Written by Caroline Cox on Jul 31 , 2020

On the heels of Google’s sweeping May 2020 update, let’s take a look at how algorithm updates affect search engine optimization (SEO).

Here, you’ll find:

  • What a Google update is
  • How Google updates have evolved
  • How these updates can impact your SEO
  • Tips for preventing updates from hurting your rankings

Trying to figure out exactly how Google’s algorithm works is like trying to solve a giant Rubix cube. Every time you get one side figured out, the other sides have switched up.

We know the algorithm determines organic search rankings, which it pulls from the SEO elements of your content. We also know the algorithm isn’t static. That’s because the Google team is consistently updating it to show users the best results for their perceived queries. 

So, how can you safeguard your SEO against Google’s often-changing standards and updates? Here’s what you need to know.

hawksem - woman on mountaintop

It’s in the best interest of SEO pros to keep an eye on Google’s algorithm updates, as it could have a significant impact on their current SERP rankings. (Image via Unsplash)

What is the Google algorithm?

The Google algorithm is a complex, slightly mysterious system. It essentially gathers data from every corner of the web via its search index to deliver the most accurate, relevant results for a search query. 

As Search Engine Journal explains, the way it determines which content to show is through “a combination of algorithms and numerous ranking signals.” These signals deliver web pages ranked by relevance on the search engine results page (SERP).

SEO is all about making sure your content is primed to be properly recognized and ranked by search engines. This way, you can ensure your message is reaching the widest possible intended audience. 

What are Google updates?

Google’s algorithm updates used to be few and far between. These days, they happen nearly constantly. These updates can be slight and basically undetectable or overarching and drastic. The brand is also fairly secretive about when updates are coming and what they will affect.

It makes sense. If marketers knew exactly how the algorithm operated, they could create or modify content to try to game the system, instead of focusing on content that’s educational, high-quality and helpful to their audience.

Unsurprisingly, it’s in the best interest of SEO pros to keep an eye on Google’s algorithm updates, because it could have an impact (positive or negative) on their current SERP rankings.

What’s the deal with Google’s May 2020 update?

The update Google rolled out in May 2020 was what’s called a “core” update. This means the search engine made big, significant changes to its algorithm. This update ended up impacting businesses across a ton of industries. 

The update was announced via Twitter and immediately began to roll out, a process that would reportedly take a week or two to complete. As the rollout commenced, it appeared to affect elements like:

  • local search businesses
  • sites in a variety of languages and based in a variety of countries
  • health-related sites

(The latter is unsurprising, as the pandemic has made the need for accurate health-related information arguably more important than ever.)

An update that takes weeks to roll out can be an issue for those tracking SEO performance. It can cause fluctuations that affect data being gathered. For example, a page that’s ranked on page 1 of the SERP can suddenly fall to page 2 or 3, giving it significantly less visibility even though the page itself hasn’t changed. 

Why did Google seemingly roll back some of the May 2020 update?

One of the biggest issues that arose from the May 2020 update was the frequency with which big-name brands were ranking for a ton of keywords. Others questioned why Pinterest and other social media sites were showing up in so many first-page search results, often in different languages. Meanwhile, Amazon and Etsy also appeared on multiple SERP results, sometimes with double listings.

A Google rep responded publicly to concerns saying they were looking into the issues people were seeing. (An official rollback hasn’t yet been confirmed.) Often, the rollbacks are never formally announced and can only be detected by monitoring search results and SERP performance. 

Need more insight into Google from an SEO or ad perspective? You’ve come to the right place.

hawksem - google homepage

The algorithm is smart — it knows when sites are trying to trick the system using unethical or “black hat” SEO techniques. (Image via Unsplash)

How do updates and rollbacks affect SERP rankings?

Large-scale updates and subsequent rollbacks make for an unstable SERP. This can result in wildly fluctuating rankings. The May 2020 update seemed to create a lot of volatility in SERP rankings. Many businesses saw large swings in keyword rankings. This, of course, makes it more difficult to assess what’s working and not working from an SEO perspective. 

Another example of this is Google’s BERT update (which stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) in fall 2019. This update, which Google called one of their most important updates in years, was significant. It aimed to improve the algorithm’s understanding and interpretation of natural language and conversational formatting.

It made sense, as the use of voice search became more popular, meaning people were speaking their search queries instead of typing them out. The impact of this update meant that it was more crucial than ever for sites to feature content that was well-written, thorough, and accurate. Many sites with outdated, thin, or keyword-stuffed content saw their rankings decrease.

It also improved the algorithm’s understanding of context, like being able to determine the different meanings of “salsa” when used with “recipe” vs. “dancing” and serving up the right search results accordingly. 

How can brands avoid being negatively impacted by updates and rollbacks?

There’s no magic code you can add to your site or its content that’ll ensure it’s immune from Google’s next big rollout. What you can do is work to make sure all of your content, from your website copy to your blog, follows the E-A-T standards of expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.

The algorithm is smart. It knows when sites are trying to trick the system using unethical or “black hat” SEO techniques. While these may get you higher rankings in the short term, the potential for your site to get penalized makes it, in our eyes, not worth the risk. 

The takeaway

When it comes to SEO, we are at the mercy of the algorithm. The good news: If you prioritize high-quality writing and regular audits and publishing content that is as updated, thorough, and accurate as possible, then any negative side effects you see from Google updates should be small or even temporary.

By following Google best practices, making sure you’re minimizing technical SEO issues, improving your onsite UX, and creating helpful content, you can rest assured you’re doing everything you can to proactively foster the best SEO possible. 

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's content marketing manager. She uses her more than 10 years of professional writing and editing experience to create SEO-friendly articles, educational thought leadership pieces, and savvy social media content to help market leaders create successful digital marketing strategies. She's a fan of reading, yoga, quick vegetarian recipes, and making lists.

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