Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series looking back at the history of Google algorithm updates. Enjoy!
On November 16, 2003, a catastrophic Category 5 “hurricane” rocked the world of SEO.
Google’s Florida update hit with a vengeance, in the middle of the holiday shopping season.
Like the hurricanes common to the state of Florida, the results went into a whirl.
When it was over, the SERPs (search engine results pages) were barely recognizable.
This was the first major Google update in what would become a decade filled with huge updates.
Google Florida: The Update That Changed SEO Forever
Gone were the spammy tactics of the previous decade – the keyword stuffing, the use of multiple sites under the same brand, invisible text, and hidden links.
Webmaster World had decided to name updates in hurricane style, and with “F” up next and Pubcon Orlando just a few weeks away, Brett Tabke said he couldn’t resist the urge to call it Florida.
Many conspiracy theories abound about the naming decision, including one that thought it was due to a Florida-based affiliate network of sites being hit.
However, Tabke insists there was no secret reason for calling the update Florida – a position he still maintains today.
Regardless of what it was called, Florida spawned a huge number of articles, many of which have now gone the way of the dodo as the sites carrying them have been shut down or sold off.
Google’s Florida Update started a strategy called the “filter test”, renewed interest in the website Scroogle (now defunct), and generally caused SEO practitioners to scramble to find out what happened.
The outcry from retailers was significant.
Before Florida, many retailers relied almost entirely on affiliates to drive traffic to their websites. After Florida, a lot of major and minor retailers saw significantly reduced traffic just in time for the holiday season.
Some of the smaller retailers even went out of business and threatened to sue.
The outcry was so loud that Google promised to try not to ever roll out a significant update before the holidays again. Google kept that unofficial promise until 2014, when they rolled out a flurry of Penguin updates in November and December.
What Did Florida Do to the SERPs?
According to an excellent article written at the time by Gord Hotchkiss (now only available through archive.org), Florida:
“appears to be a new filter that is applied to commercially based searches, triggered by certain words in the query. The filter clears out many of the sites that previously populated the top 100. In several tests, we found the filter generally removes 50 to 98% of the previously listed sites, with the average seeming to be 72%.”
He went on to write:
“The target is pretty clear. Its [sic] affiliate sites, with domains that contain the keywords, and with a network of keyword links pointing back to the home page of the site. The filter is remarkably effective in removing the affiliate clutter. Unfortunately, legitimate commercial sites with lower page rank are being removed as well.”
According to various reports on SEO forums (again, no longer available except through archive.org) and based on this author’s memory, the target was certain highly commercial terms.
Jewelry, hotels, watches, clothing and similar commercial terms all activated the filter, while adult terms and casino terms did not.
The filter was focused solely on high volume search phrases, and no long-tail search terms were found to have been impacted.
However, as we must always keep in mind with all updates, those hardest hit by updates are usually the loudest. For every site that was harmed during Florida, there were sites that saw corresponding gains.
While many SEO practitioners believed that the Florida update targeted particular commercial terms, this is only conjecture.
Looking back after more than a decade of Google updates and search quality improvements, it’s probably more likely that this update just targeted spam tactics, and because commercial retailers and affiliates happened to be the most active in that realm, they were the hardest hit.
Google seldom targets specific industries or sites; opting to target tactics instead.
When those tactics hit certain industries hard, the industries cry foul.
Remember, as with everything else in SEO, correlation does not equal causation.
Life After Google Florida for SEOs
After the dust settled in January and February, we realized that as much as it hurt, Florida was like pulling off a bandage… it hurt a lot at that moment, but ultimately was the best thing for us.
We started to double down on making higher quality sites. Most retailers started putting some focus on their own sites rather than letting the affiliates take responsibility for the majority of their revenue, and things largely went back to normal.
One additional clean-up update, Austin, finished what Florida started. In fact, until the introduction of the nofollow attribute in January 2005, SEO was quiet for a while.
Little did we know that Google was laying the groundwork for Jagger, which would hit spammy links hard and be a precursor to Penguin.
We were still years away from Panda and Penguin, which would eventually reshape the entire industry.