Google algorithm update. It’s a phrase that strikes fear into the heart of many site owners and SEOs alike. And it used to scare me too.
But, in reality, there is no need to be upset. Paranoia about algo updates and trying to cater to each individual update makes about as much sense as obsessing over whether or not there will ever be a rainy day where you live.
Yes, there will be rain. Yes, there are ways to prepare for it. Yes, rain can be fun sometimes.
What Is an Algo Update?
The first thing we should probably clear up is how we think about “algo updates” in general. While Google isn’t very straightforward on many things, they do give us a very clear explanation of what algo updates are via their Webmaster Central Blog:
“Each day, Google usually releases one or more changes designed to improve our search results. Most aren’t noticeable but help us incrementally continue to improve.
Sometimes, an update may be more noticeable. We aim to confirm such updates when we feel there is actionable information that webmasters, content producers or others might take in relation to them. For example, when our “Speed Update” happened, we gave months of advanced notice and advice.
Several times a year, we make significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems. We refer to these as “core updates.” They’re designed to ensure that overall, we’re delivering on our mission to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers. These core updates may also affect Google Discover.
We confirm broad core updates because they typically produce some widely notable effects. Some sites may note drops or gains during them. We know those with sites that experience drops will be looking for a fix, and we want to ensure they don’t try to fix the wrong things. Moreover, there might not be anything to fix at all.”
Don’t want to read all that? I get it. The three biggest takeaways from this are:
- The algorithms used by Google to generate search results are constantly being updated
- There are some updates that are larger than others
- While Google won’t always tell us if an update has happened, they do have a policy of informing site owners of updates under certain circumstances
Ok, so now we know what algo updates are. But now let’s get to the important stuff, how do these updates impact our sites? And what can we do to ensure that they impact our sites positively?
The Impact of Algorithm Updates on Websites
The reason people care so much about algorithm updates is no secret – they can make or break your website’s fortunes when it comes to organic traffic. They are as close to an “act of God” as you can get in digital marketing. One day, you could be struggling to pull in traffic. The next, your Analytics data looks like this:
On the flip side, if you find yourself on the wrong end of an algorithm update, it may look more like this:
The metrics above actually happen to be for the same website. Here’s a look at how their total keyword rankings fluctuated due to the impact of these two updates:
So how do we ensure that our website ends up in the green following an algo update? Well, the reality is, there’s no way to guarantee that you are not impacted negatively by an algorithm update.
This is true even if, in general, you are following Google’s recommendations regarding webmaster best practices. Google’s algorithm is far too complex and they are dealing with indexing far too many websites at once to have “perfect” algorithm updates that only reward high-quality websites while simultaneously only punishing sites using black-hat or spammy techniques.
Algo updates, while controlled, still have a clear randomness to them so you are dealing with percentage-chances instead of absolutes. Here’s an example:
If you have an awful website with spammy content, terrible technical optimization, and a portfolio of black-hat backlinks, there is still a chance that an algorithm update could benefit you positively. It would be a low percentage chance (for the sake of this example, let’s say 10%), but it’s still a chance.
On the flip side, you could have an immaculate website with excellent content, perfect technicals, and a portfolio of quality earned backlinks, but there is still a chance that an algorithm update could tank your rankings. It would be a low percentage chance (again, for the sake of this example, let’s say 10%), but it’s still a chance.
As an SEO agency, it is our duty when working with websites to do everything possible to give them the highest chance of being positively impacted by an algorithm update. Implementing SEO best practices may not completely protect you from the consequences of a rogue update, but it can ensure that you are given the highest probability of coming out unscathed and, ideally, benefiting from the update.
After the Storm: How Do We Fix an Algo Update Gone Wrong?
We now know that, no matter what, there’s always a chance that our website could be negatively impacted by an update. But what do we do if this worst case scenario happens? How do we fix it and find out exactly what we did wrong in the eyes of the algorithm?
Unfortunately, just like how we cannot guarantee that an algo update will not impact a site negatively, the reality is that it is mathematically improbable to ever find out exactly why you were punished by an algorithm update.
To explain why this is so, let’s focus on this specific quote from Google’s algo update explainer at the top of this post: “Several times a year, we make significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems.”
We emphasize algorithms here because it’s incredibly important to understand that there is no one algorithm for Google. You aren’t dealing with a simple mathematical equation. You are trying to decipher a combination of some of the most sophisticated mathematical equations on Earth all working in harmony to produce quality results.
This lines up with what Google search spokesperson Gary Ilyes said last year in regards to a question about whether Google uses an EAT score to rate content: He said that Google has “a collection of millions of tiny algorithms that work in unison to spit out a ranking score.” He added that the guidelines that many SEOs use to grasp what these algorithms are looking for such as Expertise, Authoritativeness, & Trustworthiness (EAT) and Your Money or Your Life (YMYL ratings) are concepts that humans use to “dumb down algorithms.”
Of course, we wouldn’t be real SEO strategists if we purely took Google’s spokesperson’s word at face value. At the end of the day, Google has an interest in making the life of an SEO harder. Maybe they’re simply trying to throw us off the scent here and there is a way to decode the algorithms.
Outside research confirms that this simply isn’t the case.
In a recently-published Search Engine Journal piece, SEO Jeff Ferguson made waves by taking aim at people within the industry who are trying to “reverse engineer the complex algorithms of search engines like Google using faulty statistical practices to devise SEO strategies backed by shoddy science.”
These were strong claims, but Jeff came prepared with back-up from data analytics consultant Jen Hood. It’s a long article that I recommend reading in full, but the conclusion is mainly what we are concerned about. Here’s what you need to know:
“The only way to statistically prove that any individual metric claiming to recreate Google’s search algorithms is accurate is to do massive randomized testing over time, controlling for variation, and randomly assigning changes to be made to improve or decline in ranking…This needs to be on a large scale across many different topics, styles of searches, etc…Even then, I suspect that Google has frequent algorithm updates of different magnitudes,” Jen supposes, which I confirm. “Undoubtedly, they have dozens or hundreds of engineers, programmers, analysts, and so on working on these algorithms daily, which means if we take a snapshot in time now of what we suspect the algorithm is, by the time we’ve fully tested it, it’s changed.”
In the end, Jen agrees that it appears our industry doesn’t have the tools we need to make these studies useful. “The mathematics of analyzing how Google’s index functions are closer to astrophysics than predicting election results, but that’s the methods used today are closer to the latter.”
This sort of thing isn’t really debatable. At the end of the day, the math is clear in telling us that we shouldn’t spend much time worrying about individual ranking factors and how they are impacting us on a page by page basis. In fact, these algorithms are so complex, I highly doubt the people working on them that know how they work could give a solid answer on why a certain page is ranked over another.
In fact, I recently asked a developer friend, who works at “a big tech company” about “The Algorithm.” Did he understand how it worked?
His answer was very similar to what we see from Gary Ilyes’ response regarding the Google Algorithm. In his experience, there was no one at the company that had a full explanation of how the Algorithm worked that generated the company’s core product. There were roughly 3 exceptionally bright individual employees that, maybe, if you got them in a room together, could begin to approximate how the algorithm is understanding and sorting content, but none of them alone could give you a full picture and their combined brainpower couldn’t come close to deciphering exactly how the machine learning they’d created was functioning at a micro level.
So the point remains: it is a losing battle to approach algorithm updates from the point of view of trying to decipher what has changed on a page-by-page basis.
With this in mind…what the heck are SEOs doing then? If we can’t figure out what matters to Google, is the entire industry a joke?
The answer is that we’ve had the answers all along.
How Victorious Approaches A Google Algo Update
While an SEO can never know exactly what changed with each algorithm update, they do know the evergreen best practices of creating a website that will rank well on Google.
The complexity of Google’s algorithm keeps us from being able to figure out the exact different weights that they are using for each ranking factor. But we still have a concrete undeniable body of evidence that proves that there are existing ranking factors, focused mainly on:
- The quality of the content you produce
- The on-page optimization you use
- The technical foundation of your website’s code
- The backlinks you are able to generate
These things have always been important to SEO and, as far as the existing evidence shows, they will continue to be important in the near future.
As an expert SEO team with decades of combined internet marketing experience under our belt, we’re confident in telling you that in the vast majority of cases*, a Google Algorithm update does not change the fundamentals that go into creating an SEO optimized website.
So if things aren’t changing, why is SEO so hard?
In many ways, you can view the practice of search optimization through the same lens you view the fitness market. There are always hot new trends that pop up in dieting and exercise. From liquid diets to Atkins, Tae Bo to Body By Jake, there’s a never-ending list of new ways to achieve the physique of your dreams.
But, while these trends come and go, the basic ideas behind all of them remain the same. If you want to achieve physical fitness, you should exercise more and consume fewer calories. This isn’t a secret, and all the fads will likely tell you a version of the same thing, but it’s still incredibly hard to do because these two things take discipline and commitment to a plan.
This is the same problem most people run into with SEO. They can be told exactly what is wrong with their website and how to turn things in the right direction, but it’s hard to make those things happen. Big SEO gains don’t happen overnight. It takes a day-after-day commitment to implementing best practices and finding ways to stack incremental gains in your content and optimization.
This is why we’re confident in telling you that in the vast majority of cases where an algorithm update negatively impacts a client of ours, we don’t panic. The reason why?
We already know what’s wrong.
Every Victorious campaign begins with a complete SEO audit based on years of experience and a foundation of best practices that are acknowledged throughout the industry. As any customer of ours will tell you, this audit requires time and work to implement. Just like any good personal trainer would ask a lot from their client to achieve the goals they desire, as marketing partners we are constantly pushing our customers to make the most of their website from a search-focused perspective.
So when an algorithm update negatively impacts a customer, 9/10 times we are able to go back to the audit for guidance and find a key area of importance that was highlighted in the audit that hasn’t yet been addressed.
And in the 1/10 cases? There are two possibilities:
One. If we run into a situation where an update negatively impacts a client that has done all the work to follow our recommendations, we take immediate initiative to investigate and find out where their site is missing the mark on the fundamentals of SEO. Devs make changes, content becomes outdated, backlinks get removed. We investigate.
Two. Sometimes algorithm updates completely change the way that Google understands a search query. Take for example the query “moissanite.” Currently, Google looks at this query with a mixed search intent. Out of the top 10 results, there are some transactional pages with websites selling moissanite engagement rings, while there are also informational pages explaining exactly what moissanite is and how it compares to a traditional diamond.
An algorithm update could potentially change the way that Google understands this search query and remove one or the other of these results. It could make the top 10 results all transactional or all informational. In a case like this, it wouldn’t mean that the pages that were deranked were doing something wrong or were less high-quality than before. It just means that Google decided that a different type of page was the best fit for that particular search query.
In cases like this, we reevaluate our page targeting and provide clients with the proper type of page to target their desired queries.
In either of these situations, the fundamentals do not change. We’ll be checking the same things we always check, not a new list of factors tailor-made to address specifically what was updated in Google’s algorithm at large.
We strongly believe that this philosophy gives our clients the best chance at meeting and exceeding their campaign goals.
*There are always exceptions. Please read to the end of the article to learn about situations where Google makes radical changes.
So There’s Nothing to Learn From Algo Updates?
That isn’t the best conclusion. While I think I’ve made it clear that we don’t believe it is worthwhile to try to chase down the exact factors that are being changed with every algorithm update, we also don’t recommend entirely ignoring their existence. There is a place for understanding and analyzing algorithm updates. Looking at the data following an update release can help you recognize broad search trends and how they are changing across different industries and domains.
Here at Victorious, we are hyper-focused on our individual customers and their website results. But there are many SEO experts we respect who do the honorable work of analyzing the impact of various algorithm updates at scale. A few we recommend are:
It’s also important to understand the history of algorithm updates and how they led us to the world of search we operate in today. Here are the most impactful algorithm updates and their timelines as stated by Search Engine Journal:
Medic Update (2018)
Fred Update (2017)
Intrusive Interstitials Update (2017)
Pigeon Update (2014)
Hummingbird Update (2013)
Payday Update (2013)
Penguin Update (2012)
Exact Match Domain Update (2012)
Page Layout Updated (2012)
Panda Update (2011)
One thing in particular I do want to highlight about this history is that there was a time when algorithm updates had a tendency to completely shift the framework of the industry. You can see that roughly half the list above centers around the time period from 2011 – 2013, and this was indeed a time of extreme fluctuations in the world of SEO.
It’s likely that this period gave many people that idea that Google algorithm updates are earth-shaking events. The landscape of updates has undoubtedly become less volatile, but to the casual webmaster the word “update” still carries weight because of these earlier changes.
I think the situation is best summed up by this excerpt from Search Engine Journal about the Hummingbird update:
“Back in the summer of 2013, the basics of SEO were still more or less the same as they are today. We were still living in a time of “great content” and espousing the earning of links…and being able to answer questions that people cared about was still the goal. However, the search results landscape was drastically different, even just one year before Hummingbird’s launch.”
This quote is saying that, in general, since the Hummingbird update search has been relatively stable, Google is looking for great content that is supported by the SEO fundamentals (that we’ve been conveniently discussing at length throughout this piece). Changes have happened, but they have mainly been focused around particular segments of search (Pigeon with local results) or user experience matters (Mobilegeddon & the Intrusive Interstitials Update).
But just because this has been the status quo doesn’t mean it will remain that way. The Medic Update in 2018 came close to the widespread impact seen by the updates of the early 2010s (it was the update that made EAT a household name amongst webmasters) and core algo updates since then continue to have big impacts.
Many SEOs think Google has been “too quiet” for too long and that this foreshadows “The Big One” – an update that will once again reshape the landscape of search in ways that haven’t been seen for years.
Is this a valid concern? Most definitely. Google is a business and businesses must adapt and change to continue to thrive. It should be expected that, eventually, Google will have to make a dramatic change to their search product to continue their reign as the world’s go-to destination for finding answers on the Internet.
It’s fair. But for the time being, it is best to focus on the here and now. There’s no need to make the job more complicated than it already is. It’s 2020, for goodness sake.
What we do know is that the internet’s users are still consuming content at an insatiable rate. And we know that if we create great content that caters to those users’ search intent, hosted on a technically-sound website, and supported by off page backlinks, those users will find us.