Businesses need to place highly in SERPs to gain organic traffic. For more than 20 years, Google has been the most prominent search engine globally, helping companies become more visible to their target audiences online.
In this fourth and final installment of our series on Google algorithm updates, we talk about the most recent changes that the company has put in place.
2016 to 2017: More Mobile-Friendly Updates
After nearly two years, Google announced an update to Penguin. They said that Penguin 4.0 is now real-time and part of the core algorithm and that it will devalue individual spam links instead of the whole site.
In 2017, Google also started rolling out penalties for intrusive pop-ups and interstitials that affect the UX. This year, the company started providing security warnings on Chrome—visitors to sites with unsecured forms would get a notification that the site is ‘not secure.’
This move signals Google’s preference for HTTPS. SEOs note, though, that putting this warning before loading a site’s homepage might have also caused a dip in site traffic for the affected websites.
Finally, Google increased snippet length in 2017. Before the update, SEOs typically kept meta descriptions to 155 characters. After it, though, some optimization professionals noticed results having approximately 160 to 230 characters, sometimes more.
Besides these confirmed updates, there were several unconfirmed ones that SEO professionals reported on within these two years. Among these are algorithm fluxes in January, May, and September to December 2016. There were also several unconfirmed updates throughout 2017.
Implications on Businesses
The various rolling updates, the penalization of intrusive interstitials, and the ranking boost for sites with mobile-friendly UX point to Google wanting to make the internet easier to navigate for people on tablets and smartphones. Businesses and organizations, especially those with a local audience, benefit from optimizing for mobile. An unconfirmed September 2016 update, dubbed “Possum” by SEOs, impacted organic results for local and Google Maps results at the time.
Since these changes were happening nearly every month, it seemed like Google was doing plenty of testing for local signals. However, this is the start of users’ physical locations becoming important in SERPs, which search marketers leverage in local SEO.
2018 and 2019: BERT and Other Related Updates
In 2018, Google announced the rollout of the mobile-first index. This year, they also moved videos from organic results into a video carousel, which caused a shake-up since the algorithm previously considered video results as organic ones. This change did not seem to affect the number of SERPs with videos, though negatively.
Google also rolled out the mobile page speed update in the same period. This turned page speed into a significant factor for mobile results. It affected only the slowest mobile sites, and there seemed to be no significant ranking shifts on mobile. At least two broad core algorithm updates occurred between these years. These changes seemed to affect websites in the health and wellness verticals more than others.
Finally, Google upgraded its framework in 2019 to support BERT, a natural language processing algorithm. BERT allows Google to understand the context better and interpret natural language searches. In the same year, BERT rolled out worldwide.
Implications on Businesses
Adopting BERT for Google makes the search engine more capable of solving problems with polysemic or ambiguous words. The more Google uses it, the more the search engine will understand context and nuance, even for pages in languages other than English. This framework will not directly affect your business growth, but it makes content relevance even more crucial.
Ensuring relevance goes beyond making the reading experience better for humans. The video carousel update caused a shake-up among e-commerce retailers. Google’s algorithm included product images in video carousels, even when a website didn’t have videos about said items! For example, searching for “jewelry sets for less” resulted in retailer Overstock.com appearing in a video carousel even if they had no video targeting the keyword. Google has since fixed this issue, but it shows how massive an effect changes like this could have.
2020 to Present
One of the most significant shifts in online behavior in 2020 happened not because of an algorithm change but because of a public health crisis. COVID-19 dramatically changed many things about people’s lives, including how people browsed online. Since people’s needs changed, the items they searched for did as well. E-commerce boomed, and your money or your life content gained more readers.
The pandemic did no slow Google down, though—the company started with a core update in January, and an announcement that featured snippets wouldn’t appear as traditional organic results anymore. More core updates followed, despite significant glitches and bugs in indexing and canonicalization in the last quarter of the year.
At the start of 2021, Google announced the rollout of passage ranking for queries in English. Google said: “since sometimes the single sentence that answers your question might be buried deep in a web page. We’ve recently made a breakthrough in ranking and are now able to not just index web pages, but individual passages from the pages. By better understanding the relevancy of specific passages, not just the overall page, we can find that needle-in-a-haystack information you’re looking for.”
It will take years for us to observe the consequences of the latest Google updates. However, what is clear is that the company would like to stick to being a universally valuable, accessible resource. Digital commerce has managed to pull through, despite COVID-19 and other serious blows to the world economy. The best way for businesses to ensure their relevance is to keep learning from trends and interpreting them in helpful ways.
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