Google Core Algorithm Updates: What You Need to Know
The hierarchy and importance of each of Google’s ranking factors are subjects that most SEO specialists spend a long time studying and debating; we know there are hundreds of them, but it’s challenging to discern the relative weight of each of them in the ranking algorithm.
What makes studying ranking factors more complex is that Google keeps changing them and adjusting their weight in the ranking algorithm through what they call algorithm updates.
A Brief History of Algorithm Updates
SEO specialists started to hear about algorithm updates more than 16 years ago with the Florida update. This was the first major algorithm update to shake up what those within the SEO realm had previously understood about ranking priorities. Since then, algorithm updates have become one of the most important SEO topics on blogs and forums.
In the past, algorithm updates were tied to one or two prominent ranking factors, and those working within SEO knew what they need to do to get around them and boost the visibility of a web page. Take the page speed update for example: it was built to target one ranking factor, speed. This meant there was only one focal point to avoid any ranking loss caused by this update: keep your page fast, and you’ll maintain your ranking.
That all started to change with the Panda update. This update aimed to promote better quality sites in the search results, and that ushered in an era of far more complex algorithm updates targeting a long list of assessment points to measure the quality of each page. In many cases, these points are subjective and lack parameters to measure them (i.e., “Would you be comfortable giving this site your credit card?”). This makes it increasingly challenging for SEO professionals to pinpoint a specific problem and determine the necessary action to reverse a slump in rankings. The Panda update, like many other updates, started as an add-on to the core algorithm, then after a few years, it became part of the core algorithm.
What is a Core Update?
Over time, a lot of standalone updates were integrated with the main/core algorithm and Google stopped refreshing those updates separately. This was when we started to hear more about core algorithm updates. Think of these as a full head-to-toe algorithm makeover.
Looking back at the history of Google updates and how many standalone updates were added to the core algorithm, it makes sense that a comprehensive core update touches a lot of ranking factors and quality factors, changing their weight in the algorithm, and possibly adding new ones.
Put simply, a core update is a significant, broad change to Google’s search algorithms and systems, aiming to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers. There is more than one core update done every year (there were 3 this past year). In most cases, Google announces these core updates ahead of time, making it easier for webmasters to understand traffic changes associated with these changes. Often, Google will also announce the completion of the update’s rollout.
How to Tell if a Website is Impacted by the Update
In order to tell if your website is impacted (negatively or positively) by a core update, wait at least one week after Google announces the completion of the update’s roll out then:
- Check Google Search Console for any traffic and impression changes
- Check average ranking changes in GSC
The screen shot above is taken from GSC for a website that gained traffic after the most recent core update. The blue line represents clicks, and the purple line is impressions, both of which increased following the update late last year. The orange line, average ranking, dips in tandem with these increases; a good thing as it means the ranking is getting closer to the top!
What is E-A-T and How is it Relevant to Core Updates?
E-A-T stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness: it is an acronym that is heavily used in the search quality rater guidelines. Google tries to train their algorithm to replicate the human judgment of quality. Quality raters are people that help Google to test the results of any algorithmic update before it rolls out to make sure it is successfully bringing higher quality, relevant websites at the top of the results.
Winning with core updates, and with Google in general, is straightforward but not easy. Google wants us to “be awesome, better than anyone else, and give users what they want”. Makes sense! However, the translation of this advice to your website can mean different things, like:
- Producing in-depth, original content around your topic that is better than anyone else’s
- Clear headlines with concise, easy-to-read content
- Content that displays well on all devices (in other words a mobile-friendly website)
- A website with good usability (fast and provides a good UX)
- Good customer online reviews (indicating a good product or service)
- Social media shares that will hopefully lead to quality backlinks
- Following all Google webmasters quality guidelines
How to Recover Traffic Loss After a Core Update
There is no single action that can help you to recover any traffic loss following a core update; you need to pay close attention to quality and E-A-T as discussed in the previous section. You can also follow Googles questionnaire to improve your website or content quality.
If your rankings are stung by the impact of a core update, in most cases you need to wait for the next core update to see a recovery, which means few months (4-5 months on average). This should be enough time for you to make a significant quality improvement to your website which will improve your outcome following the next major update.
Has Google Stopped Announcing Standalone Algorithm Updates?
Not at all; in tandem with larger core updates, Google still performs smaller standalone updates which are regularly announced. In fact, there is a new Page Experience Update that is set to roll out in May 2021. This update will use Core Web Vitals as ranking factors.
Google never sleeps! The search engine giant is consistently innovating and refining, through its algorithm updates, how it sorts through the myriad of online information to bring you the best-suited matches to your search query. In doing so, it challenges website owners to also consistently innovate their site and content to compete within the highly competitive online marketplace.
Expect a lot more core updates or standalone updates in the future. An understanding of each of these updates help you succeed with search engines, and more importantly, it will bring you within reach of your targeted user. Prioritizing great content and a good user experience will go a long way towards helping your website stay immune against any future modifications to the Google algorithm.