2020 Google Algorithm Updates: What You Need to Know

The search engine optimization (SEO) and content marketing industry has passed the point where every search engine update was major news. Once upon a time, Google algorithm changes had code names like they were Pentagon projects. But currently, Google avoids making major changes that would affect how the web does business. We’ve all been through the refinement process long enough that a massive, sweeping upheaval would make no sense and would provoke cries of outrage.

So, it is unlikely that Google will ever again squeeze the web through the kind of wringer as it did with Pirate (2012), which dealt a huge cut to a small band of websites. The only thing that could trigger a big search-quake (not an official term, but we’re keeping it) would be a major shift in technology or the marketplace itself.

Instead, Google algorithm changes are more about making Google smarter by incremental adjustments to how it parses user queries and what kinds of results it thinks users expect. Occasionally new features roll out and sometimes, as with Google+, they roll right back away again. But an online business website still gets some benefit from at least paying attention to Google’s finicky attention shifts.

In this article, we’ll review

  • Major 2020 algorithm updates through June
  • What you can do to mitigate their impact
  • Upcoming updates and features (Core Web Vitals)
  • What you can do to prepare your SEO strategy

So, let’s take a leisurely overview of what Google has been up to in 2020 and its impact on SEO strategies.


Overview of Major 2020 Core Changes to Date

January 2020 Core Update

Google makes core updates on a regular basis and defines them as:

“significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems. We refer to these as “core updates.” They’re designed to ensure that overall, we’re delivering on our mission to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers.”

Every time a core update comes along, website order seems to get shuffled around in the rankings like so many songs on rotation at a Top-40 radio station or so many stock ticker symbols on the Dow Jones. Typically, these changes are minor, with individual sites rising or sinking by a couple of position places. However, in some instances, website owners have reported significant impacts to their rankings.

The first update of 2020 was rolled out on January 13. While the update wasn’t as disruptive as the Google ‘Medic’ update, it still stirred things up. All website categories saw movement, but the website niches that were hit the hardest include health, finance, games, arts & entertainment, and online communities. These updates have revealed that categories that were previously impacted by core updates are more likely to see movement in subsequent updates. Google is trying to refine and perfect their algorithm, and it will take several attempts to get it right.

Each new algorithm update from Google has rewarded rich high-quality content and penalized thin content. This is particularly important in the categories related to “Your Money, Your Life.” As the name implies, these categories are critical to our health and finances, and weak content does not rank well.

With each update, Google repeatedly recommends that you must create high-quality content if you want to achieve high rankings. If the message hasn’t been clear yet: stop writing fluff articles. Google wants substance.


Featured Snippet Change

Here’s the quick and dirty story on Featured Snippets: results that have a Featured Snippet box will no longer get a dual listing in the regular organic results. In other words, if your site both has a Featured Snippet available for the query and is a very high natural rank for the query regardless, you used to get listed twice on the search results page, once for the Snippet and once for the regular organic link list. Oh the thrill! Savor that time, because it’s gone now. Now if your site gets a box in Featured Snippets, that’s all you get for that query. This also went into effect in January 2020.

If you know everything else there is to know about Featured Snippets, you can skip on down to the next section. For those who need a refresher, you might want to read our tutorial on Featured Snippets. In the guide, we share nitty-gritty detailed information to help you rank for a Featured Snippets.

But briefly, a Featured Snippet is just a handful (two sentences or a short paragraph) of text which just so happens to be the perfect answer to the query the user typed in. They’re more likely to trigger a query phrased as a complete question. When Google finds this situation, it mounts the text in a box and pushes it to the top of the search results, with the website link at the bottom of this box.

All of that is still remaining the same. But for a while, as Google was testing out this new feature, it would still list the same site again in the regular standard search results below the Featured Snippet. You would end up with one website getting to hog nearly a third of the results page.

Here are a few take-aways with this change to Featured Snippet behavior:

  • This is equally applied to all sites across the board
  • If you saw a small dip in traffic after January 2020, it might be because you are a natural Featured Snippet talent, but your listing has been cut from two down to one
  • Let’s face it, multiple hits to one site for a query is kind of unfair
  • Multiple hits to one site are also not what the user wants
  • Featured Snippets are still a great little traffic magnet, but not as much as they used to be

There’s not much you can or should do to your site relating to the Featured Snippets change. This is more of a minor tweak to results listings, which Google engineering called a “de-duplication.” Search Engine Journal concludes that there were only minor impacts to traffic stats as the result of this change.

In a section below, we share some more detail about how to adapt your Featured Snippets strategy, because this change has generated some grumbling in the SEO industry.


May 2020 Core Update

This was a significant core update reported in the SEO community that had a bigger impact on site traffic across the board. The SEMRush Sensor tracked a few search engine results page (SERP) shake-ups when the May 2020 Core Update peaked, which seemed to correlate with lower the ranking of certain sites with old, stale, or thin content.

The analysis seems to indicate that the May 2020 Core Update was made to reflect changes in user’s interest over the first half of 2020. The COVID-19 global pandemic shook up industry and commerce. Subsequently, this changed users’ search behaviors. For instance, news websites got a bigger boost in search rankings, while tourism, travel, and offline entertainment took a big hit.

This makes sense, as people were desperately searching for reliable information. The world was turned upside down and searchers needed to find information that they could trust. Some marketers have postulated that the May 2020 Core Update is similar to the 2018 E-A-T update, which emphasizes Expertise, Authority, and Trust.

With most updates, Google stresses that there is little you can do to mitigate the effects of an update. There’s no quick fix. Google’s goal is to deliver the best possible results to searchers, and if you want to rank well, you need to create relevant, high-quality content that answers their questions.


More Updates Through June

Google continues to make small changes and test features into June. You may have noticed that when you clicked on a search result link, that you weren’t directed to the top of the web page. Instead, Google is redirecting you to the location on the webpage that contains the information you are searching for. Not only that, but it’s also highlighting the text yellow. Testing of this feature began in late May, but by now it has rolled out to all users.

Google is always looking to innovate and give its users the information they want as fast as possible. In some ways, this is like a Featured Snippet, except that it’s highlighted on actual websites.


A Word on BERT

We’re still likely experiencing some residual ranking changes from the end of the previous year, so it’s worth mentioning. In December of 2019, Google rolled out what they called the biggest change in its query results matching to date, BERT. BERT stands for “Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers,” which boils down to better natural language processing. Google announced BERT in 2018, and explained what it’s about. Briefly, it works to try to match results to user queries even though not every detail of that query was spelled out.

Once again, this doesn’t change how we compose content on a web page. Instead, BERT and natural language processing is about “guessing” your intent, even if you didn’t specify every detail.

Example: You are coding in the programming language Python, and want to look up the rules on the print function. “Python print” gets the documentation but what if you instead wanted a printed copy of British comic troupe Monty Python’s skits or a printed cloth design for a python (the snake) costume? Additional words in the query steer Google away from programming language examples and towards the Monty Python fan site or fabric stores with animal prints, respectively.


What People Can Do to Address the Impact from These Updates

There are two areas of impact from the 2020 updates so far:

  • An adjustment of site rankings based upon changing user queries and intent
  • A change in how a Featured Snippet affects further listings in search results

Core Updates…

To the first point: While you can’t do much to change your rankings on existing content whose topic is now in a lower-ranking category, you can produce new content tailored more towards higher-ranking topics. This is actually a common-sense SEO practice that we all should be using anyway. When people want to know more about topic X, write more about topic X.

“Long tail” websites are winning, which means that a specific web page addressing a given topic wins ahead of a general content web page that only mentions the topic in passing. This affect is because Google is increasingly confident in its ability to parse queries and match user intent to the delivered links. The result is a more “zoomed in” view provided in response to user queries. Don’t think “dogs,” think “poodles,” and make sure poodles have their own page.

However, as always, Google recommends that the most important guideline is simply to provide quality content and let the chips fall where they may. This is a good time to refresh ourselves on “EAT,” the acronym standing for “Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness.” Working to improve your website’s EAT value is a win-win strategy regardless of what the core updates do.

When it comes to core updates, you’re almost always better off not flying off the handle and making major changes. It’s like trying to day-trade stocks by the minute, only instead of clicking “buy” and “sell,” you’re trying to re-edit 2K words of content and hit “publish.” There’s an efficiency trade-off there.


The Great Featured Snippet Snip…

We should back up and consider some new discoveries we hear about Featured Snippets. Some studies seem to conclude that Featured Snippets leech traffic. The theory there is that the user found out what they were looking for from the search results in the Featured Snippet section, and now have no reason to click through to the website.

Are Featured Snippets bad, then? Well, let’s be honest: The user who found out the quick answer to their question probably wasn’t going to spend a lot of time on your website anyway. Without the Featured Snippet, the user might have clicked through to your site, used “Ctrl-F” to find the relevant paragraph on your page, read it, and left. The difference is that in the second case, you had a user ping your site traffic and probably drove up your bounce rate.

Another theory holds that some users are “feature-blind.” They ignore the top “Google stuff” including ads, snippets, FAQ boxes, instant answers and all, and scroll right down to the honest blue links with excerpts they’ve always seen in the regular listings. These users might be “old school,” mistrustful of commercial results, or simply too impatient to sort through all the different boxes. Here again, since being in a Featured Snippet now screens your listing from the vanilla standard listings, you could argue that being in a Featured Snippet is a bad thing.

You can opt out of Featured Snippets through Google-specific tags. But we would not advise you to do that, because an experiment in April 2020 found that sites which did that experienced a 12% traffic loss. This tells us that a Featured Snippet is a good thing.

Now what? We’ll advise you to just ride along with the plan as usual. Google itself uses its parsing algorithms to determine whether a page you have qualifies for Featured Snippet usage, with no “opt-in” on your part. Therefore, there is no way to consciously avoid Featured Snippet usage without opting out specifically, and no known way to compose text so that it attracts the Featured Snippet faerie – beyond, of course, offering EAT-worthy content, which you should be doing anyway.


Upcoming Updates

Get ready for an update to Core Web Vitals!

Google’s Webmasters’ Blog announced that Core Web Vitals is the next search signal-ranking metric. This was posted May 28, 2020, as an “upcoming search ranking change,” so it’s only a question of when.

Core Web Vitals, for once, have nothing to do with on-page SEO. Instead, they’re about your website’s build and performance quality, as it impacts user experience. Core Web Vitals will measure a host of website metrics that impact user page experience, such as:

  • Page load time
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • Interactivity
  • Page stability

Frankly, most of the recommendations indicated by Core Web Vitals are the type of website guidelines that everyone should have implemented already. Core Web Vitals has already implemented ranking a site based on HTTPS security, safe browsing, and other common-sense basics.

Do note that one specific example Google will be watching for is pages that load unevenly so that page elements shift around under the user’s pointer. They include a little video demonstrating what not to do here. That’s what they mean by “page stability.”

For the most part, website owners don’t need to do much about the update except to be sure their website software is up to date, and that their user experience isn’t insufferable. If you have been going this far with a slow-loading website that was last optimized for Internet Explorer 6.0 or something, you’re already far enough behind to just need a new website anyway.


How to Prepare Your Business and SEO Strategy for Future Algorithm Updates

To prepare for the future, let’s return to EAT, which we mentioned above. We’ll add another acronym, YMYL, and go over them together here:

EAT means “Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness,” and is a guiding principle in determining page quality. However, that isn’t the most important ranking factor for some topics—there’s another factor you need to be aware of. Whether the EAT rating for a topic space is considered crucial enough is determined by YMYL for “your money or your life.” YMYL considers how serious the topic is and how much it can impact a reader’s happiness, health, safety, or financial stability.

So, let’s list some example websites in order of increasing YMYL score:

  • A review of a Marvel superhero movie
  • A news story about Brad Pitt breaking up with Angelina Jolie
  • An article on the income opportunities in opening a laundromat franchise
  • An article about cancer treatment research

As you can guess, the cancer article needs the highest EAT score. Google doesn’t want to send desperate patients to a website that shares quack medical advice. It wants to give those searchers the highest quality content it can find.

The laundromat business article isn’t really a life-and-death matter, but we still want a fairly good authority telling us how to invest our life savings.

The celebrity gossip fluff is almost, but not quite, inconsequential. Celebrities are still people and we don’t want to spread nasty, unfounded rumors about them.

The movie review is dead last in consideration. One person’s opinion about a movie has very low stakes appended.

Use this information to help you decide how much time you want to spend buffing up your page and website EAT factor. Of course, everyone wants a high degree of respect from the web audience and Google itself. You should always strive for the best website quality, at least to the level where people aren’t booing you.

As far as on-page SEO goes: the days when we followed mechanical keyword-density formulas are so far gone, they’re ancient history. Talk to people on the web the same way you talk to your friends and business associates. Google is depending on us to share our thoughts in the clearest, most conversational way to unite all of us in our continuing quest for information transparency.

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