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Google December 2020 Core Update Insights

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Five search marketers contributed opinions on Google’s December 2020 Core Update. The observations offer interesting feedback on what may have happened.

In my opinion, Google updates have increasingly been less about ranking factors and more about improving how queries and web pages are understood.

Some have offered the opinion that Google is randomizing search results in order to fool those who try to reverse engineer Google’s algorithm.

I don’t share that opinion.

Certain algorithm features are hard to detect in the search results. It’s not easy to to point at a search result and say it is ranking because of the BERT algorithm or Neural Matching.

But it is easy to point to backlinks, E-A-T or user experience as reasons to explain why a site is ranking or not ranking if that’s what’s sticking out, even when the actual reason might be more related to BERT.

So the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) may appear confusing and random to those who are scrutinizing the SERPs looking for traditional old school ranking factors to explain why pages are ranking or why they lost rankings in an update.

Of course the Google Updates may appear to be inscrutable. The reasons why web pages rank have dramatically changed over the past few years because of technologies like natural language processing.

What if Google Updates and Nobody Sees What Changed?

It’s happened in the past that Google has changed something and the SEO community didn’t notice.

For example, when Google added an algorithm like BERT many couldn’t detect what had changed.

Now, what if Google added something like the SMITH algorithm? How would the SEO community detect that?

SMITH is described in a Google Research paper published in April 2020 and revised in October 2020. What SMITH does is make it easier to understand a long page of content, outperforming BERT.

Here is what it says:

“In recent years, self-attention based models like Transformers and BERT have achieved state-of-the-art performance in the task of text matching.

These models, however, are still limited to short text like a few sentences or one paragraph due to the quadratic computational complexity of self-attention with respect to input text length.

In this paper, we address the issue by proposing the Siamese Multi-depth Transformer-based Hierarchical (SMITH) Encoder for long-form document matching.

Our experimental results on several benchmark datasets for long-form document matching show that our proposed SMITH model outperforms the previous state-of-the-art models including hierarchical attention, multi-depth attention-based hierarchical recurrent neural network, and BERT.

Comparing to BERT based baselines, our model is able to increase maximum input text length from 512 to 2048.”

I’m not saying that Google has introduced the SMITH algorithm (PDF) or that it’s related to the Passages Algorithm.

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What I am pointing out is that the December 2020 Core Update contains the quality of seemingly non-observable changes.

If Google added a new AI based feature or updated an existing feature like BERT, would the search marketing community be able to detect it? Probably not.

And it is that quality of non-observable changes that may indicate that what has changed might have something to do with how Google understands web queries and web pages.

If that is the case, then it may mean that instead of spinning wheels on the usual ranking factors that are easily observed (links from scraper sites, site speed, etc.), that it may be useful to step back and consider that it may be something more profound than the usual ranking factors that has changed.

Insights into Google December 2020 Core Update

I thank those who had time to contribute their opinions, they provided excellent information that may help you to put Google’s December Core Algorithm Update into perspective.

Dave Davies (@oohloo)
Beanstalk Internet Marketing

Dave puts this update in the context of what Google has said was coming soon to the algorithm and how that might play a role in the fluctuations.

Dave offered:

“The December 2020 Core Update was a unique one to watch roll out. Many sites we work with started with losses and ended with wins, and vice-versa.

So clearly it had something to do with a signal or signals that cascade. That is, where the change caused one result, but once that new calculation worked its way through the system, it produced another. Like PageRank recalculating, though this one likely had nothing to do with PageRank.

Alternatively, Google may have made adjustments on the fly, or made other changes during the rollout, but I find that less likely.

If we think about the timing, and how it ties to the rolling out of passage indexing and that it’s a Core Update, I suspect it ties to content interpretation systems and not links or signals along those lines.

We also know that Core Web Vitals are entering the algorithm in May of 2021 so there may be elements to support that in the update, but those would not be producing the impact we’ve all been seeing presently given that Web Vitals should technically be inert as a signal at this stage so at the very least, there would be more to the update than that.

As far as general community reaction, this one has been difficult to gauge past “it was big.” As one can expect in any zero-sum scenario, when one person is complaining about a loss, another is smiling all the way up the SERPs.

I suspect that before the end of January it’ll become clear exactly what they were rolling out and why. I believe it has to do with future features and capabilities, but I’ve been around long enough to know I could be wrong, and I need to watch closely.”

Steven Kang (@SEOSignalsLab)

Steven Kang, founder of the popular SEO Signals Lab Facebook group notes that nothing appears to stand out in terms of commonalities or symptoms between the winners and losers.

“This one seems to be tricky. I’m finding gains and losses. I would need to wait more for this one.”

Daniel K Cheung (@danielkcheung)
Team Lead, Prosperity Media

Daniel believes that it’s helpful to step back and view Google updates from the big picture view of the forest rather than the tree of the latest update, and to put these updates into the context of what we know is going on in Search.

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One example is the apparent drop in reports of manual actions in Google Search Console. The implication is, does that mean Google is better at ranking sites where they belong, without having to resort to punitive manual actions?

This is how Daniel views the latest core algorithm update from Google:

“I think we as Search/Discoverability people need to stop thinking about Core Updates as individual events and instead look at Core Updates as a continuum of ongoing tests and ‘improvements’ to what we see in the SERPs.

So when I refer to the December core update, I want to stress that it is just one event of many.

For example, some affiliate marketers and analysts have found sites that were previously ‘hit’ by the May 2020 update to have recovered in the December rollout. However, this has not been consistent.

And again, here is the problem, we can’t talk about sites that have won or lost because it’s all about individual URLs.

So looking at pure visibility across an entire website doesn’t really give us any clues.

There are murmurs of 301 redirects, PBNs, low-quality backlinks and poor content being reasons why some sites have been pushed from page 1 to page 6-10 of the SERPs (practically invisible).

But these practices have always been susceptible to the daily fluctuations of the algorithm.

What’s been really interesting throughout 2020 is that there have been very few reports of manual penalties within GSC.

This has been eerily replaced with impression and click graphs jumping off a cliff without the site being de-indexed.

In my humble opinion, core updates are becoming less about targeting a specific selection of practices, but rather, an incremental opportunity for the algorithm to mature.

Now, I’m not saying that Google gets it right 100% of the time – the algorithm clearly doesn’t and I don’t think it ever will (due to humanity’s curiosity).”

Cristoph Cemper (@cemper)
CEO LinkResearchTools

Cristoph Cemper views the latest update as having an impact across a wide range of factors.

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Here is what he shared:

“High level, Google is adjusting things that have a global impact in core updates.

That is:

a) Weight ratios for different types of links, and their signals

I think the NoFollow 2.0 rollout from Sept 2019 is not completed, but tweaked. I.e. how much power for which NoFollow in which context.

b) Answer boxes, a lot more. Google increases their own real estate

c) Mass devaluation of PBN link networks and quite obvious footprints of “outreach link building.”

Just because someone sent an outreach email doesn’t make a paid link more natural, even if it was paid with “content” or “exchange of services.”

Michael Martinez (@seo_theory)
Founder of SEOTheory

Michael Martinez offered these insights:

“Based on what I’ve seen in online discussions, people are confused and frustrated. They don’t really know what happened and few seem to have any theories as to why things changed.

In a general sense, it feels to me like Google rewrote a number of its quality policy enforcement algorithms.

Nothing specific in mind but other people’s sites I’ve looked at struck me as being okay, not great. Some of the sites in our portfolio went up, others went down.

Again, it just struck me as being about enforcement or algorithmic interpretation of signals mapped to their guidelines.

Not about punishing anything, but maybe about trying some different approaches to resolving queries.”

What Happened in Google December 2020 Core Update?

The perspectives on what happened in Google’s core algorithm update vary. What most observers seem to agree is that no obvious factors or changes seem to stand out.

And that’s an interesting observation because it could mean that something related to AI or Natural Language Processing was refined or introduced. But that’s just speculation until Google explicitly rules it out or in.

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Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

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Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

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Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is

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survey-says:-amazon,-google-more-trusted-with-your-personal-data-than-apple-is-–-phonearena
 

MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

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Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

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The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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Google’s John Mueller on Brand Mentions via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s John Mueller was asked if “brand mentions” helped with SEO and rankings. John Mueller explained, in detail, how brand mentions are not anything used at Google.

What’s A Brand Mention?

A brand mention is when one website mentions another website. There is an idea in the SEO community that when a website mentions another website’s domain name or URL that Google will see this and count it the same as a link.

Brand Mentions are also known as an implied link. Much was written about this ten years ago after a Google patent that mentions “implied links” surfaced.

There has never been a solid review of why the idea of “brand mentions” has nothing to do with this patent, but I’ll provide a shortened version later in this article.

John Mueller Discussing Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

Do Brand Mentions Help With Rankings?

The person asking the question wanted to know about brand mentions for the purpose of ranking. The person asking the question has good reason to ask it because the idea of “brand mentions” has never been definitively reviewed.

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The person asked the question:

“Do brand mentions without a link help with SEO rankings?”

Google Does Not Use Brand Mentions

Google’s John Mueller answered that Google does not use the “brand mentions” for any link related purpose.

Mueller explained:

“From my point of view, I don’t think we use those at all for things like PageRank or understanding the link graph of a website.

And just a plain mention is sometimes kind of tricky to figure out anyway.”

That part about it being tricky is interesting.

He didn’t elaborate on why it’s tricky until later in the video where he says it’s hard to understand the subjective context of a website mentioning another website.

Brand Mentions Are Useful For Building Awareness

Mueller next says that brand mentions may be useful for helping to get the word out about a site, which is about building popularity.

Mueller continued:

“But it can be something that makes people aware of your brand, and from that point of view, could be something where indirectly you might have some kind of an effect from that in that they search for your brand and then …obviously, if they’re searching for your brand then hopefully they find you right away and then they can go to your website.

And if they like what they see there, then again, they can go off and recommend that to other people as well.”

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“Brand Mentions” Are Problematic

Later on at the 58 minute mark another person brings the topic back up and asks how Google could handle spam sites that are mentioning a brand in a negative way.

The person said that one can disavow links but one cannot disavow a “brand mention.”

Mueller agreed and said that’s one of things that makes brand mentions difficult to use for ranking purposes.

John Mueller explained:

“Kind of understanding the almost the subjective context of the mention is really hard.

Is it like a positive mention or a negative mention?

Is it a sarcastic positive mention or a sarcastic negative mention? How can you even tell?

And all of that, together with the fact that there are lots of spammy sites out there and sometimes they just spin content, sometimes they’re malicious with regards to the content that they create…

All of that, I think, makes it really hard to say we can just use that as the same as a link.

…It’s just, I think, too confusing to use as a clear signal.”

Where “Brand Mentions” Come From

The idea of “brand mentions” has bounced around for over ten years.

There were no research papers or patents to support it. “Brand mentions” is literally an idea that someone invented out of thin air.

However the “brand mention” idea took off in 2012 when a patent surfaced that seemed to confirm the idea of brand mentions.

There’s a whole long story to this so I’m just going to condense it.

There’s a patent from 2012 that was misinterpreted in several different ways because most people at the time, myself included, did not read the entire patent from beginning to end.

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The patent itself is about ranking web pages.

The structure of most Google patents consist of introductory paragraphs that discuss what the patent is about and those paragraphs are followed by pages of in-depth description of the details.

The introductory paragraphs that explain what it’s about states:

“Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs… for ranking search results.”

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Pretty much nobody read that beginning part of the patent.

Everyone focused on a single paragraph in the middle of the patent (page 9 out of 16 pages).

In that paragraph there is a mention of something called “implied links.”

The word “implied” is only mentioned four times in the entire patent and all four times are contained within that single paragraph.

So when this patent was discovered, the SEO industry focused on that single paragraph as proof that Google uses brand mentions.

In order to understand what an “implied link” is, you have to scroll all the way back up to the opening paragraphs where the Google patent authors describe something called a “reference query” that is not a link but is nevertheless used for ranking purposes just like a link.

What Is A Reference Query?

A reference query is a search query that contains a reference to a URL or a domain name.

The patent states:

“A reference query for a particular group of resources can be a previously submitted search query that has been categorized as referring to a resource in the particular group of resources.”

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Elsewhere the patent provides a more specific explanation:

“A query can be classified as referring to a particular resource if the query includes a term that is recognized by the system as referring to the particular resource.

…search queries including the term “example.com” can be classified as referring to that home page.”

The summary of the patent, which comes at the beginning of the document, states that it’s about establishing which links to a website are independent and also counting reference queries and with that information creating a “modification factor” which is used to rank web pages.

“…determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective count of reference queries; determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective group-specific modification factor, wherein the group-specific modification factor for each group is based on the count of independent links and the count of reference queries for the group;”

The entire patent largely rests on those two very important factors, a count of independent inbound links and the count of reference queries. The phrases reference query and reference queries are used 39 times in the patent.

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As noted above, the reference query is used for ranking purposes like a link, but it’s not a link.

The patent states:

“An implied link is a reference to a target resource…”

It’s clear that in this patent, when it mentions the implied link, it’s talking about reference queries, which as explained above simply means when people search using keywords and the domain name of a website.

Idea of Brand Mentions Is False

The whole idea of “brand mentions” became a part of SEO belief systems because of how that patent was misinterpreted.

But now you have the facts and know why “brand mentions” is not real thing.

Plus John Mueller confirmed it.

“Brand mentions” is something completely random that someone in the SEO community invented out of thin air.

Citations

Ranking Search Results Patent

Watch John Mueller discuss “brand mentions” at 44:10 Minute Mark and the brand Mentions second part begins at the 58:12 minute mark

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