On May 4th Google announced via the @searchlaison Twitter account that they were rolling a search algorithm update called the “May 2020 Core Update” and that it would be rolling out over the next two weeks.
Along with that tweet, Google linked a blog post from 2019 on how SEOs and website owners can understand and comprehend what their core updates are about. Here’s a link to the post.
Google historically doesn’t divulge what the purpose of these updates are. They only point to the blog post from August of 2019 which provides the following info:
- Google is always making updates to their search algorithm
- Some may be more noticeable than others (they’ll try to let us know in advance)
- There’s nothing wrong with pages that may perform worse after a core update
- “We know those with sites that experience drops will be looking for a fix, and we want to ensure they don’t try to fix the wrong things. Moreover, there might not be anything to fix at all.”
Not a whole lot of help here. It’s especially frustrating when Google says that “there may not be anything to fix at all,” after you have a decline in traffic from an update.
By May 18, 2020, the core update had finished rolling out.
The feedback from the SEO community was not good. We compiled some of tweets and forum comments that illustrate how the SEO community took the update.
As you can see, the consensus wasn’t great. SERoundtable.com’s Barry Schwartz asked the SEO community what they thought of the update and of more than 1,000 responses, 62% said the update had a negative impact.
What We Know About the May 2020 Core Update
Without any specifics from Google, it’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on with the May 2020 Core Update. For now, let’s avoid speculation and lay out the facts.
- This is the 2nd Core Update of 2020 (first was in Jan 2020)
- Happened in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic and just before nation was preparing to open up for business
- Had a much bigger impact than January 2020, September 2019, and June 2019 Core Updates
- General consensus among SEOs is that this update harmed high quality sites and improved the rankings of seemingly lower-quality pages
- There was constant chatter on SERoundtable.com forums through April on search algo changes and updates, though none were acknowledged by Google
Additionally, Google has proffered tid-bits of information that tell us more about how these Core Updates work.
In the first place, they’re extremely complex. In a tweet quoting his talk at PUBCON in 2019, Gary Illyes, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, he said, “the core algorithm is a collection of probably millions of small algorithms that look for signals in pages or links that could be conceptualized as E-A-T.”
The May 2020 Core Update was broad in scope and while – yes – Google is constantly updating algorithms, the broad core updates have a much wider impact on web traffic.
We also know that recent changes to a website don’t necessarily get considered in these core updates. In a quote from John Mueller (tweeted by Glenn Gabe, an SEO consultant):
So on top of these updates being extremely complex, there’s also no concrete rule on what is being considered when Google recrawls and reindexes a site during a core update.
Overall, the whole thing is a chaotic mess. These updates mess with website rankings (sometimes making or breaking online businesses), confuse digital marketers, and send the SEO world into a frenzy.
Because of how little information is given by Google, all we can do is look at the data and make educated assumptions about what’s going on.
With the May Core Update a month behind us (at the time of publication), there’s sufficient data to analyze what has changed and what webmasters can do about it to recover.
What Changed During Google’s May 2020 Core Update
There are several website metrics that Google essentially “re-evaluated” during this update. Some are related to E-A-T signals (Expertise, Authority, Trust) – some appear to be changes to what types of information Google wants to prioritize.
Google Gives More Weight to Domain Authority (DA) Over Page Authority (PA)
This change is based on the varied experiences searchers, SEO, and website owners had days after the algorithm was announced. The claim is that Google re-evaluated ranking signals like Domain Authority (DA) and Page Authority (PA), prioritizing DA in search results.
- Domain Authority – a value associated with a site’s root domain which often takes the number of linking domains, diversity of domains, and how long a site has existed into account
- Page Authority – a value associated with a page’s ability to rank for its target keywords which takes into account things like DA, keyword targeting, backlinks, content length and more
Ultimately this change would result in two things:
- Lower quality pages on higher authority domains would have a better chance at outranking higher quality content on lower authority domains
- Prevents smaller brands and websites from being able to rank for broader search terms in their niche
So even if you have a page of amazing content focused on a specific niche, there’s a change that a larger brand website will outrank you simply because they have better Domain Authority.
Evidence of this is mostly anecdotal – there’s no hard data to showcase this but to ignore many, many instances of people claiming that’s what they’re seeing would be neglectful.
Conversely, Marie Haynes, a Google Algorithm consultant, has noted the opposite.
“While authority is still important, many smaller websites that would not be seen as giant authorities in their verticals saw improvements and in some cases, were able to outrank very authoritative sites.”
We’ve seen this at the mid-level and long-tail keyword level, but for broader search terms, smaller brands will likely have a tougher time.
Google Re-evaluated Backlink Profiles for Quality
Internally, we’ve seen several clients impacted by the May 2020 Core Update. While we always follow E-A-T guidelines for on page content and focus on strong technical optimization, some of our websites still got dinged in the update.
In our research, we’ve found instances where spammy backlinks have accrued over time and are now causing Google to question the client’s authority.
Historically, Google has said that their algorithms can tell when a backlink is unnatural and spammy and that disavows aren’t necessarily going to improve anything once submitted, but this update has us thinking otherwise.
Below is a client that was obviously hit by the May Core Update.
After scratching our heads trying to figure why traffic was dropping, we did some deep digging into their backlink profile and uncovered some questionable backlinks that have been cropping up over the last year or so.
In most cases, the links were low-quality from link farms, or blogger websites that were completely reposting our client’s content.
Assuming that Google would disregard those links because they’re obviously spammy, we didn’t bother with a disavow submission. Now we’re considering doing that so that we’re in good shape for the next update.
Similarly, Marie Haynes also noted a change in how Google is assessing backlinks:
“Many sites that saw declines had unnatural links, or links that could be considered “grey hat”, but essentially self made for SEO purposes. We believe that Google may be either putting less emphasis on links now that they can better understand content, or, they may be better able to understand which links are truly votes from other people who are recommending your content.”
Google Gave More Priority to Social Media and UGC Websites
One of the most mind-boggling results of the May 2020 Core Update was the huge increase in presence and visibility of social media websites and UGC-based sites (think Tumblr). There were several anecdotal instances where it seemed like Pinterest was dominating the SERPs.
According to data from Systrix, Pinterest, Tumblr, Livejournal all saw a nice boost in visibility after the Google update:
On the flipside, forum websites, Twitter, and more saw a decline. What does this data tell us? Well there’s a key difference between the type of user a website like Pinterest would benefit and the type of user Stack Exchange would benefit: information.
Pinterest isn’t sharing any answers, points of view, or information the way Stack Exchange, Paypal-community.com, Twitter and Reddit are. Pinterest is simply gathering ideas in an interesting format, they don’t claim any political bias, they aren’t a place that people go for answers, and they certainly aren’t a hub for divisive political debate. From this trend, it seems that Google might be pushing down communities and propping up UGC sites.
There weren’t one-off complaints either. As they were being reported via Twitter Gary Illyes, Google’s webmaster trends analyst, seemed to be collecting them to send to the Google search team and get them fixed as if they were anomalies.
The quality of results packed with Pinterest links aren’t ideal, especially for information-based searches. It’s widely known that Pinterest is a marketplace where users pin things to purchase later on. We didn’t see the same for Facebook or Twitter posts which leads us to believe that this was targeted for purchase intent searches and not for information searches.
We do need to capitulate here a bit. We discussed these changes as a team and there was some feedback that these results might be appealing to some users who are looking for recommendations on products they’re interested in. Perhaps Google thinks that Pinterest is the best vehicle to
Google Sought to Improve Quality of News and Health-related Results in the Midst of COVID-19
Another key consideration to take into account is the context of the May 2020 Core Update. The American economy has in the early stages of opening up after mandatory business shut downs to quell the spread of COVID-19.
Leading up to the May Core Update, many website owners seemed to be struggling to keep up with how the pandemic had changed their website traffic. Some saw a huge drop off in traffic and revenue due to the restrictions. Others saw a huge increase and actually struggled to maintain inventory.
Politically, there was a wide range of information being shared by news organizations, health organizations, politicians, pundits, experts, and individuals. Whether it was stats on COVID-19, proper health precautions to take, what businesses should do, or who is receiving benefits from federal programs there never seemed to be a consensus to lean on. This fracturing of information is a big challenge for 21st century tech companies and it was magnified under the COVID-19 pandemic.
From Google’s Searching COVID report, we can see the zeitgeist level of interest and searches.
Because of the climate surrounding the May 2020 Core Update, many have drawn conclusions that this update was also designed to target unverifiable or misleading information from showing up in SERPs.
Judging by some of SEMRush’s winners and losers, we can see that news organizations and and health-related websites saw a considerable amount of change.
Additionally, PathInteractive reported on websites who saw immediate changes days after the May Core Update was released. The majority of top improvements happened to health and medical related websites:
Of the top sites listed above, 6 are health/medical, 2 are news oriented and the others are outliers.
Whether this update ultimately targeted news and health information sources is – again – not verified by Google. However, we’re making our assessment based on the available feedback from experts and data organized by industry experts.
One of the biggest takeaways is that Google fumbled the May 2020 Core Update.
Coupled with the overabundance of UGC results in SERPs and the change that allowed high DA sites to outperform high PA content, there was overall feedback that Google’s update lowered the quality of their search results across the board.
The image above shows a Reddit thread posted shortly after the May Core Update started rolling out and has nearly 40k upvotes.
The sentiment from both SEO professionals and Google users was that they were not getting the quality results they were accustomed to.
There’s no empirical evidence that the quality is certainly lower. We’re including this because of an overarching sentiment that many professionals in the industry have about the update and it’s being echoed in the regular user community.
As for specific insights, here’s what we can glean from all the analysis available:
- Bigger brands saw improvements (assuming they has solid content and healthy backlinks)
- News & info sites (again, high quality) saw an increase in visibility
- Smaller brands and sites lost traction with broad terms, though retained rankings for highly relevant terms
- News and info aggregators (republishing content) didn’t fare well
- Forums and online communities saw a visibility decline
- Mixed signals on what Google deems quality content and how it ranks it in search
- Backlinks seemed to have an impact and were likely re-evaluated.
How to Recover from Google’s May 2020 Core Update
Were you hit by Google’s May 2020 Core Update?
If you were, you’re likely seeing a visible decrease in traffic, impressions, and clicks starting around May 4th. Algorithm update recovery is possible. Here’s what you can do to recovery from Google’s May 2020 Core Algorithm update.
Gain Insight From Reliable Sources and Experts
The first thing you need to do is learn as much as you can about what happened with the most recent Google algorithm update. Google is notoriously quiet about specifics relating to their algorithm updates so your best bet is to lean on industry experts to come to your own conclusions as to what could be hurting your site performance and how to turn your traffic around.
What Does Google Say
- No specifics
- Rely on E-A-T- guidelines (Expertise, Authority, Trust)
- When in doubt follow Quality Raters Guidelines
- Read up on their blog post about Core Updates
Consult with the Experts
Because the SEO industry isn’t a concrete discipline, a lot of what we know about strategy and tactics comes from the experts that are kind enough to share their own data and insights. If you’re looking for a bit more guidance on the May Core 2020 Algorithm update, we recommend consulting these articles from noteworthy digital marketing experts.
- Google’s May 2020 Core Update: The Winners and Losers – SEMRush
- Google’s May 2020 Core Update: Winners, Winnerers, Winlosers, and Why It’s All Probably Crap – Moz Blog
- An intensive analysis of the May 2020 Google Core Update by MHC – Marie Haynes Consulting
- The May 2020 Google Core Update – 4 Case Studies That Emphasize The Complexity Of Broad Core Algorithm Updates – G Squared Interactive
- Google’s May 2020 Core Update: What You Need to Know – Neil Patel
Beyond these notable publishers, there is also a network of Google employees who exist to share information from the engineer and product teams with customers. As is common with the tech world, much of the communication is happening during Google Hangouts, in forums, and on Twitter. Here is what some folks at Google have said about Core Algorithm updates:
Gary Illyes, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst:
- “The core algorithm is a collection of probably millions of small algorithms that looks for signals in pages or links that could be conceptualized as EAT.” (source)
- “We do three or two to three updates to the search algorithm, ranking algorithm every single day.” (source)
- “Every single update that we make is around quality of the site or general quality, perceived quality of the site, content and the links or whatever. All these are in the Webmaster Guidelines. When there’s something that is not in line with our Webmaster Guidelines, or we change an algorithm that modifies the Webmaster Guidelines, then we update the Webmaster Guidelines as well.” (source)
- “I would say that for the vast majority, and I’m talking about probably over 95%, 98% of the launches are not actionable for webmasters. And that’s because we may change, for example, which keywords from the page we pick up because we see, let’s say, that people in a certain region put up the content differently and we want to adapt to that.” (source)
- [In regards to spammy backlink profiles] “If you know you had a shady SEO company or you were buying links, it’s probably best to do.” He did also say, however, that just randomly disavowing spam links you find will not be likely to improve your rankings. (source)
John Mueller, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst:
- “Major impact from an algo update wouldn’t be from ‘recent’ changes. For larger sites, it can take Google’s algorithms a longer time to adjust to site changes. It could take several months to recrawl, reindex & reprocess the site changes.” (source)
- “And with that, like you mentioned, you’ve probably seen the tweets from Search Liaison, there’s often nothing explicit that you can do to kind of change that.” (source)
- “With a lot of the relevance updates, a lot of the kind of quality updates, the core updates that we make, there is no specific thing where we’d be able to say you did this and you should have done that and therefore we’re showing things differently.” (source)
- “Sometimes the web just evolved. Sometimes what users expect evolves and similarly, sometimes our algorithms are, the way that we try to determine relevance, they evolve as well.” (source)
Danny Sullivan, Google Public Liaison for Search
- “Our core algorithm is updated all the time. For major updates, we’ll continue to share about those on @searchliaison, as we have been. We haven’t had a major update of that nature, but we did have a smaller one this week.” (source)
- “We’re constantly making updates to our search algorithms, including smaller core updates. We don’t announce all of these because they’re generally not widely noticeable. Still, when released, they can cause content to recover if improvements warrant.” (source)
Analyze Your Own Site for Gaps in SEO Strategy
When it comes to figuring out what needs to be fixed on your site, it’s best to pull your sleeves and get down and dirty with your website. Google points to a somewhat dated Webmaster blog post that details how website owners can approach building a high quality site.
You can begin to analyze your site for quality by asking the following questions:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
This should get you some insight into cursory things you can improve about your content and what a user might perceive when they land on your site. But it doesn’t provide the full picture. Here are some additional metrics to look for when judging your website’s quality:
- Overall backlink profile – Look for a high volume of low quality, unimportant links, chances are if they are in abundance. They are not helping your ranking ability, and likely hurting your with the May 2020 Core Update.
- Duplicate or thin content – Older sites with solid DA are victim to thin or duplicate content on the web lowering your content quality. Blogs, resources, knowledge base articles, even cross-posted content can come back to haunt you if you don’t make efforts to ensure your content is unique and authoritative across the web
- Manually check SERPs for your target keywords – Get to know your search marketplace. See who’s ranking well for which keywords, who’s got E-A-T signals and who isn’t. If you find a site that seems to be performing well across the board, manually crawl their site and take notes on features, content, and strategies that they’re utilizing which you aren’t
- Check out Historical data around previous updates – Were you impacted like this by previous updates? If you have historical data to see how your website fared with previous updates, you can infer what might be impacting your performance with May 2020 Core Update
Go the extra mile and get someone else to analyze your site who isn’t directly involved.
According to John Mueller, 3rd party insight can be invaluable and point out issues that you would otherwise overlook:
“So, often you as a site owner have an intimate relationship with your website you know exactly that it’s perfect. But someone who is not associated with your website might look at your website and compare it to other websites and say, well, I don’t know if I could really trust your website because it looks outdated or because I don’t know who these people are who are writing about things.”
Develop Your Recovery Strategy
Once you’ve done your research into the May 2020 Core Algorithm Update and reassessed the strengths and weaknesses of your own site, it’s time to map out a strategy so that your site is in good shape for the next algorithm update.
If you want help with a recovery strategy, get in touch with Studio – we’d be happy to help you create a winning approach to getting your traffic and revenue back. All of our SEO strategies are designed to address the pain points of our client and what their most pressing needs are.
A successful recovery strategy should be structured this way:
- Low-hanging Fruit and Technical Red Flags – These are the items that need to be remedied first before we embark on any growth-related tactics. Things that fall in this category could be a problematic backlink profile, seriously negative reviews, neglect of cornerstone page SEO, lack of an SSL, misleading information, etc. A quality SEO strategy is going to take into account what needs to happen first to set the campaign up for success
- Healthy Growth – Once your website is in good shape from a technical and foundational standpoint, we can then start making changes that result in growth of your traffic as well as E-A-T metrics. This phase usually includes a variation of on page SEO and off page SEO to help increase the quality of site content and bring more traffic in.
- Future-proofing Your Sites’ SEO – After our growth strategies have been launched, a good recovery strategy is going to ensure that your site is Core Update proof going forward. This phase can include ongoing maintenance of backlink profiles, investment in technological improvements, enhancements to your brand on the web with new design, investment in additional ranking signals like SEO and topical authority and more.
The goal at each phase should be to stabilize your traffic, improve the basics, and invest in the long term.
What’s to Expect From Future Google Algorithm Updates
If you’re been hit by a Google Algorithm update, you’ll likely have to wait until the next algorithm update to see a rebound after you’ve made positive changes.
That being said, you may see improvements sooner, it just depends on how Google is handling their algorithm updates.
The May 2020 Core Update had a huge impact and websites are still feeling the effects of it. But Google, however, is already talking about what’s in store.
Google has already started talking about an update that will roll out in 2021. It’s called Core Web Vitals.
Web Core Vitals includes:
- Largest Contentful Paint measures perceived load speed and marks the point in the page load timeline when the page’s main content has likely loaded.
- First Input Delay measures responsiveness and quantifies the experience users feel when trying to first interact with the page.
- Cumulative Layout Shift measures visual stability and quantifies the amount of unexpected layout shift of visible page content.
Basically accounts for site speed, mobile-responsiveness, and overall UX, other items you find in the PageSpeed Insights report.
Google has already added this data to their Google Search Console reports as well:
And they have announced that these metrics will play a bigger part in their Search product in 2021.
About The Author: Clara Metcalf
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