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Google Core Search Updates: What They Mean and What You Should Do

Cory Hedgepeth - Senior SEO Specialist

You’ve probably seen the often dramatic, sometimes dire, rarely jubilant chatter associated with any Google core search update. As they are technically known, core algorithm updates often beget bouts of anxiety for business executives whose sales rely on search engine traffic.

A Google search algorithmic shift on keywords can produce cataclysmic traffic and revenue shifts for some while simultaneously welcoming in more encouraging times for others.

Keyword rankings matter. So it stands to reason that the algorithm influencing such rankings matters the most.

So, why do Google search algorithm updates matter as much as they do?

We find an understanding in the numbers.

Over 90% of all searches begin on Google. In addition, over 60% of shopping starts on the web. And finally, 75% of searchers never click on the second page of search results.

The math works out simply like this: Most shoppers use Google online to find products and aren’t likely to search beyond page one.

If a company’s product link ranks #2 for a shopping term and then a Google core search update repositions it to page 2 of the search results, that product isn’t likely to benefit from that keyword anymore.

If a product once produced $2,000 a day in sales from a single keyword ranking in the top 3, pushing it to page 2 of that keyword’s search results may reduce the revenue to a goose egg.

This is why Google core algorithm updates elicit such passionate responses.

What Is a Google Search Core Algorithm Update?

Google updates its search engine by the minute. The algorithm scours websites all over the web, looking to interpret copy, images and website speed to file it alongside appropriate search strings.

While those frequent daily updates can affect rankings, they aren’t as likely to wreak havoc or rain dollar bills as the Google Core Updates.

Google Core Algorithm updates tend to produce widespread, noticeable changes. And as of today, Google acknowledges the updates, typically as they are happening on mediums such as Twitter. However, while Google recognizes the core updates as they roll out, they don’t disclose too much pertinent information. And that’s intentional.

If Google disclosed the inner workings of its algorithm, scammers would have valuable knowledge of how to scam for rankings. Although, these nefarious instances would be far fewer as opposed to 15 years ago now that Google search leverages AI learning. Additionally, Google doesn’t divulge too much of a response other than conveying that those website owners affected should continue to improve their website’s content and experiences.

Here’s an excerpt of Google’s response to the May 2022 core update:

“There’s nothing wrong with pages that may perform less well in a core update. They haven’t violated our webmaster guidelines nor been subjected to a manual or algorithmic action, as can happen to pages that do violate those guidelines. In fact, there’s nothing in a core update that targets specific pages or sites. Instead, the changes are about improving how our systems assess content overall. These changes may cause some pages that were previously under-rewarded to do better.”

Why Does Google Update Its Algorithm?

According to Google, core updates make “substantial improvements to” their “overall ranking process.”

That, in a nutshell, is what core updates are all about — improving the ranking process.

Google isn’t thinking about websites; they are thinking about the millions of searchers worldwide seeking answers, products, humor and more solutions from their search platform.

And that’s not a crass position for Google when you consider that search results matter less without happy users. And if search results matter less, websites suffer.

Google wants searchers to find a solution or answer in the most efficient way possible. Unfortunately, that efficiency doesn’t always benefit every website’s end goal of ranking for specific keywords.

When we consider the Google search ranking influencer click-through rate, we find a compelling justification for core updates. When a website ranks for a term but compared to the other websites ranking for the same keyword receives far fewer clicks, the Google algorithm may assume it got things wrong.

Fewer clicks could result from a poorly written meta-title or content that’s less relevant to the topic or a slow-loading site page. All the same, Google sees a poor experience and looks to correct it via algorithm updates. Some updates may adjust during Google search’s hourly updates or come as part of a sweeping core update.

In the end, when Google updates its search algorithm, it seeks to improve the search experience on all levels.

How Do Businesses Prepare For Google Updates?

The prior section passively presented the case for how businesses should prepare for Google updates.

In SEO, we field many questions about how a business can bolster its chances against Google’s next update.

The way to prepare for a Google core update is to share Google’s user experience goal. Your website should produce a high-quality user experience appropriate for the keywords you want to rank for. Your website should target those keywords using the best on-site and off-site SEO practices.

Websites that avoid focusing on user experiences and SEO best practices are exposed to potential core update tempestuous ranking shifts.

One Google core update might focus on website speed. Maybe the previous core update didn’t focus intensely on site speed, so a sluggish site experienced no ranking drops. But suddenly, a new core update comes along and concentrates intently on site speed. Why? Because searchers don’t appreciate waiting for a website to load. So websites unprepared for speed testing suddenly drop in rankings.

This didn’t need to happen if those websites had included site speed best practices in an SEO strategy.

The point is that executing a sophisticated SEO strategy helps protect a website from dire straits during core updates. That said, a core update can affect sites with the best intentions; however, performing a proactive SEO strategy all year offers far better protection than acting reactionary while a core update rolls out.

Major Historical Updates and What They Mean

There are many Google core updates per year. Given that Google doesn’t disclose in-depth information on what’s involved in those updates, we’ll spare you listing them all and only focus on impactful ones.

By understanding some of Google’s most prominent core updates, we can see a specific trend by Google to help bolster user search quality.

One Google’s most infamous core updates came in the summer of 2018. The update was widespread and, within hours, caught the attention of site owners. The update, quickly termed “medic” by the webmaster community, wreaked substantial havoc across web rankings.

As the days passed and the roll out continued, it became clear that Google was focused on specific sectors. The update seemed to affect sites in the medical and financial verticals. The justification made sense — websites that report on health and financial livelihood impact lives. A person who searches for investment advice, or treatments for diseases, should find factual information. Because finding illegitimate information could ruin a life.

However, Google denies that the informally named “medic” update focused on any particular websites.

“The update we launched . . . around the first of August, was more of a general ranking update. Like we always do. So it’s not specific to medical sites. It’s something that could affect . . . any website out there.”

That said, since the “medic” update, SEO best practices experienced an overhaul and began to include increasing content legitimacy by listing authors, among other enhancements.

Another famous Google search core update, called Penguin, began rolling out on April 24th, 2012. The Penguin update set a precedent in search engine optimization involving how we look at backlink strategy. This is because Penguin targeted websites that manipulated its number of backlinks. Backlinks are a vital, if not the most vital, search engine ranking influencer. Therefore, website owners may look to deceive how many links they have pointing at them. You can read more on why backlinks matter in our SEO backlinks guide.

One of the infamous ways to manipulate backlinks was to create pointless, low-quality sites and link your site from them. Or, you could buy links from those who ran spammy site farms.

Eventually, Google Penguin settled on ignoring the links as opposed to penalizing the websites. This is because once Penguin proved to penalize websites for spammy backlinks, some site owners linked heir competitors with spammy links as a way to knock them out of competitive rankings.

One of Google’s most significant updates paved the way for Google’s ability to machine learn search behaviors. In the fall of 2015, the Google Rankbrain core update took the web by storm. The update affected vast portions of search results across all verticals. Rankbrain and it’s machine learning prowess remains one of Google searches most valued algorithm influencers.




Google core algorithm updates seek to improve the user search experience. Core updates typically differentiate from daily algorithm adjustments in the way that they are vast and affect rankings across the web.

Marketers who seek to insulate themselves from ranking drops, or take advantage of new ranking opportunities during a core update rollout, should focus on monthly SEO strategy. By focusing on SEO consistently, a marketer is far less exposed to core algorithm quality sweeps.

Marketers should also understand and share Google’s end-goal for user search experience quality. If any website changes or updates slow down your website, make it difficult to understand what the website is about, or stuff inappropriate keywords in titles or descriptions, the site likely won’t fare well.

Prepared for the Next Google Update? We Got You.

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