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What are Google algorithm updates?

An image of author Mordy Oberstein, accompanied by various search-related iconography

Every year, Google updates its search results thousands upon thousands of times. While the majority of these updates are small adjustments to Google’s algorithm, they can have big implications for you, your site, and your potential revenue. 


Understanding Google’s various types of algorithm updates and their purpose helps you create better content, recover from rankings changes associated with algorithm updates, and “future-proof” your website.


If your business or brand relies on ranking above competitors in the search results (and most do), then here’s everything you need to know about Google algorithm updates.


Table of contents:




What is a Google algorithm update?

When Google introduces new and better technology and considerations into its search algorithm, these are called “Google algorithm updates.”


Google makes these updates so that it can better understand page quality and relevance (or a domain overall, as many of Google’s quality assessments look at the quality of the entire site—not just a single page). 


While we often think of an algorithm update as reevaluating the weight of certain factors on a SERP (search engine results page), this is an oversimplification. Many of Google’s algorithm changes incorporate technological advancements, specifically in machine learning. 


To that end, some experts speculate that many of Google’s updates are not changes to the algorithm in the strictest sense, but machine learning recalibrating and testing. These changes are perhaps behind a good number of unconfirmed Google algorithm updates.


Why Google algorithm updates take place


To satisfy users, Google needs to serve the best results possible, considering many factors, including user expectations and technological advancements. So, the search engine often updates or “tweaks” its algorithm to change what the SERP shows. 


Two screenshots showing the Google search results for the term (corona). The first one, taken on February 25, 2020, shows the top result as a map for the city of Corona, California, with a knowledge panel for the Corona beer brand. The second screenshot, taken on March 23, 2020, shows coronavirus disease-related information, stats on infection rates, and top stories.
Google aligned its SERP to match new user expectations as the COVID pandemic spread. Source: Search Engine Land.

In the early days of SEO, Google would release updates to keep people from manipulating the algorithm. For example, the Penguin update targeted spammy link practices, and the Panda update protected against thin content. 


While Google still releases updates targeting spam, recently the company is placing more emphasis on surfacing the highest quality content for users.


How often does Google implement algorithm updates?


Google implements algorithm tests and changes daily. Though many of them are small, the company’s own documentation suggests that there were over 4,000 updates in 2021. Core updates (specifically) tend to occur four to five times a year.



Historically, Google would carry out major updates one at a time. However since 2022, large-scale updates like the Product Reviews update and core updates have rolled out concurrently or in quick succession. 


While this is a recent trend, it’s important to note that we don’t know if this trend will continue. Nevertheless when trying to understand how your site has been impacted by an algorithm update, rapid changes like this can make it difficult to pinpoint the particular cause of a visibility surge or drop.


What kinds of algorithm updates does Google make?


Google’s algorithm updates fall under the following categories:


  • Core updates

  • Targeted updates

  • Unconfirmed updates


Let’s explore each of these update types further.


Core algorithm updates


“Core updates” (or “broad core algorithm updates”) are when Google implements wide-ranging changes to how its algorithm works. 


Rather than slight modifications to ancillary aspects, these updates signal a broad change in how Google’s algorithm ranks pages and sites. These updates are important because, rather than affecting how a single page may rank for a keyword, they can impact domain-wide visibility.


Think of the “core algorithm” as a stew, where each spice and ingredient works in relative harmony with the others. An update to the core algorithm might mean a change in how those various ingredients factor into each other and the role they play in the overall stew—among other things (such as advancements that enable the elements within the core algorithm to function at a higher level).

While Google has long released broad core algorithm updates, Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan began officially announcing core updates in March 2018. 


These updates have tremendously impacted how search marketers think about content. Perhaps the most notable of these updates was known as the Medic update (AKA the August 2018 core update), as it disproportionately impacted Your Money Your Life (YMYL) sites, including finance, health, and other sites that could significantly harm users if they present inaccurate information.


A search traffic trend timeline showing rising traffic between January 2016 to summer 2018, where it decreases almost to zero.
An example of Google’s Medic Update negatively impacting a site’s organic traffic.

In many ways, the Medic update served as the prototype for subsequent core updates. It showed a clear qualitative leap in Google’s ability to understand and profile content. Those significantly impacted by the update included sites with a thin content experience and those that put marketing aims above substantial content. 


For example, if a user searched [how to eat better], pages that use heavy marketing language or those that showed bias towards their own product or service would likely rank lower after this update. On the other hand, Google’s algorithm rewarded authoritative, expert, and unbiased articles on the same topic.


Since then, Google’s core updates have shown an increased ability to understand what quality content looks and sounds like. This includes cases of Google demoting pages that, instead of offering informational content, took a marketing tone as well as instances of rewarding pages that offer a highly targeted content experience that is of clear value to users. 


Targeted algorithm updates


Along with core updates, Google also carries out updates that target specific types of content. These align with ranking systems and include:


  • Spam Updates 

  • Link spam updates

  • Reviews updates



These updates can cause ranking changes for some website types and not others. 


It’s important to note that while each of these updates may focus on a certain content type, Google sometimes releases the updates concurrently with core updates, which can make it difficult to tell if the impact was due to one ranking system or another. 


For instance, the March 2024 spam update released at the same time as the March 2024 core update. Some sites could be affected by one or both updates, so it may be difficult to isolate the impact and identify solutions.


The Google Search Status Dashboard showing that the March 2024 core and spam updates both started on March 5, 2024.

Google best practice updates

In rare instances, Google will announce a new algorithm update ahead of time. Examples of this include the: 



These updates are similar in that they seek to reward sites making adjustments based on Google’s newest best practice recommendations for website management and user satisfaction.


When these kinds of updates occur, Google’s teams often create new tools and documentation to support SEOs and developers adapting to the changes. In the case of the Mobile-first update, for example, Google introduced a mobile-friendly testing tool, while Core Web Vitals ushered in a suite of UX tools in Lighthouse


Unconfirmed Google updates


Google makes thousands of changes to its algorithm every year, yet only officially announces a fraction of these updates. 


Instead of relying purely on confirmed updates, search marketers use “SEO weather tools” to track significant algorithm changes. These tools  indicate rank volatility level by visualizing ranking movement (as shown below).


The Semrush sensor shows a line chart for ranking volatility over the last 30 days (ranging from “low” to “very high”) with a volatility figure of 6.4 out of 10.
The Semrush Sensor, Semrush’s rank volatility weather tool, shows moderate levels of increased rank movement on the Google SERP.

Google’s broad core updates have been the most commonly confirmed update type, but other confirmed updates include the Spam updates that worked to reduce the prevalence of websites that violated Google spam policies in search results. 


In general, confirmed updates result in far more rank volatility than unofficial updates.


How to handle confirmed Google updates


An official core update (or other confirmed update) is a bit different than the run-of-the-mill unconfirmed update. In some cases, ranking gains and losses can be more long-term, with there being fewer reversals. 


If you believe that your site was affected by an algorithm update, it is important to assess the impact of Google algorithm updates thoroughly before you take steps towards recovering from core update ranking changes.


You need to understand how Google views your site as well as the topic that the keyword(s) represent. While Google may see you as an authority on one topic, it may think another falls just outside your site’s identity (in which case you would want to show Google that the topic is pertinent to your site by creating highly-detailed and nuanced content around it that connects to the other aspects of your website/business). 


There are a variety of reasons why Google would no longer look at your content the same way. It could be that the intent of your pages around a given topic is not aligned with how Google sees user needs here. 


Your job is to figure out where this is happening and to analyze the SERP so that you can see what Google is after and then do that, but better and with differentiation. 


Future-proofing your website against Google updates


Rank volatility is just a natural consequence of competing on the Google SERP. No site is without rank volatility. Every site sees some of its rankings come and some of its rankings go. Expecting that your rankings will always be at the top of the SERP is like expecting bad things will never happen to you. So much is out of your control—especially in competitive spaces where many pages are vying for top rankings. 


However, the most basic and important thing you can do is create really good content, which is what most of Google’s own advice on core updates discusses. 


Remember—like everything in SEO, what good content looks like depends on your vertical. The tone, structure, and feel of a basic outline on heart diseases, for example, will look different than a thesis on quantum physics, which will be different than a post about a local baseball game. 


So long as you keep your audience and their needs in mind—and present them with a first-class user experience—you’ll be able to insulate your website from Google updates as much as any business possibly can.


 

mordy oberstein

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




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