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January 2020 Winners and Losers: Google Updates Shake the SEO Industry – Tyson Stockton // Searchmetrics

Episode Overview: January 2020 saw the release of two updates from Google that shook the SEO industry. As the dust settled, several industries from healthcare to ecommerce experienced significant changes in their visibility while other industry titans remained unfazed. Join host Ben and Searchmetrics’ Director of Services Tyson Stockton as they break down which companies flourished after Google’s first updates of the year and which ones began 2020 at a disadvantage.

Summary

  • Healthcare companies Healthline, Mayo Clinic and WebMD all saw declines in visibility, with WebMD experiencing two consecutive weeks of visibility loss in the 5 to 10% range.
  • Amazon remains insulated from the updates despite experiencing visibility losses in the single digit percentile range. Walmart also experienced visibility losses but rests comfortably in the No. 2 spot behind Amazon.
  • Travel company Expedia remained stable compared to competitor Kayak, which experienced losses and ended up being surpassed by Booking.com. Travel industry staple Marriott performed well compared to Airbnb which saw a 33% drop in visibility.
  • Etsy emerged a clear winner in January as it consistently trends upward with each new update.

GUESTS & RESOURCES

Ben:                 Welcome to our January 2020 edition of Winners and Koenes on the Voices of Search podcast. Today, we’re going to take a look back and talk about some of the biggest trends behind some of the biggest movers, shakers and slackers in the SEO world.

Ben:                 Joining us today for our Winners and Koenes is Tyson Stockton, who is Searchmetrics’ director of services. Tyson manages the SEO content and client success organizations. Outside of shepherding Searchmetrics’ largest and most strategic clients to SEO success, he’s dug through the Searchmetrics suite to help you understand who’s making moves in the SEO community. Okay. Here’s our monthly sit down with Searchmetrics’ Director of Services, Tyson Stockton. Tyson, welcome to Winners and Koenes on the Voices of Search podcast.

Tyson:              Thank you, Ben. It really is the little things in life because Winners and Koenes is something that we’ve been joking around about a while, and it just really makes me happy.

Ben:                 Let’s let everybody in on the joke. If you missed yesterday’s episode, we published a little announcement that’s saying our dear friend Jordan Koene is graduating from CEO to become an advisor of Searchmetrics, and he’s still going to be a part of the Voices Of Search podcast regularly, but we’re making changes with this podcast and expanding it as well. But since Jordan is no longer going to be the boss, we can officially replace the word losers with his last name. It only seems fitting, and you only hurt the ones you love, folks.

Tyson:              Yeah. Just bring everybody else into the fold here.

Ben:                 Yeah. So, everybody welcome to Winners and Koenes. That said, Tyson excited to talk to you about what’s happening in the SEO community. We’ve had lots of changes in January. The first and probably the biggest being we had another algorithm change. Talk to me about what we know about the January algorithm updates now that it’s a few weeks behind us.

Tyson:              Yeah. There’s been a lot lately. So, I think, obviously we have a lot of movements and changes in the landscape to review today, but also, a lot going on for what Google’s been up to. It was a busy last stretch at the end of the year with the core updates BERT. Then, we also saw at the beginning of the year here as another kind of flurry of activity from Google in the sense that they also had a core update. So that one I think will be one that we’ll touch on a fair amount, but also there’s changes from the layout perspective and taking websites that would be in position zero and removing them from the top ranking force. So obviously, that shifts things around, too.

Tyson:              Then also, we’ve been noticing some changes, to, not just necessarily on the broad macro lens, but also in the differences of local rankings versus national rankings. So, there’s been a lot at the beginning of the year. I think with all of these changes coming so quickly that it can be a little hard to separate what the end result is. I think, the really interesting thing and the majority of what we’re going to be going over today is how that’s impacted these different industries, and what are the big movements and outcomes from those shifts in landscape.

Ben:                 The way that I like to think about this algorithm season is there’s been so much shaking that we don’t know where the original point was. We’ve gone left, we’ve gone right, we’ve gone forward, we’ve gone back, and now, we’re just jumbled up. It’s just a brand-new world. One of the things that we want to talk about today was YMYL. There’s been some debate about this last update, whether it was Google reverting to previous results, or if it was just a refinement. Give me your thoughts on all of these updates. Specifically, the last one affected how we think about your money, your life.

Tyson:              Yeah. I think, this was in a lot of the post and information coming out that was a core focus of a lot of it because when you do have these core algorithm updates and there’s that heavy focus of interpretation of quality content, those are typically the industries, both health, finance. Those are the ones that are really heavily scrutinized, and we usually see some large shifts and changes. I think for this algorithm update and with just a lot of the changes that are happening, we are seeing some pretty substantial movements happening outside of those core, Your Money, Your Life industries. So, although we did see a lot, and I wouldn’t disagree with any of the information of the movements that happen in those areas, I also think the extent and the impact of these changes that have been going on go far beyond just a Your Money, Your Life kind of query types.

Ben:                 So, let’s get into what we saw in some of the industries. Obviously, there’s been a lot of moving some back, some forward. Let’s start off with the health industry. One of the industries that’s normally most affected by YMYL updates. Talk to me about what you’re seeing in the health industry.

Tyson:              Yeah. So, I think, first, the easy really noticeable ones are looking at the large players in this space. So WebMD, it’s a start, they’re the clear front runner.

Ben:                 Are they the clear front runner? I thought Healthline had passed them in overall visibility.

Tyson:              No, there’s still a good … I would say actually over a million visibility points over Healthline, they did surpass Mayo Clinic about six months back. They still are in that point. But WebMD is still sitting just over three million, and then you have Healthline in that two million range followed by Mayo clinic. The interesting thing in all three of those players, and they’re all the big three in this space, all of them had negative numbers the last couple of weeks coming out of these algorithm updates. WebMD was the most pronounced and having actually two consecutive weeks of loss that were close to between the five and 10% range, where the other two, they had more of a one-week decline in the performance leading into was a little different, but they also had a suffering or a setback to their overall performance.

Ben:                 So, what’s your takeaway for the overall health industry after having gone through these updates? It seems like everybody had some sort of a regression. Why do you think this is happening?

Tyson:              Yeah, I think it’s an interesting one to look at. If you strip away all the other sites and you just look at WebMD, I think this website is quite interesting because, one, they have just such a wide array of content on their website. It’s such a big website. Now, you’re really going to see a pretty decent representation across the full industry. When you go back to that website and you also look at some of the postings of reverting changes to previous ones, there’s a real clear representation of when these algorithms updated, how they impacted WebMD’s site.

Tyson:              Going all the way back to the 2018 E-A-T update, they were a huge winner of that one. They rode about six months of positive week-over-week performance. Then when you got to last year, around the March core update, they took a pretty big drop. We saw that reversed then on the following update that happened in June, which was a core update. Then now, at this core update, you see them reversing again going the opposite trend.

Tyson:              So, they’ve had this ping-pong of going up from the algorithm update, then down from the algorithm update, up again from the update and down. This shows how vulnerable or focused on this industry is. When you look at them as far as a website, even though they took quite a big blow in the last couple of weeks, they’re still, I would say, in a not as bad position as some of the others because they’ve had this positive, negative, positive, negative, even though it’s coming in a sometimes six months stretch of time.

Tyson:              That’s my overall, and if you look at them, especially on a two-year lens, okay, they’re still up from where they were two years ago, if you went back a year. Okay. Now, they’re probably a little bit down, but I think that’s a nice representation of seeing how a large website like this does impact from these core algorithm updates.

Ben:                 So, I understand that WebMD has seen volatility, and it’s pretty clear how they’ve been impacted by the updates. How do you think about the whole industry, and why was there a downward trend this month?

Tyson:              Yeah. I think this comes back down to how Google’s evaluating the content, the quality of the content of these websites. As they further refine their algorithms, they’re going to interpret that content a little bit differently as you see these swings. But if you move over to the website Everyday Health, which we talked about maybe probably going on a year ago at this point, they’re a website that had just a brutal impact and as I think around 75% from the 2019 March core update, and they’ve never been able to regain that. That website, when you compare it to how robust or how strong the content of some of these other ones are, that’s one that you never saw them regain or that you never saw them bounce back.

Tyson:              I think when you consider a larger domain like WebMD, the assets that they have and what they’re able to put into improving and making changes of how their content is going to be interpreted, I think, past where you see a significant difference here.

Ben:                 Okay. Let’s move on to a different industry. Talk to me about what you’re seeing in the ecommerce space.

Tyson:              Yeah. So, the ecommerce space, this is one I always like touching on. The obvious starting point is we want to talk about what’s going on with Amazon. They really did have a strong kind of push to the holiday season. In particular, right after the Black Friday time and December, they had a really strong month where they’re increasing. Then ever since the end of December, they’ve actually had some minor decreases, and then seeing, again single digits, but for them just the volume is so high, some kind of softening for it. This, however, though I don’t … They are so far above and beyond where everybody else is from a visibility and just overall organic performance. Now, I don’t really feel like this is taking a hit to them. When you compare what they lost to some of the other websites’ overall presence is that is a pretty significant amount.

Tyson:              So, Amazon did take a little bit of a step backwards. Another website that took a similar decline, but they’re on the same kind of rise and even a little more drastic over the holiday season was Walmart. This website, if you went back a couple of years, they were right in that middle of the pack in that second tier behind the Amazons of the world ecommerce sites. They’ve really separated themselves to be a clear number two in the ecommerce space. So, I think for them seeing, yeah, they took a hit from this last algorithm update, but overall I’d say they’re still in a strong position in the six months, a little bit even beyond, they’re still up overall. I do see them as defending and keeping some of that market share that they’ve gained over the last year.

Ben:                 I wonder how much of this is SEO optimization tactics. I wonder how much of it is also product. I know that in a similar timeline, they started doing shipping that’s comparable to Amazon. I bet you that that had an impact on, obviously, their site metrics, but also the viability of whether people are going to be purchasing their products. They’re essentially on feature comparison with Amazon with shipping or at least close to it now. I wonder if that had an impact because it does seem to be around the same timeframe.

Tyson:              I think it’s possible there. That definitely could be an impact. That one, it’s pretty tough to quantify into these numbers. I think from my perspective, one of the interesting things when you compare just to give the listeners a little bit of the scale difference between Amazon and Walmart. We’re saying, “Hey, Walmart’s number two,” but really, they’re sitting at 1.74 million, and Amazon’s sitting at 10 million. Also, if you think of the size of the website, amount of SKUs, URLs, how many pages Google is having to crawl through, and then you even compare it to Walmart and some of the others. Walmart, even though it is a very large enterprise website, is not one that I would say falls into this extreme over indexation page below where they just have too much on the site. So, I think now and just from what they’ve been able to do with the volume of URLs and how they’re competing has been actually quite strong.

Ben:                 So, tell me about some of the other players outside of the, obviously, now the top two with Amazon or Walmart. Who else have you seen having fluctuations since the recent update?

Tyson:              Yeah. Three others that are all in the same realm. One of these is, two years ago, when to be considered in the second tier or third year, I guess, if you want to separate Walmart and Amazon, but three other websites that are interesting with this update was Best Buy, Home Depot and Etsy. Best Buy, similar decline pattern that we saw with Walmart. Actually, we’re having a pretty good last three months. I would anticipate based on their SEO performance that they had a strong Q4, but they’ve actually had some losses in roughly, let’s say, 7 to 5% over the last couple of weeks. So, they have taken a sit down, and they’re actually quite a bit closer now to Home Depot and Etsy.

Tyson:              Home Depot, I would say, in comparison to these others, relatively very little change. They had, basically, just negative 2% change this last week, but they were over the last three months linking together some very small percentage wins. So, they’re one that actually didn’t have a significant decline compared to some of these others. So, I would say the Home Depot, that’s an example of a company that I would … it’s continuing in the same trajectory, pretty stable, low impact from it.

Tyson:              Then the one in the ecommerce space that I would say is definitely a clear winner from this last algorithm update in January, specifically, is Etsy. This website, we’ve talked about them before being winners in the algorithm update. We also just look at where they were two years back, they’re sitting around 500, and having about a 500,000 gap between the Best Buys and the Home Depots. They were not even in that same class. Then over the course of the last two years, especially 2018, they had an incredible year. This last year was a little bit more of ups and downs. Actually, this last algorithm update from our SEO visibility, they had from the last week, 18%; the week before, about 10%; and now they’re sitting in that kind of an all-time high as far as what their overall search presence is.

Ben:                 So, as you think about the ecommerce space in a whole after update season, what are your big takeaways?

Tyson:              I think for me it’s not a big change in what we saw before. I think I would still continue to encourage these large enterprise and commerce sites to have a focus on the overall page quality of what’s being indexed, how many pages you’re sifting them through. I think some people might be like, “That’s a bit of a stretch from this content conversation.” As far as looking at determining, well, this domain is submitting a lot of low-quality URLs since the index, or this website is only sending the URLs to go or allowing URLs be indexed that are of a higher quality.

Tyson:              I think this algorithm update is seeing the direction of the industry that still is viable and as relevant today as it’s been over the last couple of years. I think this is something we’ve talked about before, but this is something that definitely the enterprise SEOs need to take seriously. I think there are some gains to be had from this.

Ben:                 Let’s talk about one more industry before we let you go. What’s happening in the travel industry? It seems like this is a great time of year for travel. Have we seen any big shakeup so far this year?

Tyson:              Yeah. This is one of my more favorite ones to talk about having the interest in travel. We did see some kind of changes from a national, virtual, organic. But when we look into like the big players in the travel or tourism industry, first, touching on the OTAs or the aggregators. Expedia, still a clear number one. They do have a lot of other presence besides that transactional intent within it, but they had a very minimal impact in this algorithm update and a pretty stable last couple of months. So, that’s one that I would say is a win in the sense of keeping that defensive number one position.

Tyson:              The website that we saw a really big decline on was Kayak. Kayak had a 13% loss this last week. Then before that, was followed by a 7%, and then a few more smaller decreases. So, Kayak’s one that’s been having a rough start of the year and is actually now just behind Booking, who … Booking, in comparison, remaining stable and not having a change, I would say, is actually in the winner category here. Because of that stability and the drop of Kayak, they’re actually able to slightly surpass them and take back that position where we saw the shift a little over a year back.

Tyson:              Then another one which … These were three sites that we’re calling out in the algorithm updates in September towards the end of last year is Hotels.com. That was also on the losing side. They, in comparison to some of these, they’ve actually been on the decline since September. So more pronounced, pretty dramatic drop from the algorithm updates end of last year. Again, I’m kind of in the negative side here. So, they’ve actually used to be right there with poking and are now a decent step below that.

Ben:                 So, Tyson, what I’m hearing is a lot of decreases, which means that there’s space for someone to be sucking up the oxygen in the room. Who’s getting the credit if all of the travel sites are taking a decrease?

Tyson:              That is the next logical question there. It’s not necessarily on the exact same terms, but I think it is an interesting shift that we didn’t see as much on previous algorithm updates, and that there are the actual hotel chains and brands that have been on the winning side of this. One real notable one is Hilton. They have had a very strong last quarter and also start to the year. So, they had around low single-digit increases the last several weeks. So, Hilton’s been on the rise. Marriott very, very small decrease. The actual brands and the hotels are keeping a little more authority and a little more command in that space for the OTAs.

Tyson:              We’re seeing some softening in a few of those players. So I know that these are going to be slightly, not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison on the keyword set, but it is someone that’s competing on a similar type query. When you look at Hilton and even throwing outside of hotels, but in similar space, something like United or an airline, the pattern and performance pattern of Hilton and United is, surprisingly, similar, and both those websites had gains during this time.

Ben:                 I thought you were going to say Airbnb is the one that was taking up all of the space. It was the truth. Hey, let me just leave you with a pro tip here. Have you ever heard of Mrandmrssmith.com, total unpaid promotion? My favorite travel booking site. If you’re looking for a boutique hotel, somewhere nice to take wife, girlfriend, husband, boyfriend, whatever you’re into, Mrandmrssmith.com, super underrated. Anyway, let’s summarize, Tyson.

Tyson:              Also, for the record, Airbnb did have a decrease this last week as well. Yeah, they actually had a 33% decrease. It has not had a very strong last six months.

Ben:                 How was that not part of the conversation? Earlier, we were talking about the travel industry that Airbnb took it in the shorts and had a 33% decrease. Tyson, I think, we buried the lead here.

Tyson:              There’s a reason why we’re calling this Winners and Koenes here.

Ben:                 They are a total Koene. So, let’s bring it home. Let’s talk about who our Winners and Koenes are for this month. First off, who won January?

Tyson:              Who won January? I’m going to say Etsy. Etsy has really done a tremendous job over the last two years. Sure, they’ve been on the winning side of the algorithm update, but consistently, being in that a position, from my experience, isn’t by chance. So I would really say Etsy is top of the list for my January winners.

Ben:                 Okay. So, Etsy is our big winner in the ecommerce space. How about our other industries? Let’s pick a winner in the health industry.

Tyson:              Wow. That to me, honestly, is probably one of the tougher ones to pick our winner in just because so many of the large players took a step backwards. I think in a comparison as far as what they’ve been doing post some of these updates, I would actually say, Healthline even though they had a 2% decrease from this last algorithm update. Looking at the decline and what some of their competitors are doing, I would put Healthline in winners category. Then also I think looking at some of the extended Mayo Clinic sites, like mayo.edu, Mayo Clinic Health System, even though they’re way, way, way smaller, seeing the gains that those type of websites had versus the overall Mayo Clinic one, I think, is interesting. I would say those larger, more authoritative sites are our winners within health.

Ben:                 Healthline strikes again. I think they actually might be our most frequent winner in this series. We’ve had Ryan Purtill from Healthline on the show a couple of times. I swear we’re not just sucking up. They do a great job with their SEO. Lastly, let’s talk a little bit about the travel industry. Who’s your winner?

Tyson:              For the travel industry, I’m actually going to go more to the brands. I’m going to say, Hilton is seeing some of the gains that they’ve had over the last few months. I would put Hilton in the winner category. Seeing some of the declines from the Kayaks of the world.

Ben:                 All right. It’s time. Who are your Koenes for this month?

Tyson:              Yeah. So, Koenes of the month, I would say most of the players in the health industry, WebMD being one of them, just the magnitude of it. Then I would say, ecommerce, I would actually put Best Buy, even though they were all my winners less for Q4. But I’ve seen the sharp decline in the gains Etsy made just from an overall presence of how much traffic they’ll bring in from organic. I think Best Buy would be on my Koene list. Then, as far as the travel industry, I would definitely have Kayak on the Koene’s list.

Ben:                 I had to throw two more out there. I think that Airbnb having a 30% decrease in visibility merits them being on our Koene list. I’m also going to throw out Jordan Koene as the biggest Koene of the month. Jordan, we’re replacing your name with losers only because we love you, buddy. We’re going to miss you around the office all the time. We know you’re still going to be part of the Voices of Search podcast and an advisor to Searchmetrics, but we’re all crying on the inside. We’re sad.

Tyson:              We are. As a result I think-

Ben:                 We’re going to unmercifully crush you on this podcast.

Tyson:              Yeah, it’s only fair. It’s only fair.

Ben:                 It just feels like the right thing to do. Okay.

Tyson:              Yeah.

Ben:                 Tyson, any last words about January or our Winners and Koene’s list?

Tyson:              No. I think it’s been a very, very eventful January. I do expect the dust to continue to settle a little bit because of the variety of changes that have been thrown in recently. Yeah, it’s been a busy start of the year and interesting to see where we go from here.

Ben:                 Just getting started this year, folks. Lots of SEO knowledge to impart your way. Looking forward to sharing the rest of the year with you. That wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Tyson Stockton, Searchmetrics’ director of services.

Ben:                 We’d love to continue this conversation with you. So if you’re interested in contacting Tyson, you could find the link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter where his handle is tyson_stockton, or you could visit his company’s website. Well, it’s searchmetrics.com.

Ben:                 Just one more link in our show notes that I’d like to tell you about. If you didn’t have a chance to take notes while you were listening to this podcast, head over to Voicesofsearch.com, where we have summaries of all of our episodes, contact information for our guests. You can also send us your topic suggestions, your SEO questions, or you can even apply to be a guest speaker on the Voices of Search podcast.

Ben:                 Of course, you can always reach out on social media. Our handle is Voices Of Search, or you can reach out to me directly. My handle is Benjshap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P. If you haven’t subscribed yet and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, we’re going to publish episodes four or five times a week. So, hit that subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed soon.

Ben:     All right. That’s it for today. But until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.