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Surviving Google Algorithm Updates: A 4-Step How-to Guide

The website Niche Pursuits has been through many, many Google algorithm updates since Spencer started it in 2011. 

Fortunately, in terms of traffic and other key metrics, Niche Pursuits is doing better than ever. But the road to success online can be a rocky one, and there are always risks in building a niche site.

Even if you’ve never faced a stomach-churning drop in traffic after a Google update, the threat is real – and you probably think about it more often than you’d care to admit. 

On Niche Pursuits, most of the content is geared toward helping you grow and monetize your organic traffic. But just this once, what if we flipped things around and talked about how to defend against the “act of God” disaster that is a Google algorithm update?

Are there things you can do to help your content sites weather the Google storm?

Well, yes, there are! Buckle up as we explore how your websites can survive – and thrive – in the face of future Google algorithm updates.

Surviving Google Algorithm Updates

There are plenty of hazards you can run into as the owner of a content website, such as being sued for defamation, having your site wiped off the map without a backup, or getting your Google AdSense account blacklisted.

But for most of us, the scariest possibility BY FAR is being knocked off course by a major Google algorithm update.

These updates are swift, unexpected, and virtually impossible to prepare for, like a dragon swooping down from the sky to rain fire upon your crops in some sort of medieval fantasy farming analogy. (I clearly miss Game of Thrones.)

Google algorithm update

An entire industry exists around predicting what Google will do next, not unlike the way people hang on every word of the Federal Reserve chair to eke out a trading advantage in the stock market.

However, you could waste a TON of time on Search Engine Land and Search Engine Journal trying to outguess what Google will do.

I think it’s better to put your energy into actually creating valuable content and marketing your site – with just enough of an ear to the ground to detect any seismic changes in how Google ranks content.

The Detrimental Effects of a Google Update

Feeling worried about Google?

You shouldn’t let that stop you from pursuing your niche site goals, but SOME concern about Google updates is reasonable, given the catastrophic damage they can inflict on businesses with an online presence.

(Just keep in mind that, if you’re doing the right things, you’ll generally be okay. I’ll share what those “right things” are throughout this post.)

How bad can a Google update be? Well, there was that time Google’s update decimated an ENTIRE business model: mass SEO-focused content farms that tried to rank for everything on the back of user-generated content. 

I’m talking about the Associated Contents, eHows, Heliums, and Demand Studios that thrived under the Google algorithm of the mid-2000s. 

It was a pretty genius idea, honestly – rather than going out and hiring writers and worrying about pesky things like editorial standards, these sites promised a small upfront payout and tiny ongoing royalties to get writers of varying skill levels to come to THEM. I even wrote for a few of them myself when I was just starting out.

The whole idea behind content farm sites was to blanket the web with an insane amount of content that they could rank for, while paying virtually nothing for it. Even though much of the lesser content would end up buried, they were able to host such a volume of content that they ranked on Google a LOT!

Google Panda Shuts Down Content Farms 

In 2011, Google rolled out Panda, an algorithm update designed to emphasize authoritative sources in response to a user query.

Because content farm sites were focused on quantity, rather than quality, the update hit them hard. Demand Media (the company behind Demand Studios and eHow) was the giant in this space, and its traffic was obliterated after this update.

Demand Media's stock falls after Google Panda
Source: Wall Street Journal

Out of the content farm wreckage, only wikiHow has emerged as a viable site. WikiHow was started by the former owner of eHow, and he pivoted to capitalize on the “wiki” method of creating content collaboratively.

So, why did wikiHow survive where others failed?

Because it went back to basics: working with knowledgeable contributors and editors for its content! 

The moral of the story is twofold:

  1. Focus on quality and authoritativeness in your content, not just quantity.
  2. Never stake the success of your business on any one channel, even Google.

A Brief History of Google Updates

Let’s take a deep breath. I know it can be intense to sit around the virtual campfire and recount search engine horror stories…

The good news is, it’s possible to learn from other people’s mistakes – and we can extrapolate how to play nice with Google by looking back at the history of Google algorithm updates.

Since Google released more than 3,200 updates in 2018 alone, I’ve decided to offer a more condensed history featuring the most important Google algorithm updates in the last decade and what they have meant for organic search traffic.

There’s also a definitive history of Google updates on Moz.com, if you’re interested in finding out about them in more detail.

Panda

Launch: February 2011

What It Targeted: Duplicate or thin content, user-generated spam, and keyword stuffing

Released around the same time Niche Pursuits started, Panda was used to address a real problem facing Google: the prevalence of crappy content ranking in the SERPs from sites like Demand Media and Answers.com.

The real issue was that people were able to get away with doing a “bare minimum” to rank in Google – the content wasn’t technically spam, but it also wasn’t particularly good either. That’s a problem when you want to be a search engine delivering the best results to people’s search queries.

Crucially, Google’s Panda update was able to assign a proprietary “quality score” to web pages based on whether the content is original, relevant, and helpful, moving away from lesser factors like keyword density. Panda quickly resulted in the downfall of many content farm sites.

In this Niche Pursuits post on the Panda update, Spencer outlined how some of his sites lost a noticeable amount of traffic – but others did okay.

The most important point? Google’s emphasis on quality has only grown since Panda first rolled out.

Penguin

Launch: April 2012

What It Targeted: Spammy links and links with over-optimized anchor text

Penguin centered around link building activities that seemed to be manipulating the algorithm. The basic issue Google addressed with Penguin was people purchasing links or getting them through link networks – in other words, spammy links.

It also cracked down on using favorable keywords in anchor text that had nothing to do with the site at hand. 

Hummingbird

Launch: August 2013

What It Targeted: Keyword stuffing and low quality content

The Hummingbird update helped Google start moving away from a dependence on individual keywords, instead interpreting queries based on searchers’ intent. You might have heard of “latent semantic indexing” or LSI – this Google update is where LSI and the RankBrain system first got their start.

While it isn’t always the case, Hummingbird actually makes it possible for pages to rank for keywords that don’t even appear on the page, thanks to synonyms and related concepts.

You can use Google Related Search, Google Autocomplete, and keyword research tools like Long Tail Pro to help you figure out these relationships and better match your content to searchers’ intent.

Pigeon

Launch: July 2014

What It Targeted: Local SEO

The Pigeon update made a user’s location more important in determining search results. Google has both a core algorithm and a local algorithm, and Pigeon brought the two closer together so that traditional SEO factors now impact local search results.

One big consequence of Pigeon is the need to optimize your off-page and local SEO, such as getting your local business listed in business directories. You should also consider creating highly localized content related to your own neighborhood or city.

Mobile

Launch: April 2015

What It Targeted: Poor user experience on mobile devices

The Mobile Update (lovingly dubbed Mobilegeddon) gave preference to mobile-friendly pages and treated it as a binary status: you’re either mobile-friendly or you’re not, no gray area.

If you have a responsive website that looks and performs well on mobile devices, you’re fine – but pages not optimized for mobile are either filtered out completely or down-ranked severely.

These days, almost any decent WordPress theme – such as Thrive Themes – will be responsive. Still, you should always make sure the content you produce displays correctly on mobile, which includes any plugins or images you use. 

This Mobile-Friendly Test from Google can help you quickly validate if your site is mobile-friendly.

Mobilegeddon

RankBrain

Launch: October 2015

What It Targeted: Lack of relevance to search queries and shallow content

Related to Google’s Hummingbird update, RankBrain utilizes machine learning to come up with relevant search query results, taking into account a user’s location, personalization factors, and keywords to identify intent.

This may not have a direct impact on everything you do for search engine optimization, but it does change some things. What RankBrain does is emphasize the importance of serving searchers’ intent by weighing factors differently based on context.

For example, if someone enters a vague phrase like “the election,” RankBrain isn’t just going to send you to the result that has the most links to it or has been around the longest – it knows to look for a fresh result based on your location and the timing of your query.

When I searched for “the election” in 2019 in the United States, here’s what I saw in Google… (ignoring the movie result and video strip that shows up at the top)

One consequence of this is that fresh content will sometimes be favored over older, more authoritative content. That’s why we see so much value in updating older posts – it tells Google that your content continues to be relevant. 

Fred

Launch: March 2017

What It Targeted: Thin affiliate-heavy, ad-focused content

Have you ever written a quick article with tons of affiliate links? If you’ve done it post-Fred, you’ve noticed that Google doesn’t like to rank pages that are basically just ads, and particularly anything with ads above the fold.

If you’re going to include a dozen or more affiliate links in an article, you need to write a high-quality post full of relevant information to go with them. Fred wants YOU to abide by Google’s search quality guidelines!

Medic

Launch: August 2018

What It Targeted: Non-authoritative content

This core Google algorithm update was nicknamed “Medic” after it became clear that health sites were the primary target.

Google started to emphasize E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) quality factors, which was particularly damaging to health websites without formal credentials or indicators of authority.

Specifically, Medic placed a greater burden on “Your money and your life” (YMYL) content authors to demonstrate their authoritativeness. Learn more about E-A-T and YMYL keywords later in this post.

2019 Core Updates

Launch: March, June, and September 2019

What They Targeted: Non-authoritative content

Much of the core algorithm updates in 2019 continue to refine how Google scores websites by E-A-T, especially YMYL content. In particular, health and money sites remain the prime targets. 

It’s become clear that Google wants to see more authority and trust behind the content it delivers at the top of the SERPs, which means you should place a greater emphasis on your brand, your credentials, and quality links in your backlink profile.

Google likes big brands, and it cannot lie.

Protecting Against Google Algorithm Updates

This simple history of Google updates demonstrates something comforting:

The purpose and trajectory of Google’s algorithm updates are fairly predictable.

We can’t know EXACTLY how it’s going to change in the future, but the search engine has reinforced most of the same quality factors in its last several updates. In the never-ending quest to provide a great user experience, Google will always zero in on quality and frown on anything that’s indicative of low value.

In a nutshell, you want to move away from:

You also want to avoid employing any tricks that are clearly meant to game the system.

It’s not complicated: if you utilize a “black hat” SEO hack or tactic that Google wouldn’t like, you can count on a subsequent update to crush your site’s position in the SERPs eventually.

Since WE want to build a website that lasts, we need to create a user experience that Google will always prefer, even with future updates that we can’t predict.

Here’s how it’s done!

Step 1: Deliver a Valuable Experience to Humans

The fundamental purpose of Google is to help real people find exactly what they’re looking for online.

Google makes much of its money from paid ads, so it wants to deliver the best search results to ensure that LOTS of people use Google when they search the internet. If you help Google in its quest to deliver results people want, Google will help YOU!

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What that means is, you need to provide the most valuable user experience in your niche. Google can tell that you’ve done this in a number of ways, but I want to focus on the big four: content quality, user engagement, backlink profile, and site speed.

Content quality

If you’ve picked relevant, low competition keywords, your next step is to ensure your content is the highest possible quality. Now, “quality” is a pretty subjective term – but there are practical ways to evaluate it.

One is consistency in your topic for a single post. Use the focus keyword and variations of it throughout the page. Even with a massive article, you should really only be addressing a single topic. 

The other obvious way to look at quality is content length. Now again, if you write 1,000 helpful words on-topic and then veer off into something the reader doesn’t care about, it won’t help you – but generally, longer articles will be more THOROUGH, which both Google and human readers appreciate.

As a result, a longer article that covers every angle of a topic will often win over a shorter one.

While Google’s search algorithm isn’t a human (that we know of), it HAS accumulated 25 years of experience “on the job” at this point. In other words, it’s very good at sizing up whether a piece of content is quality or not, even BEFORE it factors in how users engage with it.

User interaction

In addition to these techniques for assessing content quality, Google takes into account user interaction metrics.

Some of the most important ones are click-through rate, average pages per session, time on page (aka dwell time), and bounce rate.

Lately, user signals have become MORE important in ranking. It’s a great reminder that there’s much more to a website than just good content.

Here are a few of the other factors that can greatly improve user experience:

Believe it or not, the overall user experience can dramatically affect the metrics Google looks at, especially the all-important dwell time and bounce rate.

If you want to see how your website is doing with user interaction metrics, make sure you’ve connected your site to Google Analytics. You can see it sitewide and break it down per page as well.

Backlink profile

Everyone knows how important backlinks are in ranking on Google! Moz describes backlinks as a “vote of confidence” from other websites.

Specifically, when high domain authority sites link to yours, especially .edu or .gov domains, you get a big credibility boost in Google’s eyes. But there’s a LOT more to links than that.

The totality of the links to your site represent your site’s total “backlink profile.” Google weighs everything from the total number of backlinks to the domain authority of those links. A “followed” link is usually more desirable, but nofollow links are still valuable as a source of organic traffic and may give your brand a boost.

Conversely, a lot of low-authority, spammy links can damage your site’s overall domain authority and ranking potential. 

It’s not difficult to uncover where competing sites in your niche are getting backlinks. Just use an SEO tool like Ahrefs  to see which keywords your competition is ranking for and the links they’ve earned!

What’s next? Well, it’s beyond the scope of this post to get into detail about link building strategies, but check out this Niche Pursuits guide on link building to get some ideas!

Site speed

Site speed is basically a measure of the “time to first byte” for pages on your website. While site speed is a direct ranking factor on mobile search, it also plays a role in ranking because users may leave your site if it’s loading slowly, negatively impacting user interaction metrics like bounce rate and dwell time.

Site speed is incredibly important. And it’s only becoming more essential over time if you want your site to be competitive, especially on mobile.

If you’re looking to improve site speed, a faster web hosting service is often your best bet. Installing a lightweight WordPress theme like WP Astra helps a lot as well, because it represents the framework for your whole website.

To further improve site speed, you’ll want to keep the amount of custom CSS, HTML, and JavaScript code on your site to a minimum. You can use a tool like GZip to help compress large files, and you should look into WordPress plugins like WP Rocket for minifying your code as well.

Not sure how fast your site is? Check out Google’s PageSpeed Insights to see how Google measures your site load speed. If you’re not an expert web developer, it may be worth hiring someone periodically to help you keep your site speed up.

You should also go through your WordPress plugins and make sure you actually use all of them – they can slow your site down A LOT.

Lastly, make sure ALL of your images are optimized. I can’t emphasize enough how big a difference this makes. Try to make each image no more than 150 to 200kb in size – smaller is much better, as long as the quality of the image isn’t affected. I like to use a quick online tool called Squoosh to resize big images and compress them for the web.

If you want to see more ranking factors, Brian Dean has compiled this ridiculously comprehensive list of more than 200 factors that Google uses to determine quality. 

Step 2: Play By Google’s Rules

I think of building a website like building a house. Google wants you to be a “by-the-book” builder – but there are some unscrupulous subcontractors out there who might help you cut some corners to save a little money on construction.

This might help you do a little better today, but when a storm comes along, your house could come crashing down. To complete the metaphor, that’s what happens when you skimp on the foundation! 

Ahem…

So, are you wondering whether a tactic you’re considering would incur the wrath of Google?

Well, when in doubt, remember Nike’s slogan… and do the OPPOSITE.

In other words, just don’t do it, okay?

Here’s another good rule of thumb: if the tactics you’re thinking about using have nothing to do with delivering more value to human readers, but are instead about tricking Google’s algorithm into ranking you higher, chances are very good that Google won’t like it either.

The very fact that you’re wondering is enough to be cautious!

Over the years, you’ve probably encountered black hat SEO techniques and monetization schemes like:

Now, am I saying these tactics don’t work?

Nope.

Many of them DO work, at least for a while – or why would anyone bother with them?

But the point is, if you KNOW that Google doesn’t like these tactics, and you STILL employ them, then of course you’d be afraid of a Google update!

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When you use black hat or gray hat techniques to game the system, you’re absolutely going to have a target on your back from Google.

Hopefully, as in the house analogy I artfully shared earlier, you want to build your website on the right foundation and avoid cutting corners.

Plus, with Google’s laser-sharp focus on content quality, user experience, and source authoritativeness, it’s getting harder and harder to game the system – so you might as well just put all of that effort into providing the best site in your niche!

Step 3: Demonstrate Your Credibility

Where it used to be easy to just put up a site with decent content and rank quickly, Google has gotten smarter about who’s BEHIND the words on a page.

Due to recent updates (starting with the 2018 Medic update), it’s no longer enough to just have quality content or backlinks – the source needs credibility as well. These new quality standards can affect your content’s rankings across the board. 

Picture Google as an upper crust British gentleman eyeing you up and down suspiciously, then proceeding to say in a haughty tone, “Who are YOU to speak about such things? Good day, sir!”

… You get the idea.

This emphasis on credibility is especially prevalent in niches like these:

In fact, these topics are important enough that they’ve been given a handy nickname: Your Money and Your Life (YMYL) keywords and sites. 

Honestly, this makes perfect sense… If you search Google because you want to know how to dislodge a meatball from your uncle’s trachea, you should find an EXPERT showing you the Heimlich Maneuver, rather than putting dear Uncle Bill’s life in Joe Blow’s hands.

I’m sure Joe Blow is a well-intentioned young man, but Joe Blow also isn’t a doctor – he didn’t even finish his B.A. degree in Psychology, if we’re being honest.

That’s why the top search results for “Heimlich Maneuver” in Google include Mayo Clinic, Healthline, and WebMD.

Similarly, Google doesn’t want the top results of your financial query to be shady or scammy – we all want to trust websites that are giving us this kind of important information! In cases where bad information could adversely affect a user’s happiness, health, or wealth, Google is extra careful to give them the CORRECT info, not just results that are relevant. 

But even if you’re not in the health or finance niches, Google still wants to see that you and your niche site are a credible, knowledgable source. Google uses a fairly new quality characteristic called E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) to evaluate how your content should rank.

Expertise

Is the author for the main topic of your page an expert? Google wants to see evidence that the person actually knows what they’re talking about. You can demonstrate this by writing a detailed “about” page.

For general (non-YMYL) topics, you’re permitted to demonstrate “everyday expertise.” For example, if you’re a homeowner who wants to write a review of a smart thermostat, you’ll be fine without any special qualifications – you don’t need to study integrated circuits at MIT to have an opinion about how well your Nest is working. (At least, not yet…)

However, there’s a totally different standard for YMYL content. If you’re offering medical advice, information on scientific topics, or guidance on a high-stakes topic like parenting, then you really DO need some credentials to be competitive in the search results – or else you should expect to hire experts to do the writing for you.

Authoritativeness

What’s your background? Compared to expertise, which is more internal to you, authoritativeness is more external, centering around your visibility in the industry.

One of the best ways to demonstrate authoritativeness is with – you guessed it – links!

In general, the more links, mentions, and social shares you and your brand are getting online, the more authoritative you’ll appear to Google.

Obviously, Google likes to see that you have some level of clout, the same way its users do – so if this is an area of weakness, you might turn to some link building strategies to help grow your authoritativeness. 

Trustworthiness

Being trustworthy includes you, your overall website, and each article you write. Trustworthiness is a little more nuanced than the other two, but it’s primarily about minimizing negative sentiment and being accessible to your audience.

What do I mean?

For local businesses, think about garnering positive reviews on Google My Business, Yelp, and the Better Business Bureau. These signal that people have worked with you and trust you.

And if you don’t have a local business?

Well, for content sites and businesses that are based online, you can still improve your trustworthiness with things like:

Want more information about E-A-T and YMYL? This SEMRush article or this Moz article provides a lot of additional context for you! 

Step 4: Keep an Eye on Future Trends

The biggest challenge with Google and the web is that things are constantly changing. That’s where the fear of a deadly algorithm update comes from in the first place, right?

But it’s not ALL doom and gloom!

Remember that Google’s goal is ALWAYS to provide the best search experience to the end user. It’s totally up to Google how to make that happen, and some ranking factors will continue to evolve, but this core tenet is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

With that said, it’s a good idea to test and validate content strategies, and you should be prepared to take advantage of new tactics and features both within Google and from elsewhere on the web.

For example, if you jumped on board social sites like Facebook early on, you were well-positioned when social signals started to play a role in Google’s algorithm. When mobile devices took off, quickly making your site responsive helped you survive Mobilegeddon. And when featured snippets came onto the scene, it was a great opportunity to learn snippet optimization for your how-to content and nab that “zero” position on the SERPs.

The point is, if you stay informed, you’ll know which direction the Google winds are blowing. I recommend listening to podcasts, watching videos, keeping an eye on new features in search engine tools like SEMRush, and reading informative websites like Niche Pursuits (shameless plug!) to ensure you’re on top of future trends in SEO.

Will Google Stay Relevant?

There’s one other big concern some people have, which is that they’ll invest everything they have in creating a website that’s optimized for Google search, and then another crazy technology will come along and completely change how people find information: maybe virtual reality, or AI assistants, or even robots.

Here’s what I say to that:

  1. Wouldn’t it be SWEET if we all had our own robots that knew as much as Google?!
  2. Who cares if a new technology will come along someday that’s better than Google?

The reality is, no one can predict the future, except for Biff in Back to the Future. (You done messed up, Marty.)

For the rest of us, we all have to take things one step at a time. Personally, I believe there’s PLENTY more opportunity to be found in niche websites, even if some new innovation upends this business model in a decade or two.

You’ll have to decide what to do for yourself, but keep in mind that Google is been around for a quarter century – and it’s more important than ever!

Conclusion

Any time you’re taken by surprise with Google updates, it’s likely that there were warning signs you just didn’t fully internalize. Google usually telegraphs the direction its algorithm is headed, although you can’t know for sure until AFTER a new update has rolled out.

Pay attention to these signals. Keep an eye on where SEO and your niche’s industry is headed. The only constant in online marketing is change, but every change brings new opportunities – that’s why it’s such an exciting time to be doing what we do! 

Have you experienced any fluctuations on your content site from a Google update? Do you have any specific questions about Google’s algorithm changes?

Please leave a comment below to get the conversation going! 




Search Engine Optimization

By Daniel Thrasher
October 10, 2019 | 6 Comments

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Matt C

Thanks for sharing. I’ve found that as long as content is your focus and seo is secondary, you’re usually safe when a new update comes.

Daniel Thrasher

With most niches, I think that’s absolutely true!

If you really think about it, Google wants the BEST content at the top, not the “most optimized” content.

Ultimately, the goal of Google’s algorithm is to place the content that people are really looking for at the top, even if the author of that post isn’t a digital marketing genius with an SEO certification.

Scarlet

I agree that if content is your main thing then the google algorithm updates don’t seem to make a huge difference one way or the other for a family blogger like myself.

aditi

Good research on google algorithms updates, nice one,
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Freddy Joe

Thanks for sharing the detailed list of Google Algorithm updates. I guess doing the quality work will nullify most of the Google Penalties.

Daniel Thrasher

Hi Freddy! Yep, I think that’s spot on.

It’s impossible to predict exactly what Google will do next or how its algorithm updates will affect your rankings, but you can always control the quality of your content!

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