Algorithm Updates: Common Questions & What You Should Know

When a major algorithm update happens like it did May 20th, it’s always interesting to see reactions from both the search community, affected businesses, and the media. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the only people who knew (or cared about) what an algorithm update was were those in the search industry.

However, with Google updates becoming more mainstream and large businesses drawing media attention when they are hit, more people are aware of, and asking questions about, algorithm updates. For this reason, I thought I’d address some basic questions that we often hear from partners, friends, and clients.

How often do updates happen?

According to Moz, “Each year, Google changes its search algorithm around 500–600 times.” While most of these are pretty minor updates, we have seen an increased number of larger updates occur over the past few years and that isn’t expected to slow down.

To see what/when updates have occurred, check out the following resources:

Also be sure to follow the Matt Cutts Twitter feed, as he’ll often provide clues as to when an update is happening or about to happen: 

Google Update Notice

Are updates and penalties the same thing? 

Not technically. According to Matt Cutts, a penalty is when manual action is taken against a site. This involves an actual person. An algorithm update is simply a refresh to the existing algorithm. If a site is hit during an algorithm update, they weren’t penalized, just affected by the new algorithm.

There have been a few instances of sites being manually penalized around the same time as an algorithm update, including eBay in the most recent update, which can be extremely confusing.

If your site has been hit with a manual penalty, you will typically be notified in Webmaster Tools. If your site has dropped as a result of an algorithm update, you will not be notified.

Which brings us to our next question…

Has my site been affected by an update?

This can be a tough question and one that was addressed in a March Webmaster video:

Unless you are getting tens of thousands of visits per day, it can be tough to know if your site has been affected by an algorithm update. That being said, there are a few steps you can take to help identify if your site was hit:

  • Analytics – The first thing to do is check your analytics for any big shifts in organic traffic. The key to evaluating traffic is to look at your normal traffic trends. A small decrease in traffic is likely not an indicator your site was hit.
  • Webmaster Tools – The search query report can tell you if there were any large shifts in impression data. If your site shows a major drop in impressions, it may be an indication your site was affected. However, when updates occur, search results can vary for several days so make sure to check out the data over the course of the next few days.
  • Rankings – While rankings should always be taken with a grain of salt, a sudden drop can be an indicator that your site is caught in an update. As mentioned above, don’t freak out immediately. Take a look over the next few days as rankings may come back up.

Interested in learning more? Here are some additional resources for identifying if your site was affected by an update:

Should I change my strategy based on an update? 

Ideally the answer should be “no” but as the search engines evolve and user behavior changes, the answer might just be yes. Note: If your site was penalized or hit by an algorithm adjustment, the answer is almost definitely yes.

If we look at the last few big algorithm adjustments, there were some strategy changes necessary:

  • Panda – Panda was initially rolled out in 2011 with updates continuing through last week (Panda 4.0 launched May 20th). The goal of the Panda update was to remove “thin” or poor content from the search results. For businesses, this means creating good, high quality content vs. creating keyword-stuffed content specifically written for the search engines.
  • Penguin – Penguin was launched in 2012 and was aimed at eliminating spammy links and link networks. Over the last two years, however, Penguin has really amped up and taken its toll on a number of sites. This has forced many businesses to completely shift their link building strategy from mass quantity to highly targeted quality link building (see my recent Search Engine Land article “Are you building links or building a business?”).
  • Hummingbird – I know…you’re getting tired of these animals. Me too. Hummingbird was launched in September 2013 and while it was an update, it was actually a rewrite of the existing algorithm (see here for more). Hummingbird is based on semantic search and for every business writing content, this does affect your strategy. Content marketers must focus more on understanding search intent and writing content that addresses the intent vs. content that simply addresses keywords and keyword phrases. 

While we definitely don’t recommend shifting your strategy every time an update occurs, it is important to know what the updates mean for search results, users, and your site. 

What steps can I take to avoid being hit by an update? 

The short answer is to avoid doing anything that goes against the almighty Google’s guidelines. However, these guidelines are so ambiguous that this is pretty much impossible and, on top of that, we can’t change the past.

So…we recommend that you build and grow your site with your customers and business in mind. Make sure your site is technically sound, create content that addresses customer needs, and engage in marketing activities that encourage others to share your content, talk about your business, and link to your site.

Yes, I realize that is a really broad and basic answer.

Have questions about your own strategy or specific site? Feel free to email me at casieg [at] komarketingassociates [dot] com. 

What about Bing? 

Yes, Bing does update their algorithm and, in fact, there was apparently an update May 5th. While these updates don’t garner as much attention as Google updates, it doesn’t mean that Bing updates don’t matter…it’s just likely that Bing drives a much smaller percentage of traffic so they aren’t as widely noticed.

What else?

These are just some of the basic questions we hear so if you have other questions or thoughts on algorithm updates, feel free to leave them in the comments!

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