They say nothing’s certain in life except death and taxes. And that’s definitely true. But if you’re a marketer, an SEO enthusiast or a website owner, there’s also one more thing you can be certain of: Google ranking algorithm updates.
The SEO community is constantly abuzz with rumors of suspected updates. Moz reckons that Google deploys a whopping 500 to 600 of them a year. And, in a recent statement on Twitter, Google itself confirmed that it makes one or more changes to its ranking algorithm each and every day.
Most of these updates are typically minor tweaks and improvements, with some major overhauls thrown in. That said, you can usually expect some websites to dip in the search rankings following an update, whether it’s minor or not. At the same time, other websites may see their search rankings improve.
Of course, no-one wants to drop down the search engine result pages unwillingly. But while Google algorithm updates — and even SEO in general — can sometimes seem like they’re mysterious creatures, the truth is that you have much more control over how your website reacts to these changes than you might think.
So how can you make sure you’re prepared for what a Google ranking algorithm update might throw your way?
And, more to the point, what are some of the specific things you should look at when trying to identify SEO issues that might have been caused by an update?
Why Google’s Ranking Algorithm Changes So Often
Keeping track of and adapting to 500 plus changes a year can seem like a losing battle. Even more so when you consider that Google currently uses a staggering 200 ranking factors.
For this reason, understanding why Google makes such frequent updates — and, more importantly, what drives these updates — is really key. It can make keeping abreast and adapting to these constant changes that much easier.
So why does Google’s ranking algorithm change so often?
Put simply, because Google wants to make sure it always provides its users with the best experience possible. Or, as Google’s VP of Engineering Ben Gomes once put it: “our goal is to get you the exact answer you’re searching for faster.”
What this means for you is that you need to make sure you give your website visitors the best user experience possible. If your website delivers, you won’t need to worry about algorithm updates affecting your SEO. Conversely, if your website falls short, you will probably rank lower in search engine results than you’d like.
The Latest Google Ranking Algorithm Update: What You Need to Know
As it happens, Google’s latest flurry of ranking algorithm updates — SEOs have been reporting suspected updates as recently as April 17, 2018 — seem like they could be a big deal. That’s because, on March 26, Google announced it would finally start rolling out the long-anticipated mobile-first indexing update after months of testing.
Google has been penalizing websites that aren’t mobile-friendly in mobile search rankings since April 2015, when it rolled out the first version of its mobile-friendly update. But, with mobile-first indexing, the quality of your website’s mobile version could now also affect how you rank in desktop searches.
As things stand, Google considers the desktop version of your website to be the primary version. Which means it’s the version it looks at when indexing your content and, in turn, ranking your site.
But, as the name suggests, mobile-first indexing means that Google’s algorithm will now use your website’s mobile version as its starting point in global rankings. So, if your website is mobile-friendly, it won’t just get a boost in mobile search rankings. In future, it may also receive a boost in desktop searches.
The reason for this is simple.
While Google has been reluctant to commit to a specific figure, it has stated that over 50% of its search volume globally comes from mobile devices. Other studies have placed the figure at 55.79% (Stone Temple Consulting) and 58% (Hitwise).
More to the point, it’s expected that the number of users accessing Google primarily from their mobile device will only continue to grow in future. So, by considering the mobile version to be the primary version of your website, Google is aiming to significantly improve the user experience for a majority of its users.
From Desktop-First to Mobile-First: What This Means For You
So far, Google has said it’s only using mobile-first indexing on sites that are “ready.” These are websites that follow Google’s best practices for mobile-first indexing, which means they can be migrated with little or no impact on their search rankings.
But Google isn’t creating a separate mobile-first index. It’s crawling websites and adding them to its current index using the mobile-first approach. So, in the long run, your website’s mobile version is going to replace the desktop version on Google’s index. What’s more, the mobile version of a web page — not the desktop version — will start appearing in global search results.
In case you’re wondering, there are two key takeaways here.
Firstly, with mobile searches growing in volume, having a mobile-friendly website is crucial. Increasingly, your customers are using their mobile device to look you up online. So, put simply, if your website isn’t responsive or doesn’t perform well on mobile, it’ll be harder for them to find you.
What’s more important, though, is that you also need to get your mobile site right.
Mobile-first indexing means that Google will choose the mobile version of your website over the desktop version when ranking. So, if your mobile site has placeholders or incomplete content, performs badly or is otherwise broken, there’s a good chance you won’t rank well moving forward, either on mobile or on a desktop.
Speaking of performance:
Speed is of the Essence
Google already penalizes slow desktop websites. But, as from July 2018, it’s expected to implement another ranking algorithm update — tellingly known as the ‘speed update’ — that’ll penalize slow mobile sites too.
We’ve dedicated a whole other blog post to the importance of site speed in 2018. But it bears repeating.
Slow websites lead to bad user experiences, which increases bounce rates and reduces conversions. The reason is simple: no-one likes waiting around for a page to load. So, with the rollout of mobile-first indexing, plus an update that’ll specifically make mobile site speed a ranking factor, you’re potentially looking at a double whammy if your mobile site doesn’t meet industry speed benchmarks.
According to Google’s latest data, 53% of mobile website users will leave if your site takes more than 3 seconds to load. And, you won’t be surprised to learn, that percentage increases exponentially the longer the loading time.
For this reason, we recommend aiming for a loading time of 3 seconds or less. Google’s PageSpeed Insights is a great tool you can use to uncover issues that may be slowing your website down.
That said, and as important as they are, speed and mobile-friendliness are only two out of 200 ranking factors.
Which brings us to our final point.
Relevance. Relevance. Relevance.
At the end of the day, people come to your website for one reason, and one reason only. They want an answer to their problem, whether that’s a product or service you sell or a piece of content that’ll show them how to go about it themselves.
Over the years, significant updates have made Google’s ranking algorithm incredibly adept at rewarding relevant content and rooting out and penalizing duplicate, spammy, shallow or otherwise poor quality content.
And, that’s not set to change any time soon.
According to Google’s own guidance, content that loads slowly or isn’t mobile-friendly could exceptionally still rank better than fast, mobile-optimized content if it’s the most relevant result. Even with mobile-first indexing.
For this reason, creating content your audience finds useful and wants to read is absolutely fundamental.
If you’ve already invested in high-quality content for your desktop website, you’ve won half the battle. Now, you just need to make sure that content is also on the mobile version of your site.
Our recommendation is to aim for parity, which means you should be able to access all the content on your desktop site — text, links, images, videos, and forms —from your mobile site without any issues.
While you’re at it, it’s also a good idea to check your meta titles, tags and descriptions. Again, these should be the same both on your mobile site and on your desktop site.
Google ranking algorithm updates happen all the time. But while the sheer number and frequency of them can feel overwhelming, understanding what drives these updates can help you be better prepared and adapt more quickly.
Ultimately, no matter how many updates there are and how often they’re rolled out, they all share the same aim: to make life easier for users by giving them what they’re looking for online. And, increasingly, it looks like what users want is speed, websites that work well on mobile devices and content that’s original, relevant and genuinely helpful.
So, if you do your best to hit these requirements, you’ll be well-placed to weather any algorithm update Google throws your way.
Need more help wrapping your head around Google algorithm updates?
Talk to us.