You hear a lot about Google algorithm updates. But what are they — and how much do writers need to track Google’s every move?
For those new to SEO writing — or folks who need a refresher — here’s a quick “101-level” Google algorithm guide.
Here we go!
What is a Google algorithm update?
Google updates improve the search engine’s relevance, quality, and user experience. The goal is to provide the best possible result for a query.
Think of them like software updates designed to make the experience a little better every time. Sure, the updates may annoy us and happen at the most inconvenient times, but their purpose is to improve things.
So, that means there’s just one algorithm that Google continually updates?
Well, no. There are a “whole series” of algorithms.
According to Google, “Search algorithms look at many factors, including the words of your query, relevance and usability of pages, expertise of sources, and your location and settings. The weight applied to each factor varies depending on the nature of your query — for example, the freshness of the content plays a bigger role in answering queries about current news topics than it does about dictionary definitions.”
Here’s more information from Google about how the search algorithms work.
I hear about core updates. What are those?
Think of core updates as BIG changes to the overall algorithm that Google believes make the search results even more relevant. Depending on the update, a page’s position may increase, drop, or stay the same. You mostly hear people complaining about position drops.
Here’s more information about Google core updates.
How long has Google been updating its algorithm?
According to Moz, the Google Toolbar update — which added the dreaded PageRank metric — was back in 2000. Since then, experts estimate that Google updates its algorithm 500-600 times a year — although many updates aren’t noticeable.
You said “many” updates aren’t noticeable. Are there more significant updates?
Oh yes. Here’s Moz’s listing of all the significant updates.
If my position drops, does that mean I was spamming Google’s new algorithm?
Nope. It means that Google is trying to “improve the search experience” and has changed how certain factors are weighted. That means some pages will gain new positions — and some page positions will drop. You’ve done nothing wrong. This “dance” is a normal part of the Google game.
So, this sounds like technical stuff. Why should I care about what Google is doing?
Many of the algorithmic changes don’t change how we write and strategize content.
For instance, you’ll notice I never discussed the “Featured Snippet De-Duping” update of February 2020. Why? Because it didn’t change how we approach the SEO writing game.
But other updates are a big deal — and not keeping up can mean missing significant SEO writing opportunities — or, even worse, trying a tactic that no longer works.
- The Panda update in 2011 (wow, ten years ago!) was the first to target low-quality content. I knew people who moved back home to live with their parents because the update wiped out most of their site traffic (and income.)
- The “Medic” core update hit YMYL (your money or your life) sites hard, fundamentally changing how some health and wellness sites created content.
- Press releases used to be a great way to gain incoming links…until the Penguin update.
- More recently, the Product Review update put writers on notice that “thin” product review content would no longer fly.
Learning about Google updates is freaking me out, and this feels like a bad thing for writers.
Algorithm switcheroos are a good thing.
Think about it: If Google didn’t refine its algorithm and what it considered quality content, we’d all be writing keyphrase-stuffed content like the bad old days. Much of the top-positioned content was BAD before Google changed things.
At the same time, it does mean that SEO writers need to keep up with what’s working now — versus what worked five years ago.
Plus, many companies are operating from outdated SEO writing style guides, virtually guaranteeing their writing sounds stilted and weird.
Does “keeping up with algorithm changes” mean that I need technical skills?
No. You don’t have to dive into the geeky side. But, it’s wise to have a reliable place to learn what the major updates are, what they mean, and how they affect your day-to-day. That way, you can leverage the latest opportunities — and not suggest an outdated SEO tactic because you didn’t know any better. (Yes, this happens a lot.)
How can I keep up?
Well, my newsletter. :) And the SEO Copywriting Certification Training for professional in-house and freelance writers. Plus, any source I frequently mention — like Search Engine Roundtable and Search Engine Land.
So, algorithm changes may mean SEO writing opportunities too?
Oh yes. Almost every significant change means that there’s some SEO writing opportunity. The key is knowing how to leverage it. If you’re new to SEO writing, check out this 27-point SEO copywriting checklist.
What do you think?
Did this newsletter help shed some light on the dreaded algorithm updates? Leave a comment and let me know!