Google algorithm updates are big news for those of us in the SEO industry, and if you’re a small business owner who handles your own SEO, they’re worth paying attention to. An algorithm change could mean an uptick in traffic for your website, or it could spell disaster if you fall out of Google’s good graces.

What Is the Google Search Algorithm?

Google’s Search Algorithm is a general term we use to describe the ranking factors Google uses in its search results pages. Google’s goal is to serve the most relevant results at the top of the page, making it easier for users to find what they need. 

How Does the Google Algorithm Work?

Google’s algorithm is actually a series of algorithms that evaluate a number of aspects of a website, including its authority, user experience, and content. While the Google algorithm is automated, it’s based on data from Search Quality Raters. When the algorithm is fine-tuned to improve search results, it’s called an algorithm update. Although some updates are announced by Google, others roll out more quietly, with few specific details about the changes being made to the indexing and ranking processes.

Core Updates vs. Other Updates

Google rolls out core updates only a few times a year. These represent sweeping, substantive changes to Google’s ranking methods to improve Google Search as a whole. Other updates are more targeted, focusing on specific categories of results or spam techniques. 

Important Google Algorithm Updates Over the Past Year

While there have been many Google algorithm updates over the past year, the most important ones all occurred in June and July of 2021. Here’s what you need to know…

Product Review Update – April 2021

In April, Google announced a new algorithm update geared towards product reviews.  The purpose of this update was to promote product review pages that provide the reader with higher quality, more in-depth reviews.

Broad Core Algorithm Update (June Core Update) – June 2021

When this algorithm update was announced, it was shared that not all of the planned algorithm improvements were ready to be rolled out and that the broad core algorithm update would be in two parts, with the second part in July (see below). Here’s what experts observed with the June core update:

  • Websites with thin content seem to be impacted
  • Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) websites, which offer advice on law, finance, purchases, health, etc., lost rankings even with strong content
  • Some websites that lost rankings in prior core updates saw an increase in rankings with the June update

Page Experience Update – June 15, 2021

The page experience update had been anticipated for some time, and while the rollout began in June, it wasn’t completed until August. The gradual rollout means that most sites didn’t see sudden drops or spikes in traffic or rankings. This update was first announced back in November, and Google was very transparent about the changes being made. 

The purpose of the page experience update was to reward websites that provide users with a good overall experience. To determine whether a site is offering a good page experience, Google looks at the following factors:

  • Core web vitals: Although core web vitals will eventually have additional ranking factors, as of now, loading (largest contentful paint), interactivity (first input delay), and visual stability (cumulative layout shift) are being evaluated.
  • Mobile usability: A mobile or responsive website is no longer an option—it’s a must. If your website is designed only for desktop, it’s time to give it an update.
  • Security issues: Websites that have security issues do not provide a good user experience.
  • HTTPS usage: Related to the last point, Google considers a security certificate essential for a good user experience.
  • Ad experience: Ads should not be distracting or impact a site’s usability.

Google calls page experience signals a “tie-breaker,” meaning that when all else is equal, the page with a better user experience will rank above one with a poorer experience. In other words, it’s not going to tank your SEO rankings if your site is a bit slow, but it might land you a spot or two below your competition. It’s not an emergency, but we do recommend taking measures to improve your site speed if you have very low scores. 

Core Update (July Core Update) – July 1-12, 2021 

Google is tight-lipped when it comes to its core updates, so much of what we know about them comes from speculation and data analysis by SEO specialists. Here’s what we think happened in this update:

  • Domain crowding (the same domain with multiple country codes) was reduced.
  • There are more People Also Ask questions in search results.
  • Little-to-no changes for websites that use solid on-page and off-page SEO practices.
  • Some observers see an increase in spammy and low-quality websites ranking highly in SERPs, including scraper sites.
  • Real estate, beauty, fitness, shopping, science, pets, and animals all saw the most ranking volatility in this update, while finance, entertainment, games, sports, jobs, education, food, and news saw less dramatic changes.

Link Spam Update – July 26, 2021

This algorithm update was focused on identifying link spam. It rolled out over the course of two weeks, impacting websites with sponsored, guest, and affiliate content. Affiliate and sponsored links should always be qualified with rel=“sponsored” to let Google know that the link is not organic; websites that don’t abide by this will see their search rankings affected.

Local Search Update – November 2021

This update started at the end of November and ended in early December; the goal was to rebalance the ranking factors that Google uses to generate local search results. Basically, the weight of the three ranking factors for local results—Relevance, Distance, and Prominence—were adjusted, but as we can expect from Google, there’s no information on exactly how these factors were rebalanced. The best advice here is to make sure you’re devoting equal effort to satisfying all three of the weighting factors by keeping your Google Business Listing accurate, complete, and engaging.

Product Review Update – December 2021

This is the second algorithm update impacting product review pages and was larger than the April update. It rolled out on December 1st and took about 3 weeks to complete, just before the Christmas holiday. This product review update focused on content written around products to ensure the most useful reviews ranked in the search results.

What to Do If You’re Impacted by an Algorithm Update

If your rankings improve—celebrate! 

For core updates, Google always emphasizes that if your website was negatively affected, it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong; it just means that Google has changed what they’re looking for and your site no longer fits the bill (or someone else fits it better). This may leave you feeling lost—after all, if you’ve done nothing wrong, how can you possibly make the changes needed to improve your rankings?!

Remember, just because you didn’t do anything wrong doesn’t mean you don’t have room to improve! When you’ve been impacted by an algorithm update, it’s time to double-down on best practices for SEO:

With other (non-core) updates, you’ll often know exactly what Google is targeting, which helps you know the actions you need to take to right the proverbial ship. For example, if you believe that your site was impacted by the link spam update, you may want to review your link profile and consider removing or disavowing some links. 

Need Help with SEO? 

Here at Main Street ROI, we provide monthly SEO services as well as one-time projects. If you need help assessing how your website is performing as a result of Google algorithm updates, contact us today. 

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