Algo Updates, Volatility, & How to Roll with the Punches in SEO

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It was April 2012, four months into my career as an SEO, and everyone at my agency was in a state of panic. Penguin had hit, and everyone was scrambling to pick up the pieces. My initiation into SEO, like I’m sure was the case for many others, was baptism by fire.

If you’re not familiar, Google rolled out the Penguin algorithm update to target webspam, like link schemes, with the goal of better rewarding high-quality sites. 

The update followed closely on the heels of another major update, Panda, which aimed to reduce the rankings for low-quality content, impacting a whopping 12% of all queries.       

SEOs got very used to associating algorithm updates with something specific that Google was trying to penalize.

But Google doesn’t operate that way anymore. Now when they release a core algorithm update (distinguished from the multiple minor tweaks they make on a daily basis), it’s to improve the overall quality of search results. 

Listen to how they explain it in their post What webmasters should know about Google’s core updates:

There’s nothing wrong with pages that may perform less well in a core update. In fact, there’s nothing in a core update that targets specific pages or sites. Instead, the changes are about improving how our systems assess content overall. These changes may cause some pages that were previously under-rewarded to do better. 

What can I do if I was hit by a core algorithm update?

This can be frustrating to hear if your site was “hit” (suffered ranking and traffic losses) after a core update. Without any specifics on what the update targeted, SEOs have little guidance as to what they need to do to correct course (or whether there’s anything to correct at all).  

As a result, you’ll often find SEOs publishing their own post-update research in an attempt to reverse engineer what happened — ourselves included.

That’s right. We recently evaluated 280 websites in the marketplace, publishing, and e-commerce verticals of varying sizes to try and understand what impact the January 2020 Core Update had on various types of sites. 

january 2020 google core update research botify

Does Google target specific types and/or sizes of sites with their core updates? According to them, no. But as a byproduct, does every site feel the impact of these updates differently? Yes, and that’s what we wanted to look into. 

Google’s January 2020 Core Update: What did we find?

We compared keyword and traffic data immediately before and after the core update (which Google began rolling out on January 13, 2020).

And we can confirm that there was a big shake-up in the SERPs. According to our data, there was a ~24% increase in the number of keywords that were ranking at the bottom of page 1 or page 2+ that moved up to the top of page 1. At the same time, there was a 13-16% increase in the reverse — meaning that, overall, we saw more positive movement than negative. 

january 2020 google core update research botify

When aggregating all sites in each industry and comparing them against each other, we also found that:

  • Marketplace/classified sites saw a notable increase in their total number of keywords on page 1, about 5.3%
  • Media/publisher sites remained very steady and didn’t undergo much change at all, with the total number of keywords ranking on page 1 increasing by 0.4%
  • Retail/e-commerce sites seemed to suffer a bit, with their total number of keywords ranking on page 1 decreasing by 5.5%

You can get the rest of the findings in a webinar that’s taking place March 31, 2020 at 12pm EST (register to attend or get the recording emailed to you — after that, the webinar will be available on-demand). 

How COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is impacting SEO KPIs

Algorithm updates are clearly not the only volatility SEOs have to deal with, as evidenced by what we’re seeing right now with COVID-19.

As the Coronavirus spreads, we’re seeing drastic shifts in search demand that’s impacting every industry differently. 

E-commerce sites that sell essentials are surging up

If you’re an e-commerce SEO, especially if you work for a retailer that sells essentials, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a surge in traffic for things like:

  • Toilet paper
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Disinfectant wipes
e-commerce essentials trending up coronavirus

How big is that surge exactly? For one Fortune 500 retailer, the surge they’re getting right now is more than their total traffic during Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. 

And it’s not just hygiene-related products that are surging. As new restrictions roll out, yesterday’s extraneous purchases become today’s essentials. 

For example, when gyms and fitness centers started closing, guess what types of keywords started surging up?

fitness keywords covid-19
fitness keywords covid-19

But it’s not all surges for e-commerce websites. Many retailers who sell luxury items and/or items associated with travel, like luggage, have noticed a decline in overall search volume and traffic for these products.

Health and wellness sites are seeing increases 

Unsurprisingly, we’ve also seen overall increases in impressions and clicks for many sites in the health and wellness vertical. 

This can be attributed in large part to the increase in people searching for things like:

  • Coronavirus symptoms
  • Coronavirus incubation period
  • What is a dry cough
coronavirus health keywords
coronavirus health keywords
coronavirus health keywords

Restaurant closures have caused spikes for recipe websites

Another byproduct of Coronavirus is restaurant closures, prompting many people to start cooking more meals at home.

Here’s a snapshot of the impressions and traffic surge to one site with recipe content.

recipe website coronavirus stats

How do we know that’s not just seasonality? By comparing the data year-over-year, we can see that the traffic this site is experiencing right now is likely an anomaly.

recipe website coronavirus stats

Want to dig into your own data to see how COVID-19 is impacting your keywords and traffic? Then check out our post How to Leverage Insights in Botify to Adapt During the COVID-19 Outbreak: 12 SEO Questions Answered

Volatility is the “new” normal 

We’ve all lived through core updates, and seen the changes that can bring to our total number of ranking keywords and average position. 

But if we work in industries that are affected by seasonality (e.g. retailers & holiday shopping), we’re used to our organic search traffic fluctuating even if our rankings remain steady — same goes for traffic fluctuations in response to current events. 

how rankings and traffic are affected by algorithm updates and seasonality

All of this goes to show that even when Google isn’t making moves, there’s no guarantee that there won’t be volatility we have to deal with.

So whether it’s seasonality, an algorithm update, a SERP layout change, or current events — in any of these scenarios, our KPIs are affected, and that’s tough. 

To learn how other SEOs are dealing with change in all forms, the second half of our upcoming webinar will be dedicated to a panel with Shawn Huber (SEO at T-Mobile) and Tim Resnik (SEO at Walmart), as well as our very own Laura Giuliari (SEO Strategist at Botify), to discuss questions like: 

  • How can we make our sites algorithm update-proof?
  • How can we diagnose the effects of algorithm updates, especially when we’re working with sites with thousands or millions of pages?
  • How do we know when we should pivot and when we should stay the course?
  • How should we adjust KPIs and expectations in light of big changes like the January 2020 Core Update, BERT, and COVID-19?

Glean wisdom from others in the SEO community and join in the conversation by signing up for our webinar on March 31st at 12pm EST (if you can’t attend, you can use the same sign-up form to get the recording emailed to you). 

And as SEOs, we’re no stranger to these changes. Let’s learn from each other so we can better understand how to navigate that volatility. 

We’re in this together. 

 

 

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