What to do if you’ve been impacted by a Google algorithm update

Cameron Sykes | 15th September 2023 | Organic

“Google algorithm update” – three words that can strike fear into the hearts of SEOs. In the old days of SEO, a Google update could nosedive your website’s performance overnight. Luckily, today’s updates aren’t quite as shocking (usually!). 

However, websites can still see sharp drops in performance when a new update is rolled out. Discover the Distinctly approach to managing negative impacts of Google updates and the process we’ve used countless times to help brands recover lost traffic.

What is an algorithm update?

In short, an algorithm update is a term coined for when Google reassesses what it looks for in a webpage or website to rank it in its search results for a given keyword. In reality, Google doesn’t have just one algorithm to determine rankings, but many. And different industries, keywords and topics will have different weighting for ranking factors based on what Google wants to see for that keyword search.

When an update is rolled out, this is Google launching their new way of evaluating webpages/websites based on the new weightings. As a result of the new ranking criteria in play, websites may see an uplift or decline in their rankings (and subsequently their traffic and conversions).

How often does Google update its algorithm?

Google makes continuous tweaks throughout the year, but once or twice a year they’ll release a ‘core update’; this is the bigger change to the algorithm, where you’re most likely to see big changes in performance.

How to tell if you’ve been negatively impacted by a Google update

It’s often very easy to see if you’ve been impacted by an update — you’ll have a sharp drop in your organic traffic. We know that rankings = traffic and traffic = conversions (well, it should). So, if you’re regularly in your Google Analytics or Google Search Console properties, you’ll see this drop in traffic. If you’re not familiar with these tools, then you should look for a drop in transactions or leads driven through your website.

How to recover after an algorithm update

This is the big question. You’ve been impacted by the latest update; traffic is dropping, leads are too, so…what do you do?

Wait for the dust to settle

It’s important to wait until the update is rolled out. If you notice a drop in rankings and traffic, then you can start to dig into your data and understand where this has happened. But, try not to make wholesale changes to your website until your ranks have stabilised as you don’t yet know what areas need focus. You might change something that’s actually working for you, which will make matters worse.

Identify where you’ve lost traffic from

The first thing you need to do is find the source of your lost traffic. How you do this will depend on your toolkit, but the best place to start is Google Analytics & Google Search Console. Here’s a short process to follow to identify the impacted areas:

  1. Find the date that you first started losing traffic and set your Google Analytics date range from that day to today (or use a 2-4 week window if you’re looking at previous updates).
  2. Open your Landing Pages report and sort the table from highest to lowest organic session decreases. Make a list of the pages that have had a notable drop.
  3. Open Google Search Console and add the same data range comparisons. Input each page and look at the queries that have lost clicks and impressions. Sort both columns high to low and review the queries that have seen the biggest drops.
  4. Look at keywords that have lost rankings. If you’ve got a rank-tracking tool, then this is the best source for this. But if not, then a tool like Ahrefs, SEMrush or Google Search Console can also help (but the ranking positions they report aren’t always as accurate).
  5. Look for patterns in your data. Are there topics that have seen bigger query click drops than others? Are there certain page types that have been hit hardest? Are the pages hit lacking links or have they got less content than others? This is the most important part of the process as this is where you’ll start to build your recovery strategy.

The easiest way to review all of your data is to pull it into an Excel spreadsheet or Google sheet, use conditional formatting and look for trends.

Look for new ‘winners’ in the search results

With any update, there are winners as well as losers. Looking at who has gained in your market is a good starting point in understanding what Google requires to rank you well. 

Any good rank-tracking tool will give you historic SERP data. Other paid tools like Ahrefs/SEMrush also do this. Focus on the timeframe when you saw a ranking drop for a keyword and look at who broke into the top 10, top 5, or moved into a notably better position.

What are they doing differently to you? How does their content quality and depth compare to yours? How often are they gaining backlinks? How well have they covered the topic (topical authority)? How strong is their E-E-A-T?

These are all questions you need to answer. Once you’ve analysed these competitors across the main keywords that you’ve lost positions for, you can combine this insight with your traffic drop insights and start to paint a bigger picture.

Reassess your own website

Now that you know which pages and queries have been impacted the most, and you know what the ‘winners’ in your space are doing well, you can start to review your website against these new criteria.

It’s important to say at this stage that you shouldn’t copy what the competition are doing like-for-like. Look for patterns and trends, and incorporate them into your strategy.

For example, you might find that queries with the biggest traffic drops are those that you have little site-wide coverage of (again, topical authority). And those doing well in the SERPs may cover this topic extensively. Then you can identify this content gap as an action in your next strategy.

Similarly, if you haven’t focused much time on technical SEO (especially for larger websites), then you should run a fresh audit and look for issues in your internal linking, crawling and indexing. 

Create a new strategy to target your weak areas

Now that you have your traffic drop insights, competitor insights and website weak spots, you need to put this together into a strategy. Focus first on the areas that saw the biggest drops, where SEO improvements are achievable in the shortest time-frame. 

If, for example, you found that Google is rewarding websites with 5x your number of relevant backlinks, then this isn’t a realistic short-term goal. Instead, focus on improving areas like content, E-E-A-T, internal linking and keyword targeting.

And wait

Now that your new strategy is in play, it’s time to wait and see what begins to move the needle. Progress is something we all want to see, but when it comes to SEO, you need patience.

Need help recovering lost traffic after a Google update? Speak to our team today.

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