Google has released a few major updates to its search algorithm over the last 12 months or so, taking many websites by surprise. There have already been multiple updates in 2019; the most recent one occurred on March 12th, 2019.
More than 50% of companies saw their rankings dip after any given update; most have never recovered. A similar drop in ratings was witnessed starting from the summer of 2018.
In this article, we will explore the biggest and most influential changes over the last year; EVERY single update is not included.
Even though not all updates are covered, we encourage you to use this article as a checklist for your business.
Our hope is that you, the business owner, will go through this list and:
- Check to see if you have aligned your website with the Google updates released over the last year
- Figure out what you’re not doing (or not doing right)
- Define your own plan of attack based on the updates
What is a new update in Google?
Google updates usually affect the search algorithms that help determine which web pages are relevant to a specific search query.
Any major update will target how links to a page or website are qualified (scored). After an update, some types of links will start ranking higher, others will rank lower.
It’s important to understand upfront that a devalued link is not the same as a penalty.
A penalty (manual or algorithmic) means Google thinks a specific website is doing something against its terms of service.
A devaluation means Google has changed the rules by which it defines the most valuable search results according to what Google considers to be the ‘most relevant content’ for a specific search query.
Note that an update is never a one and done. Updates are released gradually over, typically, a 30 day period.
With these points in mind, let’s first discuss the major Google updates of 2018.
The Maccabees Update
Started: December 12 2017; completed by the end of January 2018
The early days of 2018 caught many webmasters by surprise.
A Google update led to a drop in the search ranking for the majority of websites in the world.
According to an in-depth analysis by folks at Moz, the rolled out update targeted black-hat tactics and bad-for-search practices such as seriously thin/value-less content and shoddy backlinks.
More specifically, the Maccabees update changed how Google scores content relevancy. It prioritized links coming from high authority websites and deprioritized those from link farms, irrelevant articles and articles that had too many outbound backlinks.
Update 1: Downgrade Slow Mobile Pages
In July 2018, Google rolled out an update that de-prioritizes mobile pages that load really slow alongside a variety of technical SEO updates. For more details on all technical SEO factors impacting Google rankings, check out this in-depth article we have written on the matter.
Since 2018, page speed across both websites and mobile websites became a core SEO factor for its mobile-first index. Per Google, the update to the search algorithm had an impact on all slow-loading mobile sites, but did not have a positive effect on fast-loading ones.
To check if your site is safe from the update, simply go to the Google Page Insights Tool. If you get a score of less than 50 (which loosely translates into sites that take more than 3 seconds to load on mobile) then your SEO took a beating after the update.
Update 2: Penalize Websites With Thin Content
Since 2011, Google has declared an all-out war on content that provides no value to the reader (read: the person performing a search).
In the summer of 2018, the search engine specifically targeted so-called ‘thin content’. The term is what it sounds like – web pages/ with limited content that offer little to zero value to the visitor. Doorway pages, auto-generated pages, and duplicate pages are some of the classic examples of thin content.
How do you know whether your content will be rated as ‘thin’ by Google?
Technically, a page with 500 words or less is thin in the eyes of Google.
But, it basically all boils down to reader satisfaction.
If your web visitors dash as soon as they land on the page, the chances are good that the content is of little to no value to them. So, the bounce rate is another good metric for gauging thin content.
Although the first update to de-rank thin content was released in 2011, the algorithm has been updated several times since that time.
The latest major updates were also rolled out at the end of March 2018 with more added during the summer of 2018.
The update was so effective at de-prioritizing low-quality pages that eBay lost 80% of its rankings after these two 2018 updates due to the thin content published by sellers on its platform.
Bottom line: If you have orphan pages or pages with less than 500 words, then Google won’t rank them.
Update 3: Schema Markup Update (Technical SEO Update)
What is Schema Markup, and why did Google prioritize this SEO update in 2018?
Schema Markup is a semantic vocabulary that you add to your web pages or website to help Google display more relevant results to the user. The results are often displayed in the form of a useful snippet.
Schema Markup is the new paradigm in technical SEO. It is a fresh way to optimize your URLs on search engines for the actual user.
The webmaster has to go to Schema.org, pull up relevant semantic vocabulary, and then add them to the website.
These code markers are designed to tell the search engine what to do with the data on your page or site.
Schema markup is a win-win for everyone.
When a site has proper schema markup, users can see a great deal of information about the website right in the search result page. They can learn about a company’s location, address, pricing, events list, and other key business identifiers.
You could say schema markup is the site’s business card that is shared with a user BEFORE directly visiting a site in Google.
For any given website, there is a schema markup code. The markup can be for local businesses, products, events, software applications, movies, flight schedules, restaurants, articles, and so much more.
As you can see, schema markup is a big deal for SEO. That’s why this update came as no big surprise.
Bottom line: If you don’t have schema markup on your site, Google won’t index specific pages.
Other 2018 Summer Updates
There were multiple Google SEO updates – and some ultimatums – which started to have a negative impact on SEO last summer.
Update 4: Having your site SSL-secured with HTTPS
This was both an update and an ultimatum.
Google warned website owners that by July 31st 2018, any sites that weren’t SSL secured, would be deprioritized in all search results.
The update gave web publishers a specific deadline to comply with the HTTPS deadline.
After this date, all Chrome users visiting HTTP pages were warned that they were browsing an unsecure site.
Given that over half of internet users use Chrome, this was (and still is) a huge deal.
The “not secure” warning was displayed in the address bar. Frequently, this would make the user feel unsafe and therefore quit the website.
Due to a disparity in the Chrome market across the world, the effect of the update was different depending on where you, or your customers, live. In countries like Israel (66.77%) and regions like South America (~74%), the non-complying websites were hit the most.
Bottomline: Any site that is not HTTPS will have a harder – if not impossible – time to get their content ranked in the top ten of Google search results.
Google Medic Update in August
The so-called Google Medic was the biggest upgrade of 2018, and the one with the largest impact. The name had nothing to do with the healthcare industry; it affected everyone, equally).
Get this: more than 42% of all sites on the internet were affected by this update.
In fact, the vast majority of companies and online businesses saw a typical loss of between 20% and 30% in web traffic.
Most of them are still struggling to regain their search ranking positions. Some went the way of the Dodo.
Here’s Google’s tweet on the update, giving the world of SEO the heebie-jeebies.
This was a global update across all countries and industries.
The update involved what Google calls E.A.T – Expertise, Authority, Trust. Let’s look at actionable website changes needed after this update, in line with the E.A.T. core update.
Update 5: Comprehensive About page + Blog author pages with bios and credentials
After the update, Google gave priority to articles and websites coming from authority websites.
Authority, in Google’s eyes, is a very complex topic.
What we know is that companies that ‘survived’ the update without tarnishing their SERPS had the following factors in common:
Comprehensive About Us page with names, images, bios for employees.
Author pages for writers publishing content on a blog. Let’s say you’re a company producing stainless steel water bottles. You have a blog page talking about the benefits of having a reusable water bottle.
First, the new Google crawler would look at your site for an About Us page and the amount of information on that page.
Secondly, if you wrote an article on “why you should have a reusable water bottle”, Google would look for an author name, bio, and holistically an author bio page that aggregated articles written by that person. If you had all this – the update likely didn’t affect you much. If you didn’t have them – you were among the 50% of affected websites.
Update 6: Search Intent & People Also Ask
For several months prior to the update, Google had been trying the effect of an automatically-loading, auto-expanding People Also Ask box.
Here’s an example of PAA if you type in the word ‘marketing’ in Google:
Google was experimenting with aggregating articles which answered the questions asked the most by users.
Starting in the US in August, then rolled out globally by September 2018, the PAA update was a major update surrounding search intent.
Simply put – Google wanted to show relevant results faster based on what people were searching for.
One way to do this is to look for articles that were helpful not only in answer to the primary question asked, but also from other user search queries.
Let’s look at a specific example.
With this update, Google starting prioritizing relevancy of content based on PAA. If Google found a specific answer in your article, tied to a question the user asked, you were more likely to rank.
A second complementary change to Google search algorithms was tied to review articles. In simple terms, Google noticed that many users were typing in things like “best X”, example: ‘best water bottles.’
Google noticed that users typing in anything with ‘best’ in the query were interested in comparisons of various products. But Google further expanded the new logic to even include generic search terms like ‘water bottles’
So, if you look at ‘water bottles’ search results, the majority of results on page 1 are now review articles versus individual shopping sites, as was previously the case.
The PAA update affected the majority of retailers because Google looked more for helpful and education long-form content than branded, purchase oriented content.
Update 7: Updates to the Beneficial Purpose Rater Guidelines
Here’s one point most people don’t know: Google employs hundreds of manual raters who look at the search results and manually rate them in order to improve Google’s rankings.
Google has not revealed exactly how it takes the input from these employees to determine ratings.
But starting in August 2018, manual raters were asked to rate, on a specific scale, whether there is a beneficial purpose for a person to be on a site.
According to Yoast, the going hypothesis is that the August update improved the match between a user’s intent and the results presented.
How does that work in practice?
Basically, content was better prioritized based on intent.
In other words – if you were looking for ‘how are stainless steel water bottles good for you” versus ‘buy stainless steel water bottles’ Google would now match users with educational or e-commerce sites based on the search terms.
Update 8: “Your Money or Your Life” Deprioritization in Search Results
Another big update in 2018 was a penalty against websites and blogs that fall into the Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) category. In other words, sites that:
- Offer medical information
- Advice about buying homes, cars and other large purchases
- Offers around specific financial products
As asserted by Google, the roll-out was a core global update designed to affect nearly all types of websites and every niche.
However, early data insights show that the focus was on the following niches: health, family and life cycle, fitness, medical-related websites, and the so-called YMYL sites.
To a small extent, the gaming and entertainment niches were also touched, especially sites that tend to collect personal user information.
Here are some examples of companies that were negatively affected by this update (most are in healthcare and financial services): prevention.com (-53%), buoyhealth.com (-43%), verywellhealth.com (-43%) and minted.com (-48%). On the flipside, some high-authority sites experienced major upgrades, including: carfax.com (+68%), rent.com (+42%), sciencedaily.com (+36%), and glassdoor.com (+25%).
Google March 2019 updates
March 2019 saw two major updates reported: one on March 12th and another on March 26th.
What makes this broad core update a little different is that Google actually confirmed it.
The search engine only confirms a handful of updates annually.
Just as in the previous cases, Google repeated itself saying there’s no “fix” for websites and web pages that might fall in ranking after the update.
Who got hit the hardest? Some say the update was about medical/health companies, but Google has come out to say that no particular niche or industry was targeted.
In fact, companies surveyed saw a significant dip in traffic across all industries.
According to a Search Engine Land report, out of 500 companies surveyed at the end of March, 58% of them saw a drop in search results.
As with any Google update, there were bound to be losers, gainers and so-so results.
Early search data results trends show that most winners after the two March updates are those who witnessed a significant loss of search visibility with the August 1st update (2018). The reverse seems to be true, as well – those who saw significant gains with the August update are among the members of the losing camp following the recent March updates.
Perhaps the most notable winners, according to the Search Metrics, in terms of increase in search visibility include: kansas.com (+28%), buzzfeed.com (+35.98%), wichitaonthecheap.com (+48%), and poki.com (+19.87%). And then there is the Justin Bieber music website that saw an increase in visibility of a staggering 95%!
Notable sites that witnessed drops in visibility rating include: inc.com (-17.68%), fb.com (-22.1%), hbr.org (-41.66%), wired.com (-24.13%), time.com (-16.92%), newyorker.com (-44.44%), vanityfair.com (-43.69%) and theatlantic.com (-47.69%), to name just a few.
Here are some things we know for sure about the March update:
Update 9: Unique and Distinguishable Customer Service Section in the Site’s Taxonomy
One of the major updates in March was to de-prioritize websites (primarily e-commerce sites and media sites that charge for web usage) who don’t have clear Customer service Pages easily available on the site (me: from the global menu / footer).
If you charge money on the site, Google now expects you to have a clear page in your taxonomy tied to your policies on payments, exchanges and returns that Google crawlers can easily identify in the form of H2 titles and supporting content.
Update 10: References in Content
This will likely be the least talked about March update – because generally only black hat marketing agencies and websites requiring payments for links were affected.
With the new update, Google will pay attention to the number of outbound links in an article with those containing fewer outbound links being deprioritized.
As always, in SEO, if you quote any numbers, stats, or other opinions, you should link to your source.
Some guest post websites limit the number of content sources. In other words, they say something like “no more than 3 links” in your article etc. Any additional links from black hat websites will be ‘no-follow’.
This is the opposite of how Google expects websites to link to sources. Google expects a website to use no-follow tags for paid links only.
With this update, Google will monitor the ration of do-follow and no-follow links. If all your links are no-follow (example: forbes.com) or do-follow (the majority of the internet), this update doesn’t have any impact on you.
However, if you arbitrarily have 1-2 do-follow links but all others are no-follow, then your site will be at risk of being manually penalized by Google.
If your SEO experts secure guest posts on any site that restricts the number of links in an article – pass on the opportunity.
Same with sites that will ONLY give you a do-follow backlink and all other links will be no-follow. This is now a red flag for Google and both you and the publisher site will be penalized moving forward. That doesn’t mean you should over link – but DO NOT have only 1-2 follow back links in your articles.