On the 4th of May, 2020, Google confirmed that they are rolling out the second core search algorithm update of the year. This is a rather sizable update with the potential of having a significant impact on sites across categories and countries. Although the update itself can take a couple of weeks to be fully rolled out, you can typically begin to see the downstream impact within a few days.
Some webmasters and SEO practitioners have criticised the timing of the May 2020 Core Update. With the ongoing global lockdown and economic downturn, sustaining online business in the midst of a global pandemic has already proven to be challenging enough. There is a widespread decline in traffic and sales for many online businesses, in part due to the mass reduction in consumer purchasing power. As a result, there prevails an overall sense of uncertainty about the future.
This article aims to dissect the details with further analysis of the latest Google Core Update.
May 2020 Core Update – What’s New?
As was expected, Google has not disclosed the precise information on what has changed in the search algorithm, or which businesses or subjects are the strong focal points of the update. It is not yet clear whether this was, in part, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent changing search patterns of Google users, but logic dictates that it would have been.
According to Google, the entire roll-out period will take one to two weeks until all changes are live. Google often performs post-rollout tweaks as they usually make adjustments to correct inadvertent or undesirable ranking results.
Most updates consolidate with minor changes relatively quickly, but this one is taking the time, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s going to be a significantly large update.
Temporary Search Ranking Volatility
One of the reasons that search results could experience temporary volatility is because it may take some time to implement the changes to all data centres globally. If your computer browser hits a certain data centre, it might still receive the old data until changes are deployed all across the globe.
Another reason to explain the frequent changes is that multiple factors are changing. A “multiple” would be an understatement. The Google core is comprised of millions of mini algorithms that work in orchestration with one another. A Google core update affects a large chunk of the existing algorithm. What usually happens is that the update roll outs are followed by a period of relative calm, but is then interrupted by more corrective changes that sometimes reverse the losses, known as false positives.
False positives are when an update unintentionally and negatively affects the relevant sites. After the update, Google engineers monitor and measure the responses, review the Google search results, and fine-tune the results to smooth out the false positives.
Impressions and Apprehensions
A lot of people have been apprehensive about the May 2020 Core Update and have described it with words like ‘Carnage.’ Most businesses noted that the timing couldn’t have been worse since sustaining business at such a dire time was already a struggle.
In the words of Tony Wright, a known search marketer, “This seems to be one of the most important updates in the recent memory. It’s too early to do anything but analysis, but the sites in multiple verticals have been affected. It’s not clear yet who the winners are.”
Several people have shared that while it is still early days, changes are taking place across a number of industries, particularly in the health sector.
The Winners and Losers
The broad core algorithm updates are meant to bring notable changes to search results across all countries and languages.
Some ranking drops and gains are unavoidable once the core update is fully rolled out. Certainly, during the pandemic, we would expect to see a dramatic decrease in search queries related to travel, tourism, and live events, etc. So, for many such categories, volatility would be a rather natural response and should come as no surprise at all.
However, at this point, the most significant impact of the May 2020 Core Update occurs across several industries, including some of those already affected by the pandemic.
With the assistance of SEMrush Sensor, the average volatility has been compared seven days before and two days after the announcement of the update. And the largest hit categories have been: Travel, Real Estate, Health, Pets & Animals, and People & Society. This holds true for both mobile and desktop searches.
It has also been noted that a lot of big domains have been affected significantly in their Search Engine Ranking Position, or known as SERP in the world of SEO. Approximately half of the major ranking fluctuations in the US have occurred on websites with traffic exceeding 1 million monthly visitors.
Legacy.com (the obituary site) has gained positions (+ 13 positions on average) and popularity with this update. But, as expected, the news category has been the biggest winner.
With everyone’s constant attention to the news in the last few months, many media outlets are gaining unparalleled attention from the users. Still, it appears that their strategies have faired well, and are reaping the rewards with May 2020 Core Update.
The biggest winner in the News category is Indian Express. And, as far as the Business sector is concerned, it was interesting to see PR outlets gain some significant ranking traction—sites like Businesswire, PR Newswire, and GlobeNewswire have earned about 50+ positions each.
Below are the top five winning categories of the May 2020 Core Update.
• Business and Industrial
• Online Communities
• Arts & Entertainment
• Health Sector
Distribution of winners by category
Evidently, offline entertainment as well the hospitality industry has been hit particularly hard. Eventbrite, for example, has lost about 44 positions. Here is a breakdown of the industries that saw the most significant drop in their organic positions:
Distribution of losers by category
One common myth propagated within the SEO community, especially the newcomers into the arena, is that if your site has a high domain authority (DA) or domain score, you are going to keep getting high volumes of traffic and will not be affected by the updates. Well, that is no longer true.
To prove this, here are some well-known sites with high DA that saw their rankings drop after the initial rollout of May 20 Core Google update.
What Does May 2020 Core Update Target?
It is important to understand that Google’s broad core updates do not target an industry in particular.
Though the change in the algorithm may have a strong impact on a specific industry, it does not mean that the industry has been specifically targeted. The results are simply driven by user search patterns which are greatly dependent on variables such as economic activity, season, and political climate, to name a few. In the end, it is all modeled by Google’s RankBrain algorithm, which is at the centre of the Google Core. RankBrain is Google’s machine learning system that is designed to understand the meaning of the search queries and how it relates to users’ keywords in order to provide more relevant content to the audience.
Google has had a recent history of implementing diverse core updates that affect factors such as understanding the user search intent and purpose and content of the web pages and how these pages are pertinent to search queries. For instance, a change in a better understanding of the search intention may have an impact on how Google ranks medical-related sites.
If Google establishes that searchers want scientific answers to health queries, then this is going to have a negative ranking effect on sites with “natural”, or homeopathic, remedies. Thus, if medical-related sites appear to be adversely impacted, it could be the effect of a change in understanding the purpose of the search.
Link related factors like no-follow links for ranking purposes are also part of the recent May 2020 Core Update.
Turning the Odds in Your Favour
Google ranks sites based on how relevant they are to the Google search queries. Google also uses a link signal to determine the popularity and relevance of the site. And it tries not to rank websites of low quality.
Google has stated that these updates are designed to ensure that they deliver on its mission to provide relevant and authoritative content to searchers. In short, Google’s argument has always been that there isn’t much you can do about algorithm updates and changing rankings, except to continue improving the quality of your content, and curate it to your audience. That means, other than obviously knowing the demands of your audience, keeping abreast of your audience’s socio-economic trajectory and how global or even local events may influence their preferences and habits. Often it helps to turn the tables and think from the audience’s perspective – if you were in their shoes, what is it that you would need and want to know?
Now is really the time to evaluate whether or not your content is credible, relevant to queries, formatted in such a way as to help search engines and users, and to make sure that SEO mistakes are fixed and avoided.
Also, spend some time creating content that provides search engines and target audiences with knowledge on trending topics in your subject area in the form of facts, tips, and FAQs.
In hindsight, whatever the May 2020 Google Core Update has in the offering, the overarching criteria is likely to remain the same for the Google search rankings, only adjusting to the current global predicaments and changing user behaviour. So, whatever comes, if your content is relevant, current, value-added and optimised, it will still sing on Google and on all search engines.
SEO is about giving a better informational experience to your audience and customers than your competitors. If that is your principal objective, in the longer term, you will find that you are going to do better than your competition when it comes to Google’s algorithm, irrespective of the Google Core Update.
Lastly, it is better to wait out until the full update roll out before you make any major decisions about modifying your website. And that means incorporating the lessons learned from best performers. So, keep an eye out for winning sites and try to understand why those sites have been successful, and what they have done content wise in recent months that have helped them. The best way to view the changes is through the lens of how the site best handles the search intent.