How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Google Algorithm Updates
June 3rd, 2019 by
Author’s Note: During the course of writing this blog Google took an unusual step (for them) and announced an impending core algorithm update. While this blog does not discuss this update specifically, the underlying themes about handling these updates should remain applicable. To learn more about this core update, I recommend reading some of industry news sources I have mentioned below.
Much like the sun will rise in the east and set in the west tomorrow, digital marketers and business owners alike will hear rumblings every few months about supposed updates to Google’s ever-elusive algorithm and begin to worry. For some businesses, these updates (or “improvements,” as Google usually euphemizes) can generate significant dips in traffic to their site and seemingly undo previously successful SEO efforts. A prime example of that scenario would be back in August of 2018, when SEOs noticed a noticeable drop in site traffic, particularly in the medical vertical.
This led to wild speculation about the scope, purpose, and future impacts of this particular update. Undoubtedly, many digital marketing practitioners felt the effects of this update with diminished traffic to their sites. As someone who has worked on numerous SEO campaigns and strategies, I can certainly relate to the consternation around Google reconfiguring their algorithms to change the way sites are rewarded organically. In many instances, these updates can positively impact sites that may be less authoritative and in some cases utilize underhanded tactics that do not necessarily meet searchers actual needs.
This is certainly very frustrating from a marketer’s perspective, as the parameters around what is best practice and how to win organically can shift seemingly overnight. When this is combined with Google’s textbook evasiveness around these updates, it may be overwhelming.
So, How Should I Respond to a Google Algorithm Update?
Google has made efforts to become more communicative with SEOs in recent years (they even updated their “SEO Starter Guide” for the first time in over seven years back in April of 2019), however, they still are very cagey about what they are willing to reveal as it relates to specific algorithmic updates. In certain cases, if there’s enough of a perceived backlash from the larger SEO community, then Google representatives may take steps to address it publicly; however, those answers are typically engulfed in vaguery as well. Take this statement from Google’s Search liaison Danny Sullivan in the aftermath of the August and September 2018 updates as an example.
“We understand those who do less well after a core update change may still feel they need to do something. We suggest focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”
The word “seek” is pretty telling here, as it underscores the idea that the algorithm is imperfect. Also, consider the fact that Google is constantly reworking their algorithm to best serve searchers, another implicit sign that there is room to improve. The first thing you can do to help yourself respond to algorithm updates is to realize that 1) it’s not a perfect reward system and 2) these changes are out of your control. Additionally, the solution is intentionally vague and does not really define what “best content” really is.
Above we see the acknowledgment. One can waste a lot of time questioning Google’s decision-making, but it is important to evaluate whether these updates have actually had a tangible effect on your business. In many cases, these updates may impact certain industries, but certain sites within that industry do not see the effects. Before looking at the macro of the issue, the focus should be on if there is any tangible impact on the micro level; in other words, did this update actually impact me? From there, you can start to take the steps needed to recover, if you even need to.
How Do I Know When a Google Algorithm Update Is Occurring?
Since Google does not typically acknowledge when an update is happening, digital marketers rely on third-party tools and anecdotal evidence to connect the dots. The best way to stay on top of this is by following some of the industry leaders who follow and discuss news stories of the day, such as (to name just a few) Search Engine Roundtable (who does an amazing job staying on top of chatter around updates), Search Engine Journal, or Search Engine Land.
Most reporting around these updates comes from what SEOs and digital marketers are seeing in real time, as well as from new tools that help monitor search engine volatility. One of these tools is SEMRush’s Sensor that measures the level of volatility across industries and across different countries. Often, the sensor will pick up on this volatility and the news about updates will follow in the next few days.
As you can see here, April 27th and May 22nd are of particular interest. SERP (Search Engine Results Position) volatility is noted as very high, meaning sites’ rankings have fluctuated greatly. As I write this blog on May 23rd, I am starting to see chatter around the typical sites about potential updates to Google. These are largely unconfirmed, and it’s unlikely that this is a massive update, but we do not know that until more SEOs and digital marketers weigh in or Google confirms these updates. What this tells us is that somewhere, in some verticals, rankings have fluctuated. Whether or not this is a result of an update or some other unknown factors is hard to know.
It is important to remember this: these anecdotes and 3rd party tools are just signs, not concrete evidence. There are many examples of overreaction to this data and many times it can lead to unnecessary scrambling when it may just be a minor change or something completely unrelated to an algorithm change.
Well, My Traffic Is Way Down, Now What?
This is where it becomes tricky, as you must be familiar with your overall SEO strategy as well as the possible sources of these issues. This is why monitoring tools like SEMRush’s Sensor as well as the various industry news sources is imperative to running an effective SEO campaign. If your traffic is down as a result of an algorithm update, then there is almost assuredly highly skilled digital marketers attempting to diagnose and find solutions to the problems.
Take this post about how to recover from the “Medic Update” from Search Engine Journal. This is chock-full of the usual pain points about these updates, Google’s vague acknowledgments, and some evaluation of previous updates. In addition, however, we get plenty of great strategies around content to help rectify the issue. The volatility of SEO and rankings allows for your site to recover if you continue to be ardent about following best practices and putting effort into your strategies. Furthermore, you cannot get locked into a fixed set of best practices. In many cases, the best solution is to try a new approach you may have avoided or not known prior.
In the moment, these updates can seem like a business-altering minefield, but it is very important to remain focused on long-term strategy. SEO is oftentimes a slow, non-linear process, so it’s important to keep that in perspective before getting overwhelmed by a bad few months after an update.