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2015 Google updates: What were the major updates in SEO?

By Alexandra Gavril - December 14, 2015

While you may be on alert for changes in Google’s algorithms, you might have missed a few over the year. With Google frequently updating its algorithms and your busy workload, sometimes critical updates can get lost.

To make sure you’re up to date on the latest major changes in SEO, we’ve put together a useful list of the most important Google algorithm updates from 2015, including:

Let’s take a closer look at what those updates were all about.

Unnamed update

On February 4th, many webmasters noticed major changes in Google’s search engine results. Some speculated it might be Panda, while others thought it was an e-commerce focused or mobile usability update. Google didn’t officially confirm an update actually took place.

The Mobile update

On April 21st, Google released a significant mobile-friendly algorithm designed to boost mobile-friendly pages in Google’s mobile search results. While at the beginning the results were slightly less dramatic than predicted, it was found later on that many businesses were losing search traffic because their sites weren’t mobile-friendly.

It became obvious that Google’s motivation with this update was to increase the visibility of mobile-friendly sites and decrease the visibility of non-mobile-friendly sites. They made sure to explain exactly how to optimise for mobile and gave everyone the possibility to test their sites to see whether or not they were up to Google’s standards.

Mobile is extremely important to Google, and its importance is only going to increase from here. Why? Google’s aim has always been to provide users with the best possible experience no matter what device they’re using to search online. Stats show that mobile search has already surpassed desktop search on Google. In addition, it is predicted that in 2016 mobile search will surpass desktop search on everything. That’s why Google has rolled out this update and is continuing to improve it.

So if you haven’t got a mobile-friendly site yet, now’s the time to invest in mobile technology and get ahead of your competition while you still have the time to do so. Read more about what mobile-friendly means and how you can get a mobile-friendly site.

The Quality update

At the beginning of May, some webmasters began noticing significant changes in Google’s search results. When asked if these had anything to do with an update, Google denied the rumours saying this was not Penguin, nor any other algorithm update.

Two weeks later Google officially confirmed that they’ve made significant changes to its search algorithm in terms of how it processes quality signals. Dubbed as the Quality Update (formerly referred to as the Phantom Update since Google wouldn’t confirm it), this update is about rewarding quality content with higher rankings.

This algorithm update affected quite a few websites. While it didn’t go after a particular class of site, most sites that saw a decline in visibility were how-to and informational sites with low-quality content that provided little or no value to visitors.

Read more about Google’s Quality Update, including how to assess the content on your site to see if it meets Google’s quality guidelines. You should also check out this guide from Google on how to create quality content.

Panda 4.2

On July 17th Google announced a Panda data refresh, saying that it could take some time to fully roll out. They also confirmed that this refresh will only affect 2-3% of the search queries. Webmasters and others in the industry didn’t see any major changes in their sites or client sites.

If you’re not familiar with Google Panda, it’s a series of algorithm updates designed to identify and weed out low-quality websites with duplicate content. The purpose is to penalise websites with poor content and, at the same time, bring higher quality websites at the top of search results. Learn more about Panda and what small businesses should focus on to avoid a penalty.


On October 26th, Google made a major announcement, revealing that they’ve been using a machine-learning artificial intelligence system called RankBrain to process and refine its search results. What this does is it extracts the meaning from a query so Google can then deliver optimal results to its users.

The big news was that RankBrain was actually the third most important signal in matching results to a search query. This is huge, considering there are hundreds of signals that go into Google’s algorithm.

We’ve written a whole post about RankBrain, what it is and what is means for your small business site, so make sure you read it to learn more about it.

For even more information, check out these two posts:

All about the new Google RankBrain algorithm

Google turning its lucrative web search over to AI machines 

Quality update 2

Some case studies and chatter within the industry point to another update that was supposedly rolled out on November 19th. Since Google’s John Mueller said on Twitter that Google had nothing to announce, some are calling it Phantom 3, believing that it’s actually Quality Update 2.

Check out these two articles where the authors provide in-depth information into the sites that were impacted and theories on why they were impacted:

Analysis and findings from the November 19, 2015 Google Algorithm Update

Phantom Update III: What Google’s updated Quality Guidelines could mean for page rankings

The upcoming Penguin update

Back in September, Google’s John Mueller announced that Google plans on releasing the next Penguin update by the end of the year. Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, also confirmed that Google will be releasing a new Penguin update, but he didn’t give an exact date, instead saying that it is “in the foreseeable future”.

Google Penguin was first released on April 24th, 2012, with the purpose to uncover spammy backlink profiles and to punish sites that were violating Google’s quality guidelines by lowering their rankings in its search engine results. This includes practices like keyword stuffing, excessive link exchange, and low quality backlinks often generated using automated software.

This upcoming update would be a real-time update, which means that if you get hit by Penguin and you clean up your links, Google will be able to process your link removals quickly and you would be able to recover immediately. Find out what the Real Time Penguin refresh is all about and what you can do to clean up your link profile for future updates.

Were you affected by any of these major updates? Make sure you check out our complete guide on how to recover from a Google penalty.

What do you think Google has up its sleeve in terms of changes to its search algorithm in 2016?