Home All Things SEO Column Some early observations on the Google December core update

Some early observations on the Google December core update

Google’s December 2020 Core update was a big one according to many of the data providers. Our job, day in and day out, is to analyze Google updates and determine what the commonalities are so that we can advise our clients on how to improve their websites. Now that the core update is done rolling out, as of December 16, 2020 and while we do not have the December core update figured out completely, we thought we would pass on some interesting observations that we have made so far.

What is a core update?

Google makes changes to their search algorithms on a daily basis. A few times a year, they release significant changes to their core search algorithms and systems that are much more noticeable. In Google’s own words, core updates are, “designed to ensure that overall, [Google is] delivering on [their] mission to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers.”

If your website’s traffic has declined following a Google core update, most likely Google’s algorithms have determined that there are other pages on the web that are more relevant and helpful than yours. It can be frustrating to SEO’s to not know how Google does this. 

Google’s documentation on How Search Works describes the steps taken to return relevant results to searchers:

1. Organize the content on the web: As Google crawls the web, they organize pages in an index. They take note of key signals on each page such as which keywords are on the page, how up to date the page is, and more. 

2. Determine the meaning of the searcher’s query: In order to understand which pages to recommend to a searcher, Google needs to understand the meaning of each query. Algorithms determine whether a query is looking for fresh, new content or not. Some words in a query may be easy for Google to decipher. Google’s algorithms can now do a good job at understanding whether a searcher is looking for a single, distinct answer in which Google could present them a fact from the Knowledge graph, or perhaps they are doing research where they would like to read more thorough information and peruse Google’s organic results.

3. Determining which pages are the most helpful to return: Once Google understands the intent behind a query, their goal is to return web pages that are the most helpful to answer this query. 

But how does Google determine which pages are the best to return to a searcher? Google has a blog post dedicated to explaining core updates, while offering advice to site owners.. Much of our methodology in diagnosing the cause for a traffic drop is based on the items described in this post. 

The Quality raters guidelines can give us clues about Google updates

In the past, many Google updates would have a very clear and obviously discernible focus. Sites affected by the early updates of Google’s Penguin algorithm generally had problems with low quality spammy link building. Sites affected by Google’s Panda algorithm, another algorithm released many years ago, were usually ones that would be easy to identify as having large amounts of thin, unhelpful content. 

Core updates usually do not have one single and obvious focus. If your site was negatively affected there is rarely a single smoking gun to blame.

The good news is that we can get some clues as to what improvements Google wants to make to search by studying changes made to Google’s Quality Raters’ Guidelines (QRG). When these guidelines update, we pay attention!

If a Google engineer is writing code to improve the algorithm, they will present the Quality Raters with two sets of search results to review. One is the results as they currently exist when a keyword is searched. The second is what the results would look like once the engineer’s proposed changes to the algorithm are implemented. The raters then evaluate the search results based on their knowledge of the QRG and their feedback is given to the engineer.

Sometimes the QRG can give us clues as to what Google engineers are working on changing in Google’s algorithms. For example, in the summer of 2018, just  prior to the August 1, core update, Google modified the QRG to add the words “safety of users” when describing YMYL pages:

In the same revision of the QRG, Google added information to say that quality raters should rate a page as “low” if there is “evidence of mixed or mildly negative…reputation”.

It is our assumption that these phrases were added to the QRG because Google engineers wanted to be able to algorithmically determine whether a site could contain harmful information, or whether a particular author or business perhaps was known for having a bad reputation. Google does not want to recommend websites that could potentially harm searchers. Sure enough, following these changes to the QRG, Google released what the SEO community called the August 1, 2018 “Medic” update. Many medical and nutritional sites that had either serious reputation issues, a lack of real life expertise, or other untrustworthy characteristics had huge reductions in rankings. 

Similarly, the June 3, 2019 Google core update had a strong impact on alternative medical sites that contradicted scientific consensus. Again, this was in line with what we see in the QRG:

When the QRG updated again just recently, in October of 2020, we set out to see what changes Google made as these likely give us clues to determine what Google search engineers are trying to accomplish in future updates. The most obvious addition to the QRG was that Google added several examples to explain to the raters how to determine whether a page would meet a searcher’s needs. As we discussed in our article on understanding user intent the raters are shown an example of a page that could be returned for the query, “how many octaves on a guitar”. The raters are told the page itself is high quality, and has medium to high E-A-T. However, because the page discusses octaves on a piano and not a guitar, which was what the search query was about, the raters are instructed to mark this page as “Fails to meet” when it comes to “needs met”.

Similarly, in the QRG, a Wikipedia article on ATM machines was deemed to be a page with high E-A-T, but not one that meets the needs of a searcher who typed in “ATM”. That searcher would not be looking for a Wikipedia article, but rather, likely wants to know where the closest ATM is. 

It is our belief that if Google made a point of showing the Quality Raters examples of pages that had good E-A-T, but still were not the best page to meet a searcher’s needs, then we would see this reflected in a future update. 

We suspected that if Google is going to be working on surfacing pages that do a good job in terms of “needs met” and that this meant they were leaning heavily on Natural Language Processing, and in particular BERT, in order to understand language.

With all of this said, however, we were disappointed to hear Danny Sullivan say that the December core update did not have anything to do directly with BERT. 

We thought that Google was using BERT, and in conjunction with BERT, other frameworks such as the SMITH model or BigBird, each of which allow search engines to analyze even longer chunks of text than BERT to ascertain whether the text truly is the answer a searcher is looking for. It’s possible that this is still happening…perhaps it has been happening for a while now. We have speculated in the past that the unannounced November 8, 2019 update marked some type of change to Google’s use of NLP.

As we continue to analyze sites that won and lost in this update, and in particular pages that improved or declined for particular keyword searches, one pattern stands out to us and it’s a hard one to succinctly decipher. What we are seeing is that in most cases, the change Google made really did seem to help surface more relevant and helpful results. But it’s often hard to explain why

This may be why John Mueller of Google responded to me on Twitter with a quote from the Little Prince when I mentioned we were digging in to try and figure out this update!

Examples of sites affected by the December core update

As we do not want to share the private data of our clients, much of what you see below is taken from a list of sites that have been publicly identified as winners or losers of this update in this article by Lily Ray.

DrAxe.com

This site has been discussed a lot in SEO circles since their drastic hit after the August 1, 2018 core update. The majority of the site discusses alternative medical topics. According to data from Semrush, the site saw gains on many pages following the December core update.

We’ll look at this page that saw nice improvements across many keywords.

Ahrefs data tells us that this page had greatly improved rankings for many keywords.

Here are the SERPs for searches for “liver cleanse” before the update (November) and after (December) as shown on Semrush. We have highlighted sites that had significant movement after the update.

You can see that Dr. Axe’s page improved from #10 to #4 for this query. 

Did Google do a good job at determining that this page meets the needs of searchers who typed in “liver cleanse” as compared to other sites? Why did they elevate Dr. Axe?

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a searcher. What people tend to do when we evaluate which page we want to read in the search results is skim the headings on the page. If you were looking for information on liver cleanses and I told you you could only choose one of the following to read based on the headings in the article, which would you read?

Article #1 headings:

  • What to know before trying a liver detox
  • Does anything actually help cleanse the liver?
  • Are liver detoxes harmful?
  • How the liver cleans the body
  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat healthy food
  • Limit alcohol
  • The bottom line

Article #2 headings:

  • 6 Simple Ways to Detox Your Liver

Article #3 headings:

  • Detox Your Liver: Try My 6-Step Liver Cleanse
  • What does the liver do?
  • Risk Factors
  • Signs of the Liver Not Working Properly
  • Liver Cleanse
    • 1. Remove Toxic Foods from Your Diet
    • 2. Drink Raw Vegetable Juice
    • 3. Load Up on Potassium-Rich Foods
    • 4. Coffee enemas
    • 5. Take Milk Thistle and Dandelion Supplements
    • 6. Eat Real Liver or Take Liver Tablets
  • Recipe
    • Liver Detox Drink

It seemed clear to us that based on the section headings in the article, article #3 would be the one that is most likely out of these three to meet a searcher’s needs. If I’m searching for information on liver cleanses, this article shows me actual recipes and steps I can take. It turns out that #3 is from DrAxe.com. The other two articles are the two that declined with the December core update, uwmedicine.org, and sfadvancedhealth.com.

Dr. Axe’s article does a great job of meeting the needs of a searcher. While it is likely considered alternative medicine, we did not feel it was overtly dangerous. The article is not perfect though, in terms of E-A-T. We would especially like to see more scientific references from reputable sources. However, if someone was searching for information on liver cleanses, this article would be very helpful.

It is interesting to see how big of an improvement Dr. Axe’s traffic had with this update, although they have not come close to recovering after their August 2018 Medic hit. Many alternative medicine sites were hit strongly with the December core update and did not improve. A similar site, Mercola.com saw big drops in traffic following this update. We suspect that as new information on alternative treatments has made its way to the Knowledge Graph, Google can now recognize that some alternative medical sites have much more potential to help people rather than hurt them. It’s not that sites like Mercola are particularly harmful to people, but it does seem that there is a certain threshold of trust that Google needs to have in a site in order to allow it to rank for any type of medical query.

We suspect that in many cases, Google turned down the dial on the necessary authority needed in order for a site to rank for alternative medical queries provided Google can understand that the content is not likely to be harmful.

Medical advice site

This site has seen ups and downs with many updates. If we look at their Google organic traffic, we can see that they were hit strongly with the May core update, and did not appear to make a recovery with the December core update.

In our experience with core updates, when a site is negatively affected, we generally see drops across all pages. In this case though, some pages on the site saw very nice recoveries with this update and others were hit hard. While the overall traffic patterns remain the same, looking at individual pages was quite interesting.

We have seen this pattern across many sites affected by the core update – some pages are up, and some are down. While that might sound rudimentary, it is not a normal finding in our post-update analysis. We usually either see that a site is a winner or a loser. With the May 2020 core update, we found that individual pages often won or lost. With this update, we suspect that particular keywords saw changes.

In the above example, both of the articles were written by the same author. There really was no change in E-A-T signals on either of these pages that we could pin as problematic or exemplary. Both pages in this case had good heading use, although it could be argued that the headings are more explanatory and easy to skim on the post that did well. We also noted that the post that did well had helpful comments as well, while the one that declined did not.

This site also saw improvement in rankings for many keywords for which forum pages ranked. We have seen that several of our clients had sections of user-generated content that did well with this update. Not all of these were medical sites

This example shows how challenging it is to analyze this update! There really is no smoking gun that has emerged as a culprit for sites that did not do well. 

Vaccines.gov

According to Lily Ray’s study mentioned above, one site that suffered greatly in this update was vaccines.gov. This site saw a boost in rankings in June of 2020. While that was not the date of a core update, we saw at that time that Google gave a great boost to sites that were highly authoritative including many .gov, .edu and .org sites.

In a recent Google video, they shared that in the past they have improved their search results by putting greater emphasis on authority over relevance in some cases. This makes sense as a whitepaper on how Google fights disinformation tells us that in times of crisis Google may choose to prefer authority over relevance and other ranking factors. In 2020, the world is certainly in a time of crisis.

We suspect that with this core update, Google felt they had more confidence in their ability to surface good, helpful medical content, and as such, they were able to slightly turn down the dial on the importance of authority that appears to have been raised in June.

We looked at particular keywords for which vaccines.gov saw declines and again, we noted that in each case it felt like Google did a good job in surfacing the result that would be the most helpful to searchers.

If your site is an authority in your vertical and you saw declines with this update, what may have happened is not that you were demoted, but rather, Google was able to find value in some of your less authoritative competitors.

Alternative medical site

We are pleased to see the improvements that this client of ours made with this update.

In this case, all pages on the site saw anywhere from a 20% to 60% increase in traffic. When we reviewed the SERPS for keywords that improved, it is clear that this site was elevated (as opposed to competitors being demoted). 

It is difficult to discuss the content of this site without revealing the identity of our client. We felt this was an important case to discuss however, because we feel it is another example of Google getting better at understanding less mainstream styles of medicine. This site was absolutely decimated with the June 2019 core update that demoted many alternative medicine sites. Yet, the site is well written, and has good content. 

We have been working with this client to help them improve how they display E-A-T related signals on their site. They worked to add more references and schema. They also improved the wording in their author bios to better demonstrate expertise and more. 

It is possible that the improvements they saw with the December core update were due to Google having more trust in the site after these improvements were made. We suspect, however, that the Knowledge Graph now has more information for Google to draw upon in regards to their area of alternative medicine, to help them determine that their subject matter actually is science-backed and reputable.

If you saw declines in traffic and your site is alt-med, it is quite possible that you have done nothing wrong, but rather, Google is now able to surface some of the good content on your competitors’ pages and recognize it as more helpful than yours. However, if your site speaks on alternative medical topics and is not well supported with scientific research, recovery may be difficult.

Patterns we are investigating after this update

Usually, by the time we are a few weeks into a new Google update, we feel that we have a decent idea of what it is that Google changed. In this case though, we are still very much in a speculative position and are continuing to investigate the patterns we see.

The following are all things that we are continuing to investigate as we help site owners determine which pages, and in particular which keywords are not performing as well as before the update:

1) Google may have made changes to how they assess alternative medical topics. Several of our alt med clients saw nice improvements across the board with this update. We feel that Google may have made strides in being able to understand which of these pages are trustworthy. In the past, we feel that a lot of alt-med content was simply discounted by Google even though it was the type of content many people were searching for.

2) Google may be paying more attention to headings and content structure. Searchers like to skim headings to determine whether an article is one with which they want to engage. It is very interesting to note that in most cases, we can see that pages that improved with this update are ones that have made good use of headings. As an additional note of interest, one of the questions Google lists in their post on core updates is, “Does the headline and/or page title provide a descriptive, helpful summary of the content?”

3) Google seems to be doing a better job of surfacing content that is relevant to a query. Even though Danny Sullivan said that the December Core update was not directly related to BERT, the one pattern we can see across most, if not all keywords that changed in our client base is that Google did well in surfacing helpful pages that did well to meet the needs of the searcher. 

4) Is UX a factor? We did not discuss this in this article, but after reading this article by Kevin Indig in which he notes that many sites that declined with the update had a horrible ad experience, we are paying more attention to this as well! If you declined with this update and have a large number of ads, especially ads that interfere with a user’s ability to read the main content, it may be worth experimenting with showing fewer ads. But know that if Google did change something with this core update in regards to ads, you may need to wait until we have another core update in order to see improvements.

5) A few other things. We are also currently investigating whether this update had a stronger than normal impact on cryptocurrency sites. This is challenging to assess however, as Bitcoin has had renewed strength in the last couple of weeks. Similarly, we are investigating whether user generated content has now been given more value as well, as many of our clients that did well with this update, saw improvements in keyword rankings for their forum pages or other pages with lots of user generated content. Not all of these clients were medical sites.

It is difficult to give specific recovery advice, given that there is rarely a single culprit to blame once a site has been negatively affected by a core update. Our approach is always to do all we can to improve the site as based on the information in Google’s Quality Raters’ Guidelines and also Google’s Blog Post on Core updates.

Here are our recommendations:

  • Read the Quality Raters’ Guidelines and pay close attention to any examples given that are in similar verticals as you. 
  • Make sure that every medical claim made (and really any important fact) is supported by strong references from authoritative, trustworthy sources.
  • Be clear and up front about who you are, who is responsible for the content on your site, your refund policies and monetization methods.
  • Look at keywords that declined in rankings and see which of your competitors pages improved at the same time. The goal is to determine how they are doing a better job at meeting a searcher’s needs and whether you can change your content so that it would truly be the best choice.
  • Make good use of descriptive headings in your articles.
  • If your content is not written by someone who is a subject matter expert, you may need to find more authoritative authors. In many cases for medical content, it may be sufficient to have a medical reviewer alongside your author.
  • Don’t overdo it with ads. If you have intrusive ads, consider removing them.

Of course, it is always recommended to perform a thorough technical review of a site that is not performing well. In our experience though, technical issues are rarely the cause of a traffic drop following a Google core update.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Dr. Marie Haynes is completely obsessed with trying to understand how Google assesses quality and then helping businesses to improve their websites. Her growing company, Marie Haynes Consulting Inc. specializes in site quality reviews and link audits. You can contact her team or sign up to her newsletter that keeps the SEO world up to date on the latest changes and tips in search.