We’ve become a bit shortsighted, and it’s not our fault. Each and every month you can count on Google pushing a series of new algorithm updates. Month in and month out, industry news sources report on what seems to be a constant stream of rank fluctuation events. In such an environment, it’s easy to become fixated on a website’s single visibility spike (or hit) and attribute the site’s fluctuations to a single algorithmic act and declare insight victory. But that’s not how Google’s algorithm updates really work. While we may analyze a given site’s visibility within one moment of time, Google quite often doesn’t, and what looks like a site getting hit or boosted by a specific update is really part of a much larger algorithmic relationship.
In this case study, I’ll highlight why analyzing a site’s fluctuations in relation to one specific update often creates an incomplete picture that discounts Google’s overall algorithmic relationship to the site (i.e. get ready for some myth busting action).
Mistake # 1: Sudden Drops in Rank Mean Google Has Hit Your Site Hard
In September 2017, Google rolled-out a series of one day algorithm updates in what I thought was some of the oddest Google behavior I’d seen in a while. During the second half of the month Google pushed update after update, with the roll-out of each not lasting more than a day. I was determined to find out what Google was up to. So, after digging and digging through data and following through on some pretty “hot leads,” I came up with… nothing, or nothing I was confident enough in to share with you.
However, along the way, I did find a few sites impacted by the September updates, but not in the traditional sense. That’s because, instead of looking at a site’s data over the past few months, I decided to look back, way back, almost two years back, and it was well worth it!
The common notion is that if a site sees a large drop in rank/visibility in concurrence with an update, that Google has hit that site. Like a Hulk Hogan, Google has body-slammed that site down to pages unknown! But thinking of a Google update in this way, while correct at times, can also be like putting a pair of horse blinders on. With a bit of context, what may seem as cataclysmic, is just a hiccup that may be a part of the site’s ranking trend.
Allow me to share two examples with you:
1) casino.org: Here, a picture is worth a thousands words and tells the whole story. One look at the site’s visibility since January 2016 and you start to gain some perspective on the September update’s impact on the site.
Since the start of 2016 the site saw a steady and gradual visibility increase, that is until March 2017 where the site’s visibility was slashed in half. You can see the clear reversal that occurred with the site seeing a visibility restoration just a month later.
Fast-forward to September 2017, and after a few months of stability, the exact same algorithmic pattern manifests itself once again. This time the hit was a bit larger, and so too was the the reversal shown the next month.
If you were to look at this site’s visibility trends in relation to the September 2017 Google updates alone, you would miss the entire point. This site’s ranking behavior has less to do with what happened one autumn day in September, but is a continuation of the algorithmic relationship that first emerged way back in March of 2017.
In this instance, you cannot look at what happened in September 2017, you have to go back earlier in the year to glean genuine insight. Why Google’s algorithm reran itself in September, is a great question. That being said, if I were this site, and I saw my rankings drop one month out of nowhere, I wouldn’t push the panic button just yet. I wouldn’t take my site and change this and optimize that in some sort of SEO frenzy (not that this is ever a good idea). If you’re optimizing a site, and you think you were hit by an update, I would highly recommend going back, way back in the data, and having a look to see if there was a similar pattern in the past.
2) emedicinehealth.com: Similar to what I highlighted above, analyzing this site’s September visibility data in isolation can be misleading.
It’s quite clear looking at the above data, the site was hit hard by the algorithm updates Google ran in September 2017. Interestingly enough, the visibility hit the site underwent this past September seems to be a reversal of the increase the site saw in September 2016. Notice though, despite momentarily undergoing a visibility reversal relative to September 2016, Google’s true relationship to the site quickly emerges with a dramatic visibility uptick.
Google Update Action Tip # 1
Don’t look at algorithm updates in a vacuum. While harping on grandiose one-time spikes makes for good news, it may not actually help you. Actually, getting caught up in the Google update hype and freaking out when you see your site drop suddenly might actually hurt your site.
If you look back, and I mean way back, not just 120 days out, and you see something along the lines of the patterns I showed above, you might want to hold off and wait to see how the pattern plays itself out.
I know it’s tempting to look at a large ranking fall that coincides with an update and think that Google has specifically gone after your site. However, your site may have just fallen into a weeding out process. It’s possible that Google is not interested in your site at all, but has lumped your site together with other sites based on some unknown criteria and is weeding out which sites to hit.
I speculate that in cases like the sites shown above, Google hits a certain site as part of the process of separating out which sites it truly wants to push down the rankings. Those sites that Google does not really want to hit, see a downturn that is quickly reversed. Thus, the moral here is, and like my 7th grade teacher used to always tell me, patience is a virtue (actually, he used to tell me neatness is a virtue since as my 6th grade math teacher would scream, “Oberstein, your handwriting is chicken scratch”).
Mistake # 2: Algorithm Updates Are a One Shot Deal
Due to the sensationalism associated with Google updates, and the ranking fluctuations that can come with them, and as I’ve already alluded to, we tend to think of these algorithmic shifts as one shot deals. Tell me I’m wrong when I say that most of our associations to an update are a sudden shift in the rankings that drops a site hard and leaves it glued to the pavement FOREVER!
Yes, it is true, an update can hit a site hard and pin it down. Just take a look at etsy.com. It got slammed in July and lost a great deal of its visibility. It didn’t recover or reverse, but was put down and stayed down. But this is not always the case, not by a long shot. These are the cases we all like seeing because it’s dramatic and simplifies our very complicated Google worlds.
That being said, there are plenty of cases where an update’s initial impact is just the beginning. Take Yelp for example. Over the past few months, Yelp has been one of our biggest “winners” and “losers.”
After seeing a boost in early 2017, the site saw its visibility steadily increase until July 2017, whereupon the site downshifted significantly after a powerful Google update.
However, as you’ll notice in the graph below, the mid-summer hit the site saw was not the end of the story. Since then, the site has clearly fluctuated on the SERP to a far greater extent than it traditionally had before the July algorithm update. Which is why the site has at times been a big “winner,” coming back up after a downturn, and vice versa (which also shows us that sometimes a big winner isn’t really a SERP champ… and vice versa).
Let’s take another example, real estate site redfin.com. Like Yelp, the site had been steadily increasing in visibility for some time. However, in August 2017, and as you can see in the visibility graph below, the site suddenly starts undergoing increased fluctuations. In this case though, the ups and downs are part of an overall trend to higher levels of visibility. The sudden and larger ups and downs point towards the site being impacted by a Google update. The point is that an update’s impact and presence is not a one-time event, but can manifest itself over the course of months.
The same trend seen with the Redfin site presents itself on the health advice site healthline.com:
After seeing big visibility increases in 2016, the site began to level off. Then, exactly like redfin.com, the site sees more and larger fluctuations that are part of an upward trend. The trend has already manifested itself for three months and could continue well into the future for all we know. What we do know is that algorithmic shift has, and continues to, impact the site.
Same pattern for the site mapquest.com (does anyone still use that?). There was a big ‘ol spike in visibility after March 2017 (aka the Fred update). However, the site was already on the decline by June 2017 and in the following months saw some significantly large losses. But that’s not what I want to focus on here.
Take a look at the site’s visibility:
After undergoing some quick and large visibility losses, from August 2017 and on the site has not leveled out on a new and lower trajectory. Rather, the ongoing algorithmic impact is still felt as the site undergoes a visibility seesaw ride each month.
Google Update Action Tip #2
Sure, there are big fluctuations that come from an update, both up and down. But, as shown here, those bigger sort of movements can be just the beginning of an update’s impact. When analyzing the impact of an update make sure to pay attention to the subsequent spikes. What may seem like a quick rebound after an algorithm hits your site may just be part of the fluctuations that are now your new norm. That is, don’t necessarily attribute your success in rising a bit after a hard-hitting update to any tweaks you may have made. If you see a pattern of not immensely huge, but larger than normal fluctuations emerge, this may be the update still playing itself out. Which means, there may be a fundamental issue you need to still address, and that a fix here or there won’t help you much, because this algorithm was not a one shot deal.
Mistake # 3: Google Updates Always Cause Big Fluctuations in a Site’s Rank & Visibility
Wrong! If you noticed above, redfin.com and healthline.com, while showing larger and quite significant visibility fluctuations as the result of an update, didn’t undergo one enormously massive change. That is, the “typical” gargantuan increase or decrease in rank/visibility didn’t happen. But Mordy, doesn’t a Google update mean seismic shifts in a site’s rankings? No. Not in the real world. We like to use those examples because it’s clear what happened in those instances. If a site shows a huge rank or visibility decrease out of nowhere, and the news is filled with chatter about a Google update, it’s pretty easy to say 1 + 1 = 2. Quite often real-life is not as dramatic as the sites highlighted in studies. These sites are generally highlighted because the conclusions seem clear, but what about those sites that are a bit more ambiguous?
Quite often, a site will be impacted by an algorithm, but the extent of that impact will take time to see as each of the movements that resulted are within normal ranges. That is, the impact of the update is not its quick and hefty influence on rank. Rather, the update causes a gradual, but highly noticeable and irregular trend to emerge. In other words, the algorithm update is ever-present as I mentioned earlier, which is not how we usually think about an update.
Take wine.com for example. As the below visibility graph illustrates, the site clearly was impacted by an algorithm that rolled out in February 2017. However, if you look at the months that followed, you’ll see a very gradual reversal. It wasn’t until September 2017, and the updates that were releasd then, that we see a sharp decrease.
Wine.com sees a gradual visibility reduction following a sharp increase that resulted from a Google update until September 2017, where visibility saw a steep decline
If you were to look at the data after February 2017 on a month-to-month basis, you wouldn’t see much in the way of change, at least nothing that seemed that unusual. Clearly, algorithmic impact can be slow, gradual, and inconspicuous.
Not convinced? Just look at angieslist.com:
There was an obvious change in the site’s visibility trends from December 2016 until April 2017. Just as there was an obvious increase that began in late 2016, there is an ongoing reversal which has resulted in the site losing a whopping 50% of its visibility. However, unlike the data for casino.org that I showed you earlier, this reversal would be nearly impossible to pick up if you didn’t look at trends over a significant period of time, as I did here.
The decrease in the site’s visibility has been gradual, generally moving down 200 points from month-to-month. However, since April 2017, the site has seen half of its visibility fade into the ether. Thus, as the H2 says, Google updates do not always cause big one-time fluctuations.
To make matters a bit worse, not all slow and gradual fluctuations happen after a more noticeable shift, as was seen with the two sites above. I first tracked a shift in overstock.com’s visibility back in May 2017. During a May update, I found the site’s visibility took a sudden downturn. You can actually see this initial and larger downwards shift if you look carefully at the graph below:
That is, in May 2017 we caught overstock.com undertake a steep loss in visibility relative to its previous data trends. The decrease perfectly coincided with an algorithm update Google rolled-out at the time. Between May and June of 2017, the site saw its visibility score drop 400 points, a far more radical shift than had been tracked previously, looking back all the way to January of 2016.
Why is that important? Because that 400 point visibility drop was in reality nothing compared to the full and very subtle impact of the algorithm on the site’s visibility. Since May of 2017 the site has seen its visibility score drop 1,500 points, a roughly 55% decrease. Thus, I ask you, where was the algorithm most impactful, May of 2017? I think not. Google updates do not always manifest their algorithmic changes in one moment in time and in one fell swoop. There need not be a dramatic change that can be pinpointed to one juncture. Rather, an update can play itself out slowly, gradually, over an extended period of time with significant rank and visibility consequences.
Google Update Action Tip # 3
The takeaway here is obvious, don’t assume you weren’t impacted by an update just because there was not some sort of immediately discernible change in your rankings. Slow, steady, and perhaps unexpected changes, that collectively result in large ranking gains or losses are equally the offspring of Google algorithm restructuring. If a month after a major update rolls-out you don’t see any major changes, don’t think you are entirely out of the woods. It’s important to keep a close eye on your data after an update for a considerable amount of time. If you start to see slow and incremental losses, go deep. Go back, perhaps months, and see if the data trends appear to be influenced by an update.
Tracking Google Algorithm Updates in the RankBrain Era
Let’s talk about the pink elephant in the room, RankBrain.
For whatever reason, we as an industry are still looking at algorithm updates as if we’re in the heart of the Panda and Penguin era. Of course, these algorithms are still part of the “core,” and like we’ve seen over the past year, do manifest themselves with great strength. However, I would argue, that they are not the driving force behind Google’s algorithmic presence, behavior, and trendings. This is RankBrain.
What’s behind the reversals, gradual decreases, and continuing fluctuations as shown above? RankBrain. When a site like Overstock’s sees a long and enduring decrease, that’s Google using RankBrain in order to share the ranking love. No one site should always be dominant (with numerous exceptions). Seeing a sudden drop down the SERP? Could very, very, well be RankBrain hitting the reset button for a grouping of sites. Your site, once RankBrain has reset and weeded out the sites it wants to keep at lower rankings, could see a strong resurrection, as was shown in some of the cases above.
So what should you do?
As I’ve mentioned more than a few times above, be patient, track the trends, not the just the sudden shifts. Look long-term and try to increase your site’s visibility. Update those titles and meta-descriptions to catch a user’s attention in the hopes of accumulating more organic conversions. With a bundle of more conversions, RankBrain should take strong notice and push your site in a new (upwards) direction. I would especially recommend this if you see a stagnating pattern of relatively steep ups and downs (i.e., yelp.com). Give RankBrain a reason to change your trajectory.
Not Coming Out in the Wash – The True Impact of Google’s Algorithm Updates
An update is not some sort of menace that swoops down to ruin your rankings in the middle of the night. It’s a entire new way in which Google relates to your site, and is an enduring phenomenon. Sometimes, this relationship change manifests itself in a dramatic and immediate fashion. However, that this one algorithmic event is part of a larger, broader, algorithmic pattern is far more likely, as shown above.
With Google’s updates becoming more and more sensationalized (and rightly so), our concept of them becomes a bit distorted. A Google update doesn’t walk off into the sunset as rank fluctuations return to normal. The update is the new normal! Like an ever-present invisible hand, this new algorithmic construct continues to interact and impact sites. So why would this interaction be entirely relegated to the first moment of a new algorithmic pattern? Like any birth, the first moments are “special”, but the youngling continues to develop, interact, and impact those around it, i.e. your sites. The algorithm doesn’t just disappear, vanish, or walk of a cliff the second a Google weather tool normalizes the new fluctuations, no matter how much we might wish it did!