Core Algorithm updates are changes to the software that controls how pages are ranked within Google. Googlebot fetches each page on a website and passes them onto the algorithm, which determines where each page should rank, and for which keywords.
Broad core updates to Google’s ranking algorithm happen a couple of times a year, but they are constantly making small changes to the algorithm each week. Most of the weekly updates go unnoticed, with their effect absorbed as part of the standard fluctuations in rankings that occur each day.
Broad core updates from Google strike fear into the hearts of SEO agencies the world over. If Google are taking the time out of their busy schedule to advise of a change, then you know it’s going to be a big one.
Google’s Core Algorithm Twitter announcement on 14/01/20 …*cue nervous sweating*
Given the Core Algorithm determines website rankings, updates to the algorithm bring changes to rankings as well. This is done to shake up the page order and promote content which may be more relevant, valuable and useful to a user performing a search. Content that was ranking well 5 years ago may have been superseded by better content that the current algorithm isn’t rewarding, so changes to the algorithm are designed to improve the visibility of this improved content, ultimately serving users of the search engine better.
There is a bit of a misconception from website owners that rankings that are lost due to algorithm changes are a “penalty” of sorts. Loss of rankings is not due to a penalty.
While Google does issue manual penalties to websites that violate it’s terms of service, an algorithm change is meant to reward previously under-performing websites by recognising their relevance to Googles end user – the person performing the search.
Core updates can be worrying for less experienced SEO’s, as they consider an algorithm update a penalty that Google has imposed on their website. The search giant has made it clear that websites experiencing ranking drops after and algorithm update aren’t penalties – which does nothing to calm the affected SEO! While frustrating, this does mean that something can be done to recover rankings and work with the new algorithm.
Recently, the focus of Google’s algorithm updates have centred around promoting content that is relevant to a searcher and has been created by a subject matter expert. Key algorithm changes in the January 2020 update include:
Relevance – A web page that ranks at the top of page 1 should provide relevant information to a user that matches their search intent.
Expertise – A web page that ranks at the top of page 1 should be created by a person or organisation, and should be created by an authority in their field who has a deep understanding of the topics they cover.
Google is trying to create a better experience for their end users - the people performing a search - by highlighting relevant, authoritative content over content that may rank due to manipulation of the search engine or which may just be outdated and irrelevant.
Google has a default stance on recovering from ranking and traffic losses as a result of one of their updates - “Create good content and you will rank well”.
SEOs tend to view this comment a bit cynically. Good SEOs spend a lot of time understanding the rules of ‘good content’ according to Google, who then sweep in with algorithm changes that update those rules; essentially re-defining ‘good content’.
Once the algorithm volatility has settled down, generally 1-2 weeks post-update, it’s time to assess the damage and create a plan of attack to get the most out of your content in the new landscape.
Audit the Page That Now Outranks You
What are the differences between your page that used to rank well and the page that is now outperforming you?
Start with simple on-page information by performing a Screaming Frog crawl on the page – what is their Meta Data like, how many internal links are pointing to that page, how long is the content in terms of word count?
Assess Higher Ranking Content
Is content that outranks you objectively better than yours? Does it give original, useful insights in the topic it covers? What technical elements in terms of H-tags, content nesting and links are they using?
You can use a tool like WebSite Auditor to look at keywords and phrases that are commonly used on the higher ranking pages to gain an understanding of common themes that Google is now prioritising.
Use Ahrefs to look at the quality and quantity of backlinks pointing to the page that outranks you. If other reputable websites are linking back to that content piece, Google will give the page increased authority.
Rule Out Technical Issues
Did the update mean Google can no longer crawl your website as well as it used to? While unusual, do your due diligence and check the key pages that have lost rankings in Search Console’s URL Inspection Tool for any errors.
Compare the Pages That Lost Rankings
Do they have something in common like a large number of ads running, are there any links that might be considered ‘paid links’ which need to be disavowed, do they over-use keywords rather than focusing on search intent as a whole?
The good news is recovering from an algorithm change is possible. Proper time needs to be invested in understanding the root cause of the issue and developing a strategy to pivot your website’s content, as well as optimising current pages to ‘win back’ previously held rankings.
An SEO consultant will be able to determine the extent of the damage done by the 2020 Core algorithm update and design a suitable recovery strategy for your organisation.