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SEO Experts on Algorithm Updates & Volatility in the SERPS: 13 Questions Answered

 min read
April 7, 2020
The Botify Team

Last October, Google rolled out BERT. In January they announced a core algorithm update. Now SEOs around the world are feeling the effects of COVID-19 on their traffic. During a time of so much change, there's a lot up in the air.

So we wanted to talk about it. That's why last week we had a panel discussion and Q&A with:

We discussed changes in organic search due to Google's January 2020 Core Algorithm Update (grab your copy of our research here!), the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and volatility in the SERPs in general.

showing how keywords shifted in rankings due to the algorithm update

In our white paper, Navigating Google's January 2020 Core Algorithm Update & Volatility in Organic Search, we dive into the fluctuations in rankings for 280 websites, by vertical

So, what questions were on everybody's minds?

Let's find out, and hear what Tim, Shawn, Laura, and the rest of our Professional Services team here at Botify had to say!

1. What's your philosophy on dealing with fluctuation in the SERPs and staying ahead of those changes?

Shawn, T-Mobile: The constant change of the industry is what I love about SEO. There's always something to learn about, or some way to try a new strategy or tactic to see if you can improve your rankings.

I really like to go to Twitter to see what's going on. Rand Fishkin and Wil Reynolds are in the day to day throes of SEO, and you can glean a lot of what's going on from them. I'd also recommend subscribing to #SEOFOMO, Aleyda Solis's newsletter.

Tim, Walmart: I agree that the constant fluctuations make it exciting. To be an SEO, you really have to enjoy chaos. We're dealing with such large numbers and complex systems, so you can't chase the change and react to it each time. You have to stick to your core SEO principles - and get thousands of people across your organization to adhere to those core principles as well. If you adhere, you give Google clean, crawlable paths, thus allowing Google to process the information it needs - and things will likely work out. Listen to the numbers, and take action based on the data - like the data you can get from Botify. Test, iterate, and move forward.

It's also important to stay connected in the industry. I like to get information from Britney Muller on Twitter and through Marie Haynes's newsletter. I also read SEO by the Sea, Search Engine Land, and Search Engine Watch, to name a few.

Laura, Botify: There's no guidebook to SEO. Depending on the sites you have, there's always going to be different problems and challenges. Using tools like Botify to help get an understanding of what's going on and an idea of what works now can help you in the long run.

You can't be afraid to test and try new things. Keep up with Google, and be proactive - not reactive. If a crawl comes through and there's a huge change in pages that don't have self-referencing canonicals anymore, then get that issue fixed before anything else is impacted.

2. Google says their algorithm changes are aimed at improving search overall. So we're curious how the core update impacted your sites specifically, and how you've been dealing with the changes (if any).

Tim, Walmart: We didn't see anything major that was obvious. The core algorithm update came just after the holidays, and we typically see a downturn at that time anyway. Year over year, we didn't see much. In general, we don't have the resources to chase the algorithm updates. Like I mentioned, you should follow key principles - like improving speed and performance, making sure to match queries to answers, and asking yourself if you're promoting the right pages.

Comparing position, clicks, and impressions year over year in Botify

Tim & Shawn reported little to no change year over year, which was aligned with our research findings

We put things in place to make sure we're ready - like quality automation. Building out processes across your teams to make sure that throughout your organization you're meeting the baseline principles of SEO. For example, we're going to make sure our site is ready for the mobile-first index before it's switched over.

Shawn, T-Mobile: There's so much data, and any small change won't be perceived. Like Tim mentioned, we also experience fluctuations coming off of the holidays, and our year over year analysis was generally the same. We don't usually see changes that smaller businesses might have to suffer through.

Laura, Botify: We've seen movement across user intent driven keywords on a case by case basis. Big brands might not see much change, but like Shawn said, smaller sites may be impacted. As you see those changes come through, you should evaluate the "before and after" to gain visibility into how keywords, groups of keywords, or searcher intent has changed. While you shouldn't chase algorithm updates, focus should be spent on creating good content for search engines bots and humans.

3. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, advertisers have been pulling their budget partially, or even completely - SEO included. What would you say if someone told you they were pulling their SEO investment?

Shawn, T-Mobile: I'd tell them that search is really the greatest place to understand what people are interested in and what they want to find out. No one lies to their search bars. They ask search engines what they wouldn't ask their priests. It's a treasure trove of data you're not going to get anywhere else.

4. In the past, SEOs have tried to reverse engineer Google's algorithm - but it's more nuanced now. How has your approach to adapting to the algorithm changed over time?

Tim, Walmart: - Chasing algorithm changes isn't a good use of anyone's time. Sticking to core SEO principles is much more valuable. If you think about Google as an organization and the number of people and engineers they have, we'd never be able to reverse engineer the algorithm - even at the scale of Walmart. Instead, you should test different hypotheses to figure out what's going to drive the best experience for the user, between going from Google's SERPs to whatever page they're going to on your website. Are we providing that bridge the best we can? Just as people dedicate time to testing for CTRs, you should test for searcher intent optimization, too.

5. In terms of BERT, do you think schema and structured data will apply to quick answers, or simply content and CTR?

Shawn, T-Mobile: If you can get your page in a featured snippet through structured data and other tactics, there's value in that. Even if you don't get the click, you get the brand exposure.

6. What are the biggest challenges you face as in-house SEOs? How do you evangelize SEO within an enterprise organization?

Tim, Walmart: The SEO part isn't necessarily the easy part; there are so many issues and opportunities that exist - especially for a large website. We can do things to drive traffic that smaller sites can't simply because of our authority. To that point, it's exciting but also frustrating, because you can see these opportunities in front of you, but sometimes they're difficult to reach because of how teams or processes are organized.

For a large brand, it's critical to bring your teams together. SEO by nature lives between all of the cracks. So many people have their hands in SEO that might not even know it - and they may be taking direction in a very siloed approach. Continue going up the ladder to implement mandates, and make sure SEO is ingrained in the culture.

Shawn, T-Mobile: Your biggest opportunity to get people on board is data. When working with a team or stakeholder from a line of business, you can show them the improvements you saw with impressions, clicks, and so on when they made specific optimizations - and just let that snowball.

7. Besides the more obvious items people were stocking up on, did you see any interesting services or products gain more traction?

Kameron, Botify: There are a lot of changes we've been noticing over the past few weeks. For one, "near me" terms are up. As COVID-19 fears started to rise, people were buying up things like hand sanitizer and toilet paper like crazy, causing product shortages in stores. That prompted some really interesting search trends like "toilet paper near me" and "hand sanitizer near me" -- people weren't finding it in stores or online, so they were turning to Google to find out what locations might still have those items in stock. People who couldn't find hand sanitizer in stores also started looking to Google for the ingredients to make their own.

showing how when sanitizer became scarce, aloe vera and rubbing alcohol started trending

When demand is high but supply is low, searchers are looking elsewhere (including getting creative with self-sufficiency)

In a recent article I wrote for Search Engine Journal, I talked about what's trending up and down across other industries as well, such as:

  • Gyms closing caused an uptick in queries for "ring fit" and other at-home fitness options
  • Restaurants closing caused an uptick in recipe queries
  • Products like freezers and non-perishable foods are trending up

Additionally, in a recent article from Etsy, their team reported an uptick in searches for puzzles, games, and bath and beauty (as well as face masks).

8. Do you have any suggestions regarding technical environments, testing tools, and methodologies for SEO testing?

Will, Botify: We've worked with customers to set up experiments on schema and meta tag changes. With the vast amount of GSC data we collect, we're able to pinpoint specific keywords to their CTR. As we add CTR optimization tactics to certain pages, we can monitor CTR improvements and/or rankings.

Angel, Botify: If you're a Botify customer, you can track the impact of changes through every phase of search - from crawling to conversions. Our software gives you 1,000+ data points to look at in any combination for every page, allowing you to see how even the most technical changes impact things like ranking and traffic.

When conducting tests, it's critical to track your site's performance over time so you can see how your site was performing before and after making changes. In other words, conduct crawls of your entire site frequently to catch any issues as they're unfolding. In Botify, you can track changes year over year, month over month, or even day over day. Looking at your day over day analysis is especially helpful during times of volatility.

showing that you can compare day over day changes in your site's HTTP status codes in Botify

Tracking changes upwards and downwards in HTTP status codes day over day in Botify

In Botify Intelligence, we have a product called ActionBoard that essentially acts as your SEO to-do list, sorting your tasks by impact and urgency. This can be especially helpful as you're able to sift through tasks by theme (e.g. redirects) and pinpoint any issues that appear as a result of testing you've done.

ActionBoard's SEO to-do list in Botify

ActionBoard in Botify Intelligence

Connor, Botify: Clicktale is also a great tool for viewing heatmaps of engagement for specific pages. It's helpful for validating which content visitors care about and showing exactly where on a given page visitors drop off.

9. Any thoughts on Google crawling JavaScript sites? Do we still need snapshots?

Will, Botify: Sites using Javascript vary in how they're configured. This is essentially one of the reasons Google may have a harder time rendering specific sites or pages compared to others.

For one, not every developer is going to have the same resources or even have them all executed in the same fashion. This is why prioritizing your JS resources for mobile and desktop is critical, especially if your site is heavily reliant on JS. Additionally, rendering configurations will differ for each site (server side vs. client side vs. pre-rendering). Server side rendering is what Google recommends, but it's not the reality for every site.

These are just some of the challenges googlebot faces daily, which is why results aren't always consistent.

10. What is the best schema markup for a product comparison blog post?

Angel, Botify: You'll definitely want to utilize article schema markup for comparison blog posts, but it's also going to depend on how you structure the content. Using tables and charts for data comparisons would make the most sense to the visitor, making the information easily digestible. This will also give you a chance to rank in featured snippets, which in turn gives your product and your brand more visibility.

11. Oftentimes content ranks differently between desktop and mobile (e.g. position 3 on desktop vs. position 5 on mobile); How would you recommend identifying the potential cause?

Angel, Botify: The first thing you're going to want to determine is the intent of the pages that are ranking differently, depending on the device, and what keyword clusters are associated with those pages. Mobile SERPs and desktop SERPs will vary depending on the searcher's query, which is why you'll sometimes see ranking discrepancies by device.

If your site is on the mobile-first index, it would make sense to optimize for mobile searchers (or intent), and you'd likely see the organic growth translate into the desktop index as well.

12. Are any of your customers using machine learning or AI for implementing product recommendations or creating galleries on websites?

Will, Botify: We're working with our customers to leverage as much data as possible when linking to other pages on their site. For instance, they're pulling in URLs from Botify that haven't been crawled by Google and aren't linked to often in order to build more internal links to them.

Additionally, customers are leveraging Botify data with their internal data (inventory levels, revenue through business intelligence tools) to use smarter logic when linking to pages.

13. Do you think googlebot will find an alternative to the current method of hreflang tag implementation for sites with many international domains but complicated internal systems that don't have 1:1 URL matches across those ccTLD's?

Will, Botify: It's totally within reason to assume Google will end up being smart enough to rank the proper translated versions of your pages to the right searchers. Ultimately, Google will be able to understand language differences and also content differences (localized results) to serve visitors better content. But our view is that by being more concrete and definitive with your signals like hreflang and canonicals, it only helps!

Change is in our DNA

There you have it! We hope that by answering your questions, you'll be better prepared to answer questions for your audience as well as your internal stakeholders.

We whole-heartedly agree with Tim and Shawn when they say that there's no use in chasing the algorithm - you've got to be on your feet, proactively making updates that meet Google's guidelines, and spreading the great word of SEO throughout your team. Setting your site up for success early and getting everyone else in your organization on board will take you leaps and bounds further than reacting to each change that comes our way.

Fortunately, many of our customers didn't suffer any noticeable drops in rankings due to Google's January Core Algorithm Update. However, they had the motions in place to track any changes that did occur, measure them against the previous year, and act on them fast. To us, that's a success in itself!

Are you seeking answers to questions you have about volatility in the SERPs? Let us know in the comments!

Want to learn more? Connect with our team for a Botify demo!
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