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How do you respond to Google Algorithm updates?

By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: May 03, 2021

Google’s search results are driven by an algorithm. To oversimply, this algorithm is a program that provides different kinds of instructions and rules about how to evaluate, rate and rank all the different types of content that Google’s bots have found on the web. This algorithm looks at things like the page’s quality, backlinks, a variety of technical factors, and so much more. How much should you worry about Google’s algorithm? What should you do if you are affected by an algorithm update?

Types of Algorithm Updates

To begin, let’s talk about the different types of updates Google makes to their algorithm. Note that this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive or official list. Rather, these are just the high-level buckets that I find the most helpful for explaining the types of changes Google makes.

  • Small / Unconfirmed Updates. Most commonly, Google makes small tweaks or adjustments to how their bots view content. These updates are rarely if ever discussed publicly. Instead, you’ll hear about these as “unconfirmed” or suspected updates in the SEO community. Except in very specific circumstances, these smaller tweaks don’t affect traffic too dramatically; maybe your rankings will increase by one or two positions. You can see various unconfirmed updates on Moz’s Algorithm Update History page (filter status to Unconfirmed).
  • Targeted Updates. Other updates, though, are a bit bigger and do cause more dramatic shifts in rankings but only for specific industries or specific types of queries, which is why I refer to these as “targeted” updates. Although focused on a specific area, these types of updates can cause those types of websites to fall out of search results completely or cause websites to pole vault onto the first page of rankings. For example, in April of 2021 Google rolled out an update that affected product reviews. Another example, going further back, is the Pigeon update from 2014 that affected local search results.
  • Core Updates. This type of algorithm update is by far the biggest and most wide-reaching change Google makes. As the name suggests, these updates impact the core of Google’s processes related to understanding the web. In recent years, Google has (thankfully!) started announcing the core updates before they roll out. Core algorithm updates can affect massive amounts of search results and rarely have any specific targeting behind them (these updates are focused on “site quality”, a nebulous and elusive phrase). As of this writing, the most recent Core Update happened in December 2020.
  • Broadly-focused updates. Along with the Core Updates, there are also other updates that also target a broad range of search queries but instead have a specific focus. Adding BERT to their algorithm in 2019 impacted traffic for many different types of websites. Similarly, Panda and Penguin updates from years ago were far-reaching but specifically focused on thin content and links (respectively). Note that Panda and Penguin are now part of Google’s core algorithm so any subsequent updates to these would be included in Core Updates.
  • User Experience (UX) Updates. Finally, Google has a number of user experience-related updates. In many respects, these are similar to the broadly focused updates in that these updates are focused on specific areas and affect many websites. However, unlike the broadly-focused updates, Google is very specific about how you need to change your website and they give plenty of advanced notice about these types of changes. Ultimately, these UX updates are Google’s way of nudging companies to make their websites better. In 2014, Google began giving a ranking boost to sites that used an SSL certificate if they wanted to rank in search results. In 2015, Google began boosting sites on mobile devices if they met mobile-friendly guidelines. Most recently, Google has announced Core Web Vitals as a part of their Page Experience update coming in May of 2021.

How to Evaluate & Understand Impact of Algorithm Updates

Now that we have an idea of what the algorithm updates are, what should you do if your website is impacted by an algorithm update? How do you know if you were affected by the algorithm update as it is? Let’s talk through the step you need to take to answer these questions:

  1. Timing. Google won’t tell you directly if your website was affected by the algorithm update. Rather, you have to make an educated guess that you were affected and the best way to do that is to look at the timing of the algorithm update. If the update rolled out on the 15th of the month and your traffic began decreasing on the 16th, the chances are good that the algorithm is the root cause of your traffic decrease. For this reason, we suggest noting algorithm update dates on your calendar so you can remember when these happened (there is a way to add annotations within Looker Studio to combine with GA4 data).
  2. Rule Out Other Causes. This is especially true for smaller/unconfirmed and specifically targeted updates but can even apply to Core Updates since not every website is affected by those. Too often, we’ve worked with clients who are certain an algorithm update caused the traffic drop but really it was something else, like a hack on the server or a deployment gone wrong. Before blaming the algorithm update for the traffic drop and investigating that as the culprit, see what content has changed recently if you have made any major updates to your website’s servers or systems if anything about the design has changed, and so on. Chances are it really is the algorithm update that affected things, but you want to rule everything else out first so that you know you are looking in the right direction.
  3. Collecting Data. We’ve confirmed the algorithm did affect our traffic given the timing and we’ve ruled out other possible causes. Next, we need to understand the impact. It isn’t enough to say that your organic traffic went up or down after an algorithm update; you need to know specific data points. Along with overall traffic patterns, you need to know what has happened to clicks and impressions for each query your website ranks for (or use to rank for) in search results. While the tool has its flaws, Google Search Console’s Performance Report is a helpful tool for capturing that data. You also need to track your positions for those search queries. You can use Google Search Console or there are other tools available to help you track ranking positions. In your analytics tool, you also want to capture which landing pages were affected the most—pageviews and sessions of course, but also conversions and engagement on the page.
  4. Find the Pattern. Now that you have collected the data, it is time to analyze that data to see what patterns emerge within it and then we can use those patterns to know what we may want to fix. Are there certain themes to the pages or search terms that saw the biggest drop? For example, it might be that certain pages that dropped also happen to be pages that haven’t been updated in over five years, suggesting a freshness update is at play. Another question to investigate is if the pages that saw a decrease in traffic, did conversion and engagement rates drop too? In some cases, we’ve seen decreases in traffic that actually led to an increase in conversions and engagement, which suggests a site quality issue is at play.

    You might also find that there is no pattern to the terms or pages seeing a drop—it is everything on your website seeing a drop. This can happen with Core Updates where Google has negatively evaluated your website. For example, with Google’s Medic Update, many websites in the health and wellness space saw major drops in their traffic across the entire website. There simply wasn’t a pattern to be found within the pages or queries. Instead, the pattern was that Google’s algorithm determined that those websites didn’t appropriately display signals of expertise, authority, or trustworthiness (E-A-T).
  5. Look at Competitors. Along with looking at your own website, look at what happened to your competitors following the algorithm update. If you were affected negatively, were your competitors affected positively? Or, did competitors also see drops? For any affected competitors, conduct a similar analysis of their pages and queries. What you are hoping to find is the same patterns that emerged after evaluating your own website’s data. If you do find similar patterns for what pages are up or down, this helps confirm suspicions around what Google’s algorithm did and how it has caused the traffic to drop. Related to this, many people in the SEO community also share lists of winners and losers following an algorithm update. These types of lists can help you verify what is causing the traffic to shift.

How Do You Respond & How Can You Recover?

Assessing Possible Causes

Following the evaluation of the algorithm update’s impact, you should hopefully have a few ideas of what potentially caused the traffic drop. That might be ideas about the layout of certain pages, content being outdated, problems with backlinks, problems with internal links, problems with the content itself, and so on. You want to rank these various ideas based on the likelihood that they are the main cause of the problem. It is also helpful to rank these ideas based on how hard they will be to implement; the harder they are to implement, the bigger the risk in implementing this change.

If the things to fix aren’t so hard to do, and the likelihood is quite high that those items are the main cause of the problem, then you can go ahead and implement the changes then wait for the results (see the next section for how long you may need to wait). You might find that you have negative results. In that case, you’ll want to review your data again, formulate new ideas, and try more changes. It can take months or years to figure out the right changes to make to fully recover from an algorithm update.

Before you implement any changes, especially the bigger or costlier changes, based on those ideas, you want to confirm those ideas do make sense and are worth the investment. As well, you want to confirm that these ideas won’t cause other problems. If you haven’t already hired an SEO professional to help you evaluate the traffic drop, this can be an ideal time to do so. Even if you have an SEO professional helping you, this can be a good time to get a second or third opinion. You want to make sure you respond to the traffic drop as correctly as possible; somebody who has responded to many algorithm updates can help you avoided wasted time and money.

Speed of Response & Speed of Recovery

There are two main approaches when responding to an algorithm update. The first can be summed up as “Change everything! Change it now!” and the second is best summed up as “Slow and steady wins the race.” Which is right will vary depending on your organization and the nature of the impact.

If this is a massive decrease in traffic, with large drops in positions across many different search terms, then moving more quickly and cleaning up everything possible does tend to make sense. The downside, though, is that it often takes an algorithm update to correct an algorithm update. So, even if you move quickly, you might not see the results of those changes anytime soon. This is definitely true for Core Updates—if your website’s traffic dropped because of a Core Update, you’ll probably need to wait for the next Core Update before you begin to see any signs of recovery. Too many companies worry that their changes had no impact when really, they haven’t given Google enough time to respond to their changes.

Impact and then recovery from an algorithm update

The slow and steady approach is better when the impacts are not as catastrophic. In this scenario, you still have traffic from Google search results so you want to protect and defend that traffic. Bigger updates or changes could put that existing traffic at risk. Instead, you want to try smaller updates or changes and see what types of results you get. Here too, if the impact is from a Core Update, it might take another Core Update before you see the results. However, if this is a smaller or more targeted algorithm update, you might see results within a few weeks of making a change.

Whether you move fast or slow, changing everything or just a few things on your website, it is worth underscoring that you need to give Google plenty of time to respond to your changes. A neutral impact on traffic following changes you make doesn’t mean your changes failed to remedy the traffic drop. Neutral means just that—neutral. You want to keep making changes and keep waiting for the next Core Update before you’ll really know if your changes have worked or not to help you recover your website’s lost traffic.

Special Cases

Responding to & Preparing for Pre-Announced Updates

As mentioned above, UX updates are a different type of update because Google pre-announces these updates and provides direction on how to comply with their algorithm. That means you, can prepare for the algorithm update well in advance and avoid any traffic drops. If you don’t prepare for the update (or can’t prepare) and then are affected by the algorithm update, you can skip a lot of the evaluation and assessment, jumping right into fixing your website by following Google’s directions.

Increases in Traffic

This article has been focused on traffic drops following an algorithm update, but let’s end on an optimistic note: you can see gains in traffic following an algorithm update too. If you are positively affected by an algorithm update, it is still worth stepping through the data to understand why you were positively affected. You are doing something right and you want to know what that is so you can continue doing more of that, hopefully getting more traffic in the process.

Final Thoughts

Google has built its algorithm over the last two decades. It is complex and nuanced. To protect their intellectual property and to avoid people gaming the system, Google isn’t transparent about all the factors evaluated by their algorithm. As a result, it is hard to always know why the algorithm evaluated one website this way or another. Yes, you can read Google’s help documentation, sometimes specific documentation provided about an update. Yes, you can plot and follow a general direction Google seems to be heading in regarding what types of content they favor. Yes, you can read what people in the SEO community are seeing related to the update too.

However, you’ll never be able to know for certain what the true cause was if your website loses traffic following an algorithm update. Given that, as you respond to the update, don’t worry too much about finding the exact cause. Instead, work to find the most likely causes and work on fixing those, especially if those fixes will improve your website for visitors as well.

If your website is affected by the algorithm update and you would like help understanding why and figuring out how to recover your lost traffic, please contact me.

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