Google’s May 2020 Core Update: The One Where Google Makes an Algorithm Update During a Pandemic

Up until now, most Google algorithm updates have been associated with a cute animal (Google Panda & Google Penguin) or a Sesame Street character (BERT).

This changed on May the 4th when Google announced that it would be rolling out a May 2020 Core Update, a core algorithm update that will forever be known as “The one where Google makes an algorithm update during a global pandemic.”


There’s never really a good time for a Google algorithm update — but could there BE a worse time? All Friends references aside, this update has been one of the most significant and caused the most volatility in the SERPS. 

It’s time to understand the algorithm, what comes next, and react accordingly —  even if that means taking minimal action.

May the 4th Be With You: How the May 2020 Core Algorithm Update Went Down

The Rollout:

The rollout of this core update came after January’s 2020 core algorithm update.  This time around, when Google’s Danny Sullivan announced on May 4th that they were rolling out an update, they gave us notice that the update would take roughly two weeks to complete. 

Once the update was completely rolled out, Google made sure to notify us that it was game time.

Before the Update: Core Web Vitals

Early May, around the time Google announced that it would roll out this big update, Google also revealed that they would be introducing Core Web Vitals. 

In a nutshell, Google’s Core Web Vitals are metrics like site speed, responsiveness, and user experience based on desktop and mobile website performance that Google explained will be major factors used when determining the authority of a site. 

Ultimately, this introduction of metrics intended to help measure how users interact with sites was followed up with an overarching core update that applied these measures to help deliver SERP results that prioritize user experience. 

What We Know From Google

What Google Wants Us To Know


When Danny Sullivan confirmed the completion of the algorithm update, he did us all a solid and referred us to “What webmasters should know about Google’s core updates.” The Webmaster Central Blog from 2019 outlines best practices for when Google rolls out an update and includes a detailed list of questions that SEOs should be asking themselves about the quality, authority, and competitive elements of their content. 

In a nutshell, in this blog, Google reminds us that there is no “secret sauce” to regaining rankings when a website is hit by an update. Instead, it’s important to just regulate the general quality of a site’s content for SEO. At the end of the day, reacting to a Google update is about rationality and responsiveness, not reactivity.

What it Did for Search Quality

Google’s May 2020 update is one of Google’s most volatile updates to date — it really did a number on the SERPS.

In fact, when Barry Schwartz of SEO Roundtable did a poll inquiring how users and SEOs think the update has changed search quality (the relevance of the pages delivered by SERPs for searches), 80 per cent said the Google May 2020 core update did not improve search quality. 62 per cent, however, said that the update made search quality worse.


It turns out, the January core update was a warm-up for how Google would change the SERPs with this update. Between May 4th and 6th, Moz measured relatively high volatility with a peak of 112.6° on May 5th. For the record, January’s core update saw a volatility increase of 8 points in the SERPs. Rank Ranger’s Mordy Oberstein echoed this fact by calling the update a “monster” and showcasing the disparity in volatility caused by the two updates.

What We Know About the May 2020 Core Update

The May 2020 core update resulted in the SERPs being as volatile as the state of the world right now — things changed fast, with little reasoning or explanation. That said, when it comes to any abrupt change, it’s important to accommodate and continue with business as usual under less than usual circumstances. 

The best way to do this is to assess everything we do know about the update (which is admittedly not too much due to limited information from Google), what it did, and what it can do in the future for search.

On-Page Factors:

Up until now, many sites with limited content were able to maintain their ranking due to internal liking and off-page factors like link building. According to Search Engine Journal, these sites are now seeing a drop due to poor technical on-page optimization factors like site speed. This directly helps to confirm the increasingly prevalent fact that user experience plays an essential role in optimizing a website for SEO.

Local SEO:

The rollout of this algorithm update drastically changed a lot of things, including local search results. MarketMuse, an AI content intelligence and strategy platform, has identified two specific trends in how this update impacted local SEO efforts.

  1. Sites now triumphing in local search rankings are those who have a high rate of link acquisitions “even if the link acquisition rate seems unnaturally high.”

  2. High rates of link acquisitions are also helping low-quality sites in less competitive niches

  3. Aggregators and directories, especially in less competitive niches, are also seeing major wins

The Winners & Losers: Who Got Hit the Hardest?

Who it Hit

This update hit a lot of the industries already impacted by the pandemic. This should come as little surprise considering how COVID-19 has changed search trends and impacted the search volume behind a lot of search terms related to industries like live music, travel and tourism, and more.

Considering we haven’t heard more from Google, it’s worth mentioning that it’s hard to tell how much of this volatility is impacted by the algorithm update, and how much is influenced by how COVID-19 has impacted specific industries and search trends.

SEM Rush’s sensor for SERP volatility is an easy (and jarring) way to see how this update impacted search volatility for various niches.

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On May 6th, The average volatility in travel increased to 9.3 points from its 1.9 at the end of April.

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HEALTH: The health niche is another industry that has been hit by this algorithm update, and signs are pointing to the fact that this is because of how the update has considered E-A-T — but more on E.A.T. later.

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SEM Rush’s sensor for SERP volatility has shown pets and animals to be another niche hit hard by this update.

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REAL ESTATE: It is important to note that, of all industries, real estate seems to have faced the highest volatility in the SERPS.

Notable Mentions:

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BIG DOMAINS: The rankings of heavy hitters in the world of the internet took a major hit with the rollout of this update. Specifically, of the US websites with traffic exceeding over 1 million monthly visitors, half of which saw substantial changes in their rankings. 

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OFFLINE ENTERTAINMENT: Offline entertainment like concerts, live theatre, and musical theatre, have all seen drastic drops in Google rankings. Specifically, SEM Rush reports that event website Eventbrite which is known for being a hub to find local events dropped by 44 positions on the SERPs.

Who it Rewarded:

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NEWS: With everything that has been happening in the world between COVID-19, the tragic death of George Floyd, and the continued injustices experienced within the black community, it should come as little surprise that now, more than ever, people want to be informed.  They want to be informed about action being taken and the state of the world, and for good reason.

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BUSINESS & PR: The business sector is another niche that has seen some substantial wins following this update. According to SEM Rush, Businesswire, PR Newswire, and GlobeNewswire have each increased by roughly 50+ positions.

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A stand-out outcome of this update is how it has skyrocketed the rankings of social media and e-commerce giants like Amazon, Pinterest, and Etsy who are getting double listings — the same page ranked twice.

While Pinterest is dominating DIY search terms, Etsy is dominating “home made” related search queries. This has caused a little bit of confusion and frustration, but Google is on this to ensure that the SERPS are offering various resources beyond one social media platform, and are not doubling pages on search results.

So, What Comes Next?

The Indexing Issue

Back in April, before Google rolled out this big update, we saw some indexing issues from the search giant. Again, we’re not pointing fingers because, well, Google already did. Once this was brought to their attention, Google solved this issue to ensure new pages were being indexed and reflected in the SERPs.

Long story short, this indexing problem surfaced once again right after the most recent update, resulting in some stale results in the SERPS. Google heard our complaints and, once again, answered by solving the issue.

What We Can Do About the Core Update Results:

E . A . T :

Once again, SEOs are being asked to think critically of their content and determine if it is truly informative, authoritative, and easily navigable for users. More than anything, this core update is reminding us of the importance of  E.A.T and YMYL, the concept that pages revolving your health, wealth, or happiness require trustworthy, credible content to rank on Google.

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Provide expert content that niche readers want to read, using language and formatting that pertains to the industry. We create content that showcases expertise in a niche by utilizing keyword research. This allows us to find out what exactly a client’s niche audience is looking for, and provide content accordingly by utilizing relevant verbiage, topics, and style.

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Expert, informative content is most effective when it’s provided by a credible, authoritative source. To highlight the authority of content, it is important to provide detailed author bios with information, credentials, and external links that solidify the author’s expertise.

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A page’s trustworthiness is ultimately determined by both the expertise and authority displayed within a page’s content and the quality of the website itself.  A trustworthy website is one that is secure, responsive for desktop and mobile, and runs efficiently with sufficient page speed for optimal user experience.

What the Core Update Means For Paul Teitelman SEO Consulting: Keep on Keeping On

The Paul Teitelman team is reacting to this algorithm update the best way we know how — by pivoting. Not by second-guessing all of our content, but taking this time to go back and refresh content based on a number of factors. Does it align with E.A.T? Is this information dated? How have search trends changed? Are there new keywords with high search volume we can target?

We utilize every Google algorithm update as an opportunity to better our content, and better understand how we can best show Google the quality of our content. By focusing on quality and user experience, we create interesting content that is authoritative and niche-specific to serve search intent — and all on pages that load fast and are easy to navigate.

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.