Updated: March 13, 2023
Author: Crystal Carter
My general advice for managing Google algorithm updates is to “keep your nose clean.” By that, I mean consistently making content that is relevant to users and doing so on a technically sound website, using SEO best practices with high levels of demonstrable experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. I’ve worked on sites that follow this approach and they consistently fare better than sites that don’t during Google's algorithm updates.
That said, sometimes (particularly when a core update negatively impacts your site) you need to explain what happened to clients and other stakeholders.
Here are some steps that can help you understand how and why a Google algorithm update impacted your site. These can be crucial steps to help you make a plan to address changes in organic traffic or recover from negative impacts of a core update.
Date the changes
Many SEO monitoring and analytics tools will give you the option to add annotations to reports. These annotations let you take note of when the update started rolling out and when it finished.
For many years, marketers have relied on Google’s Universal analytics for annotations, but (at time of writing) it is only possible to annotate GA4 using third-party tools. Some external tools will automatically annotate your reporting timeline with large scale update announcements, but these tend to be general rather than site specific.
A Google core update can take months and impact individual sites and regions at different times. Typically, US domains are impacted first during core updates and other markets follow. So, if you are outside of the US, you might need to keep checking your data as the update rolls out. It is important to make note of any changes within your own account so that you can compare your data accurately.
You want to make a note when you start seeing an impact but also add other significant activity to your notes so that you have context for additional variables that could impact your rankings. Site migrations, viral PR activity, new high-quality backlinks, and hosting changes can also have a sitewide impact. Having this information will be valuable when you are reporting later and will help you benchmark your data as you carry out your audits.
Compare the impact on your competitors
Comparing your site to others can help identify if ranking changes are specific to you or part of a wider trend for your business vertical.
Algorithm changes may impact certain verticals more than others. For instance, during the Medic update in 2018, studies showed that the update significantly affected websites with medical and health-related content. Many sites with content that included information on “Your Money or Your Life” topics were evaluated on new criteria. Content that did not already satisfy that criteria saw reduced visibility while sites that met the new expectations fared better.
If the update is focused on sites within a particular vertical, then you may see competitors experience similar changes in visibility after the update. If this is observed, then it may reflect that Google has changed how it understands and shows results for a topic or tactic you have in common.
This means that it's unlikely that anything you, specifically, have done has influenced your ranking changes.
If you do not see similar changes across your vertical, then it might be the case that some aspect of your strategy or approach isn’t aligning with the new algorithm criteria. In this instance, I would keep investigating before drawing any conclusions.
How to check on your competitors
Third-party SEO monitoring tools like Semrush, Sistrix, and others can offer actionable insights on competitor visibility changes for specific keywords and domains.
In many cases, you will need to identify the keywords and businesses you’d like to track well ahead of time in order to build up the data you want to benchmark, but this data can be important for contextualizing your performance.
How to check your industry
There are a number of tools that track Google algorithm updates. During a core update, these tools offer insights into how different types of websites, keywords, and SERP features have been affected.
Popular free tools for monitoring algorithm activity include:
Each tool uses different data sets and metrics so it is worth comparing multiple sources to get a full idea of the impact.
Comparing this data with what you see on your site can help you give useful guidance to clients about what to do next. For instance, if you identify that a change in rankings has to do with a new SERP feature or rich result, then you can adjust your content accordingly.
Isolate affected queries
It is worth reviewing Google Search Console to identify any trends in the specific types of queries that were impacted by the update. It is important to understand which queries were impacted because not all keywords offer the same value.
Over the last few years, myself and other SEOs have observed that, sometimes during Google’s updates, the keyword positions that decline are terms that were irrelevant to the domain in the first place. I have personally seen client sites rank for content like partner logos and other seemingly random or “junk” terms.
When Google makes adjustments, sometimes it sends users to more relevant content or finetunes the intent of the content entirely so if you were previously ranking for irrelevant terms and you aren’t anymore, then you may see this reflected in your overall domain ranking and traffic after. However, it is likely that the quality of traffic that you receive after the algorithm update will be more aligned with the objectives of your brand marketing funnel. Mordy Oberstein, who has been tracking Google's updates carefully for years has often noted that you don't want to dilute your site's authority by creating content in areas outside of the site's identity.
If you have seen a big shift in some of your core keywords, then you may need to review this further to understand the potential business impact.
Assess the SERP
The SERPs are constantly changing—both in format and content—so reviewing how content is being surfaced can help you understand changes from a user’s perspective.
What are you looking for? Here are a few SERP changes that can cause sudden shifts in traffic.
New content formats
Google makes multiple algorithm adjustments throughout the year. Some of these changes result in content shifting in position. Sometimes, a Google update will change the SERP entirely.
Job-related SERPs are a good example of this—the top of these SERPs almost exclusively includes content from Job Search on Google (as shown above) before you get to the plain blue links. When this change came, there were big swings in traffic patterns from users to recruitment websites.
These don’t typically occur during a core update, but changes like this can result in substantial shifts in clicks and click-through rate. So, it’s worth checking the desktop and mobile SERP to see if there have been any significant changes in how content for your most relevant queries is being displayed.
Prioritizing official sources
As occurred during the initial Covid-19 outbreak for highly sensitive topics, Google will surface content from official topic authorities like the CDC or the World Health Organization. For topics like this, Google will often remove advertisements and curate the SERP so that the most authoritative sources are immediately visible.
If this has affected relevant SERPs, then you should consider aligning any SEO activity with additional channels to manage your visibility and traffic overall. In the past, I have seen clients engage digital PR, PPC, and social to successfully drive traffic to a site after an algorithm update. Done well, this approach can make your traffic more resilient in the long term.
Who is now in the top positions
If you have seen volatility in some of your top positions, visit the live SERP for your most relevant keywords and have a look at the content that replaced yours. Examine the individual pages and the domain overall to see how it satisfies the query.
Understanding your content’s relevance to the query is particularly important for core updates. When analyzing visibility changes following a 2021 algorithm update, Oberstein observed that Google has been “refining its ability to offer highly relevant content to new extremes” during recent core updates. “Highly relevant content means that the content is nuanced and substantially detailed in nature,” he explained.
So, when you are assess the new top-ranking pages, consider the following:
How does the publishing team demonstrate expertise and depth of knowledge?
Which technical implementations is the page excelling on?
Which media types is the site using?
How does the domain demonstrate topic authority around the query?
How relevant is the top content and domain for the query?
Ask these same questions about your content to identify gaps, assess the quality of your content, and relevance for the keyword or topic.
Keep calm and keep optimizing
Don’t panic—this is an important point.
Planning is fine. Panicking can mean that you act impulsively when you don’t have enough information, which could certainly worsen the situation.
Take a moment to assess the impact, consider how you can address any changes in business-critical traffic, and then move forward.
Crystal is an SEO & digital marketing professional with over 15 years of experience. Her global business clients have included Disney, McDonalds, and Tomy. An avid SEO communicator, her work has been featured at Google Search Central, Brighton SEO, Moz, DeepCrawl, Semrush, and more. Twitter | Linkedin