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May 2020 Google Algorithm Update Explained

Google core updates aim to improve search results during COVID-19

This month, Google’s public liason of search, Danny Sullivan, announced on Twitter that the search engine had plans to push their second core update of 2020. Given the current pandemic and increased reliance on search visibility for businesses, marketers and SEOs around the world are turning Sherlock Holmes to solve the case of who will be impacted by this update and how. Here’s what we know about the Google algorithm update so far.

First, what is a Google algorithm update?

Google releases small, undetectable updates every day in an effort to improve search results. However, several times a year, Google also releases what they refer to as “core updates”. Google defines their core updates as “significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems”. Google typically doesn’t provide details on their updates to avoid manipulation of search results, but they do confirm their large core updates as they contain broad updates that noticeably impact results for all industries.

The first Google algorithm update of the year came in January, impacting the Sports and News, Online Communities, Games, Arts & Entertainments, and Finance industries the hardest, although it appears that the update was not aimed at any specific industry.

What does Google say about the May 2020 algorithm update?

As with any of Google’s releases, many of the details of the May 2020 core update aren’t public. We do know that the May 2020 update was a global update across all languages, countries and device types.

In the May 4th announcement from Google, it appears as though the update was in response to shifting search patterns causes by coronavirus. Danny Sullivan tweeted, “Google Search has never seen as many searches for a single topic continue over a sustained period as is happening now with COVID-19”. The May Google update is designed to improve searches for local content, such as news stories relevant to a specific area. Google did confirm two updates for local searches in this update:

  • The addition of a new “local news” box on the search engine results page to show local news content in relation to coronavirus searches. Google says there is no specific change that content publishers need to make here, as Google already reviews a number of signals to determine if content is relevant to a location.
  • Both AMP & non-AMP (accelerated mobile pages) stories will appear in the “Top Stories” featured section for searches that are coronavirus related. They have noted that pages must still be published in AMP format for other topics.

Google warned that this update may take one to two weeks to fully roll out, as they analyze how website rankings shift and continue to make adjustments.

How will the Google core updates impact my site?

The impacts from the May 4th update are still new and being monitored. However, this last update was large, causing SERP volatility of 9 – 9.4 out of 10 across all categories. January’s core update caused SERP volatility closer to 8.

SEMRush compared the average volatility of search engines 7 days before the May update and 2 days after the update, finding that industries impacted the most included Travel, Real Estate, Health, Pets & Animals, and People & Society, across both mobile & desktop results.

It also appears many large domains were highly affected, with around half of the significant ranking changes within the US occurring from websites with average monthly traffic exceeding 1 million monthly visitors.

What should I do now?

Keeping true to form, Google’s direction on the May 2020 core update remains vague. In August 2019, Google published a blog about reacting to core algorithm updates. Google advises that a decrease in rankings does not mean that something needs to be fixed, but instead encourages marketers to continue focusing on creating quality content to improve rankings.

It’s important to wait until the May 2020 Google algorithm updates settle and continue to monitor the rankings of your site. Check the following:

  • What, if any, changes have I seen to traffic to my site? In Google Analytics (or your analytics package) check both users and sessions. Compare the time period following the May 2020 core update to the time period after the core update. If overall site traffic has dropped, it may be a sign you have been affected.
  • What, if any, shifts am I seeing among the sources of traffic to my site? In Google Analytics, check Traffic Sources. If visits from organic search have decreased, it may be a sign that you have been affected.
  • What, if any, changes are occurring in the type of organic visits to my site? In Google Analytics or Google Search console, look at the impressions your site is generating and the click-thru rate (CTR). Identify whether any landing pages or keyword phrases have been negatively affected. This may help you hone in on content that needs to be improved.

If you took a large, negative hit in rankings from this update, it may be a good indication that you need to assess your site’s content quality. If you’ve recently launched significant changes to your site, you’ll need to do additional due diligence to determine whether the site updates or Google’s algorithm update is responsible for the change. So, put on your detective hat, grab your SERPs and enjoy solving the mystery.

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