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In this post, I discuss Google core updates — and explain what you can do to recover if you have been negatively affected by one.
Google core updates can have massive implications for businesses that rely heavily on organic traffic (Google, after all, deals with 92% of the web’s search queries).
Some organisations experience huge dips in their site traffic as a result of a core update; and this obviously has extremely negative implications for the profitability — or even viability — of many businesses.
But there is good news: there are steps you can take to gradually improve the situation and give your site the best chance possible of regaining lost rankings.
In this post, I’m going to give you a checklist of these steps.
But before working your way through this recovery checklist, it’s important to be very clear about what a Google core update actually is.
So let’s start with that.
What is a Google core update?
Google’s search algorithms are updated all the time — pretty much every day, in fact, according to Google.
However, sometimes, Google makes big changes to them, and these are called ‘broad core updates.’
Here’s how Google describes broad core updates:
Several times a year, we make significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems. We refer to these as “core updates.” They’re designed to ensure that overall, we’re delivering on our mission to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers.Google Search Central Blog
Although on first inspection this statement sounds a bit vague, if you look closely at it you’ll see that it contains two pretty big hints about why your site may have been demoted in Google’s index: it is perceived by Google to have problems with its relevance and authority.
The question is: can you actually fix these problems?
And if so, how?
Let’s find out what Google has to say about this.
Google’s take on recovering from a broad core update
Over the years, Google has given slightly mixed messages about how possible it is to recover from a broad core update — at least until the next one is rolled out — and how desirable it is to even try.
On the one hand, their support page dedicated to the topic is explicit that “pages that drop after a core update don’t have anything wrong to fix.”
On the other, John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google — a key public face of the company when it comes to advising site owners on SEO — has indicated a few times that it IS, in fact, possible to make changes to your site that can bring lost traffic back after a core update — and before the next one is rolled out, too.
In his Google Search Central video hangouts, Mueller has said that in the aftermath of a broad core update, there are ‘incremental improvements’ you can make to recover from a drop in rankings.
The hangout below contains a particularly clear statement from him on this — see the opening few minutes, where Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz discusses the issue of recovery with him.
But what are these ‘incremental improvements’ that can potentially get you out of a traffic dip?
Well, there is no definitive answer to this — because Google keeps the vast majority of the inner workings of its algorithms secret.
However, based on
- the research we’ve carried out
- our experience of dealing with algorithm updates
- the advice Google have to offer on creating quality content
we’ve identified steps that over time can really help. I’m going to walk you through these now.
The first thing to do is: stay calm.
1. Don’t panic
When faced with a sizeable dip or even an outright collapse in your site traffic, freaking out is a totally understandable reaction.
However, it can also be counter-productive if it leads to you rushing through a bunch of changes to your site and its content without fully thinking them through.
A key thing to remember about core updates is that they usually take a couple of weeks to roll out, and can lead to a lot of wild but temporary changes in rankings (this is something that SEO experts often refer to as the “Google Dance”).
A lot of these early changes in rankings may not be permanent and, if you’re lucky, you may find your traffic levels have actually reverted to their original levels within a couple of weeks.
So, making big, radical changes to your site in the middle of a broad core update is therefore a potential gamble — and could negatively affect aspects of your content that Google actually approves of.
So stay calm, and wait until you know that a core update rollout is complete and that you have definitely been adversely affected before taking action on your site.
(You can usually find out when a broad core update is finished rolling out via updates from the Google Search Liaison Twitter feed).
2. Use data to identify content that needs improvement
Once the rollout of a broad core algorithm is complete, it’s time to identify the content that has been particularly badly affected by it.
If you us an SEO tool like Ahrefs or Semrush, you may already have position tracking set up that can help you spot rankings that have taken a hit (along with the associated content).
Google’s Search Console and Google Analytics are also invaluable in helping you to identify pages that have suffered significant traffic drops.
Using the data from these tools, compile a spreadsheet of ‘problem pages’ that have seen a particularly sharp drop in traffic.
3. Look at your list of problem pages from a relevance point of view
Remember the statement from Google that I shared earlier which outlined the main purpose of core updates?
“They’re designed to ensure that overall, we’re delivering on our mission to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers.“
As discussed, this basically spells out why the content on the list of ‘problem pages’ you’ve just compiled has been bumped down the search rankings: it’s now viewed as being less relevant and authoritative than that of your competitors.
Let’s tackle the relevance aspect first. How can you make your content more relevant than everybody else’s?
Ensure your pages and posts are up to date
Google has been quite clear about the fact that it uses content ‘freshness’ as a way to determine relevancy. In 2010 it publicly announced that it had created an algorithm specifically to do that, ‘Caffeine.’
It’s easy to confuse ‘freshness’ with ‘I must produce new content’ however. Whilst publishing new posts periodically is important, it’s not going to solve your immediate problem here: the fact that your existing pages and posts are receiving less traffic.
So, look at your existing ‘problem pages’ and correct any out-of-date or inaccurate information they may contain.
This is particularly important if you run a reviews site — products and services can change over time and in order for your reviews to stay relevant, they must reflect these changes as soon as possible.
Ensure you are covering topics in depth
Generally speaking, content that performs well in Google search results covers topics in a very in-depth way — ‘long form’ blog posts, which drill down into a topic in depth, tend to do better than ‘thin’ content.
So take a look at the pages and posts that are now outranking yours. Do they mention an aspect of a topic that you forgot to? Do they go into more detail on a particular issue than you?
Whilst you have to be careful not to overdo the ‘long form’ side of things (readers often want digestible information as much as a deep dive), a good way to improve the performance of the pages that have lost traffic is to ensure that they are covering the topic they’re addressing in considerable detail.
Ensure your content is written with humans, not search engines, in mind
Many content creators end up obsessing about ‘ranking signals’ (some real, some imagined) and end up producing stuff that they think a computer will like.
But it’s vital to remember that at the end of the day, both you — and search engines, in their choice of what to surface in results — are aiming to present content that is highly relevant to humans.
Accordingly, ensure that you place user experience at the heart of any content you’re trying to improve.
- Make it easy to read and easy to trust.
- Don’t stuff it full of keywords.
- If it’s a long-form piece of content, make it easy to scan and/or navigate.
Tip: try user testing
As part of the process of improving your content, consider carrying out some user testing.
You can do this by encouraging members of the target audience for your content to read and feed back on your existing content and any revised versions.
This can help you identify areas that need work — and validate improvements.
Sense-check your poorly-performing pages against Google’s relevance questions
Google has a list of questions which it encourages you to ask yourself when trying to improve content that has been affected by a core update.
The ones focusing on improving content quality and relevance are as follows:
- Does the content provide original information, reporting, research or analysis?
- Does the content provide a substantial, complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- If the content draws on other sources, does it avoid simply copying or rewriting those sources and instead provide substantial additional value and originality?
- Does the headline and/or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?
- Does the headline and/or page title avoid being exaggerating or shocking in nature?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Would you expect to see this content in or referenced by a printed magazine, encyclopaedia or book?
Answer all these questions — honestly — and craft your content based on your answers.
4. Improve your pages from an authority point of view
When it comes to improving the authority of a page or post, there are generally two things to look at: ‘on-page’ authority and ‘off-page’ authority.
Improve ‘on-page’ authority
By on-page authority I’m referring to how trustworthy the content is in its own right.
In 2015, Google released a Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines document outlining what Google considers to be an ‘authoritative’ piece of content on a topic.
This document contains a series of expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (‘E-A-T’) benchmarks that can be used to determine whether a page should be considered an authoritative source of information on a particular subject.
It’s worth reading the document in full to get a complete picture of these, but some key takeaways for improving the authority of a page or post are as follows:
- Ensure that your content is hosted on a secure website (i.e., a ‘https’ one).
- Ensure that it is clear who the author of a piece of content is, and that a clear link to an author biography (one that outlines their credentials and experience) is available on the page or post.
- Ensure that the main content on the page is in-depth, factually accurate, grammatically correct and easy to understand.
- If possible, ensure your content is created by established writers / journalists who have a good reputation in their niche.
- When you make a claim, back it up with a reference (and ideally a hyperlink) to an authoritative source.
- Conduct your own original research into a topic where possible, and cite it.
- Provide an ‘About’ page and clear contact details (phone numbers, addresses, contact forms) on your site.
- Clearly reference and display any relevant awards, credentials or qualifications associated with your work / business.
In addition to the Search Qualitiy Evaluator Guidelines document referred to above, Google has published a set of questions to help you determine if there are any authority / quality issues with a piece of content. These are definitely worth reading — and answering honestly.
Improve off-page authority
Once you’ve done everything you can to improve the on-page authority of a piece of content that has taken a core update rankings hit, it’s time to look at what you can do for it ‘off page.’
This is because Google doesn’t trust pages based solely on the content of the page itself — it looks at how much other pages trust it too.
Gaining trust through links
The most obvious example of ‘off page’ trust is generated by links — it’s no secret that if a lot of high-quality pages contain links to your content, it stands a much greater chance of performing well in search results.
So if you’ve noticed a dip in traffic to a particular page, look at its backlink profile in some depth, to ensure that
- there is a high number of links to it from authoritative websites
- there are no unnatural links, spammy pointing to it.
If you find that the link profile of a particular piece of content is rather thin, it might be time to consider some (strictly ‘white-hat’) link building outreach and online PR to boost it.
(Obviously both tactics will be more effective if you have made every effort to ensure that the content you wish to promote is really strong).
If you find a lot of spammy links pointing to one of your ‘problem pages’, try to get them removed, or consider disavowing them using Google’s disavow tool (proceed with caution with the second tactic, as if carried out incorrectly, this can hurt your SEO).
Building authority via brand mentions
Another way that you can can help Google view your content as being authoritative is by seeking out mentions of your brand on other sites.
Google has been quite clear that this can really help with rankings, with Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes saying:
If you publish high-quality content that is highly cited on the internet — and I’m not talking about just links, but also mentions on social networks and people talking about your branding…then you are doing great.Gary Illyes (Keynote speech, Brighton SEO)
You can increase brand mentions by:
- guest blogging
- getting interviewed in relevant publications / podcasts
- growing a social media following and posting more content to it
- encouraging social shares (this can be done by adding sharing call to actions in your content, tools to help readers share etc.)
- contributing to forums, adding comments to blog posts etc.
- speaking at events — this may lead to people mentioning your brand on social media, blog posts etc.
As with any SEO tactic, it’s important not to overdo things here — be selective about where you seek out your brand mentions.
As with much else to do with SEO, focus on quality over quantity, and avoid any spammy tactics.
5. Conduct competitor analysis
If one of your pages goes down in search rankings and a competitor’s goes up, this isn’t because of magic — it’s because your competitor is doing something better than you.
The good news is, there are now lots of SEO tools available to help you find out what that it is.
For example, using apps like Semrush, you can find out:
- what keywords are more present in a competitor’s copy than yours
- who is linking to that piece of content
- who is mentioning that brand.
All this information can help you re-craft your content from a relevance point of view, and build authority via reaching out to the right people for links and brand mentions.
However, it’s important not to rely solely on software to work out what’s going wrong with your content — as mentioned earlier, Google wants to reward content that humans like.
So, always make a close personal inspection of the pages and posts that are now outranking yours, to see if they are easier to read and use; nicer to look at; or more shareable.
Then, use this research and any insights gained to improve your own content.
6. Revisit your technical SEO basics
As I’ve discussed a number of times throughout this post — and as Google has repeatedly said — core updates chiefly deal with aspects of content that give it relevance and authority.
Now, this might lead you to think that recovering from a Google core update isn’t really going to involve sorting out technical SEO issues like mobile usability, page speed, core web vitals and so on.
However, the thing to remember about technical SEO is a good technical setup helps generate a positive user experience — which can in turn make a page come across as more relevant or authoritative.
Let’s say that a user reads two articles about web design:
- one which loads slowly, doesn’t appear correctly on a mobile device and is packed with ads that make the content jump, and scrolling difficult; and
- one which loads super quick on a mobile device and doesn’t contain any intrusive ads or popups.
Which one do you think the user — and Google — will trust more?
Which one is more likely to get shared or linked to?
(Yes, it’s the second one).
So, as part of any core update recovery process, it makes sense to address any technical SEO issues which may be negatively affecting your user experience.
Consider making improvements to:
- page loading times
- Core Web Vitals scores
- headings, page titles and meta descriptions
- navigation structure (flat is generally best)
- internal and external links (make sure there are no broken ones or redirect chains)
- XML sitemaps
- robots.txt files
- structured markup
Even if these improvements don’t make a very direct impact on relevance and authority, they still have the potential to help you improve traffic levels in general — something that can, at the very least, offset a dip in organic traffic caused by a core update.
7. Offset your traffic loss by publishing new content
So far, we’ve discussed what you can do to your existing content to help you recover from a Google algorithm change.
However, there is also the option to publish new content on your website as a way to get more search traffic.
By publishing more pages and posts on your site, you are going to be giving Google more opportunities to index content and present it to users; you are also giving users more content that they can link to or share. All of this can help generate new organic traffic that can make up for the hits you’ve lost.
The key thing here however is to put quality at the heart of your new posts; to ensure that it contains the relevance and authority signals that I’ve discussed throughout this post.
And I’d definitely view this step as a ‘phase B’ tactic — it’s best to sort out any problems with existing content before publishing a lot of new stuff!
Wrapping up / cheatsheet
I hope you’ve found this guide to recovering from a Google core update helpful! Below you’ll find a cheatsheet containing the key steps I’ve discussed throughout this article. Good luck with improving your rankings!
If you have any questions, do leave them in the comments section below — we read them all and will do our best to answer any queries you may have.
Finally, please do feel free to share this content if you think it would be helpful to others.
Cheatsheet: recovering from a Google core update
- Stay calm.
Wait until a core update has fully rolled out before making any radical changes to your content or website. Sometimes rankings that have been lost in the immediate aftermath of a core update release can return during its rollout.
- Remember Google’s key reasons for demoting your content: it’s less relevant and authoritative than it could be.
Google is clear tha the reason pages lose rankings is because they are no longer as relevant or authoritative as they once were. So make sure that you place increasing relevancy and authority at the heart of any changes you make to your content.
- Use data to identify the content that needs improvement.
Use tools like Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Ahrefs and Semrush to identify the pages that have lost rankings. Make a list of these ‘problem pages’ that you can refer to throughout the improvement process.
- Recraft your content from a relevance point of view.
Re-craft your problem pages so that they are as relevant to search queries as possible. Ensure they are fully up to date, tackle topics in depth and are designed to appeal not just to search engines but human readers too. To help you ensure content relevancy, refer constantly to Google’s content quality checklist as you update your pages and posts.
- Improve the authority of your problem pages by building authoritative links to them and gaining brand mentions.
Google will trust your content more if it sees authoritative links to it along with mentions of your brand online. Build quality links to your problem pages via outreach and online PR, and seek out increased mentions via guest blogging and social shares. Consider removing or disavowing spammy links to your problem pages (but tread cautiously here, as link removal can hurt SEO too).
- Perform in-depth competitor analysis.
Take a in-depth look at the pages and posts that are now outranking yours. Find out what your competitors are doing from a content quality and backlink building point of view — and see if you can do both better.
- Make technical SEO improvements.
Peform a technical SEO audit on your content and ensure that everything is set up as well as possible on that front. Doing so can dramatically improve a user’s experience, which can in turn make your content come across as more relevant and authoritative.
- Consider publishing new content
Publishing new content that gets indexed and ranked by Google can be a way to offset a loss in traffic caused by a core update. However, this is only likely to work if the content produced is of a very high quality and adheres to Google’s ‘relevance’ and ‘authority’ expectations.
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