Google, the undisputed search engine market share leader, is infamous for its plethora of algorithm updates. In fact, Google makes thousands of updates each year. Most of these updates go unnoticed and businesses won’t see any changes to their organic traffic. However, Google announces broad changes or core updates several times a year that have larger impacts on search ranking.
Having a firm understanding of each of these broad changes is essential to assess where you can improve your content and search engine optimization (SEO) efforts. This ensures your brand stays relevant and at the top of the search engine results pages the next time a potential customer seeks your product or service.
In this post, we will explore the most important search engine algorithm updates you need to know and how each impacts your search engine ranking. First, we’ll give a little background on how core algorithm updates work.
What are Google’s core algorithm updates?
As consumer behavior shifts, so too must search engine rankings. What customers prefer one year may not hold true for the next, as technology and shopping preferences continue to evolve. Google is at the top of its class when it comes to providing an optimal user experience. It focuses heavily on matching search intent and delivering high-quality content.
When examining core updates and how they work, consider as an example a list that compiles the top restaurants in San Diego. Each year, this list changes based on consumer preferences, the quality of food served, quality of service, and more. New restaurants also pop up each year and outrank a restaurant that previously made the list. Each year, this list will change because of the aforementioned factors.
Think of a restaurant that hasn’t changed their menu for years, only accepts cash payments, and doesn’t offer takeout or curbside pickup. The restaurant would likely lose out on sales and therefore would not earn a spot on any top restaurant list because they have failed to adapt to consumers’ needs. This is how Core Updates work, rewarding sites that continue to advance its user experience.
The most important search algorithm updates
Almost all of Google’s updates place a strong focus on content quality. Shoddy content is no longer acceptable, and ranking algorithms are getting smarter at assessing content quality. In this section, we will focus on the updates that gained the most traction and where websites were most affected.
Helpful content update
As Google shares, the helpful content update “generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.” But how can your business ensure you’re crafting informative content that meets your visitors’ expectations?
Google explicitly states that you should avoid creating any type of content that doesn’t add value or is irrelevant to the end user. If you’re not creating relevant content, search engine crawlers will seek better content out and reward that content in the search results instead.
Create content that is helpful and relevant to the search terms you’re targeting. Consider: will the reader find this information helpful? Am I writing this to meet a goal, or do I have something unique to share? How and where can I add value if content around this keyword phrase already exists?
Amsive Interactive recently analyzed a data set of over 1,800 winning and losing domains in terms of their Sistrix Visibility Index scores using the Google.com US index. They looked at the visibility index on September 12, 2022 and measured percentage changes on September 27, 2022.
The timing coincided with the Google Helpful Content Update and the September core update. While it’s difficult to attribute traffic losses only to the Helpful Content Update, the site declines seen in the chart below seem to relate to what Google classifies as “unhelpful content”, furthering the importance of understanding the impacts of important SEO algorithm updates as they release.
Page experience update
The page experience update finished rolling out for desktop at the end of February 2022. This update looked at a series of page experience signals, including Core Web Vitals and new signals as well.
- Absence of intrusive interstitials
- HTTPS security
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP) which measures loading performance
- First Input Delay (FID) which measures interactivity
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) which measures visual stability.
Site owners can see how their pages stack up by using a Search Console report.
Google is cracking down hard on any sites that violate its spam policies. In 2021 and 2022, Google’s automated systems that detect spam went through several improvements.
Google shares that “Sites that violate our policies may rank lower in results or not appear in results at all.” In addition to Google, users can also file a search quality user report if they believe your site isn’t adhering to Google’s spam guidelines.
Google refers to spam as:
- Cloaking: Presenting different content to users and search engines to manipulate rankings. For example, a website may target a search query for real estate in Tampa, but then show a page for tobacco shops in Tampa to users.
- Doorways: Doorways are created to rank for a search query but lead users to intermediate pages. For example, you might have multiple pages targeted at specific regions for a product but they take users to the same page – meaning a company may target the search term “hairdresser in Huntersville” and also the terms “hair dresser in Cornelius” and “hairdresser in Mooresville” despite each of these terms taking users to the same landing page for the hairdresser based in Huntersville. This provides little value to the searcher if they want a hairdresser located in Cornelius.
- Hidden text and links: This involves creating hidden content to manipulate search engines such as using white text on a white background.
- Keyword stuffing: This practice involves writing content for improved search visibility, rather than writing content for users. The writer uses keywords unnaturally within the content in hopes of improving rankings in search engines.
- Link spam: Links should improve the customer experience, rather than manipulate rankings. Yet, some sites resort to unethical link building practices such as exchanging money, goods, or services for links.
- Sneaky redirects: Redirecting a visitor to a different URL than the one they intended to land will also have negative impacts on ranking.
The Bert update took place in October 2019 and uses natural language processing technology to better interpret search queries, text, entities and relationships between entities. Bert aims to understand search intent and deliver relevant results, even for complex long-tail keyword phrases. This circles back to the ongoing theme of avoiding low-quality content.
Writers should focus on:
- Avoiding complex words
- Keeping sentences short and concise
- Using mostly an active voice
- Using transition words
- Incorporating variety into sentences
- Using headings to break up the text
- Keeping paragraphs short and concise
RankBrain is Google’s introduction to its machine-learning artificial intelligence system used to process search results. It has since grown much more complex to ensure relevant search results are delivered. RankBrain was part of Google’s Hummingbird broad core algorithm update. With this particular update, it became evident Google’s AI would start to look at words as a ranking signal.
This meant SEO marketers needed to improve keyword strategies and create a list of target keywords based on terms searchers use when seeking its products or services. This required a deeper understanding of customer motivation, forcing many brands to rethink their entire marketing strategy. Keyword research tools such as Google Related Searches and AnswerThePublic started to come to fruition.
The Penguin update firmly proved Google’s stance on manipulative link-building practices. Before the update, link volume played a role in determining how well a piece of content ranked. This leads to link farms, irrelevant links, spammy backlinks and links from sites with low domain authority. None of which created a better customer experience for the reader.
This forced site owners to understand the importance of building a high quality link profile with natural links from authoritative domains. This also, in turn, led to the need for ongoing content optimization. It’s worth noting the Penguin update only looked at inbound links rather than outbound links.
The SEO community often frets whenever an algorithm update takes place. But if you take a moment to understand the underlying theme of these seemingly complex algorithms, it’s actually quite simple: the purpose should be to create an optimal customer experience for searchers with high-quality and relevant content.
Avoid deceptive practices that you think will boost your search rankings; Google is becoming more and more intelligent and is penalizing sites that try to use deception to increase their rankings.
You’ll be able to keep on the favorable side of new algorithm updates as long as you continue to keep up with customer expectations, deliver high-quality service, and adapt to changes in consumer behavior to win competitive search engine traffic.