Google Year in Review: Top US Winners & Losers in 2015

February 8th, 2016 | Analysis 16 comments

The Google year 2015 brought with it numerous updates and turbulent visibility changes for many US domains. The following concise analysis takes a look at the year’s biggest winners and losers of 2015. We also discuss the effect of Google updates, current search trends and offer key take-aways for your site in 2016. Read on.

Rising Falling Stars Cover

The clear overall winner is content. Domains that offer unique, helpful and current content were typically the biggest winners for 2015. Publishers and news sites are among the biggest winners overall, as their main product is up-to-date, relevant and often holistic evergreeen content. Almost every other winner was a publisher.
The losers are more widely spread across different branches. We will take a look at the general trends causing visibility losses in more detail later in this article.

Who are we talking about? – A quick note on the data we use

This analysis is based on the SEO Visibility of each website (Searchmetrics’ flagship KPI for online performance in organic search results). For the analysis we examined the SEO Visibility of every domains that we have in our index for the US over the course of the 2015.

We then analyzed the domains which exhibited the biggest changes in visibility more closely. This change in visibility shows the trend for a domain across all weeks of the calendar year. Additionally, to highlight these changes we have also included the percentage change. The results have been filtered for adult (porn) websites and redirects.

Top winners for Google US 2015

While publishers were typically amongst the biggest losers last year, this year they are amongst the biggest winners. The biggest winner, theatlantic, has seemingly recovered from the massive drop in visibility due to the Google Core Update. (By the way: Clicking on each site will take you directly into the Searchmetrics Suite, where you can see the visibility curve and even how each site reacted to each Google update – take a look it’s pretty cool.)

Domain Trend (absolute) Trend (%) Branch
theatlantic.com 2251821 297 Media & Events (News)
apple.com 1349946 27 Electronics
instagram.com 1280198 50 Social Media
google.com 1145164 13 Search/Portal
groupon.com 972159 138 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
youtube.com 769550 5 Media & Events (Video)
reddit.com 524761 40 Q&A/Content/Info
merriam-webster.com 499130 20 Encyclopedia
theguardian.com 477397 39 Media & Events (News)
nytimes.com 448113 19 Media & Events (News)
wired.com 406208 82 Media & Events (News)
healthline.com 336704 61 Q&A/Content/Info
allrecipes.com 328813 32 Recipes
soundcloud.com 324574 51 Media & Events (Audio)
eonline.com 308393 56 Media & Events (Spec Int)
reference.com 303824 9 Media & Events (Spec Int)
arstechnica.com 281847 118 Media & Events (News)
vocabulary.com 273693 50 Encyclopedia
vanityfair.com 265227 62 Media & Events (Spec Int)
cambridge.org 261735 75 Government/Administration/Organizations
pcworld.com 258192 91 Media & Events (Spec Int)
cnn.com 249169 19 Media & Events (TV)
etsy.com 228620 58 Media & Events (Spec Int)
forbes.com 224723 14 Media & Events (Spec Int)
goodreads.com 211697 24 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
weather.com 204424 29 Weather
popsugar.com 198374 48 Media & Events (Spec Int)
quora.com 190578 90 Q&A/Content/Info
fortune.com 182601 119 Media & Events (Spec Int)
wayfair.com 182248 65 Retail
telegraph.co.uk 176209 43 Media & Events (News)
rollingstone.com 173880 31 Media & Events (Spec Int)
mentalfloss.com 172971 97 Media & Events (Spec Int)
mtv.com 170953 28 Media & Events (TV)
live.com 164093 49 Electronics
thesaurus.com 162161 17 Encyclopedia
cnbc.com 160494 47 Media & Events (TV)
urbandictionary.com 160052 8 Encyclopedia
hbr.org 158452 127 Media & Events (Journal)
msn.com 155784 25 Search/Portal
latimes.com 145622 24 Media & Events (News)
billboard.com 145589 29 Media & Events (Spec Int)
avclub.com 141528 69 Media & Events (Spec Int)
vice.com 138882 78 Media & Events (Spec Int)
hollywoodreporter.com 136290 33 Media & Events (Spec Int)
encyclopedia.com 133184 92 Encyclopedia
khanacademy.org 132583 35 Q&A/Content/Info
washingtonpost.com 130908 17 Media & Events (News)
github.com 130280 27 Electronics
variety.com 129892 40 Media & Events (Spec Int)
esquire.com 124491 54 Media & Events (Spec Int)
mashable.com 124067 31 Media & Events (Spec Int)
vogue.com 123919 75 Media & Events (Spec Int)
rogerebert.com 121062 86 Media & Events (Spec Int)
oxforddictionaries.com 120938 68 Encyclopedia
cnet.com 117033 7 Media & Events (Spec Int)
usatoday.com 114331 12 Media & Events (News)
macworld.com 112482 113 Media & Events (Spec Int)
bbc.com 111920 25 Media & Events (TV)
cinemablend.com 111657 52 Media & Events (Video)
ew.com 111445 50 Media & Events (Spec Int)
wsj.com 110237 17 Media & Events (Journal)
etonline.com 109829 81 Media & Events (Spec Int)
vulture.com 109335 60 Media & Events (Spec Int)
y8.com 107826 44 Hobbies & Leisure Games
cbsnews.com 104769 27 Media & Events (News)
imgur.com 103938 119 Hobbies & Leisure Games
allmusic.com 103431 18 Media & Events (Spec Int)
spotify.com 102808 59 Media & Events (Audio)
techtarget.com 102547 46 Q&A/Content/Info
fastcompany.com 101944 70 Media & Events (Spec Int)
livescience.com 101669 35 Media & Events (Spec Int)
mirror.co.uk 101077 57 Media & Events (Spec Int)
microsoft.com 100357 13 Electronics
usnews.com 98137 18 Media & Events (News)
macmillandictionary.com 96426 65 Encyclopedia
niche.com 96351 61 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
everydayhealth.com 95712 32 Q&A/Content/Info
nymag.com 95681 26 Media & Events (News)
businessinsider.com 95119 28 Media & Events (Spec Int)
bbb.org 92978 52 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
elle.com 91333 60 Media & Events (Spec Int)
ibtimes.com 88713 53 Media & Events (News)
bloomberg.com 86776 16 Media & Events (Journal)
giphy.com 86671 45 Media & Events (Video)
theverge.com 84327 34 Media & Events (Spec Int)
crunchbase.com 84185 18 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
medscape.com 84088 20 Q&A/Content/Info
history.com 83590 10 Media & Events (Spec Int)
nbcnews.com 82270 34 Media & Events (TV)
psychologytoday.com 82114 53 Media & Events (Spec Int)
biography.com 81960 7 Media & Events (Spec Int)
businessdictionary.com 80737 56 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
thekitchn.com 80533 47 Recipes
goodsearch.com 79122 20 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
digitaltrends.com 78560 31 Media & Events (Spec Int)
office.com 78421 43 Electronics
salon.com 76778 43 Media & Events (News)
yourtango.com 73545 46 Media & Events (Spec Int)
cosmopolitan.com 72385 36 Media & Events (Spec Int)

Selected Losers

Now let’s take a look at a selection of the losers for 2015. Here we see some big names near the top of the list, with twitter and yelp experiencing particularly heavy losses. (In case you missed it: Clicking on each site will take you directly into the Searchmetrics Suite, where you can see the visibility curve and even how each site reacted to each Google update). Being a loser doesn’t necessarily mean they did something wrong. Losing visibility could have multiple reasons from deleting content/products, a relaunch with potentially technical issues, duplicate/thin content etc. In this post we are not judging what the reasons for the visibility loss were, we aim to provide a neutral observation of what happened over the year.

Domain Trend (absolute) Trend (%) Branch
twitter.com -3184122 -24 Social Media
tumblr.com -1046737 -51 Social Media
yelp.com -639618 -21 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
huffingtonpost.com -451484 -21 Media & Events (News)
craigslist.org -426528 -12 Q&A/Content/Info
myspace.com -330468 -47 Media & Events (Audio)
wikihow.com -302075 -26 Q&A/Content/Info
walmart.com -285110 -13 Retail
last.fm -277460 -26 Media & Events (Audio)
rottentomatoes.com -228493 -8 Media & Events (Video)
brainyquote.com -222162 -25 Q&A/Content/Info
thefreedictionary.com -203504 -8 Encyclopedia
perezhilton.com -179963 -23 Media & Events (Spec Int)
gawker.com -179406 -35 Media & Events (Spec Int)
foodnetwork.com -178556 -12 Recipes
ign.com -176052 -28 Media & Events (Spec Int)
babycenter.com -175081 -49 Q&A/Content/Info
howstuffworks.com -172510 -42 Media & Events (News)
overstock.com -168033 -16 Retail
mayoclinic.org -165472 -9 Q&A/Content/Info
hulu.com -163725 -22 Media & Events (Video)
photobucket.com -160433 -55 Retail
bestbuy.com -149181 -11 Retail
askmen.com -147911 -44 Media & Events (Spec Int)
agame.com -145614 -34 Hobbies & Leisure Games
screenrant.com -140110 -62 Media & Events (Video)
tmz.com -128976 -13 Media & Events (Spec Int)
barnesandnoble.com -124083 -26 Retail
gethuman.com -115059 -78 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
lyricsmania.com -114374 -67 Lyrics
zazzle.com -112793 -82 Retail
justjared.com -111821 -15 Media & Events (Spec Int)
nbcsports.com -108788 -43 Media & Events (Spec Int)
city-data.com -105608 -27 Classifieds/Comparison/Directory
bhg.com -105139 -52 Media & Events (Spec Int)

 

Trend Analysis

So what were the main causes for the changes in visibility amongst these domains in 2015, and what lessons can we learn to stay high in the rankings this year?

1. Phantom Updates

Google updates were the predominant cause for much of the turbulence in the search results – this is not something new. However, the chart below illustrates just how much an effect Google updates had in 2015. This chart shows the average SEO Visibility of the top 100 winners and selected losers respectively over the course of 2015.

winner loser average
Brand / E-commerce Update, February 2015: Domains that ranked with brand keywords lost out.

Google Mobile Update, April 2015: The Google mobile update, rolled out in April 2015 and gaining the hashtag #Mobilegeddon foregrounded mobile friendliness and an optimal user experience for users.

Quality Update / Phantom II, May 2015: user generated content and publishers were hit hard by Phantom II.  tumblr, myspace, wikihow.

Newswave Update, June 2015: This update, not officially confirmed by Google, gave numerous publishing sites a considerable boost. This update rewarded sites following the query deserves freshness (QDF) rule, i.e. that content should be up-to-date and relevant. Suddenly many sites that ranked for brand keywords, entities and trending topics received a boost in rankings.

Panda 4.2, July 2015: This update seemed to punish content aspects such as redundancy, irrelevance and spam. As the roll-out of this update lasted several months, an exact analysis proved difficult.

Quality Update / Phantom III: The last update in 2015 had massive effects on the SEO Visibility. This update seemed to lift the problem of duplicate content (lyric sites). In addition, detailed content is not a must, but rather a question of user intention.

By the way: our analysis of the yearly visibility changes shows that domains in the US tend to be the first to feel the effects of a Google update. Changes in international search results can hit up to two weeks later.

2. Content quality is decisive

Many of the changes in the SERPs are content related. Publishers were amongst some of the biggest winners this year. The Guardian was amongst the losers in our 2014 end of year analysis, but this year is in the top 10 biggest winners. In around mid-2013 The Guardian underwent a relaunch moving from guardian.co.uk to the guardian.com, which when you look at the visibility the relaunch was heavily successful. But if you look at 2014 only, you’ll see they lost visibility. In 2015 the newspaper has seen steady increases in visibility, which I know is based on their hard work to optimize their content.

Visibility guardian relaunch

Google is continuing to reward sites that offer good quality content that offers a good user experience and fulfils the user intention. Newspapers and magazines usually offer comprehensive content on a subject, and this is one of the reasons that many of our winners come from this branch.

Q&A/ how to sites – wikihow and howstuffworks

We have already noted above that these websites were hit hard by Phantom II.

Suite wikihow vs howstuffworks

The background for this was believed to be that a lot of these pages generated revenue through too many ads above the fold and also duplicate content.

However, after Phantom III it seemed that the duplicate content issue had been – at least partially – resolved. If so then why are these sites still suffering such sustained heavy losses? It seems that these sites are either unable to fulfil user intent or expectation with their content regularly enough to rank high across the board. While a few years ago it may have been enough to have a lot of content on one subject hosted on a domain, this has not been the case for quite some time.

Let’s have a closer look at howstuffworks.com:

screenshot_howstuffworks

This page is a good example of an average user experience on howstuffworks. The ads top bar is a little misleading as it looks like a typical navigation bar, but clicking leads you away from the site. The reading experience is also often interrupted by ads, seen here in the bottom left of the screenshot. This article is located on subdomain adventure.howstuffworks.com – however clicking on similar topics does not always lead you to the same subdomain. Often navigating from one section to another can be pretty tedious work for the user.

Turning to one of our winners allrecipes.com exhibits a relatively easy to navigate site and has a logical site structure. Subdirectories are listed along the top bar, and recipes are weighted by user reviews, ensuring that the site is also offering the most relevant and useful content. Also ads are typically located to the right of the screen and don’t interrupt the reading process as much as our two loser examples.

Screen allrecipes

Generally speaking, websites that accurately fulfil user intent and provide relevant well ordered content are amongst the benefactors this year. Google updates and technical factors aside, if a site does not fulfil user intent then it will have a hard job ranking highly. User intent should be the epicenter of your online efforts

A brief note on mobile friendliness

In our top winners and losers, we found no significant difference in the proportion of sites that pass Google’s mobile friendly test – the vast majority of all websites in our results were found to be mobile friendly. To ensure top rankings, site can no longer afford not to be mobile friendly.

Key take-aways for your site in 2016

As we have said throughout 2015, user intent is paramount for maximizing content visibility. If this intent is not taken into account, sites run the very real risk of losing visibility. Try to ensure that your site meets the following criteria:

  • Be mobile friendly: you can’t afford not to be. Check if your site is here.
  • Don’t disturb your users’ reading experience with annoying/misleading ads.
  • Aim to match user intent with the content you offer – be relevant without overwhelming the reader.
  • Use a logical site structure to make navigating related topics an easy, pain-free experience.

How did you site perform in 2015 – are you amongst the losers or the winners? As always, we would love to know what you think our or analysis, so 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 (10)

Comments (16)

  1. 2016/02/09

    I love that you have access to so much SEO-relevant data.

  2. 2016/02/15

    Thanks for this brief review. As you write at the end “user intent is paramount for maximizing content visibility” – this is something SEOs like me try to get in the customers brains every and every day. They still think SEO is just quantity of backlinks and keyword stuffing. People are too much into their own goals – selling, lead generation etc. But they forget that satisfied customers are the most important factor for selling their products…

    Anyway, in Germany we saw winners and losers similar to your examples here – just a little bit delayed. So do you think content will be even more important in 2016? What do you think about the importance of backlinks?

    Thanks, Julia

  3. 2016/02/17

    Hi Julia,

    We believe that content will continue to be very important in 2016. What we mean by this is the quality of the content itself (whether it is comprehensive, well written and structured etc.) but also relevant to the user intention. Backlinks will also continue to be an important ranking factor, but focussing on and investing in quality, relevant content should be at the centre of any good SEO strategy.

  4. 2016/02/18

    I really appreciate reading SearchMetrics articles – and I look forward to the annual summation of what’s working and what’s not in search – thank you :-)

  5. 2016/02/18

    thanks for giving nice information very useful

  6. Web
    2016/02/26

    Really aprreciate this articles guys ! thanks in advance amazing information :)

  7. 2016/03/10

    Thank you for an informative article. Theres a lot to learn about what Google looks for.

  8. 2016/03/31

    Nice list and good summary of position’s trend.

  9. 2016/03/31

    Interesting article. We surprise that Google is not the first.

  10. 2016/10/20

    I’m just getting started with your articles and so far the content looks great! I look forward to seeing more!

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