Google Algorithm Updates: What You Need to Know, And When to Freak Out

Handling Google Algorithm Updates
Author Justin Smith
by Jeff Hirz - Dec. 11, 2018

When Google makes an algorithm update it can disrupt your marketing plan and send your website traffic into a tailspin.

In this article we'll review what happens when Google makes an update and how to react to a change in your rankings. First, take a deep breath.

Article Contents

SEO Trends Review

Introduction

Section 1
SEO Action Items for Your Website

How To Fix

Section 3

You wake up and the sun is shining. A gentle breeze drifts in through the open window, rustling your bedsheets and bringing with it the scent of jasmine and pine.

You can already tell it's going to be a good day.

An hour later (rush hour was light this morning) you're sitting down at your desk, fresh latte in hand sprinkled with traces of cinnamon and nutmeg, and you power up your computer. Check some email, check Facebook, and you feel yourself start to get in the zone. You're going to crush it today.

Then you log into your analytics to see how your site's performing. Your head cocks to the side as you notice what seems to be a decline in overall traffic. That's odd . . . this is supposed to be your busy season. After clicking a few times you're viewing year-over-year data and your eyes pop - traffic and sales are down 20%!

Digging a little deeper, you notice it's been a downward trend for almost a week. Your confundity deepens. You're so confused that you're not even sure if confundity is a word.

You talk to your co-worker and you know nothing major has changed on the site recently. The pit in your stomach deepens as you call your marketing agency to see what the problem might be, and on the phone you hear your account manager utter the dreaded words "Google algorithm update."

Sh*t.


Google Has Updated its Algorithm: To Panic or to Plan

Does this mean it's game over? Time to close up shop and move on to the next venture? It was a good run while it lasted?

Or rather have you just been presented with an opportunity? After all, fortunes have been won or lost at the whims of Google. But which end of that spectrum you're on depends much more on your perspective and how you handle it than on the update itself.

Google updates its algorithm roughly 500 times per year. Not every one of those updates are major - it's just Google making tweaks and minor changes to continually improve search results for its users. After all, Google is a business just like any other. They need to keep their user base happy; otherwise instead of saying "Google it", we'll all be saying "Bing it".

But sometimes Google's algorithm changes aren't so minor. In 2018 alone we've had four major updates that have significantly impacted the lion's share of our clients, both positively and negatively. Two in the spring appear to have penalized link building tactics while simultaneously rewarding websites with high-quality content. The two in late summer / early fall have focused on YMYL websites (Your Money or Your Life, i.e. health, legal, or financial-focused sites), with scattered impacts throughout maps listings as well.

But this is your site. Your rankings. Your traffic. Your money. And everything is tanking. What should you do?

First things first: Unless you've knowingly engaged in black-hat SEO tactics (keyword stuffing, buying links, invisible text or page swapping), don't panic. If you've been in the game long enough, you'll know that over time the continuous shifts in your keyword rankings will begin to look like the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a bull market. While you consistently trend upward, there is no doubt you will experience dips over time - some slight, others severe; some that last weeks, others that last months. C'est la vie.

While Google never explicitly states what their updates affect, they've made it abundantly clear that the primary factors affecting search engine results are . . . drum roll please . . . high-quality content and positive user experiences.

Next Moves
So, how can I fix the mess I'm in?
Making your website mobile friendly

You're freaking out, I get it.

It's time to dive in and determine what the issues are on your website and come up with a plan to fix them.

How to Move Forward When You're at the Losing End of an Algorithm Update

Examine the technical foundation of your website:
  1. Site map - Do you have the most up-to-date sitemap in Google Search Console? If not, resubmit.
  2. 404 errors - These can have a negative impact on your rankings and can result in a poor user experience for users that land on these pages, resulting in higher bounce rates.
  3. Site speed analysis - How does your site score in Google's PageSpeed Insights tool? Google has confirmed that page speed is a ranking factor for mobile search, not to mention its impact on user experience, which Google also takes into account.
  4. Robots.txt file - Ensure that this is configured properly so search engines can crawl your site efficiently and index everything properly.
  5. Backlink audit - Ensure there are no spammy websites linking to your own. If your agency finds some, be sure they disavow them promptly so as to disassociate your website in Google's eyes. If your website took a very hard hit, this is the most likely cause. I would suggest talking with an expert SEO agency to solve this problem and not try to fix it yourself. If done incorrectly there can be major consequences.
  6. Missing metas - SEO tools like Screaming Frog can tell you in one fell swoop how many metas and critical on-site SEO elements the site may be missing, helping you come up with a plan for remedying the drop in rankings.
Examine the quality of the content on your website and ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Is your content Educational in nature, not focusing on acquiring customers but focusing on increasing their knowledge pool?
  2. Is your content Authoritative in nature, written by authorities in the space who ideally are credentialized? Credentials go a long way here, if applicable. If not, positive reviews can help build that authority.
  3. Is your content Trustworthy, clearly conveyed by an expert in the field? Especially in the eCommerce SEO realm, your website should scream trust.
  4. E-A-T: Is my content built to add value to the life of my end user?

Focus on Existing Pages First

The existing content on the site is what Google has already indexed you for, and if it's missing any important metas or on-page optimizations, these should be the first issues that are addressed, as they will have the most immediate impact on your rankings. These include, but are not limited to (listed in order of importance):


Create an SEO Content Plan

In order to build expertise, authority and trustworthiness (E-A-T), it's critical that you construct a robust content plan that is going to drive inbound traffic to the site and educate your user base for years to come. An information or resource center, complete with an FAQ, embedded YouTube videos, and articles / blog posts, is a great starting point and should be continually expanded with high-value content. This will also present you with ripe opportunities to build up your internal link structure, hyperlinking keyword-rich anchor text to relevant pages to both improve the user experience and build more authority in Google's eyes.

The old adage ("old" from a digital marketing perspective) is "Content is King." It was true ten years ago. It's true today. And I can assure you it will be true ten years from now. Sure there are other elements you have to take into account, but if this concept is at the core of your digital marketing strategy, it will be difficult for any Google algorithm update to waylay you for long.

At the end of the day, an organization's website has to provide value to the end user; so don't focus on Google, focus on the user. If users find value in your content, they will continue to come back, traffic your pages, and ultimately convert to become a valued customer.

Google's algorithm changes may temporarily set back websites that have been doing this well, but it's critical that you keep fighting the good fight, stay up to date with the latest algorithm updates, and have the right marketing agency on your side to help you through the tough times.

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