November was a busy month for Google search algorithm updates. These updates are impacting websites in drastic ways, both positive and negative. When the hits come, of course webmasters are urgent to stop the bleed and gain back the loss. When users ask Google what to do if they’ve been penalized from these core algorithm updates, their response goes something like this, “There’s often nothing to “fix” and focus instead on having great content.”.
Let’s break this down. In full disclosure, a lot of this is our own opinions and theories made from what little Google does tell us against the data we have access to across the SHE Media Network.
What we know are Google’s priorities for organic search:
1. Provide accurate information to users
2. Provide real opinions, preferences, information from people credible enough to report on the subject
3. Provide an exceptional user experience on your site, particularly on mobile devices
Keep those three points in mind as we talk about November’s update. This is not confirmed of course, but many industry leaders believe these tweaks in some way had to do with links. Google has made several changes to how they process links in 2019. They’ve introduced link tags for sponsored content and user generated content. They’ve said that static mentions of brands that don’t have a link associated with them may still give some credit to the brand. And they’ve said that nofollow tags may or may not be truly taken as such. Example, if a publisher nofollows all outbound links by default, they may decide to lessen the weight that nofollows would typically carry.
Now of the three Google priorities listed above, number two is what I’m guessing the Nov 8 update was tied to. How will (and to what extent) will Google do to to find blogger’s real opinions and real product preferences. In the last 3 years, affiliate programs have become a much larger part of the blogger strategy. There are several different scenarios of how affiliate programs can look on blogs and I want to make sure we understand the difference between sponsored content and affiliate content.
An example of sponsored content would be that Glossier has a new holiday makeup kit they’re launching, so they pay StyleCaster $10k to write a fully dedicated article about it, drive traffic to it and link back to their site from it. No other advertisers would likely show on the page. There are guidelines for this type content, such as the links to the Glossier must be nofollow and that the article must be clearly marked as sponsored.
Affiliate marketing has changed throughout the last ten years. Early days affiliate content wasn’t built from any sort of relationships with brands. An example of this would be that I used to have a blog about skiing. I documented my ski trips, including posts about my favorite gear, 100% my own opinions. And since my favorite kind of skies are Rossignol, it would make sense that I would link to the brand from my blog. They paid me no money to do that. But at some point bloggers figured out that since my blog post sends people to their site, where they then buy products we recommended, it’s kind of only fair that they would pay me a small percentage of that sale (3-5% is typical). And brands were ok with this because they wouldn’t get those sales had I not written about it. Google has never had a problem with this type of affiliate marketing.
But with each passing year, bloggers/content sites are more and more interested in making money from e-commerce.
“And let’s be honest now for just one minute, how truly real do you think recommendations are for the 259,000,000 pages Google has indexed for the term “best tote bags”? And from one side, you have SEOs saying, make sure you have “best tote bag” in the title and unique product descriptions for each one, and alt text on the images etc etc etc. And from the other side, Google is trying to figure out which tote bags are truly the best.”
Can you see the dilemma?
We took a look at our own SHE Media network of sites and made a list of trends in the sites that have increased compared to those that decreased after Nov 8. Many industry sites have claimed to see the content verticals negatively impacted the most as recipe bloggers, affiliate sites, travel sites and fashion sites. When we looked through our network sites, we didn’t notice this set of verticals as being impacted any more than some other verticals.
But we did see one trend in the pages hit hardest:
“When we looked at the actual pages that took 50% or more decreases around Nov 8, one type of content that stood out was round-ups and listicles. This is a huge part of blogger/publisher content strategies.”
facts on Search Algorithms:
What is Google’s search algorithm? It’s a formula that takes different weighted elements of a website and/or web page and matches it against a search query in hopes of providing the best possible result to a user. Oh, and all within .0001 of a second. Fast, right? Not only is it super complex, but Google has multiple different algorithms that work together in many different ways. For the purpose of this article, I’m talking about their basic ranking engine – i.e. the algorithm that is impacted by SEO factors.
How often is Google’s search algorithm updated? Basic tweaks are now made every single day at Google, hundreds of changes every year. But Google’s larger, “core algorithm updates” is typically updated 3-4 times a year. Here is an excellent read from Search Engine Journal on the history of Google algorithm updates.
Does Google announce their updates? Short answer is no. Or at the very least, don’t count on it. Last year, they did confirm several of the larger, more impacting broad core updates. But confirmation is likely all they’ll do. Very little detail is ever released on what the update is targeting. What’s actually more common is for them to release thought-pieces on what they’re focusing on right before updating their algorithm to target said focus. For example, days before the first documented update of the year happened, this piece was posted on Google’s Webmaster Central blog: Ways to succeed in Google News. And as you’re about to read, this first update is said to have targeted news sites.
Are algorithm updates a one-day thing? Nope. Usually it takes a week or more to fully roll out the update. Traffic can begin to fluctuate in the days leading up to the documented update and for many days after. It’s important to remember the point I just made about little confirmation given by Google. Everything that is documented, is mostly just an educated guess based on conclusions reported on by the SEO community.
When will you see a recovery? Google is quick to say there is no guarantee that you ever fully recover from algorithm penalties. But in the instances where you know why you were penalized, and then went through the process of fixing it, the most likely time you’ll see some tangible recovery happen is at the time of their next broad core algorithm. That can be months. They also want to see that the fixed issues remain consistent over a period of time before rewarding you for fixing the issues.
What are baby algorithms? When I first heard this term, I had a strong suspicion what Gary Illyes meant by it, before I read his direct quote. In a way, SEOs have been trying to explain this for years. His exact quote was:
“We have probably millions of baby algorithms and they act differently. They might do something that triggers more crawls on certain sites. It solely depends on the algo and what it’s trying to do.”
There are so many different types of content, there just has to be different algorithms for different types. It doesn’t make sense to hold the same standards for recipe content, or celebrity news content than it does for medical advice or legal advice. And then, outside of content verticals, there must be different algorithms looking at different elements. It’s likely why, what an SEO sees work for one site, doesn’t work in the same way for another. One of the many challenges of search engine optimization.
Here is a list of the documented Google search algorithm updates in 2019, in the order of the most recent:
6. November 2019 Core Update – This was sort of confirmed by Google, and very noticeable to the SEO community as well as the blogger community. Based on the look of our own data, there is no doubt that something was tweaked around November 8. Google’s tweet said, “Some have asked if we had an update to Google Search last week. We did, actually several updates, just as we have several updates in any given week on a regular basis.”. My favorite post on this update is by Marie Haynes.
5. October 24, BERT (not broad core) – This was a different kind of Google algorithm update, but I’m adding to the list anyway. Similar to RankBrain, it has to do with how Google processes the actual search queries, not with the algorithm that weights the health of the pages that end up in the rankings. It warrants a post on it’s own, but you can read more about it here: https://searchengineland.com/welcome-bert-google-artificial-intelligence-for-understanding-search-queries-323976.
Initially many large sites speculated that they’d been impacted by BERT, but the general consensus ended up that this was not the cause of any major site drops.
4. September 2019 Core Update – Announced today via Tweet. Core updates such as this can take up to a week to fully roll out. Keep an eye on your organic traffic! There wasn’t much information given on this update, outside of the normal objective of weeding out poor quality content in favor of high quality content. There are 4 specific things you can think about when wondering if your content qualifies as high quality:
1. Is the content 100% original and not just copied from elsewhere in a different order? And is it interesting?
2. Expertise – Is the content trustworthy? Is the writer someone qualified to write about the subject? Does the page contain errors?
3. Presentation & user experience – Does the page load smoothly? Does the content sound authentic and not mass produced and shared all over the internet? Are there too many ads?
4. How does it look against the competition? See who is ranking at the top for your targeted terms and see what they offer compared to yours… then make yours better!!
One interesting call-out here was that sites with video content appeared to get a boost from this update.
3. June 4 – Google’s first ever pre-announced algorithm update, the fourth of 2019. These broad core updates typically make the most notable impact, can be either positive or negative based on your website and your competitor’s websites. There is never much information given by Google, but this quote from Search Engine Journal describes these updates well:
“In a general way, these kinds of updates are about improving how Google understands search queries, improving how Google understands web pages and bringing both sides together to provide more relevant search results.”
As with every Google broad core algo update, it’s important to remember:
Google says there is nothing to fix.
They do not target specific content verticals.
These are about relevance, not quality. If you experience a loss, don’t think it’s because your content is bad but because it might not be as relevant of a search results as another site/page is. For course of action, take a look at what Google put in your place and evaluate what that page offers that yours did not.
2. March 8 – Confirmed on March 13th, this is said to be the first “broad core” algorithm update of 2019. Penske Media Corporation’s director of SEO, Constance Ejuma summarized these type updates in the bullets below:
It does not target any specific niche
It doesn’t target specific signals like content quality or backlinks
Because it doesn’t target any niche or quality signal, there’s nothing for webmasters to fix.
The purpose of the broad core update is to allow Google to better match queries to pages and improve user satisfaction.
1. January 18 – referred to as an “incremental algorithm update” and said to have targeted News websites and blogs. Coincidentally, Google had just written about best practices for Google News sites. In it they request clear headlines and clear (and accurate) time stamps. They’re also hacking down on News content writers. Make sure you have clear bylines and author bio pages for your authors. On the bio pages should be access to the authors via social handles. Also noted that you should avoid publishing duplicate, rewritten or scrapped content. And of course, HTTPS is a must these days, can’t escape the severity of website security.
A must read on Google broad core algorithm updates – https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2019/08/core-updates.html.
** This piece will be updated throughout 2019, fingers-crossed, not that many times!! Last updated on Dec 1, 2019