Google is a company that is always looking to shake things up, and this can be seen quite clearly in its approach to updating their systems. This December, on the 16th, Google finalised the rolling out of its latest core algorithm update. In this article, we will be exploring what some of these changes may have been, and what you can expect to see in your website's performance in the aftermath.
What is a Core Algorithm Update?
A core algorithm update is simply the name Google gives to any significant update made to their systems. Google will often be making small changes and adjustments over the year that you probably won't even notice, and that Google themselves may not comment on- but a core update is different. A Google core update happens whenever many broad, significant changes are made to Google's search engine, algorithm or systems. Core updates will usually occur at least a couple of times a year, and will always be commented on and confirmed by Google, due to the impact on website performance they have and how significant the changes may be.
The History of Google Updates
There are many examples of Google updates in the past that have had long-reaching consequences in the world of digital marketing. These updates have sometimes permanently changed how SEOs look to optimise their websites. Some of the most major updates of the past include:
Panda, February 24th 2011
Google's Panda update of February 24th, 2011, aimed to improve the quality of ranking content by assigning a "quality score" to web pages. This score would be influenced by various factors, such as keyword stuffing, the presence of duplicate content and any examples of user-generated spam. It is now a standard practice for content to be written in a way that avoids these issues and offers more value to those reading it.
Penguin, April 24th 2012
Google's Penguin update of April 24th, 2012, was one that aimed to down-rank any websites with unnatural backlink profiles. This update was designed to put an end to low-effort link building, such as buying low-quality links from link farms to improve a website's backlink profile artificially. It also aimed to down-rank any sites with overly optimised, unnatural looking link anchor text. To this day, a page with many spammy links will be very unlikely to rank particularly well against websites that follow these recommendations.
Hummingbird, August 22nd 2013
Google's Hummingbird update of August 22nd, 2013, was one that aimed to down-rank low-quality web pages that lean heavily on practices such as keyword stuffing. The algorithm from this update was designed to help Google better interpret search queries to provide users with results that better matched their intent. While keywords are still an important ranking factor, the Hummingbird algorithm makes it possible for pages to rank for terms- even when the page does not contain exact match keywords. This is because the algorithm utilises the processing of "natural language", synonyms and co-occurring terms, with latent semantic indexing, to identify the best organically-written and most helpful pages for uses- instead of the ones with the most keywords stuffed into the content.
The Emergence of Core Updates
As you can see by these three examples, the updates that Google would make in the early 2010s seemed to have much more of a clear goal in mind; with specific "codenames" and algorithm changes designed to improve particular aspects of the search results they would return. For example, the removal of keyword stuffing with the Hummingbird update, and the removal of duplicate content with the Panda update. As well as this, Google would always clearly stress the intent behind these updates to SEOs, web designers and digital marketers as they were rolled out.
From around 2017, however, is when Google began to refer to all of its significant updates as core updates. As previously highlighted, a core update usually occurs at least twice a year, and almost always falls at the same times of the year, spaced around four months apart. The biggest change from Google's earlier updates to the core updates we see today is the lack of transparency provided by Google on what these updates are explicitly doing. An SEOs best bet in determining what's happened is usually to try and track post-update ranking changes, in order to narrow down which areas have been targeted, improved or hit- but even then there is rarely one clear conclusion to be made.
An explanation as to why these core updates are less transparent nowadays is that they are merely improvements to previous Google updates, or even a load of smaller updates that have been introduced together, rather than a significant, sweeping change such as the Hummingbird algorithm. Which brings us to the core update of December 2020.
What to expect from Google's December 2020 Core Update
On December 16th, the Google Search Liaison Twitter account confirmed that the rollout for the December 2020 core update had been completed. And now, a week on from this, we can start to build a clearer picture of what this update has done, and what the impact has been.
...we can already see some clear shifts in rankings in typical areas related to E-A-T and content – music, health, finance, news, and eCommerce. Interesting is that some winners and losers from the last Core Update in May have gained or lost visibility, but only a few of them. Spotify and Twitch, who suffered major losses with the last update, have so far not yet shown signs of recovering. But it could be that Google is carefully releasing the update in multiple iterations to test the results.
We can take from this that the December 2020 core update has continued along the path of trying to bring users more generally valuable, high-quality content, especially with regards to EAT content. EAT content stands for Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness. It was a measure introduced by Google to make pages as valuable as possible to users, by discouraging and de-ranking pages with lazily-constructed, thin and unhelpful content. The research of Searchmetrics would indicate that Google has only strengthened their position on this.
Dictionary & Encyclopaedia Results
And the software company Sistrix also published some findings in their blog on the December 2020 update. One of their biggest takeaways was that sites such as dictionaries and encyclopaedias were some of the hardest hit in terms of rankings drops.
Google made a recent update to the Search Quality guidelines document back in October which, among other changes, introduced "Rating Dictionary and Encyclopaedia Results for Different Queries". This change emphasised the importance of understanding user intent when showing dictionary and encyclopaedia results to users; these results may not always be the most useful. Given Sistrix's research into the December update, we can assume that emphasising this further was at least part of Google's thinking.
What to do if your Rankings are Hit
If your rankings are negatively impacted by this core update, there aren't really any specific, recommended actions to take to recover- it is highly likely that a drop in rankings may not mean anything is wrong with your pages at all. However, Google has said in the past that you may see some recovery between core updates as the changes settle in. Still, your best bet is always to follow Google's recommendations through things like the Search Quality guidelines, to make sure you are up to date with what Google wants to see in ranking pages.
The long term ramifications of the December 2020 core update are still most likely yet to be seen. Nevertheless, from the research of dedicated digital marketers such as Sistrix, Searchmetrics and the folks at Search Engine Journal, we can see that Google has continued towards trying to reward those with high-quality content on their websites. If you were looking to get stuck into the world of SEO with your website in light of this update, you can learn more about our SEO services here, and for the latest information on Google, you should follow the Google Search Liaison account on Twitter.