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September 26, 2022
Anyone who’s owned or managed a website for any length of time has probably asked the question “what even is a Google Core Update?”
Sometimes it feels like Google is constantly announcing an update to their ubiquitous web search algorithm and, for the most part, they are. Most updates are relatively harmless and have little to no effect on our websites but, occasionally, they announce a “core” update. Core updates, if neglected, can have sweeping effects on your website’s performance.
In this article, we lay out what a core update is and how you can proactively maintain your website to ensure you don’t see organic traffic drops when Google makes these algorithm changes.
While we could come up with some witty explanation of what a core update is, it’s probably better to hear it from the horse’s mouth and the horse, in this case, is Google itself. Google defines a core update as the following:
Each day, Google usually releases one or more changes designed to improve our search results. Most aren’t noticeable but help us incrementally continue to improve.
Sometimes, an update may be more noticeable… Several times a year, we make significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems. We refer to these as “core updates.” They’re designed to ensure that overall, we’re delivering on our mission to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers.
(Core updates) typically produce some widely notable effects. Some sites may note drops or gains during them. We know those with sites that experience drops will be looking for a fix, and we want to ensure they don’t try to fix the wrong things. Moreover, there might not be anything to fix at all.
In a nutshell, a core update is just a larger, more comprehensive change to Google’s algorithm or systems.
At the time of writing this article, Google has already launched 5 core updates this year alone. Suffice it to say, it would take a while to outline every core update Google has launched since its inception, because who really has time for that? If you do, and want to dive deep, here’s an exhaustive list of every core update since 2000.
What we’ve provided below is a handful of updates that have had major impacts on your search experience in the last decade or so.
In 2011 Google released its Panda update. The goal of Panda was to help in Google’s pursuit of eliminating black hat SEO tactics and spam (not the canned meat). This update focused heavily on ranking pages based on their quality and eliminated some of the sketchy practices of the day, like cloaking.
Announced the same year as Panda, Google’s Freshness update was a significant algorithm change that began the process of making search results more precise and responsive to the user’s intent. They did this by utilizing time as a relevance measure for search queries. This allowed Google to better show content that is trending, seasonal, or frequently needing updates.
Released in August of 2013, Hummingbird was maybe the most extensive update to the Google algorithm, ever. That said, it had surprisingly little effect at the time of its release. Hummingbird enabled Google to be more precise about what a search query meant. By moving away from matching keywords in a query to the keywords within a webpage (farewell keyword stuffing), Google became better at showing pages that matched the topic inherent in the search query.
Rolled out in the spring of 2015, RankBrain was an algorithm update that expanded upon the previously released Hummingbird update. At the time, about 15% of queries were brand new to Google. Google used machine learning to better understand and serve the right web pages in its search engine results page (SERP) to these ever-expanding search queries.
Ok, I admit, I included this 2017 update in this list because its name is my favorite among all the core updates (admittedly, that’s an odd thing to write… who has favorite core updates?). I’m not 100% sure why they chose to name it Fred, but part of me hopes it had something to do with Fred Rogers because it really made the Google “neighborhood” a little more beautiful by helping to rid the SERPs of thin, ad-heavy content.
Starting in 2021, Google launched an update that prioritized user experience factors, known as Core Web Vitals. These objective metrics, such as page load time, help Google evaluate websites that don’t provide a quality experience and deal with them appropriately.
Launched in the summer of 2022, Google’s Helpful update focuses on devaluing content that was “written for SEO”. Google has always championed authentic, expert voices in its search engine, and this update’s promise is that it will impair content written for its robots, with the sole purpose of getting higher rankings rather than providing valuable information.
Without fail, whenever a new update is announced we get calls asking what needs to be done. While it’s not advisable to ignore these updates, we have found – through years of analysis – that, as long as you are following the best practices for your website content and ensuring your site is a reliable and pleasant experience for your users, there isn’t too much to worry about.
In Google’s own words above, its goal is to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers. Every core update they release is focused on helping to reinforce that commitment.
To summarize, if you are:
You should be able to weather any core update Google throws your way.
If you’ve noticed a recent, unexpected drop in organic traffic or feel unsure about your website quality and the effect future updates will have on your search rankings, let’s connect.
We’d be glad to audit your website for certain signals that search engines may find unfavorable and provide guidance on how to best optimize your page content or website experience to ensure smooth sailing through future updates.