What Are Google Core Updates and How Do They Affect SEO?

Author Justin Smith - SEO Expert & CEO at OuterBox
by Justin Smith
Aug. 26, 2020

Google remains uncontested in the search engine landscape by regularly improving its ranking algorithm. According to Moz, the Mountain View company performs an average of nine to 10 algorithm updates per day. While each of these algorithm updates modifies Google's ranking formula, core updates are the most impactful. To achieve and maintain high rankings on Google, you must understand the mechanics behind its core updates.


Overview of Google Core Updates

A core update is a significant change Google makes to its ranking algorithm that affects a large number of indexed web pages. They occur about once every two or three months on average. Core updates are designed to improve the quality and relevance of Google's search results by shuffling the search rankings of indexed web pages.

Each core update tweaks the formula by which Google ranks web pages. Web pages that ranked high for their target keywords may rank low after a core update. Conversely, web pages that ranked low for their target keywords may rank high following the rollout.

Some of the most notable Google core updates include:

  • Penguin
  • Panda
  • Fred
  • Hummingbird
  • Pigeon
  • BERT
  • Rankbrain
  • Medic
  • Possum
  • Mobilegeddon
  • Freshness

Core Updates vs Minor Updates

In addition to core updates, Google performs minor updates to its ranking algorithm. Minor updates also consist of changes that are designed to improve the quality and relevance of Google's search results. They are distinguished from their core counterparts by affecting fewer indexed web pages.

A core update may affect 5 percent to 10 percent of all searches, whereas a minor update may affect just 0.1 percent to 1 percent of all searches. Most of these minor updates are so trivial, in fact, that they go unnoticed by webmasters.

Minor updates are more common than core updates. With insight from its team of engineers and search specialists, Google performs them on a daily basis. Core updates, on the other hand, are usually planned months in advance and can take several weeks to fully roll out.


The SEO Impact of Core Updates

Core updates can drastically affect search engine optimization (SEO) for Google. The underlying concept of Google SEO is to adjust your website, as well as its presence, so that it's favored by Google's ranking algorithm. When Google rolls out a core update, its ranking algorithm changes.

All the time, energy and resources you spent on optimizing your website for Google could be nullified following the rollout of a core update. A core update, for instance, may eliminate the otherwise positive impact of a ranking signal targeted by your website. With the ranking signal no longer in play, your website's search rankings will drop.

Core updates can even impose penalties that devastate your website's search rankings. The Panda update, for example, imposed an automatic and algorithmic penalty on websites with thin content. Prior to its rollout, webmasters could easily rank their websites high on Google without publishing much content. The Panda update changed the game by penalizing websites such as these for thin content.

Some core updates affect more than just search rankings; they restructure Google's search engine results pages (SERPs). Google uses core updates to add, remove and modify alternative listings in its SERPs. Alternative listings consist of nonpaid properties like People Also Ask (PAA) listings, featured snippets and Knowledge Graph panels.


How to Identify Core Updates

Because they affect more indexed web pages than minor updates, Google typically announces core updates before rolling them out. You'll often find announcements for upcoming core updates published on Google's Webmaster Central Blog. Available at webmasters.googleblog.com, it features timely news about Google's ranking algorithm and its core updates. You can elect to receive emails from the Webmaster Central Blog by entering your address in the newsletter box at the bottom of the right-hand sidebar. There are also website that provider "Weather Reports" that show how active changes are in Google results. MozCast is a great one to check out.

Along with Google's Webmaster Central Blog, you can learn about upcoming core updates by following Google's official search liaison account on Twitter. Google's current search liaison is Dunny Sullivan. While Sullivan often tweets from his personal account, he uses the @searchliaison Twitter account to announce upcoming core updates and other Google-related news.


How to Prepare Your Website for Core Updates

You can prepare your website for core updates in several ways. If there's a new core update on the horizon, take a moment to read about it. Google will usually reveal the purpose of an upcoming core update when announcing it.

Whether announced on Google's Webmaster Central Blog or its search liaison Twitter account, Google will explain what type of websites and web pages the new core update will affect and the degree to which it will affect them. With this knowledge, you can make the appropriate tweaks to your website's SEO so that it's properly aligned with the upcoming core update.

Although Google announces most core updates, it doesn't announce all of them. Therefore, you can't rely on announcements alone to prepare your website for them.

Core updates are designed to improve the quality and relevance of Google's search results, so you can prepare for them by focusing more on your website's content and less on its offsite promotion. Creating backlinks may hold some benefit by presenting your website as a popular online brand. Content, however, is ultimately what gives your website value. By improving your website's content, Google's algorithm will recognize your site as being high quality and relevant.

Avoiding black-hat or otherwise manipulative SEO practices can help prepare your website for core updates. Many core updates target websites that engage in manipulative SEO practices by demoting them. Whether it's keyword stuffing, link spam or paid links, Google may roll out a core update to penalize offending websites.

Core updates are a critical component of Google's ranking algorithm. The Mountain View company doesn't use the same formula to rank websites that it did in the past. Google has performed thousands of algorithm updates over the years, the most impactful of which are core updates. To prepare your website for core updates, follow Google's Webmaster Central blog and its search liaison Twitter account while also improving your website's content.

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