Google releases several core algorithm updates every year, typically spaced a few months apart.
Even though this is a fairly predictable occurrence, it causes concern in the SEO community whenever it happens.
With every algorithm update comes the possibility that your highest-ranking pages will lose their coveted positions (or that your underperforming pages will be elevated to a top spot on Page 1).
The challenge with core updates is that they don’t target anything in particular – they typically don’t devalue specific types of content across the board, for example. When a new algorithm update is announced, it’s anyone’s guess how various websites will perform after the roll-out has finished.
This unknown causes considerable concern among marketers, webmasters, content creators and others. But, with the right response effort, core algorithm updates don’t have to be so scary.
Let’s cover the basic steps you can do immediately after an update, and the weeks following. This will help you determine how your site was impacted, and give you a head-start on any recovery actions you may need to take.
Step 1: Do not panic
There’s no reason for alarm. Updates happen. We’ll see another one in a few months.
Even still, plenty of SEO thought leaders like to dig into the (very sparse) details immediately, spouting lists of winners and losers and theorizing on any sort of method to the madness that is sudden SERP volatility.
That’s fine, and an OK source of insight, if you’re looking for broad-stroke patterns. But don’t put too much weight on these proclamations of winners, losers or high-level industry trends. Updates take weeks to be fully realized, and we’re not in any position to begin drawing conclusions the day they’re announced.
Besides, your priority shouldn’t be how others are doing. It should be how you’re doing. Your mindset shouldn’t be “how did Google cheat me this time?” but more so “how does Google view my site through the lens of this update?”
Remember that these core algorithm updates aren’t designed to penalize content. They’re designed to clean up SERPs and ensure everyday users are getting the best Google experience possible.
That means the search engine may re-evaluate your target SERP and determine that someone else’s page is more helpful than yours. Don’t take it personally, and don’t panic.
Take a breath, and dig into the details that actually matter. A path forward will become clear, if you know how to look at those details.
Step 2: Review your metrics
Algorithm updates typically take a week or two to fully roll out, but you can begin analyzing your data as soon as you hear about the update. However, when it’s still in the early stages, be aware that what you see now is subject to change as the update is completed, and as its impacts take effect in the weeks and months following.
To assess how the update affected your site, check in on a few key metrics to see if they’re fluctuating or remaining fairly constant. Here are the most useful at this point:
Organic search impressions & clicks
Where to track: Google Search Console
Google Search Console is the best way to track how your site is actually performing in organic search. In the Search results section (nested under “Performance”), you can view the number of impressions and clicks, as well as the average click-through rate and position for your site. You can isolate specific pages or keywords for this information.
If your site has been impacted by the latest algorithm update, it’ll likely be reflected in the number of impressions your site gets, which may also translate to a change in the number of resulting clicks.
Target keyword positions
Where to track: SEMrush, Ahrefs, Moz or another keyword tracking tool
The pages that are most important to your business probably have target keywords that you’re optimizing for. These are the pages you’ll want to protect in the weeks following an update.
To see how you’re doing so far, check to see if they’ve lost any ground on the target SERP. A landing page falling in position will result in much fewer impressions, clicks and conversions. If you rely on organic traffic to feed your sales funnel, it may not take long for this to really impact your business.
If you see that particular pages are fluctuating, take note, but still don’t panic. Continue assessing their performance to see if those changes are sticking. It may be worthwhile to make some updates to these pages, but that’s a decision you’ll make in step 3.
Untargeted keyword fluctuations
Where to track: Your favorite keyword tracking tool
You know what’s great? Variant keywords. These are the keywords you’re not specifically targeting, but you rank for anyway – probably because you have great content on an adjacent topic.
Here’s an example: We target the term “case study examples” with our blog post, 7 B2B and B2C case study examples to model your content after. This page gets more than 2,000 impressions per year for that exact term. But it also gets another 1,000 or so impressions annually for each of the terms “b2b case study,” “best case study examples” and “marketing case study examples.”
That’s more than 3,000 additional opportunities to draw in new readers than we aimed for.
Your keyword tracking tool of choice will show you more information about how the update might have impacted the SERPs that are most relevant to your business, even if you’re not explicitly targeting them.
Site traffic & conversions
Where to track: Google Analytics
Finally, look at actual site traffic in Google Analytics. If you saw a pattern when looking at GSC, you’ll probably see it reflected here as well.
Digging into GA will show you traffic patterns for organic search as well as other channels to your site, like PPC or email (which aren’t affected by Google’s algorithm). If you’ve set up goals or events in GA, you’ll also see whether a change in on-site conversions resulted from the update.
Based on that, you can assess the commercial impact the update may have on your company.
Step 3: Evaluate content that’s lost ground
Once you know which pages are struggling following the update, it’s time to evaluate why. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the update caused fluctuations in position or traffic, but it could be purely coincidental.
Besides, even if a lost position on Page 1 is a result of the update, it’s not because Google hates your site. It’s because Google has decided that users would be better served by someone else’s page.
And that means your page has room for improvement. The question is, in what area? To answer that question, evaluate your content according to these criteria:
Google’s suggested factors
When announcing these core algorithm updates, Google always advises webmasters to consider the same four factors for their content:
1. Quality: Google prefers original research and content. If you’re citing secondary sources, you must attribute correctly. Plagiarism is never OK. Your headline, page title and meta description should all support the page topic.
2. Expertise: You should be sharing the types of information that make sense for your business. Sharing original insights from experts in your field is always beneficial. Visitors to your site should be able to trust your content, and if they can easily disprove what you’ve written, Google can, too.
3. Presentation: Consumers aren’t going to waste their time on low-quality content, so Google’s not going to serve low-quality content on Page 1. If your page has spelling errors, or broken links or images, it’s less likely to perform well. If it’s slow to load, isn’t mobile responsive or full of disruptive ads, you can guarantee it won’t perform well.
4. Comparative: Analyze your target SERP to see if your content type fits in well. If you’re using a commercial landing page to target a keyword that primarily serves up blog posts, you may be taking the wrong approach. Additionally, ensure you’re creating content for the web that fills an information gap that’s important to your audience.
Of course, these aren’t the only qualities that Google’s algorithm takes into consideration when determining the makeup of a SERP. Beyond these factors, consider:
5. Backlink profile
A backlink is when another site links to your page. Lots of backlinks from reputable websites will get Google’s attention – in a good way. Lots of backlinks from spammy sites will also get Google’s attention, but in a red-flag kind of way.
Zero backlinks, on the other hand, means you may benefit from a link building initiative.
You can uncover and analyze your backlink portfolio on Ahrefs, Moz, SEMrush and other analysis tools.
6. On-page elements
Behavioral signals impact how well you rank in SERPs, and negative behavioral signals could indicate that something isn’t working right on your page. Inspect your page closely to make sure your forms, videos, links and other on-page elements are looking and acting as expected.
7. Page/content score
There’s a difference between high-quality content as an English teacher might grade it and high-quality content as Google grades it. While you can’t visit Google during office hours to discuss your content, you can use a few different tools to analyze your content in the way search engines might view it.
MarketMuse is a great one. Using the Optimize function, insert your target term and your page content (it’ll import from a live URL). Then, it’ll generate a report showing your current content score, the average score for Page 1 results and a suggested target score, as well as a list of terms and topics to include in your page to fully cover the topic.
Clearscope and Ryte both have similar features.
The MozBar Chrome Extension also has an on-page grader, which will give you a 1-100 score for your page based on your target term. Beyond term and topic suggestions, it’ll also point out whether you have too many internal links, a sparse meta description and other SEO tips.
Step 4: Revise for SEO
In step 2, you found which pages need your attention, and in step 3, you found out what type of attention.
Now, you can compile this knowledge and make SEO updates to your page that will benefit your site, regardless of the parameters of the latest Google core algorithm update.
A note: In the event that Google provides additional, specific suggestions about how to react to the update, absolutely prioritize those. For example, when Google announced in March 2018 that it would begin mobile-first indexing, everyone rightfully jumped to ensure their sites looked decent on mobile devices.
But unless Google makes an announcement like that, using the guidelines you collected from your previous analysis should be sufficient to optimize your page for search.
Here are a few additional resources to help you improve your page strategically:
- What is SEO writing? The complete guide to writing for search.
- The complete guide to data-driven content development.
- How to write in a conversational tone: Tips for B2B and B2C.
- How long should a blog post be? (video).
Optional Step 5: Read trusted sources’ analyses of the update
OK, now that you’ve put the update into perspective and analyzed how it’s actually affecting you, you can dig into those stories about winners, losers and industry trends, if you want.
This isn’t necessary. Marketers do not need to obsess and worry over these reports. But if you’re interested in them, there’s no harm in looking!
Here are some of the best resources for learning more information about the impacts of a core algorithm update:
Google’s core algorithm updates will always create a stir in the SEO community. Don’t give into the hype.
Focusing on your website and providing high-quality content that your target audience is interested in will always be the key to effective content marketing. Algorithm changes will only ever underscore this fact.