Last Updated on October 16, 2019
On June 3rd, Google began to roll out an algorithm update. It was the largest core update since at least October of 2018, and judging by the results, probably even longer than that. It was such a big deal, Google warned us about it the day before it happened. It was such a big deal, it may have taken up to five days to roll out across all the data centers nationwide. It was such a big deal that businesses were changed overnight. The impact was unmistakable. The fact that Google rolled out the new diversity update on the same week muddied the water even further. (Google’s Diversity Update makes it harder for the same website to have more than one first-page result for any given keyword, and extraordinarily difficult for the website to have three or more first page results.)
Google’s June Core Algorithm Update was a game changer in and of itself. Google’s official counsel is that this is a core update and “there is nothing to fix.” Their advice is to simply create more, high-quality content and a better user experience. Gallons of ink (or perhaps, more accurately, thousands of bits) have been spilled by SEOs across the country, most of which say little aside from the fact that Google values relevance and quality content. While true, it is hardly insightful actionable, or really even remotely helpful. Unfortunately, that sums up most of the commentary on the internet about the June Core Algorithm Update. Meanwhile, online businesses are devastated, and no one seems to be offering any real guidance.
This article is not intended to be more of the same. We are going to offer our insights into what is going on in an attempt to give you a way to understand and grapple with the June Core Algorithm Update. That means we are going to be viewing correlation as causation, making educated guesses, and drawing conclusions that might not be 100% accurate. Because if we wait until we are sure (and we may never be 100% sure) we will be well into another update.
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We don’t have access to Google’s algorithm. What we do is monitor hundreds and hundreds of sites, and many of them are terrible. The good sites that we work on give us some insights on what is going on, but the bad websites are even more revealing. Why are we monitoring so many terrible sites, you may ask? Because we monitor sites for a lot of prospects and many of our client’s competitors. It has been pretty revealing. We also follow some of the leading SEOs in the world, and they have some pretty good insights, too. We think we are putting the dots together. From what we can tell, these are the key take-aways of the June Core Algorithm Update.
What Google’s June Core Algorithm Update is NOT
It might be easier to start with what we think the update does not involve (or only peripherally involves). We believe that none of the following are important variables in the most recent update, though many of them remain important ranking factors overall:
- Domain Age: From what we can see, both old and new sites have been hurt by the update. Also, both old and new sites have been helped by the update.
- Security: We have seen websites with missing or expired security certificates see marked improvement in their rankings. We believe that Google has emphasized having proper security certificates in place in previous algorithm updates and feels the bulk of the problem has been resolved. As such, they may have even diminished this factor or simply allowed other rankings factors to grow in importance. This is still important but appears to not have been a target of this update. Google spokesperson Danny Sullivan more or less confirmed this in subsequent correspondence.
- Site Speed: Danny Sullivan also more or less confirmed that the June Core Algorithm Update was not targeting site speed. This is still an important factor but appears to be unchanged by this update.
- Mobile-Friendliness: Just like site speed and security, we still think this is an important ranking factor, but we think Google has addressed this with previous algorithm updates. If you saw a dramatic shift in SERPs in early June, it is probably not a direct result of mobile friendliness. Google was less explicit about whether or not this factor was changed in the update, but if you read between the lines, it appears not to have been a focus in the most recent round.
- Ads: There have been a lot of theories that sites with lots of paid ads suffered the most with this update. While we cannot disprove that, we are not seeing any proof that this is the case. Some of the biggest winners following the algorithm update have lots of on-page ads, and we view this theory with cautious suspicion, at this point.
- Freshness: Some SEOs believed that Google was rewarding websites that recently did updates or have fresh content. We believe that Google made that adjustment in the March Florida SEO Update. SEO guru, Eric Lancheres, has examined 3400 keywords to discern the mysteries of the June update, and actually sees a slight correlation away from fresher content by Google. Newer content didn’t rate quite as well. It appears to be a non-factor in the latest core update.
- Content Length: In our observations, “shopping cart” sites, which typically have thinner content, with fewer words on a given page, have actually experienced more gains than losses. News websites (perhaps most vocally The Daily Mail and the Bitcoin news site CCN.com) which typically have longer and overall more content, have experienced more losses than gains. More on The Daily Mail and CCN later, and why news sites might be experiencing setbacks in the E-A-T Section. We are pretty confident that longer content was not rewarded in this June Core Algorithm Update
- Content Quality: In some ways, this piggybacks on the observation of content length, but is absolutely the more stunning result of the algorithm update. Websites with undeniably terrible content have, on at least some occasions, prospered since the update. By terrible content, we mean sites that are loaded with spelling and grammar errors. By terrible content, we mean pages with just 150 words of the least engaging content imaginable. Most strikingly, by terrible content, we mean that we have been monitoring websites that are complete copies of one another, and all 6 versions of the site on 6 different URLs experienced sudden jumps in the SERPs despite duplicate content. We are quite sure this is NOT what Google intended, but it is an undeniable result of the June Core Algorithm Update. What we believe is happening is that Google is allowing other factors (see searcher’s intent below) to essentially over-ride the usual grading of unique, high-quality content.
So, if your site saw a dramatic dip in rankings in June, we do not think any of the above ranking factors are really what hurt you.
Some of the Key Factors in Google’s June Core Algorithm Update
What is the June Core Algorithm about, then? We acknowledge that we do not have an exhaustive list, but we are stringing together some strong theories. Here are three key insights:
- Google Goes Multi-Media: This is the least solid of our three key points. The one really clear measurable regarding multi-media is that Search Metrics is reporting a 25% jump in video carousels in the page one SERPs in June. Google is emphasizing video content. We have noticed that websites with lots of videos tend to be doing better than those with fewer video offerings. We do not see the same with image counts. We also see some correlation between the optimization/implementation of best practices on images and videos and ranking improvements in June. This is where the connection is tenuous, but we still think this is a likely trend. We have been emphasizing image and video best practices for almost 2 years, and we think June’s Core Algorithm Update is another small step toward 1- convincing website owners to employ properly tagged images, and 2- forcing website owners to create an optimized video in YouTube and then embedding those in their websites. There are a few reasons for this. It will help Google to create better image libraries for Google images, and better video libraries for both Google and their key subsidiary, YouTube. Web developers can make Google’s job of returning relevant results much easier with proper optimization. More importantly, Google wants to make the web accessible for people with sensory disabilities. Visually impaired people commonly use software which reads websites to them. Images with proper ALT-tags are compatible with this software, making the image “readable” to a visually impaired person. On YouTube, Google strongly prefers closed captioning (or at least a transcription of the spoken words in the description field) to make videos more accessible for the hearing impaired. We suspect this update placed a little more emphasis on these factors. It certainly is giving optimized video more exposure. These are also fairly specific recommendations that you can use to create a concrete plan of action if you were adversely affected by the June algorithm update.
- Searcher’s Intent: This is at once perhaps the most important part of the June Algorithm Update, and the least reported on by SEOs. We have discovered an extraordinarily strong connection between odd SERPs and less-than-clear search queries. We believe Google’s AI is attempting to determine the intent of the online searcher, even when that intent is not clear, and sacrificing lots of other ranking factors to do so. Here is an example. In the spring, if you had searched “history of cowbells” you would get 10 first page results with lots of relevant, quality content. If you had searched “buy cowbells” you would get 10 first page results of places that sell cowbells, most predominantly Amazon, eBay, Walmart, and other national online retailers with little on-page content. There might be a few local retailers in the organic listings, as well. If you had simply searched “cowbells,” it would be unclear to Google if you wanted images, video, audio, information, or you were actively shopping for cowbells. Google would likely have given you a smattering of different things, but the informational sites with longer, higher quality content would have had a big advantage. That is changing.
Now when you search “cowbells” the results are very different. Google is assuming you might want to buy cowbells, and that you might want to buy cowbells locally. Whereas before, the longer content of informational sites would likely dominate, now the listings begin with a video carousel, a couple national/online retailers, and (depending on your location) probably complete the list with more retailers with local shops nearby than informational sites. Again, the longer, richer content of the informational sites SHOULD have a big content advantage, but Google’s interpretation of user intent is trumping that ranking factor. (And if you searched “I’ve Got a Fever and the Only Prescription is More Cowbell,” you would be treated to one of the funniest videos of all time. There are some things Google can’t mess up.) So, there are two important conclusions we can make here.
- Local Results: Based on our observations, Google appears significantly more likely to give you local results. This is more than just the Google Maps 3-Pack. The organic SERPs themselves are likely to include retailers who carry the types of products Google thinks your search query implies you are looking for. This is true of local “Mom & Pop” stores who have an online presence, but much more so for large national retailers with a branch nearby, such as Walmart, Kohls, Target, Best Buy, etc.
- E-commerce Sites: Typically, the lighter content on “shopping cart” sites were at a competitive disadvantage over traditional or informational sites. Now it appears that Google is interpreting many queries as a request to shop and is favoring sites that can actually conduct purchases for at least some general search queries.
The problem is that, even if we are 100% right in this analysis, it is hard to come up with concrete action steps based on search queries. Keyword diversification is helpful. Making sure every branch and affiliate location is in place on your Google My Business and your website is imperative. Having location pages on your website for different areas may be helpful, as well, and we are beginning to re-explore that with select clients. Having an understanding of what Google is doing and why may help you to diagnose the problem and come up with a custom solution to get you back on top.
- E-A-T: The ranking factor getting the most publicity this summer is E-A-T, which stands for “Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness.” Google specifically said that this ranking factor was going to be a significant one in website that deal with “your money or your life” – health, financial, and transactional websites. In the era of fake news accusations, however, Google is attempting to implement a way of separating credible, trusted sites from those that are not. We can see this in the two most vocal victims of June’s core algorithm update – CCN and The Daily Mail. CCN is a credible cryptocurrency website. As such, it certainly falls into the “your money or your life” category that gains special attention from Google. Unfortunately, CCN would often post click-bait articles of highly questionable veracity to attract visitors and backlinks. As part of Google’s core update, they appear to be punishing websites that engage in this type of activity. CCN announced they were closing their doors.
The same penalty may be in place for The Daily Mail, the UK’s second most popular news site. While the site has won a number of journalism awards, it also seems to relish salacious stories, and attracts people to credible reporting with misleading, tabloid-esque headlines. Once again, there appears to be a penalty being placed by Google for questionable trustworthiness. We have noticed that some industries seem to be getting hit particularly hard – nutraceuticals, Eastern medicine sites, mlm sites, tabloid news, conspiracy sites, hoax sites, etc. Google seems to be drawing lines in the sand about truthfulness and credibility. Websites making questionable claims are being hit. The burden of proof appears to be on the website.
One of the major measures of this is in domain authority/backlinking. Lancheres reports a very strong correlation between high domain authority and increasing SERPs in June. While links to individual pages and total backlink counts are both strong factors, the quality of links to the entire domain appears to be the leading factor in increasing SERPs following Google’s June core algorithm update. You may recall that we noticed a strong correlation between .gov backlinks and SERP improvement following the March Florida SEO Update. In June, Lancheres is reporting a strong correlation between .edu backlinks and SERP improvements. We believe Google is looking to backlinks as proof of trustworthiness. Lancheres noticed three other things about backlinking that we found particularly interesting: 1- pages with more follow internal links saw a marked improvement in rankings, (avoid internal no-follow links) 2- pages that linked out to other highly trusted sites saw marked improvement in rankings, and 3- sites that had more image backlinks (as opposed to text backlinks) saw very marked improvement in rankings.
So, if you are not in a “your money or your life” industry, and you were not adversely affected by the recent update, the implications here are pretty clear. Do internal (follow) linking. Link out to highly trusted websites. Try to get backlinks from .edu and .gov sites. If you can get backlinks, try to get image backlinks that have your preferred keyword(s) in the ALT tags. Don’t publish content with questionable authenticity. You are on a good path.
If your site has been adversely affected, you have a much more difficult path to travel. The idea is to establish your expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. This can probably only be done in baby steps. Start by removing things of questionable truthfulness. Do not assume that all points of view are innocent until proven guilty. Google is the sole arbiter, and unless you build a search engine to compete with them, you will be affected by their perception of trustworthiness. We suspect that Google believes the science is in on many controversial subjects. If you had a forum section where someone supported the notion that the Earth was flat, that vaccines were harmful, or that global warming was a hoax, we think you could be associating your site with view Google believes lack credibility. This is a new and strange thing for website owners to have to worry about: how off-topic posts might affect their website in the eyes of Google. For most websites, it might be best to avoid opinions that seems anti-scientific, especially if they involve health. It is also risky to be associated with claims where the science is still unproven. To reference or link to a researcher who believes baking soda or CBD can cure cancer might be to lose trustworthiness in Google’s eyes. Until medical authorities support a claim, it is suspect in Google’s eyes. In short, start by policing your site for E-A-T, and set a very high standard, especially for things involving health and wealth.
So, is this what you really need to know about Google’s June Core Algorithm Update? Absolutely not. There is more we are trying to learn all the time. There are no guarantees our conclusions are completely correct. We will guarantee they are not complete. That said, if you or someone you know saw a dramatic decline in the SERPs since Google’s June Core Algorithm Update, this information could prove useful. Perhaps the most important recommendation came from Google’s Mueller – have an experienced outside party evaluate your website and share their insights. If we can help, please call us at 1-800-255-0396.
Authorship: Derrick D.