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SEO & Core Algorithms: How to Address, Analyze, and Affect

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SEO & Core Algorithms: How to Address, Analyze, and Affect

The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

Core algorithm updates can be the bane of an SEO’s existence. The number of unknowns coming out of an update keeps people on their feet, as Google seemingly sits back and watches them scramble to address the changes.

Given how cryptic Google typically is about core updates — and even regular updates, for that matter — it can often seem like we’re at the mercy of the algorithm, with no legitimate measures of our own to employ. Google itself has even stated repeatedly that website owners shouldn’t view updates as something they are fighting against.

With all that said, do we just throw our hands up in defeat? The answer is no — there are ample tactics at our disposal, but as with anything in SEO, it’s a more nuanced, longer-term play. Throughout this article, we’ll explore how to address, analyze, and affect the outcomes of core algorithm updates.

How to address Google core algorithm updates

First and foremost, it’s important that we properly calibrate how we think about core algorithm updates. As previously mentioned, Google has confirmed that there is no “fix” that website owners should enact in response, tweeting the following after a previous core update:

The reason for this lack of an easy “fix” is because websites are evaluated over a period of time. Essentially, this can be viewed as a single, aggregated report card that is then used to inform decisions to reward, punish, or maintain a site’s current status.

Continuing with this metaphor, in order to earn good marks at the end of the school year, we should ensure that we are doing our very best throughout the semester rather than constantly skipping class and cramming right ahead of the final. In the same vein, it’s important to mention that many SEOs have identified a trend where website changes in the weeks leading up to a core update are largely disregarded. This finding does make sense in the context of websites being evaluated on changes made over a longer period of time rather than within just a couple of weeks. In the rare event where Google is kind enough to give us advanced notice of an update, that should not be the signal for us to implement a barrage of changes sitewide.

In an attempt to provide some semblance of concrete data that we can actually use to better understand timing, below are some takeaways using the launch dates of past core updates. The “Brackets” Core Update seems to mark the beginning of when the concept of “core algorithm updates” became more popularized. So, with that in mind, we can glean the following insights from past core updates since “Brackets” in March of 2018.

Core Algorithm Updates Since 2018

Core Algorithm Updates Since 2018
  • Yearly frequency: Three per year with the exception of 2021.
  • Most common month: March and June with 2 updates taking place in those months.

To some extent, we can leverage this data. The average time in between Google Core Algorithm updates is 120 days, which falls in line with our finding that core algorithms updates typically happen three times a year. This can generally be used as a gauge to understand the amount of time we have in between core updates to prompt recovery or algorithmic gains.

How to analyze Google core algorithm updates

Now that we understand the possible timing of core updates, we now need to properly analyze website performance after an update has been rolled out. Within recent years, Google has been slightly more transparent about changes to their algorithm. One piece of information they’ve shared is how long the roll-out period lasts: one to two weeks.

Google SearchLiaison July 2021 Core Update

Although everyone will be eager to check trend lines as the rollout is occurring, a deeper analysis should really only be conducted two weeks after the initial launch date, or after Google has indicated that the update has finished rolling out. This will help to mitigate multiple rounds of post-update analysis.

I’ve found that STAT’s Competitive Landscape tab is one of the best methods to get an initial gauge of website performance fluctuations. The reason for this is because STAT is capable of providing possibly the most accurate depiction of website visibility around keywords you care about most, because you yourself are able to determine the keywords that are being tracked. Alternatively, however, if you are tracking a small subset of keywords or if you’ve just recently added keywords, STAT may not be the most insightful, as you’ll likely want a set of keywords large enough to mitigate outliers, and STAT is unable to provide historical data retroactively.

Assuming that you have a large enough keyword set, you’ll want to navigate to the “Competitive Landscape” tab of STAT, as shown below.

STAT Competitive Landscape

You will then see a chart which shows trend lines of the top 10 sites by share of voice. In STAT, share of voice measures the visibility of a given keyword set on Google:

Share of voice = Total click-throughs (520) / Total search volume (10,100) = 5.15%

By leveraging this tool, we’re able to understand SERP volatility to the top 10 competitors. Every seven days, STAT does a simple tally of the sites that appeared the most frequently in the top 10 search results for your selected keyword set. This is how those top 10 competitors are selected.

Some of the many insights we can glean in the context of a Core Algorithm Update are the following:

  • Changes in visibility within the general space of your keyword set: Gains or losses to an industry as a whole may indicate a number of things, such as a general increase in demand or reduction of Google SERP features.

  • Changes in visibility to your website: Gains in visibility to your site after an update indicate that your site was positively impacted, and losses indicate that your site was negatively impacted. Inverse relationships in visibility between your site and competitors can indicate who the winners and losers are after a major update.

  • Changes in visibility to Google: Typically, if Google shows a higher level of visibility after a Core Algorithm Update, it is likely the case that they’ve introduced additional SERP features that effectively shifts visibility from your website or competitors.

Based on your visibility around a given keyword set, your own website may or may not be automatically included within the view. Below is how to add your website into the Competitive Landscape tab, if not automatically included.

  1. Select a site in your Data Views pane, in the Site Tools pane, click Settings.

  2. Select the Share of Voice tab.

  3. Enter the site domain:
    • Domains are matched exactly, so “www.example.com” does not include “example.com” or “shop.example.com.”

    • Do not include schemes (“http://” or “https://”) or directory paths (“www.example.com/blog/”).

  4. Click Add.

  5. Click Save.

  6. Click Yes to confirm.

Your pinned site will now appear in your share of voice charts and tables (as shown in the bottom left of the above screenshot) . It may take up to 24 hours for this data to be calculated. Pinned sites are identified with an asterisk.

Whether you find that your website was impacted or not, as a next step, I like to use Search Analytics for Sheets, which is a Google Sheets add-on that allows you to request and backup data from Webmaster Tools. This tool is basically an enhanced Google Search Console. It allows you to segment multiple data points (date, query, page, etc.) to get a much higher level of granularity than can be achieved on Search Console’s standard web frontend.

Google Sheets Add Ons

Let’s take a look at a website that was positively impacted by the June 2021 core update and use this tool to understand possible algorithmic changes.

Our date range should be relatively small, but ensuring that it incorporates the entirety of the roll out period, a few days before, and as many days after as available. Including days prior will help you understand standard pre-update performance and can be a point of comparison. The days after will, of course, help you to understand post-update changes.

Given the rollout period was from June 2 – June 12, I’ve elected to use a 22-day date range 5/30 – 6/20. Next, using the “Group By:” field, add the date. Ensure that all branded keywords are excluded by using the “Filter” fields. Lastly, click “Request Data” in blue at the very bottom of the side panel.

Search Analytics for Sheets

Once the data has been generated, there is quite a bit of data manipulation that can be applied in order to glean insight. Generally speaking, absolute changes ([current period] – [prior period]) and relative percent changes ( ([current period] / [prior period]) – 1) are great formulas to understand movement. Below is an example of what this might ultimately look like:

Data From Sheets

Based on this data, we now have a general understanding of the following trends:

  • Average daily clicks appear to be at a higher level

  • Average daily impressions appear to be at a higher level

  • Average ranking positions appear to have improved

As mentioned, while there may be other factors at play to consider, such as other Google updates, day of the week, website migrations, technical website changes, etc., the above will be directionally helpful for website owners to be able to answer the question, “was my website affected?”

How to affect the outcome of Google core algorithm updates

Last but not least, we want to explore the types of website changes that may be slightly more valuable in the context of core algorithm updates. While there is no limit to the types of tactics that we can leverage to try to prompt favorable algorithmic responses, we can make some educated guesses based on Google’s historical primary focus areas.

Since the Medic Update of August 2018, Google has cracked down on sites that are categorized as “Y-M-Y-L” (Your Money Your Life). YMYL sites are ones that fall within the medical, health, financial, and news fields, and can be considered sites that have the ability to impact someone’s livelihood. Google introduced this concept and a higher degree of scrutiny as a means of combating the spread of false information at that time.

Since August 2018, YMYL websites have notoriously been a consistent target of Google updates. From 2018 – 2020, trendlines of websites likely categorized as YMYL would frequently experience steep hills and plummeting valleys in the aftermath of a core update.

Even if your website does not fall within these areas, it is likely that Google is still evaluating the same type of criteria on all sites, although to a slightly lesser extent. So, with this in mind, a general strategy is to preemptively make sweeping updates to your website’s signals of expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (E-A-T). The concept of E-A-T was born out of the necessity to meet Google’s increasingly rigorous standards.

Given all that background, and using recurring themes from Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines (what human quality raters use to evaluate websites and SERPs), below are 10 specific website updates that can elevate your website’s E-A-T signals. This list is typically where I would start when trying to prompt recovery after declines coming out of a core update:

  1. Cite your sources and ensure accuracy of claims

  2. Kill, redirect, or refresh thin content

  3. Canonicalize, kill, or redirect duplicate content

  4. Include author bylines, bios, and author pages by listing specific credentials and awards

  5. Maintain off-page reputation by updating your Wikipedia page and other informational sources

  6. Showcase business reputation through testimonials and reviews on-site

  7. Ensure accuracy and sufficient information on social pages

  8. Improve and expand upon brand informational pages:
    • About us

    • Contact us

    • Mission statement

  9. Remove overly aggressive or invasive advertising

  10. Offer clear and satisfying customer service information

E-A-T aside, though, general technical issues are a high contender for priority website fixes. Using Google Search Console’s indexation report and Deep Crawl, there are no shortage of technical fixes to rectify for any type of website.

Conclusion

In summary, you, the website owner, are in fact armed with a number of tools to fend off harmful algorithmic declines – as the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. By better understanding how to address, analyze, and affect the outcomes of core algorithm updates, you can be better prepared for the inevitable turbulence on a triannual basis! Are you ready for the next core algorithm update?


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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

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Why Even Crushing Content Failures Aren’t Mistakes

Did you follow the Apple iPad Pro content debacle?

Here’s a quick recap. A recent online ad for the new iPad Pro showed a large hydraulic press slowly crushing various symbols of creativity. A metronome, a piano, a record player, a video game, paints, books, and other creative tools splinter and smash as the Sonny and Cher song All I Ever Need Is You plays.

The ad’s title? “Crush!”

The point of the commercial — I think — is to show that Apple managed to smush (that’s the technical term) all this heretofore analog creativity into its new, very thin iPad Pro.  

To say the ad received bad reviews is underselling the response. Judgment was swift and unrelenting. The creative world freaked out.

On X, actor Hugh Grant shared Tim Cook’s post featuring the ad and added this comment: “The destruction of the human experience. Courtesy of Silicon Valley.”

When fellow actor Justine Bateman shared the Tim Cook post, she simply wrote, “Truly, what is wrong with you?” Other critiques ranged from tone-challenged to wasteful to many worse things.

Actor Justine Bateman shared Tim Cook’s post on X, which featured the ad, and added this comment: "Truly, what is wrong with you?".

A couple of days later, Apple apologized and canceled plans to air the ad on television.

How not-so-great content ideas come to life

The level of anger surprises me. Look, the ad does show the eyeballs on an emoji-faced squishy ball popping under the plates’ pressure, but still. Calling the ad “actually psychotic” might be a skosh over the top.

Yes, the ad missed the mark. And the company’s subsequent decision to apologize makes sense.

But anyone who’s participated in creating a content misfire knows this truth: Mistakes look much more obvious in hindsight.

On paper, I bet this concept sounded great. The brainstorming meeting probably started with something like this: “We want to show how the iPad Pro metaphorically contains this huge mass of creative tools in a thin and cool package.”

Maybe someone suggested representing that exact thing with CGI (maybe a colorful tornado rising from the screen). Then someone else suggested showing the actual physical objects getting condensed would be more powerful.

Here’s my imagined version of the conversation that might have happened after someone pointed out the popular internet meme of things getting crushed in a hydraulic press.

“People love that!”

“If we add buckets of paint, it will be super colorful and cool.”

“It’ll be a cooler version of that LG ad that ran in 2008.”

“Exactly!”

“It’ll be just like that ad where a bus driver kidnaps and subsequently crushes all the cute little Pokémon characters in a bus!” (Believe it or not, that was actually a thing.)

The resulting commercial suffers from the perfect creative storm: A not-great (copycat) idea at the absolutely wrong time.

None of us know what constraints Apple’s creative team worked under. How much time did they have to come up with a concept? Did they have time to test it with audiences? Maybe crushing physical objects fit into the budget better than CGI. All these factors affect the creative process and options (even at a giant company like Apple).

That’s not an excuse — it’s just reality.

Content failure or content mistake?

Many ad campaigns provoke a “What the hell were they thinking?” response (think Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad or those cringy brand tributes that follow celebrity deaths).

Does that mean they’re failures? Or are they mistakes? And what’s the difference?

As I wrote after Peloton’s holiday ad debacle (remember that?), people learn to fear mistakes early on. Most of us hear cautionary messages almost from day one.

Some are necessary and helpful (“Don’t stick a knife in a live toaster” or “Look both ways before you cross the street.”) Some aren’t (“Make that essay perfect” or “Don’t miss that goal.”)

As a result, many people grow up afraid to take risks — and that hampers creativity. The problem arises from conflating failure and mistakes. It helps to know the difference.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to become a rock ‘n’ roll musician. I failed. But it wasn’t a mistake. I wasn’t wrong to try. My attempt just didn’t work.

Labeling a failed attempt a “mistake” feeds the fears that keep people from attempting anything creative.

The conflation of failure and mistakes happens all too often in creative marketing. Sure, people create content pieces (and let’s not forget that there are always people behind those ideas) that genuinely count as mistakes.

They also create content that simply fails.

Don’t let extreme reactions make you fear failures

Here’s the thing about failed content. You can do all the work to research your audience and take the time to develop and polish your ideas — and the content still might fail. The story, the platform, or the format might not resonate, or the audience simply might not care for it. That doesn’t mean it’s a mistake.

Was the Apple ad a mistake? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Was it a failure? The vitriolic response indicates yes.

Still, the commercial generated an impressive amount of awareness (53 million views of the Tim Cook post on X, per Variety.) And, despite the apology, the company hasn’t taken the ad down from its YouTube page where it’s earned more than 1 million views.

The fictional Captain Jean Luc Picard once said, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness. That is life.” The Apple ad turns that statement on its head — Apple made many mistakes and still won a tremendous amount of attention.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t criticize creative work. Constructive critiques help us learn from our own and others’ failures. You can even have a good laugh about content fails.

Just acknowledge, as the Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote, “Not every mistake is a foolish one.” 

Creative teams take risks. They try things outside their comfort zone. Sometimes they fail (sometimes spectacularly).

But don’t let others’ expressions of anger over failures inhibit your willingness to try creative things.

Wouldn’t you love to get the whole world talking about the content you create? To get there, you have to risk that level of failure.

And taking that risk isn’t a mistake.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Subscribe to workday or weekly CMI emails to get Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox each week. 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute 



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The Future of Content Success Is Social

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The Future of Content Success Is Social

Here’s a challenge: search “SEO RFP” on Google. Click on the results, and tell me how similar they are.

We did the same thing every other SEO does: We asked, “What words are thematically relevant?” Which themes have my competitors missed?” How can I put them in?” AND “How can I do everything just slightly better than they can?”

Then they do the same, and it becomes a cycle of beating mediocre content with slightly less mediocre content.

When I looked at our high-ranking content, I felt uncomfortable. Yes, it ranked, but it wasn’t overly helpful compared to everything else that ranked.

Ranking isn’t the job to be done; it is just a proxy.

Why would a high-ranking keyword make me feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that the whole freaking job to be done? Not for me. The job to be done is to help educate people, and ranking is a byproduct of doing that well.

I looked at our own content, and I put myself in the seat of a searcher, not an SEO; I looked at the top four rankings and decided that our content felt easy, almost ChatGPT-ish. It was predictable, it was repeatable, and it lacked hot takes and spicy punches.

So, I removed 80% of the content and replaced it with the 38 questions I would ask if I was hiring an SEO. I’m a 25-year SME, and I know what I would be looking for in these turbulent times. I wanted to write the questions that didn’t exist on anything ranking in the top ten. This was a risk, why? Because, semantically, I was going against what Google was likely expecting to see on this topic. This is when Mike King told me about information gain. Google will give you a boost in ranking signals if you bring it new info. Maybe breaking out of the sea of sameness + some social signals could be a key factor in improving rankings on top of doing the traditional SEO work.

What’s worth more?

Ten visits to my SEO RFP post from people to my content via a private procurement WhatsApp group or LinkedIn group?

One hundred people to the same content from search?

I had to make a call, and I was willing to lose rankings (that were getting low traffic but highly valued traffic) to write something that when people read it, they thought enough about it to share it in emails, groups, etc.

SME as the unlock to standout content?

I literally just asked myself, “Wil, what would you ask yourself if you were hiring an SEO company? Then I riffed for 6—8 hours and had tons of chats with ChatGPT. I was asking ChatGPT to get me thinking differently. Things like, “what would create the most value?” I never constrained myself to “what is the search volume,” I started with the riffs.

If I was going to lose my rankings, I had to socially promote it so people knew it existed. That was an unlock, too, if you go this route. It’s work, you are now going to rely on spikes from social, so having a reason to update it and put it back in social is very important.

Most of my “followers” aren’t looking for SEO services as they are digital marketers themselves. So I didn’t expect this post to take off HUGLEY, but given the content, I was shocked at how well it did and how much engagement it got from real actual people.

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

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7 Things Creators Should Know About Marketing Their Book

Writing a book is a gargantuan task, and reaching the finish line is a feat equal to summiting a mountain.

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