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6 Things I Learned About Building An In-House SEO Team



6 Things I Learned About Building An In-House SEO Team

The first six years of my SEO career were spent in the same in-house SEO team. During that time, the team underwent many changes, evolving and adapting in an endless pursuit of the most effective way of operating.

At first, we were a small, junior team working largely in a silo.

But by 2020, we were a team of seven, including senior and specialist roles. We were fully integrated into the digital department via processes and ways of working.

From my first days in SEO through to my time as part of the leadership team, I was part of all of the ups and downs and learned a lot about what is needed to prove the value of investing in SEO – and making that investment pay off.

Here are the most important lessons I learned.

1. Nothing Happens Without Buy-In

If you take one thing from this article, make sure it’s this: It doesn’t matter how good you are, or how desperately you need more hands on deck.


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You will not get the opportunity to grow your team or increase your budget without buy-in from the people who can give you those things.

For this, you need credibility.

This comes over time, from good subject knowledge, insights, judgment, and the ability to demonstrate these qualities consistently.

But there are things you can do to put yourself in a strong position to accelerate building this reputation.

2. Structure Is Your Friend

First of all, you need structure in three key areas:

  • Reliable data and a consistent approach to reporting.
  • A comprehensive, prioritized strategy based on full site audits, outlining what you’ll be working on, and, vitally, what you can’t tackle yet (due to dependencies, budget, or resource).
  • A regular cadence of communicating your progress.

A bonus of creating this structure around your SEO program is that it has the potential to protect you from unexpected changes in your organization.

For example, if there are changes in the leadership of your department with new managers looking to assert their own approach, a solid footing and a clear plan often mean a stronger rationale is needed for any upheaval.


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And it could even create an opportunity for your team to grow in influence and accelerate its evolution.

3. You’ve Got To ‘Move The Needle’

The next thing you need is a track record.

This can feel unattainable if you’re overwhelmed and understaffed.

Attempting to make progress in all areas, spreading yourself too thin, and ultimately failing to make a real impact anywhere will not prove you need more resources to anyone but yourself.

Instead, communicate to your managers about the projects you will be prioritizing, and explicitly call out the areas you won’t be working on due to capacity limitations.

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With a more focused scope, you can then demonstrate the impact you can make with an appropriate workload and allow them to infer the return they could get from investing in the SEO team.

This step allows more projects to be worked on simultaneously.

4. Build A Compelling Business Case

You must also be able to capitalize on this foundation, asking for what you need and persuading people to give it to you.

SEO is, by nature, expansive and ever-growing. It can be difficult to know whether you’re genuinely under-resourced, or just overwhelmed by the endless possibilities and threads to pull at.

By estimating the potential return on investment of the projects that added capacity would unlock, you’ll be able to confirm that you genuinely need more people and make a strong case for expanding your team.

Of course, as with many aspects of SEO, ROI can be complicated and difficult to calculate. Results can’t be guaranteed in the same way as they can for other digital marketing channels.

In addition, many of the initiatives we need to work on aren’t necessarily about incremental growth, but rather following best practices and protecting performance long-term.

Two main tactics helped us to put some numbers to the projects we knew were important, and to prove the need to increase capacity.

Present Projected ROI As A Range

In the best-case scenario, what impact could this activity have?


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What if it has a more modest result than expected?

The reality will likely be somewhere in between, but communicating a range of outcomes allows you to be transparent and truthful without overpromising or underselling the potential results.

For example, one approach would be:

  • Define the list of keywords your project will affect.
  • For each term, project the potential clicks by multiplying the monthly search volume and estimated click-through rate at different positions (eg. three positions higher; five positions higher).
  • Subtract any current traffic driven by these terms from these projected totals to calculate an upper and lower estimate of traffic uplift.
  • Optionally, apply conversion rates and average spend figures to calculate revenue uplift.

Calculate The Cost Of Doing Nothing Or The Opposite Of ROI

If a project’s aim is to protect SEO performance from future algorithm updates or to stay ahead of your competitors, use the same approach outlined above, but based on loss of position.

Being able to quantify the benefit of increasing your capacity not only helps communicate the value of the work your team does (and could do) but also helps to build your authority and credibility.

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Incidentally, it is also very valuable when jostling for prioritization with e.g. your organization’s development team!


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Hire The Right People

So you’ve got approval to increase your headcount. Now what?

Depending on the salary you can offer, you’ll need to be realistic about the level of experience you can expect from applicants.

With this, your business case, and strategy in mind, start to put together a job description with the types of responsibilities the role will involve.

When hiring for more junior positions, consider whether specific SEO experience is really vital.

It’s possible to learn SEO on the job, but the qualities that set someone up to develop into a great SEO practitioner – curiosity, a love of learning and problem-solving, resilience, diplomacy – can be much harder to teach.

For roles requiring more experience, you still need to ensure you’re looking for the softer skills above, but you should also set tasks that require candidates to demonstrate the requisite skills and subject knowledge for the responsibilities they’ll be taking on.

It’s vital to ensure that the interviewers are qualified to make that assessment – bring in experts from outside of your organization if necessary.


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Attempting to gauge the extent of a candidate’s expertise when it exceeds that of the interviewers is next to impossible, and one bad hire can create really sticky situations that are very difficult to resolve.

It can be deceptively difficult to find candidates who balance existing experience and knowledge with a receptiveness to further learning and the humility required to truly collaborate – in the words of Dan Patmore, Senior Group SEO Manager at Sainsbury’s Group,

“Some SEOs want to be right. I want people who want to learn.”

Above all, keep the importance of internal buy-in at the forefront of your mind when bringing anyone new into your team.

Is this someone who can add to the credibility and authority of your team within the business, instill confidence in your leadership team, and foster cross-functional collaboration?

Or is there a risk that they could damage your team’s reputation and relationships?

Leading A Growing Team

There are hundreds of books dedicated to how to manage teams.


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But for me, the ultimate aim of developing a team is for it to become more than the sum of its parts.

The way the individuals in the team work together should elevate everyone above and beyond the skills and abilities they each bring on their own.

Shared Values

The approach required to achieve this is consistent with the approach to hiring, outlined above: prioritizing values above all else, approaching SEO as an ongoing learning experience, and emphasizing the importance of honesty and collaboration.

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In order to create this environment, you need to practice mentorship over micromanagement, focusing on developing and guiding your colleagues through their careers, and running a fulfilled and effective team in which individuals feel valued.

This is especially important in SEO teams, as many of the qualities that make somebody well-suited to this discipline can also make them resistant to more overbearing leadership.

Lifelong learners tend to like to question assumptions and arrive at their own conclusions and problem-solvers like to improve processes rather than be forced to do things how they’ve always been done.


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And those with inherent curiosity like to be allowed to investigate tangents and uncover new insights.

Stifling these instincts in favor of having more control over your team will not only make them miserable, but you’ll also lose out on their ideas and perspectives (and miss opportunities).


So how do you make sure everyone is pulling in the right direction?

Like everything else, this comes down to buy-in, except this time, you need to gain buy-in from the SEO team itself. In practice, this means you should:

  • Be transparent in sharing your strategy with your team, the same way you would share it with more senior stakeholders.
  • As individuals in the team grow in experience and bring their own valuable perspectives and areas of expertise, involve them in the creation of the strategy.
  • Make sure everyone knows where the focus is, what the aims are and why. Agree on expectations for outcomes and milestones, including deadlines. This structure is essential for keeping things on track while allowing creativity.
  • Maintain a backlog of projects to be scoped and prioritized later. This allows your team to bring new ideas to you and be heard, without derailing current priorities.

Ultimately, my north star for building and leading a team always comes down to trust. I want to hire people whom I can trust and I want to earn theirs in return.

I want to encourage my team to trust each other, and I want everyone to feel like they are trusted.


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If you can pull this off, you end up with a team that works collaboratively towards shared goals, challenges themselves to be their best, develops their own strengths and specialties, learns from each other, and generates ideas and innovations that will evolve your SEO program for the future.

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Are Contextual Links A Google Ranking Factor?



Are Contextual Links A Google Ranking Factor?

Inbound links are a ranking signal that can vary greatly in terms of how they’re weighted by Google.

One of the key attributes that experts say can separate a high value link from a low value link is the context in which it appears.

When a link is placed within relevant content, it’s thought to have a greater impact on rankings than a link randomly inserted within unrelated text.

Is there any bearing to that claim?

Let’s dive deeper into what has been said about contextual links as a ranking factor to see whether there’s any evidence to support those claims.

The Claim: Contextual Links Are A Ranking Factor

A “contextual link” refers to an inbound link pointing to a URL that’s relevant to the content in which the link appears.

When an article links to a source to provide additional context for the reader, for example, that’s a contextual link.

Contextual links add value rather than being a distraction.

They should flow naturally with the content, giving the reader some clues about the page they’re being directed to.

Not to be confused with anchor text, which refers to the clickable part of a link, a contextual link is defined by the surrounding text.

A link’s anchor text could be related to the webpage it’s pointing to, but if it’s surrounded by content that’s otherwise irrelevant then it doesn’t qualify as a contextual link.

Contextual links are said to be a Google ranking factor, with claims that they’re weighted higher by the search engine than other types of links.

One of the reasons why Google might care about context when it comes to links is because of the experience it creates for users.

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When a user clicks a link and lands on a page related to what they were previously looking at, it’s a better experience than getting directed to a webpage they aren’t interested in.

Modern guides to link building all recommend getting links from relevant URLs, as opposed to going out and placing links anywhere that will take them.

There’s now a greater emphasis on quality over quantity when it comes to link building, and a link is considered higher quality when its placement makes sense in context.

One high quality contextual link can, in theory, be worth more than multiple lower quality links.

That’s why experts advise site owners to gain at least a few contextual links, as that will get them further than building dozens of random links.

If Google weights the quality of links higher or lower based on context, it would mean Google’s crawlers can understand webpages and assess how closely they relate to other URLs on the web.

Is there any evidence to support this?

The Evidence For Contextual Links As A Ranking Factor

Evidence in support of contextual links as a ranking factor can be traced back to 2012 with the launch of the Penguin algorithm update.

Google’s original algorithm, PageRank, was built entirely on links. The more links pointing to a website, the more authority it was considered to have.

Websites could catapult their site up to the top of Google’s search results by building as many links as possible. It didn’t matter if the links were contextual or arbitrary.

Google’s PageRank algorithm wasn’t as selective about which links it valued (or devalued) over others until it was augmented with the Penguin update.

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Penguin brought a number of changes to Google’s algorithm that made it more difficult to manipulate search rankings through spammy link building practices.

In Google’s announcement of the launch of Penguin, former search engineer Matt Cutts highlighted a specific example of the link spam it’s designed to target.

This example depicts the exact opposite of a contextual link, with Cutts saying:

“Here’s an example of a site with unusual linking patterns that is also affected by this change. Notice that if you try to read the text aloud you’ll discover that the outgoing links are completely unrelated to the actual content, and in fact, the page text has been “spun” beyond recognition.”

A contextual link, on the other hand, looks like the one a few paragraphs above linking to Google’s blog post.

Links with context share the following characteristics:

  • Placement fits in naturally with the content.
  • Linked URL is relevant to the article.
  • Reader knows where they’re going when they click on it.

All of the documentation Google has published about Penguin over the years is the strongest evidence available in support of contextual links as a ranking factor.

See: A Complete Guide to the Google Penguin Algorithm Update

Google will never outright say “contextual link building is a ranking factor,” however, because the company discourages any deliberate link building at all.

As Cutts adds at the end of his Penguin announcement, Google would prefer to see webpages acquire links organically:

“We want people doing white hat search engine optimization (or even no search engine optimization at all) to be free to focus on creating amazing, compelling web sites.”

Contextual Links Are A Ranking Factor: Our Verdict

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Contextual links are probably a Google ranking factor.

A link is weighted higher when it’s used in context than if it’s randomly placed within unrelated content.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean links without context will negatively impact a site’s rankings.

External links are largely outside a site owner’s control.

If a website links to you out of context it’s not a cause for concern, because Google is capable of ignoring low value links.

On the other hand, if Google detects a pattern of unnatural links, then that could count against a site’s rankings.

If you have actively engaged in non-contextual link building in the past, it may be wise to consider using the disavow tool.

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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Is It A Google Ranking Factor?



Is It A Google Ranking Factor?

Latent semantic indexing (LSI) is an indexing and information retrieval method used to identify patterns in the relationships between terms and concepts.

With LSI, a mathematical technique is used to find semantically related terms within a collection of text (an index) where those relationships might otherwise be hidden (or latent).

And in that context, this sounds like it could be super important for SEO.


After all, Google is a massive index of information, and we’re hearing all kinds of things about semantic search and the importance of relevance in the search ranking algorithm.

If you’ve heard rumblings about latent semantic indexing in SEO or been advised to use LSI keywords, you aren’t alone.

But will LSI actually help improve your search rankings? Let’s take a look.

The Claim: Latent Semantic Indexing As A Ranking Factor

The claim is simple: Optimizing web content using LSI keywords helps Google better understand it and you’ll be rewarded with higher rankings.

Backlinko defines LSI keywords in this way:

“LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing) Keywords are conceptually related terms that search engines use to deeply understand content on a webpage.”

By using contextually related terms, you can deepen Google’s understanding of your content. Or so the story goes.

That resource goes on to make some pretty compelling arguments for LSI keywords:

  • Google relies on LSI keywords to understand content at such a deep level.”
  • LSI Keywords are NOT synonyms. Instead, they’re terms that are closely tied to your target keyword.”
  • Google doesn’t ONLY bold terms that exactly match what you just searched for (in search results). They also bold words and phrases that are similar. Needless to say, these are LSI keywords that you want to sprinkle into your content.”

Does this practice of “sprinkling” terms closely related to your target keyword help improve your rankings via LSI?

The Evidence For LSI As A Ranking Factor

Relevance is identified as one of five key factors that help Google determine which result is the best answer for any given query.

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As Google explains is its How Search Works resource:

“To return relevant results for your query, we first need to establish what information you’re looking forーthe intent behind your query.”

Once intent has been established:

“…algorithms analyze the content of webpages to assess whether the page contains information that might be relevant to what you are looking for.”

Google goes on to explain that the “most basic signal” of relevance is that the keywords used in the search query appear on the page. That makes sense – if you aren’t using the keywords the searcher is looking for, how could Google tell you’re the best answer?

Now, this is where some believe LSI comes into play.

If using keywords is a signal of relevance, using just the right keywords must be a stronger signal.

There are purpose-build tools dedicated to helping you find these LSI keywords, and believers in this tactic recommend using all kinds of other keyword research tactics to identify them, as well.

The Evidence Against LSI As A Ranking Factor

Google’s John Mueller has been crystal clear on this one:

“…we have no concept of LSI keywords. So that’s something you can completely ignore.”

There’s a healthy skepticism in SEO that Google may say things to lead us astray in order to protect the integrity of the algorithm. So let’s dig in here.

First, it’s important to understand what LSI is and where it came from.

Latent semantic structure emerged as a methodology for retrieving textual objects from files stored in a computer system in the late 1980s. As such, it’s an example of one of the earlier information retrieval (IR) concepts available to programmers.

As computer storage capacity improved and electronically available sets of data grew in size, it became more difficult to locate exactly what one was looking for in that collection.

Researchers described the problem they were trying to solve in a patent application filed September 15, 1988:

“Most systems still require a user or provider of information to specify explicit relationships and links between data objects or text objects, thereby making the systems tedious to use or to apply to large, heterogeneous computer information files whose content may be unfamiliar to the user.”

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Keyword matching was being used in IR at the time, but its limitations were evident long before Google came along.

Too often, the words a person used to search for the information they sought were not exact matches for the words used in the indexed information.

There are two reasons for this:

  • Synonymy: the diverse range of words used to describe a single object or idea results in relevant results being missed.
  • Polysemy: the different meanings of a single word results in irrelevant results being retrieved.

These are still issues today, and you can imagine what a massive headache it is for Google.

However, the methodologies and technology Google uses to solve for relevance long ago moved on from LSI.

What LSI did was automatically create a “semantic space” for information retrieval.

As the patent explains, LSI treated this unreliability of association data as a statistical problem.

Without getting too into the weeds, these researchers essentially believed that there was a hidden underlying latent semantic structure they could tease out of word usage data.

Doing so would reveal the latent meaning and enable the system to bring back more relevant results – and only the most relevant results – even if there’s no exact keyword match.

Here’s what that LSI process actually looks like:

Image created by author, January 2022

And here’s the most important thing you should note about the above illustration of this methodology from the patent application: there are two separate processes happening.

First, the collection or index undergoes Latent Semantic Analysis.

Second, the query is analyzed and the already-processed index is then searched for similarities.

And that’s where the fundamental problem with LSI as a Google search ranking signal lies.

Google’s index is massive at hundreds of billions of pages, and it’s growing constantly.

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Each time a user inputs a query, Google is sorting through its index in a fraction of a second to find the best answer.

Using the above methodology in the algorithm would require that Google:

  1. Recreate that semantic space using LSA across its entire index.
  2. Analyze the semantic meaning of the query.
  3. Find all similarities between the semantic meaning of the query and documents in the semantic space created from analyzing the entire index.
  4. Sort and rank those results.

That’s a gross oversimplification, but the point is that this isn’t a scalable process.

This would be super useful for small collections of information. It was helpful for surfacing relevant reports inside a company’s computerized archive of technical documentation, for example.

The patent application illustrates how LSI works using a collection of nine documents. That’s what it was designed to do. LSI is primitive in terms of computerized information retrieval.

Latent Semantic Indexing As A Ranking Factor: Our Verdict

Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI): Is It A Google Ranking Factor?

While the underlying principles of eliminating noise by determining semantic relevance have surely informed developments in search ranking since LSA/LSI was patented, LSI itself has no useful application in SEO today.

It hasn’t been ruled out completely, but there is no evidence that Google has ever used LSI to rank results. And Google definitely isn’t using LSI or LSI keywords today to rank search results.

Those who recommend using LSI keywords are latching on to a concept they don’t quite understand in an effort to explain why the ways in which words are related (or not) is important in SEO.

Relevance and intent are foundational considerations in Google’s search ranking algorithm.

Those are two of the big questions they’re trying to solve for in surfacing the best answer for any query.

Synonymy and polysemy are still major challenges.

Semantics – that is, our understanding of the various meanings of words and how they’re related – is essential in producing more relevant search results.

But LSI has nothing to do with that.

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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What Is a Google Broad Core Algorithm Update?



What Is A Google Broad Core Algorithm Update?

When Google announces a broad core algorithm update, many SEO professionals find themselves asking what exactly changed (besides their rankings).

Google’s acknowledgment of core updates is always vague and doesn’t provide much detail other than to say the update occurred.

The SEO community is typically notified about core updates via the same standard tweets from Google’s Search Liaison.

There’s one announcement from Google when the update begins rolling out, and one on its conclusion, with few additional details in between (if any).

This invariably leaves SEO professionals and site owners asking many questions with respect to how their rankings were impacted by the core update.

To gain insight into what may have caused a site’s rankings to go up, down, or stay the same, it helps to understand what a broad core update is and how it differs from other types of algorithm updates.

After reading this article you’ll have a better idea of what a core update is designed to do, and how to recover from one if your rankings were impacted.

So, What Exactly Is A Core Update?

First, let me get the obligatory “Google makes hundreds of algorithm changes per year, often more than one per day” boilerplate out of the way.

Many of the named updates we hear about (Penguin, Panda, Pigeon, Fred, etc.) are implemented to address specific faults or issues in Google’s algorithms.

In the case of Penguin, it was link spam; in the case of Pigeon, it was local SEO spam.

They all had a specific purpose.

In these cases, Google (sometimes reluctantly) informed us what they were trying to accomplish or prevent with the algorithm update, and we were able to go back and remedy our sites.

A core update is different.

The way I understand it, a core update is a tweak or change to the main search algorithm itself.

You know, the one that has between 200 and 500 ranking factors and signals (depending on which SEO blog you’re reading today).

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What a core update means to me is that Google slightly tweaked the importance, order, weights, or values of these signals.

Because of that, they can’t come right out and tell us what changed without revealing the secret sauce.

The simplest way to visualize this would be to imagine 200 factors listed in order of importance.

Now imagine Google changing the order of 42 of those 200 factors.

Rankings would change, but it would be a combination of many things, not due to one specific factor or cause.

Obviously, it isn’t that simple, but that’s a good way to think about a core update.

Here’s a purely made up, slightly more complicated example of what Google wouldn’t tell us:

“In this core update, we increased the value of keywords in H1 tags by 2%, increased the value of HTTPS by 18%, decreased the value of keyword in title tag by 9%, changed the D value in our PageRank calculation from .85 to .70, and started using a TF-iDUF retrieval method for logged in users instead of the traditional TF-PDF method.”

(I swear these are real things. I just have no idea if they’re real things used by Google.)

For starters, many SEO pros wouldn’t understand it.

Basically, it means Google may have changed the way they calculate term importance on a page, or the weighing of links in PageRank, or both, or a whole bunch of other factors that they can’t talk about (without giving away the algorithm).

Put simply: Google changed the weight and importance of many ranking factors.

That’s the simple explanation.

At its most complex form, Google ran a new training set through their machine learning ranking model and quality raters picked this new set of results as more relevant than the previous set, and the engineers have no idea what weights changed or how they changed because that’s just how machine learning works.

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(We all know Google uses quality raters to rate search results. These ratings are how they choose one algorithm change over another – not how they rate your site. Whether they feed this into machine learning is anybody’s guess. But it’s one possibility.)

It’s likely some random combination of weighting delivered more relevant results for the quality raters, so they tested it more, the test results confirmed it, and they pushed it live.

How Can You Recover From A Core Update?

Unlike a major named update that targeted specific things, a core update may tweak the values of everything.

Because websites are weighted against other websites relevant to your query (engineers call this a corpus) the reason your site dropped could be entirely different than the reason somebody else’s increased or decreased in rankings.

To put it simply, Google isn’t telling you how to “recover” because it’s likely a different answer for every website and query.

It all depends on what everybody else trying to rank for your query is doing.

Does every one of them but you have their keyword in the H1 tag? If so then that could be a contributing factor.

Do you all do that already? Then that probably carries less weight for that corpus of results.

It’s very likely that this algorithm update didn’t “penalize” you for something at all. It most likely just rewarded another site more for something else.

Maybe you were killing it with internal anchor text and they were doing a great job of formatting content to match user intent – and Google shifted the weights so that content formatting was slightly higher and internal anchor text was slightly lower.

(Again, hypothetical examples here.)

In reality, it was probably several minor tweaks that, when combined, tipped the scales slightly in favor of one site or another (think of our reordered list here).

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Finding that “something else” that is helping your competitors isn’t easy – but it’s what keeps SEO professionals in the business.

Next Steps And Action Items

Rankings are down after a core update – now what?

Your next step is to gather intel on the pages that are ranking where your site used to be.

Conduct a SERP analysis to find positive correlations between pages that are ranking higher for queries where your site is now lower.

Try not to overanalyze the technical details, such as how fast each page loads or what their core web vitals scores are.

Pay attention to the content itself. As you go through it, ask yourself questions like:

  • Does it provide a better answer to the query than your article?
  • Does the content contain more recent data and current stats than yours?
  • Are there pictures and videos that help bring the content to life for the reader?

Google aims to serve content that provides the best and most complete answers to searchers’ queries. Relevance is the one ranking factor that will always win out over all others.

Take an honest look at your content to see if it’s as relevant today as it was prior to the core algorithm update.

From there you’ll have an idea of what needs improvement.

The best advice for conquering core updates?

Keep focusing on:

  • User intent.
  • Quality content.
  • Clean architecture.
  • Google’s guidelines.

Finally, don’t stop improving your site once you reach Position 1, because the site in Position 2 isn’t going to stop.

Yeah, I know, it’s not the answer anybody wants and it sounds like Google propaganda. I swear it’s not.

It’s just the reality of what a core update is.

Nobody said SEO was easy.

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