How To Recover From A Google Update (A Checklist)

Last updated on

Throughout history, Google has typically introduced core algorithm updates around two or three times annually. However, last year marked a departure from this pattern, with a record-breaking four updates.

Moreover, we recently witnessed an unprecedented 45-day rollout with the March core update.

Reflecting on my early days in SEO, the industry was navigating through significant updates like the later Panda iterations, the Exact Match Domain update, and Penguin. These updates were, in part, crafted to counter strategies employed by SEO specialists.

Over time, Google’s updates have evolved alongside its own transformation into an information discovery, classification, and retrieval system. Consequently, our discourse, comprehension, and approach to these updates must also evolve accordingly.

It’s important to note that not all Google updates are punitive in nature; many updates over the past 24-36 months have aligned with Google’s “core algorithm” and its embrace of various technologies.

What Is A Core Update?

As defined by Danny Sullivan (via the SearchLiason X account), a core update occurs when Google implements a “significant” alteration to one or more of its core systems.

These updates influence the processing and evaluation of inputs such as our content and links.

Since these systems operate continuously, once updated, they start processing and refreshing based on the new criteria.

It’s important to note that not all updates receive explicit reports. According to Sullivan, constant notifications would only create a continuous stream of information, which isn’t particularly beneficial outside the ongoing narrative that Search is a dynamic product constantly undergoing updates.

Have I Been Impacted By An Update?

Recognizing whether your site has been affected by an update is essential for determining the appropriate steps to take.

In 2023, Google introduced 9 official updates, all documented on the Google Search Status Dashboard, along with numerous ongoing smaller updates that aren’t publicly disclosed.

While most confirmed updates typically take 3 to 4 weeks to fully implement (the most recent core update officially lasted 45 days at the time of this writing), noticeable changes often emerge within the initial 24-48 hours of deployment.

Throughout the rollout phase, anticipate volatility and fluctuations. However, based on past experiences, the “danger zone” for the most heavily trafficked and searched queries tends to occur within the first couple of days.

It’s also key to remember that not all losses in traffic and rankings are related to updates.

With the Google Dance now a distant memory and Google operating in real time, shifts in your performance may stem from your competitors’ endeavors and enhancements in their value propositions. These improvements could encompass factors like refining content quality or leveraging beneficial press coverage.

In response, Google often conducts keyword tests and experiments with various website placements to gather user feedback before settling on a “new” and more stable results page.

While this process can be frustrating, it underscores the notion that SEO isn’t a one-time task. Continuously refining and demonstrating the value proposition for specific search queries is an ongoing endeavor.

Unfortunate Timings With Transformation Projects

Since core updates occur unpredictably, it’s common for many websites to undergo significant changes coinciding with an update announcement.

Typically, these changes are part of ongoing transformation projects, such as migrations, which often inadvertently overlap with core updates.

Migrations themselves require time to finalize and be processed by Google. Therefore, when coupled with the unpredictable variables of core updates, it becomes challenging to differentiate whether performance fluctuations (or delays in returning to previous performance levels) are attributable to migration processing or the core update itself.

Recovering From An Update

Although recovering from an update before the next broad core updates are rolled out is feasible, most websites tend to witness significant changes (and subsequent recoveries) during subsequent updates, particularly if they have adjusted their content to better match Google’s criteria:

“Content that faced impacts in Search or Discover from one update might not fully recover—despite improvements—until the next broad core update is introduced.”

The same Google document also underscores another reality: Even if improvements are made, there’s no guarantee of recovery if “more deserving content” exists, as Google will persist in ranking it prominently within its search results.

Typically, recovering from a Google update entails enhancing one (or more) of the following:

  1. Enhancing your content’s value proposition, beneficial purpose, and alignment with what users anticipate when searching for specific queries.
  2. Improving your E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) by enhancing links and mentions.
  3. Strengthening and cultivating your brand’s entity (and relatedness).

Recoveries can vary significantly as there are different types.

Some recoveries occur swiftly, with traffic almost returning to pre-update levels, if not surpassing them, thanks to the recovery strategies you’ve implemented. This typically occurs when a search engine update modifies a variable that was altered in a previous update.

On the other hand, some recoveries take longer. This indicates that Google has likely observed positive user data from the variables modified in the previous update, and the onus is on you to better align your website and content with what Google aims to reward.

Update Recovery Checklist

Prior to diving into phase one, addressing inquiries during this preliminary “phase zero” can significantly streamline the process and alleviate apprehensions among business stakeholders:

  1. What is the specific location where we are observing a decline in traffic?
  2. If using a third-party tool, does this align with the information from our internal data?
  3. Have there been any recent updates to the data sets and traffic projections by the third-party tool?
  4. If the decline is evident in our internal data, are all tracking codes properly implemented and activating as intended?

Addressing these inquiries initially can help prevent unnecessary resource allocation and potentially restore a sense of assurance within the team.

Phase One: Assess The Impact

Identifying the pages experiencing a decline in traffic enables you to discern whether the drop impacts specific pages or the entire website. This process narrows your focus on where to investigate next to diagnose potential causes for the decrease in traffic.

Data Collection: Begin by gathering and consolidating as much available data as possible, ideally at the keyword and URL level. Utilize platforms such as Google Search Console, Google Analytics, and other analytics tools and data sources.

Data Segmentation: Organize your data into segments based on page clusters, keyword clusters, demographics, personas, devices, or any custom categorization you employ to pinpoint the most affected areas.

Data Comparison: It’s crucial to compare the current data against historical records to identify potential correlations with seasonality and past traffic or buyer behavior patterns. This comparison aids in gaining insights into the underlying factors contributing to the traffic decline.

Phase Two: Review The SERPs

Assessing the alterations within the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for your primary search terms and term clusters constitutes a crucial subsequent step.

When examining the SERPs, maintain objectivity, eliminate biases, and refrain from assuming superiority over other content, as current data may suggest otherwise. This data compilation serves as the initial phase in conducting a GAP analysis.

  1. How extensive are the modifications made by Google in the SERPs?
  2. Is Google now prioritizing websites that cater to a different search intent?
  3. Is Google favoring websites of a different source type?
  4. Have your direct competitors experienced positive or negative impacts?
  5. Have new SERP features been introduced by Google?
  6. Have any SERP features been removed by Google?
  7. Is Google displaying any domains twice within the top 10 results?

Phase Three: Review Your Website

With the data acquired from scrutinizing the SERPs, you’re ready to conduct a GAP analysis on your website. Through my experience, I’ve identified two critical areas for thorough examination: assessing the depth and relevance of your content, and ensuring alignment with search intent and user expectations for the query.

  1. Thorough Coverage: Ensure your content comprehensively covers the relevant topics, providing all necessary information users might seek for their query. Additionally, include supporting content and logical next steps tailored to different user journey paths.
  2. Data Accuracy: Maintain up-to-date content, especially in industries with high interest or reliance on statistics. Regularly update statistical data tables and examples to reflect the latest available information, enhancing the credibility and validity of your content.
  3. Keyword Intent Alignment: Each page’s primary content should directly address the search intent associated with its targeted keywords. Ensuring alignment between user search intent and content topic enhances relevance and user satisfaction.
  4. Purposeful Alignment: Every piece of content should serve a beneficial purpose that aligns with user expectations. For instance, an informational article titled “the best X software for Y” should not overtly promote your company as the top choice with a disproportionately long review, as it may misalign with user intent and expectations.

Phase Four: Develop & Implement Recovery Strategies

Now that you’ve amassed and analyzed your data, understanding the disparities between your content and Google’s current preferences, it’s time to craft a strategic plan to address these gaps.

Initiating with a clear strategy is paramount as it enables you to communicate expectations regarding activities and your recovery plan with key stakeholders across the organization.

From my experience, many individuals tend to immediately dive into tactics without first defining a strategic framework. However, strategies serve as essential blueprints, offering broad guidance and shaping decision-making over the long haul. They ensure that all endeavors remain aligned with the business’s fundamental objectives.

By aligning your SEO endeavors with overarching business goals, you can redirect discussions away from mere metrics such as rankings and keywords and toward more meaningful business metrics like leads and revenue. This strategic approach fosters a deeper integration of SEO into the broader business strategy, enhancing overall effectiveness and impact.

Recovering From Google Updates Is Difficult

Google doesn’t readily disclose why your rankings decline. Understanding the causes behind a drop in traffic or search engine results page (SERP) performance necessitates an impartial evaluation of your website.

It’s crucial to let go of assumptions about the quality and relevance of your content and website’s eligibility for a top position, and instead ask yourself: do my pages truly merit ranking?

Have you implemented SEO basics?
Are you steering clear of unethical practices in link building?
Are you refraining from spamming?
Is your content authored by credible experts?
Do your rivals offer superior content, more user-friendly pages, or a more compelling value proposition?

Once you’ve made an objective assessment, you can take steps forward. Recovering from a sudden ranking decline demands time, patience, and diligence. Reliable information is your most valuable asset.

Original news from SearchEngineJournal