Every year, Google makes thousands of updates to their search engine algorithm. Most of these are minor. In 2019, there were four significant updates. This article runs through a summary of each. All point in the same direction – quality of content.
What defines quality content that Google’s algorithm will respond to? What guidelines can be set for writers? Keep reading for the answers.
2018 Google algorithm summary
In 2018, Google released two big core updates and some major changes (source). Page speed became a ranking factor. Mobile-first indexing rolled out. August 2018 saw the Medic update. That hit health and wellness sites peddling products contradictory to mainstream science.
Expertise and trust also became factors. The gist is that Joe Schmo’s 10,000 word blog on sciatica will now get less ranking weight than Dr. Jon’s 300-word post.
Medic began Google’s trend towards a more intricate assessment of content. That continued with Google’s 2019 algorithm updates, as outlined below.
2019 Google algorithm updates
In 2019, there were four significant updates. Google doesn’t release details. The SEO community uses guesswork and website results from their own and client sites. This article runs through a summary of what the community gathered from each.
By taking the key points of all updates, we can then come up with a pretty clean content strategy checklist.
March 2019 Core Update
SEO rock star Charles Floate does some of the best algorithm update briefings. His March 2019 algorithm update is no exception: all the facts in a 4-minute Youtube video.
His findings correlate ours. The focus of this update was on content, not links. Mainly, this update dropped rankings of low quality pages that clog up a site’s crawl budget. These include thin content product pages, PPC landing pages, category pages, author pages etc.
After the update, pages with properly optimized content showed ranking growth. In contrast, sites that were over-optimized got hit. Over-optimized means things like:
- Keyword stuffing pages
- Forced or awkward link anchor text
- Too much review schema
Overall site experience also seems to be a factor with this update. Make sure your site reaches at least an 80% score on PageSpeed Insights. While many people prefer GTMetrix, Google uses their own speed tests as part of their ranking formula. So stick to PageSpeed Insights and Analytics speed reports.
Another thing to address is pages with low retention time or high bounce rates.
First, make sure to de-index irrelevant pages: tags, categories, archives and author archives. If you have an e-commerce site with thousands of products, be wary of serving thin product pages.
Second, sweep your money pages for over-optimization. Rewrite keyword driven sections that add fluff or look spammy.
Third, run a site-wide technical audit to clean out anything that might hinder user experience. Run a similar sweep over pages performing poorly in Google Analytics.
June 2019 Core Update
As usual, Google didn’t release any official details about June 2019 algorithm update. Also as usual, Google’s John Mueller dropped hints informally, this time via a Webmaster Hangout (source).
In the Hangout, Mueller cautioned that “there is no specific thing where we’d be able to say you did this and you should have done that.” He went on to cite 2001 Webmaster Central post about content quality. “That’s something I always recommend going through.”
Go through Google’s content quality checklist. See how your top ranking pages score on the checklist points.
Sept. 2019 Core Update
Not many clues came out about the September Core update. Chatter in the SEO communities mostly considered it a links update.
The most interesting speculation was that Google has closed the 301 redirect loophole. That is, when a domain name expires, all the links pointing to it are still recognized. Grey hat SEOs would buy these expired domains and use in one of two ways:
- Build a private PBN and use it to send links to their money site.
- 301 redirect the domain to your money site.
The redirect trick is a nice way to rank a brand-new site quickly. Usually, Google will ‘sandbox’ new sites for up to six months, before starting to rank its pages. You get around that by 301 redirecting an expired domain to your new domain. That ‘powers up’ the new domain and gets it ranking within weeks.
Some speculation about Google closing this loophole came from the Proper PBN Facebook group.
Search Engine Journal fanned the flames of suspicion by citing a black hat marketer suffering 20% losses.
Not part of the core update but also significant was Google dropping self-serving review stars in the SERPs. Before the change, you could use plugins like Schema Pro to get review stars showing up in your search results. Now, Google reserves these for only large sites with legit review protocols like Amazon.
If you’re using black hat tactics like PBNs or 301 redirects, take note. Google is getting better at catching rigged tactics. Focus on serving quality content instead. The dropping of review stars is another sign that grey hat ranking schemes are getting phased out. SEO cowboys be warned!
Oct. 2019 BERT Update
SEO chatter groups ramped up speculation yet again with the release of BERT. That stands for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. It’s a search interpretation system that helps Google better understand what people are looking for.
Google gave a few examples, as indicated on Search Engine Land. Consider the term “2019 brazil traveler to usa need a visa.” Before BERT, Google would return results for US travelers going to Brazil. Now, BERT can detect how “to” changes the intent of the search.
At this stage of the game, you can’t optimize for BERT. The main takeaway is that Google wants to serve more relevant search results.
2019 was a great year of Google algorithm updates for content purists. It was an ominous one for grey hats and shady SEO agencies. PBNs fell apart in late 2018 as Google’s algorithm caught up. In 2019, 301 redirect schemes are looking dubious. Thin content pages are crashing site rankings. Review star microdata schemes were squashed.
The best clue Google gave us all year was John Mueller’s reference to content quality guidelines.
Business owners using an SEO agency should be asking what the heck the agency is doing for their fee. What used to make agencies stand out were their own PBN networks. These days links are harder to come buy and most agencies can no longer fill bulk orders. If all they are doing for you is tech fixes and content, can the agency and hire an intern!
Webmasters should use the 2019 updates as proof to focus on a few things. First, quality content with legit information that beats the quality of competing pages. Second, a site that runs fast and looks good on all devices.
These are straightforward guidelines that anyone can follow. Write informative pages, and serve them logically and easily to users.