Understanding Google Updates So Far in 2018, and What We Can Expect in 2019
Staying abreast of the near-constant Google search algorithm updates can be a steady journey, requiring reasonably regular research and site adjustments. Every year, Google adjusts its search algorithm around 500 times on average. While most of Google's changes are minor, sometimes they roll out massive algorithmic updates (such as Medic, Panda, and Penguin) that affect search results in significant ways.
Of course, our regular day-to-day duties and life, in general, make it easy to miss updates and significant changes, especially if our website has been performing relatively well with Google’s search engine results. Why fix what isn’t broken, right?
Unfortunately, failing to keep your knowledge base up to date on Google updates can quickly come back to bite you. The Google algorithm updates this year alone have covered quite a lot of ground, so we have put together this guide to help you understand the changes and additions for 2018 and beyond.
August’s “Medic Update”
Google called this one a “broad core algorithm update,” but it appears that the update name may have matched the real reason for some of the changes this time around. Medic was a massive algorithm update that impacted the search results and affected many webmasters, site owners, and SEOs as of August 1. Most of the reports appear to indicate a focus on medical, health, finance and YMYL (Your Money Your Life) sites but also affecting entertainment and gaming sites as well.
While Google hasn’t revealed how much of the search results were impacted by this update as they have done in the past with Penguin, Panda, and others, some data seems to show that health, finance, and home goods sites showed significant movement in search rankings. Some researchers are also reporting that the update appears to be heavily focused on demoting YMYL pages with low E-A-T.
What Does Google Mean by E-A-T?
E-A-T means Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness.
- You need to show Expertise for your particular field, meaning that you need to exhibit the expertise of the creator for the Main Content (MC) and mention it within your site content. This area is vital for medical, financial and legal websites but it is relatively easy to show expertise if your content is truthful and useful for users.
- You need to show the Authoritativeness of the creator for the MC, and you can accomplish this with the expertise of your writers or your research, knowledge, and writing. Reviews, forums, and communities will also directly affect your authoritativeness.
- You need to show the Trustworthiness of the creator of the MC and the website as a whole. Your entire site should make visitors feel safe, and a good general starting point is implementing an SSL certificate on your site as at least 70% of first-page search results are using SSL, and it is one of Google’s many scoring signals.
Google has stated that E-A-T is among their top 3 considerations for scoring Page Quality. So if you haven’t been gearing your site toward E-A-T content, you should seriously consider doing so immediately.
The Speed Update
On July 9 Google rolled out an update making page loading speed a ranking factor for mobile searches. Google stated that the update only affects pages that deliver the slowest experience to users and overall will change a relatively small percentage of search queries.
The Speed Update applies the same standard to all pages, regardless of the technology used to build it. However, the intent of the search query is still a powerful signal, so a slow page can rank very well if it has good, relevant content.
While successful SEO pros, digital marketing agencies, and webmasters alike have likely already optimized your website for mobile loading speed, this is an area you want to monitor with regularity. If you are the webmaster or the site duties are maintained in-house, and your mobile loading speed is lackluster, you may want to consider a professional marketing agency.
This past July 14 Google shifted videos from thumbnails to a dedicated video carousel on the desktop SERP (Search Engine Results Pages). The video carousel gives searchers a way to toggle and click through more videos with a right arrow on the last video on the right of the carousel. The video carousel has until this point mainly been restricted to mobile, but the move over to the carousel not only provides a new look for the desktop SERP, it also brings a range of implications for both websites and YouTube creators alike.
Desktop Video Thumbnails have generally been a reasonably stable feature on Google SERP. However, as of 6/14, Video Thumbnails have all but disappeared from the desktop SERP, and the following day Video Thumbnails had dropped to the point where they only appeared on .8% of all page one SERPs, which translates into about a 92% drop off.
Snippet Length Snipped
As of May 13, Google rolled back the length of most description snippets from 300+ characters down to around a 130-160 character limit, which is only slightly more than the limit before the initial change back in December. Google tested the longer display snippet limit for about five months before reverting and has stated that the actual snippet length will vary based on what their systems deem to be most useful, adding that they will not indicate a new maximum length because snippets are generated dynamically.
Some researchers found that new average length of the description snippet field on desktop SERPs is around 160 characters. Mobile descriptions took an even more significant cut as their search results snippets are now down to an average of 130 characters.
So, does this mean that if you lengthened your meta descriptions with the change back in December that you should go back and shorten them now? Google has commented, saying that focus on these is not extremely important as many of the snippets that they choose are dynamic and pulled from the content on your web pages and not from your meta descriptions. That said, regular click-through-rate audits and updates to your meta descriptions are always a good idea.
The Unnamed Core Update
Back around April 17, a heavy algorithm flux was detected, and Google later confirmed that a “broad core algorithm update" had indeed been released. However, Google didn't provide any specifics about the update, and it didn’t receive an official name from Google or the SEO community.
Google did explain that core search updates happen throughout the year and that while some pages that were previously under-rewarded would see a benefit from this update and websites may notice ranking drops or gains, there is nothing specific that you can do to tweak your site’s rankings around these updates.
On March 26 Google announced that after well over a year of testing and careful experimentation, they began migrating sites that follow the best practices for mobile-first indexing. Mobile-first indexing means that they will primarily use the mobile version of your site content for ranking and indexing. Historically, the index predominately used the desktop version of a page's content when evaluating its relevance to a user's query. However, since the majority of users now utilize Google search via mobile devices, the index will now primarily use the mobile version of a page's content.
If your website has separate mobile and desktop content, meaning that you have different URLs (or m-dot site) or dynamic serving, you should ensure that you adhere to these best practices to be equipped for mobile-first indexing:
- Both Sites Contain The Same Content - If your desktop site has more content than your mobile site, you should update the mobile side so that its content is equivalent with your desktop site. This includes videos, text, and images, including alt-attributes while utilizing the usual indexable and crawlable formats.
- Metadata Included on Both Sites - You need to ensure that your titles and meta descriptions are synonymous across both sites.
- Structured Data - Ensure that URLs in the structured data on the mobile versions are updated to the mobile URLs.
- Version Verification - If you have m-dot or separate URLs, you need to verify both versions in
- Search Console to ensure that you have access to messages and data for both versions. Your site may have experienced a data shift when Google switched to the mobile-first indexing.
- Robots.txt Verification - You need to verify that your robots.txt directives work as planned for both versions of the website. The robots.txt file lets you specify exactly which parts of your site may be crawled and which cannot. As a general rule, you should use the same directives for both the desktop and mobile versions.
- Verify Link Elements - Make sure you have the correct rel=canonical and rel=alternate link elements between your desktop and mobile versions.
- Examine hreflang Links - When you utilize rel=hreflang link elements for internationalization, you should link between desktop and mobile URLs separately. Your desktop URL hreflang should only point to desktop URL and your mobile URLs' hreflang should only point to mobile URLs.
- Server Capacity - Lastly, you need to confirm that your website servers have the capacity to a handle the potential increase in the crawl rate for your mobile version of the website.
Google confirmed another core update on March 7th, and this may have been multiple updates or one prolonged, rolling update as volatility spiked for almost two weeks during this period. Google stated that this was a broad core algorithm update and didn’t release any further details, but multiple sites reported a change in their rich snippets - either disappearing or suddenly gaining them.
If you were affected negatively by this update, it will typically take months of work before you can see the recovery. However, concentrating on your site content should remain your primary focus.
Throughout the year there have been suspected algorithm updates, especially when SERP rankings showed a spike in volatility, but the ones above were the only ones confirmed by Google so far this year. Many times the SEO community will correctly report updates several days before an official announcement from Google, and since Google doesn’t comment on every algorithm update, it stands to reason that the chatter throughout the year is likely spot-on.
Predicting Future Updates
While it is hard to say when coming changes will be part of core algorithm updates, there is chatter afoot about updates coming soon. Of course, the next algorithm update isn’t very far down the road, Google has confirmed that they make daily algorithm changes and unannounced core updates several times a year, but there is a couple of focuses that Google is likely to zero in on.
After this year’s mainstream media attack on Google for promoting “fake news,” they have been taking steps to combat the issue, and significant changes are expected sooner rather than later. Of course with fake news still being such a hot topic and elections right around the corner, this update could be some good news.
As AI-powered machine learning continues to influence rankings, non-linking brand citations are expected to be featured prominently in the near future. Non-linking citations are considered “implied links,” and a Google patent suggests that they are a crucial component of their ranking factor.
Successful marketing agencies know that nearly 75% of all desktop searches and more than 92% of tablet and mobile searches come from Google and while algorithm updates are essential to monitor and properly adjust to, they shouldn’t be a primary focus. When you take the time to know Google, you find that creating fantastic and relevant content that conforms to the E-A-T guidelines and naturally attracts backlinks should be the predominant goal.
To successfully roll with each update, here are a few things to remember:
- Keep Link-Building Natural - This means you should build links with your actual visitors in mind as opposed to attempting to structure links for SEO benefits. You should note that this also means not trying to manipulate the current Google algorithm to improve your site’s ranking.
- Favor Quality Content Over Quantity & Frequency - Google ranks pages, not your website. Google doesn’t care if your site is laden with content nearly as much as it cares that each page completely answers a searcher’s query.
- Keep Content Fresh and Remove Outdated or Stale Content - You should update your content regularly, flushing out any irrelevant parts and injecting fresh stats and research.
- Utilize Citations & Brand Mentions - Brand mentions can carry the same weight as a link back to your site.
When It Comes To Knowledge, We’re There For You
Staying abreast of algorithm updates and understanding the intricate tweaks required to stay relevant on SERP rankings is not an area that everyone can excel at. While anyone can write “content” and attempt to “stuff” their site with relevant keywords, Google’s algorithms are much smarter than most people anticipate and Search Engine Optimization takes more knowledge and skill than most people have time to invest, causing such attempts to actually backfire quite often.