Algorithm Updates Emerge as the Top Threat in SEO

  • June 12, 2024
  • SEO
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After a brief hiatus from examining leaked Google ranking factors and AI insights, let’s revisit the pressing question: “Do large websites receive an unfair advantage in Google Search?”

In the first part of David vs. Goliath, I discovered that larger websites do indeed grow faster than their smaller counterparts. However, this growth is not solely due to their size; rather, it is because they have identified and leveraged growth mechanisms over extended periods.

  • An analysis of 1,000 successful and 1,000 unsuccessful sites revealed that online communities have seen disproportionate SEO visibility gains over the past 12 months, while ecommerce retailers and publishers have experienced the most significant declines.
  • Backlinks appear to have diminished in importance within Google’s ranking algorithms over the past year, even though successful sites still possess stronger backlink profiles than less successful ones.
  • Newcomer sites have promising potential to achieve significant growth, though not typically within established verticals.

The correlation between SEO visibility and the number of linking domains remains strong, but it was higher in May 2023 (0.81) compared to May 2024 (0.62). Sites experiencing reduced organic traffic displayed lower correlations (0.39 in May 2023 and 0.41 in May 2024). Even though sites gaining organic visibility boast more backlinks, the signal’s strength has notably decreased over the past 12 months.

In the second part of this exploration, I delve deeper into the data to uncover how and when sites experience growth or decline in SEO traffic. My objective is to provide a vibrant contrast between modern, effective SEO strategies and outdated, ineffective ones.

Insights:

  • Most sites lose traffic during core algorithm updates but gain outside these periods.
  • Site growth tends to be linear, not exponential.
  • Combining tools with programmatic SEO is highly effective.
  • High ad load and confusing design are detrimental.

Image Credit: Lyna ™

Hard(Core) Algorithm Updates

Expect at least one Google update to roll out during nearly half of the year.

According to Google’s official incident page, the years 2021-2023 averaged approximately 170 days of updates annually.


Days of the year with Google updates (Image Credit: Kevin Indig)

It is essential to understand that roll-out days signify official updates and the periods during which new updates deploy. The impact of updated ranking systems can manifest well after the roll-out as new data integrates into the system, as highlighted by Danny Sullivan.

So the folks going “it’s a never-ending update” or “the update isn’t over,” search is always being updated.


Image Credit: Kevin Indig

As I elaborated in Hard(Core) Algorithm Updates, algorithm updates present an escalating challenge for Google as a user acquisition channel:

No platform experiences such frequent changes in requirements. Over the past three years, Google has launched 8 Core, 19 major, and 75-150 minor updates. The company notes thousands of improvements every year.

While every platform enhances its algorithms, none do so as frequently as Google. For instance, Instagram has implemented 6 major algorithmic changes over the past three years, and LinkedIn has introduced 4.

The top 1,000 domains suffering the most significant traffic losses underscore the risk: When a domain loses organic traffic, it’s usually due to a Google core algorithm update. Here are a few examples:

  • In SaaS, applicant tracking software company Betterteam was impacted by the September 2023 Helpful Content and October 2023 Core updates, likely due to an excess of programmatic “low-quality” content.
  • Hints from leaked Google ranking factors suggest a link between brand searches, backlinks, and content. Whether this connection holds true and is influential remains to be seen. However, for Betterteam, brand searches have stagnated since March 2022 while the number of pages has been growing.

Image Credit: Kevin Indig
  • In ecommerce, major US retailers across various verticals (fashion, home, mega-retailers) have been declining since the August 2023 Core update. More details on that shortly.

Image Credit: Kevin Indig
  • In publishing, websites like Movieweb have also seen declines since August 2023. Interestingly, Screenrant gains market share but also dips during the March 2024 Core update.

Image Credit: Kevin Indig

Overlapping algorithm updates make it exceedingly difficult to discern what transpired, presenting a reverse engineering problem for SEO professionals and guideline issues for those responsible for organic traffic. Understanding which guideline was violated necessitates comprehending the underlying changes.

S-Curves Are Rare

It is uncommon for a domain to experience exponential growth (technically, sigmoidal). The average growth of the top 1,000 domains by organic traffic shows a linear pattern. The advantage here is more predictable growth.


Image Credit: Kevin Indig

An exemplary case of a modern, effective SEO approach in SaaS comes from the AI tool Quillbot. With a straightforward yet efficient design, the tool empowers users to address issues directly rather than merely reading about potential solutions.

The tool’s owner, Learneo, who also owns Course Hero, has witnessed consistent growth outside Google algorithm updates. Similar to the German startup DeepL, Quillbot employs programmatic SEO for translation queries such as “translate Arabic to Hindi” or “translate German to English.” This combination of programmatic SEO and tool-based solutions is highly effective.

Public relations management tool Muck Rack uses programmatic pages for each client (+50,000) within its /media-outlet/ directory, such as muckrack.com/media-outlet/fintechzoom. Each page ranks for the client’s name and includes a description, company details, and the latest press releases for fresh content. Despite not being a tool, this programmatic strategy proves successful and valued by Google.

In ecommerce, brands have experienced the most significant growth.

Noteworthy examples include:

  • Kay Jewelry (outlet).
  • Lenovo.
  • Steve Madden.
  • Sigma (photo).
  • Billabong.
  • Coleman.
  • Hanes.
  • And more.

Clearly, exceptions exist: some brands have lost organic traffic while some retailers have gained. Although we need more data, it seems that Google has been favoring brands over retailers in search results since August 2023.

In publishing, garagegymreviews.com is one of the few affiliate sites that have demonstrated strong growth, primarily driven by its YouTube channel.

Additionally, fodors.com, a travel site, has grown significantly due to its community.

A line graph showing the growth of fodors.com and its subdomains from July 2022 to May 2024. Fodors.com shows the highest growth, followed by community, world, and news subdomains. As evidenced by this David vs. Goliath scenario, smaller subdomains navigate SEO risks amid constant algorithm updates. Data by ahrefs.
Image Credit: Kevin Indig

Algo Thrashing

We all desire a better Google, and it appears that Google has taken this demand seriously. The response has been more robust algorithms that can significantly impact sites, becoming the biggest risk in SEO.

Interestingly, I have not observed many sites growing solely due to algorithm updates. The positive effect is often indirect: competitors losing traffic.

The paramount question now is how to mitigate the risk of being impacted by an algorithm update. While there are no absolute guarantees, there are common traits among sites that remain unaffected

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