14 Sep 2016

Recent Google Changes & Rank Brain: What You Should Know

It had been a while since SEOs were abuzz with a possible Google update, but a big one hit just before Labor Day weekend, according to chatter amongst webmasters.

In fact, website owners may be looking at two separate updates since many site owners reported seeing big fluctuations in their organic and local search visibility.

Here are 6 things we know so far:

1. It’s Hot Out There

The update appears to have happened on or around September 1, the Thursday before Labor Day Weekend, according to Mozcast.com. If you are not familiar with Mozcast, it is a weather report detailing turbulence in Google’s algorithm on a day to day basis. The hotter and stormier a day is, the greater the change in Google’s rankings. And on September 1, the temperature was 108, and the weather was stormy. In fact, it was the hottest, stormiest day on Mozcast over at least the past 30 days.

Moz Forecast September 18

2. Core Search + Local

The updates, according to data posted by webmasters at several online forums, like this, and reported by Search Engine Land appears to affect Google’s Core Search algorithm and also changes to the local search 3-pack.

3. Quality Content is Important

Google’s core web search algorithm, aka Hummingbird, includes a ton of different elements, so pinpointing what aspect of the algorithm has been updated. However, if it is part of core search, you can bet the focus is on quality content and a solid site architecture.

4. RankBrain Could Be Involved

Also, about a year ago, Google announced their rollout of RankBrain, a component of the algorithm that uses “RankBrain” an artificial intelligence system that uses machine learning to process search results and provide more relevant results to users. There is widespread speculation that Google’s latest suspected update involves Rankbrain. More on that later.

RankBrain Diagram

Image via Brafton

5. Not Penguin

Google loosely confirmed that there was an update, but that it did not involve the Penguin algorithm – the system Google uses to evaluate a website’s links, both internally and from third party sources. Sidenote: Google announced on September 7th that they are working on the Penguin launch announcement. It’s been roughly one year and ten months since the last Penguin update in October 2014.

6. Spam Clean-Up

Most of the impact on local search results appears to have affected spammy results. Google Maps, historically, has been plagued by spam. A niche that had exploited Google Maps was the locksmith industry, with many site owners creating fictitious listings in an effort to generate phone calls and web traffic for more website searches in a geographic area without having physical locations.

There were a ton of complaints about these types of practices, but Google had been slow in cleaning up the data. The two images below show the difference for a “locksmith” related search near Times Square. The image on the left was from 2009 (image courtesy of blumenthals.com), when this type of spam was widespread. The image on the right is for what is currently in Google Maps.

Google Maps location spam

The Impact on You

The impact on you will be largely unnoticeable right now. Organic traffic and rankings for our own clients was reviewed on September 5 & 6, the Tuesday and Wednesday following the update. No changes, significant or otherwise, have been seen.

However, what makes this update, and many other Google updates so difficult to analyze is that they usually roll out an update just prior to a weekend. Additionally, because it takes time – sometimes weeks to months – for a rollout to complete, the full effects are not immediately known. Rest assured, however, that we will continue to monitor our clients traffic and rankings and react accordingly if and when the need arises.

So, What About RankBrain?

If this update to the core search algorithm did involve RankBrain, then Google could be placing more emphasis on search results that have poor user engagement and experience metrics. Low time on site, high bounce rates and poor click-through rates are all signals that often convey that the search query used or suggested by Big G did not match the search intent.

Think about this: Rank Brain is sophisticated enough to learn what people are looking for when they don’t search specifically for what they are looking for. It can do this because it has so much data, and it is confident it can effectively provide the answer the searcher is looking for, even if they don’t use the correct question. And if it is truly learning, then the quality of the results should be improving over time.

An example of this is a query would be: “who won the 1994 World Series?” The correct answer is that there was NO World Series in 1994, due to an ongoing strike by the Major League Baseball Players Association. Google is confident in the answer to this, so they provide the answer right in search results. Varying the keyword slightly (“who lost 1994 World Series”, “was there a 1994 world series”) results essentially the same search results.

Who won the 1994 world series?

Perhaps with this most recent update, Google has determined that they can rely on RankBrain more, and the most recent changes in search results are a reflection of that. Changes in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) are difficult to attribute to any one element, so time, and hopefully an update from Google will tell.

What We’re Watching For

Over the next few weeks, we will be looking for drops in organic traffic across our clients’ sites that can be attributed to drops in organic and local search visibility.

If an organic drop is seen, you must determine if those affected pages are properly optimized and if there is enough variation in the keywords the page is targeting. Also, focus on improving the quality of content for those underperforming pages. Plan on looking at those engagement and experience metrics that Google may be evaluating to determine if a page does not match the searcher’s intent.

If a drop in local search results is seen, it will be important to audit all name, address, phone (NAP) citations for glaring discrepancies. Any issues for those locations affected by the update should be improved. Additionally, if a site has created local pages, those pages should be analyzed from a quality perspective as thin or over-optimized pages likely will not perform well.

Finally, in a few weeks, as this update has matured, expect more site owners and marketers to share their perspective; this information could inform ongoing strategy. One thing is fairly certain, Google will continue their focus on displaying organic results they believe are the best quality and satisfy user intent.