Surviving the Google May 2020 Core Update


by Gary Spagnoli | June 15, 2020

How to Weather Google Search Algorithm Changes

A Google core update isn’t unusual. It happens several times a year. But disruption in a time of uncertainty is never a good thing. If you want your business to maintain visibility and traffic during good times and bad, you need to know how to successfully navigate Google’s core updates so you come out on top. Here’s what we learned before, during, and after the May 2020 core update.

On May 4th, Google announced that it would release what would become one of the most disruptive core algorithm updates so far. In fact, many SEOs and businesses have been quick to express their disapproval. Hopefully, the next update will alleviate these problems. But if you’re looking for solutions now, then we’ll show you how we’ve helped our clients navigate these troubled waters and put themselves ahead of the competition.

Signs of a Google Algorithm Update

At Zen Anchor, we noticed that one of our client’s traffic started to take a dip at the end of April. At first, we assumed that we were leveling out after a few months of rapidly increasing traffic. We were also in the middle of a site-wide content optimization strategy. And, it’s common to see spikes and falls in traffic on a site when adjusting keywords and editing content.

google analytics results pre and post covid update

Pages views peaked end of April

We were also tracking over 230 keywords in SEMRush. At the beginning of May, when nearly half our tracked keywords decreased in rank, it indicated a site-wide issue. Shortly after, Google announced that it was deploying a core update. With that, we had our cause to both the disruption and the drop in traffic. Next would be figuring out the extent of the disruption. 

Why You Need to Be Aware During a Core Update 

Effective SEO requires up-to-date monitoring. While Google will notify the public of updates, they often start rolling them out beforehand. If you don’t see the signs of an update happening, you may make changes to your content or site prematurely, causing more problems.

Aside from actively monitoring Google Analytics, we had alerts set up. Google Alerts and keyword tracking are great ways to stay current on your site’s performance and health. As a result, we knew the traffic shift was probably the result of a core update. Our next step was to figure out what the update covered and how it would affect the positioning of our clients. 

What Did Google Change With Its Recent Core Update?

Google rarely highlights in great detail what goes into its algorithm changes. Their mission is to ensure the search platform provides the best user experience. If they told everyone how the system worked, it would be easy for bad actors to manipulate it. Instead, they announce the update along with the standard practices people should follow if they want their content to rank.

Keep in mind, these standard practices don’t shed any more light on what to do other than a general, beginner’s blog on SEO would. Basically, it says, “write good content.”

Thanks, Google. 

In reality, the update created massive disruption. And as a result, people were hard-pressed to uncover the extent of these changes. From what’s available now, it seems that Google made changes to E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) and (perhaps) on how it ranked pages frontloaded with affiliate content.

An E-A-T update makes sense. E-A-T governs authority and how posts rank. There’s a need to ensure credibility in Your Money, Your Life (YMYL) businesses in the middle of the pandemic. Lives are at stake. And Google wants to ensure that authoritative sources get the most visibility during the crisis. That’s completely understandable. 

Additionally, how people are searching has changed due to COVID-19. Those changes have made it more difficult to map out what content people need when they search. Things simply couldn’t continue as normal. Search on Google has changed.

While the jury is still out on whether or not Google actually positioned genuine content over posts that front-load affiliate content, it makes sense. All it takes is a visit to a cooking blog to see how annoying it can be to dig for the content you want. Recipes are usually half-way down the page. Ranking pages that push the meat of their content to the top and leave affiliate rich content or promotional content to the end makes sense. It provides a better user experience. Still, it’s not definitive yet. 

What Should Your Business Do During a Core Update?

The biggest mistake you can make during a core update is doing anything drastic too soon. Google announced it was rolling out the core update on 4 May 2020. But, it didn’t finish rolling that update out until 18 May 2020. That’s a lot of time to watch volatility. A lot of time for anxiety to fester and potentially inspire bad decisions.

sitewide traffic drop post google core update

Sitewide traffic drop after the core update.

The best thing you can do is stay the course and wait. Take the data with a grain of salt until the dust settles. Trying to optimize based on data during a site update will have you running around in circles. You’ll watch your comprehensive, high-ranking content get buried one day and pop up the next. And you’ll see weak content shoot up bizarrely as everything shifts around

Any changes you base on what you see happening during this time put your brand and positioning at risk. Your best bet is to watch and listen until everything settles. Develop a strategy for how to hit the ground running once the coast is clear.

How to Minimize the Fallout of a Google Update

One reason we saw a huge drop in traffic with one client was due to a site-wide change in keyword ranking brought on by thin content. We had begun to repair and optimize content in January 2020, bringing daily page visits from 900 to 2700 by April. But we still had a ways to go before we fully built up and optimized all content on the site as part of a major overhaul.

SEO optimizations increased lift up until the update

SEO optimizations increased lift up until the update

The update affected a lot of the pages we hadn’t touched yet. They lost ranking on their targeted keywords, and overall traffic to the site dropped with it. The pages we had worked on, however, only saw minor fluctuations. But overall, they did better than the unoptimized pages.

How do you protect your site from sudden, massive shifts in traffic due to an unexpected Google update? You need a content marketing strategy backed by SEO that creates a solid foundation for your site visibility. Essentially, you need to be proactive about algorithm updates and safeguard your site against them. Here’s how you make that happen:

1. Optimize Content for SEO

If your business wants to avoid sudden sharp drops in traffic after a Google algorithm update, then you need a clear content marketing strategy from the start. Every post needs to be written with SEO, Brand, and Audience in mind. It needs to add value and compete with other posts in the same niche that target the same keywords.

By making SEO a cornerstone of your content strategy, you can be certain that you’re writing content that answers the questions people are asking. That means that there are traffic and potential backlink opportunities available from these pieces that better secure your site’s visibility. 

Content that we had optimized before the algorithm update managed to retain higher traffic after the change: 

seo results after adjustments

And some posts even saw an increase in traffic:

2. Do Your Keyword Research

There are reasons that posts rank. While domain authority and backlinks have major sway on ranking, you cannot neglect on-page SEO. Searching your target keyword phrase to see what ranks, then running the competition for that keyword through a platform like Ahrefs or SEMRush will help you gain better insight into which keywords you should target in your posts. 

3. Revisit Older Content

A great time to reevaluate older content is right after a Google core update. You will already be in the middle of a deep look at Google Analytics, trying to figure out how well your posts are performing. By analyzing your existing posts and comparing keywords, you may find better opportunities to optimize the content. You can find new keywords to target, new headlines to write, and new areas to cover, filling gaps that enhance your existing content and increase traffic to your site.

Keyword optimization can help existing content rank better, even during an update.

Keyword optimization can help existing content rank better, even during an update.

4. Pay Attention to Internal Link Structure

People want information and they want it fast. Google’s goal is to make that experience as seamless as possible. We saw a lift in traffic on certain posts by reorganizing them, putting key information at the top of the posts, and having an internal linking strategy between that content. This was a simple, quick fix that resulted in a boost of traffic, ranking, and a snippet for the target keyword. 

5. Avoid Thin, Mass-Produced Content

Google is getting smarter and smarter every day. Black hat techniques and ranking loopholes are constantly becoming less effective. Outsourced, mass-produced content, or thin content that fails to fully cover the keyword continues to fall deeper and deeper in the ranks. And as more businesses see the value in SEO, the battlefield becomes increasingly competitive. 

Instead, you need authoritative content. Pieces that go into detail and flesh out topics fully while providing your brand expertise will help better position your brand. Those pieces get more traffic and more backlinks, meaning that during the next update, there’s a greater chance that they won’t be affected. The more of those pieces you have, the more stable your site traffic will be.

6. Be Patient

It takes time for you Google to crawl and index your pages. It also takes time to clearly see the full effects of a Google algorithm update. Your traffic may skyrocket or fall during an update, but you have to wait for the dust to settle to see where you stand. And you have to be prepared that it may take you some time to hit your stride again. Still, SEO pays off over time. Remember that.

7. Realize This Isn’t The End

This is less an existential or crisis motivated statement and more a reality: Google releases core updates all the time. This one has been the most disruptive in the last 2 years. But it’s certainly not the last. There will be more updates down the road, some undoing the damage from this update, others adding new measures into the mix. 

Whatever frustrations you have about this update, provided you’re following best SEO practices with your content posting, may be corrected by the next one. Always keep that in mind. There’s never a FINAL update. Google is always changing, better, or worse.

Why SEO Matters More Now Than Ever

The knee-jerk reaction with SEO and algorithm updates is, “why bother?” You can work hard towards boosting site visibility only to have your efforts washed aside by the next big Google core update. 

In fact, there’s a lot of similarities between building a sandcastle and working on SEO. You’re working against the tide, hoping to build something that will last. But if you built it on a strong foundation and maintain it, the results of your efforts will show with more and more people noticing what you’ve created. 

seo is a lot like building sandcastles

It is true that Google’s algorithm updates can set you back, but that doesn’t mean SEO is fruitless. Google lays out the general groundwork for posting on your site. That will get you started. Optimizing for keywords will help your content rank, giving your brand more visibility. And by looking into the reasoning behind the update, you can even gain a deeper advantage…

What a Google Core Update Tells Us About Search

Google wants to improve the experience for all users on the platform. They base their changes off vast data lakes they have at their disposal, developing new features to enhance the user experience. By understanding those trends, you can apply similar updates to your content and your website, making the experience for your users better. 

The key is knowing how Google functions, what people are looking for, and how they’re searching for it before you write your content. But with the right skill set and approach, you can build content that won’t wash out with the tide every time there’s a new Google Core update. And that’s the content that will help expand visibility for your brand, giving you a lasting edge.