The digital marketing world is constantly catching up to the latest Google algorithm update.
But what if you didn’t have to? What if you crested the waves with a smartly navigated boat instead of falling victim to the unpredictable search engine sea?
Google has been providing us the answer for years, but too many of us were chasing quick wins and time-tested tactics. However, not upgrading the long-term strategy left many beaten down by algorithm updates.
But it shouldn’t be viewed as punishment. This is an opportunity. Google isn’t here to thwart your company, but rather to serve the user. Your strategy should adjust accordingly.
As with any update, some sites may note drops or gains. There’s nothing wrong with pages that may now perform less well. Instead, it’s that changes to our systems are benefiting pages that were previously under-rewarded….
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) March 12, 2018
Here’s how the search engine behemoth has done it (serving the user, that is), is doing it and what you can do to stay ahead of the storm.
The Latest Core Updates
Before we peel back the layers on Google’s ever-more-focused perspective on user experience, let’s take a look at a few of the most recent algorithm updates.
Later today, we are releasing a broad core algorithm update, as we do several times per year. It is called the September 2019 Core Update. Our guidance about such updates remains as we’ve covered before. Please see this blog for more about that: https://t.co/e5ZQUAlt0G
— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) September 24, 2019
Unprecedented for their temporal proximity, Google announced not just one but two core algorithm updates in the first week of June 2019. Even more interesting, these are the first updates announced publicly by Google ahead of or during implementation, as opposed to after they were already in effect.
The two updates in June 2019 are the core algorithm update and the diversity update.
The June Core Algorithm Update
The latest core algorithm update primarily appeared to target the YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) vertical (again) and had a particularly devastating impact on news sites. In fact, CCN.com, a site devoted to covering cryptocurrency news (not CNN.com, the cable news behemoth), opted to shut down their site after losing more than 70 percent of their mobile traffic and 90 percent of their revenue overnight.
Other sites in these two verticals experienced an incredible amount of turbulence. Two prime examples of losers, per Sistrex, were health retailer mercola.com (-50 percent visibility) and British news site dailymail.co.uk (-43 percent). But with losers come winners: healthline.com (+33 percent) and mirror.co.uk (+54 percent) were the main beneficiaries of that lost traffic.
As for the YMYL domains cited above, one interesting observation is Healthline’s narrow focus. Mercola uses the namesake of its founding doctor, lending plenty of E-A-T (expertise, authority, trust) credibility. On the other hand, Mercola’s health dropdown menu includes unrelated categories like pets and gardening tips. This is almost certainly sending inconsistent signals to Google that Mercola may not be as valuable in terms of health-related searches as Healthline.
At Digital Current, our clients haven’t experienced the same level of impact, although one enjoyed a rollback of ranking losses suffered during the preceding March 2019 update. This fits well with our theory that RankBrain (more on this below) is playing a larger role in content evaluation, which is a further refinement of its role in identifying the searcher’s intent that dates back to 2015 — which leads us to …
The Diversity Update
There’s little mystery to the Diversity Update. Google’s goal is to fight search engine results page (SERP) monopolization unless it makes sense for the user (e.g., a branded search). Thus, more sites will be given an opportunity to grab first-page rankings as Google limits each domain to only two listings in its “top results,” which is presumably the first page. This rule extends to subdomains, meaning they’ll be treated as a part of the root domain.
What does that mean for you?
The takeaway here is to consolidate your efforts. Don’t post seven different blog posts targeting the same keyword. Instead, look to combine and/or update pieces of content to make them stronger.
A great tactic to help more fully develop content and completely answer a searcher’s needs is to check out the PAA (People Also Ask) boxes on SERPs for targeted keywords and address them in your content.
A Look Back at Google’s Evolving Algorithm Strategy
The double update in June 2019 wasn’t the only indication of Google’s evolution in algorithm strategy focusing acutely on user intent. The Medic Update in August 2018 was a significant signal that Google’s algorithm has taken a major step toward realizing the type of quality analysis recommended in the Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. Many other updates have automated analyses or served the user, but the Medic Update unleashed RankBrain on content.
RankBrain is the machine-learning element of Google’s core algorithm. An unfathomable number of keywords, pages, clicks and other user interactions (presumably) have been training RankBrain to become a larger player in the keyword rankings. It allowed Google to test searcher’s intent at scale and now plays a more central role in the SERPs.
These types of user-centric algorithm updates are stacking up to be a multi-year trend as Google redefines its algorithm strategy.
Even looking back a few years, Map Packs dropped from seven results to three in 2015 to better serve mobile customers, who overtook desktop searches that same year. Fast-forward to 2018, the Speed Update, which rolled out a month prior to Medic, demoted sites that took too long to serve the user a page. And so the user-experience-centric trend grew more prominent.
There’s even evidence that the second post-Medic update (March 2019) reversed some ranking drops, implying the machine recognized an overcorrection from August. Plus, SEMRush shows a core algorithm update in every month from March through June 2019.
The machine moves faster than man. The Medic update was Google improving the YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) space, arguably the most consequential part of a user’s internet use. Users want to trust Google to return the information they need when they type in or say certain keywords, particularly when it comes to their money and health.
This machine-learning approach to content has lifted sites with no links to the first page and demoted large sites spun up for purposes other than serving the user. And that has emboldened Google to continue rolling this strategy out across all sectors of the internet.
That’s precisely why ranking predictions from random consultants with all caps in their LinkedIn bios are as reliable as a politician’s promise. Google simply isn’t recognizing the same aspects in calculating the rankings, so sites that aim to please Google, and not the user, are getting bumped down the SERPs.
How Does Digital Current Build Algorithm-Proof SEO Strategies?
You need a holistic understanding of a business’s goals, operations and desired keywords to plan the best mode of attack. Here’s how Digital Current treats old algorithm wounds and creates a healthy long-term plan for a thriving digital presence:
1. Campaign Kickoffs Focused on the Client’s Business
We jumpstart every new campaign with a deep dive into our client’s business. These kickoffs are our chance to learn everything remotely relevant, from who your customers are to how your products differ from each other and the competition.
Our primary focus during this process is understanding your business’s goals. This allows us to determine the proper KPIs for measuring success and remove doubt about which tactics are working.
These insights serve us well in developing strategies, allowing for lateral thinking that ties ideas together to holistically drive search, digital and business growth.
2. Audit, Audit, Audit
With a foundation of business knowledge, we turn to the website’s digital health and presence through a series of SEO and other digital marketing audits. These include:
No website can thrive without a thorough examination of its technical structure. There are more than 180 issues we examine that can derail a site’s organic success no matter how great the content or thorough the keyword research.
We then build a plan of attack based on each obstacle’s potential impact versus the effort required. Whether it’s information architecture, a manual penalty or a spammy backlink profile, we set it straight so that our strategies are free to thrive.
Few areas of SEO have grown more in revenue over the past five years than the local organic channel. It’s imperative that all business with a local presence are following best practices both on- and off-site (Google My Business, citations, etc.) to compete.
There’s no point in identifying the right KPIs for a client if you’re not tracking them. A staple of our strategies includes an analytics audit that ensures crucial steps in the buyer’s journey are being monitored and reported.
Content Workshop, Personas and Audit
Keyword research can be rendered ineffective if the content doesn’t speak to the user’s needs in a voice that registers with the intended audience. Our content team works directly with your marketing department, sales staff, engineers and customers to find the right message to drive clicks, conversions, rankings and revenue.
Tie these audits together and what do you get? A clear understanding of what your users actually want and how you can best meet their needs.
3. Find Where Your Users Are Hanging Out
As we covered above, RankBrain uses machine learning to better understand what searchers are looking for when they use certain keywords.
If the algorithm determined that these users were looking for services, you’re going to find a Map Pack, local ads and a mix of directories (e.g., Yelp), lead-aggregation services (e.g., HomeAdvisor) and local landing pages. It’s also likely that those broad keywords that the big companies used to dominate have now been split into informational and local services, with little room for a generic homepage.
That’s why every keyword research project Digital Current conducts involves a SERP analysis. We dive past outdated tactics and raw numbers to find where our clients should live by looking at what type of results searchers are finding and your competitors are creating. Some of the questions we’re looking to answer include:
- Are ranking sites using deeper content to answer not just the original search but any follow-up questions?
- Are they using videos to better demonstrate how a product works or the right way to use a tool?
- Are image optimizations a place where we can get a leg up on the competition?
- Do we need to build more links to have a high enough authority to play in this space?
- What Schemas are the competitors using and what elements did they miss?
4. Target Those Users With the Right Optimized Content
Every digital marketer has inevitably been confronted with a tough question from a concerned client: “Why don’t I rank first for Keyword X anymore? This is a keyword that goes to the core competency of my business. How are we so far down (or off!) the first page?”
It can be uncomfortable, but there’s often a learning curve that hopefully your SERP analysis handled. And if we’ve done our job, the client will understand that those may not be the keywords they really need. Or perhaps it’s a matter of showing that ranking your homepage for a broad keyword with a massive search volume isn’t the way to compete. Rather, there may be more opportunity in a lesser-volume keyword for which you can gain greater visibility.
Keywords with a local intent have crept steadily upwards for years and make up just less than half of all searches. Those searches happen primarily on a mobile device dominated by a Map Pack. So not only do you need a mobile strategy, but your Google My Business (GMB) accounts need to be updated and supported by accurate citations, too.
Clients may not notice their page on the shrinking organic SERP, but they’ll notice the bump in revenue, no doubt.
Case in point, one enterprise client started appropriating a third of its budget for local SEO just over a year ago, driving an additional estimated $13.5 million in revenue off calls alone. These calls won’t show up in your organic traffic, so it’s imperative to track these actions using GMB Insights or other call-tracking platforms.
Plus, the reality is some local keywords are no longer winnable for companies. People love those top 10 lists of the best dry cleaners in their area. Those will always fluctuate near the top and often require a three-pronged approach to compete against, including the above-mentioned GMB, a local landing page and often a page with informative content to help users who may not become buyers at the same rate.
Finally, Google has made it clear it wants to keep more users on its own SERPs. Digital marketers and businesses must shift strategies to be where the user is converting, and that often means playing on Google’s field. Dinner reservations, travel plans and even food orders can be completed from end to end without ever leaving a Google domain. Clients need to make sure they’re up to par with Google’s latest offerings and requirements.
Where Do We Go From Here?
SEO isn’t dead — it’s evolving. And your strategy needs to evolve, too.
Short-term strategies focused on page optimizations with a few links will only get you so far. And they’ve been slowly fading away like meta keywords, cloaking and “The Walking Dead” (inexplicably in its ninth season).
Quick wins are still possible, but sustained success requires a strategy upgrade to survive algorithm updates.
We understand where Google has been moving toward (they’ve been telling us) and where the search engine is going. Our in-depth analysis goes past keywords, search metrics and word counts to determine how to satisfy a searcher’s intent. That’s how you win in Google’s post-Medic Update world.
We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and develop a strategy for you.