If you're anything like us, your ears perk up at the sound of a potential Google algorithm update—which is exactly what happened last week.
SEO communities have been buzzing about a potential Google algorithm update on January 9, reporting high volatility across a range of web analytics tools. As one of the top SEO service providers in New York, we're always keeping an eye on analytics for all of our clients—and when we saw this spike in volatility, we knew something was up.
That's when we dove into what may be Google's first algorithm update of 2019.
Widely Reported SERP Volatility in January 2019
On average, Google updates its algorithm roughly 500 to 600 times every year to keep the most valuable, relevant results toward the top of your results page. Even if you're constantly analyzing the numbers (like we are), you may witness a half dozen algorithm updates a day and not even notice.
But when the numbers spike like this, we notice.
There has been some increased volatility in rankings over the past few days—particularly around January 5th, 6th, and 9th—which is typically an early signifier that the Almighty God Google is messing with the secret sauce:
We saw what SEMRush categorizes as a "Very High" rate of SERP volatility on January 9, which can be alarming—or not. It's up to SEO experts to evaluate what caused the shift, what the shift means, and how it affects rankings.
What Does SERP Volatility Mean—and When Do We Start Panicking?
Simply put, SERP volatility is a way to assess how much search engine results pages (SERPs) are changing on a given day.
For example, if you Googled "best web design and marketing firms in Westchester NY" yesterday and had a list of leading agencies, then Googled it again today and didn't recognize a single name, then chances are, Google's up to something.
SEMRush calculates SERP volatility using a fixed set of keyword rankings that they track on a daily basis to measure the change in results, giving users a kind of rough estimate—a canary in the SEO coal mine—of potential algorithm changes.
Here's the thing: Google's algorithm is always changing. There's no way to know exactly what changes they're making at all times, but the best way to keep up to date is by relying on the SEO experts. Whether you have an in-house marketing team or outsource your efforts, trying to track the intricacies of an algorithm shift can be a full-time job.
When it comes to this particularly volatile period, it's important to note that the numbers have bounced back for the most part. By January 15th, SERP volatility had flatlined in the "Normal" range.
Conclusion: Nobody panic—yet.
What SERP Features Were Affected by the Shift—and What Exactly Are Those?
In 2019, SEO means so much more than simple keyword strategy, content marketing, and strategic web design. Over the past few years, Google has been working on perfecting their SERP features—those elements on your results page that you may not have expected, but ended up being perfectly helpful.
We're talking about Knowledge Graphs, Direct Answers, SiteLinks, Carousels, and so much more. They may sound like nonsense now, but when we show you each of these SERP features, you'll know exactly what we're talking about:
Look familiar? Basically, when you Google anything in this day and age, you expect more than a list of hyperlinks. As search results get increasingly intuitive, focusing more on context and usability than keywords, they're growing better and better at "understanding" your search. If I want to know how old Morgan Freeman is (the Direct Answer shown in the Answer Box), they can guess that I may want a little blurb about him (hence the Knowledge Panel).
There are countless Google SERP features to consider, but for the sake of this potential 2019 Google algorithm update, we'll keep it simple. If you want to see more Google SERP features, you can check out a full guide here.
Here are two of the biggest shifts in Google SERP features that caused this spike in volatility based on the rise—or fall—in occurrence in the Top 20 SERP results:
Shopping Results [-1.66]
There was a significant dip in the Shopping Ads block of Adwords. Basically, if you're Googling a product, the search engine would think, "Oh, hey—they may want to buy this Morgan Freeman shirt....and I know a few vendors that sell something like that! Plus, they pay me."
Genius, right? On January 9, 2019, you may have been less likely to see this series of strategic paid ad placements (notice the little "Sponsored" tag to the top right) and more likely to see a link to an online vendor who deals exclusively in Morgan Freeman t-shirts.
People Also Ask [+1.20]
Starting around 2016, Google began adding "People Also Ask" to their results repertoire. It's considered to be tightly connected to the Featured Snippet algorithm, anticipating questions users have Googled on a similar topic.
During the spike in volatility, we saw an increase in SERP results with the People Also Ask feature. This could mean Google has officially released their first algorithm update for 2019, but it could also be a signifier of the rise in voice search.
Did you know that 60% of people started using voice search all the way back in 2016? Honestly, with over 100 million Alexa devices sold to date, voice search is a trend that's here to stay—and Google is obviously listening.
That leaves two possibilities:
1. Google has updated their algorithm to reflect the rise in voice search.
2. The rise in voice search is causing a shift in the Google algorithm.
Honestly, this is a "chicken or egg" scenario. Regardless of who came first, we can agree that the nature of search is changing—and so is Google's approach to producing intuitive results.
What Does It All Mean?
Unfortunately for us, Google stays pretty quiet about minor fluctuations in their algorithm. Webmasters may be losing sleep over this spike in volatility, but at the end of the day, Google saves public announcements for the biggest algorithm changes.
There were three major algorithm updates confirmed by Google in 2018, each a "broad core algorithm update." They managed to acknowledge the first of the three updates while still maintaining their trademark secretive vibe (read their follow-up Twitter replies on the original post for more):
Each day, Google usually releases one or more changes designed to improve our results. Some are focused around specific improvements. Some are broad changes. Last week, we released a broad core algorithm update. We do these routinely several times per year....— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) March 12, 2018
Basically, as Search Engine Journal sums it up, this is what we know about the update:
1. The update was focusing on providing better search results.
2. There's nothing wrong with the sites that lost ranking.
3. There's no "fix" for the sites that lost rankings.
4. The improvements are focused on content, but it isn't a "quality" issue.
Pro Tip: For the timeliest algorithm updates, follow Google's Public Liaison of Search, Danny Sullivan, on his professional Twitter: @searchliaison.
Here's the bottom line: For now, we haven't heard a peep out of Google, so it's safe to assume that the algorithm hasn't undergone any major, planned updates. Still, it's important to keep an eye on your rankings across the board to ensure your target audience can find you.
The best way to amp up your rankings? Trust the experts. At the end of the day, SEO is a combination of excellent content, effective web design, and over 200 other ranking factors. Your search strategy should fit into your overall marketing and web design efforts—and vice versa.
The best place to start: Check out our latest webinar, "Take Control of Your SEO." You'll learn:
- How to consistently and efficiently get found by the people—and technologies—you want
- Why long-tail keywords are so important
- The four-step process for planning out your keywords
Download the webinar below to get ready for Google's first big algorithm update of 2019: