If you’ve ever found yourself reeling from the aftereffects of a Google update, you’re certainly not alone.
Google algorithm updates often come without warning – and without any clear guidance on how to recover.
In this article, I’ll go over how to handle a hit from Google and recover your standings in the SERPs.
What We’ll Cover:
- An overview of Google’s search updates and what they mean
- Why do some sites lose rankings?
- How updates affect Google’s ranking factors
- How to recover from a Google update
- Case Studies: Sites that have recovered (and how they did it)
For better or worse, Google relies on a “core algorithm” to crawl the search results pages and rank sites based on the latest quality standards. Just about every day, Google releases an update or two aimed at improving the searcher’s experience.
Most changes aren’t noticeable and instead, work behind the scenes to gradually make the SERPs a better place for users.
But sometimes, Google releases a broad core algorithm update that leaves webmasters and site owners scrambling to regain their standing in the SERPs.
Even worse? Google isn’t exactly forthcoming about how to recover any lost rankings.
While there’s no one magic bullet fix to help you regain your standing, there are steps you can take to help recover.
What Are Google Search Updates?
A Google Update is a term that describes a change to Google’s search algorithm that can impact how results are calculated and ranked.
Google is constantly updating its search algorithm in one way or another. Usually, these are small tweaks in the way it evaluates and pairs website content to user search queries.
Sometimes, Google releases updates to target specific issues. These infamous updates have wreaked havoc on search pages, often resulting in serious (and sometimes, unfixable) losses in rankings and traffic.
You’ve probably heard of the big guys. Panda, released back in 2011, sought to improve the quality of the content found in the SERPs.
Before that, Google’s Penguin update targeted black hat link building. These major updates are now part of Google’s core algorithm, as they’ve become integral parts of the search engine.
Usually, there is a clear reason for the update, and clear steps sites can take to recover their rankings (unless the site is altogether spammy or low-quality, which would require an entire site overhaul).
But some updates aren’t so specific.
These are your broad core algorithm updates. Though Google insists they don’t target any behavior specifically – rather, it’s an update to the algorithm itself – these updates can still have a massive impact on search performance.
Take the recently confirmed November 2019 update. Categorized as broad core, this one appears to have taken aim at affiliate sites in the food, health, and travel sectors, and reportedly blocked a popular link scheme involving 301 redirects and expired domains.
Previously, the March 2019 core algorithm update focused primarily on credibility and trust. In this case, the goal was to promote high-quality content, but the impact was devastating for publishers that rely on traffic for revenue.
Broad core updates can be particularly frustrating for marketers, as they typically come with little explanation. Generally speaking, Google has simply changed its mind about what it finds most relevant or user-friendly.
Why Do Some Websites Lose Rankings?
You can expect some ups and downs following an algorithm update. Some sites see improved rankings, while others lose ground to competitors they once outranked.
In other cases, a website might completely lose their rankings following an update. This is more serious than losing ranking positions and demands a closer look at the SERPs, your content, and technical SEO.
A massive overnight ranking drop may be the result of violations across any of the following areas:
- Check the search console for manual actions—Dramatic traffic drops may be the result of a manual action. Check your Google Search Console account to make sure you don’t have any new penalties on your account (learn more about penalties and how to find out if you have one here)
- Determine if your site has been hacked—Slow load times, crashing, and an influx of posts about Viagra are some of the telltale signs you’ve been hit by a cyberattack. In which case, you’ve got bigger problems than the latest algorithm update.
- Check your link profile—spammy links, disavows, and irrelevant content can hurt your rankings—though keep in mind, a few junk links won’t have much of an impact.
- Look for redirects and robots.txt errors—Make sure you’re not losing traffic because the bots can’t find your content.
- Check your speed—While Google won’t necessarily rank a site lower due to slow speeds if it provides the best answer to a query, but slow load times can lead to higher bounce rates, an indicator that your site isn’t relevant to searchers.
Remember: Search Rankings Are Determined by Hundreds of Factors
Google’s John Mueller says that there’s no specific action you can take after getting hit by a core algorithm update, as there is no specific element that the algorithm targets.
While Google releases updates that aim to address specific features, those updates are added to the existing algorithm, which relies on 200-500 ranking factors to make that judgment call.
In a recent Webmaster hangout Mueller made a point of mentioning a few key things:
- Pages that lost traffic are not penalized—While losing your position can feel like a penalty, there’s no manual action standing in the way of improving your situation.
- Core updates center around relevance. Pages tend to rank better when they closely align with searcher intent.
- You don’t have to wait until the next core algorithm update to improve your standing–recovery can begin as soon as you make improvements and Googlebot crawls your site.
- Lost rankings aren’t typically about spam. While bad links, errors, and low-quality content do hurt your standing, in many cases you’ve been ouranked because someone else offered more relevant content.
Mueller’s explanation is deeply unsatisfying to those looking for a quick fix, but it’s worth pointing out Google’s definition of “nothing to fix” essentially means that you haven’t violated any webmaster guidelines.
Google has long maintained that the best way to “recover” from an update is to focus on creating the best content you can.
Vague, sure, but there are plenty of resources from Google and others that outline just what “quality content” means.
In 2011, Google published a blog post defining what, exactly, a quality website is, noting that their goal is raising the profile of “high-quality” sites by reducing the rankings of low-quality content.
At the time, Panda had just come out and sought to algorithmically assess website quality. As you might imagine, the change prompted website owners to question what factors the algorithm used to determine quality.
In the blog post, Google outlines a series of questions to ask yourself as you review the content of your website.
- Is the information presented in the article credible?
- Does this article demonstrate expertise or deep knowledge of the topic?
- Are there grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or inaccuracies in this article?
- How would you feel about giving your credit card information to this site?
- Are there duplicate articles on the site? Redundant articles?
- Does your content have the best interests of the reader in mind?
Google Recommends Auditing Four Key Areas
Though modern customers have higher expectations than they did in 2011, good content is timeless. But sometime during the digital era, we decided that web content didn’t need to live up to the quality standards one might expect from newspapers, magazines, and books.
Now, Google is seeking to remedy that oversight.
Brands need to think about how each piece of content serves its readers. Does it entertain? Solve a problem? Is it fact-checked?
In a recent August 2019 blog post, Google recommended running a core algorithm audit by assessing the following four areas:
- Content and Quality: Content and quality guidelines are designed to favor original, high-quality content that offers comprehensive, insightful information.
- Does the page include a compelling title and description, and do they match up with the body content?
- Is this something you’d bookmark or share with a friend or colleague?
- Expertise: Expertise looks at the author and the quality of the content.
- Is the page trustworthy? Is it fact-checked?
- Is there an author bio with a photo and credentials? Google has cracked down on dubious claims on “your money or your life” pages–or pages that relate to your health or financial well-being.
- Presentation and Production: This area looks at how you present information.
- Does it look good?
- Does the page load quickly?
- Does it contain high-quality images and be formatted in a way that makes it easy to read?
- Does it look good on mobile?
- Is there an excessive amount of ads, or anything else that might hinder the user experience (popups, etc.)?
- Competitive comparison: In this case, a ranking drop might not mean that your website is bad, just that your competitors may offer more engaging, out-of-the-box solutions than you currently have on your site.
- How does the website compare to competitor websites?
- Does your content solve problems?
- Does it align with user expectations?
Your first step in assessing your current content – and creating it in the future – should be to run through this checklist and ensure your page meets all the given criteria.
Here’s an example from Medical News Today that demonstrates what a successful YMYL page should look like:
By contrast, another page, found in the Google Quality Rater Guidelines fails to meet Google standards.
This page falls into the YMYL category, but makes a few key mistakes:
- There is no author bio, only a first name. Not only is there no way to check Clifford’s reputation, there’s also no indication that he is qualified to give financial advice.
- Ads take up a large share of the real estate, making this a distracting experience.
- Links appear to be affiliate links, stuffed unnaturally into the content.
- It also doesn’t include headers that made the page easy to read.
While you should manually visit as many pages as you can, automated tools can help ensure nothing slips through the cracks.
Here are a few tools that can help you spot issues like broken links, thin content, and technical issues that could hurt your rankings:
Follow Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines
One of the best ways to begin recovering from a Google Update and protect yourself against future damage is to study the ins and outs of Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines.
I’ve covered the guidelines more extensively in this post, but essentially, Google publishes the document as something of a handbook for human testers tasked with manually evaluating the websites that appear in the SERPs.
While the document is a massive 164-page download, it’s worth a read.
In it, Google lays out formal guidelines that explain exactly what they deem counts as valuable content, including specific examples of what to do and what not to do to win the algorithm’s favor.
Website owners, too, benefit from the guidelines, though admittedly reading the entire document and implementing every best practice is a huge undertaking.
To help you get started, here are a few key takeaways that can help you improve:
- Highlight writers’ credentials. One of the best places to start is to improve your site’s author E-A-T. This means that you’ll need to prove that you (or your writers) are an expert in the topics featured on your site.
- Understand what expertise looks like within your niche. For example, if you’re writing about marketing, fashion, beauty, cooking, or some other hobby or skill, expertise and authority are determined based on things like reputation. Here, credibility comes from social proof, name-recognition, and well-written, error-free, and relevant content.
- Financial, medical, or legal content operates on a more formal definition of expertise. This type of content, dubbed Your Money or Your Life (YMYL), is held to a higher standard given the potential impact following advice in these areas can have. Demonstrating expertise here means highlighting credentials, citing credible sources, and interviewing subject matter experts.
- Eliminate distracting ads. Anything from excessive affiliate links to popups, link schemes, and autoplay video ads fall into this category. While ads are necessary for many websites, they shouldn’t mess with your users’ experience.
- Be transparent about your brand. Disclose what your brand does, where it’s located, and who works there–particularly your authors to help build trust.
Leverage the Right Credentials When Demonstrating Expertise
For example, Google’s August 2018 Medic Update hit health-related sites particularly hard. Many, like Dr. Axe have endured a wild ride, rising and falling over a series of updates since.
I mention Dr. Axe because he is technically a doctor and does cite credentials on his site. However, he is trained as a chiropractor and offers advice that falls outside of his wheelhouse.
The site is fact-checked, and contributors do have bios. But, their credentials include things like “contributing writer,” “wellness coach” or “fitness trainer.”
If you look at the most popular headlines, many violate Google’s policy that medical advice should follow established scientific or medical consensus:
Bottom line: simply having credentials isn’t enough. Google is getting better at understanding which YMYL sites offer credible information and it’s likely we’ll see these types of sites drop further in the rankings.
Get a Second Opinion
As the owner of a website, it can be difficult to get an unbiased, complete view of your website and all of the small ways it may fall short of E-A-T standards.
A lot of Google’s questions are subjective, like whether you’d share a piece of content with a friend or take advice from a blog post. Ask an outsider from your target market to read your content and share their thoughts, or consider working with a consultant or SEO agency with expertise in the area.
Intent is Huge
According to Google, great content offers users the information they asked for. Does it address the need indicated in the target keyword phrase? Does it help users answer a question or accomplish a goal?
Getting intent right is all about gaining a deep understanding of who your users are and what challenges and goals they bring to the table. Target question keywords in your content and provide a concise, yet comprehensive answer.
That said, Google’s Danny Sullivan warns against mistaking comprehensive for great. In other words, if you only need 300 words to answer a question thoroughly, don’t turn it into a meandering 2000+ word post.
You’ll also want to make sure you stay on topic to tap into the spirit of relevance. Focus on one main idea per page to avoid getting the squeeze next time there’s an update.
It seems that Google is continuing to prioritize content with a tight match to the original query, which means regardless of quality, multi-topic pages may lose ground to competitors.
And, though keywords are still a major component of SEO content, Google seems to be straying away from the time-tested keyword approach.
Thanks to improvements to its Natural Language Processor and updates like BERT, Google is better able to understand the content of a page without writers having to spell it out through keywords.
This means that some practices like including the target keyword every so many words or in every other subhead may be unnecessary, and detract from the user experience. Instead, the focus should be on producing natural-sounding content with keywords included only where appropriate.
Improve Content Post-Core Algorithm Update
After an algorithm update, you’ll want to perform a content audit to ID potential problems.
Here’s a basic framework for how you might structure an audit strategy so you won’t have to worry about how to recover from a Google update next time around.
- Review your content performance to see which pages have taken the biggest hit.
- Look at those pages that have fallen the farthest and revise them according to E-A-T best practices.
- Make a habit of publishing new content according to Google’s Page Quality standards and refresh older pieces every six months or so.
- Interview subject matter experts, use data, original research, and high-ranking sites as sources moving forward, ensuring any claims or stats are backed up by credible sources.
- Establish strategic content creation workflows to ensure your process is sustainable.
- Monitor content performance and make adjustments to your strategy as needed.
- Take advantage of new SERP features as they come out—while you’ll likely be fine without making a Google Action or embracing live-streaming, skipping out on updates can mean leaving new traffic sources on the table.
Case Studies: Stories of Recovery
UK publisher The Daily Mail lost roughly half of its organic web traffic to the June 2019 core algorithm update. The site’s SEO director, Jesus Mendez reported that they lost 50% of traffic and saw a 90% drop in their Google Discover Traffic.
Why? According to Search Engine Land, the reason behind the drop wasn’t 100% clear. However, it’s likely that the drop was caused by any of the following issues: site speed, political slant, ad type and placement, and even the content.
Or rather, a combination of all of those offenses. Here’s a look at two examples from the site, posted in response to Mendez:
While The Daily Mail’s website still doesn’t offer the best experience to users, there are some lessons to walk away with:
- Address the ads: While popups are an essential lead get tool, they can get on users’ nerves pretty quickly. The Daily Mail is crowded, featuring video ads that follow users as they scroll through the site. Remember, Google’s updates are meant to improve the user experience, with algorithms aiming to curb misleading, aggressive, or excessive use of ads, popups, and affiliate links. A webmaster post from 2016 states that intrusive advertisements make content less accessible, particularly on mobile.
- Headlines: Outrageous headlines like the Philippines earthquake example above don’t seem very credible. Google Guidelines state that content qualifies as clickbait may be penalized for being deceptive. That particular headline likely falls into the “unsubstantiated conspiracy theory” bucket, per Google:
- Sleazy Content: As it stands, the site doesn’t contain as many salacious photos as the examples above. While it’s definitely a grey area, those images may be “upsetting or offensive” to some. Others may see them as a strike against the site’s credibility.
In another Search Engine Land post, doctoranytime’s CMO Christos Managoudis shared how the site was able to bounce back from the Google Medic devaluation. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Improved online reputation: After learning the readers found the site “untrustworthy,” Managoudis said the site asked physicians to review the content. Reviewers were given a mention on the page and highlighted with schema. Additionally, doctoranytime developed an official editorial policy that shared information about how they verify medical content.
- Focused on One Intent per Page: Before the update, doctoranytime’s content pages combined intents. Managoudis said many pages targeted users seeking a doctor for a specific condition AND those looking for information about a condition.
- Cut Back on Promotional CTAs: Before updating the site, Managoudis said many of the pages included about four or five CTAs. They’ve reduced that number to one or two on most pages.
- Added Author Bios: The site linked author profiles to pages containing a bio, credentials, and their website.
Anonymous SaaS Company
Here’s an example from Marie Haynes’ site.
One of her clients, a SaaS company wasn’t getting the results they were hoping for from their SEO efforts. Haynes says they changed up the strategy to focus on improving E-A-T. The effort paid off in the form of relatively steady long-term growth:
Here are the takeaways:
- This company made it a priority to become known as a top player in its niche market. They did this by focusing on building a strong backlink profile and earning authoritative mentions.
- They addressed thin content. Even though EAT doesn’t specifically address thin content, it’s hard to demonstrate expertise in 300-ish words.
- They also outlined “why” someone might do business with them. In this case, the brand added additional copy to their website explaining their core value proposition, as well as why people should trust them.
Like John Mueller says, focusing on one thing and hoping to quickly recover from a Google update isn’t the best way to get the results you were hoping for. While technical fixes are important, the best advice for how to recover from a Google update is to focus on relevancy.
Protecting your share of the SERPs is all about keeping up with Google’s ever-evolving definition of high-quality content, and maybe not putting all of your marketing eggs in the search giant’s basket.
Instead, focus on building a strong brand across multiple channels. This includes social platforms, YouTube, external websites and investing in paid ads. After all, it’s those sites that live or die by incoming traffic that have been hit the hardest.