You know the panic. You search for your content in Google and you’re no longer at the top. In fact, you’re no longer even on the first page!
This could mean there was an algorithm update made by Google.
An algorithm is a logic-based set of rules for solving a problem. In Google’s case, it’s how they sort, filter, and turn up your search results to bring you the most relevant, timely, helpful answers.
As society changes, so do priorities, and as priorities change, so does the algorithm.
Given that there are over 200 (yes, you heard me correctly, 200) ranking factors that Google considers in its dynamic algorithm, a minute change to the equation can mean drastic changes to your content’s placement.
Couple that with the fact that Google is changing this algorithm all the time and content marketers and webmasters have a lot to juggle.
Let’s look at the most dramatic of updates over the last few years:
Panda and Penguin were the heavy hitters. Released in 2011, Panda was, essentially, a quality control agent. Poor quality and “thin” websites were cleaned up. How big of a deal was this? Google said it affected 12 percent of US searches. So…. Huge.
Penguin came on its heels in 2012 with a focus on incoming links to your website. According to RivalIQ, the big no-no’s here were: link schemes, keyword stuffing, over optimization, and unnatural links.
Between Panda and Penguin, many of the loop holes to SEO were closed. It came down to the hardiness and helpfulness of content: is your stuff posted regularly? Is it helpful? Is it accurate? Is it thorough? Ask these questions as you consider your content through their lens.
In September 2013, Google launched the Hummingbird update, its name a nod to its ability to be “precise and fast.” Hummingbird was designed to more accurately respond to an entire search phrase – rather than independently to each word within a search.
Less than a year later, Google launched the Pigeon, prioritizing local results and improving distance and location ranking parameters.
In 2015, Google released yet another significant update, prioritizing mobile-friendly pages in mobile search results. Most recently, the Fred update targeted websites that violate Google’s webmaster guidelines—mostly low-quality blogs created simply for ad revenue.
And that’s the major updates. Minor updates are happening much more frequently. The algorithm is always in flux, needless to say, but there’s no need to panic. To start, look for credible articles to read about the update. There’s a lot out of scary nonsense out there.
The truth is, you won’t outsmart Google. Instead, you’ll have to play to their rules. That’s one of the perks of being the largest search engine in the world.
Don’t fret—we’ll walk you through it.
What to Do When an Update Rolls Out
Check your Rankings
Don’t assume the worst. Check to see what changed. Was there an increase or decrease in your rankings?
Utilize tools like SEMRush, to identify potential increases or decreases in overall keyword rankings. Also, look at your keyword ranking software used to track keywords to identify any changes.
Check the SERP’s
Of course the most obvious indicator is your placement, or rank, in Google’s search results. If your content was one first-page and you now find yourself booted to the second page, that’s a potential red flag.
In fact, Optify put out a report stating that over 36% of clicks occur on natural search result one. Another forty percent (or more) is then split over the rest of the first result page. Not great news for page two listings.
In addition to checking out your own standing, did the SERP change overall? Are there features you hadn’t noticed before? Pay careful attention, as these are clues to the way in which Google may have tweaked the algorithm.
For example, do your relevant queries now bring up an answer box that wasn’t there before? In an attempt to save researchers time, Google has become a big proponent of answer boxes. The search engine will often display what it deems to be a strong correct answer to the search in an answer box above the ads on the SERP, saving readers the time of clicking on subsequent links.
Globally, about 15% of queries will produce an answer box. Understandably, appearing in the coveted answer box – above even organic traffic—is the golden ticket, obviously. But, like all prized possessions, it doesn’t come easily.
The good news is that Google will pull answers for the answer box from any first page result—not simply the first place result. Therefore, keep your answers thorough and accurate.
Check Google Analytics
Google Analytics is the friend who gives you a reality check—confirming your scary suspicions or putting them to rest. If you find you’re seeing a big drop off in organic traffic, and have ruled out normal variance and causal relationships on your end (like ramping up your SEM, causing your SEO traffic to drop), then take a deep dive into what could be going on.
While it doesn’t often happen, Google will sometimes intervene with websites it has flagged as problematic. If you’re seeing a sharp decline that isn’t rebounding, you may have been hit with a Google penalty. While they aren’t common, a quick search for your name on Google (did you appear?) will confirm your suspicions.
Otherwise, match your penalty to the particular algorithm update. Google gives you a break here with their Webmaster Tools feature. It will help you remedy the red flag by highlighting potential problems and their solutions.
Finally, do some keyword research. Have your competitors won over certain words? Why’s that? Have they released stellar new content? Is there simply a new competitor out there
Check Search Console
Google Search Console, formerly Google Webmaster Tools, is free to you and lets you monitor your site’s performance as well as take a look in the mirror. See how Google (and everyone else, for that matter) sees you. Google will notify you in Search Console if you got a penalty.
What searches bring up your website more than others? Which keywords bring the most traffic to your site? What other websites send traffic to my site? How do I look to mobile users? Can Google access my content? The list goes on and on and Search Console can answer them all. The big key after an update is to notice what has changed. Having a baseline of familiarity with your analytics before an update occurs will help you spot the differences.
This feature works as a nice complement to your other analytical tools—like Google Ads and Google Trends.
What it really boils down to is this: Google looks out for its end users. Their algorithmic updates are there to ensure Google visitors get better search results faster. If you, too, adapt the same philosophy—of doing what’s best for your end user—you’ll benefit.
Respect your audience and their time by producing only high-quality, unique, and useful content. If so, you’ll weather the storm of an algorithm update.
More than anything, take a breath. During the madness that ensues after an algorithm update, give it some time before you react. Let the dust settle before you start making decisions on your next steps.