If you’ve suddenly lost traffic to key web pages and can’t find a reason for it, you may need to consider whether your website has been impacted by unconfirmed Google algorithm updates.
Google updates its algorithms constantly and most of the time, these happen quietly without any official confirmation by the search engine. While many SEO experts estimate that Google changes its algorithm about 500 to 600 times in a year, Google let us know it updated its search algorithm 4,500 times in 2020 alone.
Why do these updates happen so often?
The Google Search index contains hundreds of billions of web pages and is well over 100,000,000 gigabytes in size. It is constantly updated as new pages are added and algorithms are better able to figure out which content is most relevant to the user’s search.
Since 15% of searches on Google are new every day, there’s always more work to be done to improve the relevance of results and make information as useful to the search query as possible.
While the quality of search results and user experience are admirable goals, SEOs and marketers may be left scrambling to figure out the reason for search ranking fluctuation when unconfirmed updates take place.
There’s often chatter in the SEO communities about such unconfirmed search updates (and their impact), as there are winners and losers with every update. In this blog, you’ll find a number of tools and resources you can use to better understand and keep a handle on these algorithm updates.
What do we mean by unconfirmed Google algorithm updates?
Google took a step towards transparency in 2019 by pre-announcing some algorithm updates a few months in advance. This was meant to give websites time to adapt and make technical changes to preserve their positions in the Search Engine Ranking Pages (SERPs).
However, thousands of these search ranking algorithm updates regularly go unreported by Google. Their effects are often felt within the SEO community. SEO’s often notice shifts in rankings, and these are also reported and detected by its members (and not Google itself). These are referred to as unconfirmed Google algorithm updates. These can be both minor or broad core algorithm updates.
Minor ones that are released every day usually only cause a shift in rankings for a small number of websites or websites within a certain niche. Core algorithm updates, on the other hand, make broad changes to how the Google algorithm understands and processes content. Their effects are more noticeable and Google may still choose not to confirm those.
When does Google announce algorithm updates?
According to Google Search Central, Google only informs users of updates when they determine that there’s something actionable to be done on the website.
“There is no real meat in these pre-announced updates – so should we panic and put so much effort into working on them, when we can focus on overall site quality improvements?” reports Barry Schwartz, who is a trusted source on algorithm updates. He also believes that Google tends to pre-report algorithm updates that have the least impact on ranking while giving little to no lead time for the ones that do.
It’s important to note that these ranking algorithm updates are not the same as a manual action. An algorithm update targeting spammy links might ignore links and now reward those the algorithm perceives as low quality, for example. A manual action would mean Google’s spam team took action to suppress the site in search results or even remove it from the index entirely.
When do unconfirmed Google algorithm updates happen?
As we explained previously, Google organic search is updated daily. There’s usually no way to predict when unconfirmed search updates will happen or which websites they will affect, but we do know that they happen multiple times in a week.
Remember how we mentioned that Google updated its search algorithms 4,500 times in 2020? It was also revealed that they ran 600,000 experiments that resulted in those 4,500 improvements.
Google’s own How Search Works resource explains the need for these constant updates:
“Google ranking systems are designed to sort through hundreds of billions of webpages in our Search index to find the most relevant, useful results in a fraction of a second, and present them in a way that helps you find what you’re looking for. These ranking systems are made up of not one, but a whole series of algorithms”.
In essence, to keep up with the massive amounts of web pages being created and find better ways to sort through this information and present it to the user, Google must update various segments of its algorithms to keep up with changes in quality signals.
True evidence of a Google update
As we are speaking of unconfirmed Google search updates, it’s a given that evidence of these will come from sources other than Google. SEO Facebook groups such as SEO Signals Lab and publications like Search Engine Journal are places you can pick up this chatter. But, a deeper inspection is often needed to evaluate its impact on your brand’s marketing goals.
Before you go down that path, it’s important to remember that it’s completely normal for search rankings and traffic to fluctuate after a broad core update.
When to worry about algorithm updates
As Google is likely reevaluating your content during that testing period, there are bound to be some temporary changes. The only time you should panic is if your search rankings have changed for worse even weeks after the update.
Even then, it may be difficult to determine whether a routine update detected issues with quality signals on your page or if there’s been a major algorithm update targeting specific issues, such as the Link Spam update or an anti-spam update. It’s also possible that rankings can change due to corrections from a previous update. Perhaps Google determined that a ranking signal was overemphasized and has dialed it back, for example.
These sources of insight can help:
Your own brand-wide analytics
It’s best to determine that there are no other factors at play before you can attribute the change in rankings to a core update. Do a site audit and a technical audit to determine if there’s nothing wrong with the pages that have lost rank. Changes you see that cannot be explained by your own content or errors on your pages may be the result of a Google update.
In addition to SEO community chatter, rank tracking tools can help you understand whether there’s a wider trend happening. Here are some examples of the most trusted ones.
- Cognitive SEO: Cognitive SEO tracks fluctuations across 170,000 keywords daily and categorizes fluctuations into normal, medium, or high. Even a beginner SEO can decipher these categories, and users also have the ability to filter charts by country.
- SEMRush Sensor: One of the biggest names in SEO tools, SEMRush Sensor helps you to track SERP volatility across all major niches. It also ranks every niche from 1 to 10, depending on the degree of fluctuations observed for keywords from that niche. Users can also spot new trends in SERPs such as the percentage of increase of queries that show local map results or featured snippets.
- RankRanger: RankRanger’s Rank Risk Index tracks 10,000 domains and keywords daily as part of their Google algorithm monitoring toolkit. It tracks SERP fluctuations for both mobile and desktop separately, allowing users to devise an SEO strategy for mobile search and desktop search differently. They also log changes in SERP structures to see if any sudden ranking fluctuations are caused by changes in the types and number of vertical results (e.g., Images, News, Maps, etc.) that are listed on page one.
Of course, tracking these changes across all of your locations at scale requires a platform that can aggregate these insights in one user-friendly dashboard. Rio SEO provides both the big picture and the ability to drill down into regional, business group, or location-specific insights.
How do you keep track of Google updates?
Besides rank tracking tools, there are publications and SEO professionals who document Google Updates. It’s best to subscribe or follow these publications closely if you’re interested in getting the latest chatter about unconfirmed search updates.
Here are some of the publications that other SEO professionals trust and recommend:
- History – Penguin, Panda and more by Marie Haynes
- Updates & Changes: A Complete History from Search Engine Journal
- Google Algorithm Update History from Moz
- Google Algorithm Updates from Search Engine Land
Again, even though there are Google algorithm updates regularly, you should be only concerned when you have ensured that no other factors might be at play. If you have determined that search updates have in fact affected your website, you should document the updates internally.
It’s best to see if there are others in your niche that have also experienced the loss in rankings and see if there are any case studies about how they recovered from the loss. Reading others’ documented experiences can help you brainstorm ideas to repair them.
Should you worry about unconfirmed Google updates?
You should only worry about fluctuations in rankings and traffic after a core update if your rankings haven’t recovered even weeks or months following the search update. It’s best to allow things to settle before you worry about the next steps. In some cases, these fluctuations are only temporary, and your website may go back to more or less normal in some time.
When this does not happen, it may be a sign that your content is viewed as inferior by Google and doesn’t provide the most useful or relevant answer to a search query.
You can also lean on your local marketing partner to provide guidance and support should an unconfirmed Google algorithm update impact your web pages.
An excerpt from Google search guidelines reads “Our goal is always to provide you with the most useful and relevant information. Any changes we make to Search are always to improve the usefulness of results you see”, suggesting that core updates usually focus on processing content differently so that the results are rendered in a way that best fits the user’s search intent.
But the good news is that the company shares what it’s looking at to determine the ranking of a page:
- Meaning of your query
- Relevance of content
- Quality of content
- Usability of webpages
- Context and settings
This provides a great framework to drive your search engine optimization program. If your brand is focusing on creating relevant high-quality content, improving technical SEO, and providing an exceptional user experience in all markets — you are naturally Google-proofing your SEO strategy for the updates ahead, and have nothing to worry about.
What to do if you lost traffic and ranking
Diagnosing the issue is key. You need to be sure that there are technical issues that could be impacting core web vitals, site speed, or the overall technical health of your website. A technical SEO audit done by an enterprise local SEO partner like Rio can be the most important step in getting to the bottom of the issue.
If there are no technical issues, an overall review of all pages with content through an in-depth content audit is critical to determine that the loss in rankings is not due to a poor content strategy.
Adhering to SEO best practices by committing to providing fresh content, considering the user intent of your target market’s search query, incorporating long-tail keywords in original content, avoiding keyword stuffing, and taking advantage of the rankings boost provided by Core Web Vitals can help protect your local pages and website against major fluctuations due to a ranking algorithm update.
If you still can’t pinpoint the issue, working with an enterprise-level local partner like Rio SEO can make the process of navigating constantly changing Broad Core algorithm updates relatively easier. Professionals who deal with larger websites are usually at the forefront of SEO chatter and proactively monitor unconfirmed Google algorithm updates so you don’t have to.