Google recently released a spam update. Judging by how Google released several spam updates in a row followed by a core update this past summer, it would not be surprising if a core update is in the works, especially since the holiday shopping season is around the corner and Google has a history of releasing updates around that time of year. After experiencing Google updates for over twenty years, one advice is still the same and that’s to wait a bit before panicking. These are the reasons why.
Life Cycle of a Google Update
A life cycle for a Google update could be said to be the introduction of a new algorithm, modifications to improve it, eventual obsolescence and then replacement.
The improvements to the update usually begin shortly after the update is released and issues are identified. This article links to a Google video to confirm that algorithms have been updated.
This article is mostly concerned with what happens after the update launches and a website loses rankings.
Waiting for the Update to Settle Down
It seems that almost every Google update gets rolled back a little bit, sometimes within the space of days as if the different parts are added in unevenly across data centers.
Sometimes the search results immediately after an update announcement is rolled back within a few days for some sectors of the web while they stay the same in others.
There are some algorithm updates that affect the search results in a profound way, like the Medic update from 2018 and the BERT update most recently.
Those updates had a strong impact in how Google understands search queries and website content.
John Mueller recently said that core updates in general are about relevance and overall quality and those could be the introduction of new algorithms or the same algorithms but faster or improved.
There are many Google research papers that are about relevance but also about new ways for machines to learn and to improve (relatively) older algorithms like BERT.
But every time something new is introduced, that no matter how much testing is done that there will be unintended consequences when sites that should not have lost rankings regain their rankings.
Sometimes this happens sooner. Sometimes a site has to wait until the next Google core update.
Sites that should not have lost rankings are called false positives and sometimes also referred to as collateral damage.
Google Dance History
In Google’s early days the search index was updated on a monthly basis. Each month Google would add in the data from the previous months crawl and recalculate the rankings.
This is when publishers would find out if the changes to title tags, links and content helped their rankings.
It was actually kind of fun to share notes with other publishers about what seemingly worked.
Google’s monthly updates were called The Google Dance because during the update the search results would cause web pages to gain and lose positions in the search results.
Here’s a WebmasterWorld monthly Google update post from 2002 where I comment about a poorly designed website that had popped to the top of the search results and then mentioned about how the search results will settle down in a short time.
My forum post:
“The number one serp for a term I follow is so far dominated by an awful FP 4.0 page that isn’t in dmoz, and has no PR.
I’ve never seen it before. This is a poor result (Goodness, this is an awful amateur web site) that makes the serp look shameful.
I will, however, wait until the dance is over before I start to foam at the mouth. These things usually look weird until they’re settled.”
This pattern of Google updates settling down has been a feature since pretty much the beginning of Google updates.
There is a long history of Google dialing back whatever was changed.
A Hypothetical Example of Collateral Damage in Search
Let’s say they make a change to better identify what users mean when they make an ambiguous search query, and they do that with natural language processing that understands what context means from various external documents (a hypothetical thought experiment).
They test it and it works. The quality raters give it a thumbs up and the various algorithms are queued up for release.
So then they roll that out in a core update.
And then the false positives happen where some high quality sites will be pushed down in the search results because other less deserving sites got pushed up.
It’s not that the high quality sites were demoted. It was that other sites were promoted unintentionally.
This viewpoint about not being demoted is super important to remember.
Just because a site lost rankings does not mean it was demoted or targeted.
Post-update Fine Tuning
In the past Google engineers took reports of quality sites that lost rankings that should not have suffered.
For example, in a YouTube video Google engineer Matt Cutts in 2013 offered a rare look behind the scenes about how an update is refined and tuned after it rolls out.
Video of Google Engineer Matt Cutts
In this case he was remarking on the ongoing refinement of the Panda algorithm after reports of collateral damage where high quality sites were affected by the Panda algorithm.
Matt also remarks in the video about side effects caused by the recently released algorithm and how they were going to take steps to fix those as well.
Matt Cutts explained:
“We’ve also been looking at Panda and seeing if we can find some additional signals (and we think we got some) to help refine things for the sites that are kind of in the border zone, in the gray area a little bit.
And so if we can soften the effect a little bit for those sites that we believe have got some additional signals of quality, then that will help sites that might have previously been affected to some degree by Panda.
We also heard a lot of feedback from people about Okay if I go down three pages deep I’ll see a cluster of several results all from one domain.
And we’ve actually made things better in terms of you would be less likely to see that on the first page, but more likely to see that on the following pages.
And we’re looking at a change which might deploy which would basically say, once you’ve seen a cluster of results from one site then you’d be less likely to see more results from that site as you go deeper into the next pages of Google search results.”
Going back to the hypothetical example, maybe Google figures out that the new natural language processing they added might favor a certain kind of low quality site and when they add an additional signal this fixes the search results.
AI Makes Mistakes
Mistakes in Artificial Intelligence (AI) happen. Facebook had to apologize in September 2021 when their AI labeled black men as apes.
According the news report:
“Facebook users who watched a newspaper video featuring black men were asked if they wanted to “keep seeing videos about primates” by an artificial-intelligence recommendation system.”
Algorithms are not perfect and it shouldn’t be a surprise if any core update or spam update makes a mistake and Google has to dial it back. It’s almost a given, in my opinion.
Always take what people say online with a grain of salt. Coincidences are sometimes mistaken for proof.
For example, one SEO told me that they filed a disavow for a customer hit by a core update and that within days their site recovered.
But that was a coincidence, the disavow file had nothing to do with the site recovery. I know that because Google’s John Mueller recently said that disavow files take months before they have any effect in the algorithm and that’s IF they have an effect (because Google’s algorithm is good at catching random spam links).
So don’t automatically believe what people say is happening after a core update, especially if it cannot be cross-referenced as a significant trend.
Google Core Updates Don’t Target Niches
In general, Google updates don’t specifically target niches. There are exceptions of course, like the 2021 Product Reviews Update.
But in general, targeting specific niches isn’t how core updates work.
And even when a trend is identified, like when health related sites seemed to be suffering the most from an update, do not ever take that to mean that Google is “targeting” a specific niche, that’s not how updates work.
In the medic case, Google had updated how it understands queries and content and that profound change was most visible in medical search queries more than other areas.
So rather than incorrectly deduce that Google was “targeting” a niche the better way to examine that particular update was to ask, why is it that medical sites are more sensitive to what was changed?
John Mueller recently said that a site whose rankings were impacted by a core update won’t find a solution by disavowing random links or fixing technical issues like 404 errors.
He said that was the case because core updates revolve around relevance and overall site quality.
The way I generally approach solving a core update ranking issue is thinking about how relevance or quality might play a role.
What do people mean when they ask a query? That’s something that tends to change in an update.
Rankings Dropped. What Next?
I’m going to circle back to where we started, which is that updates seem to be dialed back sometimes. Sometimes they are dialed back a little bit within days, perhaps while they’re tuning it to fix mistakes. Sometimes it’s dialed back in the next update.
Google has begun announcing when an update has finished rolling out. If the rankings have changed and not returned then that’s a good time to take a hard look at overall quality and relevance.
How to Write For Google
Are you writing your SEO content based on the latest best practice tips?
I originally wrote this SEO copywriting checklist in 2012—my, how things have changed. Today, Google stresses quality content even more than before, conversational copy is critical, and there are revised SEO writing “rules.”
I’ve updated the list to reflect these changes and to provide additional information.
As a side note, I would argue that there’s no such thing as “writing for Google.” Yes, there are certain things you should do to make the Google gods happy. However, your most important goal should be writing clear, compelling, standout copy that tells a story.
I’m keeping the old headline in the hopes that I can convert some of the “write for Google” people to do things the right way.
Whether you’re an in-house SEO content writer, a DIY business owner, or a freelance SEO copywriter, this 27-point checklist will help you write engaging, Google-happy content—every time.
Items to review before you start your SEO writing project
– Do you have enough information about your target reader?
Your copy will pack a powerful one-two punch if your content is laser-focused on your target reader. Ask your client or supervisor for a customer/reader persona document outlining your target readers’ specific characteristics. If the client doesn’t have a customer persona document, be prepared to spend an hour or more asking detailed questions.
Here’s more information on customer personas.
– Writing a sales page? Did you interview the client?
It’s essential to interview new clients and to learn more about their company, USP, and competition. Don’t forget to ask about industry buzzwords that should appear in the content.
Not sure what questions to ask to get the copywriting ball rolling? Here’s a list of 56 questions you can start with today.
– Writing a blog post? Get topic ideas from smart sources
When you’re blogging, it’s tempting to write about whatever strikes your fancy. The challenge is, what interests you may not interest your readers. If you want to make sure you’re writing must-read content, sites like Quora, LinkedIn, Google Trends, and BuzzSumo can help spark some ideas.
– Did you use Google for competitive intelligence ideas?
Check out the sites positioning in the top-10 and look for common characteristics. How long are competing articles? Do the articles link out to authoritative sources? Are there videos or infographics? Do the articles include quotes from industry experts? Your job is to write an essay that’s better than what’s already appearing in the top-10 — so let the competition be your guide.
– Did you conduct keyphrase research?
Yes, keyphrase research (and content optimization) is still a crucial SEO step. If you don’t give Google some keyphrase “cues,” your page probably won’t position the way you want.
Use a keyphrase research tool and find possible keyphrases for your page or post. As a hint: if you are tightly focusing on a topic, long-tail keyphrases are your best bet. Here’s more information about why long-tail keyphrases are so important.
If you are researching B2B keyphrases, know that the “traditional” keyphrase research steps may not apply. Here’s more information about what to do if B2B keyphrase research doesn’t work.
– What is your per-page keyphrase focus?
Writers are no longer forced to include the exact-match keyphrase over and over again. (Hurray!) Today, we can focus on a keyphrase theme that matches the search intent and weave in multiple related keyphrases.
– Did you expand your keyphrase research to include synonyms and close variants?
Don’t be afraid to include keyphrase synonyms and close variants on your page. Doing so opens up your positioning opportunities, makes your copy better, and is much easier to write!
Are you wondering if you should include your keyphrases as you write the copy — or edit them in later? It’s up to you! Here are the pros and cons of both processes.
— Do your keyphrases match the search intent?
Remember that Google is “the decider” when it comes to search intent. If you’re writing a sales page — and your desired keyphrase pulls up informational blog posts in Google – your sales page probably won’t position.
— Writing a blog post? Does your Title/headline work for SEO, social, and your readers?
Yes, you want your headline to be compelling, but you also want it to be keyphrase rich. Always include your main page keyphrase (or a close variant) in your Title and work in other keyphrases if they “fit.”
– Did you include keyphrase-rich subheadlines?
Subheadlines are an excellent way to visually break up your text, making it easy for readers to quick-scan your benefits and information. Additionally, just like with the H1 headline, adding a keyphrase to your subheadlines can (slightly) help reinforce keyphrase relevancy.
As a hint, sometimes, you can write a question-oriented subheadline and slip the keyphrase in more easily. Here’s more information about why answering questions is a powerful SEO content play.
– Is your Title “clickable” and compelling?
Remember, the search engine results page is your first opportunity for conversion. Focusing too much on what you think Google “wants” may take away your Title’s conversion power.
Consider how you can create an enticing Title that “gets the click” over the other search result listings. You have about 59 characters (with spaces) to work with, so writing tight is essential.
– Does the meta description fit the intent of the page?
Yes, writers should create a meta description for every page. Why? Because they tell the reader what the landing page is about and help increase SERP conversions. Try experimenting with different calls-to-actions at the end, such as “learn more” or “apply now.” You never know what will entice your readers to click!
– Is your content written in a conversational style?
With voice search gaining prominence, copy that’s written in a conversational style is even more critical.
Read your copy out loud and hear how it sounds. Does it flow? Or does it sound too formal? If you’re writing for a regulated industry, such as finance, legal, or healthcare, you may not be able to push the conversational envelope too much. Otherwise, write like you talk.
Here’s how to explain why conversational content is so important.
–Is your copy laser-focused on your audience?
A big mistake some writers make is creating copy that appeals to “everyone” rather than their specific target reader. Writing sales and blog pages that are laser-focused on your audience will boost your conversions and keep readers checking out your copy longer. Here’s how one company does it.
Plus, you don’t receive special “Google points” for writing long content. Even short copy can position if it fully answers the searcher’s query. Your readers don’t want to wade through 1,500 words to find something that can be explained in 300 words.
Items to review after you’ve written the page
– Did you use too many keyphrases?
Remember, there is no such thing as keyword density. If your content sounds keyphrase-heavy and stilted, reduce the keyphrase usage and focus more on your readers’ experience. Your page doesn’t receive bonus points for exact-matching your keyphrase multiple times. If your page sounds keyphrase stuffed when you read it out loud, dial back your keyphrase usage.
– Did you edit your content?
Resist the urge to upload your content as soon as you write it. Put it away and come back to it after a few hours (or even the next day.) Discover why editing your Web writing is so very important. Also, don’t think that adding typos will help your page position. They won’t.
– Is the content interesting to read?
Yes, it’s OK if your copy has a little personality. Here’s more information about working with your page’s tone and feel and how to avoid the “yawn response.” Plus, know that even FAQ pages can help with conversions — and yes, even position.
– Are your sentences and paragraphs easy to read?
Vary your sentence structure so you have a combination of longer and shorter sentences. If you find your sentences creeping over 30 or so words, edit them down and make them punchier. Your writing will have more impact if you do.
Plus, long paragraphs without much white space are hard to read off a computer monitor – and even harder to read on a smartphone. Split up your long paragraphs into shorter ones. Please.
– Are you forcing your reader onto a “dead end” page?
“Dead-end” pages (pages that don’t link out to related pages) can stop your readers dead in their tracks and hurt your conversion goals.
Want to avoid this? Read more about “dead-end” Web pages.
– Does the content provide the reader with valuable information?
Google warns against sites with “thin,” low-quality content that’s poorly written. In fact, according to Google, spelling errors are a bigger boo-boo than broken HTML. Make sure your final draft is typo-free, written well, and thoroughly answers the searcher’s query.
Want to know what Google considers quality content — directly from Google? Here are Google’s Quality Raters guidelines for more information.
– Did you use bullet points where appropriate?
If you find yourself writing a list-like sentence, use bullet points instead. Your readers will thank you, and the items will be much easier to read.
Plus, you can write your bullet points in a way that makes your benefit statements pop, front and center. Here’s how Nike does it.
– Is the primary CTA (call-to-action) clear–and is it easy to take action?
What action do you want your readers to take? Do you want them to contact you? Buy something? Sign up for your newsletter? Make sure you’re telling your reader what you want them to do, and make taking action easy. If you force people to answer multiple questions just to fill out a “contact us” form, you run the risk of people bailing out.
Here’s a list of seven CTA techniques that work.
– Do you have a secondary CTA (such as a newsletter signup or downloading a white paper?)
Do you want readers to sign up for your newsletter or learn about related products? Don’t bury your “sign up for our newsletter” button in the footer text. Instead, test different CTA locations (for instance, try including a newsletter signup link at the bottom of every blog post) and see where you get the most conversions.
– Does the page include too many choices?
It’s important to keep your reader focused on your primary and secondary CTAs. If your page lists too many choices (for example, a large, scrolling page of products), consider eliminating all “unnecessary” options that don’t support your primary call-to-action. Too many choices may force your readers into not taking any action at all.
– Did you include benefit statements?
People make purchase decisions based on what’s in it for them (yes, even your B2B buyers.) Highly specific benefit statements will help your page convert like crazy. Don’t forget to include a benefit statement in your Title (whenever possible) like “free shipping” or “sale.” Seeing this on the search results page will catch your readers’ eyes, tempting them to click the link and check out your site.
– Do you have vertical-specific testimonials?
It’s incredible how many great sales pages are testimonial-free. Testimonials are a must for any site, as they offer third-party proof that your product or service is superior. Plus, your testimonials can help you write better, more benefit-driven sales pages and fantastic comparison-review pages.
Here’s a way to make your testimonials more powerful.
And finally — the most important question:
– Does your content stand out and genuinely deserve a top position?
SEO writing is more than shoving keyphrases into the content. If you want to be rewarded by Google (and your readers), your content must stand out — not be a carbon copy of the current top-10 results. Take a hard look at your content and compare it against what’s currently positioning. Have you fully answered the searcher’s query? Did you weave in other value-added resources, such as expert quotes, links to external and internal resources (such as FAQ pages), videos, and graphics?
If so, congratulations! You’ve done your job.
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