Google algorithm updates happen every day, meaning changes to ranking factors, user interface enhancements, and more — all of which can affect your site. Learn how to prepare, combat, and thrive through algo updates in this handy guide.

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Has your site suddenly slipped down the search engine results pages (SERPs)?

A Google search algorithm update might have affected it. Understanding these updates is key to recovering and maintaining your search rankings.

Google’s algorithm is the backbone of its search engine. But it’s not a fixed entity. It is frequently modified and updated to enhance user experience and prioritize high-quality content.

While major updates (like the March 2024 Core Update or the December 2022 Link Spam Update) are rolled out periodically, minor tweaks happen almost daily.

If you notice a significant downturn in your site’s visibility, it’s vital to confirm if it coincides with a recent algorithm change.  Let’s explore how you can navigate Google’s algorithm changes and safeguard your site’s position on the SERPs.

What is a Google algorithm update?

A Google algorithm update is an update to the coding of the search engine to improve the quality and/or relevance of Google search results. Algorithm is a broad term for the complex set of rules that Google uses to rank web pages in SERPs. Google does not disclose the full details of this system, which leaves much about its exact workings shrouded in mystery.

However, occasionally, Google releases insights suggesting that attributes like fast page speed and low bounce rates are key factors in a page’s ranking well.

The advent of machine learning has had a major impact on the ranking processes, moving beyond simple key performance indicators (KPIs) to more nuanced, uncertain criteria.

What is BERT?

BERT, which is Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. Sounds like a medical term, doesn’t it? It’s actually one of the machine learning frameworks Google uses. It’s known for natural language processing. The cool part is that it uses neural networks to convert numbers to words.

More complex algorithms mean fewer “black hat” techniques

If you go back a decade, many SEOs were using what are known as “black hat SEO” techniques. This included things like adding the keyword as many times as you possibly could into a page and using tricks like stuffing it in 100 times at the bottom of the page but making the page and text white so the user would not see it.

Of course, nowadays, the algorithm is too smart to be tricked by these types of tactics. But with this shift in the algorithm’s complexity, it has been more difficult to pinpoint precisely what Google prioritizes in its ranking algorithm.

SEO professionals now need to invest considerable effort in analyzing trends and patterns among well-performing and underperforming web pages. By understanding these patterns, SEO experts can align their practices with Google’s algorithm’s probable preferences despite the absence of explicit guidelines from Google itself.

This ongoing process of hypothesis and adjustment is crucial for staying competitive in the ever-changing landscape of search engine optimization.

How often does Google update its algorithm?

Google makes changes to the algorithm regularly. In 2022 alone, there were 4,725 changes to its search mechanisms. This means the Google search algorithm was updated on average 13 times a day, covering ranking factors, user interface enhancements, and more.

While many of these changes are minor, algorithm updates can significantly impact search rankings. For example, the recent March 2024 Core Algorithm Update introduced a major shift across multiple core systems.

This particular update, aimed at reducing unhelpful content by 40%, promised more ranking fluctuations than usual and incorporated Google’s helpful content system into its core ranking algorithm.

For SEO strategists and site owners, keeping up to date on these changes is of the utmost importance. Each update offers new challenges and opportunities, but when they are not acknowledged, they can have catastrophic impacts on site rankings, lead generation, and sales.

What kind of updates does Google roll out?

Beyond the regular updates aimed at refining the indexing and ranking processes, Google also focuses on specific areas to improve the overall search experience.

This includes updates like:

  • Helpful content update: designed to prioritize valuable and informative content over low-quality content that doesn’t serve searchers’ needs.
  • The page experience update: emphasizing the importance of user-friendly sites by incorporating factors such as loading speed and mobile-friendliness into Google search ranking considerations.
  • Product reviews update: rewards thorough and insightful reviews that go beyond mere specifications, offering genuine user insights.

The Penguin update was first launched to fight web spam. It focused on keyword stuffing, link building, and general web spam. By contrast, the Panda update removes low-quality content. It wasn’t a penalty. Instead, it downgrades the rankings on these low-quality sites.

These focused updates show Google’s commitment to ensuring that the most helpful and relevant content rises to the top in response to search queries.

What to watch out for with Google algorithm updates?

To better understand what to look for with Google algorithm updates, we asked HawkSEM Senior SEO Manager Joe Leija to give us some tips.

“The first thing is to understand the type of update,” says Leija. “Google releases different types of updates that usually are aimed to improve or address certain aspects of the algorithm. These can be smaller updates which just take a couple of days, or larger core updates that can take months to roll out.”

He tells us that after you understand the update, you’ll need to watch for changes in your website’s ranking. Impacts aren’t always on the whole site, just certain types of content.

“Look for changes both positive and negative in your keyword rankings, organic traffic patterns, or even user behavior metrics like bounce rate and time on page,” explains Leija. “If you notice trends with significantly improved or declined positions this could be caused by the algorithm update and further investigation would be needed.”

Staying ahead of Google’s algorithm updates

Navigating Google’s algorithm updates can feel like preparing for a storm you know is coming but can’t fully predict. The somewhat good news is that when Google announces an update, like the recent March 2024 Core Update, it signals the changes are significant enough to warrant attention.

“To stay informed about algorithm updates, rely on reputable sources like Hawk within the SEO community,” says Leija. “Engage with industry blogs or LinkedIn groups where SEO professionals share insights and experiences.”

Google often provides some lead time before major updates, similar to how they disclosed the Core Web Vitals update months in advance, allowing marketers and site owners to optimize their sites beforehand. But that’s not always the case.

For example, Google announced the March 2024 update on March 5th. The rollout of updates began almost immediately, although Google stated that websites have a two-month window to comply with the new site reputation policy.

While algorithm updates can cause some panic, if you adhere to SEO best practices, there’s no need for immediate concern. Maintaining high-quality SEO and content strategies can shield your rankings from negative impacts.

Leija tells us that using other experts is important to protecting site health and maintaining ranking. “It’s great to be able to get feedback from various SEO professionals and what they’re experiencing with their sites during an algorithm update,” he says. “A lot of times it’s the community as a whole who are testing and reporting to help understand all of the ramifications of an update.”

To safeguard your rankings against potential downturns, aligning your SEO strategy with Google’s evolving guidelines is critical.

Recent emphasis includes:

  • Creating high-quality content that meets or exceeds Google’s E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) criteria. Google emphasizes people-first content.
  • Optimizing user experience across devices, ensuring fast load times, mobile-friendliness, and easy navigation.
  • Staying informed about Google’s search quality rater guidelines to understand what Google’s human reviewers are looking for.
  • Leveraging the latest SEO tools and analytics, such as Google’s Search Console, to monitor your site’s performance and identify areas for improvement.

Following the announcement of the March 2024 Core Update, which aimed to significantly reduce unhelpful content and integrate the helpful content system into the core ranking algorithm, website owners experienced notable ranking fluctuations.

This underscored the importance of preparing for and adapting to Google’s algorithmic shifts.

In the face of a major update, while it’s natural for your site’s rankings to undergo some fluctuations, avoid overhauling your site structure, content, or linking strategies hastily. In many cases, your established SEO efforts will be enough to stabilize your rankings.

9 steps to recovering your ranking

1. Confirm the algorithm update

Stay informed about the latest updates by monitoring Google’s Search Central Blog and setting up Google Alerts for “Google algorithm update.” Tools like Moz, Semrush, and Google Search Console can also alert you to fluctuations that may signal an update.

For example, if you notice a significant change in your site’s performance around a specific date, cross-reference it with known update announcements or use these tools to confirm an update.

2. Analyze organic traffic impact

Examine your site’s traffic through Google Analytics by navigating to:

Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels > Organic Search

Adjust the date range to capture the period before and after the suspected update. A sharp decline may indicate your site was affected. This step helps quantify the impact and pinpoint where recovery efforts need to be focused.

3. Evaluate keyword performance drops

With tools like Moz, Semrush, or Google Search Console, you can identify which specific keywords suffered drops in rankings.

For instance, if your business sells jewelry and “handmade silver jewelry” drops out of the top 3 right after an update, this keyword should become a priority in your recovery strategy. Comparing current rankings to previous periods helps highlight the most affected areas.

4. Run a technical SEO audit

Technical issues on your site can exacerbate the effects of an algorithm update. Use tools like Google’s Core Web Vital Report, Screaming Frog, or Semrush for a comprehensive audit that checks for crawl errors, broken links, and other issues, such as improper use of canonical tags. Addressing these issues quickly can help reduce the update’s impact and improve your overall site health.

5. Content quality review

In light of Google’s focus on content quality, perform a thorough content audit. Assess your pages for alignment with Google’s E-E-A-T (Expertise, Experience, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) principles. Ask questions like ‘Does this content provide unique value?’ or ‘Is the authoritativeness of the content verifiable?”’

“Evaluate whether the content provides comprehensive information and answers common questions, but also non-common questions,” says Leija. “This is a good way to build up user trust by answering the questions they didn’t even know to ask.”

Tools like Copyscape can help identify duplicate content issues, while reading-level tools ensure your content matches your audience’s expectations.

6. Competitive analysis

Understanding how your competitors react to and benefit from the search update can offer strategic insights. Use SEO tools to analyze competitors’ rankings, focusing on keywords where they’ve improved and you’ve declined.

This analysis might reveal content gaps or SEO strategies you’ve overlooked.

7. Link profile assessment

Since backlinks remain a crucial ranking factor, evaluate your link profile using an SEO tool like Ahrefs or Semrush. Look for lost high-quality links or an influx of low-quality links.

Tools like the Disavow Tool in Google Search Console can help remove harmful backlinks impacting your rankings.

8. Adjust and improve your content

Based on your content audit and competitive analysis, update and improve your website’s content. Focus on enhancing pages that lose traffic, ensuring they meet the needs of your audience better and adhere more closely to Google’s guidelines.

Key strategies include updating keywords, improving readability, and adding fresh, high-quality information.

9. Monitor changes and adjust strategies

Recovery from an algorithm update is not instant. Use Google Analytics and Google Search Console to monitor your site’s performance as you implement changes. ConversionIQ, HawkSEM’s proprietary tool, can also be used.

It harnesses advanced analytics to optimize your website’s performance by closely monitoring key metrics and user behavior. Be prepared to adjust your strategies based on what’s working and what isn’t, keeping in mind that SEO is an ongoing process of refinement and adaptation.

Focus on user experience for recovery and growth

While data analysis and SEO tactics are invaluable for recovering from a drop in rankings due to algorithm updates, the cornerstone of enduring success in Google’s ever-changing search landscape is to prioritize user experience.

There is mystery surrounding the exact workings of Google’s algorithm, since the company doesn’t divulge all its secrets. But the trend is unmistakably ticking toward rewarding websites that offer the best possible experience to searchers.

This user-centric approach means creating content that genuinely serves your audience’s needs, whether through high-quality product reviews, in-depth articles, or helpful FAQs. It’s about moving beyond spammy practices and focusing on delivering value in every piece of content you publish.

For webmasters, understanding the importance of catering to specific needs, like local search queries or providing resources for common questions in English or any other demographic-specific contexts, becomes essential.

Moreover, the emphasis on user experience is not just about avoiding penalties from expired domains or getting caught in the volatility of search rankings. It’s about building a foundation that withstands the ebb and flow of algorithm changes.

Creating content that:

  • Resonates with your audience
  • Answers their questions comprehensively
  • Improves their overall experience on your site

“Develop content or media that provides that user value on your post/page that the competitors don’t have,” advises Leija. “Here’s an analogy: find your secret ingredient. Everyone knows how to make spaghetti, but they don’t all taste the same. What makes your spaghetti better than the rest?”

These things are what will ultimately improve your site’s authority and trustworthiness in the eyes of users and search engines.

The takeaway

Want to keep your website high in the SERPs? Then you need to master the evolving landscape of Google’s search ranking algorithm.

This requires you to have a keen eye on your metrics and an adaptive approach to content and SEO strategies that keep your users in mind.

Whether it’s a ranking algorithm update or a broad core algorithm update, the key takeaway is to prioritize high-quality, user-focused content that aligns with Google’s guidelines for sustained success in search rankings.

This article has been updated and was originally published in January 2022.

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