Author: Marie Haynes
Despite Google releasing core algorithm updates at a predictable rate of two or three times a year, each update can introduce volatility to the search rankings, which creates winners and losers.
If your site traffic is adversely affected by a Google core update, there are ways to bounce back. To recover, you’ll likely need to:
Improve your expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T)
Wait for the next core update to potentially reward your optimizations
Google core updates can have devastating effects on traffic
If your Google organic traffic plummets within 24 hours of an announced Google update, there is a good chance that Google’s algorithms have changed in a way that prefers other sites’ content over yours.
Google runs a “core update”—a major change to its algorithms—every few months. These changes often produce widespread fluctuations in the ranking order of search results, which can ultimately mean less organic traffic for sites that are negatively affected.
Google records the release dates of core updates in this document.
While most updates have a multi-week rollout, at MHC (my consulting agency), we have found that significant changes most often occur within 24 hours of an update going live.
To illustrate the potential negative impact, this image shows Google organic traffic for a site that saw declines within 24 hours of the May 2022 core update rollout.
How to tell if the losses are due to the update
If your traffic drop happens during the rollout of an update, the update is most likely to blame.
However, there are cases where unfortunate timing causes a site to launch a new redesign or significant overhaul just before an update, which may also affect traffic. Or, it may be possible that a competitor has made improvements to their site or obtained some new authoritative backlinks to help propel them above you.
If you are not sure whether your losses are due to a Google update, you can dig around in Google Analytics to see if the drop is limited to Google organic traffic. If this is the case, then it is much more likely that the update was the catalyst leading to losses.
Here is an example of a site that took a large hit to its Google organic traffic following the September 2022 core update:
Core updates often have a sitewide impact, although they may not impact every single page on the site. If you notice changes on just one page, this is probably not due to a Google core update.
In the example above, the site (which was impacted by the September 2022 core update) saw big losses in some pages, but not all.
So, you’ve been hit. How do you recover?
Fortunately, Google gives us specific information about what its core updates (and thus, its algorithms) aim to reward. In its documentation on what site owners should know about Google core updates, the search engine highlights two things we should focus on:
02. E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness)—especially with regard to how it’s described in the Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines (QRG)
Google tells us that “assessing your own content in terms of E-A-T criteria may help it align conceptually with the different signals our automated systems use to rank content.”
In terms of E-A-T, there are several questions Google suggests we ask ourselves to help us understand what it is looking for. While we don’t know exactly what Google’s algorithms are on the lookout for, we can find some clues in the questions listed in this document.
“Does the content present information in a way that makes you want to trust it, such as clear sourcing, evidence of the expertise involved, background about the author or the site that publishes it, such as through links to an author page or a site's About page?”
This suggests several improvements we can make:
Provide links to authoritative resources from within your content wherever possible.
Cite references from scientific resources when appropriate.
Clearly demonstrate to the reader that this article is written by someone with expertise. This could be in the form of an author bio or other type of copy on the page that shows it is written by someone with sufficient relevant experience.
Feature author bios (when it makes sense; if your brand is known for being experts on a topic, you may not need author bios). Link author bios to author pages that extol their qualifications and mentions.
Publish a detailed About page.
Use schema to identify your brand to search engines and tell them who your authors are. Use Same-As schema to point to other authoritative places where your authors have been featured.
“If you researched the site producing the content, would you come away with an impression that it is well-trusted or widely-recognized as an authority on its topic?”
Much of how Google evaluates E-A-T is based on links and mentions.
“Google’s algorithms identify signals about pages that correlate with trustworthiness and authoritativeness,” the company said in its white paper about how it fights disinformation. “The best known of these signals is PageRank, which uses links on the web to understand authoritativeness.”
But, if links are important, does this mean we should be building our own links?
Google is getting much better at recognizing which links truly are authoritative mentions worth counting. In most cases, if you are able to build your own link, you are likely breaking Google’s guidelines on links. These links are likely to be ignored by Google’s algorithms. In extreme cases, excessive link building can cause Google’s algorithms to completely distrust a site, resulting in a manual action or even removal from the search results. (Note: Links from your own profiles on other platforms, such as a Facebook or Yelp page, are perfectly fine but are unlikely to send the same authority signals to search engines.)
In 2021, Google released a link spam update (separate from a core update) reminding site owners that buying links is against its guidelines, as is guest posting for the purpose of gaining links.
So, what qualifies as a good link? In the QRG, the raters are told to look for evidence of other topic experts and professionals referencing a site or its authors. Most likely, links that can help contribute to E-A-T are ones that truly are recommendations or mentions of your business that would be valuable even if PageRank wasn’t taken into consideration.
Examples of valuable and helpful links include:
Mentions in articles and interviews on authoritative, well trusted websites (especially sites that are authoritative in your vertical). You can often get these by using a service such as HARO
Being listed on a resource page of a well used, authoritative site
News mentions of your brand or authors
Similarly, if your brand has almost no online recognition beyond what you have said about yourself, this can be seen as a sign of low E-A-T.
The Quality Rater Guidelines are filled with examples of pages that Google considers high or low quality because of their level of E-A-T. I highly recommend reading the guidelines and looking for clues in the examples given.
Improving content quality
Returning to Google’s documentation on what site owners should know about Google core updates, some of the questions point to obvious user frustration and UX issues:
“Does the content have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?”
It is perfectly acceptable to display ads on a page. But, if you have ads that make it hard for searchers to engage with your content, this can be a sign of a low quality page.
“Does content display well for mobile devices when viewed on them?”
If your mobile experience is frustrating searchers, this can impact Google’s assessment of quality for your site.
In my opinion, the most important quality questions are:
“Does the content provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?”
“Does the content provide original information, reporting, research or analysis?”
“Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?”
Look at your content and compare it to a page that Google is now ranking above yours since the core update. Is yours substantially better? Does it do a better job of quickly getting the searcher to the answer they are looking for? What can you add, based on your experience, that would make your article uniquely valuable to searchers?
The QRG talks extensively about the importance of fully meeting the needs of searchers.
Your goal should be to produce content that:
Allows the searcher to find their answer quickly
Allows for easy skimming
Is what a searcher would expect to read from an expert on your topic
Doesn’t contradict general expert consensus
Is thorough enough that the searcher would not want to go elsewhere to read more
Gives answers concisely where appropriate so that a searcher who doesn’t want to read the whole article can easily find it
If you can improve your content based on these questions, you may have an opportunity to recover from your core update hit.
How long does recovery take?
In my experience, if a site suffers a noticeable core update hit, a significant amount of work needs to be done in order to recover. Making a few changes in one or two articles is probably not enough—Google wants to see that the quality of your content has drastically improved.
Content improvements can result in gradual traffic increases over time. However, “Broad core updates tend to happen every few months,” Google tells us, “Content that was impacted by one might not recover—assuming improvements have been made—until the next broad core update is released.”
Here are some examples of sites we worked with at MHC that worked hard to improve and saw some level of recovery with a subsequent core update release.
These sites all worked on improving E-A-T both on-site (with schema, author bios where appropriate, improved verbiage to demonstrate expertise, etc.) and off (links and mentions). They also all worked on drastically improving the quality of their content as mentioned above.
The next core update is coming, improve your E-A-T and content quality to come out on top
Google updates can have a significant impact on a site’s ability to rank. If you have been affected, the key to recovery is likely in improving your E-A-T and content quality. Pay close attention to Google’s core update questions. If you can improve significantly, you may find that traffic increases with a subsequent core update release.
Marie Haynes - Owner at Marie Haynes Consulting Inc.
Dr. Marie Haynes has been helping businesses perform well in Google's ever changing algorithms since 2008. A recognized leader in the SEO industry, digital marketers around the world use her book and checklist to evaluate website quality like a Google quality rater. Twitter | Linkedin