Google is providing less information about algorithm updates these days
As SEOs, we tend to obsess over changes to the organic results. It usually works like this:
You get to your computer in the morning. Ready to start work, you take a quick look at Facebook to check what you have missed. You run across someone asking if anyone saw changes last night. They’ll typically also note that there was “a lot of activity.”
“Activity” means that SEOs who follow changes to search rankings saw some fluctuations in a short period of time. If there is “a lot of activity,” that means there were large fluctuations in many websites’ rankings in a vertical or across verticals. Sometimes these results are positive, but mostly they are not. Big updates can often mean big drops in traffic.
So you quickly go check your Analytics and Search Console. Phew! The “activity” didn’t impact you — this time. But what about the next one?
This is what happens when Google rolls out large-scale changes to its search algorithms, and what is in these rollouts has been the topic of many articles, tweets and Facebook posts over the years.
What if I told you, though, that while it is very important to know what Google’s algorithms contain, you do not really need to know granular details about every update to keep your site in the black?
When former Head of Web Spam Matt Cutts was the point of communication between SEOs and Google, he would confirm updates — and either he or others in the industry would give each update a name. This was very helpful when you had to identify why your site went belly up. Knowing what the update was targeting, and why, made it much easier to diagnose the issues. However, Google does not share that information much anymore. They are much more tight-lipped about what changes have been rolled out and why.
Sure, Google will confirm the big stuff — like the last Penguin update, when it went real-time — but how many times have we seen an official announcement of a Panda update since it became part of the core ranking algorithm? The answer is none — and that was over 18 months ago.
As for all the other unidentified changes SEOs notice, but that Google will not confirm? Those have been just been given the name “Fred.”
Fred, for those who don’t know, is just a silly name that came out of an exchange between Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes and several SEOs on Twitter. Fred is meant to cover every “update” SEOs notice that Google does not confirm and/or name.
So, what’s an SEO or site owner to do? If your site suffers a downturn, how will you know what caused it? How do you know what to fix if Google won’t tell you what that update did? How can you make gains if you don’t know what Google wants from you? And even more importantly, how do you know how to protect your site if Google does not tell you what it is “penalizing” with its updates?
Today, we work in a post-update world. Google updates are rolling out all the time. According to Gary Illyes and John Mueller, these algorithms update most every day, and usually several times a day, but they don’t share that information with the community.
If they update all the time, how is it a post-update world?
Post-update world refers to a world where there is no official identifying/naming of algorithm changes, no confirmation that an update has been rolled out, and consequently, no information on when that rollout occurred. Basically, the updates they tell us about are becoming more and more infrequent. Where Matt Cutts might have told us, “Hey we are pushing Penguin today”…
… Illyes or Mueller might just say:
So, if you cannot get the information about updates and algorithm changes from Google, where do you go?
Technically, you can still go to Google to get most of that information — just more indirectly.
While Google is not telling you much about what they are doing these days with regard to algorithm updates, you still can wake up and find yourself at the bottom of an analytics cliff. When this happens, what do you do? Running to Twitter might get you some answers, but mostly you will just get confirmation that some unknown algorithm (“Fred”) likely ran.
Outside of reading others’ thoughts on the update, what can we use to determine exactly how Google is defining a quality site experience?
Understanding the Google algorithms
A few years back, Google divided up most algorithm changes between on-page and off-page. There were content and over-optimization algorithms, and there were link algorithms. The real focus of all of these, however, was spam. Google became the search market leader in part by being better than its competitors at removing irrelevant and “spammy” content from its search results pages.
But today, these algorithms cover so much more. While Google still uses algorithms to remove or demote spam, they are additionally focused on surfacing better user experiences. As far back as 2012, Matt Cutts suggested that we change SEO from “Search Engine Optimization” to “Search Experience Optimization.” About 18 months later, Google released the Page Layout Update. This update was the first to use a rendered page to assess page layout issues, and it brought algorithmic penalties with it.
What do Algorithm Updates ‘Cover’ update?
Most algorithm updates address issues that fall under the following categories (note mobile and desktop are grouped here):
But how do we know what rules our site violated when Google does not even confirm something happened? What good are categories if I don’t know what the rules are for those categories?
Let’s take a look at how we can evaluate these areas without Google telling us much about what changes occurred.
One of the most vetted areas of organic SEO is, of course, links — and Penguin is the algorithm that evaluates those links.
It could be said that Penguin was one of the harshest and most brutal algorithm updates Google had ever released. With Penguin, if a site had a very spammy link profile, Google wouldn’t just devalue their links — they would devalue their site. So it often happened that a webmaster whose site had a spammy inbound link profile would find their whole site removed from the index (or dropped so far in rankings that it may as well have been removed). Many site owners had no idea until they walked in one day to a 70+ percent drop in traffic.
The site owner then had to make fixes, remove links, do disavows and wait. And wait. And wait until Penguin updated again. The last time it refreshed, there had been a two-year gap between algorithm updates. Without the update, your site could not fully (or sometimes even partially) recover its ranking losses.
It’s important to educate yourself on what Google is looking for in a website. And it’s a good idea to read up on the major algorithm updates throughout the search engine’s history to get an idea of what issues Google has tackled in the past, as this can provide some insight into where they might be headed next.
However, you don’t need to know what every “Fred” update did or didn’t do. The algorithms are going to target links and/or site quality. They want to eliminate spam and poor usability from their results. So make sure your site keeps its links in check and does not violate the rules listed in the documents above, and you will likely be okay.