed and that the link was a vote of confidence. At least, to the best of my recollection, that’s what we thought Google thought.
Until Florida. Florida was when Google grew up.
We knew from the IHelpYou, WebmasterWorld, and Cre8asite forums that the damage was going to be bad.
But it wasn’t until the next day, the Monday we went back to work after a half frantic weekend, that the true carnage was understood.
Everything was upside down. Clients who had ranked well for months were no longer in the Top10 or even Top20 and most of them literally noticed the change instantly.
Their phones had stopped ringing and orders had stopped coming in.
Something close to half our client list was effectively gone from visibility, pushed so far down in search results as to be virtually non-existent.
Our clients phones had stopped ringing but our phones couldn’t stop.
From my notes during that time (I have all the paper notebooks) it was the first time I’d hypothesized that authoritativeness (I called it ‘power’ then) was search topic related and that Google had the means and the goal to assess authoritativeness and link valuations with advanced (for the time) math — and that was going to be a big part of the future of search.
That Pubcon ended up being one of the most important events of my career, where I met people who have become business partners, board members, and lifelong friends.
The chaos around Florida had a little to do with that, which was good.”
I asked Jim what the big takeaway for him was:
“Google was relatively clear about what had just happened.
I remember Google publishing a very long essay explaining what the SEO world had named the Florida update.
In it, Google outlined how it kept massive and growing dossiers on every URL that has ever existed in its database. In those dossiers, Google collected as much information about the website as it could, including the link-profiles of each website.
Google used all this information to basically compare each URL to every other in its most recent version of the web.
While better understood today, in 2003 the concept of comparing the entire web against itself was completely and utterly mind blowing.
Florida was the recognition of the true scale of Google’s algorithms.”
Update Florida 2004 Has Many Lessons For Today
Many of the recent updates show that Google still has the power to shake up the SERPs and force the search marketing industry to evaluate how they do what they do.
It’s clear that the Florida update was instrumental for creating a new kind of SEO that is ready to change directions and respond to changes at Google. More than that, Florida showed how important it is to keep up to date with information retrieval technology and to not take high rankings for granted.