Bitesize: Google Algorithm Updates
Recently we had a Bitesize session with Technical SEO, Reuben Marshall, looking at Google algorithm updates across the last few years and what’s been happening. He talked about what Google has been working on, what we need to do when there is an algorithm update, and what might be coming next. So, over to Reuben…
What is a Google Algorithm?
I’ve done some analysis on the last three to five years of algorithm updates to understand what Google’s been working on, and how many updates there have been a year but first of all, I need to explain what an algorithm update actually is!
An algorithm is a very complex system that contains a lot of equations and computer analysis, and Google uses their algorithms to help determine what appears in search when somebody types a keyword in. Algorithms control how and what appears in search results so when we talk about Google algorithm updates generally we’re talking about how Google looks at your website and what appears in search results.
Google updates are made periodically and whenever an update happens, It’s broadcast across the Web and generally across all the SEO forums. We may see a few winners and losers until the next one comes out. Sometimes there’s bigger ones as well, but generally in the last few years, there haven’t really been any huge updates, but throughout this Bitesize we’ll take a look at what has come out recently.
How often do Algorithm Updates take place?Google updates its algorithm all the time, hundreds of times a year or potentially even more. They’re making lots and lots of small adjustments all the time to the way that the algorithm looks at your search results. And also, the way that Google crawls your site, what kind of things it favours and what is appearing in specific search results.
However, the major ones which we call algorithm updates, generally happen once every few months. They usually happen between four and five times a year and I actually have a little bit of research here. I looked back to 2017 to see how often they are happening and if they are happening more often now than before.
In 2017 there were 10, in 2018 there were 5, in 2019 there were 6, there were 4 in 2020, and in 2021 there were 14. So far in 2022 there have been 7, although there may be more to come. So, we can say that generally there were between four and ten for the last four years. But then last year, in 2021, there was a big increase in the number of algorithm updates. This might have been because of the pandemic in 2020, as Google may have had more updates planned that they couldn’t push out, but we can’t know for sure.
Another question to ask is, ‘is Google making more changes to the algorithm more often, or are they just letting us know about the changes more?’ That could also be linked to changes in people’s routines in 2021 -maybe people were sitting at home more often on their computers, and Google felt like they were able to give us more information about the changes they were making. It’s a bit of a guessing game really, we don’t exactly know whether there are more changes happening in 2021, for example, or whether Google are just letting us know about those changes more often.
What are the main focus areas for recent updates?
To understand what a main focus for Google has been, I looked back over updates from the last three years (2020-22) to see what types of algorithm updates have occurred.
Firstly, there are core algorithm updates. So, these are broad updates that roll out across the whole system and take place generally three to four times a year. There have been two so far in 2022, so we can probably expect another one to happen before the end of the year.
These are general algorithm updates, and Google doesn’t like to give us too much information about what these are. You will sometimes see these updates being tweeted about by the Google search team where they’ll say something like ‘We are rolling out a broad core algorithm update. We do these several times a year’.
The recommendation for what to do with your website when these updates roll out is just to wait and see what happens with this site. If your site goes up or down in rankings, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good or bad, it’s just that other sites may be being favoured – we just have to let the update roll out and see how the land lies.
So, the next type is SERP features, which are results that appear on a Google Search Engine Results Page that are not normal organic results, for example rich snippets.
In 2021 there was an update to do with featured snippets, and this was a named algorithm update.
There was a Search Features algorithm update in March 2020, which changed the focus away from featured snippets so you would no longer have as many of them on page, and you wouldn’t have pages ranking twice on the same Search Engine Results Page.
Next up is indexing.
This is the way that Google actually looks at and indexes content on the website. An example of this would be mobile first, back in 2017/ 2018.
We did have an algorithm update looking at indexing back in 2021, which changed the way that Google looks at content on the site. But that’s been the only one in the last three years. We don’t get those too often, but when they do happen it can create a big shake up.
Product and Content Updates
The next two types of updates are ones that we can see that Google has been really focusing on in the last year or so. There have been five product updates and six content and quality or spam updates since 2020.
So, what are these? In terms of products, these have been mostly about online reviews, with three separate updates focusing on product reviews, two of those in 2020, one of those in 2021. Google has been really intent on making sure that products with good quality reviews are being shown to users.
There was one generic product quality update as well. So for website owners, it’s all about making sure that you’ve got good quality, reliable, content on your product pages. I’ve linked these product updates in with the content and spam updates because I believe that Google’s got the same idea for both of these areas. They want to remove low quality, untrustworthy, low credibility products from Google Search results as much as possible.
In 2021, there was a huge focus in removing low quality, spammy search results. I think covid might have had an effect here on what Google have focused on as their main priority, because users are more often using the Internet and e-commerce to buy things they used to buy in physical shops, so removing spam has become even more important.
I think they’ve still got a little bit of a way to go. There are still a lot of examples of low quality products appearing in search results or people with obviously all 5 star reviews that may have been bought reviews or other sorts of spammy problems appearing, but they have made progress there.
Core Web Vitals
The next type of update looks at Core Web Vitals.
This was actually a very big change over the last year and Google has made it very clear and given us very specific information around how they look at speed, and what they use to measure the performance of speed on your website with the implementation of Core Web Vitals.
Within Google Search Console, you can see your website’s Core Web Vitals results page by page and see whether you’re failing, passing, or whether you need improvement. This is very useful for us because it allows website owners or SEOs to take something very clear to site developers to be able to say, ‘This is where you’re failing in terms of Core Web Vitals’.It shows these results based on real user information, it’s not basing that from lab data or guesstimates or anything like that, it’s totally from really user data accessing your site.
The final type of update that we’ve seen in the last three years is local.
In 2021, there was a change in the way that Google shows local search results. The idea was to improve the quality of local results, and to make sure that local search doesn’t include places which don’t really exist – which are made up or don’t have a real location. On things like Google My Business, people used to be able to put things like product names or service names, essentially spammy things. They were actually ranking for those search results in the local search. That’s now changed. Google is now a lot hotter on getting rid of those types of listings and they’re very clear that you shouldn’t do that.
Google’s focus on quality
Looking at all of this, we can see that Google’s focus has been on improving quality within search results. They haven’t been changing how they look at search or how they look at your website or what appears in search results, but they’re really focused on what the actual results are and improving the quality of that.They’re trying to make sure that if you’re trying to rank for a product, then it’s a highly credible product. Your website has authority within the industry space and that the reviews on your website are good quality and you have real user reviews and that your other content is high quality, answers user questions and includes no spam.
Generally I see all of this as good changes for users of Google, or people that use Google in the way that Google wants them to. Basically, Google wants you to be using search results to find the information that you want. So, in a world where Google’s having to increasingly compete against multiple different platforms (YouTube, Tiktok etc) for informational searches, it’s really important that they make sure the information that you find on Google is trustworthy.
What’s coming next?
So, what might be coming next? It’s a tricky one because Google never really tells us what it is that they’re working on. What we can say is that there haven’t been as many algorithm updates in 2022 as 2021, obviously, the ones that have come through have been focused on product reviews and quality. So that’s been quite a big change over 2022. They seem to be really focused on the quality within search results, so they’ll probably have more updates to do with reducing spam, and increasing quality so as long as your website is built for users and focused on creating a great user experience, you should be fine.
If I had to make an educated guess, I think they might try to improve informational searches more next year, because in my experience, more people are going to places like Tiktok and YouTube to find out ‘how to’ information around certain questions that they have. So, whether or not they try and change the way the algorithm works to maybe pull more YouTube results in? They’re already doing that to an extent, but maybe to answer questions more often in your search results rather than you having to click through to a web page.
What should we do when an algorithm update hits?
What I’d say is that when a big algorithm update hits, most websites are not impacted by them in a way that is immediately discernible within Google Analytics or in Google Search Console. It’s very rare that we see a definitive impact from an algorithm update right away. So what I’d say is that it’s important to monitor the data, but not to panic and change a load of things before you know how the land lies.
We should be proactive with websites rather than reactive to updates. Instead of focusing on trying to retroactively improve websites after an algorithm update hits, we should be working to focus on quality, focus on improving our web pages all the time. Making sure that they have everything in them that you would want them to have, that they fit user intent, provide high quality content, all that sort of stuff, and then that will make sure that we can continue to avoid the impacts of algorithm updates.
Does Google weight their opinion of review platforms differently?
A question that I’ve been asked before that I wanted to touch upon here is, ‘does Google treat reviews from different review platforms differently e.g. would they trust a review of your website/product/service more if it was left on your website or as a Google Review versus another platform?’ For this, again it’s difficult to say concretely, but I’d imagine that the more trustworthy and well known the platform (such as renowned review platform, Trustpilot) the more likely Google is to trust the review and see it as reputable, and not spammy. A lot of people might not necessarily know that businesses can claim their profiles on platforms such as Trustpilot, meaning that you can interact with the reviews that are left for you. If you don’t do this and you get a negative review, then there’s no way you can defend yourself or try to resolve the problem. It’s always worth having a presence on these platforms so that you know what’s being said about you, and you can nip any problems in the bud and show your customers that you care.
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