Diagnosing a Google Algorithm Update in 2019

Was there a Google algorithm update in February 2019? Yes, there was. Most of the major tools picked up on a significant change and bloggers and SEO professionals were immediately doing the Google dance and checking rankings to see what changed.

How do you know there’s been an algorithm update?

Over the years, our industry has become much smarter about diagnosing algorithm changes. Staring with early Google Penguin updates, it was apparent we needed more insight into when and why changes have happened.

Tools such as MozCast, SerpMetrics and SEMRush Sensor monitor thousands of keywords for big ranking changes. On Feb 6/7th, all picked up on a major shift in the results for these keyword rankings. Volatility in rankings signals a change, test, or a mistake on the tool. If 3-4 tools agree, generally there’s been a change of some sort.

How major does an algorithmic change have to be for SEOs to notice? Mozcast, for instance, is framed as a weather update. If it tops 100 degrees, change is definitely happening. 90-95 is an adjustment instead of a full-blown update. 70-90? Normal day with normal fluctuation. The weather’s just fine. SerpMetrix Flux tool shows 30 day results for the top 100 (10 pages) of rankings. It’s fairly easy to see a major change as the graph normally varies a bit up or down but big changes are a wild and massive fluctuation in the graph.

What changed during the update?

We’re not in the speculation business but we do have a fair idea of what happened. Updates can generally be categorised into a few categories: on-page, off-page and “core.” A core change affects more than a couple of simple ranking factors. Algorithm changes like Hummingbird, Pigeon, RankBrain and mobile-first updates are examples of core updates. Penguin updates affect links and Panda references on-page content and meta data.

Feb 7th was almost certainly a combination of several factors but essentially looks like the first mobile-first Penguin (link-based) update. Websites with poor quality link profiles were pushed down where they belong while strong websites took over many higher rankings. Unlike the end of last year when updates were coming in strong waves, this update was the first in a while to target your website’s overall link profile.

What can you do about this algorithm change?

According to Gary Illyes, create good content that other people should like. He recently said “RankBrain is a PR-sexy machine learning ranking component that uses historical search data to predict what would a user most likely click on for a previously unseen query.”

If you create a Google-friendly website that takes the user experience into account and people discover you and link naturally to you, or mention you, you’re likely to see ranking benefits and more traffic.

Specifically, for this update, if you’re buying links, building tons of your own links, creating spammy PBN websites or generally not trying very hard to do PR and trying VERY hard to do SEO, you’re going to start failing. It has taken years but Google is finally turning the corner on combating spam and spammy tactics. It was 7 years ago next week when Wil Reynolds’ article appeared on Moz claiming that Google “Makes Liars out of the Good Guys in SEO” by rewarding spam. Seven years later, we’re here. We’re finally turning the corner on legitimising good and penalising poor links, not just extreme spam.

What other SEO algorithm changes can we expect in 2019?

We would be shocked if Google doesn’t add a widespread core change soon to pages that are still poor user experiences. They have confirmed (approximately) three real ranking factors: site speed, mobile-friendliness and https (SSL) security. If you apply even a small amount of brainpower to this you’ll see that all three confirmed features are 100% related to the user experience.

Google’s main business is making search customers happy. If you make the searcher happy, Google is happy with you and rewards you with higher rankings. Their Rater’s handbook is called the “Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.” Look at the name – search quality is what they’re after. If you can make the end-user happy, Google will reward you with more traffic, better rankings and a much better experience for your business.

Once you’ve read the 160+ page quality rater’s book, SEO is fairly straightforward – build a great site with exceptional content and help others discover that content. Don’t spam, don’t be an evil dictator or jerk, and don’t waste people’s time. Simple?

Our own Digital Eagles’ SEO rankings results from the update.