UPDATE : Google May 4, 2020. What We Can Say in 2 Weeks
May 4, 2020, is now officially known as May the Fourth. This is a day when Stars Wars fans (i.e., almost all of us) come together. It is also Google’s new boring policy for algorithm naming. Just think of the good old Panda, Penguin, or Hummingbird!
This new core update is hard to comprehend, as it concerns many aspects of the central search algorithm. Here, unlike mobile indexing updates, nothing is concrete. It is not obvious what portion of the search will be affected. This is a theory, rather than a clear conclusion.
E-A-T as Best Response to SEO Issues
In recent years, G’s policy has had a single vector. E-A-T stands for experience, authority, and trustworthiness. This strategy promotes brands, not resources. It prioritizes quality and future development (i.e., behavioral factors) as a means of attracting regular 9customers. G. has always been user-oriented. Its recent updates (Florida 13, Panda, Penguin) were not focused on tighter sanctions for negative SEO. Instead, they encouraged its positive dimension (Mobile-First Index, BERT). The Penguin update of 2016 also suggests G.’s siding with the Jedi. A separate penalty algorithm was incorporated into the core that works in real time. Bad backlinks were announced to be ignored, rather than penalized. This clearly shows the search engine’s desire to teach, not punish.
Everything may have started in 2016. Back then, Google declared it would rank sites with HTTPS protocol higher in its results. Optimizers were now faced with a dilemma: switch to the protocol or check how the old saying would work in practice: The best place to hide a dead body is the second page of Google search.
Thereby, Google achieved two goals. On the one hand, it prevented some shady methods of traffic interception and cheats. On the other hand, webmasters now had to try harder to ensure reliability and privacy for the user.
The Google update of 2018 became the next logical step, which concerned all sites classified as YMYL.
The YMYL tactic had a direct effect on all niches related to healthcare, finance, and gambling. Everything that potentially concerns users’ money or health was included. Such segments saw more rigid requirements to reliability of information, safety of data transfer and trustworthiness. However, just like before, the update affected almost everyone.
Following the “medical” update of 2018, brand traffic from sites grew and gained value. Promotion of brands, rather than categories, was now seen as most beneficial in the long run. This way, resources were considered in their entirety.
Due to YMYL, the update was referred to as “medical”. The healthcare sector suffered the most, as it has direct influence on users’ health.
On January 13, 2020, Semrush sensor, mozCast etc., noticed significant variations in search results. In the evening of the same day, G. announced it was launching its update for the core algorithm:
In January, Dr. Peter J. Meyers posted an article on MOZ with his tentative conclusions. These concern API and stats for sites affected by the movements. He also mentions figures for niches with the most dramatic changes between January 14 and January 16:
“MozCast is split into 20 verticals, matching Google AdWords categories. It can be tough to interpret single-day movement across categories, since they naturally vary, but here’s the data for the range of the update (January 14–16) for the seven categories that topped 100°F on January 14 “
Obviously, categories with the highest turbulence are YMYL niches.
He notes that affected niches, and sometimes resources, are the same as in March and September of 2019. Aside from YMYL, sites with low-quality content saw a decline. This aspect, however, is debatable – it may be linked to the update or Google’s standard content quality strategy.
May 4 : Correlation of Results, Stats and a Little More
Looking back on May 2020, we may conclude that the strongest tremors spanned 3 days. On May 8, Semrush Sensor was already showing slight instability of search results:
Compare this with the highest figure for May 6:
If we look at result fluctuations between May 5 and 7 (all data taken from Semrush Sensor) :
We can see the largest swings concern expected categories:
Games and everything related:
Law and government:
And, of course, finance:
These two categories were less expected to be touched by the update:
Books and literature:
Obviously, all of the most affected categories are connected to money, health or safety of the user. This was predictable given the YMYL tactics.
A news digest following the January update was posted in the Semrush blog.
It shows that the core algorithm update had the strongest effect on big brands. This is especially pronounced in the local segment, mobile results and everything that concerns resource authority (real authors, trusted resource, reliable information). Local results overall also saw significant instability.
Google is constantly working to provide users with the most relevant information. In essence, all of its efforts over the past few years have pursued this goal.
Spring 2020 As Challenge for Google
Since its beginning, 2020 has been a rough year for the world. The largest pandemic-driven crisis has affected every person on the planet. Google has always tried to help users whatever they needed – be it a purchase or ideas for a new hairstyle. Hence, the launch of SOS Alert on all regions with confirmed Covid-19 cases was logical and predictable:
This search function had been launched and working since August 2018. Fortunately, few of us noticed it until recently.
Keep in mind that SOS Alert alters results for crisis-related queries. Ranking factors also vary. Importantly, while results change for users in affected regions, they also change for regional queries from non-residents.
“If you don’t see an SOS Alert during a crisis, it may be due to one of these reasons:
Your search query may be too broad. Try searching for keywords that include both the type of disaster and the name of the affected area.
We may still be gathering and verifying information prior to launching an SOS Alert. Check back again for updates as the crisis evolves. ”
No one could envision the scope of the pandemic, so it is hard to imagine how G. managed to. As we see, the original purpose of SOS Alert was quick response and provision of specific and accurate information for a crisis region. But it had to undergo an almost global expansion. The spring of 2020 may be regarded as a real test drive for SOS Alert and G. in general.
“Google only loves you when everyone else loves you first.” – Wendy Piersall
CTR has always mattered. User interaction has been the key indicator of site quality for quite a while. Admittedly, we have all googled our pandemic-related questions. What happens if you keep visiting a website that responds to your COVID-19 queries? Later, such resources are ranked higher for your other queries.
Over the spring, everyone wrote pandemic-related content and attracted sizeable search traffic. It is easy to find such resources using a query directly related to COVID-19.
I have looked at 3 websites for illustrative analysis. These are two medical sites and one technology news resource. As we know, healthcare saw the most turbulence, while news sites were hit the least. All of the sites (for illustrative and general analysis) were found via queries on COVID-19 and related topics.
Let’s look at the stats:
Here’s is what the G. index shows:
27,300 results for the main keyword, including 45 pages where it is in title.
Generally, the site already saw steady traffic growth in April:
At first glance, the changes are not critical. Unsurprisingly, a medical resource writes about healthcare. To specialists, the May update looks like a follow-up to the January update. Following the same logic, we could have expected further steady growth. However, actual figures present quite a different picture:
Both traffic and visibility declined. This analysis included data for the USA region only. To be fair, figures for Canada and the UK are less extreme.
Once the update appeared, the site started losing keywords and visibility rapidly. In our analysis, many of the keywords were shown to have left Top 100 search results:
The link profile could not be overlooked, and it revealed a curious situation: the number of backlinks by authority suffered immensely. In my opinion, 97% of dofollow links and a steep rise in January raise suspicion:
However, conclusions require more than one website. Let’s analyze another medical resource.
Over 80,000 results including 97 intitle:
Traffic over the past 6 months:
Unlike verywellhealth, there is relative stability instead of decline.
The link profile is similar. There are many websites with low rating, but no sharp rise like it happened with verywellhealth. Instead, we see negative link dynamics, which is alarming. Why did the resources suddenly stop referring? I suppose, if G. asked questions, this would be their first one.
So, what happened after May 4?
Site visibility plunged:
However, the general situation looks better:
This is where the theory may seem to fail, but I believe otherwise. General keywords saw a decline (this is what impaired visibility). However, this had no serious effect on mayoclinic overall. The site was focused on development and authority – it was advancing the brand. The decline looks negligible given the rise in brand traffic.
- The third site analyzed was www.tomsguide.com
Importantly, this is a technology website:
However, it still has 2,450 pages concerning COVID-19 in the index.
Just one article on coronavirus (specifically, masks) brought a lot of traffic:
Following the January update, traffic to the site grew. Possibly, this was due to its quick adaptation to world events. Now, it is losing ground once again:
Loss of visibility, although less significant, is also observed:
Such examples are aplenty.
As always, G is watching YMYL resources more closely. What is forgivable for an informational site is unforgivable for a medical one. This is especially true today. Content manipulation limited to frequent and trendy queries, as well as negative link profiles still bring ramifications. The difference is that the update affects a lot of sites. This is not because the changes are so broad. This is because too many websites were using the same methods.
Rapid growth in the frequency of queries related to COVID-19 is a possible trigger. It may have prompted many websites to rig results. During this hyperactive search, when there was so much traffic available, they wanted to attract more of it by generating a lot of content. This explains why the core algorithm had to be adjusted. Maybe, this is exactly what we saw on May 4.
This sounds logical if Google wanted to prevent webmasters from manipulation with pandemic-related topics. It may have sought to redistribute traffic towards authoritative sites that meet the system’s criteria. To return to the quality of content away from quantity. To the key principles: E-A-T.
Like any continuously updated system, Google needs time to adapt to radical changes. And weren’t the recent global changes radical? What if the crisis and the shocks were so vast that the flow of information could not be assessed and distributed relevantly, without salient massive adjustments? Maybe, the latest G. update does not introduce anything new. Maybe, it is merely an effort to adapt to the new reality.
I have come across Phil Frost’s phrase that accurately describes the current state of SEO:
“Successful SEO is not about tricking Google. It’s about PARTNERING with Google to provide the best search results for Google’s users.”
All the latest G’s updates were aimed at improving results for the user. Maybe it is high time we stopped inventing tricks to circumvent limitations of the search engine. In my opinion, it is better to partner up with it.
The Day before May 4
Across the world, small and mid-size businesses are suffering from the pandemic. G. always focused on its user, could not stay away.
It announced a change in search results for local news. The new Local News feature is a carousel with regional stories. It was based on Top Stories launched a month prior. What makes Local News special is the presence of reports from sites unrelated to the region. They only need to offer a targeted and topical article with links to authoritative sources. In addition, coronavirus-related news no longer needs AMP for mobile results. Hence, pages with and without an AMP version are ranked in the same way, with no prioritization for mobile search.