Over Veteran’s Day weekend, after a routine update to Google’s algorithm, companies from a wide range of industries started seeing their web traffic drop by 30 to 40 percent. While Google makes several updates in any given week, there appears to be no rhyme or reason why this last set of changes caused many established sites to drop below lower quality or less relevant keywords.
And what adds to the frustration is that since Google defines this as a “regular” update, it isn’t offering much information about what changed or how marketers can effectively improve their content.
Still, patterns are emerging as content creators begin looking into which of their pages dropped in the rankings and how their traffic was impacted. Here are three things we know about this latest Google algorithm update and what you can do to get your content back in the top spot:
1. The Importance of Relevance Over Keywords
When Google rolled out its BERT update last month, the focus was on better interpreting the natural language of searches and returning the most relevant responses. In a nutshell, it was less about how often a keyword appeared in content and more about the actual intent of a search.
It seems like some aspects of the November update magnified the importance of natural language over keywords. As a result, many niche industries were hit hard.
Many of these businesses had been ranking before because it made sense to use keywords repeatedly in the content. For example, if you’re a travel website that was previously ranking for “visit Houston, Texas,” chances are the page had an abundance of variations to that keyword. It would happen naturally while writing on the topic.
Now, natural language and relevance are more important. So it doesn’t matter how often you use a keyword, if there’s a page out there that is more relevant to the query (i.e. offers more resources or answers more of the reader’s questions) it will outrank yours.
Takeaway: Instead of trying to rank for as many keywords as possible, focus on creating content that is relevant for your most important topics. Chances are you’re going to drop in rankings for topics that are only somewhat related to your company. But you can’t afford to also lose traffic on your core topics and keywords. Focus on making that content the most informative and relative to readers’ queries.
2. Nofollow Links Are Now in Play
Historically, if another website linked to your content and tagged it as nofollow, Google was directed to not count that link as valuable to your page rank. Larger websites would use nofollow tags to keep from passing their “link juice” on to less trusted websites.
When Google rolled out its Core Updates in September, it revealed that nofollow links would soon become “hints” that factored into rankings. Google said it would start considering nofollow links, when appropriate, in March of 2020. However, given some of the sites that jumped in the rankings last weekend (forums, paid links, etc.) it seems nofollow links might already be impacting SERPs.
Sites and pages that have a ton of nofollow links might be seeing bumps because those links are being given some or, at least, more weight by Google. But the good news is, again, relevance is key here.
Before Google had a directive to ignore nofollow links. Now it can count them if they seem to be related to the topic on the linking page and provide value to the reader.
Takeaway: Understandably, many marketers focus on maintaining their content with numerous backlinks to sites with strong domain authority — but only if those links are follow links. Take another look at your content that has nofollow links and look for opportunities to improve the piece to make them more relevant and useful for readers who might click the link. This will up the chances that Google considers the backlink despite the nofollow tag.
3. It All Comes Down to User Experience
For a long time, we’ve known user experience is important in SEO. However, it turns out it’s not the individual factors of UX that matter, but rather the end result. A webpage without the latest design scheme or with a slower load time can still rank if visitors love what the page has to say.
After this update, many marketers noticed “terrible” sites jump in the rankings. Maybe they were keyword stuffing or had graphics that didn’t follow best practices and still landed the top spot. This just backs up what Google has said time and time again. Because its algorithm weighs so many factors, it doesn’t matter if a site has some missteps as long as people continue to come back to the page and devour the information that’s there.
So while many of us have been focusing on the ease of user experience (making a site faster or appear optimally on mobile devices) what this update reminds us of is at the end of the day, it’s about the information and how it’s conveyed in the content.
Takeaway: When researching what other sites or competitors are doing with their content, don’t be a snob. Even if a site looks like it’s from the early 90s, pay attention to how they’re organizing and presenting content. It can show you holes in your own content and opportunities to improve user experience with more complete and useful information.