Google Core Update 2016: Analysis of Winners and Losers

January 13th, 2016 | Analysis 109 comments

The new year has begun with a confirmed Google update. However, what was initially believed to be either a change to Panda or Penguin is in fact a core ranking algorithm update. Here, we take a look at the fresh data from the Searchmetrics Suite.

Core Update Title

Background to Google update

We were expecting a Penguin update for the start of 2016. Initial analyses from the weekend 9/10 January were focused on this. The changes in the Google rankings were considerable on a global scale and various services that measure changes in Google search results came to similar conclusions.

Meanwhile several Google employees have spoken about the update via Twitter: John Mueller and Gary Illyes have confirmed that the observed turbulence is in fact due to a Google update – not the expected Penguin update, but an update to the core ranking algorithm.

Gary-Illyes

Analysis: lots of change, few observable patterns

We have pulled fresh research data from the Searchmetrics Suite to analyze the changes in Google search results. We observed massive changes in the top 100 websites by SEO Visibility (our flagship indicator for online performance) – 50% of the websites that are now amongst the winners and losers are different to before the update. This holds true for both desktop and mobile SERPs. We have tried to detect any patterns that are characteristic of a quality update, which we will now have a closer look at.

 Check your visibility now

Content quality is decisive

We drew attention to the volatility of the search results following last update of 2015 – Phantom III / Quality Update. This volatility matches again with the current data. In particular in the USA publisher websites with pieces of content that rank with brand keywords and entities have witnessed heavy losses in visibility. Brands, on the other hand, have seen a boost in rankings. This trend is not yet noticeable in other international markets, which could indicate that the update has not yet been rolled out globally.

Let’s take a look at the biggest loser in the US – theatlantic.com. This publisher has primarily lost with old URLs that ranked for brand keywords and entities:

theatlantic.com visibility loss

It is apparent that many loser domains are classic print publishers and their losses in rankings mainly stem from older content pieces. Additional publisher who lost rankings are newyorker.com, vanityfair.com, arstechnica.com, fastcompany.com and economist.com.

These losses amongst publishers are mainly compensated by corresponding gains amongst brands such as alaskaair.com.

Parallel to this development many publishers have actually won in Google.com search results. Particularly those publishers with current or holistic content. Top winner according to our most recent Suite data is gq.com. On gq.com the biggest winning URL is a comprehensive article about NFL star Tom Brady, shown here in the screenshot on the left.

The article contains photos and a video and a lot of text (more than 3000 words including an interview). A test with Content Optimization in the Searchmetrics Suite shows that the article covers all important subtopics about entity Tom Brady.

tom-brady-content

Additioanl publishers who gained visibility are time.com, qz.com, howstuffworks.com, politico.com and inquisitr.com.

Whether a publisher or brands won or lost for a specific keyword is dependent on the individual QDF score that Google calculates according to current events and user behavior, particularly search volume. For topics that are current, obviously publishers with current content witnessed visibility gains.

In summary, the quality of the content is absolutely decisive for rankings.

User intent instead of content

One group of winners is particularly suprising for SEOs: educational games. Domains such as brainpop.com and mathplayground.com with landing pages such as this:

brainpop

The screenshot is no cropped, this is actually the complete page. If you are thinking of cloacking or hidden content, just take a look at the Google cache:

google-cache

From a classical SEO perspective, these rankings can hardly be explained. There is only one possible explanation: user intent. If someone is searching for “how to write a sentence” and finds a game such as this, then the user intention is fulfilled. Also the type of content (interactive game) has a well above average time-on-site. According to SimilarWeb, the duration of an average visit to BrainPOP is more than 8 minutes, with a bounce rate below 20%.

Even though the site regained rankings, BrainPOP is a good example of the downside of having a lot of pages with low amounts of content: each page only ranks for a few keywords, as our Content Performance analysis shows quite well:

content-performance-thin-content

Conclusion: High quality, longform content pieces that cover a topic in-depth are the winners in many areas. But the sheer amount of content is not decisive for rankings, rather the question of whether the content is relevant and fulfils the user intention.

De-indexed guitar tab pages

Websites that offer guitar tabs have been completely de-indexed in some cases.  Let’s take a look at the visibility of ultimate-guitar.com as an example:

 

ultimate-guitar de-indexation

This change, being de-indexed, has been implemented globally. This has also been carried out for guitartab.com in the US:

guitaretab.com de-indexation

Check your visibility now

Due to the branch specific nature of this complete de-indexation of thousands of URLs, we suspect this change was implemented manually. In addition, ranking positions have been filled by pages with effectively the same content (guitar tabs). The former market leader Ultimate Guitar still ranks for some keywords, however, typically with relatively low quality subpages in correspondingly low ranking positions. The complete domain has not been de-indexed. While the subdomain tabs.ultimate-guitar.com has been completely de-indexed, the editorial content can still be found in the Google index.

As always we will continue to monitor the data and keep you abreast of any further changes. Have you noticed any changes in your rankings or have any more info about the update? – Let us know in the comments below.

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Who’s writing this stuff? My name is Marcus Tober and I’m the founder of Searchmetrics. Because we really love to analyze every kind of online data, we can give you more insights than any other company in SEO, SEM and Social Media. It’s not a job, it’s passion. You can find me also on Google+ .
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Comments (61)

Comments (109)

  1. 2016/01/14

    I can confirm that these specific ups and downs have occurred in other regions outside of the US.

    In terms of observable patterns, you touched on one – the specific trend of websites loosing visibility for “brand” terms and URL search phrases (where there is high search volumes) not belonging to them. So – for example – if a non-microsoft website was ranking page 1 for “microsoft”, or “www.microsoft.com”, then it would no longer rank as highly as a result of this change, as it appears that the algorithm wouldn’t see that as being a relevant result compared to the actual brand and it’s assets. Conversely, the actual brand would be the main beneficiary of this shift in visibility.

    This, as you mentioned, appears to be exactly the same profile as the last update in November – which may have been a ‘rinse test’ before folding in to the core.

  2. 2016/01/14

    So we can call this update Phantom IV, correct?

  3. 2016/01/14

    Hi Sam, we will be referring to the update as Google Core Update (Content Quality). Just to clarify, a phantom update is when Google does not communicate it. But as this one has been officially confirmed it is no phantom.

  4. 2016/01/14

    Oh. I thought that we call it Phantom when it’s core and it’s about quality and Google confirms it’s not Panda. But OK. Have you read Goralewicz article which uses your data? It says this update is about brand queries.

  5. 2016/01/14

    Hi Sam, glad we could clarify that. Could you provide a link to the article? Thanks

  6. 2016/01/15

    Great post on the ever changing Google!

  7. 2016/01/16

    Good article, thanks!

    Will this be the end of high authoritive tech blogs (e.g. Mashable and Wired) and others writing about celebrities and -even though they lack relevance- getting amazing rankings.

  8. 2016/01/17

    You stated above that “ultimate-guitar.com” suffered a manual penalty … when I search in Google for “guitar tabs” they rank #1.

    Why has your website stated this domain suffered a manual penalty ?

  9. 2016/01/17

    Very interesting article, but slightly inaccurate on guitar tabs. Nothing happened in the guitar tabs’ market, it’s just that guitaretab.com and ultimate-guitar.com are part of the same network. They had very pushy and intrusive ads for their mobile apps and other paid plans. Some people say they even hosted malwares. There’s an interesting discussion about that here: https://www.reddit.com/r/Guitar/comments/3zdjjg/what_happened_to_ultimate_guitar/

  10. 2016/01/18

    Hi MusikFreak, according to our visibility data both domains suffered heavy losses directly following the Google update. As mentioned in the article we accept that some de-indexation may have been carried out manually rather than systematically.

  11. 2016/01/18

    Could it be that ultimate-guitar.com has incurred in the first massive interstitial ad penalty?
    It certaintly was the perfect candidate.

  12. 2016/01/18

    Very interesting and informative article, but while it may be important to know, It can be guessed that domains such as the Economist, NewYorker, FastCompany and others may care very little about Google, Page Rank and authority.
    Is there now a Focus shift away from authority ?
    One important take-away from your conclusion is the focus on relevant content and the chips fall where they may

  13. 2016/01/19

    My own website has been heavily affected by this update. Moving my site that ranked in position 4 for search term “Web Design Doncaster” to page 4 of google.

  14. 2016/01/19

    In this case, it’s really strange, both sites were well ranked for ages.
    Something they’ve done sent a big red flag on Google update, but what? It’s not something linked to this market, otherwise concurrent sites would have been de-indexed too, which is not the case. On top of that ultimate-guitar.com still ranks great on “guitar tabs”, and even on some specific tab queries like “guitar tab hotel california” (but it’s a search result, instead of the tab). Would be interesting to see if guitartabs.cc and 911tabs.com were also hit, they’re part of the same network. Thanks again for this article.

  15. 2016/01/19

    Very informative article. Thanks for sharing such updates. Keep posting.

  16. 2016/01/19

    thank for this helpful article

  17. 2016/01/19

    It seems like the shakeup has continued since this post was published. Are you seeing anything new or is it a continuation of what we’ve already seen?

  18. 2016/01/19

    I think we need to wait more time for penguin 4. Implemented to core algo or not – at least will be realtime without waiting for “update”. If people mess, they will know that fast.

  19. 2016/01/19

    What’s up with the guitar sites getting de indexed?

    Seems like not much has changed otherwise.

    Sam

  20. 2016/01/19

    I am noticing this affecting a number of my clients in the UK over the last couple of days

  21. 2016/01/19

    I have a question that eats away at me brains. Google Phaton IV update, if it has affected a X web that binds to and, and may be affected also? Sorry for my English :)

  22. 2016/01/19

    Great article!
    I can also confirm that dwell time and lower bounce rates now have an even more positive effect on ranking.

  23. 2016/01/19

    thanks for giving nice information very useful

  24. 2016/01/19

    Yep, @Paul is correct, at least here in Australia, do a Google search for – guitar tabs – and there she is smack bang at the top of the serps, ultimate-guitar.com.

    (checked both local and US versions of Google and both the same)

    Take away here, if indeed there was a deindexing of the site, then a reindexing is then quite possible. It would seem…

    I have seen some turbulence while this core update rolled out and most of it has settled, but some sites were shifting their rankings by 20 positions or more, but have returned to their prior states.

  25. 2016/01/19

    Just curious if you all see the same as me with my website on page 1 in Google SERPs for the search: “google algorithm 2016″?

    The latest update seems to be giving my site some good positions for Google’s brand in long-tail searches.

  26. 2016/01/20

    Hey Zetadisseny, thanks for your question. Just to clarify this update we are talking about is not a Phantom as Google officially confirmed it. This is a core algorithm update. Please check out this article on the latest Phantom update. Hope this helps.

  27. 2016/01/20

    Bounce rate combined with on-page user engagement is something I agree that Google will place more focus on in 2016. It’s an indicator that would be typically hard to game since it’s coming directly from the visitor.

  28. 2016/01/21

    we notice results change but some result back to same positions Quality content Bounce rate Plus Points.

  29. 2016/01/22

    I’m really inspired aalong with your writing abilities as smartly
    as with the structure for your weblog.Is this a paid subject mater
    or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it
    is rare to peer a great weblog like this one
    today..

  30. 2016/01/24

    woow., next update from google algorithm… and many blog down about quality

  31. 2016/01/24

    Incredible Article. I can also confirm from my team and I testing unique relevant quality content is giving nothing but positive results so far with the new updates.

  32. 2016/01/25

    Thanks for sharing

  33. 2016/01/26

    Very interesting article! Thanks!

  34. 2016/01/26

    I feel that SEO experts are the biggest losers after this update because we will have to adapt to newly found situation (at least those who haven’t adapted up to this point). However, this also means that those who have the necessary knowledge will progress much quicker. As I always say: “Where others see danger, I see opportunity”.

  35. 2016/01/29

    I’m surprised to read that the subdomain got hit and the actual domain kept ranking! Certainly some crazy stuff going on in the serps over the last 2 weeks.

  36. 2016/02/01

    This is good news for SEO experts that do actually follow correct guidelines and procedures. As Nokolay states ‘where others see danger, i see opportunity’ i totally agree with this. Everyone who works with SEO should be alert to how google is working hard in the back ground to change SEO of the past and keep everyone in line to make sure the customer – user, finds the best content related to the subject matter.

  37. 2016/02/02

    I can still see the changes going on, after every few hours the rankings are shuffling (it may be changing more frequently but I am checking it after a couple of hours). Just checked out for my website’s SEO visibility through the tool mentioned in the article , although the visibility has decreased but the good news is I have also seen some positive changes and I am pretty much sure that I can heal the damage caused (fingers crossed).

  38. 2016/02/06

    This is a good read. Thanks for sharing such an insightful info.

  39. 2016/02/08

    I agree that long, well optimized content is helping a lot. However I still see competitors that are gaining good links climbing rapidy :-)

  40. 2016/02/09

    My Website Ranking Positions for a particular keyword get reduced in the Search Engine Result Page. On reading this, I decide to change the SEO tactics which I followed in earlier. Thank you for sharing this useful article.

  41. 2016/02/14

    So more and more focus on researched in depth quality content supported by relevant images and videos.

  42. 2016/02/15

    it’s very hard to rank new sites but after this update i see some thing change in algo.

  43. 2016/02/17

    thanks for giving nice information very useful

  44. 2016/02/22

    I have noticed this, Keywords ranking has been down one of my client. I am really appreciate reading this helpful article. This is helpful for me for analyzing my website.

  45. 2016/02/23

    thank’s for sharing very helpful article

  46. 2016/03/10

    Very informative post about google algorithm. Thanks for sharing in details.

    This post is also give very interesting details about google algorithm :
    http://www.seoprogetto.com/blog/do-we-need-to-redo-seo-when-algorithm-changes.html

  47. 2016/03/12

    I agree user intention is key. Google wants to provide the best user experience for the people who use their platforms otherwise they start to lose market share. It is up to us marketers to understand what the intention is for any given keyword and present the best possible content for that, either long form or short form as long as it’s relevant.

  48. 2016/03/13

    Hi I experienced a sharp fall in sales from end Jan to our website – looking at google analytics this is a direct result of declining site visitors. We used to feature on page 1 for ‘photo cakes’ but now not even on the first few pages!

    I need to understand what element of the change has affected us – depth of content, frequency of site updates, images etc..

  49. 2016/03/14

    Thanks for finally writing about >Google Core Update 2016:
    Analysis of Winners and Losers Searchmetrics SEO Blog <Loved it!

  50. 2016/03/14

    You have a shared a very useful information. Thanks for sharing this informative article.

  51. 2016/03/31

    This article is very useful. and i learn many think of google update 2016

  52. 2016/04/08

    Good article . you have share good information about google update . This will help us a lot in the seo of our website.
    Thanks .

  53. 2016/04/08

    Thanks for sharing Google algorithm updates.

  54. 2016/04/11

    That’s an useful information on Google Core update. Hope there won’t be major turn around with Google Penguin update

  55. 2016/04/12

    Thanks for sharing.

  56. 2016/04/17

    Thanks for your sharing! great helpful information for Google algorithm !!! Thank you

  57. 2016/04/29

    Nice Post, its gives a useful information for developing a site.

  58. MR
    2016/04/29

    Thanks for this article.

  59. 2016/05/11

    Excellent read, expect another update before September. this one might be phantom.

  60. 2016/05/17

    It means that measuring all the time your website performances is crucial. Excellent insights!

  61. 2016/07/07

    Excellent post and findings, thanks for this

Trackbacks (48)

Comments (109)

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