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In this post I explain the steps you can take to recover from a dip in traffic to your website caused by a Google Core update.
Core update recovery checklist
Google core updates can have massive implications for businesses that rely heavily on organic traffic (Google, after all, deals with around 93% of the web’s search queries).
Some organizations experience huge drops in their website traffic as a result of a core update; this obviously has very 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.
And, 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.’ The most recent of these – the suitably-named ‘September 2022 core update’ – took place between 12 September and 26 September 2022.
(Other significant updates are listed on the Google Search Central website).
This is 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.Source: Google Search Central Blog
Although on first inspection this statement sounds a bit vague, if you look at it closely you’ll see that it contains two pretty big hints about why a site may have been demoted in Google’s index: it was 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 mixed messages about how possible it is to recover from a broad core algorithm update — at least until the next one is rolled out — and how desirable it is to even try!
For a long time, the company’s support materials about core updates stated fairly explicitly that “pages that drop after a core update don’t have anything wrong to fix.”
This advice became a bit more ambiguous in May 2022:
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.Source: Google advice on the May 2022 core update
The implication here is of course that there ARE fixes that can be made.
And 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 various ‘incremental improvements’ you can make to recover from a drop in rankings.
The hangout below contains a particularly clear statement from him on this — in 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 has to offer on creating quality content
we’ve identified steps that – over time – can definitely 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 counterproductive 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 Google updates is that they usually take a couple of weeks to roll out.
(In fact, some recent Google updates — the ‘helpful content update’ and ‘link spam update’ that it released in December 2022 have, at time of writing, been going on for around a month!).
During Google updates, search results are often filled with a lot of wild, but temporary, changes in rankings. This is something that SEO experts sometimes 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 that your traffic has actually reverted back to its original level within a couple of weeks (or, in some cases, even increased).
So, making huge, radical changes to your site in the middle of a broad core update can be a big gamble — and one that 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.
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 use 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 particularly bad hit.
Google’s Search Console and Google Analytics can also be 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. Improve the relevance of your problem pages
Remember that statement from Google outlining 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 in the list of ‘problem pages’ you’ve just compiled has been pushed 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 fact, as long ago as 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. While 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 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 should ideally 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,’ lightweight content.
So take a look at the pages and posts that are now outranking yours, and ask yourself:
- Do they mention an aspect of a topic that you forgot to?
- Do they go into more detail on a particular issue than you?
While you have to be careful not to overdo the ‘long form’ side of things, 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.
However, readers often want digestible information as much as a deep dive, so think about ways that you can cater for both types of reader — i.e., ones who want a quick answer, and ones that want to learn about a topic in depth.
(Sometimes summaries or ‘quick answer’ boxes at the top of a page can help square this circle).
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 program 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.
(Google has been stressing the need to focus your content creation efforts on ‘real’ people rather than search engines for some time now, but with its recent ‘Helpful Content Updates,’ this has become more important than ever.)
Accordingly, ensure that you place user experience at the heart of any content you’re trying to improve.
Here are three key ways to do this:
- Make your content 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 that it encourages you to ask yourself when trying to improve content that has been affected by a core update.
The ones that focus 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 the 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 main heading or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?
- Does the main heading or page title avoid exaggerating or being 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, encyclopedia, or book?
- Does the content provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
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.
Google is quite open about what constitutes trustworthy content: its Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines document outlines — in considerable depth — the characteristics that are associated with a piece of authoritative content.
This document contains a series of ‘Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness’ (or ‘E-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 benchmarks, 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 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 Quality 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 again, answering honestly.
We suggest focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.Source: Google Search Central
Improve off-page authority
Once you’ve done everything you can to improve the on-page authority of a piece of content that has suffered as a result of a core update, 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 link to your content, it stands a much better chance of performing well in search engine results pages.
However, it’s worth pointing out here that Google’s John Mueller is on record as saying that core updates are more about the quality and authority of content, rather than how good your backlink profile is:
“In general, with the core updates, if you’re seeing changes there, usually that’s more related to trying to figure out what the relevance of a site is overall and less related to things like spammy links.John Mueller, Google Hangout, July 2021
So I wouldn’t necessarily assume that getting rid of a bunch of poor-quality links will solve core update problems.
But that said, if you have a large number of questionable links pointing to your site — particularly ones that you have paid for, or ones that are the result of shady link schemes — then there is an argument for removing them.
While this is unlikely to completely reverse a rankings drop related to a core update, it nonetheless may help you gain some traffic and mitigate its effect.
Similarly, some outreach to high-quality websites that generates some valuable links may have a similarly positive ‘offsetting’ effect.
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 highly unnatural links 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.
If you find a lot of unnatural 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 however, as if carried out incorrectly, this can hurt your SEO — and some Google staffers are on record as saying that in most cases, disavowing isn’t really necessary).
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:
- 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.
(You could also consider guest blogging — but I’d focus on doing so on high-quality blogs only. Google is not always a fan of guest blogging, especially when the aim is chiefly to get a backlink out of it).
As with any SEO tactic, it’s important not to overdo things with brand mentions — be selective about where you seek out them out. Always 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 that there are now lots of SEO tools available to help you find out what that ‘better thing’ 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 recraft 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.
And, in general, you’re probably right.
However, the thing to remember about technical SEO is that 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 key technical SEO issues that are negatively affecting your user experience.
Consider making improvements to:
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.
You could consider using new content as a way of establishing ‘topical authority‘ for your site — as the name of this tactic suggests, this involves covering all aspects of a particular topic in considerable depth, thus sending a signal to Google that you are an expert on that topic.
(Keyword research is important here: you’ll need to put some effort into finding out what people are actually searching for in your niche and identifying the sort of phrases you can realistically rank for — and create content based on this data. Tools like Moz or Ahrefs can help with this process.)
The key thing here however is to put quality at the heart of your new pages and posts; to ensure that any new content contains the relevance and authority signals that I’ve discussed throughout this article.
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 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 has made it clear that 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.
Recraft 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 highly spammy links to your problem pages (but tread very cautiously here, as link removal can hurt SEO as well as help it).
- 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. It’s also a way to build more topical authority on a subject. However, this tactic 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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How to recover from a Google core update — FAQ
What is a core update?
A core update is a significant, broad change to Google’s search algorithms and systems. It typically focuses on the relevance and authoritativeness of website content, rewarding pages and posts that display both with higher search results, and demoting those that don’t.
When was the most recent core update?
The most recent Google core algorithm update took place in September 2022. You can see a full list of publicly announced core updates (along with other types of Google algorithm updates) on Google’s list of search ranking updates.
How do I recover from a core update?
Recovering from a core update typically involves researching what the sites now outranking yours are doing better than you; making significant improvements to the quality of your content from a relevance and authority point of view; seeking out higher quality links and brand mentions; and publishing more content.
How do I know when a Google core update has started?
How do I know when a core update has finished rolling out?
Google publishes when a particular update has finished rolling out on its list of search ranking updates. It usually lets site owners know that a core update is complete via the Google Search Central Twitter feed too.
How long does recovery from a core update take?
Google has indicated that making improvements to your content can result in gradual improvements to your rankings over time. However, generally you will have to wait until the next core update rolls out to see the full effects of any improvements you have made.