What you need to know about Google's major SEO changes
As we speak, Google is rolling out updates, which they have announced in their usual downplayed way.
The September 2022 Core Update was described as a series of changes with the broad objective of cracking down on SEO-first content created to rank well, instead of responding to human user needs.
No real surprises there, as the important thing to keep in mind is that Google is constantly updating their algorithm; in fact, thousands of algorithm updates launch every year. Some updates aren’t that significant SEO-wise, but they can affect your site’s visibility, and that’s no different for 2022 updates.
Overall, Google’s aim is to provide quality and relevant content to their users, and that determines how websites are ranked.
A broad core update is actually a change to the ‘core’ search ranking algorithms and systems. But the algorithm is, in fact, a collection of algorithms that interpret the signals from a webpage, such as keywords and links, to rank the content that answers a search query.
So, while Google notoriously reveals as little as possible about its magic formula, it could be that it’s tweaking one, two, or all of its algorithms, and we can assume - mostly - it will affect all types of content, in all regions, in all languages, the intent is not to penalise but promote great web pages.
2022 Core Update rollouts commenced in May, with Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public for Search, announcing on the 25th:
"Several times per year, we make substantial improvements to our overall ranking processes, which we refer to as core updates. Core updates are designed to increase the overall relevancy of our search results and make them more helpful and useful for everyone. Today, we're releasing our May 2022 core update. It will take about 1-2 weeks to fully roll out."
Now that we are in September, what does it all mean?
Since the initial Core Update for 2022 in May, there have been several key updates to the algorithms that targeted various aspects of search, it’s best to backtrack and review.
The broad core update in May, announced via Twitter, was the first core algorithm update in six months. However, in true Google form, they gave nothing away pre-launch, with part of the announcement on the blog stating enigmatically:
“... Some sites may note drops or gains during them. 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.”
Post rollout, Search Engine Roundtable reported there was a ton of volatility in rankings in the first 24 hours, and the writer went so far to say it was “one of the bigger core updates or Google algorithm updates we've seen in some time - at least in terms of the SEO impact.”
His data-centric report on Search Engine Land demonstrated the volatility rankings across various industry sectors, as well as a comparison to the November 2021 core update post-rollout results.
The Product Review Update commenced on July 27 and was completed on August 2nd. It was a significant change for e-commerce sites. (It should be noted that there was a prior product review algorithm update in March this year also.)
The July update reportedly enables Google to identify high-quality reviews that come from people with demonstrated expertise and first-hand research about products. Criteria such as benefits and pitfalls, performance, product update differences, competitor comparisons and supporting information such as images, audio and video were prioritised in review search. Google also released documentation on best practice for writing high-quality product reviews.
Google's Helpful Content Update began on August 25th and it took aim at websites that have high amounts of unhelpful or unsatisfactory content, that was written primarily for search engines, not humans.
It’s all about the user or customer experience and was in response to users' frustration of landing on ‘SEO content’ - or pages that are overly optimised to influence search engines specifically - over pages that actually tell them what they need to know or helpful content. It’s meant to devalue content that is overly optimised to influence search engines.
It’s putting people first, explained as “an ongoing effort to reduce low-quality content and make it easier to find content that feels authentic and useful in search.”
At the time of writing this, the September 2022 Core Update that commenced on September 12th was still rolling out, plus Google released another September 2022 Product Review Update, which was late, originally scheduled for August.
While the judges are still out on the impact of the September core update, there is a lot of chatter about ranking fluctuations and where everything will land. The chatter is mainly in relation to which update is actually going to have the most impact.
Most experts don’t assume that it will be the core update as thus far it appears to be not causing as much moving and shaking as the May update, which took mere days to show extreme volatility to rankings.
However, there’s a lot of conjecture about the most recent product review update that’s happening and the recent helpful content update and its effect working in unison with these September update rollouts. Current SERP volatility can be checked live at Semrush.
In relation to the question of whether the current core update will enhance the helpful content update to greater effect, Danny Sullivan (again) tweeted:
Ah, the enduring riddles.
Remember, the core updates are designed to mix up the SERP rankings. Sites that the search giant finds offer greater value to the user query will benefit from the update.
If your site is dropping in ranking, address the content on those pages that are causing the problem. The only way to do that is make the content relevant to users, end of story.
The product review update is mainly for e-commerce sites that publish reviews. If this is you and you are seeing a drop (or rise) in your SERP ranking, this product review update is likely having an impact. If it’s a drop, fix your reviews.
Interestingly, the helpful content update wasn’t as fearsome as many expected, with main volatility occurring on September 8th, a day before rollout was complete.
In the aftermath of this update, if your rankings dropped, it’s recommended you revisit your penalised content and think of it as an opportunity. Review and ensure it’s of high quality and relevant, and unique. Make sure it’s about your audience, helpful, and available for Google to crawl.
In the wake of core and other Google algorithm updates - or in preparation moving ahead (which is smarter) - the best thing to do is follow Google’s guidelines.
However, we would be amiss should we not outline a few recommendations which we believe critical to SEO success. Things that are identified as simple yet extremely effective ways that Google considers fundamental to finding your content when it’s crawling to find content to answer user queries.
E-A-T = Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness.
Makes you feel like you're in the right hands? That’s exactly the point.
E-A-T refers to the 3 pillars of quality, and is one of the most important factors when Google is considering page quality ranking. It’s extremely important if your content, information and pages can impact someone’s health, safety, financial situation or future happiness, and Google refers to these sites as Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) pages.
Think of it like a user; if I’m looking for cute animal pics, it’s not so important. But if I’m trying to find out the best term deposit to put (part of) my lotto winnings into, it’s non-negotiable.
Even if your website and content isn’t YMYL critical, the E-A-T pillars are still relevant.
Expertise is to demonstrate a superior level of knowledge or skill in the content or information level. It’s evaluated at the content level, not the website, and Google is looking for content created by a subject expert.
Authority is about reputation, especially among other experts in the field and influencers in the industry. If the website or person is seen to be the go-to source of information about a specific subject - that’s authority. Yet it’s subjective and unique, much like Richard Branson may be an expert in business and aeroplanes, he has zero SEO authority. However, The Rolling Stones and the band members are the authority on Stones song lyrics.
Trust is about the website and its content; legitimacy, transparency and accuracy. It’s also about engagement with your users, the security of your site and your brand reputation.
So, is E-A-T a ranking factor? Well, yes and no - it's about quality, and quality ranking overall. Take it away, Danny Sullivan:
Structured Content (or Data)
Structured content and data can be explained in a few ways, but essentially, it makes it easier for search engines to find and understand your content to get it in front of user queries.
It’s content that’s planned, developed and connected, so it’s predictable and ready for any interface.
It breaks down content into small reasonable pieces and is organised and tagged with specific groups of text that connect back to the main content or topic it’s part of.
It’s any set of data that is organised and structured in a particular way on a web page.
It allows for the same pieces of content to be reused and repurposed across a website.
It’s standardised data using ‘mark-up’ language such as Schema.org.
Google uses structured data to understand the content on a page, as well as gather information about the web and the world in general. It also uses the data to enable special search result features.
Hubspot emphasises that it's an important factor to prepare for the future of search, particularly as the user experience gets more personalised and the answers to queries can be displayed directly on SERPS.
To understand more about the technical aspects of structured content and data, we recommend you refer to the experts:
Google - Understanding How Structured Data Works
Search Engine Journal - What Structured Data to Use and Where to Use It
Neil Patel - Schema.org FAQ - A Beginners Guide and How to Use Structured vs Unstructured Data
At the risk of stating the obvious, if you haven’t already been creating helpful or in-depth content, then it’s time to look at your website. Trying to game or dupe Google’s system by using exact search terms in headers and keyword stuffing is already bad practice; this and future updates are going to see your web pages take a massive visibility and rankings hit, if they haven’t already.
Changes won’t impact sites that are creating content with the audience in mind, with search as an afterthought or supporting factor in the process, it will elevate them.
Keep an eye on the search results, examine the patterns of the winners and losers post update/s, and apply strategies accordingly moving ahead.
Google’s broad core updates and other algorithmic updates will keep coming as they fine-tune even more personalised and user-centric digital experiences. If you want to stay above the fold on Page 1, there’s no way around it but to do the same.