On June 3, Google pre-announced the launch of a “broad core algorithm update” to be released the following day.
The decision to pre-announce the update was presumably as much about Google’s PR team stopping Gary Illyes from naming another update as it was to save SEO pros from freaking out.
sure! From now on every update, unless otherwise stated, shall be called Fred
— Gary “鯨理” Illyes (@methode) March 9, 2017
CCN & the Algo Update Fallout
But freak out we did. Most notably, cryptocurrency news website, CCN reported that their organic visibility had dropped by 90% and that they were shutting down as a result.
While no one wants to see others losing their jobs, their “demands from Google” underestimate the complexities of Google’s algorithms and completely misjudge how they operate as a business.
A three-month heads up on algorithm updates and what it might impact?
Direct communications to news sites that are about to experience substantial drops in organic visibility?
A global task force reviewing future algorithm updates?
Good luck making that happen!
It later emerged CCN’s organic traffic wasn’t struck by a random act of Google, but that the site wasn’t without its issues.
Let’s be clear if your business is that reliant on organic traffic, especially from just two pages, you’re playing a dangerous game.
While CCN has since published a subsequent post to say that they are “rising from the dead”, there are a number of more general points I want to make around the current state of search.
I also want to put forward several steps that SEO pros can take to become more resistant to algorithm updates.
Google Is Monopolizing the Delivery of the Web
While some of the recent condemnations of Google and how they operate are ill-thought out, they do have an unhealthy monopoly in controlling the delivery of the web, and it’s only growing.
Let’s look at some examples from recent times:
- Publishers have been more or less forced to adopt AMP to have any organic visibility, which is basically a Google framework.
- Google scrapes and publishes content from other websites in its search results, taking away clicks in the process.
- A growing proportion of informational queries are now answered in the SERPs.
- Google can override user-specified canonical tags and index another version of the page.
- Google rewrites page titles and meta descriptions to better match user intent.
- Local businesses, job postings, hotels, flights are all now handled by Google products.
None of the above will be news to most, but it’s worth taking a step back to take in exactly how much control Google has over the delivery of our content.
Taking a purely objective view of these power plays, it makes sense to standardize the delivery of information through the lens of Google’s material design. After all, who hasn’t benefited from being served a handy featured snippet to answer a quick question?
Google has effectively taken the stance that, on the whole, websites can’t be trusted to deliver well-structured, performant websites with reliable signals regarding indexing, internationalization, and the like.
Instead, Google tries to bypass these problems by standardizing a searcher’s experience of the web and keeping you in their platform.
The problem is that Google doesn’t have any real competition (sorry Bing!) when it comes to search and that doesn’t look at all likely to change in the foreseeable future.
For the time being, it’s very much a case of Google says jump and we say how high.
How Can You Minimize the Impact of Algorithm Updates?
To save this post from becoming too bleak, I’d like to share some ways that websites can set themselves up to be more resistant to Google’s algorithm updates and less dependent on organic traffic from Google.
1. ‘Create Great Content’
Google’s go-to recommendation following a core algorithm update can feel like a slap with a wet fish, but it isn’t advice that should be overlooked. Maybe give that a go if you haven’t already. Content is King™ and all that…
But seriously, as important as it is to keep on top of Google’s algorithm updates and what they impact, we can get overly fixated on them as a community when focusing on executing on a long-term strategy should take precedence.
In the case of the June algorithm update, yes, we need to be aware that we can expect fluctuations in organic traffic. And yes, we should read authoritative analysis showing the common trends driven by the update.
However, these insights should be factored into a long-term search strategy rather than causing us to pivot and take a number of short-term actions to try and capitalize on new opportunities or claw back lost rankings.
The only way you’re going to benefit from a core algorithm update is if you’re investing in a well-reasoned long term approach to organic search which is committed to delivering performant websites that deliver quality content and valuable experiences to visitors.
2. Sound Long-Term Strategy, Over Short-Term Tactics
It’s easy to preach about how SEO strategies should ideally look but what does that mean if you’re facing the harsh realities of being hit by an algorithm update like CCN?
Providing your sites and business haven’t been completely toppled by an algorithm update, these sites need to take a long hard look at:
- How they approach search.
- How they can execute on a strategy that has more longevity and carries less risk rather than blaming Google.
In the case of CCN, scaling the workforce of a site that is reliant on two pages to deliver the bulk of its organic traffic is irresponsible. Google didn’t kill CCN, poor planning did.
If a core algorithm update can wipe out your performance, you were *always* doing it wrong / not good enough. You were just getting away with it.
— Jono Alderson (@jonoalderson) June 10, 2019
It might be too late, but CCN should have been and should be planning a strategy to tackle the following issues (credit to Dan Shure for his insights):
- How to reduce the proportion of organic traffic to its most popular pages focusing on the price of bitcoin.
- How to reduce their dependence on organic traffic by building traffic from other sources.
- Reviewing their approach to link building, syndication, and redirection.
I spent about 10 mins looking into the CCN traffic drop.. & have a few thoughts. Disclaimer: a proper SEO analysis requires a lot of time, critical thinking, and internal data – so take this with a grain of salt, but also I get to look at / analyze a LOT of sites as a consultant
— Dan Shure (@dan_shure) June 10, 2019
This list might only be the tip of the iceberg but the point is that CCN has far bigger issues that they should have been addressing that likely contributed to the drop they saw following the latest core algorithm update.
Yes, Google should be held accountable and should be working to communicate more transparently with the search community, but that does not excuse the publisher’s poor foundations on which they had built a business.
3. Be Selective in Who You Work With and For
Looking at things from the perspective of the individual, we need to be more selective about the websites that we chose to work on and the businesses we associate with.
When you come to seek new opportunities, whether that be in-house, agency side, contracting or if you’re onboarding new clients you need to assess prospective businesses and their websites by asking questions such as:
- How reliant is the website and business on one stream of revenue?
- How volatile is the business’ main source of revenue?
- How open and flexible is the business to taking onboard and implementing new ideas, acknowledging and correcting missteps and shaping its strategy to a rapidly changing environment?
- Does the business have a feasible long term vision and are their websites still likely to provide value in the foreseeable future?
We need to be more cognizant of the foundations and longevity of the businesses that we involve ourselves with and do our due diligence.
4. Nurture Returning Visitors & Build a Brand
Speaking from personal experience, I came to work on a site that had historically performed tremendously well in search in a highly competitive niche.
I was successful in building upon the site’s existing success and significantly took their organic traffic to new heights, while also diversifying the site’s revenue streams.
I was proud of what I’d achieved with optimizing and growing this site, but the problem was that this success was overwhelmingly based on visitors coming from organic search.
Despite the substantial levels of traffic to the site, visitors were only there because it ranked well.
Perhaps it was a failure of my relatively junior status at the time, but I couldn’t convince the management to invest time and resource into nurturing returning visitors.
Lacking an understanding of the pace at which Google search evolves they were happy to count on good rankings as a given.
Years on and the site in question still performs well in search, but is (as far as I can tell) failing to capitalize on the phenomenal levels of organic traffic by building something bigger by way of a brand – or even an email list at the very least!
If I were presented with the opportunity to work on a similar site with a business of the same mindset today, I would like to think I would look elsewhere because they wouldn’t pass the due diligence questions mentioned above.
5. Collaborate With Other Departments & Take a Broader Perspective
The future of SEO is only going to become further entrenched with other disciplines.
It is ever-more important that SEOs collaborate with and understand the challenges of the other marketing and business functions it is intertwined with.
SEO intersects with paid search, CRO, UX, PR, development and that’s not even to mention the broader business impacts.
As such, search teams need to take a wider view of their place in an organization, build strong working relationships with other teams and collaborate with them to build healthier foundations for a business and reduce their dependence on organic traffic and its fluctuations.
One such example of where SEOs could take a broader perspective is with the newly released FAQ rich results:
The unintended consequence of adding FAQ schema. It looks so pretty in the SERP… but where did all our traffic go? 🙄#seo #structureddata #schema #google pic.twitter.com/yy93nGo6m8
— Lily Ray (@lilyraynyc) June 13, 2019
The above example shows that implementing FAQ schema has seen organic clicks decline, which would typically be seen negatively from the perspective of an SEO.
However, this could be perceived to be a success by other teams as the answer to a problem is getting more visibility and their question is likely being answered faster without the need to click through to the website itself.
For some questions, this might be a better user experience because users can get a faster answer and it could also reduce the number of support queries coming through as the question (and related ones) are getting more visibility.
By taking a broader view of success and adjusting KPIs accordingly to work alongside other business functions we can build more successful websites and cohesive digital businesses that work towards a common goal.
This post is far from an exhaustive list of ways websites and businesses can improve their immunity to algorithm updates and become less dependent on organic traffic, but more of a contribution to an ongoing discussion.
While we need to hold Google accountable in what limited ways we can, we need to direct our efforts towards building digital businesses with long term planning in mind.
Businesses that aren’t desperately reliant on the black box of a third party.
Easier said than done, but it’s something we should strive for!
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