Reports say there was likely a significant Google algorithm update on June 25, primarily targeting sites ranking in positions 6 to 10 and impacting the food and beverage industry the most, but also hitting industries like retail, travel and health.
Whenever this occurs, there seems to be widespread alarm and publications push out posts about what each update means and how brands can tell if they were hit by it.
And while we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, this is a good time to remember why Google updates its algorithm in the first place – and what the state of the art of search engine optimization is in 2017. In other words, when there is an algorithm update:
1. Look to the SEO community.
According to Brock Murray, COO of digital marketing agency SEOplus+, perhaps the most important thing SEOs can do before, during and after updates is to simply keep their ears to the ground.
“The best way to do that is to follow all the biggest SEO names on Twitter like Barry Schwartz and Marie Haynes and keep following the SEO blogs like SERoundtable,” Murray said. “What’s cool is that when one SEO is affected, we’re all affected and we head to Twitter to discuss. The more information we can share with each other, the more likely we are to getting to the bottom of why the changes happened and how we can adjust.”
Jamie White, head of technical SEO at digital and search marketing agency Search Laboratory, agreed sites that see drops in traffic and are trying to come up with recovery plans in particular should take note of what’s being said in the SEO community about the algorithm – particularly if Google has not been vocal about what the update impacts.
2. Remember the goalpost is always moving.
And even if your traffic does drop, don’t panic.
“The [other] thing we need to remember is that, outside of things such as Penguin and Panda, algorithm updates are just that…updates,” said Josh Patterson, senior SEO director at digital marketing agency Jellyfish. “Google’s mission, as it has been from day one, is to provide the best results to users based on search and intent. Each subsequent algorithm update looks to better that promise. If that means the way in which content is served has changed, it is up to us to adapt to it.”
In other words, SEO is never really finished.
“It’s a misconception within the industry that, when hit by an algorithm update, we can make some fixes to our content or properties as a whole to get back to where we were,” Patterson added. “We forget that the goalpost is always moving. Where we were no longer exists because the rules have changed or adapted.”
3. Don’t fixate on the algorithm.
And so perhaps the most sound advice when it comes to algorithm updates is to ignore them.
“There is very little to say that has not been said a million times before. If you focus on delivering the best possible content and the best possible experience for your users, then these algorithm problems will pass you by and often deliver an improvement in your visibility and organic traffic,” said Marcus Miller, an SEO and PPC consultant. “If you chase the algorithm and try to find ways to exploit the systems used to rank websites then each passing update will dent your traffic and make you want to cry. Organic search is a black box.”
And that, of course, is because no one knows exactly how Google ranks websites or what the interplay is between various signals.
“Clearly, engagement signals are becoming more important and you can’t fake that,” Miller added. “As the algorithm becomes more AI-driven, then all the links and optimization in the world won’t help you trick the engine into giving you more than you deserve. If you want the best possible position for your website, focus on being the best possible answer for a given search.”
Murray agreed a good rule of thumb is to just take care of your content.
“Create long, in-depth content for your readers and create online relationships that make sense,” Murray added. “As long as you’re putting in the work and taking care of your content, Google will take care of you.”
4. Monitor, diagnose and act.
That being said, White said regardless of updates, brands should always closely monitor their visibility and traffic levels and respond to the data. And that starts with identifying any potential issues.
“Set up alerts in your analytics software to ensure that you are always aware when organic traffic has seen a drop beyond a certain expected [percentage] level,” White said. “We would recommend >10% versus the same day in the previous week as anything less than this could be natural fluctuation, but you can base it on how changeable your traffic is on a week-by-week basis. Additionally, you will ideally have ranking software that tracks positions daily, so you can quickly identify any drops in ranking performance in line with site traffic.”
From there, diagnose the cause.
“Seeing a traffic or rankings drop around the same date as an algorithm update can immediately ring alarm bells, but correlation doesn’t always mean causation,” White said. “Developers can regularly make changes to a site without informing the SEO or marketing team so it’s worth having an initial conversation to determine whether anything behind the scenes could be responsible for the impact that you’ve seen.”
5. Look to the Webmaster Guidelines.
If your site does see a drop in traffic, White suggests drilling down to specific keywords and landing pages that have been affected to determine whether the issue is site-wide or isolated to a certain section of the website.
“This part of the process is crucial as it will shape any remedial action that you may need to take,” White added.
Patterson agreed, but also pointed to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
“Evaluating our performance against those rules, rather than alleged algorithmic changes, not only set us up for positive progress, regardless of updates, but is also a better model for long-term success in SEO,” Patterson added.
In addition, Patterson said brands need to find the proper way to communicate algorithmic changes and subsequent SERP fluctuation.
“Whether reporting to clients or internal leadership, it is important to convey these events in a way that is digestible to someone unfamiliar with the subject,” he added.