Search engine algorithms change almost constantly. But your digital marketing plans don’t have to.

Here, you’ll find:

  • How search engine algorithms work
  • Why updates are nearly impossible to predict
  • Ways to prepare for search engine algorithm changes
  • Why content marketing still reigns supreme

In a way, the search engine algorithm is like rocket science: we know it’s important, but most of us aren’t exactly sure how it works. 

Every year, Google rolls out numerous updates (often with little-to-no warning) that manage to change the playing field for marketers in big and small ways.

But even for pros who have been working in paid search for years, understanding the search engine algorithm can be tricky. Knowing the basics allows you to react to new changes quickly or prepare your campaign for them in advance. 

When you figure out how these algorithms can affect your marketing tactics, you can take steps to prevent them from derailing your plans.

What is a search engine algorithm?

A search engine algorithm is a collection of formulas that determines the quality and relevance of a particular ad or web page to the user’s query. 

Google reportedly changes its algorithm hundreds of times each year. The good news: only major changes (or updates) have the power to affect SEM campaigns significantly.

One of the biggest mistakes marketers make is focusing all their efforts on frantically adjusting the campaign to these formulas instead of looking at the bigger picture.

search engine algorithms blog - puzzle

Google uses more than 200 ranking factors when determining which results to serve and in what order. (Image: Unsplash)

How do search engine algorithms work?

Search engines make the user experience a top priority. Google managed to become the most popular search engine on the planet by creating complex algorithms that improve the search process using sophisticated tactics that serve users the information they seek.

An algorithm works with all kinds of details for context, from obvious clues like the perceived content quality to the spam history of the website owner.

Overall, Google uses more than 200 ranking factors when determining which results to serve and in what order. 

However, no matter how well you adjust to them, each new update has the power to push your efforts to square one. While updates may be mostly focused on organic search, they can have not-so-clear (but oh-so-painful) implications for paid search as well. 

For example, your ads could stop showing up as a response to a big part of your target audience’s queries simply because the landing page they lead to isn’t specific enough.

Types of search engine algorithm updates

Not all updates are created equal. 

It’s nearly impossible to monitor all the updates Google comes up with and still have time to focus on your marketing strategy. 

  • Major updates: These updates are infrequent and often address a specific search algorithm issue. For example, the recent Core Web Vitals update deals with problems related to user experience on web pages. Search engines usually release them once or twice a year.
  • Broad-core updates: Updates in this category focus on targeting low-quality pages. Usually, they adjust the importance of several ranking factors. For example, they may decide that page loading speed is now more important than the total number of backlinks. These updates usually occur once every 4-5 months.
  • Small updates: These updates don’t usually create major visible changes to your site’s performance and analytics. They’re often minor tweaks that improve the searcher’s experience and don’t affect rankings of high-quality websites. Minor updates can be implemented daily or weekly.

Basically, major and broad-core updates are worth your attention. However, only a few of them are strong enough to make a significant impact on your rankings.

BERT update

In 2019, Google rolled out a major algorithm update dubbed BERT. This update’s aim was to improve the search engine’s translation of natural, conversational language queries to improve its understanding of context. 

This forced marketers to pay more attention to user intent than before. Pre-BERT, if you needed to focus on separate keywords in the search phrase, full phrases became much more important after the update.

For example, the query “cooking your own vegetables” shouldn’t simply give a list of tips for cooking veggies. It should also provide tips for cooking vegetables you grew and harvested on your own. In turn, paid ads had to become much more specific targeting the intent of the audience to stay relevant to search queries.

With each new Google update, search engine algorithms are working to become more useful to the searcher. Unfortunately for digital marketers, predicting specific changes is nearly impossible. 

By understanding the overall intent to improve the searcher’s experience, it’s possible to adjust your SEM strategy so it doesn’t suffer as new updates take effect.

MUM update

In May 2021, Google announced its Multitask Unified Model update, or MUM. This AI is designed to analyze content similar to the way a human does. Google calls MUM a powerful evolution of the BERT algorithm.  

MUM’s goal is to process complex search queries that can’t be satisfied with a short snippet. To get answers to these query types, a user needs to do an average of eight searches.

To address this problem, MUM works to predict these searches, and provide answers on the first search engine results page (SERP).

When adjusting your SEM strategy for MUM, it’s wise to focus on:

  • A high-quality internal linking system
  • Leveraging structured data
  • Working to predict complex queries as part of the buyer’s journey so you can provide answers
  • Creating multi-tiered content and splitting it into snippet-friendly fragments

Pro tip: If you’re focused on user experience (as you should be), then these updates shouldn’t have a major negative impact. However, if you do see your rankings take a dive, here’s how to deal.

person's hand holding a solved rubic's cube

Search engine algorithms are a complex system for helping users find the best answer to their queries. (Image: Unsplash)

How to prevent the negative effects of algorithm updates

Search engine updates can be as unpredictable as the weather. The only thing you can know for sure is that they will happen. 

When they do, many websites and ads may see a drop in rankings, even if the change is temporary. Luckily, there are ways to stay prepared and ready when updates do arise. 

1. Focus on landing page quality

Even when updates roll around, it’s hard to understand immediately how they’ll affect the connection between paid and organic search.

 But one thing is always clear: High-quality content on landing pages is likely to affect your conversion rate positively, regardless of algorithm changes.

Just a few years ago, landing pages weren’t as important for paid search because they didn’t play a big role in the ad-clicking process. Today, with Google’s focus aimed at search relevancy and accuracy, landing page quality is an integral factor, particularly when determining things like your Quality Score.

Search engines pay close attention to the landing page quality and relevance to keywords, and that isn’t likely to change. Now, Google even tracks how often a user returns to the search page after visiting the landing page in an attempt to understand whether they were satisfied with the search result.

To stay ahead of the updates, it’s imperative to maintain the quality and relevance of both landing and linked pages.

2. Don’t rely solely on keywords

The overall tendency of Google algorithm updates is to move away from a hyper-focus on keywords to more long-tail phrases and nuance. Of course, keywords are still an integral part of SEM. But building your strategy solely around them can prevent you from seeing the big picture or creating a well-rounded program.

Rather than only focusing on your keyword, you also want to take intent and relevance into account. Look into how you can best answer the questions your audience is asking. Paying attention to when, how, and what they ask can help you design relevant ad and landing page content while satisfying changing search engine algorithms.  

It can help to focus on the buyer’s journey instead of only on single keywords that users type when starting the search.

For example, Google has a different view of relevance with the roll-out of MUM. Now, it evaluates how your content or landing page fits into the context of the subject. This includes relevant backlinks, internal linking for content clusters, and proper Schema markup.

3. Look for update warnings

In some cases, search engines will offer some advanced notice about an upcoming algorithm update. Back in April 2020, Google announced a 2021 algorithm change that would introduce Core Web Vitals as ranking factors.

This gave marketers more than a year to get familiar with these new factors and adjust accordingly. Since Google isn’t always forthcoming about update details, it’s wise to take notice when they are.

4. Keep calm and tweak your content

When search engines change their algorithms, it can cause chaos for marketers. It’s often a mad dash to adjust strategies and make quick changes to curb significant ranking changes or irregular reports. But sometimes these actions can hurt your campaign even further.

Remember, all you can do is implement relevant improvements and follow the latest guidelines. If you’re using Google Analytics, making note of when an algorithm update took place can explain any out-of-the-ordinary results when you pull reports or debrief clients.

5. React carefully

If you discover a recent search engine algorithm update hurt your rankings, try not to panic or start making frantic adjustments.

Rather, the best results will come from taking the time to study what the new update is targeting so you can review how your website doesn’t meet these requirements. 

Most likely, you only need to make a few simple tweaks to get back in the game.

Pro tip: If another company’s site starts outranking you after an algorithm update, you can run a competitor analysis to figure out why that might be.

The takeaway

Search engine algorithms are a complex system for helping users find the best answer to their queries. To improve user experience, search engines change their algorithms regularly. But studying how algorithms tick isn’t as important as understanding what your target audience wants.

By improving the quality and relevance of landing page content while exploring questions your audience asks, you can work to minimize your dependence on algorithm changes and control, to some degree, how drastically they affect your initiatives.

This article has been updated and was originally published in November 2020.

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's senior content marketing manager. Through more than a decade of professional writing and editing experience, she creates 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, new vegetarian recipes, and paper planners.