How to Prepare Your Website for a Google Algorithm Update [Case Study]

Table Of ContentsThe Challenge: “Medic Algorithm” DevaluationWhat Does an Algorithm Update Look Like?The Question: Algorithmic Penalty or Devaluation?How to Know You’ve Been Hit by an Algo Update?The Patient: Our Client’s SiteType of the Site and NicheThe SymptomsHow We Recovered it – What are the “right things”?Quick Fix?The Tools You Need for AuditingRecovery, Optimization, and ImplementationPutting it into ActionThe Results: Algorithmic RecoverySummary I hope that you’ve never had to go through the pain of being hit by an algorithmic update. You wake up one morning, your traffic is decimated, and your rank tracker is littered with red arrows. Algorithmic penalties are not a subject I like to trivialize, that’s why the case study I am about to share with you is different than most you’ve read before. This case study is a testament of faith and hard work by my agency, The Search Initiative, in light of a huge shift in the SEO landscape. Unfortunately, with core algorithmic updates you can’t simply change a few things and expect to get an immediate ranking recovery. The best you can do is prepare for the next update round. If you’ve done all the right things, you experience gains like you’ve never seen before. Even if you’ve never been hit with an algorithmic penalty, you should care about these updates. Doing the right things and staying one step ahead can get your site in position for huge gains during an algorithm roll out. So what are “the right things”?  What do you need to do to your website to set it up for these types of ranking increases when the algorithms shift? This case study from my agency The Search Initiative will show you. The Challenge: “Medic Algorithm” Devaluation I want to start this case study by taking you back to its origins. There was a big algorithm update on the 1st of August 2018. A lot of SEOs called it a “Medic Update” because it targeted a huge chunk of sites related to health and medicine. What Does an Algorithm Update Look Like? Let’s start with a few facts. Fact #1: Google is constantly running search experiments. To quote Google from their official mission page: “In 2018, we ran over 654,680 experiments, with trained external Search Raters and live tests, resulting in more than 3234 improvements to Search.” Here are the official numbers relating to the search experiments they ran last year: 595,429 Search quality tests – this is the number of tests they have designed to run in the search engines. Some of them were only conceptual and were algorithmically proven to be ineffective, therefore these never made it to the next testing stages. 44,155 Side-by-side experiments – this is how many tests they have run through their Search Quality Raters. The SQR team looks at the search results of old and new algorithms side-by-side. Their main job is to assess the quality of the results received, which, in turn, evaluates the algorithm change. Some changes are reverted at this stage. Others make it through to the Live traffic experiments. 15,096 Live traffic experiments – at this stage, Google is releasing the algorithm change to the public search results and assesses how the broader audience perceives them, most likely through A/B testing. Again, there will be some rollbacks and the rest will stay in the algorithm. 3,234 Launches – all the changes that they rolled out. Fact #2: Google releases algorithm improvements every day and core updates several times a year! Bearing in mind everything said above, Google releases algo improvements basically every day. Do the math… They’ve also confirmed that they roll-out core quality updates several times per year: When you suspect something is going on, you can confirm it by simply jumping over to your favorite SERP sensor to check the commotion: During this period, rankings typically fluctuate and eventually settle. Like in the below screenshot: A lot of SEOs (myself included) believe that during the Heavy-Fluctuation Stage, Google is making adjustments to the changes they’ve just rolled out. It’s like while you’re cooking a soup. First, you add all the ingredients, toss in some spices, and let it cook it for some time. Then you taste it and add more salt, pepper or whatever else that is needed to make it good. Finally, you settle with the taste you like. (I’ve never actually cooked soup other than ramen, so hopefully, this analogy makes sense.) Fact #3: There will initially be more noise than signal. Once there is an algo update, especially an officially confirmed one, many budding SEOs will kick into overdrive writing blog posts with theories of what particular changes have been made. Honestly, it’s best to let things settle before theorizing: One strength we have as website owners is that there are lots of us – and the data that is collected by webmasters on forums and on Twitter is sometimes enough to give an indication of what changes you could possibly make to your sites. However, this is not usually the case, and when it is, it is usually difficult to tell if what the webmasters are signaling is actually correct. Keep an eye on those you trust to give good advice. That said… At my agency, we always gather a lot of data and evidence first, before jumping any conclusions… and you should do the same. Very shortly, we’ll be getting to that data. The Question: Algorithmic Penalty or Devaluation? When things go wrong for you during an algorithmic update, a lot of SEOs would call it an “algorithmic penalty”. At The Search Initiative, we DO NOT AGREE with this definition!   In fact, what it really is, is a shift in what the search engine is doing at the core level. Put it in very simple terms: Algorithmic Penalty – invoked when you’ve been doing something against Google’s terms for quite some time, but it wasn’t enough to trigger it until now. It’s applied as a punishment. Algorithmic Devaluation – usually accompanying a quality update or a broad algorithm change. Works at the core level and can occasionally influence your rankings over a longer period of time.Applied as a result of the broader shift in the quality assessment. Anyway, call it as you want – the core algo update hitting you means that Google has devalued your site in terms of quality factors. An algorithmic shift affecting your site should not be called a penalty. It should be viewed as a devaluation. You were not targeted, but a bunch of factors have changed and every single site not in compliance with these new factors will be devalued in the same way. The good thing about all this… once you identify those factors and take action on them, you’ll be a great position to actually benefit from the next update. In this video below, we’ll cover how to get ready for the next Google update. How to Know You’ve Been Hit by an Algo Update? In some cases, a sudden drop in traffic will make things obvious, such as this particular site that I would like to look at more specifically. But we’ll get to that in a second. Generally speaking, if your traffic plummets from one day to the next, you should look at the algorithm monitoring tools (like the ones below), and check Facebook groups and Twitter. Google Algorithm Change Monitors: Useful Facebook Groups: The Lab Ahrefs Insider Inside Search Useful Twitter Accounts to Follow Cyrus Shepard Glenn Gabe Marie Haynes The Patient: Our Client’s Site The client came on board as a reaction to how they were affected by the August update. They joined TSI towards the end of October. This was the ‘August 2018 Update’ we were talking about – and still no one is 100% certain of the specifics of it. However, we have some strong observations. 😉 Type of the Site and Niche Now, let’s meet our patient. The website is an authority-sized affiliate site with around 700 pages indexed. Its niche is based around health, diet and weight loss supplements. The Symptoms As the industry was still bickering, there were no obvious ‘quick fixes’ to this problem. In truth, there likely will never again ever be any ‘quick fixes’ for broad algo updates. All we had to work with was this: You can see that in this particular case, the number of users visiting the site dropped by 45% in July-August. If we look at October, when we’re running all our analyses and creating the action plan, the organic traffic looks even more pessimistic: With the niche, site and timeline evidence, we could easily conclude what follows: 100% Match with The “Medic” Update How We Recovered it – What are the “right things”? To contextualize our decision making on this project, this is a rundown of what we know and what we knew then: What we knew then It seemed as many of the affected sites were in the health and Read More Read More