Author: Mordy Oberstein
While analyzing the overall impact of a core update can be valuable, not enough attention is given to case-based analysis of content that is both negatively and positively impacted by an update.
In this post, I’ll go through just a few of the many pages and keywords I analyzed after Google’s May 2022 core update finished rolling out. I’ll explore how the content and formatting of various pages may have impacted their rankings in Google Search. As a result, perhaps we can get a glimpse into some of the things Google looks at when ranking pages after an algorithm update.
Case analysis of Google’s May 2022 core update
Before we dive in, I want to state something clearly from the outset:
What’s to come isn’t a judgment of any page or site. Every page has its strengths and weaknesses. All I’m aiming to do is showcase some of the ways Google might be interpreting what is (or isn’t) on a page.
Secondly, the analysis to come is my best understanding of the content-related causality behind a page gaining or losing rank. I’m not Google and can’t say that the analysis is the absolute reason why a page performed the way it did as a consequence of the May update. Further, there can be many issues that impact a page’s ranking (not just one). As GSQi founder Glenn Gabe often mentions, it pays to take a “kitchen sink” approach with a core update and attempt to improve the page in as many ways as possible—you never really know what will move the needle.
Lastly, I want to thank Semrush for giving me access to their data so that I could dive into the ranking changes seen during the update.
Shall we begin?
01. A little context goes a long way
Keyword: "Electronic check deposit"
Improved rank: WellBy Financial
Lost rank: Chase
Top site: Wells Fargo
Striking a balance between commercially oriented copy and informational copy on a landing page is hard. There’s a natural urge and, I would say, anxiety about ensuring the page converts. After all, it’s a landing page, that’s why the page exists. However, balancing the amount of content that urges conversion with context (i.e., informational content) is becoming increasingly more important for a variety of reasons. Especially in the context of Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) topics, which this particular keyword falls under.
What we have here (with the ranking trends for this keyword) is what I believe to be a classic example of getting the balance right between informational copy and commercial copy on a YMYL page.
Let’s start with the Wells Fargo page, which began to rank consistently at the #1 position on the SERP with the May update.
It’s not a very dynamic page, it’s not a very complex page, and it’s not even a very wordy page.
However, what it does do well—even with its relatively light content (which just goes to show you it’s not the number of words per se but what you do with them that matters)—is offer users the information they need, even within the commercial copy itself.
Take the example below. The page uses marketing language like “It’s handy,” but then directly supplements that copy with informational content:
In my opinion, not only does this make the marketing copy more potent (as you’re not just making claims but backing them up), it also helps the user understand the process of making deposits via this app. That’s important context right there.
It’s context that is then reinforced by a series of tabs that walks the user through the process of making an electronic deposit. This is done via the use of purely informational text along with supporting images. The content here helps align expectations and potentially alleviates user pain points around the uncertainty that comes from making a deposit via an app.
Again, it’s not complicated, it’s just effective. Compare this to the page that lost rank positions from Chase.
The Chase page formats itself similar to the Wells Fargo page and begins with some marketing points atop of what aims to be informational copy:
The devil is in the details here. While the format matches the Well Fargo page, the copy doesn’t. The Wells Fargo page told you about a lack of fees, immediate confirmation, and so on. In contrast, the informational copy on the Chase page doesn’t really provide much context at all here.
The same holds true for the “How to get started” section:
Again, there’s a very similar structure to the Wells Fargo page but without the level of detail needed to support it.
The Wells Fargo page presented images to help the user understand how the app works and used text to offer a level of detail that addresses potential pain points: for example, the page lets users know they will get an on-screen confirmation when making a deposit via the app.
The Chase page doesn’t offer the same level of context and support. That contextualization is really important because, again, this is a YMYL topic and it should clearly explain what the user is walking into.
Now, let’s take the page from WellBy Financial that gained ranking via the update. To me, this page falls right between the Wells Fargo and Chase pages. It offers a bit more context than the Chase page and is wordier than the Wells Fargo page but the level of contextualization falls a bit short.
Like the Wells Fargo pages, the marketing copy provides detailed information. Below, you can see that the WellBy Financial page gives specific information on when a deposit will be made available.
At the same time, I felt the page could have done better at showing how the process actually works (the way the Wells Fargo page does):
While the page does include an embedded video, both the video and the step-by-step content on the page itself aren't very explicit about showing how the process actually works.
So again, this page, to me at least, falls somewhere between the Wells Fargo and Chase pages—which is literally where it ranks.
The lesson: You don’t need to do a lot to offer informational content that explicitly contextualizes the product or service that you’re offering. Even a small amount of content can go a long way towards offering the user a more helpful experience. For YMYL content especially, that information can pay off when trying to rank a page.
02. Content accuracy is key
Keyword: “Mild bipolar disorder”
Improved rank: National Institute of Mental Health
Lost rank: VeryWell Mind
Top sites: Mayo Clinic, WebMD, Cleveland Clinic
When it comes to such an important query as the one represented here, details matter and they matter a lot. Nuance is always important but even more so for a very sensitive health topic. I think what we have here is a case where Google discovered a page that didn’t handle the nuance for a sensitive YMYL query well enough and removed it from page one of the SERP.
To start, there is a commonality in how the top pages (all of which show no changes in rank position during the recorded period) deal with the topic of “mild bipolar disorder.” Specifically, they don’t take a hardline stance on whether cyclothymia is a mild form of bipolar disorder.
The Cleveland Clinic indicates that cyclothymia is “often considered a milder form” of the disorder, but does not conclusively define it as such:
The Mayo Clinic refers to it as a “related disorder”:
WebMD qualifies the relationship between bipolar disorder and cyclothymia by indicating that “many experts” (but not all) consider the latter to be a mild form of the disorder:
Now, compare that to how VeryWell Mind, a page that no longer ranks on page one of the SERP following the update, speaks to the same topic:
What the page essentially did here is claim that cyclothymia and bipolar disorder are equivalent in that cyclothymia is a milder form of the disorder.
Whereas the top-ranking pages point to the possible distinction between bipolar disorder and cyclothymia, the VeryWell Mind page seems to equate them. That’s a very big problem from an accuracy point of view on what is already a very complex and sensitive topic.
It could be that the VeryWell Mind page is trying to use the words “known as” in order to make a distinction between the two disorders, but that’s not how it comes off, and even if so, the distinction should be clearer. That may be especially true because the subheading of the page refers to cyclothymia as “The Condition Commonly Called Bipolar III.”
None of the top-ranking pages mentioned above refer to cyclothymia as bipolar III. In fact, on a page dedicated to the bipolar spectrum, WebMD clearly indicates that this categorization is very much unofficial:
So, what is very much unofficial labeling is treated by the VeryWell Mind page as official.
While you could make the argument that the language differences here are very subtle, the gap left by the lack of nuance is huge. For this kind of query, the level of nuance has to be entirely accurate and it would seem Google thinks it’s not on the VeryWell Mind page.
There’s another issue with the page here and that’s how it deals with the symptoms of cyclothymia. See how it just rattles them off:
The danger here is that, without any context, it’s very easy for a person to look at this list and make their own diagnosis. How many of us are at times very irritable or feel tired and worn out? There needs to be context here.
That’s why I think the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) page saw a ranking boost relative to the loss seen by the VeryWell Mind page.
The NIMH doesn’t do the greatest job of distinguishing between bipolar disease and cyclothymia being an official type of the disorder. However, the page is excellent at giving the associated symptoms of the disorder some context (which is why I think it ranks higher than the VeryWell Mind page but lower than the other sites despite the NIMH being a .gov site).
First and foremost, the NIMH page tells you that the associated symptoms are very different than what the average person experiences:
As you can see above, the page also tries to somewhat define the symptoms so they are not totally abstract.
The NIMH page then qualifies and further explains how the symptoms play out in the copy that follows the table above:
This is in very sharp contrast to the listing of the symptoms shown on the VeryWell Mind page and I think Google was quite aware of this difference.
The lesson: The margin for error goes way down when you start dealing with highly sensitive health queries. Google wants all of the I’s dotted and T’s crossed—this case being a great example. This applies even to an incredibly strong and generally very comprehensive site like VeryWell Mind.
03. Go beyond the surface of search intent
Keyword: “Nerve pain in lower leg”
Improved rank: Penn Medicine
Lost rank: Lone Star Neurology
This is an interesting case because you have that classic inverse relationship between the two pages, as if one page replaced the other in their respective positions on the SERP.
Let me start by saying that I think both of the pages here have issues (as well as strengths, of course) that prevent them from ranking in the top five on the SERP.
While there are a lot of things to focus on with these particular pages (a reminder that it’s very often not “one thing” when it comes to rank loss/gains), I’d like to specifically examine an important point of contrast: how one page makes the health content accessible to all and the other doesn’t—this is especially crucial in verticals like, but not limited to, health.
For sensitive topics such as health, ensuring that your content is eye-level is really important for users and search engines. The query here, around nerve pain in the lower leg, naturally and easily segues into complex terminology around the human nervous system. As a matter of targeting intent (in that the query here is probably not looking for a medical journal), it’s important not to get lost in medical jargon.
Look at how the page that went up in rank (University of Pennsylvania) considers this by starting its content with a definition:
The author knows they are going to have to address the diagnosis, sciatica, but puts every user on equal ground by starting off with a definition.
The page from Lone Star Neurology similarly starts off speaking at eye-level:
It addresses the fact that the nervous system is complex and is written in a very accessible manner. However, the rest of the page takes a more formal turn when discussing the various causes of nerve pain in one’s leg.
When discussing radiculopathy the page describes it as an issue with “nerve roots of the lumbar or sacral spine.”
I personally have no idea what the nerve roots of the lumbar or sacral spine actually are. This, I think, is part of the problem here.
Again, both pages have some real strengths and flaws but if I had to define the fundamental difference between the two, it’s how they are able (or not able) to speak to users in a digestible manner.
The lesson: Intent is more than serving the right kind of content. It’s more than giving the user an informational page when an informational page is needed. Intent deals with how usable a piece of content is to a given type of user. In this case, the content may be quite accurate or scientific but it is not usable to the average person in the same way as content that ranks further up the SERP.
04. Include relevant topics
Keyword: “Impingement of shoulder”
Improved rank: MercyHealth
Lost rank: Pinnacle Orthopaedics
Top site: OrthoInfo (Note, this site is represented both by the green and brown lines as Google replaced the URL with a trailing slash with the same URL without the trailing slash)
For a long time, I’ve talked about the notion that including certain topics or subtopics on a page enables the content to rank as it aligns with how Google profiles the topic. That is, if Google is to think of a page as both comprehensive and relevant, then it may need to address specific topics.
In this case, I think the page from Pinnacle Orthopaedics would have done well if it had addressed the symptoms of shoulder impingement. In many ways, the Pinnacle Orthopedics page is higher quality than the one on the MercyHealth site that saw a rank increase (on May 26th this page began to rank among the top 20 as shown by the orange line in the graph above).
As you can see below, the Pinnacle Orthopaedics page starts off providing context around the injury, as any health page should (at least, in my opinion):
The content is eye-level, it’s very well written, and it makes for a high-quality page. Why then did the page lose rank for the keyword?
One of the issues I see with this page when compared to other content that ranks on the SERP is that it simply doesn’t address a very important component of the topic: symptoms. While the page goes into really strong detail around how the injury can come about, it simply doesn’t talk about the symptoms of shoulder impingement.
Unfortunately for this page, this means that it might be viewed as less relevant to the keyword in the eyes of Google.
Conversely, the MercyHealth page, which (in my opinion) is not as strong of a page as the one from Pinnacle Orthopaedics, does cover symptoms.
I’m not saying that the MercyHealth page is not good; it does a very nice job of explaining what shoulder impingement is:
However, it simply lacks the level of detail and nuance seen on the Pinnacle Orthopaedics page. Just compare how the two pages handle the causality of shoulder impingement. Above, I showed how the Pinnacle Orthopaedics page went into great detail around the various types of sports movements that can cause the injury, even listing the specific names of swimming strokes that produce shoulder problems.
Compare that to how the MercyHealth page discusses the same thing; it's clear that Pinnacle Orthopedic’s content is better:
This leads me to think that the reason (or one of the reasons) why the MercyHealth page saw ranking gains during the update is that it is more complete from a topic perspective (in that it includes copy around symptoms).
With that, the page from OrthoInfo, which has been consistently ranking at the top of the SERP, offers the best of both words and then some. Like the Pinnacle Orthopaedics page, the content from OrthoInfo starts by giving the users context around the injury, including anatomy:
Like the MercyHealth page, symptoms are covered here just with a bit more detail:
What differentiates the page (to me), is that OrthoInfo gives a 360-degree view of the topic from a user-centric point of view. The content here walks users through factual information (as the other pages do) but also gives you a lot more about the treatment of the injury.
Take a look at how the page explains the doctor’s examination, including the imaging tests that come along with it:
From a user’s point of view, you really get a more holistic understanding of the injury and of how the injury relates to your individual experience (as in, what treatment is going to entail for you).
It makes sense that this content would rank at the top of the SERP consistently when you compare it to the other pages discussed above.
The lesson: Sometimes, it can be really important to ensure you have the appropriate topical coverage on the page. As seen here, covering a topic comprehensively and then some can, to a degree, outperform content that might be more detailed but lacks the right topical inclusions.
The real lesson with Google’s core updates
The little things do matter. When it comes to meeting the right user intent, the details can play a big role. In fact, the details are often what separate a page that merely ranks from one that serves as a cornerstone for a site’s traffic (and perhaps conversions).
I hope you’ve seen here that putting in the extra effort and going the extra mile can be the difference between ranking above the fold on page one of the SERP and not even appearing on the first page. When it comes to content, most definitely sweat the details.
Mordy Oberstein - Head of SEO Branding, Wix
Mordy is the Head of SEO Branding at Wix. Concurrently he also serves as a communications advisor for Semrush. Dedicated to SEO education, Mordy is one of the organizers of SEOchat and a popular industry author and speaker. Twitter | Linkedin