What Google 2019 Search Updates Tell Us About the Future

10 years ago, SEO was a whole different ball game. We saw Panda stomp out keyword stuffing and Penguin take on link schemes.

Looking at the Google updates of 2019, one thing is for certain, we’re closing out the 2010 search era with a bang.

The March and June core updates revealed Google wasn’t kidding about its fight against misinformation, while minor updates showed us that often, it’s the biggest brands that win today’s relevance rewards.

BERT brought us nuance in October, while neural matching finally made an appearance in the local results in November.

In this piece, I’ll go over the most notable Google updates of 2019 and what they meant for the search community.

March Core Update, March 2019

The March 12 Core Update, aka “Florida 2” was the first big general update of 2019. RankRanger data revealed that YMYL sites and niches like Travel or Home and Garden were similarly impacted by the update.

“Wellness” sites such as verywellhealth.com and everydayhealth.com lost roughly half of their organic traffic following the update. Yet, similar sites like draxe.com regained rankings lost during the Medic update.

In some cases, non-YMYL categories appeared to be more volatile than those in YMYL categories, suggesting that Florida 2 might be more about brand power, relevance, and authority than expertise.

Impact on Search Results

While Google continues to refine how it handles sensitive queries related to topics like finance, health, or legal issues, the March update showed us the algorithm favors those sites with high trust signals, and that the crack down on YMYL wages on.

As far as non-YMYL categories are concerned, Google’s John Mueller (timestamp: ~17:57), says the algorithms look at the types of queries people enter, by category. If they find that users aren’t getting relevant results, Google may make adjustments to the results displayed for those categories.

Key takeaways from March:

  • Always be useful. Make sure your content offers unique, actionable insights. This allows you to grow your reputation as a go-to resource in your industry. Look toward EAT guidelines to ensure that you’re on the right track.
  • Back up your claims. If you’re going to make a claim, make sure you have the sources to back it up.
  • Highlight expertise. If you’re in a YMYL category, be sure you have a qualified expert writing your content. Highlight credentials and add author bios. If you’re in the health niche, have a qualified reviewer check your content and include reviewer information on the page, as well.
  • Add schema to your site to signal intent. Schema lets search engines know what you want searchers to see when they enter a specific query, plus it helps you stand out on the front page.

June 2019 Core Update — June 3, 2019

On June 2, 2019, Google tweeted the following announcement, which many SEOs interpreted as a warning:

The “warning” announcement was out of character, indicating that something big was about to happen.

However, Google liaison, Danny Sullivan said there wasn’t anything more significant about this update compared to previous updates. He stated, instead, the announcement was more of a transparency effort.

The next day, Google confirmed the latest core algorithm update was already live across all data centers and making waves across a wide range of websites.

Impact on Search Results

Following the June update, many of the domains hit hard by the August 2018 Medic update have continued to fall, whereas others regained some ground.

As with the March update, we’re still seeing losses among niche websites, as noted in this RankRanger breakdown by niche.

Source

This is less about quality and more about how the Google algorithm defines relevance and credibility.

According to eConsultancy report, 82% of searchers choose the most familiar brand in the search results as their first click. That impulse, unfortunately, means that Google will assume that the most familiar brands offer the best solutions.

Source

Marie Haynes found that within the e-commerce sector, it was companies that already had strong brand recognition that saw the biggest gains after the update:

Source

Site Diversity Update — June 6, 2019

Following the core update came the site diversity update, designed to display no more than two front-page results coming from the same domain.

The caveat here is, Google retains the right to show more multiple entries from the same domain, if those results are the most relevant.

Impact on Search Results

The update didn’t exactly take care of front-page monopolies. According to research from Moz, brands with a lot of existing visibility or strong navigational intent retained a large share of front-page real estate.

For marketers, the diversity updates means that small or mid-sized brands might have more shots at ranking bumping competitors with multiple entries out of the way. Still, it’s those with the most recognition and existing market share that Google deems “most relevant” most of the time.

The lessons learned here are:

  • Focus on building a strong brand. To have a strong brand you should have a consistent look, feel, and tone across all channels. Run regular content audits to ensure all materials accurately reflect your brand identity.
  • Grow your domain authority. Building domain authority involves creating high-quality, long-form content, optimizing on-page elements, and really going after your backlinking strategy–all of which come together to increase the strength of your website.
  • Go after snippet opportunities. Having trouble competing with the big brands? Snippets are a great way to drive awareness based on the fact that you can’t miss ‘em. More on how to ID the best opportunities here.

September 2019 Core Update — September 24, 2019

Google didn’t release an announcement for the September update, and many sites that suffered during 2018’s EAT updates saw some recoveries. It took a few days, but as we’ve seen in several updates since Medic, health and medical sites were hit harder than non-YMYL categories.

Impact on Search Results

According to RankRanger data, the big losers here were, again, YMYL sites, as well as the Travel industry. They did find that some sites that suffered losses from the Medic update saw some traffic return, though not to the point of a full recovery.

In my own September update analysis, I found that several pages suffered losses on long-tail keywords previously ranking in the 21+ positions.

Source

What this means is, Google’s relevance updates are now coming for the low-hanging fruit keywords. Those low-competition keywords that have long been easy to rank for are now being scrutinized by the algorithms.

A few takeaways:

  • Make it a 1:1 match. Your keywords must always match the purpose of the content and make it easy for users to find what they need.
  • Re-optimize old content to match intent. If you’ve noticed a ranking drop for your longer-tail, “okay” performers, revise your content to better fit user intent.
  • Establish a clear purpose. Dedicate one page to one topic and make it clear, just what that topic is. Use your target keywords in the headers, title tag, and add mark-up where appropriate to increase visibility.

BERT Update — October 22, 2019

In October, BERT entered the algorithmic mix, bringing more nuance to Google’s understanding of search queries.

The below example helps break down the concept; using the search term “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa.”

With BERT, Google considers words like “to” when matching a query to the right results, as you can see in the image on the right. Compare that to the “before” shot on the left, and it’s immediately clear that BERT is a big deal.

It’s also worth noting that BERT’s impact extends to the featured snippets. Any update that impacts Google’s ability to interpret queries also impacts the snippets, as they’re still part of the organic search results.

Impact on Search Results

So, you can’t directly optimize for BERT, make sure you’re targeting long-tail, conversational keywords that align closely with the purpose of the page.

Because Google now understands how words like “to” or “with” modify meaning, you’ll need to be mindful of the terms you choose to target.

With the introduction of BERT, the relevance factor has become increasingly important. Again, that means writing high-quality content that best meets your users needs and applying schema to the areas that contain the most relevant information.

Local Update — November 7, 2019

November’s local update brought relevance to the local SERPs by bringing neural matching into the fold. Here, Google applies neural matching, which helps determine which queries suggest local intent, even if they don’t include a business name or a description.

Per Google, the update affects several local-specific features like Google My Business profiles, local-intent content, and the map pack, but ranking factors more or less stay the same.

Impact on Search Results

November’s update did have a dramatic impact on traffic for some sites. In fact, Search Engine Roundtable reported some pages experienced traffic swings of up to 50%.

So, those fluctuations likely impact sites ranking for search terms with ambiguous intent. Google recommends reviewing the local search guidelines, noting that despite the intelligence upgrade, distance, prominence, and relevance are the top ranking factors.

What’s Ahead for Google Search?

Quality content has been a key theme since the initial Panda update, but quality standards have risen sharply over the past couple of years. Going into 2020, I recommend you heed Danny Sullivan’s advice and dig into the 167-page Quality Rater Guidelines and continue making EAT improvements.

Search intent was also huge this year, as evidenced by all of the relevance updates we’ve seen this year. As Google gets better at understanding exactly what people want, I expect 1:1 intent matching to continue taking center stage when it comes to creating content.

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Author: John Lincoln

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