Algorithm changes

2021 Google Algorithm Updates and Their Impact

Google has rolled out an unusual number of algorithm updates during the past few months, with alarming regularity. Beginning in September, updates were issued every month, ranging from minor to significant. Since August, many glitches have also caused headaches for search engine optimization specialists, site owners, and developers. Let’s look at the last six months of Google updates and what they mean for your website.

Summary of Recent Google Updates and Glitches

• September 2020

September saw several significant Google issues. On September 2-3, significant fluctuations in local search results occurred. On September 15, a substantial amount of SERP volatility pointed to a possible algorithm update. On September 23, signs of another algorithm update appeared. On September 30, pages that were previously indexed began dropping out of the index. On October 1, via a series of Tweets from their Search Liaison account, Google confirmed the indexing outages that affected mobile-indexing and canonical issues occurred on September 23.

• October 2020

On October 14-15, Google experienced further indexing issues due to “infrastructure changes.” Although not an algorithm update, the indexing issue led to increased traffic fluctuations and impacted keyword rankings.

• November 2020

Several algorithm updates resulted in significant ranking and traffic volatility and fluctuation. From November 4th-11th, increased SERP fluctuations occurred. On November 17th and 18th, considerable ranking and traffic spikes appeared, indicating a significant ranking algorithm update. On Monday the 23rd, indications of yet another algorithm update with notable keyword and traffic spikes occurred.

• December 2020

A core algorithm update began rolling out on December 3 and was fully rolled out on December 16. Unlike other updates, this one came in separate, distinct waves – with the second wave landing December 11. In terms of impact, it was the most substantial algorithm update since the May 2020 update.

The December update resulted in website traffic and keyword rankings undergoing extreme fluctuations. Ranking and traffic movement were seen in virtually every industry. The algorithm’s release immediately before a more stressful-than-usual holiday shopping season was unexpected and seen by many industry professionals as poorly timed.

• January 2021

A Google algorithm update was detected on January 7th and 8th. Another minor update was noticed on January 12, and a third small algorithm update was noted on January 26-27th. While none were as weighty as the December update, organic traffic and rankings were subject to more fluctuations.

• February 2021

While fewer Google algorithm updates happened in February, they were still significant. The first update occurred February 7th-9th, causing massive shifts in organic search visits (from 30-40%).

The Google passage ranking update rolled out on February 10. This update meant that Google’s algorithm will now rank individual passages of text within long-form content. The third algorithm update occurred on February 17. Unusually, direct traffic was impacted as well as organic rankings and searches. Both traffic sources experienced fluctuations of up to 30%.

So What Do These Updates All Mean?

As this post was written, a considerable Google update occurred on March 10. Google announced in May 2020 that, due to the increasing importance of user experience, as of 2021 page experience will become a website ranking factor. The introduction of Core Web Vitals also occurred in May 2020 to provide site owners with experience metrics to integrate user experience into the core algorithm.

What does this mean? Why is Google introducing significant updates to their algorithm every month when previously major updates occurred one to three times per year? As Google usually is less than forthcoming when even confirming an update (much less the reasons behind it), the following is speculative not conclusive.

  1. Google is trying to correct errors impacting other tools. Since the algorithm is updated on a continuous rolling basis, new updates may be affecting other Google tools negatively and their engineers are attempting to correct them. The October 2020 mobile-indexing and canonicalization bug is a prime example of a tool issue that needed to be resolved.
  2. Google is introducing new features and updates too closely. Passage indexing was announced in October 2020. Subtopic ranking began in November 2020. The massive core update dropped in December 2020. Is it possible that Google’s algorithm is having an issue integrating so many new indexing sub-programs? Not likely, but always possible.
  3. Is Google trying to keep up with RankBrain? RankBrain is Google’s machine-learning artificial intelligence at the heart of processing and providing the most relevant search results. RankBrain is one of the top three most important ranking factors in Google’s search algorithm (out of approximately 200 ranking factors).
    Google’s engineers admitted in March 2016 that they don’t fully understand how RankBrain works, less than six months after their October 2015 announcement confirming its existence and integration into the core algorithm. Is it possible that the machine-learning AI has moved even further along in its evolution to a point where Google’s engineers are struggling to keep up? It’s a concerning and somewhat alarming possibility that Google’s custom Tensor Processing Unit combined with the AI has evolved beyond Google’s engineers to do anything but play catch up.
  4. Everything is focused on the big experience update. This update is unusual already as Google announced it well in advance of its release and introduced a suite of metrics to help website owners improve their sites before the update occurred. Is Google playing hardball now to get search engine professionals and developers motivated to make potentially costly and extensive changes in anticipation of the May 2021 update and semi future-proof their sites? While Google’s Ad revenue increases in direct response to lower quality scores, it’s possible that Google is assisting site owners because they are feeling pressure from other ad networks, including Facebook and Apple.

Time will tell what the result of this continuing series of algorithm updates is. Until then, as a site owner, all you can do is continue to improve on-page and off-page search engine ranking factors. Improvements can include:

  • Publishing relevant and authoritative content.
  • Improving your link profile.
  • Enhancing user experience factors such as page load speed.

We are the Search Engine Optimization Experts

The Google-certified SEO specialists at Efferent Marketing can help your site prepare for upcoming Google updates. Our team stays current with all of Google’s announced updates, and we develop comprehensive strategies so that algorithm-induced changes are minimal.

If your site was negatively impacted by a Google update or was assessed a penalty, we can assist in site recovery. Contact Efferent Media today for a website audit and assessment by calling (631) 867-0900 or email us at

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