Each year, Google Search algorithms are updated thousands of times to ensure the most relevant, reliable results are listed most prominently.
This ongoing commitment to searcher experience and the quality of results has helped Google decrease the number of irrelevant results appearing on a search results page by over 40% over the past five years, the search engine says.
While the vast majority of these updates go unnoticed, every so often one comes along that really rocks the SEO boat.
In this column, we’ll take a look back at the updates that shaped SEO over this past year and how they may impact your plans going forward.
Here are five of the most impactful Google Search updates from 2021.
1. The Page Experience Update
SEO professionals and marketers of all stripes had anxiously awaited this one since it was first revealed back in November 2020.
With this update came a Page Experience score marketers can see in a new report in Google Search Console.
Page Experience is pretty self-explanatory; it was designed to improve the experience searchers have on each website. The score takes into account:
- Core Web Vitals: A set of metrics that measure page performance from a UX perspective.
- Mobile usability: A page must have no mobile usability errors.
- Security issues: Any security issues for a site disqualify all pages on the site from a Good status.
- HTTPS usage: A page must be served over HTTPS to be eligible for Good page experience status.
- Ad Experience: A site must not use advertising techniques that are distracting, interruptive, or otherwise not conducive to a good user experience.
Since the initial rollout, Google has clarified that Safe Browsing is not a ranking signal.
An August 4, 2021, update to this Google Search Central blog post states that, “Safe Browsing systems continue to play an important role to keep users of Google Search safe, and any flags will continue to be surfaced in Search Console outside of Page Experience report.”
- Google Page Experience Update Fully Rolled Out – This is Why it Matters
- 4 Ways to Optimize for Google’s Page Experience Update
- Core Web Vitals: A Complete Guide
2. Google’s Link Spam Update
Google warned marketers in July that its Link Spam Update would have measurable results for those affected:
“In our continued efforts to improve the quality of the search results, we’re launching a new link spam fighting change today — which we call the “link spam update…
Sites taking part in link spam will see changes in Search as those links are re-assessed by our algorithms.”
The update announcement was buried in a Google Search Central Blog post under the subheading ‘Improving our systems to fight link spam.’
“In our continued efforts to improve the quality of the search results, we’re launching a new link spam fighting change today — which we call the “link spam update.”
This algorithm update, which will rollout across the next two weeks, is even more effective at identifying and nullifying link spam more broadly, across multiple languages.”
At the time, Google advised that SEO pros and marketers ensure they are following best practices for inbound and outgoing links, creating high-quality content, and focusing on improving user experience.
“Promote awareness of your site using appropriately tagged links, and monetize it with properly tagged affiliate links,” the announcement read.
- Google’s Link Spam Update Is Complete
- Should You Use Nofollow, Sponsored, or UGC Links?
- When to Use Nofollow on Links & When Not To
3. Summer Broad Core Update(s)
Danny Sullivan tweeted at the time:
“Some of our planned improvements for the June 2021 update aren’t quite ready, so we’re moving ahead with the parts that are, then we will follow with the rest with the July 2021 update.
Most sites won’t notice either of these updates, as is typical with any core updates.”
However, as Roger Montti noted in his analysis of how the July core algorithm update had shaken out, it was somewhat unusual that this was preceded by two spam updates.
SEO pros speculated that this update brought about an increase in People Also Ask results, may have targeted Image Search results in some way, and could even have inadvertently increased spam in search results.
Google’s longstanding (and somewhat frustrating) advice on core algorithm updates is that there’s nothing you can really do to prepare, nor to recover – aside from being consistently awesome. This was no exception.
But interestingly, Google’s John Mueller suggested in an October Search Central SEO office-hours hangout that improving content is more likely to help you recover from an algorithm update than technical fixes.
- Google July 2021 Update is Over – What Happened?
- Google on Broad Core Algorithm Update Recovery – 4 Takeaways
- 22 Possible Reasons Why Your Site Traffic Dropped
4. April Product Reviews Update
In April, Google released an update designed to reward higher quality, in-depth product reviews with greater visibility in Search.
The update went live April 8, 2021, and specifically targeted “thin content that simply summarizes a bunch of products,” Google said.
The first rollout impacted English language reviews only, and Mordy Oberstein wrote an excellent overview of who appeared to have been affected and why.
Google said at the time that “Although this is separate from our regular core updates, the advice that we provide about producing quality content for those is also relevant here.”
The search engine recommended that content creators ask themselves of their product reviews, do they:
- “Express expert knowledge about products where appropriate?
- Show what the product is like physically, or how it is used, with unique content beyond what’s provided by the manufacturer?
- Provide quantitative measurements about how a product measures up in various categories of performance?
- Explain what sets a product apart from its competitors?
- Cover comparable products to consider, or explain which products might be best for certain uses or circumstances?
- Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of a particular product, based on research into it?
- Describe how a product has evolved from previous models or releases to provide improvements, address issues, or otherwise help users in making a purchase decision?
- Identify key decision-making factors for the product’s category and how the product performs in those areas? For example, a car review might determine that fuel economy, safety, and handling are key decision-making factors and rate performance in those areas.
- Describe key choices in how a product has been designed and their effect on the users beyond what the manufacturer says?”
Google more recently announced that another Product Reviews Update is rolling out over the course of three weeks in December. This one is designed to reward authentic, high-quality reviews.
- Google’s Product Reviews Algorithm Update: Winners & Losers
- 6 Ways to Optimize Your Product Review Pages for Google
- How to Optimize for Rich Snippets: A Complete Guide
5. The Introduction of MUM
Google’s plan for MUM was inarguably the most impactful announcement in search this year.
The Multitask Unified Model (MUM) uses the power of AI to help searchers complete more complex tasks. As of the initial announcement about it, MUM had trained across 75 different languages and was being hailed by Google as 1,000 times more powerful than BERT.
MUM understands information from text and images, and Google plans to expand its capabilities to include video and audio, as well.
Pandu Nayak, Google Fellow and Vice President of Search, wrote in the May 18, 2021, announcement that, “We’ll bring MUM-powered features and improvements to our products in the coming months and years.”
We’re already seeing practical applications of MUM technology in Google Search – in processing and understanding queries for vaccine information and in the creation of new ways to explore and discover topics, for example.
MUM will deliver Google’s algorithms a more granular understanding of search queries, content quality and relevance, and more in the months and years to come.
This won’t be something to optimize “for;” rather, MUM is a technology to be aware of and understand, as it will undoubtedly continue raising the bar in terms of content quality, relevance, and utility.
- What is Google MUM?
- Google MUM Algorithm Can Do More than Rank Websites
- Google’s John Mueller Answers If MUM Makes SEO Obsolete
Other Google Updates & Stories Of Note
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the Google updates that shaped the SEO world these past 12 months.
Here are a few other developments you’ll want to at least be aware of as you develop your digital marketing strategy for the year ahead.
Google announced in February that its algorithms could consider passages from pages as an additional ranking factor, for English queries in the United States.
November Core Algorithm Update
Overall, feedback from the SEO community suggests this update was fairly mild. As Jim Boykin of Internet Marketing Ninjas said, “Overall, this is just another algo update… there will always be winners and losers each time.”
October Search Quality Raters Guidelines Updates
Google added five revisions to its Search Quality Raters Guidelines in October, including updated guidance on how to research reputation information for websites and creators, and a change in the way “Groups of people” in the YMYL category are defined.
Google Updates Requirements For Schema Markup
In October, Google changed the requirements for HowTo, QAPage, and SpecialAnnouncement schema in order to simplify these structured data types. You may want to check out changes to structured data for reviews, as well.
Google Algorithm Update Targets Slander
The New York Times reported in June that Google had plans to algorithmically suppress websites that published unverified or slanderous claims against others. Learn more in Matt Southern’s article about the update.
Gearing Up For Successful SEO Strategy In 2022
You don’t have to stay on top of every single Google update. But being aware of new features, shifting SERPs opportunities, and major Google updates gives essential context to what you’re seeing in your site’s performance data.
ICYMI, you’ll also want to have Search Engine Journal’s State of SEO 2021 industry survey findings at hand as you navigate the changing search landscape and strategize how to turn this past year’s challenges into opportunities in 2022.
And if you’re looking for educational resources to bring team members up to speed for a running start in January, be sure to check out our e-book library, browse these on-demand webinars, and tune in to the SEJ Show Podcast.
To your SEO success!
- Google Update Slapped Your Rankings: What’s Next
- Google Reveals Top Searches Of 2021
- SEO for Beginners: An Introduction to SEO Basics
Featured image: Shutterstock/Dilok Klaisataporn