“Bzzt. Bzzzt. BZZZT!”

The alerts started coming in around 4 am last Tuesday, just after colleagues in Europe woke to see the early effects of Google’s announcement the afternoon before of a new core update that was to be amalgamated into some part (or parts) of Google’s organic algorithms. They require attention, especially when so many businesses are struggling to connect with customers.

With the ongoing pandemic, Google’s timing isn’t ideal. Since Google doesn’t reveal any information about core updates beyond their implementation, any significant change in the way(s) Google processes information and a core update could have significant implications for “Main Street.”  Then again, they could have little. 

But because of Google’s size, a core update is both extraordinary and ominous. 

The original kernel of Google’s ranking algorithms is based on the value of links between similar, topically relevant documents. Google’s engineers have since added innumerable factors that need to be considered when determining what recommendations have more value than another due to its nature of viewing relationships based on topical relevance of links between documents. Google sees all documents in its index as being interconnected one way or another, so the implications of a change in the way Google sees stuff can be staggering. 

In 2013, Google estimated it had over 30 trillion unique documents in its index that was estimated to take over 100 million gigabytes to store, analyse and sort (and the last time Google seriously bothered publishing an estimate into its own size). When Google makes a change saying it will affect 1–2% of all documents in its index, it’s really saying hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of documents will be affected. 

In some ways, a core update might just be routine improvement and maintenance. Google is constantly working to produce more accurate search results that better fit the needs, wants and realities of users. For example, in the autumn of 2016, Google noticed that over 50% of all search queries were coming from mobile devices. In March 2017, Google announced a Mobile First strategy in which it would change the way it scores web documents to include how sites, and documents in it, perform on mobile devices. This necessitated a restructuring of server farms around the globe. This restructuring, along with a number of factors relating to the user experience of mobile device users, became the likely suspect responsible for subsequent core updates that lasted until the spring of 2019. 

It is difficult to say whether any one of those individual updates had wide or sweeping effects on search results. Cumulatively, however, these mobile-speed-related core updates have profoundly affected which websites rank higher than others and how mobile search users receive and graphically view information on their devices. 

It’s also rare to know exactly what is being affected with any given update. What we do know are Google’s stated goals and the directives it routinely gives when announcing an update. 

Google spokespersons Danny Sullivan and John Mueller often say there is nothing anyone can do to fix ranking problems caused by a core update. They then go on to note Google rewards strong, authoritative content and good website structure, implying the best way to fight one’s way out of a sudden ranking problem is to improve aspects of their web presence as improved websites tend to achieve improved rankings. This means looking at two types of website elements: content and structure. 

Search is a zero-sum game when measured by rankings. There are only 10 blue links per page and there are a maximum of 10 natural organic placements. If one website drops from first place to fifth, every other website in that query-set will also change position. When measured by search driven traffic, however, organic search can be an almost infinite generator of opportunities. 

Google’s main goal is to present the strongest set of search results it can based on the user and the query entered. Because Google has collected data on its users for decades, it knows quite a bit about intent from query word choice and structure. Search users are asking complex questions, even when they’re only using a two or three keyword phrase. Where they entered the query, which device was used, signals from previous search behaviors, and directive words used around the keywords help determine the types of result-sets Google returns, which helps determine which URLs Google returns in results sets. The websites that best answer the questions visitors are asking are most likely to do well in search and this begins with great content.

In the face of a major update at Google, the smartest thing to do is assess what about your website is and isn’t working. Speed, ease of access and structural hierarchy help Google determine a number of things about your website and the information it conveys. Google wants to provide its users the best user experience it can. This means it tends to consider non-content factors like speed and how a website operates from a visitor’s perspective. It also looks for signals noting information hierarchies and categorization to determine the accuracy and depth of information on a site. Looking at, then improving, these types of website elements are likely to lead to improved search rankings.

More core updates are to come. Tracking and understanding trillions of items in its index, Google works at a scale so massive it almost escapes comprehension. It plans updates far in advance to meet goals, introduce new technologies or techniques, or react to changes in website design or user devices. Some of these updates will have little to no visible effects on rankings; others will have more profound impacts that will be difficult to identify. The May 2020 Core Update appears to fall on the “more impactful” side of things, but we’ll know more as time goes on. 

In the meantime, anytime is a good time to work on content and structure. This is always the best way to deal with a Google Core update.

Written by: Jim Hedger, SEO Expert

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Webcology is a weekly digital marketers show webcast and recorded live-to-podcast by WebmasterRadio.FM each Thursday at 2pmET/11amPT. Join two of the pioneers of search marketing, SEO expert Jim Hedger and PPC expert Dave Davies each week as they explore the depths of the Internet marketing ecosystems.