What Are Google Search Algorithm Updates?
Google Search updates refer to the changes Google makes to its search ranking algorithm – the system that determines how it ranks web pages in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
The updates aim to improve the value, relevance, quality, authoritativeness, and user experience of search results. In this post, we will discuss the following types of Google updates:
- Core Updates
- (Product) Reviews Updates
- Helpful Content Updates
- Page Experience Updates
- Search Spam Updates.
The updates help Google achieve this by rewarding websites that meet these expectations while penalizing those that do not. In the next section, we will discuss the recent Google search algorithm updates, what they mean, and how businesses can recover if being hit by them.
Recent Major Google Updates and Their Business Impacts
Google’s search engine and its algorithms heavily influence the ever-evolving digital landscape. The updates not only shape how we search and consume information, but they also have significant implications for businesses and marketers.
In this section, we will explore the recent major updates and delve into their profound business impacts.
April 2023 Reviews Update
Rollout started: April 12, 2023
Rollout completed: April 25, 2023
The first thing you might’ve noticed on seeing this update is that it’s not a product reviews update but just a “reviews update”. This is because the April 2023 reviews update doesn’t only focus on product reviews but also analyzes reviews, comparisons, and opinions on services, apps, products, movies, and similar topics.
In Google’s words, this algorithm was
“designed to evaluate articles, blog posts, pages, or similar first-party standalone content written to provide a recommendation, give an opinion, or provide analysis. It does not evaluate third-party reviews, such as those posted by users in the reviews section of a product or service page.”
Google calls this algorithm “the reviews system,” and you can read all about it from the link. It affected businesses in various industries significantly because it assesses individual review pages for such sites. For pure review websites, the algorithm analyzes the entire content inventory.
From the chatter in the SEO community at the time of the update, it was clear that the massive drops were predominantly in desktop traffic. Furthermore, such updates are usually on a global scale. But the March 2023 core update affected the USA and Canada traffic more drastically.
Google March 2023 Core Update
Rollout started: March 15, 2023
Rollout completed: March 28, 2023
This was the first core update announced since September 2022, and it brought about more SERP turbulence than the last one. There was a spike in rank volatility on March 16, according to Semrush Sensor.
The March 2023 core update was aimed to reward websites with good E-E-A-T (experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness) and overall SEO signals as usual for core updates.
The vertical-specific impact was evident. On desktop, the impact of this update was mostly felt by businesses in these verticals with a volatility score of above 6:
- Internet and telecommunication
- Health and medical
- Law and government
On mobile, it was mostly felt by the same verticals but this time, including the beauty and fitness niches. Businesses operating in these niches need to pay particular attention to the fluctuations and adjust their SEO strategies accordingly.
The March 2023 core update also showcased a combination of smaller rank movement and drastic shifts – the average number of ranking positions lost or gained was similar to the September 2022 core update, but there were more significant fluctuations in March. This was clear from a higher percentage of URLs ranking beyond the 20th position before the update.
February 2023 Product Reviews Update
Rollout started: February 21, 2023
Rollout completed: March 7, 2023
The February 2023 product reviews update was yet another effort by Google to provide searchers with the most genuine product reviews. Websites with poor product reviews tanked in traffic following this update. This means that Google checks for website and content signals that show that the reviewer has first-hand experience and that they are not biased.
The business impact was similar to that of previous product review updates, only that this one did not affect only English-language websites. It applied to websites in Dutch, English, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese languages.
Affiliate businesses, review websites, comparison sites, and e-commerce stores that utilize product reviews that do not demonstrate originality got drowned in the SERPs.
The business impact of this algorithm update was precisely what we expected from past updates – rewarding authentic product reviews and penalizing the low-quality ones. However, one thing that stood out here was that Google promoted pages based on the way they speak to users. For example, Google rewarded product reviews written in the first-person voice, demonstrating real-life experience using the products. This indicated that Google Search has become better at understanding language and searcher intent.
Key Takeaways for Businesses from 2023 updates
2023 brought these new trends to how Google updates impact businesses:
- Accent on social proof. Reviews became an even more important part of getting users’ feedback about products and services, therefore a good reviews collection program will help your rankings.
- Expert content wins. E-EAT as a concept presumes that Google will give preference to businesses that showcase their expertise and authority via helpful and valuable content.
- Trust has become the central part of content quality assessment. It’s no longer enough just to write good copy. Company and teams’ reputation and authority now drive rankings more than ever before.
- SEO is no longer (that) slow. With increased updates pace, Google started to speed up high-quality content in rankings, setting valuable, expert content up for success in the light of raising AI-generated content.
How to Know If You’ve Been Affected By An Update?
You will lose search traffic… suddenly. Various updates target specific factors, but they usually all lead to lower rankings and consequentially decline in organic users.
Since getting hit by Google updates isn’t the only culprit for traffic loss, you can check if an update is rolling out or just finished rolling out.
Updates are announced on social media, and a quick Google search will show you posts on any new updates.
Another thing to check is the verticals and factors the update focuses on. We always update this page with all you need to know, especially business-wise. Check your Google Search Console and compare your traffic to an earlier time. Do the same on Google Analytics to understand how or if the way you were affected corresponds with the update’s reported impact.
In the next section, we’ll explain precisely how to recover traffic based on the type of Google Search algorithm update.
How to Recover From Google Search Algorithm Updates
Google rolls out various types of Search algorithm updates to improve how they rank specific types of websites based on select factors. If your website experiences a drop in rankings or organic traffic after a Google Search update, the first thing to do is thoroughly understand the specific update and its overall impact on websites.
Monitor SEO thought leaders’ opinions and read Google’s official announcements to gather insights on the focus areas and potential algorithm changes. For example, if your website was hit by the May 2023 core update, you have to optimize your site’s E-E-A-T to recover.
The next step is to analyze the impact of the update on your website’s organic traffic and rankings. Compare your pages’ impressions and average positions in Google Search Console and landing pages report in Google Analytics in the period after the update to a previous period.
When you identify the impacted pages, we recommend that you do not make drastic changes to your website until the rollout is complete. When you finally make the necessary changes to recover, you have to exercise patience and wait for Google to recognize the changes, as this can take time.
Continue reading for actionable steps to recover from getting hit by the major types of Google Search updates.
1. Google Core Updates
Google makes broad changes to its search algorithms and systems multiple times yearly through core updates. These updates are implemented to make sure that the search engine delivers to searchers the most useful and reliable results.
Core updates do not target individual pages or websites. What they do is improve the search results, and so in the process, lower-quality pages will rank lower as better ones outrank them in the SERPs.
How to recover from Google Core Updates:
- Audit your website comprehensively to identify areas that the core update may have affected. Focus on content evaluation, technical analysis, page experience, and backlink profile.
- Compare the performance of your website to that of competitors and identify areas where they improved after the core update. This analysis helps you to understand what works in your industry or niche and it’s useful for updating your strategies and tactics.
- Improve the quality of your content to align with searchers’ expectations and fill gaps in your content.
- Improve your E-E-A-T score by ensuring that your overall website and pieces of content demonstrate that the author has experience, expertise, and authoritativeness and that they can be trusted to provide accurate, unbiased information.
- Make necessary technical improvements to ensure your website is well-optimized and user-friendly. Review page speed, and mobile optimization, and resolve technical errors.
NOTE: Your website is unlikely to recover from being hit by a core update after making these changes since they were not penalized in the first place. You will benefit from the improvements you made when there is a next core update.
2. Google (Product) Reviews Updates
These updates were always rolled out as Product Reviews Updates. However, Google dropped the word “product” from the April 2023 version. This confirms that its review system now evaluates not just product reviews, but also those of movies, apps, services, and reviews of all kinds.
The language also changed in Google’s documentation, as not only “product” was removed; “shoppers” was changed to “people,” and “product” was either changed to “thing,” “something,” or removed entirely from the documents.
The targets of Google Reviews Updates are websites that publish comparisons, review content, top lists, and similar, as well as some e-commerce and e-retailer platforms. In other words, these are crucial updates to watch if your business publishes reviews of any form.
How to recover from Google reviews updates:
- Audit all your product review content to identify the specific ones that got hit. Delete or improve reviews that may be thin, lacking detail, or heavily promotional.
- For the reviews that you will optimize, ensure that they are in line with Google’s guide for writing high-quality reviews. Additionally, you may want to read Google Search’s reviews system to understand what Google expects and optimize as required.
- Ensure that your reviews are evaluating the item from the perspective of a user. For the best results, it’s recommended to become a user and physically test the product, take pictures and videos, and write your findings in the review.
- Enhance E-E-A-T as Google evaluates this when ranking content. Revamp your “About” page, and showcase the authors with their links (LinkedIn, websites, citations, or social media). Apart from improving the reviews to show experience, you also want to be non-biased and include links to multiple e-retailers offering the product. The reviews that get devalued in these updates are those from authors who publish low-quality reviews or review products they have not used. Therefore, you want to enhance E-E-A-T to show your experience using this product.
- When updating your articles on the “best” products, ensure to explain why you consider a product the best and provide first-hand evidence.
- Engage users and enhance their experience by diversifying your content formats with rich media. Incorporate original product images and videos taken by you, infographics, and comparison tables. Doing this also adds a layer of credibility to your product reviews.
- If your top 10-type listicle tanked, update it following these guidelines and consider creating individual reviews for each of the products featured in your listicle. Also, remember to link back to the original post. With this, you’re not only proving extensive experience using these products, but you’re also creating a strong cluster to build topical authority.
- If discussing the benefits of the thing you are reviewing, you should also include the drawbacks or personal opinions.
- Describe the evolution of the reviewed item to provide insight into the improvements, issues, and new features.
- Provide key information about the product that you found in the course of using the item, beyond the features the merchant or manufacturer lists.
- Leverage user-generated content (UGC) using customer reviews, testimonials, and verified user experiences on your product reviews. Also, you want to consider integrating social proof elements such as social share counts and trust badges to improve trust.
- Actively engage with your audience by responding to (legitimate) comments. Questions, and feedback on your product review pages. This indicates that you are committed to providing value, and it increases the likelihood of users sharing your content and coming back to your site. These are vital signals for product reviews.
- Arrange reviewers to provide evidence in the form of visuals, audio, or links to their own experiences with the product to demonstrate expertise and enhance the authenticity of your product reviews.
- Include links to multiple sellers providing readers with various purchasing options. This is to provide the readers with options to purchase from their preferred merchant.
3. Helpful Content Updates
Google uses its Helpful Content Updates to rank the content that most closely aligns with the searcher’s intent. They demote pages that were created specifically to rank in search engines (AKA SEO content) rather than to help users.
On the other hand, Google rewarded insightful pages that serve to help users be it navigationally, commercially, or for information.
According to Google, Helpful Content Updates are an ongoing effort to ensure that the search engine delivers the most helpful content first.
How to recover from Google Helpful Content Updates:
- Improve the affected pages to focus on providing unique value rather than regurgitating existing information. Eliminate redundant portions of your pages that obstruct searchers’ access to answers. Compare your content to highly ranked pages and improve yours accordingly.
- Remove low-quality unhelpful content from your website. You may do this and re-publish them after updating them.
- We encourage you to read the linked Google page titled What Creators Should Know About Google’s August 2022 Helpful Content Update to understand how Google wants you to write great content that will be deemed to be helpful.
4. Page Experience Updates
As the name hints, Page Experience Updates are all about how your website treats its visitors. While Google wants to primarily improve its search engine to rank the best pages first, it also wants to send searchers to websites that offer the best user experience.
You may think of this as Google recommending your business to its client. Your business may sell the exact product the client needs, but if your customer service is poor, they will probably hesitate in making the recommendation.
At first, these updates applied only to user experience on mobile versions of websites. But from the February 2022 version, the system was updated to evaluate desktop user experiences as well.
How to recover from Page Experience Updates:
- Improve your website’s Core Web Vitals and ensure that your URLs meet the good page experience criteria. You can find the Core Web Vitals and Page Experience reports in Google Search Console.
5. Google Search Spam Updates
Google’s automated systems are designed to detect search spam. The search engine’s AI-powered spam-prevention system is known as SpamBrain, and Search Spam Updates indicate when Google makes significant improvements to it.
This update affected websites in all languages, targeting all regions. The update disrupted predictable traffic patterns, making it tricky for businesses to plan and allocate resources effectively. Some webmasters experienced sudden traffic drops, but others reported temporary recoveries over time. However, the positive changes were not consistent across all industries and niches.
The Google December 2022 link spam update was a wake-up call for SEO professionals to stick to ethical SEO practices. It highlighted the need to focus on quality content and organic link acquisition. With this update, Google sent a clear message that adhering to its guidelines and investing in sustainable, ethical SEO strategies are crucial for long-term success in the evolving online landscape.
How to recover from Google Spam Updates:
- Review Google’s spam policies and endeavor to make changes to affected content that violate the policies.
- Disavow all low-quality and spammy backlinks from your website on Google Search Console. By doing this, Google will stop considering those links when evaluating your website.
- If you were hit by a content spam update, review Google’s spam policies and endeavor to modify the affected pages accordingly. If the pages are not important, you will benefit from simply deleting them from your website. If the pages are important, and it’s not possible to make them more helpful, for instance, authors’ pages or tag pages, you may consider no-indexing them.
How Often Does Google Update Search Results?
Google does not provide a specific schedule for its Search algorithm updates. It constantly refines and improves the algorithm to deliver the best possible results. As a result, you should expect to see updates frequently. Some minor updates even roll out multiple times a day.
Major updates such as core updates occur several times a year, but the exact timing varies. With that said, Google typically announces and confirms major updates via its official channels.
Following the rollout, we will also analyze them and provide information on their impact and actionable steps to recover lost traffic.
Most Impactful Google Search Updates Since 2022
December 2022 Link Spam Update
Rollout started: December 14, 2022
Rollout completed: January 12, 2023
As the name hints, the December 2022 link spam update went after websites that built spammy backlinks intending to increase rankings. This meant that the primary targets were websites buying or exchanging links and those that exist only to pass backlinks. It discredited such websites by ensuring that these links do not pass any PageRank.
The December 2022 link spam update marked the first time Google utilized SpamBrain, to check link spam.
The effect was that businesses engaging in such practices lost the authority they earned from those links, hence, many businesses lost traffic.
December 2022 Helpful Content Update
Rollout started: December 5, 2022
Rollout completed: January 12, 2023
With this update, Google enhanced its Helpful Content System, which promotes pieces of content that genuinely satisfy searchers’ intent rather than purely publishing for SEO purposes. The update’s helpful content classifier now actively identifies pages that do not promptly address the searchers’ needs effectively.
As a result, websites experienced changes in traffic and rankings based on the quality and helpfulness of their content. The December 2022 helpful content update rolled out for all languages globally.
Numerous websites that suffered traffic declines in November or December continued to tank in traffic. Pages offering quick and relevant responses to user queries performed better on the SERPs. And this suggests that long-form, comprehensive content may not be the most advantageous in many cases. Articles on topics that need a simple answer should be kept short and straight to the point, as Google has begun to identify fluffy content as unhelpful.
Contrary to misconceptions, the helpful content update doesn’t primarily target AI-generated content as some can be valuable if they serve the user’s needs and maintain quality standards.
What we do know for sure is that Google now prioritizes firsthand expertise and experience, considering knowledge graph connections, topical expertise, writing style, helpful resources (for example, images and videos), and external reputation as signals of quality and helpfulness.
Read our detailed article on the December 2022 Helpful Content Update. There, we dissect what went on in this update, the main and how to recover from it, with a focus on SaaS businesses.
October 2022 Spam Update
Rollout started: October 19, 2022
Rollout completed: October 21, 2022
Google regularly improves its AI-based spam prevention system known as SpamBrain. Spam updates refine the SERPs by devaluing websites that violate specific Google guidelines. This October 2022 spam update seemed to focus on checkmating content spam.
However, Google did not mention precisely if it targeted spam content, spam links, or both. It also rolled out for all regions and languages.
On spam updates, Google states:
“While Google’s automated systems to detect search spam are constantly operating, we occasionally make notable improvements to how they work. When we do, we refer to this as a spam update and share when they happen on our list of Google Search ranking updates. For example, SpamBrain is our AI-based spam-prevention system. From time to time, we improve that system to make it better at spotting spam and to help ensure it catches new types of spam. Sites that see a change after a spam update should review our spam policies to ensure they are complying with those. Sites that violate our policies may rank lower in results or not appear in results at all. Making changes may help a site improve if our automated systems learn over a period of months that the site complies with our spam policies.”
If Google detects spam content on your site, the update demotes your content or worse, takes it completely off Google’s index. Businesses that adhere to Google Search Essentials’ best practices will not experience negative changes.
Though there weren’t huge movements in rankings, a good number of website administrators felt the impact. If you were hit by this update and took action to recover, you may have to wait for weeks or months to recover as is typical with spam updates.
September 2022 Product Reviews Update
Rollout started: September 20, 2022
Rollout completed: September 26, 2022
This was another improvement to Google’s ranking of product reviews. It primarily affected affiliate websites and platforms that compare or review products. Similar to the earlier product reviews update, this one also promoted websites with genuine reviews from actual people with experience with the product. Hobby affiliate websites and niche product review sites got impacted massively.
Many product review websites primarily publish empty reviews re-written from e-retailer websites or other review websites with the authors not bothering to try out the product. Hence, this update prioritized the insightful, authentic reviews written by experts.
September 2022 Core Update
Rollout started: September 12, 2022
Rollout completed: September 26, 2022
The September 2022 core update was the typical Google shaking up its ranking algorithm. The consensus from the SEO community was that it didn’t bring about as much impact as previous core updates. That’s because the rank volatility increases were relatively less impactful, and it seemed less widespread.
Diving into the data and the SEO community’s assessments, we find that there was a divergence from the typical behavior of core updates. For one, the travel and real estate niches that were highly volatile during the May update experienced minimal volatility this time around.
Additionally, the September 2022 core update moves away from normal trends in terms of average gains and losses.
While this update did not bring drastic changes generally, individual websites or pages may have experienced losses. Even dropping from 4th to 5th positions in the SERPs can cause a significant loss in traffic and revenue. This is why businesses must monitor their rankings carefully and assess the impact of the update. It’s also worth noting that this update is sandwiched between the August 2022 Helpful Content Update and the September 2022 product review update, providing various avenues for businesses to be influenced by the algorithm.
This is why a diligent assessment is of the essence to navigate and understand the updates’ effects to troubleshoot and recover lost traffic or rankings.
August 2022 Helpful Content Update
Rollout started: August 25, 2022
Rollout completed: September 9, 2022
This update mostly impacted
- Entertainment and art blogs
- Online guides
- Technology content such as coding tutorials and tech news
- Lyrics and quotes websites and similar
- E-commerce and shopping websites
The August 2022 helpful content update rewarded articles and pages that truly assist searchers and best fulfilled their intents. On the other hand, sites that merely published content for the sake of rankings and traffic were massively devalued. It applied globally but only to searches in English.
Interestingly, this update was site-wide; meaning that low-quality content published on a website will affect even the ones of high quality. According to Google, the update brought about a new site that identifies pieces of content with little value and insubstantial added value.
Google also states that if your website hosts any unhelpful content, it will perform worse in search if there are more valuable competing pages.
Furthermore, this update is weighted. In other words, websites with a substantial number of unhelpful content will more likely be affected drastically.
July 2022 Product Reviews Update
Rollout started: July 27, 2022
Rollout completed: August 2, 2022
The July 2022 product reviews update did not cause much turbulence on the SERPs. Many websites with authentic product reviews saw decent traffic increases, but so did some questionable sites. A problem here was that we started to see unrelated ‘big websites’ ranking for product reviews they published, and in multiple categories. Hence, we believe that while this update was a needed refreshment, it merely boosted the reviews posted by websites based on their authority.
May 2022 Core Update
Rollout started: May 22, 2022
Rollout completed: June 9, 2022
The May 2022 core update was broad and targeted content of all types, with a focus on E-A-T. Core updates help Google Search to better match searchers’ intent, and it was apparent that Google improved this in May 2022.
At its peak, the May 2022 core update caused a volatility of 9, and this was felt across all verticals. It did not target specific industries or niches. But the verticals with the most volatility were real estate, pets and animals, and travel and fishing. For mobile, the most were real estate, pets and animals, and health.
Google core updates mostly shake up ranking patterns with declines and promotions of URLs on the SERPs. All in all, websites in many industries were rewarded, but this did not apply to the arts and entertainment and books and literature verticals.
In this update, 6.7% of the websites ranking in the top 10 positions were formerly in the 20th position or lower. Moreso, 17% of the URLs ranking in the top 20 positions used to be outside this range (lower than the 20th position).
In the same vein, most websites hit by this update lost around 3.8 positions on average. On the flip side, the sites that benefitted from the update gained an average of around 3.4 positions.
Another profound impact of the May 2022 core update was that a lot of websites lost their featured snippets. The reason for this is that their pages might have lost rankings, which makes it tough to retain the SERP features such as featured snippets.
Implementing various schema types made a huge difference following this update. For example, branded e-commerce merchants such as Etsy, eBay, and Amazon improved their rankings astronomically because they utilize the product schema correctly. Of course, their schema implementation is not the sole reason. But from our research, schema implementation was a massive factor.
Overall, the most affected websites in this update were general news sites and reference sites, such as online encyclopedias, dictionaries, lyrics websites, and similar. They lost rankings and were replaced by specialist websites. For instance, a piece of technology news posted by a general news website will not perform as well as one published by a technology blog.
This is because Google promoted authored by industry specialists and demoted those written by generalists.
Another key takeaway is that Google favored video content. Hence you should utilize them where you can instead of text.
March 2022 Product Reviews Update
Rollout started: March 23, 2022
Rollout completed: April 11, 2022
Similar to prior product review updates, the one for March 2022 improved Google’s ability to identify genuine product reviews published by real people. It rewarded such pages with higher positions for reviews and comparisons, and this was when EAT became a do-or-burst situation for product review websites.
From the conversations in the SEO community and Rampiq’s research, this was not a huge product review update, at least not as impactful as that of December 2021. But it still called for action from businesses that rely on organic traffic.
Google recommended two best practices for businesses hit by this update:
- Provide evidence in the form of visuals, audio, or links to their own experiences with the product to demonstrate expertise and enhance the authenticity of your product reviews.
- Include links to multiple sellers providing readers with various purchasing options.
To meet these criteria you have to make sure that your product reviews contain in-depth details and reflect on your real-life experiences with the product. Offering multiple purchasing options shows that your review wasn’t merely a ploy to get them to purchase the product.
Were you hit by a product update? I’ve included a complete guide on recovering from product review updates in the section following the updates timeline.
February 2022 Page Experience Update
Rollout started: February 22, 2022
Rollout completed: March 3, 2022
On November 4, 2021, Google published a timeline for bringing page experience ranking to desktop, and the rollout began the next February in the form of the February 2022 page experience update.
Page experience signals only applied to mobile users from the last page experience update, but this time, Google began to take into account signals from desktop also.
According to Jeffery Jose from Google,
“We’ll begin using page experience as part of our desktop ranking systems beginning in February 2022. The rollout will be complete by the end of March 2022. This ranking launched will be based on the same page experience signals that we rolled out for mobile earlier this year.”
What are these page experience signals? For desktops they include
- HTTPS security
- Largest Contentful Paint (LCP)
- Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS)
- Absence of intrusive interstitials
- First Input Delay (FID)
Note that although mobile friendliness is not a ranking factor here for obvious reasons, it has been crucial for mobile since the last page experience update.
Additionally, Google no longer considers safe browsing as a quality signal in this update.
The images below illustrate the differences between mobile and desktop page experience signals.
For page experience updates, Google does not demote websites that fail to meet the criteria. It only boosts those that show these signals. Consequentially, websites that do not meet the criteria will get outranked by those that do, and in turn, they’ll lose traffic.