Google Algorithm Update – What you need to know

Sam Ovenden

Gravytrain SEO SocialIt’s extremely rare for Google to officially announce a core algorithm update as the company are prone to secrecy as a general rule. One thing that isn’t a secret though is the fact that Google are not fans of webmasters purposely attempting to manipulate their algorithm, which is why they keep news about their updates close to their chest.

Last week, we, along with much of the wider SEO industry, began to notice some severe fluctuation within the search results, particularly in terms searched within the US. This fits the usual big update pattern for Google – they usually test their updates on a smaller market (often Canada), and then roll them out gradually starting with the US, then to other English speaking countries, then finally in other languages. Something big is happening, and this has been vaguely confirmed by various members of staff at Google.

As with all big updates, Google keeps the particulars of what exactly happened close to their chests, and analysis is ongoing as to exactly what this update effects. All they’ve confirmed is that a “Core Algorithm Update” occurred – updates with no given name are generally called “Phantom” updates by marketers, in this case the generally accepted name is “Phantom III”.

Here is what we know so far, and what it means for you…

It disproportionally effects publishers, but not brands

Some of the biggest ‘losers’ as tracked by the keyword database Search Metrics includes some of the internet’s largest publishers, with The New Yorker,Vanity Fair, Ars Technica and The Economist all appearing high on the ‘hit’ list.

Interestingly, it isn’t universal across their content, primarily affecting older articles that were still getting high traffic from search. Google has long included a signal called “QDF”, or Query Deserves Freshness. If they believe the searcher is looking for something recent – say, they are searching around a recent news topic, Google will heavily factor how recent a piece of content’s creation was to ensure that the searcher isn’t getting 4 day old news.

What this means for you…

A potential decrease in lower quality traffic. Old press releases or posts around topics no longer particularly relevant to current conversations online may lose visibility. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; much of this traffic was likely commercially low value anyway. It does highlight the value of setting tighter KPIs for content than traffic and reach though, and I expect actual business KPIs will not be affected.

Google’s increasing use of Artificial Intelligence

If you’ve ever asked Google a question on your phone, you’ve seen the AI at work. Google has long been moving beyond simply matching keywords to content, and have been trying to understand the intent, topics and concepts behind a search or a piece of content.

Larger resources that explore topics in depth have done very well in this update. For example, GQ.com has an article on the American Football player Tom Brady which is the biggest individual winning page of this update.

Google can understand now that Tom Brady is an American Football player, and then understand that American Football is a game. They understand that he plays in a team called the “New England Patriots”, and then who the other players in that team are, who the other teams in the NFL are, and that they play in seasons that culminates in the Super Bowl….

So, given that they understand these relationships, they can now start to prioritise content that has more depth on the subject. Larger, more comprehensive pages seem to have benefited from the recent update.

What this means for you…

Google has long asked for ‘Quality Content’, however have rather frustratingly been vague on what that actually means. These movements mean we are starting to have a definite definition of “quality” – Quality Content is deep content that fully explores a topic. This should be a consideration on all pages. What features does a product have? What questions are there? What are the specifications? What does it relate to? Google is looking for more than just a basic landing page in 2016.