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October 2019 Winners and Losers: Amazon Soars While Travel Sites Plummet

Episode Overview: The last series of Google algorithm updates, including the latest BERT update, are flying like a flurry of boxing jabs, with BERT being the most recent surprise jab from the tech giant. Some companies are successfully dodging the latest punches and coming out on top, while other companies have been taking them square on the chin. Join Ben and Tyson as they discuss some of the early SEO winners and which companies got KO’ed by BERT in the latest Google algorithm update round.

Summary:

  • The BERT update is expected to impact 10% of search queries, whereas core algorithm updates impact only 1 – 2% of search queries on average.
  • Amazon’s mobile visibility gains have increased post-update, surging past their desktop gains.
  • Travel sites Kayak, Booking and Hotel experienced a collective, immediate loss between 5 – 10% after the algorithm went live.

GUESTS & RESOURCES:

Ben:                 Welcome to our October 2019 edition of Winners and Losers on The Voices of Search podcast. Today, we’re going to look back on the month to talk about some of the trends behind some of the biggest movers, shakers and slackers in the SEO world. Joining us for Winners and Losers is Tyson Stockton, the director of Searchmetrics services team. Tyson manages our SEO, content and client success organizations, and 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.

Ben:                 But before we hear from Tyson, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a new free trial of the Searchmetrics suite, so if you’re interested in testing Searchmetrics’ products, including our content experience, go to searchmetrics.com/freetrial.

Ben:                 Okay. Here’s our monthly sit down with Searchmetrics’ director of services, Tyson Stockton. Tyson, welcome back to Winners and Losers on The Voices of Search podcast.

Tyson:              Thank you, Ben. Been a bit of noise this past month for the Optum updates.

Ben:                 You know, it’s been a noisy month in terms of some of the SEO activity. Also, we want to preface that there may be some background noise on Tyson’s end. He is currently in Sonoma, California, and stuck because of the wildfires in Northern California, so our apologies if we have a little audio troubles today, and Tyson, to you and your family, we’re wishing you the best and hoping that the fires miss your property.

Tyson:              Thank you, Ben. Much appreciated.

Ben:                 Let’s talk a little SEO. There’s been some ground shaking activity happening this month. We’re going to start off by talking about winners and losers of the actual updates. We’ve now had three, what we thought was a relatively big one, what we called the Real News update, which evaluated how Google was going to prioritize the original news publishers and reevaluate who has authority. Then we were hit with the core update, and Google did a great job of telling us exactly when and how this was going to happen, and then recently there was the BERT update, the surprise big one. Knowing that all of these updates have happened in such a short period of time, Tyson, tell me your reactions and who’s the winner and losers between the updates.

Tyson:              Yeah, I mean one little surprised seeing the frequency, like we always expect this time of year, the last several years, it’s been relatively consistent with the core algorithm update. But I feel like, with the real news, the core update and then this latest BERT one, it’s kind of like the jab. It’s like a boxing combination. You’ve got the jab, little one, the first one, and then it comes around, and then the last one hits.

Tyson:              And still waiting to see, because it’s relatively recent, especially when we’re recording this, so do expect to see some ripples of this over the next several weeks. But some estimates, and in some early communication on the update, is it’s supposed to impact roughly 10% of all queries, which is huge when, typically, a core algo update might only impact 1-2%.

Tyson:              It hit the news, and with all the other recent ones lately, it didn’t seem as significant. But then the more you read about it, the more you realize how fundamental this one is, how significant it is to the overall picture.

Ben:                 So, here we are thinking that the Google core update is the big winner. The big one of the updates, the big earthquake. And then Google hits us with the jab, we think we’re done. We’re recovering, everybody’s back to optimizing, and then BERT. The BERT update, the real big one, 10% of all queries impacted. I’m going to go ahead and call the core update the loser and the BERT update the winner, in terms of our update rankings.

Ben:                 Let’s talk about some of the businesses, brands, and domains that were affected by all of these updates. Specifically, we’re going to focus on ones that we think that were updated by the core update, because we’ve had a little bit more data and time to be able to evaluate that. Tyson, talk to me about what are some of the impacts you’ve seen from the core update?

Tyson:              Yeah, and I think to that point, too, it’s worth noting that there is a lot of noise flying around at this time. So, specifically, saying something to one element that’s a little bit of a gray area, but I think these are a few examples of websites that we’ve seen, a change in direction or a clear signal of how it’s kind of responding, and one, just from a bit of a gauge of the overall industry is looking at Wikipedia.

Tyson:              And Wikipedia, when we were looking last year, came up several times as a loser as far as market share that it lost, which it basically has a presence and a huge volume of overall queries, and over the last couple months, they’ve been trending down. The year has overall been relatively stable. In the last couple months, they’d been on a downward trend, and then this algorithm update actually kind of switched the trajectory rather abruptly and gave them roughly a 3% increase that they linked with several increases since, on the low single digits. But seeing that bumper up, change in direction is a signal how their website is being turned relevant for those agro queries.

Ben:                 I think of Wikipedia being like a cruise liner in SEO. It takes a long time or a lot of energy to be able to turn around a site that big. I think that’s a clear winner. Talk to me about, when you say a 3% change in visibility, what does that mean?

Tyson:              Yeah, so when I’m looking at their SEO visibility, I’m roughly looking at what is the week over week change, and since we’re using an average monthly search volume in our SEO visibility calculation, that is going to be the most effective KPI per week over week comparison. So, even though it’s only 3% of the total domain, to your point being that it’s such a massive website, we’re looking at going from 51.22 million to 52.67. So, that 2% is larger than a lot of websites out there. So, even though it is a single digit change, which is due to the sheer magnitude of the site, it’s pretty significant.

Ben:                 It’s like a single digit change for like half of the internet.

Tyson:              Yeah.

Ben:                 Okay. So outside of Wikipedia, we’re seeing a reversal of a trend on that mega site. What are some other sites that you’ve seen impacted in the last few weeks?

Tyson:              Another one, which is not an industry that we’ve touched on too much in the past on monthly winners and losers, but this website, Khan Academy is one that, it’s based around more informational, educational type queries, as well as some tutoring elements and things like that. And this website, when you look at it over a two year lens, it’s all positive signs, and it has a lot of growth that they’ve captured in the last 24 months.

Tyson:              So, when you look at how the website responded after the algorithm update, they had an almost immediate, almost 10% decrease. And then that’s been rippled with a series of single digit losses since then. So, this website I thought was interesting because one, they, again, were going one direction, and then the update had a sharp shift. And when you look into the details of what the website’s breaking for, and what keywords they’ve lost on, it was a lot of these kind of really general informational-type terms, and these could be things like Bitcoin, translation, sound. Although they do a lot of good educational information there, it was still, I think, a bit of a relevancy play when you look at how their website has performed in the last few weeks.

Ben:                 It’s interesting to me. I think of Wikipedia, obviously it’s got such broad coverage, but being educational in nature. Most of the queries that are happening on Wikipedia are educational, and Khan Academy educational, as well. Also general terms, and Khan Academy is kind of going the opposite direction of Wikipedia. How do you make a connection or am I just grasping at straws here?

Tyson:              No, I think you’re on to something there. I think you could find outliers and arguments to that. But overall, I think they are both ranking on a similar set of high search volume, broad informational terms. And I think, again, you’d have to kind of get into nitpicking on URLs, but overall and so Wikipedia has a lot of longer form content that’s going to broadly address those topics, and just like this year, and import that they have.

Tyson:              So, I think if you compared on the actual keyword set between those two domains, I would almost lean towards actually Wikipedia probably having stronger content relevancy in that, even though you could find cases, and certainly there’s plenty of them with Wikipedia having more thinner content. But I think, in those type of high search volume upper funnel terms, they’re going to have more competitive content than what you’d see with Khan Academy.

Ben:                 Are there any other companies that you would consider to have educational queries as their primary resource that were impacted by the last few updates?

Tyson:              Yeah. So another one which we’ve touched on, Quora, some listeners may remember them, as they’re a common talk, and not just in this podcast, but just in the community around UGC. This website, I thought it was really interesting because the algorithm update, when you kind of look at it, you see a positive optic. But then, when you look a little bit deeper into what did that look like in mobile, and what did it look like in desktop respectively, you see a huge difference.

Tyson:              So, although their desktop site showed an immediate 8% increase in search volume, there was roughly a 100% increase in mobile visibility. So, you have this kind of skyrocket on mobile visibility for Quora, and then you have a moderate increase on desktop. And since then, although there’s been a little bit of movement since, the waterline for mobile has still remained extremely high. So, you have this huge jump on mobile that they’ve been able to sustain for them. And for that, I’d say that this is a huge win for Quora.

Ben:                 It’s interesting to me that there’s such a difference between mobile and desktop in terms of what’s driving Quora’s growth. We’re seeing this massive uptick in visibility in mobile, and it’s not the only company that we’re seeing this type of separation between desktop and mobile devices. Who else are we seeing that with?

Tyson:              Yeah, and then another one that’s very similar, not quite as pronounced as what we saw in Quora, but Amazon’s another one. Amazon, we can’t talk about ecommerce without addressing them. And when you look at how their website responded, post-algorithm, I’m not saying overall they’re a winner, but their mobile is up even more than what their desktop is. So, although from the surface it looks like that, knowing the shift in the direction that we keep further and further moving into, I would say they’re even beyond the surface level, they would also be a website that I’d put in that same category and be considered a winner.

Ben:                 So, we’ve got two more winners. Talk to me about US News. We talked about them in pre-production. They’re the role model of consistency for this year. What have you seen from them and why are they so steady when everyone else seems to be fluctuating?

Tyson:              Yeah, they’ve been one of my favorites to look at this year, although it’s not huge, big, splashing movements that are roller coasters or up or down, they’re just steadily, week over week, putting together small single digit increases. And when you look at what they’ve done in the course of the last 12 months, and you look at what industry and the volatility of some of their competitors, I would definitely have them on the winner’s list.

Ben:                 It’s interesting to me. I relate them to a baseball player. They’re not the home run hitter, they’re not the MVP of the league. They’re just consistently getting hit after hit after hit. They’re leading the league in singles.

Tyson:              They’re your lead off base hitter. Yeah.

Ben:                 Exactly.

Tyson:              Yeah. It’s like they’re the money ball baseball teams.

Ben:                 Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Hopefully some of the SEOs listening to this podcast are also baseball fans like Tyson and I. Lastly, we saw some changes in the travel industry, and I thought that this was really telling about what happens when there’s a core update and how there’s such a big difference for how teams can rally together after the update. Talk to me about what you’ve seen in the travel industry.

Tyson:              Yeah, so I came across three websites. In the travel industry as a whole, you saw a fair amount of movement, but in looking at Kayak, Booking and Hotels, I found it really fascinating because all three of websites, almost immediately after the algorithm update, you saw between a 5-10% decrease. So, all three websites immediately took a hit.

Tyson:              Then what happened to those three websites after the algorithm update is where it further kind of separated, and you have, starting with kind of Hotels.com, where they took a 10% hit, and then, week over week, basically, since then, they’ve had smaller but single digit losses where they’ve continued to bleed.

Tyson:              Then you look at Booking. That took basically the exact same percent hit, but it remained kind of like flat and stable since. And then, finally, you have Kayak who, although they have a little bit more of a head start before the algorithm update, they took a 5% hit but then it since then, basically took two back to back weeks of having positive single digit growth. So, although they’re not quite back to where they were before algorithm date, they’re almost flushed.

Tyson:              So, seeing how these three websites [inaudible] responded to the algorithm update. It was interesting to see okay, across this entire industry, these three similar type product sites respond the same way. But then the really interesting part was then, post the algorithm update, what did the websites do and how did they perform?

Ben:                 I think that there’s an important lesson here in this comparison. You have three brands that were all impacted relatively similarly after an update, and have seen three different trajectories, one going back up, one staying relatively flat and one decreasing. And so, when you’re impacted and your visibility goes down during an update, that is not necessarily a negative impact on your overall business because the rest of your competition is affected as well. It’s what happens and how you course correct after the update that can really make the difference. Tyson, as we look back on the month, we’ve obviously seen lots of changes. Talk to me about some of your biggest winners and losers and what are some of your takeaways from this crazy month during SEO updates season?

Tyson:              Yeah, so as far as my winners and losers, I think my overall winner, I kind of hate to admit it, but unfortunately it’s Amazon here. The only reason I say that is you always kind of root for the underdog, and being that they are the conglomerate here, they certainly have been on the winning side of this update and with mobile SEO visibility scored over 12 million, they don’t show any signs of slowing down. So, I think Amazon would probably be on my side for the overall winner. What about on your side for winner, Ben?

Ben:                 You know, I’m going to go off the reservation. Not necessarily a company we’ve talked to. We’ve seen such consistent growth from YouTube and we’ve mentioned this week after week, and every one of these updates. YouTube seems to be skyrocketing. So, as you’re like, “Oh, I’m rooting against the conglomerate and for the underdogs,” in this case, YouTube, to me, and Google’s properties, they’re the leaders in the clubhouse. I don’t feel that bad for Amazon.

Ben:                 I think I’d probably pick Kayak, and to me it’s not necessarily a story of absolute growth or percentage growth, but that’s an industry that we saw negatively impacted, and it was the rebound that I’m really impressed with. So, kudos to the Kayak team for rebounding after seeing some negative growth. On the losers side, Tyson, who do you think was impacted the most and who’s your loser for the month?

Tyson:              Well, I’m going to keep on this same theme there, and I’m not going to say overall numbers, the biggest loser, but for my loser I’m going to pick Hotels.com, because they were literally like neck and neck, like one and two with Booking, as far as how close together they were, and the last four weeks, they’ve really increased that separation. Out of the three, Kayak, Booking and Hotels for this [inaudible] third, I’m going to say Hotels.com would be my loser this month.

Ben:                 I’m going to go off the reservation again, and I’m not going to give a loser. I’m going to give a winner. The fire department that’s fighting the fires in Northern California. I know I mentioned this earlier. Tyson, your family is potentially impacted by the catastrophe that’s happening. It’s un-SEO related, but I’m going to take this opportunity to point out that there are people putting their lives in the way and rankings aside, I appreciate all of the effort that they do, and again, I hope that they’re able to help you and your family out in their time of need.

Tyson:              Thank you. Yeah, no man. Much appreciated. Hopefully we’ll move past this sooner than later.

Ben:                 We’re thinking of you. I appreciate you making the effort to join us in your time of need. I’m sure life is hectic for you and for any of the other SEOs in Northern California who may be affected. We’re thinking of you as well.

Ben:                 And that wraps up this episode of The Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Tyson Stockton, Searchmetrics’ director of services. If you’d like to learn more about Tyson, you can click on the link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes, or you can send him a tweet at Tyson_Stockton, T-Y-S-O-N_S-T-O-C-K-T-O-N. Of course, you can always give him a shoutout wishing him and his family good luck during this time of crisis.

Ben:                 If you have general marketing questions for me, or if you’d like to talk about this podcast, you can find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a tweet at Ben J. Shap, B-E-N. J. S-H-A-P. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/freetrial for your free trial of our SEO suite and our content experience software.

Ben:                 And if you liked this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning to discuss the new BERT update. All right. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.