Google’s rankings are in a constant state of flux. What ranked well last year isn’t guaranteed to work well the following year, and many businesses have been wiped out due to this.
The pace of SERP upheaval is increasing, too, because Google is stepping up the pace of its algorithm updates. A decade ago, the search engine giant would publish one or two changes a day. Most of these changes were minor and imperceptible to the typical business website. Today, though, Google is likely pushing out several updates a day. Only a small number of these are relevant to most business website owners, but when a broad algorithm update does get pushed over, everyone should take notice.
If you believe a Google update has damaged your site’s traffic and rankings, continue on. We’ll address what site owners can do in response.
Are you fighting an algorithm update or a Google penalty?
First, website owners must know thy enemy. If your website’s traffic has dropped, it’s possible that an algorithm update is the culprit. Not necessarily, though. It’s also possible that your site has been hit with a penalty. Here’s the difference:
- Algorithm updates – Not all algorithm updates have a noticeable impact on rankings, but those that do are called broad updates. Broad updates are infrequent, but when they’re pushed over, Google’s goal is to find sites that were previously under-ranked and shuffle them up close to the top of the SERPs.
If a site is ranked higher as a result of this process, they will take traffic away from competitor websites. From those site owners’ perspective, it may seem like a penalty. From Google’s perspective, it’s boosting content that should’ve ranked higher to begin with.
- Google site penalties – A Google penalty is different. Algorithm updates lift properly-built websites up. Penalties knock improperly-built websites down. Some Google penalties are broadly applied at once – Panda (2011) and Penguin (2016) are examples. Some are manual actions, which are targeted at particular websites and applied by one of Google’s site reviewers.
There are many reasons why Google may apply a manual penalty. Most of them are responses to certain types of content or black hat SEO tactics – think keyword stuffing or page cloaking.
Recovery depends on which of the above you’re fighting. Google penalties can be notoriously difficult to reverse, but even if your site’s struggles come down to an algorithm update, it will take time and work to get back on track.
Gather intelligence: What does the update include and is your site actually affected?
Before making any major changes to your site, though, determine if it’s necessary. It’s always a good idea to monitor your website, but pay close to your traffic in the weeks following an update – confirmed or not. Not all Google updates are confirmed, and many of them are confirmed long after they were released. Staying up to date with SEO trends will alert you to looming updates when they happen, so you’re not caught off guard.
You can track your site’s traffic through Google Analytics and Google Search Console. Even better, you can integrate this data into your website through plugins like Rank Math. There are a couple of advantages of doing this, including:
- Easier data tracking – SEO plugins like Rank Math collate the analytical data that’s most relevant for business owners, and make that data accessible. The result – it’s easier for nonprofessionals to track their site’s performance across time.
- Better SEO insights – There’s a lot of useful information baked into your website’s analytics, but you may not know what to look for without digital marketing experience. SEO plugins can condense your analytical data into useful chunks. This could be tracking individual page ranks across time, comparing site performance against competitors or overlaying Google updates in your traffic history, so you can pinpoint a connection between algorithm updates and your search results performance.
- Centralized SEO control – Plugins like Rank Math make SEO a bit user-friendlier, too. Within the plugin, you can alter elements like content headers, schema markup and other forms of metadata. For people who want everything SEO in a single place, this is a big help.
If your analytics do confirm a drop in traffic over a few weeks, then adjustments will likely be necessary to bring your traffic back up.
Plan your response: What changes, if any, will be needed to recover from an update?
If your website was hit with a penalty – especially a manual one – consider speaking with a digital marketing expert. Site owners report varying levels of success in getting penalties removed, and the penalty recovery process takes months, in most cases. It’s also possible that starting with a new domain – from scratch, so to speak – is your best option. An experienced SEO firm can determine this on a case-by-case basis. In most cases, penalty recovery involves removing the offending content or SEO practices, and then petitioning for a new review.
If it appears that an algorithm update is the reason behind your reduced traffic, then it’s a different kind of fight. One that looks like this:
- Figure out why Google pushed over the relevant update – Google’s algorithm updates have an intention behind them. In most cases, they’re designed to target undesirable ranking tactics, including black hat SEO methods or low-quality content production.
In the aftermath of an algorithm update, SEO experts will take to the internet to publish their conclusions. Site owners can learn a lot by reading what the professionals have to say about a particular update, and what steps a site owner can take to respond appropriately. Once you know why an update was pushed over, you can determine why your site was affected in the first place.
For example, Google released several content-related updates in the second half of 2022 and at the very beginning of 2023. These content updates have largely been focused on defining what quality content looks like from the user’s perspective. There have also been changes to Google’s search quality guidelines. These are two huge areas of interest for business website owners.
- Determine what changes will be needed to align with new standards – It won’t be long before the effects of a Google update are generally known. Once they are, it’s time for site owners to decide on their next step.
If an update is content-focused, for example, the mission may be to create higher quality content. Google regularly makes updates to its content updates, including how content should read, its length, how keywords should be used and so on.
An update may also be focused on link building strategies and what constitutes a “good” link vs a “bad” link. Over time, strategies like private blog networks (PBNs), link buying schemes and spam have been pruned out of existence.
It could be focused on site performance. Google’s Core Vitals update in 2021, for instance, raised the bar in terms of page upload speeds and loading stability.
Once you know what an update is meant to address, you can compare your site to the updated guidelines and figure out where improvements are needed.
- Put together an action plan to ensure those changes are made – Does your site need better content or more of it? Then determine who will handle the content production. Create additional content angles (taking relevant keywords into account) and make regular blog publishing a part of your SEO strategy. Don’t have time to develop your own content? An experienced digital marketing firm can help with content production.
Need to get rid of low quality links and replace them with better ones? Link building strategies include attracting good links with good content, doing some professional networking or offering your services or expertise in exchange for a link.
Need to boost your technical performance? A technical SEO expert can help improve your site’s performance by optimizing your JS or CSS code, improving page loading patterns or reducing media size. There’s a lot to technical SEO, and we recommend working with a technical SEO professional to complete the hundreds of tasks associated with technical site performance.
Is professional SEO assistance absolutely necessary? It is possible for site owners to manage most SEO tasks on their own, but only with significant education and effort. For example, do you have the time it will take to write 1,000+ words every week on a business-related topic? Are you willing to learn web languages and apply them? Can you manage analytics, plugins, site updates and content publishing?
Increasingly, it takes a team to maintain an e-commerce site, especially when digital marketing is factored in.
Fortify your (ranking) position: How can you prepare your site for future updates?
We’ve spent this whole time talking about losing traffic after a Google update, but what about sites that jump up the search rankings? What are they doing right? Chances are, they were following Google’s quality search guidelines before the update hit.
It’s impossible to keep up with the pace of Google algorithm updates, which is why successful websites don’t respond to updates – they prepare for them. The question is, how do site owners do that?
You can guess where Google is going with its algorithm by considering how it’s changed over time. If you do that, a few things become obvious:
- Google is prioritizing user experience – Business owners frequently lose sight of Google’s primary goal. It’s not to make business owners happy with their ranking placement. It’s not to ensure your business gets the visibility it needs.
No, Google’s priority is to serve its end user – that’s the person doing the actual searching. And in this context, serving the end user means providing them with the best possible search results for their query.
That means a page that offers well-written content that’s relevant to their search. It means a page that loads quickly, securely and reliably. It also means a page that has been endorsed by other websites through quality backlinking.
If your pages include a lot of sales copy or advertorial – which users do not like – or if your site lacks in technical performance, Google will not rank that page well. It doesn’t matter if you offer the best possible version of your product, or if your business has been around for decades – without a strong user experience, your site won’t compete on the SERPs.
- Google wants website owners to play fair with white hat SEO – In Google’s eyes, there is no quick path to those top SERP rankings. Google, and experienced digital marketing professionals, both recommended the kind of SEO methods that lead to long-lasting, organic traffic. These are white hat SEO tactics that revolve around improving the user experience, delivering better content and earning backlinks the right way.
While various black hat tactics have been successful over the years, Google has identified them one by one and crushed the websites that relied on them. That process is still ongoing and Google is getting more efficient with it. Today, any SEO strategy that promises instant results is one to eye with suspicion. Black hat strategies bill themselves on quick results, but those results could disappear just as quickly, and every Google update makes it harder for those who try to play outside the SEO rules.
- Google will continue to focus on content quality – We’ve mentioned content quality several times, but it’s worth pointing out again. If you analyze the content-centric updates Google has made over time, you’ll notice that it’s trying to get closer and closer to what the user wants from content.
This means content that provides original information, a professional tone, mistake-free writing, expert insight and assertions backed by authority or meaningful citations. In short, users want to transact with businesses that can demonstrate their expertise through the content they put on their website.
This is best encapsulated by Google’s latest algorithm update, which addressed search quality guidelines and the well-known E-A-T guidelines for content production. The old acronym included expertise, authoritativeness and trust. Now, E-E-A-T includes experience on top of that.
Clearly, Google prefers businesses that explain themselves and what they do well. The way Google figures, your content shouldn’t be about selling your brand. It should first provide the user with value. That means useful information.
If your website puts the user first in all respects, then it will weather the algorithmic storm that Google unleashes on the web with regularity.
If your website is built to serve the user, then Google’s algorithm is your friend
For a lot of business owners, it’s frustrating knowing that a single algorithm change could throw your site into chaos. Websites have disappeared overnight in the wake of such changes.
As time goes on, though, and Google’s overarching mission becomes clearer (match user expectations with search guidelines), site owners can more easily future-proof their online presence.
Invest in content, messaging, website performance and quality link building strategies, and it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of an algorithm attack.
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