Firstly, all of us here at Altius would like to wish all our clients and readers a very happy and prosperous New Year!
Secondly, we’re going to give a quick recap of what happened in SEO land over the past 12 months, as not only has it been a busy one for the team at Altius, but there were major changes in the search engines.
Core updates of 2019
Core search updates happen a few times a year and can cause noticeable rankings volatility. Some sites may even rebound from a previous update. This year there were few if any discernible patterns to the core updates. One big change in 2019 was that Google began confirming and even preemptively notifying users about core updates. It also started naming them.
March 2019 Core Update. In addition to being the first major algorithm change of the year, this update was the first to follow Google’s new naming convention referring to the type of update and the date it occurred.
“This was a noticeable update that we felt warranted confirming,” Google said, “But it is far from being the biggest update Google has ever done.” The company refused to characterize the update beyond that.
In a survey of more than 500 search community members after the March 2019 Core Update rolled out, the feedback did not reveal any obvious patterns as to the types of sites or content affected. Over half of respondents (58%) said they saw a negative impact after the update, a third (33%) said they saw a positive change and 9% reported no change.
June 2019 Core Update. For the first time, Google pre-announced its June 2019 Core Update on June 2, a day ahead of the rollout. The update took about five days to fully roll out, during which, the unrelated Diversity update also occurred (more on that below).
Sistrix, RankRanger, SearchMetrics and Moz shared some early data a few days after the update began. Sistrix’s Johannes Beus wrote, “Affected domains seems to be wider in this Google Core update than in previous updates,” a characteristic that Mordy Oberstein of RankRanger also observed. Marcus Tober of SearchMetrics and Dr. Pete Meyers of Moz called out visibility gains for sites in the medical space.
September 2019 Core Update. Google announced the September 2019 Core Update on September 24, several hours ahead of launch. This update appeared to have had a larger effect on rankings for Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) sites, however, the impact was not as significant as the June core update, according to data from various SEO toolset providers.
RankRanger compared the search result volatility in the health and travel sectors for the June and September 2019 core updates.
RankRanger and Sistrix both noted that sites within the medical and travel niches were affected, while SEMRush said that it did not see strong patterns among the winners and losers.
On October 25, Google introduced the BERT algorithm to search. BERT is an open-sourced technique for natural language understanding that Google says will improve the search engine’s understanding of queries — particularly longer spoken or written queries. Touted as the biggest change to its search system since RankBrain back in 2015, Google said that BERT would impact 1 in 10 queries.
BERT differs from other neural network-based techniques in its ability to train language models based on the entire set of words within a sentence or query, allowing those language models to learn word context based on surrounding words; not just the words that precede or follow a given word.
Within the context of search, BERT helps Google understand “longer, more conversational queries, or searches where prepositions like ‘for’ and ‘to’ matter a lot to the meaning,” the company has said.
When BERT is applied, it also affects results that appear in featured snippets. BERT-trained models are also, in part, behind Google’s top stories expansion to include multiple carousels related to the same topic. The company now applies BERT to search in over 70 languages globally.
BERT’s natural language processing capabilities are also applied to all Bing queries globally. Bing’s BERT implementation pre-dates Google’s by six months but the company didn’t tout it until after Google’s announcement.
Unconfirmed but detected volatility
As previously mentioned, Google makes changes to its search algorithms daily and most don’t get announced. Some, however, do generate chatter within the community.
In early January, third-party tracking tools showed significant volatility in the rankings; Google did not comment on the rumors. Noticeable rankings volatility occurred again in July. Speculation over a ranking update happened again in November, with Google issuing a noncommittal confirmation, stating, “We did, actually several updates, just as we have several updates in any given week on a regular basis.”
Although it is a considerable update for search engines, its impact may be difficult to gauge since many tracking tools primarily measure shorter queries and site owners often do not track long-tail queries.