How To Recover From A Google Update (A Checklist)

Historically, Google has rolled out core algorithm updates two or three times a year – but last year, we saw a record four updates.

We’ve also just experienced a 45-day record rollout with the March core update.

When I first started in SEO, the industry was experiencing the later Panda updates, the Exact Match Domain update, and Penguin.

These updates were, in part, designed to counter tactics deployed by SEO experts.

Google updates have evolved over the years, in line with how Google itself has evolved as an information finder, classifier, and retrieval system.

As a result, how we talk about updates, understand them, and approach them also needs to evolve.

It’s also worth highlighting that not all Google updates are designed to be punitive; a number of updates in the past 24-36 months have been aligned with Google’s “core algorithm” and adoption of different technologies.

What Is A Core Update?

As Danny Sullivan (via the SearchLiason X account) defines, a core update is when Google makes a “notable” change to one or more of its core systems.

These updates change how inputs (our content, links, etc.) are processed and weighed.

The systems are continuously running, so once updated, they begin to process and refresh based on the new criteria.

Not all updates are reported on, as, according to Sullivan, it would just be a continuous notification feed and not helpful outside of the current narrative that Search is not a static product and is always updating.

Read more: History of Google Algorithm Updates

Have I Been Impacted By An Update?

Understanding whether you have been impacted by an update is crucial in determining the appropriate course of action.

In 2023, Google made 9 official updates – all logged via the Google Search Status Dashboard – as well as thousands of ongoing smaller updates that aren’t registered or declared.

While most confirmed updates take 3 to 4 weeks to complete (the last core update officially took 45 days at the time of writing), significant changes can usually be seen within the first 24-48 hours of rollout.

During the rollout period, you should expect volatility and fluctuations, but from experience, the “danger zone” for the most trafficked and searched-for queries is in the first couple of days.

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

As the Google Dance is now a thing of memory and Google processes in real time, changes in your performance could be due to your competitors’ efforts and improvements in their value propositions—such as improving content or benefitting from valuable press coverage.

When this happens, Google tends to perform keyword tests and try different websites in different positions to gain user feedback before establishing a “new” more stable results page.

This can be frustrating, but it further affirms that SEO isn’t a “one and done” activity, and refining and proving value proposition for specific search queries is an ongoing exercise.

Unfortunate Timings With Transformation Projects

As core updates aren’t predictable, many websites undergo a major transformation at the same time an update is announced.

Anecdotally, these tend to be ongoing transformation projects, such as migrations that tend to accidentally coincide with core updates.

Migrations themselves can take time to complete and be processed by Google, so adding the complexity of the unknown change variables makes it harder to discern if performance changes (or lags in returning to previous performance) are caused by the migration processing or the core update.

Recovering From An Update

While it is possible to recover from an update before the next broad core updates are released, most sites tend to see the biggest changes (and recoveries) during subsequent updates – if they have better aligned their content with what Google is looking for:

“Content that was impacted in Search or Discover by one might not recover—assuming improvements have been made—until the next broad core update is released.”

The same Google document also outlines another truth: Making improvements doesn’t guarantee recovery if “more deserving content” exists, as Google will continue to rank it highly within its search results.

Recovering from a Google update typically means improving one (or more) of the following:

Recoveries can look different because there are different types.

Some recoveries are fast, and due to the recovery activities you’ve been implementing, traffic is almost back to pre-update levels, if not higher.

This usually happens when a search engine update revises and amends a variable that was changed in a previous update.

Other recoveries take longer.

This means Google has likely seen positive user data from the variables changed in the previous update, and the impetus is on you to better align your website and content with what Google is looking to reward.

Read more: Google E-E-A-T: What Is It & How To Demonstrate It For SEO

Update Recovery Checklist

Before getting to phase one, asking questions in this initial “phase zero” can save a lot of time and concerns across business stakeholders:

Where are we seeing the traffic drop?

  • If via a third-party tool, is this consistent with our proprietary data?
  • Has the third-party tool updated its own data sets and traffic forecasts?
  • If in our proprietary data, are all tracking codes implemented and triggering correctly?

Answering these questions first can prevent resource wastage and potentially bring calm back to the situation.

Phase One: Assess The Impact

By identifying which pages have lost traffic you can establish the drop affects only certain pages or the entire site, you narrow down your scope of where to look next in diagnosing the potential causes for your traffic drop.

  • Data collection: The first step is to collect and pool as much data as possible that is available to you, ideally at the keyword and URL level. This can come from your Google Search Console, Google Analytics, and other analytics platforms and data sources.
  • Data segmentation: Segment your data by page cluster, keyword cluster, demographic, persona, device, or your own custom categorization to determine which areas have been most affected.
  • Data comparison: Comparing against historical data is vital to understanding any potential correlations between seasonality and previous traffic/buyer behavior.

Read more:

Phase Two: Review The SERPs

Evaluating what has changed in the search engine results pages (SERPs) for your primary search terms and term clusters is an important next step.

When looking at the SERPs, you need to be objective, remove any biases, and avoid thinking things like “my content is better than that,” as the data currently suggests otherwise. This data collection is your first part in performing a GAP analysis.

  • How much has Google changed the SERPs?
  • Is Google now preferring websites targeting a different search intent?
  • Is Google rewarding websites that are a different source type?
  • Have your direct competitors been affected in a positive/negative way?
  • Has Google introduced new SERP features?
  • Has Google removed SERP features?
  • Is Google double-listing any domains in the top 10?

Read more: What’s In A SERP? Google Search Results & Features You Need To Know

Phase Three: Review Your Website

Now that you have the data from reviewing the SERPs, you can perform a GAP analysis on your own website.

Over the years, I have found two areas important to examine in depth: evaluating your content’s depth and relevance and how aligned the content is to the search intent and user expectations for the query.

  • Comprehensive Coverage: Assess whether your content fully addresses the topics at hand. It should provide all the necessary information that a user might be looking for when searching for the query and provide relevant supporting content and logical next steps for the user on their various journey paths.
  • Data & Information Accuracy: Make sure that the content is up-to-date with the latest information, especially in industries that have high levels of interest or rely heavily on statistics. Updating statistical data tables and examples to the most recent available data helps build the integrity and validity of the content in the eyes of users
  • Keyword Intent Matching: Each page’s main content should clearly address the search intent behind the keywords it targets.
  • Beneficial Purpose Alignment: Each piece of content has a beneficial purpose. There is no right or wrong beneficial purpose, but it should align with user expectations. For example, an informational piece of content titled “the best X software for Y,” which unsubtly positions your company as number one with a review three times the length of the others, doesn’t have a beneficial purpose that aligns with the keyword intent.

Read more: How to Do a Content Gap Analysis for SEO

Phase Four: Develop & Implement Recovery Strategies

Now that you’ve collected and analyzed all your data and understand the differences between your content and what Google is currently rewarding, you can begin to devise a strategy to address these differences.

Defining the strategy first is crucial, as it allows you to communicate expectations around activities and your recovery plan with wider business stakeholders.

From experience, far too many fall into the trap of immediately jumping to tactics (as they differ greatly).

Strategies are designed to provide a broad framework and guide decision-making over the longer term, ensuring that all efforts are aligned with the business’s core objectives.

This aligns your SEO efforts with the business objectives and helps steer conversations away from metrics such as rankings and keywords towards more important business metrics such as leads and revenue.

Read more: How To Improve SEO: Strategies To Try First

Recovering From Google Updates Is Difficult

Google won’t tell you why your rankings drop. Understanding the reasons for a reduction in your traffic or SERP performance requires an objective look at your website.

You must abandon your assumptions about your content and website’s worthiness to be at the top and ask yourself: do my pages deserve to rank?

Once you have a clear assessment, you can move forward. Recovering from a sudden ranking drop takes time, patience, and effort. Good information is your best tool.

More resources: 

Featured Image: ra2 studio/Shutterstock

Originally Appeared Here

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About the Author: Rayne Chancer