Google makes thousands of changes to its search algorithms each year to ensure that people are experiencing the most helpful and accurate search results. Some updates are small and can go virtually undetected, while others amount to bigger shake-ups of the search engine results pages (SERPs) that have big implications for those in the SEO world.
Occurring multiple times a year, Google’s famous Core algorithm updates are the confirmed broad updates impacting Google’s ranking systems – these are often the updates that get people talking. However, Google also releases named updates that are more specific, such as Helpful Content, Hidden Gems, Page Experience and Reviews to name a very small few.
It’s important for any business to keep up to date with Google’s algorithm changes. These updates can be beneficial for some, but detrimental to others, impacting a site’s position in the search results. One year you may be riding a wave of 1st place positions, the next, you’ve dropped down to 3rd and 4th because Google’s priorities have shifted.
So, with numerous core algorithm updates occurring throughout the year, how should you react? What are the next steps? Read on to find out.
What is a Google Broad Core Algorithm Update?
Today we released the November 2023 core update. We'll update our ranking release history page when the rollout is complete: https://t.co/hgjEkfpbA2— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) November 2, 2023
Related to this, we’ve posted a Q&A on Google Search updates as a refresher about how updates work: https://t.co/N5p3KsJ0ta
Every year, Google makes multiple broad changes to its search algorithms known as ‘core’ updates. Unlike the famous historical updates known as Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird etc. that targeted specific factors such as quality backlinks and quality, fresh content, Core algorithm updates are no longer named after animals (boo) – and are not necessarily specific with what they’re improving upon.
These updates often occur without any warning, and it can be unclear what the algorithm update is looking to achieve. According to Google, the purpose of algorithm updates is to provide searchers with ‘helpful and reliable results’. The aim is to continuously improve the quality of search results for everyone.
Understandably, Core updates don’t happen overnight and take time to roll out (often a week or two). When they do, it brings a period of uncertainty for those relying on their organic visibility in the SERPs.
Well-known Google Algorithm Updates
It would be impossible for Google to manually sift through billions of web pages when answering a query. Instead, it uses algorithms to provide the best results. Since 2011, Google has been rolling out major algorithm updates that have had a big impact on SEO best practices and have made waves in the industry. The most notable include:
- Panda (2011) – Launched to identify websites purely created to rank in search engines – sites with low-quality, thin, or duplicate content.
- Penguin (2012) – Targeted and penalised websites that adopted spammy link-building techniques.
- Hummingbird (2013) – better sought to understand the intent of searchers’ queries through more conversational search.
- Mobile Update (2015) – Rewarded sites that were mobile-friendly.
- RankBrain (2015) – Launched a new age of machine learning to analyse vast amounts of data and past searches.
- BERT (2019) – a neural network-based technique for natural language processing, BERT or Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. To summarise, it better works out the meaning and context of a word by exploring the words that come before and after it for true context.
- Page Experience (2021) – Introduced new ranking signals which combined existing page experience signals with Core Web Vitals metrics.
- MuM (2021) – MUM or Multitask Unified Model, was launched to perform multiple tasks simultaneously in over 75 languages to deliver detailed answers to complex queries. It is 1000 times more powerful than BERT.
- Helpful Content (2022) – Reminded us of the importance of people-first content that best answers user queries.
How to React to Google Algorithm Updates
When a Google algorithm update hits, you may notice a shift in your keyword rankings – they can be either positive, negative, specific, broad, minimal, or severe.
However, it’s important to remember that Google ultimately wants to improve the way they assess and rank content online. They don’t release updates to punish those creating good content! You may even find that previously underperforming pages do better after a core update has been rolled out, so remember they aren’t inherently bad.
That DOESN’T mean however that Google’s algorithm updates are perfect from the get-go – this is why so many updates occur.
So how should you react to a Google algorithm update?
Step One: Don’t panic/Don’t celebrate too soon
Situation 1: Your keyword rankings have moved in a positive direction.
Fantastic! Keep an eye on it, and don’t shout it from the rooftops until an update has settled and finished rolling out.
Situation 2: Your keyword rankings have moved in a negative direction.
This is the situation we will be focusing on here. So, an update has dropped, and to your despair, you see a sea of red and negative shifts on your keyword report – despite feeling you’ve done everything ‘right’.
First things first don’t jump on your site and make panicked changes. The first step should always be to monitor your website’s performance while you wait for the update to settle and finish rolling out.
If the update has finished rolling out and you’re finding your keywords still in the negative, it’s time to do some investigating – in the wider industry and on your site.
Step Two: Audit your website
Before auditing your site, try and read up on search engine news sites (Search Engine Land and Search Engine Journal are great for this), as well as chatter on Twitter to get a broader context of the impact – are other people finding it strong or mild? Perhaps some third-party investigation has been done into the main industries affected? Then you have context if your industry was one of the main ones rocked by an update.
It’s worth auditing all pages that experience a drop in keyword rankings and organic performance following a core update. Your audit should include assessing numerous SEO factors, including on-page SEO, technical SEO, offsite SEO, and most importantly, what Google is now favouring in the search results over your website. Usually, it boils down to one main thing…content.
Step Three: Review content
Google advises that the best action to take after an algorithm update is to focus on providing the best possible, people-first content for your website. This could mean producing new onsite content or refreshing existing pages with more targeted and helpful content for the user. Ask yourself – is this really providing more value than those now dominating the search results?
However, it’s important that you don’t rush into anything while you closely monitor your website’s performance, rankings, and traffic. Tools such as Google Search Console and Google Analytics will help you build a full picture of the situation and identify the impact an update may have on your website and which pages or keywords may need the most attention.
Step Four: Make positive, insights-driven changes
The next step is one to be wary of. This step should only be undertaken once you’re confident that your site has been negatively impacted by the update, with enough time passed for you to assess this.
Once you’ve audited your site, reviewed your content and are certain that changes to your site are the right move, then it’s time to make these happen.
This step will mainly involve competitor research to see what Google is now favouring in the SERPs, and where your site may be realistically able to compete with some changes.
Step Five: Review, review, review!
Last but not least, review your changes! It can be easy to forget about all the changes you’ve made to your site in a busy working day, but make sure you consistently review any you do make after some time has passed. This allows you to either adjust your changes or even revert where needed. Is your site performing better? Stagnant? Remember: data empowers you to make informed decisions, and it’s right at your fingertips!
Can You Recover from a Google Algorithm Update ?
If you’ve been negatively impacted by an algorithm update, you may be wondering – can you actually recover?
Website owners who make immediate and drastic site changes in the wake of an update may not see the kind of recovery they expect, as Google doesn’t guarantee fixed positions in its search results, and certainly not overnight.
Another way of looking at it is that Google carefully selects the most deserving content on the web and will always rank what it deems to be the best result to answer a specific user query. This means users will always be presented with what Google deems to be the most valuable content that matches their search. So, if your site hasn’t recovered fully after several months, then it might be time to consider whether your site is really offering relevant, trustworthy, and quality content for your users.
To summarise, you don’t necessarily need a complete website overhaul following an algorithm update. If a significant change in rankings occurs, it’s probably a sign to review existing content so that it’s more aligned with what Google (and of course people) are looking for today. That means content that’s been created with the user in mind over search engines.