Google Algorithm Updates

Google Winter Updates and Features: What You Need to Know

Summary: Over the Christmas-to-January season of 2020-2021, Google surprised everyone with a massive update that threw web traffic into brief turmoil. Here’s a look at the fallout, recovery, and new features recently released.

From roughly December 3, 2020 through the end of January 2021, webmasters all over the web had one question: “What happened to the traffic?” The answer is that Google launched a massive core update in early December 2020. Normally, Google tries to avoid these during the busy holiday shopping season for obvious reasons—they disrupt the flow of online commerce. COVID-19 delays and other complications pushed the core update to early December, so many business owners and marketers had an unpleasant surprise this holiday.

To get an idea of how drastic the December 2020 core update was, take a look at the chart below showing the average change in website position on a search engine results page (SERP):

Compared to the May 2020 update, the changes were drastic. This is just the average, which means some websites might have seen a change as great as going from position #1 on the front page to dropping back to page 2 altogether, or vice versa. Due to the timing, webmasters were not happy overall, with a few of them delivering harsh words to the search powers-that-be.


Google Core Updates and Search Volatility

So, we know that Google returns search results based on a set of rules for ranking websites for that query. When Google makes a big change to those rules, it’s called a core update. To implement these rule changes, their entire search index needs to be torn down and rebuilt. This takes time. Imagine reorganizing your bookshelves, where you start by sweeping all the books off the shelves and then put them back one by one according to your new system.

So search volatility is the index by which website rankings rise or fall during this process. Some sites see their ranking sink, others rise. Furthermore, how much volatility a site experienced partly depended on its category.

We see here that websites were mostly shuffled around across all rankings, but the volatility was felt most in the retail category, followed by finance, health, and travel. However, those are fairly broad categories and there is much more to the story besides. Another analysis ranked site volatility in some 38 categories, starting from mid-December 2020. Here are a few short charts from PathInteractive that describe changes to visibility:

It becomes tougher to sort rhyme or reason from these results. For example, got a visibility index increase of 97.51, while had a decrease of 97.7. Both of those qualify as retail sites. (US Center for Disease Control) sank 38.2, but rose by 25.43. Both of those are obviously related to health information. So the search index movement is not determined just by category.

Google’s search central blog gives us the greatest clue to these recent core update ranking changes. In their guide to Google core updates, they first caution that there might be nothing a website can change to address a ranking change. They then provide a checklist for determining search ranking factors, which is highly focused on content rather than technical specs. Some example questions:

  • Does the content provide insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Is the content free from easily-verified factual errors?
  • Was the content produced well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • Does the content seem to be serving the genuine interests of visitors to the site or does it seem to exist solely by someone attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?

The same page closes with an in-depth guide to Google’s “E-A-T” quality standard, short for “expertise, authority, and trust.”

Previously, we’ve covered the “E-A-T” standard and noted that it mainly applied to content that had to do with “your money or your life” (YMYL). The more important the information is to quality of life, the more Google wants the information to pass its quality standards. Conversely, unimportant “fluff” content would presumably not be so scrutinized. However, here we see the impact on categories that do not qualify for a “YMYL” ranking, such as arts and entertainment, movies and streaming, or sports.

If all categories across the board are now being held up to an E-A-T standard, this could spell deep trouble. Celebrity news, movie reviews, video game ratings, and other content like this has a casual, more relaxed tone. Things like recipe websites are notorious for sharing all kinds of colorful anecdotes and cultural history along with a dish’s recipe. If Google holds us all to an E-A-T standard, this could kill some industries until they learn to adapt, and could lead to a very dry and academic web.

As late as Christmas week 2020, Google’s John Mueller was defensive about Google’s most recent core index dance. He concedes that “punished” sites that saw rankings drop were not spammers or even doing anything wrong, but that site ranking is not always an exact science. At the end of the day, every topic has more than ten websites talking about it anyway; some sites have to live with not being at the top.

Bottom lines:

  • We likely don’t yet know the full story behind Google’s 2020 core updates.
  • Some of the volatility could be corrections for sites that lost ranking during the May 2020 core update.
  • It still appears that “YMYL” content is held to a higher standard of quality.
  • The only strategy that makes sense is to strive for your website copy to meet the highest possible quality standards, no matter the category.
  • Not even Google says that they’re perfect!

It might be the case that the next core update will re-balance site rankings to a different metric. Let’s not forget, being at the top of search results is still awesome, but even links 5-10 get a share of traffic. Of course, as we always conclude, there is a winner for every loser when it comes to a search index re-build. So if you’re one of the lucky sites which got a boost from December core 2020: Enjoy it while it lasts!


New Google Features

The flip side of every Google update is the updates to all the Google tools and features. Here we’ll cover a few prominent changes. At the very least, Google Analytics can help trouble-shoot websites that aren’t doing so well after a core hit.

Google Analytics 4

The latest version of Google Analytics has an increased set of features and overall functionality, along with some AI-powered enhancements. View the tutorial video at Google’s own Google Analytics channel to get an overview of the interface. Here are some highlights:

  • Adjust how events are tracked without having to alter website code
  • Data can be ported from non-website sources, such as apps
  • A “life-cycle report” tracks the users’ journey through your site
  • More focus on marketing purposes, sales funnels, commerce
  • Uses machine learning for data measurement, with an AI-powered ability to highlight relevant info

Considerable changes were also made to the interface. Notably, the data is event-driven rather than merely traffic-driven, so you can track not just visits, but actions involving the shopping cart, sign-up form, review dialog, and other interactions. The data is also presented in more detail with more charts and graphs.

Google Maps and My Business

No stranger to updates lately, Google has continued its ambitious work on Maps and My Business for local search. In whole posts we’ve done on Google My Business (GMB) listings, we’ve noted how this is becoming a sophisticated 21st-century replacement for the old Yellow Pages. Here’s a breakdown of the latest features:

  • Instant Messaging from Maps: Users who find your business through search can now pop up a message feature from the Google Maps app.
  • Business Profile Performance: On the business side, you can now access a mini-analytics console that tracks user queries, interactions, and other data.
  • Local Community Feed: Any area will now show the most recent reviews, photos, and posts added by users on a community blog-type feed.
  • User-contributed Street View: Users can now snap photos with their phone and upload them, contributing more data to the Street View app – this is a pilot program Google is testing out.
  • New Street View Detail: In select cities, Google Maps is adding more detail to certain areas, such as scaled road widths, sidewalks, crosswalks, medians, and other pedestrian-level features.
  • Years in Business Label: On February 10, Google officially launched a new label that allows businesses to show how many years they’ve been in operation.

As a business, you can take action for the first feature by having a system in place for your sales or reception staff to interact with the public through Google Maps messaging. Regarding the community feed, perhaps encouraging as much engagement from your users as possible will help your name stay fresh in the feed. For the rest, it’s just good to be aware of the growing importance Google Maps and GMB have relative to your business success.

While other Google products have varying track records, count on Maps and GMB to stick around! This wing of Google is pushing some cutting-edge functionality. Google Maps has gone from a simple street atlas to finding a business by category, letting you chat with the shop owner, and directing you to the handicap ramp when you get there.


Coming Up Next: Core Web Vitals!

Unlike the December update, at least we can say that this update has had plenty of advance notice. Google’s Core Web Vitals update is still due to become official in 2021. As opposed to the core updates, Core Web Vitals is a tech-focused update that is predicated upon your website’s performance on a cell phone.

You might also benefit from a technical website audit to assess whether it is updated for Core Web Vitals compliance. The WordPress community is also gearing up to support the update. Here’s WordPress plug-in star Yoast with a tip list for Core Web Vitals performance.

All of the above catches us up to speed on Google’s latest, which in turn should make us all better prepared for the rest of 2021.


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