The Ever-Changing Nature of Search Engines

I cringe every time I hear a business leader talk about their strategy in SEO as a one-time investment or question why investments they made years ago in organic optimizations are not still paying off.

Heraclitus was a famous Greek philosopher who shaped the work of many other, more well-known philosophers like Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Heraclitus himself is known for his writings on the role of change in the universe and his well-known teaching that the only constant in life is change. If you’ve been a digital marketer for any length of time, you know how accurate this is in the world of Search Marketing. Whether your focus is Paid or Organic, you know that the landscape changes constantly and unless you stay in-the-know on all that’s happening, it’s entirely possible to wake up one morning and find dramatic shifts in your traffic, costs or revenue (or potentially all three). Here are some of the key changes we’re seeing in the SEO landscape along with thoughts on mitigation strategies you may want to employ to keep your programs healthy and intact.

Google tweaks and adjusts their algorithms many thousands of times per year. Most updates are small and have no direct impact on your website’s Organic rankings or traffic – but they’re happening behind the scenes all the time. Major algorithm updates and core algorithm updates happen several times per year. In 2019, Google officially released three core algorithm updates (March, June & September) along with a major update in BERT (checkout this video from Moz for more details). So far in 2020, we’ve seen two core algorithm updates on January 13th and May 4th.

Let’s dig into the May 2020 Core Algorithm Update

As the world has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, our daily lives have been fundamentally altered and the things we are doing and searching for online have changed as well. Google, in its constant attempt to present the most relevant results possible, has responded. Major categories like travel, entertainment, events have taken massive losses as people have implemented social distancing and followed shelter-in-place orders. Google, in response, has deemed that sites in those verticals are less relevant to our current environment and, as such, has pushed down the rankings of these types of sites. On the other side of the coin, news, health and online communities have become increasingly popular during this time and have seen their rankings improve as a result.


Interestingly, some categories like Business and Online Communities, appear at the top of both lists. Given the variety and bread/depth of those types of categories, one would need a more granular look to understand exactly what kinds of businesses and communities have been positively and negatively impacted – but it is almost certainly a reflection of the broader trends impacting the market – i.e. businesses that are thriving during a pandemic are up, hard hit industries are down.

Beyond industry vertical impacts, the May Core Algorithm Update appears to have focused on reducing the visibility of thin content pages, where a specific web page’s content lacks expertise and depth and/or the content is very outdated and lacks relevance to the user.

The other major shift coming out of the May’s update is high volatility in Google’s local search results. Early observations indicate that sites with a strong link profile and those with an upward trending velocity of acquiring new links (relevant to their industry and geographical market), saw a boost in organic visibility while those sites that were more stagnant and deemed ‘less relevant’ saw some declines. This dynamic needs to be more closely monitored in the months ahead as Google has a rich history of demoting website visibility when link acquisition is unnatural (ex. paid links, sponsored links).

So…What’s a Person to Do When an Algorithm Update Negatively Impacts Your SEO Performance?

Trying to anticipate what Google is going to do is a bit like trying to time the market – you may be directionally correct but eventually you’ll be wrong and will get burned. A better approach is to focus your investments and attention on the ABC’s of SEO – that is, Architecture, Backlinks and Content. There are lots of acronyms in SEO, including Google’s E-E-A-T model – that is Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trust. We’ll cover E-E-A-T at another time, but you can learn more about what E-E-A-T is and is not in this Search Engine Journal article.

Architecture – Technical SEO is the foundation to any successful website’s success. Google clearly prefers sites that are secure, mobile-friendly, load fast and are easily accessible to bots and your human visitors. If your site is poorly configured, making it difficult for Google to fetch, crawl and render your content and uses deprecated CMS engines (ex. legacy versions of JavaScript) then you can expect Google to favor more modern, technically-sound competitors. you can expect that Google will not view it as preferentially as it does a site that does not have those issues. Likewise, if your site is unsecure (i.e. it uses http:// instead of https://), you can expect your SEO ceiling to be lower given that Google announced that they preferred secure to unsecure all the way back in 2014! The number of technical SEO factors are far too many to cover in this post, but a comprehensive Technical SEO audit along with custom solutions to remediate the most critical issues is an absolute must for any business that needs to win more Organic traffic.

Backlinks – When one site links to another site, search engines view that link as a sign of quality for the recipient – a popularity vote if you will; but not all votes are equal. The linking building space has gotten quite murky over the years as people have attempted to game the system by buying links or doing extensive link-building campaigns designed to get as many sites as possible linking back to their own content, sometimes at any cost. Google is consistently watching for the ‘bad actors’ and has deployed measures in the past to penalize sites in violation of their link building guidelines (ex. the Penguin update). Our advice is to first focus on building your brand and doing right by your customers to earn their trust and word-of-mouth references. This has a fly wheel affect when you build raving fans. You can then deploy tactics to acquire high-value links by developing helpful, trusted content that educates and inspires your audiences. Content that is customer-first and optimized with the mechanics of great SEO, can over time, earn links from trusted sources including bloggers, journalists, trade publications, etc. However, let’s not kid ourselves as the “build it and they will come” mindset has proven to be a losing proposition. A focus on distributing content through your email and social channels along with PR outreach to industry-relevant publications and writers can open doors to earn some high-value links from authority site owners.

Content – As mentioned, great content that is written for real people rather than search engines is where you should focus your time. Your goal is to have differentiated, valuable content that is updated frequently and that your target audiences find relevant. Google has historically released many algorithm updates to suppress thin content that was only intended to stuff keywords (ex. the Panda update). If you make your customers happy and they’re coming back to your site to read and share your trusted content, you’ll make Google happy at the same time and increase the likelihood your rankings will improve. Content Marketing has proven to help brands win more Organic share but it requires a committed effort to strategic planning, editorial resources and marketing your content through high-reach channels. Don’t focus your writing hit certain keyword frequency, occurrence or density targets; instead, focus on being the authority on the topic you’re writing about so that thematically, it leaves your reader with considerably more understanding than they had before.

As you can see, Organic search is a highly volatile space. Success in Organic search is an always-on game – responding to the changes that the engines (and your competitors). Evolving your website and maintaining customer-centric experiences is your primary pathway to success. If the constant change of SEO is hurting your business results and you’re lacking a clear strategy to win more share, New Media Advisors is ready to help. Our team has 30+ years of experience helping companies identify and address issues that are limiting their traffic and revenue, with deep expertise leading large scale SEO programs. Give us a call and we can discuss how to get started.

In our next post, I’ll cover the changes that are happening in the Paid Search space that will impact your program’s success over the next 12 months.

Brent Bouldin

Partner & Co-Founder | New Media Advisors

Brent Bouldin is a Partner and Co-Founder of New Media Advisors. Previously, Brent was Head of Marketing, Media and Customer Acquisition at Choice Hotels International and led the Digital Marketing and Media Center of Excellence at Bank of America. Brent has held strategy consulting roles at Deloitte Consulting and Ernst & Young and served as the Chief Strategist at He has led Digital and Social Committee of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and has a seat on the North American Board of Directors for the Mobile marketing Association (MMA).

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