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December 2020 Google Core Update

What We Know So Far

On December 3rd, Google rolled out their third Core Update for the year. It’s early days so the full extent of the impact remains to be seen.

First Insights:

  • The rollout is not complete – the true impact will be seen over the next 1 to 2 weeks.
  • We can see some clear shifts in rankings in typical areas related to E-A-T and content – music, health, news, and ecommerce – but unlike the other updates, there is no clear pattern yet.
  • Several music-related websites have seen major drops and increases.
  • Several medical and health websites have seen major drops.
  • So far, the rollout is primarily in the US. Countries outside of the US have been less impacted so far – we are monitoring large websites and can’t confirm the same impact as in the US.

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Early Analysis

The data comes from our Research Cloud which offers insights into the visibility of every domain for Desktop and Mobile search engine rankings.

Early Look at Major Drops

A quick glance below and we immediately see that music-related websites are seeing major drops.

We can also see several medical and health websites with major drops. It’s too early to say this is a steady trend. However, the data does show us it might be the case that these two industries will be heavily affected by this Core Update.

December 2020 Google Core Update - early losers

Early Look at Major Wins

As seen in the losses, we can see that music-related websites are seeing movement.

Several financial websites have seen positive movement; however, it is still too early to say that this is a definitive trend.

December 2020 Google Core Update Analysis Searchmetrics - Early Winners 2

Job Listing Websites – Some Movement

We have seen several websites having either growth or decline. This could be an early sign that Job Listings websites are a focus of this update.

We can see linkedin.com and monster.com with significant growth and glassdoor.com and indeed.com with significant drops.

Job Listing Website Impact Google December 2020 Core Update

We will continue to analyze this sector to interpret this in more detail and share our findings here over the coming weeks.

Financial Websites – Some Impact Seen

Several financial websites have shown large growth since the update, as we can see below. Creditkarma.com and thebalance.com have seen large growth so far.

Financial Website Impact Google December 2020 Core Update

We will continue to analyze this sector to interpret this in more detail and share our findings here over the coming weeks.

Possible Impact to Stacked Listings

Stacked Listings happen when the same domain ranks multiple times for the same search term. There is speculation that websites previously resulting in Stacked Listings will see a reduction in rankings and traffic as a result of this Core Update.

One example we noticed within the Q&A space was Brainly:

Google Update December 2020: Possible Impact to Stacked Listings

Analysis: Notice the image on the left shows brainly.in in the top three results. But after December 3rd, in the image on the right, we can see brainly.in listed in Position One only and not present in listings further down the page.

This can have a serious impact on traffic for websites in this situation.  We will continue to monitor the impact over the coming weeks.

May 2020 versus December 2020 Core Update

Here we compare websites that had a decrease and increase in rankings in May 2020 to December 2020.

So far, we can see several have experienced a major impact since December 3rd with a few experiencing minor negative drops.

 

May 2020 versus December 2020 Core Update

 

Winners Googe May and December Core Update Comparison

We will continue to update these lists as the rollout continues.

Early Advice from our Experts

Marcus Tober“It’s clear that this Core Update is still rolling out – better clarity around winners and losers resulting from this update should be visible in the next 1 to 2 weeks.

However, we can already see some clear shifts in rankings in typical areas related to E-A-T and content – music, health, news, and ecommerce – but unlike the other updates, there is no clear pattern yet.

So far, data shows us there hasn’t been a major rollout of the Core Update in Germany and other countries outside of the US yet. We’ll continue to monitor the impact globally over the coming days and weeks.”
Marcus Tober, Searchmetrics Founder


Jordan Koene“This update is a rather surprising announcement – we are only days into the holiday shopping season and a few weeks from the traditional end of year black-out period during which many technology companies pause operations.

Considering Core Updates have a focus on content and quality it is no surprise this release took place after the US Election. During the Election, many experts suggested that Google favored higher authority websites and limited featured elements such as carousels and rich results. These elements are likely to have changed now that the election is over and the fear of misinformation impacting user judgement is limited.

Over the coming weeks we expect to see more volatility in rankings as Google evaluates the user benefits of these changes. Irrespective of the details of this update, due to the focus of Google on quality content in general, it is critical all marketers and web developers continue maintaining Google’s guidelines around duplicate content. This includes a full understanding of the Quality Rater Guidelines & E-A-T critical used to evaluate content.”

Jorden Koene, Searchmetrics Advisor


Session: December 2020 Google Core Update:                What Happened? What’s Next?

Late December 2020 we held a session, hosted by Marcus Tober, discussing early implications of this Core Update.

Missed the session? You can still watch On Demand!

Watch On Demand

A number of session attendees posted questions about this Core Update, and Google updates in general. Marcus Tober bas answered many of them here, but if you have additional questions or concerns about the impact this December update has had on your website then please get in touch as we are here to help!

  • Why does Google do Core Updates?

Google has systematically carried out updates since 2002. The first larger SEO-targeted update was in the Autumn of 2003 when sites with key stuffing and bad links from networks were impacted. So, updates are not new. Also, Google carries out updates on a smaller scale hundreds of times per year, but now only the larger ones are communicated.

  • Is there a focus for this Core update? (All page areas of our site seem to have similarly lost out.) Looking at the entire page every time and looking for optimization potential is slowly wearing me down.

It’s common for Google updates to have a broader effect on websites rather than a laser sharp effect on just a few pages or topics. To figure out what has happened to your page and figure out what is possible look at the winners and losers in the areas that affected your page.

The typical misconception is that the same findings every SEO has after an update apply to all pages, which is not true. Every page is unique, so the best thing to do is to focus on your page and industry. As Google is heavily using Machine Learning to improve its algorithm the factors that change rankings in certain industries or even single topics can be different. In sensitive areas like YMYL Google is using different factors compared to ecommerce, everyday blogs or news pages.

Start with the pages that lost the most traffic, extract the keywords which have been affected and then look at winners and losers. This will give you a better idea of what has happened and what you can learn from the update.

  • Have you noticed any large fluctuations in certain verticals (e.g. finance, news, etc.)?

This Core Update was very broad and affected many industries. We have seen visible changes in health, finance, music/lyrics, news, educational content, games, UGC, jobs and ecommerce. In some areas like health and finance (E-A-T areas) we have seen significant shifts for some players.

  • Can you please give a breakdown of which types of sites are most affected, which types of content, and other commonalities?

It seems that Google targeted queries with informational as well as transactional intent. Transactional means users lower in the funnel, closer to the transaction. As an example, creditkarma.com gained a lot of visibility with content heavy but close-to-transaction pages like https://www.creditkarma.com/credit-cards/secured-credit-cards. It might be because Creditkarma is deemed more credible in these areas by Google, and presents the products close to the transaction and the supportive content. But they have won with pure content pages as well that are earlier in the funnel but noted as very important for the user with interest in loans like https://www.creditkarma.com/free-credit-score.

To stick with Creditkarma I think Creditkarma gained more “credit” in Googles eyes in the financial industry. Maybe this is because their site is deemed to help the user with financial decisions throughout the whole customer journey and/or because of better user signals.

  • Did you notice any impact on ecommerce websites? If yes, what should we do about it? Generally, speaking, YMYL and E-A-T websites.

There are some visible losers from ecommerce such as wish.com and aliexpress.com. A quick look at the loser areas showed that they used to rank for many keywords with products or category pages that did not offer the product. So wish.com or aliexpress.com ranked for “apple headphones” but offered copies/other headphones as opposed to actual Apple products. They also had a ranking for “pandora rings” but did not offer rings of that brand. Some other examples, ebay.com won significant visibility and pinterest.com lost slightly.

  • About E-A-T and this Core Update: how can you rank or improve your ranking if you do nothave a PhD/expert diploma for a certain topic?

I think in the case If you have content on a very specific topic and can’t provide the proof that you are an expert, and don’t have backlinks from credible / relevant sources, I don’t think you will rank in these areas. For example, if you have an opinion about a health topic covered in a blog post, your post won’t be deemed the best source when people are searching.

However, if you cover an E-A-T-related topic and your provide great content, you reference other expert opinions and your content is structured to be intuitive and visual attractive, there is no reason why Google wouldn’t rank you. For some areas though, like very sensitive topics, Google might look at signals like HON seal (e.g. verywellhealth.com: here https://www.hon.ch/HONcode/Conduct.html?HONConduct695800) to validate the credibility. This means it you may need certifications in these areas, like the HON seal, an ISO 27001 certification, TÜV in Germany, to prove your credibility.

  • How will this update impact YMYL, specifically the health care industry?

Core updates are broad and affect more industries than YMYL (Your money, Your life). But YMYL is a sensitive area where search results have potentially an impact on people’s well-being (health, financial situation). Google pays more attention to all areas related to YMYL and after Core updates we often see these areas highly affected. This time with huge wins for verywellhealth.com or gains for webmd.com and healthline.com. It’s hard to say exactly why these pages won, but my belief is that content quality matched with user signals, and maybe some automated fact checking by Google, was the reason. It is unlikely that it is because a doctor wrote the content as this is the case with many medical platforms already.

  • Why do you think so many music websites were hit?

There are two probable reasons. Many large music streaming brands previously ranked well for every kind of music query. They were impacted to some extend as, at the same time, music news pages gained visibility. This is probably due to user intent – they expect a diverse range of music content and do not necessarily want to always steam music. So, Google adjusted the algorithm to better suit the user intent. The second reason is redundant content for lyrics and information about artists. Many pages just have the same content. Google can’t and shouldn’t give all of them high visibility, so the less relevant pages just lost out.

  • I manage the website gethair.co.uk. We were ranking 2nd position for hair transplants in Turkey on Google.co.uk but now we are on page 2. I honestly think our page offers much more value to the customer compared to other pages.

It’s hard to determine why this drop happened. Your “hair transplant turkey” page looks very holistic and well-structured. It seems some winning pages in your area are using more ways to prove themselves as credible like with badges or success stories. But this is a guess.

As Core Updates often hit the whole website and not merely some keywords, it might be that the overall quality and engagement of users for the whole website created some “negative” signal for Google which contributed to the drop many rankings. You should take a look at all signals from Search Console/Analytics and filter out the worse-than-average performing pages. Take a look at these pages first and try to fix them. Don’t focus only on a single page as this could be misleading.

  • From a technical point of view, are there any specific known coding practices that the Google Update has highlighted as a priority? E.g. using Semantic tags was previously a core change that was needed on websites and now this is the norm. Is there another Core requirement that we should be adhering to?

I think Core Updates primarily target content rather than systematic inclusions e.g. semantic tags. This, Core updates, as well as previous Google updates seem to target factors that judge on content, trust and user signals.

  • In your opinion, what do you think are the top three opportunities from this update? If you think there are opportunities that SEO can take now.

To give three general opportunities is impossible. But the best advice is to look at the winners of this update and look what differentiates them from their competitors. Then take a look at your industry and anticipate what your users are searching for and if you can create a long-term strategy that incorporates learning from the winners.

Learnings can be taken from every update. It doesn’t matter if you are a large brand or a start-up. The Core update can impact businesses of all sizes. This differed in previous years where larger brands often performed better even when they didn’t have the best content.

  • This Core update had a different impact than previous updates. I even saw an impact on our brand. Our No. 1 position, which we held for about 20 years, was lost in the course of the update (along with many other rankings of the domain), so that the domain now only ranks at 2.
    So there must have been a whole series of side effects with this update if even a brand is affected. What measures can be taken to get our brand back to 1st place?

It is hard to comment on this without the brand name. The only idea would be that the page that outranks the real brand provides a better user experience, has a better CTR and/or generally provides more information about the brand.

  • I use XOVI and it names the overall weekly winners. I think 6 of the 10 winners are porn sites. Interesting update …

Porn sites are winning and losing all the time without Core Updates. The reason is that many pages are new and pumped with links and content to utilize the still existing fresh bonus and after some weeks they crash hard. This is a game in the porn industry where new pages are created in parallel where the old pages crash. For our winner/loser list I took many hours to curate the ones that are affected by the update. I guess XOVI just took the percentage of win/loss that included porn sites.

  • Can you show concrete examples of what Google expects of websites? And what exactly does Google expect of a (my) website in the future?

The short answer is Google expects superior content in your field matched with what Google perceives as unintuitive, fast and usable experience. As Google is increasingly able to understand user intent, it tries to match the intent with the content. So you will and should only rank in areas where your content makes sense for the user no matter how large your brand is or how good your SEO optimization is.

For example, if your brand sells sneakers and the user searches for “sneakers online” the probability that you as brand rank #1 is less likely as Google understands the searcher wants to see a variety of sneaker shoes.

Another example, you have a content heavy forum with content about “lego star wars”. If your content is primarily about what to build from the Lego bricks and people sharing their experiences about the bricks, the likelihood that you rank on #1 specifically for “lego star wars” is low as the searcher primarily looks for the Lego products to purchase. But this forum might rank very well for everything related to review, experiences, examples which are less transactional driven.

Next to great content, website speed and UX becomes more relevant. Google recently announced that the Core Web Vitals (https://web.dev/vitals/) will become part of the Ranking Factors in May 2021.

December Core Update Google Twitter Post

  • Do you think the Google algorithm is fair?

The user must judge if an update was fair. Personally, I think Google’s index quality is pretty good and the usage of user data and machine learning will continue to lead to better results. But their anti-competitive behavior and the subtle increase of their ads on their own websites while penalizing competitors if they do it seems somehow “unfair” in my opinion.

  • How do you avoid being penalized by a Core Update?

Sites being affected by the Core Update haven’t been penalized. Algorithmic and manual penalties are applied to websites without the need of an update. If your website got “hit” by a Core Update there is a systematic change in Googles algorithm that affected your website which can’t be fixed quickly. Doesn’t mean you have to wait for the next update to grow your visibility, but fixing a systematic algorithm change means changing something larger on your website.

  • Is there any warning before an update? How do you know if one is about to take place?

There is no warning. Google has been carrying out updates for around 2 years .Core updates are only publicly announce when they are about to start. This likely continue and we probably have 2 to 3 updates per year.

  • Do you think Google will release another Core Update again in the New Year?

The current expectation is that there will be a Core Update from Google 2-3 times a year. This is communicated when the update starts and when it finishes (generally after 2 weeks). The gut feeling is that the next update will be released around April/May 2021.

 


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