Google Updates: The Most important & Most Confusing

Statistically speaking, Google is likely going to change its search algorithm in some way once per hour over your next workday. No, seriously.

They recently announced that they have made 3,200 changes to their search algo over the last 12 months. That breaks down to:

– 267 changes a month
– 8.8 changes per day

That’s a lot of changes. No wonder there is so much confusion around what the best practices of SEO are these days, even among SEO experts.  In the time it takes to write a playbook, it’s time to throw it out and re-write it to reflect the most recent changes, right?

Not exactly.

Yes, there are 3000 or so updates. However, only a dozen or so of those are noticeable, realistically speaking. And only about half of those are actionable, in that they result in any sort of changes to the way you should conduct your day-to-day SEO.

The Dangers of Algo-Chasing

person holding documents with graps and a computer tablet

When you’re trying to find an SEO consultant, you want to work with someone who can walk the tightrope of not overreacting or underreacting to Google’s algo updates.

As we like to say, you don’t want to chase the algorithm. Reacting to every little thing that Google says or does is a really great way to poison your SEO results, whilst simultaneously driving yourself completely mad.

Google didn’t become the biggest thing in search by being detail-oriented when telling us what they’re up to these days. The finer details of their search algo are one of the most tightly guarded secrets in all of history.

When they change the algo, they pretty much always have the same boilerplate messaging of, “We can’t tell you too much about it. But, what we can tell you is that if you’re doing the right things and creating organic content, you should be fine.”

This can be a bit frustrating to marketers who are constantly trying to figure out exactly what is going on with the algo and why their client dropped off the first page of the SERPs after the last update.

“Was it the update, or did we do something at our end? Do we need another blog or two optimizing these keywords to climb back up?”

Again, it’s a balancing act of not overreacting or underreacting. We spend most of our day looking at what Google says, the data we’re pulling, and trying to reconcile what is working and what is not.

The process of doing this teaches you that not all Google updates are game-changers. While others don’t seem to make any damned sense.

With that in mind, here are the biggest and the most confusing changes Google has made in the last 12 months and 3,200 updates.

The Biggest Change: Google’s Mobile-First Indexing

group of diverse people discussing while holding their mobile phones

This one didn’t technically take place last year. It has been slowly rolled out over the last 3 years and it has really started to take shape over the last 2 months.

For a deeper dive into how this has evolved and played out, you can click here to learn more about mobile-first indexing.

In broad strokes, in 2016, it was officially announced that mobile traffic across the globe had finally overtaken desktop traffic. The data proved what we all knew: That most of today’s searches start on a mobile device. Google said they were evolving accordingly.

Google announced that they would be working towards mobile-first indexing over the next few years, and they would soon look at your mobile site before they looked at your desktop site when assessing your SEO value.

This put the entire internet on notice: Your mobile site needs to be as well-optimized as your desktop site. Or better.

Since 2016, we’ve seen Google roll out mobile-first indexing, slowly but systematically. As of July 1st of this year, all new sites would be crawled mobile-first by default. This shouldn’t have been a big deal for most. If you’re designing or publishing a new site in 2019, one would hope you would have made the mobile experience a high priority. If not, we need to have a bigger conversation.

But, what did this mean for older sites? If your site wasn’t ready for a mobile-first world, Google likely reached out to your webmaster via Search Console to let you know exactly what needed to change.

The most popular issues were:

– Blocked JavaScript, CSS or Image Files
– Faulty Link Redirects
– Font Size is Too Small
– Videos Don’t Play
– Touch Elements on Your Screen are Too Close

However, doing what the message advised doesn’t mean you were now set up to succeed. It meant you now met the minimum standard. If you want actual mobile success, you need an entire mobile strategy.

Why This Update Mattered

July’s deadline shouldn’t have really been a game-changer, per se. Again, you should have already been launching your new site with mobile in mind.

However, this also served as a wake-up call for companies who hadn’t yet switched to mobile-first thinking.

The Second Biggest Change: Google’s Mobile Page Speed Update

Not only is your mobile site being indexed before your desktop site, it’s also being held to a high standard for speeds.

Speed has always been one of the biggest factors in SEO success. When I start working with someone as an SEO consultant, I do a pre-audit of their site. I can confidently say that site speed is holding back at least 7 of 10 clients I meet with.

We’ve always known that speed mattered (on desktop or mobile), but it was good to hear Google confirm it and actually offer up some tools and numbers to help us know what to shoot for.

Google announced that their “Speed Update’ would, “only affect pages that deliver the slowest experience to users and will only affect a small percentage of queries. It applies the same standard to all pages, regardless of the technology used to build the page.”

They also added, “The intent of the search query is still a very strong signal, so a slow page may still rank highly if it has great, relevant content.”

They also provided a number of tools to help you test your mobile site’s speeds and overall user experience (UX):

Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test
Chrome User Experience Report
PageSpeed Insights

Mobile friendly test

Why This Update Mattered

Because, speed matters, and it always will.

The Most Confusing Update: Google’s ‘Medic Update’

This was a perfect example of the widespread speculation that sometimes happens after a Google update.

The summer of 2018 saw Google announce a broad core algorithm update, saying that:

“Each day, Google usually releases one or more changes designed to improve our results. Some are focused around specific improvements. Some are broad changes. Last week, we released a broad core algorithm update. We do these routinely several times per year.”

While nothing specific was added, a number of sites saw an almost-overnight drop in rankings. When they reached out to Google to ask how to fix this, Google basically said there is no fix because nothing is broken.

There is no fix

This led the top-ranked SEO experts of the world to draw their own conclusion on what the hell just happened.

This changed was unofficially dubbed the “medic update,” as it appeared that organizations in the medical space seemed to be impacted the most.

In an attempt to spot trends, Search Engine Roundtable surveyed their audience and asked how the update impacted them. Their results revealed that 42% of respondents in the ‘medical, health, fitness, healthy lifestyle space’ answered that they saw some sort of impact.

The next nearest group appeared to be E-commerce, with only 16% of those respondents reporting any sort of impact.

SEO roundtable-medic-update

What This Update May Have Meant:

Here’s my take. Google’s algo is designed to reward the companies that are providing the best possible search experience for users. That means creating high-quality content that earns organic links. Even as the algo grows more and more complex, that is the boiled-down truth.

We like to say that if you’re doing the right things (ie. quality content + organic links), you’re future-proofing and algo-update-proofing your SEO success. You are putting yourself in a position to look forward to future updates, instead of dreading them.

If you took a hit after the medic update, it may not come down to what you did wrong, it may simply be a matter of what other companies are doing better. As Google said, “it’s that changes to our systems are benefiting pages that were previously under-rewarded.”

Does that mean your site was previously over-rewarded? Maybe/maybe not. I would say that this update was not a reason for you to look at what you may be doing wrong, but what the highest rankers are doing right.

The Second Most Confusing Update: Google’s “Maverick Update”

Some updates cause us to stare an analytics screen for hours and say “Ok, here’s my takeaway.” Others make us say, “Yeah, I got nothing.”

Maverick update

Google’s so-called Maverick Update falls into the latter category.

This summer, a lot of SEO consultants reported seeing some fluctuations in July, and attributed it to an update that Google would neither confirm nor deny.

Google’s John Mueller said:

“Updates. I don’t have any update news. I saw a lot of blogging and tweeting on updates, so I don’t know what is specifically happening there. I don’t know. We will see. I haven’t chatted with Danny (Sullivan) about that. So, not quite sure. But we always do updates. I think it is more about if this is one of those core updates and which month will it be called after.”

However, something happened, even if we weren’t able to find much in terms of specifics. Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land reported seeing some significant fluctuations in mid-July, but said, “the general consensus was that this was a weird update and hard to find patterns with. Even when comparing it to previous core updates, this one seemed different.”

Without much to go on, the SEO community unofficially dubbed the update “Maverick” because:

1. The trailer for Tom Cruise’s Maverick movie dropped that week
2. The update was somewhat stealth
3. They just really thought it sounded cool

What This Update May Have Meant

This is very much like the medic update, in my book.

If you saw a boost following this update, take that as a sign that you’re killing it and keep doing what you’re doing. If you saw a decline, take a look at the top rankings sites have that you don’t have.

For example, do a TF-IDF analysis on the top-ranked sites using a tool like Surfer.

We have recently discovered the benefits of TF-IDF data. We published some really strong (in our humble view) content that simply wasn’t climbing the rankings the way we hoped/thought it would.

Basically, Surfer shows you the “other” words that the highest rankers for a given search term are using.

Let’s say you’re writing a blog on how to make your own protein bars. You plug that search term into Surfer and you can get the following report.

Surfer keywords

Here, we can see that 10/10 top-ranking pages for this term all used these words: bake, post, snacks, easy, ingredients, time, chocolate, favorite, almond, recipe, healthy, love, recipes, coconut.

Some of those are words you would have organically included. However, your blog may not have included the word “love.” Based on what the highest rankers have done, to write a piece that has a good chance of ranking, you should probably talk about how much you and your friends love these bars.

It doesn’t replace keyword research, it adds to it. And trust me when I say it works.

Final Thoughts

About 2 or 3 Google updates happened while I wrote that blog. Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to check the headlines and SEO groups.

As I said, it’s a tightrope. You want to be aware of Google algo updates, but you don’t want to be obsessed with them. You want to react, not overreact. And, if you’re already doing the right things, in a lot of cases, the action is to just keep grinding away.

It’s a lot to keep track of. If you don’t want to have to worry about these things and hire an SEO nerd who can stay on top of them for you, please reach out to me at any time.

About the Author

Paul Teitelman - SEO Consultant

Paul is a well-respected Canadian SEO consultant and link-building expert with over 15 years of experience helping hundreds of companies rank for competitive keywords on Google. He is a Toronto-based SEO consultant who is passionate about search engine optimization and link building. Over the years, he has made a reputation for himself as a leader in the industry by consistently delivering phenomenal results to his growing client base.