Understanding Google Algorithms and SEO

Posted by Emery Pearson on Jan 13, 2023 9:30:00 AM

search engine algorithm
This was originally written in January 2021 but has since been updated.

With more than 2 billion websites in the world and 2 trillion searches a year, Google has its work cut out for them when it comes to connecting users to the information they need. How does it manage all of that? With a complex set of algorithms, of course. 

Here's what you need to know about Google's search algorithms and how they impact SEO

What is the Google Search Algorithm?

The Google algorithm is actually a complex set of algorithms that help users find what they need on search. These algorithms, along with various ranking signals, fire off all day, every day, addressing seemingly infinite combinations of searches and searchers. 

Google doesn't explain a whole lot about how these work, but it has explained what determines search results, including: 

  • The meaning and intent of a query
  • How relevant a particular webpage is to that query
  • The quality and reliability of the content on said webpage
  • The usability of the page
  • The context and settings related to the individual conducting the search—this includes location, previous searches, and any settings on the Google account

Some algorithms of the past and present have names, like Hummingbird, Penguin, RankBrain, BERT and Helpful Content Update. These are some of the most impactful algorithms, and their inceptions and updates shook up search (and SEO as we knew it). Additionally, some updates that aren't actually algorithms, like E-A-T, affect Google's algorithms in big ways. 

What does that all mean for search engine optimization? Essentially, SEO is never a "one-size-fits-all" approach, nor can any given tactic be counted on to work forever, because the constant algorithm updates challenge longstanding tricks or tasks. 

How Often Does it Change?

Google has reported that algorithm updates happen hundreds of times a year. The majority of these go completely undetected, although core updates that can happen a couple of times a year tend to shake things up. 

In 2020, for example, three core updates made waves in January, May, and December. In between those there were larger bug fixes, unnamed updates, and presumably those hundreds of smaller updates that no one really noticed.

You might be wondering how you know if an update is happening, and the short answer is, you can't, usually. Google's search blog typically has information about the larger core updates. They also answer questions during their SEO office hours.  Places like Search Engine Journal keep tabs on the history of big updates

Some tools, like MozCast or SEMrush's SERP Volatility Sensor, track the SERPs for changes in order to predict whether updates have occurred or are occurring. These can be helpful to look at if you're seeing inconsistencies or big changes in your keywords, but there's not always something you can do about it other than keep an eye on things. And, unless there's an announcement about an update from Google, the impact or focus are anyone's guess. 

What Happens During an Algorithm Update

The whole world quakes and shivers. 

I kid, I kid. In truth though, watching an algorithm update roll out—especially watching it closely—can be pretty terrifying. Keyword rankings jump all over the place. Sites can take huge traffic hits. Oftentimes, particular industries seem to be targeted. 

Core updates usually take at least several days to a week or two to roll out; sometimes the reverberations can last weeks. Sometimes folks throw out theories about stuff going wrong and Google working to reverse specific changes, but the truth is, we rarely know much about what's happening. Notices from Google about updates come from Twitter or short blog posts. They may talk generally about the focus or intention of the update, but there aren't specifics that you'll be able to glean and apply to your site. 

Occasionally, though, we might get some helpful information that sites can use. For instance, Google's E-A-T and YMYL search guidelines and updates have helped site owners and marketers better understand what Google wants from content. Similarly, Google's BERT update wasn't designed to change ranking signals, but it reflects Google's commitment to better understanding what searchers want. In turn, that helps us to write content that's less about keyword-stuffing and more about connecting with readers.  In Google's newest update, Helpful Content Update, the algorithm targeted low-quality content that is deemed "unhelpful" to the reader because it was created to rank and not help answer your audience's questions. 

What to do if your Site Gets Hit

Okay, so let's talk worst-case scenario: The algorithm update hurts your site. Now what?

It's easy to blame algorithm updates for lost traffic and rankings, and in fact that's the first place a lot of SEOs will jump to when seeing a site that's taken a hit. But before you assume that's the case, it's important to do some research around why you're losing traffic. You'll want to do some digging into various data, particularly Google's tools (Analytics and Search Console). 

If you're pretty sure the hit is due to an update, then there's a few things you should know.

First, Google has gotten really good at updates (they've been at this a while!), so it's unlikely that there's some egregious error on Google's part (though it might feel that way).

Second, Google has said that, in the event of big changes after an update, there's nothing to "fix." Instead, there are opportunities for improvement.

Finally, have a bit of patience. If you're seeing volatility or tanking traffic in the midst of an announced or assumed update, you'll want to wait until the dust settles before making any drastic changes.

It can sometimes (SOMETIMES) be helpful to visit forums, comment sections, or subreddits to see what others are saying about updates, but keep in mind that most of it is just theory-based and/or making projections based on what individual sites are seeing. The best you can typically get from those resources is assurances that you're not alone, and sometimes it's easy to pinpoint specific types of sites (like affiliate sites) or industries that were most affected. 

These days, many of the algorithm updates we see (and will continue to see) are related to Google's Core Web Vitals, Google's metrics on site speed, responsiveness, and usability. Google has indicated that they will be leaning more heavily on these metrics for ranking indicators, so it's likely that we'll start seeing sites with poor page speed and the like take even bigger hits after updates. 

So, then, the work you'll do after taking a hit from an algorithm update could be any number of things, such as:

As I mentioned, you can't really "fix" anything after an algorithm update. The best you can do is do better and make your website fast, responsive, and user-friendly, while also creating unique, useful content that your visitors want to see. 

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Emery Pearson

Written by Emery Pearson

Emery is the content strategist at Tribute Media. She has an MA in rhetoric and composition from Boise State University, and she is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University. She lives in southern California with a bunch of creatures and many plants.