As a business owner using SEO to promote your company, you’ve probably heard a fair amount of chatter around Google algorithm updates. Since its debut as a search engine, Google has made thousands of updates — 3,234 in 2018 alone.
It appears the tech giant has no intention of slowing down. Though experts can make educated guesses about what the Google algorithm will look like in the future, no one can know for sure. There are many factors that influence updates, from economic to technological to social, that no one can predict. That’s not to mention that most changes are in the pipeline ages before the public is aware.
In fact, most updates aren’t announced and are only noticed when search engine rankings change. How can businesses account for disruptions they can’t even see coming? The best strategy is to keep your eye out for changes and be ready to adapt.
What Do Updates Do?
All search engines update algorithm software for the same reason: to yield search results that better fit what users are looking for. Although businesses show up in SERPs and paid advertising, they aren’t Google’s primary concern. Rather, it’s focused on consumers — its own, who may also happen to be yours. Most changes reward high-quality and high-relevance content with better rankings.
So improvement is Google’s broad goal, but what does each update actually entail? In fact, updates vary wildly in their impact and purpose. Some are simple patches that go virtually unnoticed, while others devalue pages that play the system. Fortunately, there are a wide range of sites that track every verified (and many unverified) Google algorithm updates. In just a few minutes of searching, you can read expert opinions about what changes may mean for SEO.
Does Google Give Warning Before Big Changes?
As of 2020, most updates go unannounced. This is a fairly recent development. Up until 2015, Google announced upcoming updates through official channels. However, the tech giant switched tactics and now keeps most businesses — and SEO experts — in the dark.
Why the secrecy? Google takes the stance that great content should drive search engine results, not catering to the algorithm. If creators know too much about the Google algorithm, they can cheat the system with cheap tricks. This, in turn, waters down SERP quality.
Of course, Google doesn’t shroud every update in mystery. It often announces core updates months in advance, giving website owners time to adjust. After all, the purpose of updating isn’t to undermine businesses — it’s to protect users from spam. To that end, keeping an open dialogue with SEO experts and website owners is paramount. So before making changes, Google weighs the benefits of announcing an update with the risks of alerting spammers. Usually, Google decides the best choice for consumers is to keep mum.
It’s important to remember that the Google algorithm is no longer solely determined by human decisions. Over the past few years, Google has implemented AI to identify issues and generate patches. As a consequence, the Google algorithm is in a state of constant flux, with approximately nine updates a day since 2018.
How Can You Tell If There’s an Update?
Most unannounced updates aren’t noticed until they’re implemented, but some are so large they need a trial run. SEO experts are always on the lookout for consistent alterations to SERPs and usually share this information on the internet. Often, the changes only affect a small portion of users, meaning not everyone sees the differences. This is why sharing screenshots and experiences across the industry is important. With enough evidence, experts can verify that the changes are a feature, not a bug.
These small “tests” typically come a few months before the big update, which gives businesses time to prepare. Of course, with no official statement from Google, SEO experts are mostly on their own to piece together an update’s purpose and effects.
With only conjecture to go on, how can you tell if the Google algorithm has changed? Fortunately, there are a few things you can do:
- Look at Your Numbers: Has traffic to your site sharply increased or decreased? Your ranking may have changed.
- Google Yourself: What searches do you have to input for your listing to show up? Does the SERP look different than it did before? This doesn’t always mean the algorithm updated, but it can verify your suspicions if there are other signs.
- Get on Social Media: If you’re not already following SEO publications and experts on social media, start now. This is one of the first places people in the industry tend to publicly post about suspected changes.
- Check Your Google Business Account: You should have access to your listing data through Google My Business. Looking at this information can help you determine how the update affected your rankings. You may also find good information on Google My Business’s site, https://support.google.com/business, under the “Community” tab. Here users can share concerns and offer support.
How Do Updates Affect Your SEO?
It depends. Some updates may negatively affect your ranking while others do nothing at all. Some may even give you a boost. In fact, Google routinely releases broad updates to promote undervalued content, such as the one implemented in April 2018.
It’s also important to remember that these are software changes, which can mean bugs. An update may unintentionally penalize certain types of content without Google engineers being aware of it. That’s where the community’s voice is of the utmost importance, as it alerts Google of unintended consequences. Engineers are usually able to remedy issues with patches over a few weeks.
There are also instances when an update’s code works fine, but its approach has an unexpected impact. If the negatives outweigh the positives, Google may choose to alter the update or reverse it entirely.
What Are Some Resources for Verifying an Update?
If you suspect an update, you can search “Google algorithm update” to see any related reports. You can also visit any of the following sites:
- Advanced Web Rankings
- Cognitive SEO
- Search Engine Journal
- Search Engine Land
- SEMrush Sensor
These sites not only publish reports of recent changes but also keep a backlog of past reports. They detail the severity and nature of the impact and often link to further information about the update.
What Should You Do After an Update?
After you’ve verified a new update has gone into effect, the most important thing is to not make assumptions. The best way to see how the change impacted your rankings is to look at hard data. This may take a few days to gather and analyze, but it’s worth the wait. With accurate data, you can identify any major effects and plan a comprehensive strategy to boost your listings.
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