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Mordy Oberstein – Search Engine Land News On Search Engines, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Wed, 21 Aug 2019 17:56:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.3 Are we right for fawning over core algorithm updates? /are-we-right-for-fawning-over-core-algorithm-updates-320917 Wed, 21 Aug 2019 17:56:00 +0000 /?p=320917 Every update Google rolls out needs to be discussed on some level but the amount of attention should be relative to its overall impact.

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There’s nothing like a good core algorithm update to get the industry buzzing. Ever since Google started confirming core updates back in March 2018, we’ve come to expect a good shaking of the rankings multiple times each year. But are we blowing things out of proportion? Is there too much “core update” hype out there? Are the confirmed core updates any more impactful than your run-of-the-mill unconfirmed update? Are we too focused on what Google is confirming at the expense of what Google is not confirming? 

Are confirmed core updates actually more impactful than unconfirmed updates?

 A quick look at a rank fluctuations weather tool will tell you that Google’s confirmed core updates are for real. Each and every core update incarnation has displayed extremely high levels of volatility. There’s really no doubt about it. Just look at the volatility recorded during the June 2019 Core Update:

At the same time, many of the unconfirmed updates that Google rolls out are themselves incredibly substantial. In fact, an anonymous July update had many of the rank fluctuation weather tools displaying rare levels of volatility:

Right off the bat, you can see why asking if we’re getting a bit too carried away with the core updates is a legitimate question. And it’s clearly problematic if the core updates are acting as a red herring that distracts us from the impact of the unconfirmed updates. It seems we may have a problem on our hands.

Let’s be clear about something, the confirmed core updates are serious ranking events that legitimately deserve our attention. A breakdown of the volatility increases presented by the confirmed updates clearly tells us there is reason for concern. Here’s the niche level data for the volatility increases seen during June 2019’s core update:

The question here is not if the core updates are powerfully impactful. One look at the data above and it’s obvious they are. The volatility increases are downright scary. The question, however, is how do they stack up compared to unconfirmed updates? A look at a ranking weather tool is one thing, but what does the actual data say?

To help contrast the confirmed updates to their unconfirmed counterparts I calculated the volatility increases for three unconfirmed updates and compared them to the last three core updates. Specifically, I analyzed the volatility for the Medic Update, the March 2019 Core Update, and the June 2019 Core Update, as well as that of the unconfirmed update that directly preceded the March 2019 update, the unconfirmed update that followed the March 2019 update, as well as the infamous July 2019 unconfirmed update.

Top of the SERP rank volatility: confirmed vs. unconfirmed Google updates

Here’s the data on the volatility increases seen during the core updates versus that which was recorded during the unconfirmed updates at the top 3 positions on the SERP:

The first thing to take away is that not all core updates are equally impactful at the top of the SERP. Clearly, there was a propensity to see lower levels of rank fluctuations during the March 2019 Core Update relative to its counterparts. Of course, that tendency varies from niche-to-niche.

In terms of the core updates relative to the unconfirmed updates, there’s clearly a trend indicating that the core updates more greatly impact rank at the top of the SERP than the typical unconfirmed update.

That said, some of the numbers seen during the unconfirmed July update approach the levels of rank volatility seen during the March 2019 core update, even surpassing them in certain instances. This would seem to dispel the notion that an unconfirmed update is intrinsically less potent than a confirmed core update.

Page one overall volatility: confirmed vs. unconfirmed Google updates 

A look at the top 10 results overall presents a bit of a different narrative than what we’ve seen at the most prominent ranking positions:

Leaving aside the Medic Update, which from the data appears to be a beast all unto itself, there’s a large narrowing of the gap between the rank volatility seen during a core update compared to your run-of-the-mill rank fluctuation event. While the unconfirmed February 2019 update seemed to be a far less consequential update relative to the core changes, that trend does not apply across the board.

Just look at the July 2019 unconfirmed update. In this instance, the levels of increased rank volatility surpass both the March and June core updates. In July, the rank volatility increases recorded for the Travel and Retail niches surpassed the rank volatility levels observed for those industries in both March and June.

Even the YMYL niches saw greater levels of fluctuations during the July update as compared to the March core update! During the March 2019 Core Update, the Health niche saw rank volatility spike 70% while the Finance niche saw a 60% volatility increase. Fast forward to July and the Heath and Finance niches sported an 81% and 69% increase in rank fluctuations respectively among the top 10 results.

That said, in my estimation, the data from April is the most significant. The April unconfirmed update shows an overall volatility increase that falls within the general ballpark of the fluctuation increases observed during the June 2019 core update (with there being an 11-percentage point differential). In April, both the Gambling and Retail niches saw greater increases in rank movement among the top 10 results than during the June update.

This is important to note as it takes the volatility data from the July unconfirmed update from being an outlier or a”one-off” to being perhaps reflective of the underlying power of an unconfirmed update.

The sudden shift in narrative once you move from the top results to the page one SERP overall is itself noteworthy. As is evident, the official core updates are far more impactful to the top positions on the SERP than your average algorithm change. However, once you factor in positions 4-10 an entirely new storyline emerges, one where the unconfirmed update approaches the significance of the official updates Google periodically rolls out.

Are we blowing core updates out of algorithmic proportion? 

Based on the data there is a strong case to make that the average unconfirmed update has the real potential to throw rank into a tizzy much the way a core update might. This is particularly true when dealing with the bottom two-thirds of the SERP. With that, and considering the amount of buzz, chatter, and overall notoriety the core updates receive, I would say we’re blowing things far out of proportion.

Not all unofficial updates are equal in their volatility (though, for the record, nor are all core updates equal in their volatility). Still, it is very much the case that an unofficial algorithm update has the potential to both fall within similar rank volatility ranges of the core updates and even to surpass their volatility in unique cases… once you move past the top three positions on the SERP. 

Short answer… In my opinion, yes, we have a tendency to hype up the core updates at the expense of not giving some of the other algorithmic changes the attention they deserve.

Is there a legitimate reason to focus more intently on confirmed Google updates?

I want to qualify my statement about giving the unconfirmed updates a bit more notoriety and over-hyping the core updates. Aside from the unusual levels of rank volatility at the top of the SERP, there is good reason to focus on the core updates. The recent run of core updates is singular in the trends they have a tendency to display. Core updates are unique in that they tend to have some consistent themes and latent messages embedded within them.

Take the discussion around E-A-T and YMYL sites that has emerged as a consequence of the core updates. There’s tremendous value in that coming to the forefront. If you look carefully, the data above does generally show that the Health and Finance niches are subject to far more volatility than the Travel and Finance industries during a core update.

This, of course, begs the question as to why this is happening. The answer to which is a conversation in its own right. (I personally think it has to do with Google profiling sites and walking away with trust issues when a site does not do what it intends or says it is meant to do, which is all the most pertinent when that content speaks to your safety. But again, that’s a conversation for another time.) The point is, seeing these trends and picking up on these latent tendencies embedded within the core updates helps to advance the SEO conversation and SEO understanding in ways not much else can.

Because the core updates more prominently display observable site-level patterns, honing in on them and making a big deal out of them is very much on target! 

Every algorithm update needs love 

Every update Google rolls out needs to be discussed on some level. Every update impacts any number of sites bringing with them real consequences that impact a site’s bottom line. The amount of attention due to a Google update should be relative to its overall impact. When it comes down to it, that’s all I’m advocating here. The notion of ascribing potency to an update simply because of its status or labeling just doesn’t make good sense to me. I think we’d do well to make sure we don’t get caught up in the hoopla of Google’s confirmation to the detriment of seeing an unconfirmed update for what is, highly impactful. The result of doing so will be greater industry attention on more updates with more ideas and insights being sprinkled across the SEO industry! 

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Why featured snippets could be less of a win going forward /why-featured-snippets-could-be-less-of-a-win-going-forward-315596 Fri, 19 Apr 2019 12:00:06 +0000 /?p=315596 The evolution of the SERP feature is going to steal traffic away from content creators, but it can still be a win. Here’s why.

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Yes, you read the title right.

I’m one of those freaks who thinks that Featured Snippets are not perpetual manna from heaven and could see their divine role on the SERP diminished as time goes on. I understand this could be considered search marketing heresy. Though to be clear, I’m not advocating for a loss of the zero-position box’s supremacy. What I believe is the SERP feature’s evolution and recent advancements have the potential to steal some of the content creator’s traffic.

Featured Snippets get specific

Let me state the obvious, traffic rooted in a Featured Snippet depends on the user clicking the URL within it. But what is also true is that Featured Snippets have evolved into less clickable entities. I could offer all sorts of long-worded elucidations on how Feature Snippets are morphing, and in a way have already changed, into less potent traffic generators. For now, however, I’m going to walk you through three formats of snippets that have emerged to foster the idea that what was once an important win may be less so in the future.

  1. Featured Snippets as Direct Answers
  2. Featured Snippets with supplementary content
  3. Featured Snippets as absolute lists

Featured Snippets as Direct Answers

Why would I ever advance the notion that Featured Snippets are slowly creeping away from being the SERP win of all wins to being… well to being less so? Take this example.

Is it a Featured Snippet? Is it a Direct Answer? (Maybe it’s a Knowledge Panel?) Who knows… and does it really matter? What matters, essentially, is that Google has seamlessly merged a Featured Snippet with a Direct Answer. What matters less is this particular example. Like a game of chess, an individual move is far less important than the overall strategy. Google tacking on the epitome of the clickless SERP to the most potent traffic force on the results page should legitimately raise some eyebrows and force the question: Where is all of this going? If you’re banking on traffic from Featured Snippets, I would imagine that seeing this does not bode well for your confidence in the SERP feature’s future as a traffic powerhouse.

That said, I know you. You’re skeptical. I mean look at this example, who is this catering to? The only user who will be satisfied by the Direct Answer formatting here is someone who is searching for a keyword along the lines of “name of bb king’s guitar,” and that’s not even the keyword here.

However, not every Direct Answer has to have such an isolated if not idiosyncratic visual format. The essence of the Direct Answer resides not within the format exactly, though that helps, but in its function. Let me show you what I mean. Here is what you get for the keyword “name of bb king guitar.”

Basically, this is a Direct Answer. I know it doesn’t look like one, but in function it is. The prime user (i.e., they who wish to know the name of the blues legend’s guitar) need not click on anything to get the information needed from the search.

A consistent illustration of this dynamic are queries related to price. Often enough, Google indicates the price related to the query as a precursor to the content within the snippet.

Incidentally, large headings that serve as Direct Answers are not the only way Google presents a way for users to bypass the click. The search engine has multiple ways of presenting content that precisely satisfies the user’s needs. Take the Featured Snippet for “how much is parking at JFK airport.”

Above, information was extracted from a table on the associated page (below) and may certainly provide the user with the exact information they are in search of. No click needed.

Featured Snippets with supplementary content

Similar to the above, Google now shows Featured Snippets along with other ancillary content by placing them next to Knowledge Panels and its newer cousin, the Explore Panel.

Both the Featured Snippet and Knowledge Panel focus on very much the same specific topic. As is obvious, the Featured Snippet is facing click competition from the “fact” site of all “fact” sites – Wikipedia.

Competition from ancillary content need not come in the form of clicks to sites other than yours. Google has, and still does play with the notion of a Featured Snippet that resides atop of a Knowledge Panel. Here’s a doozy that I found back in July.

This is in many ways similar to what I just explained so I won’t harp on the point too much. What I will point out, and as is not hard to see, is that by placing additional content alongside the Featured Snippet the need for any click is significantly diminished.

Featured Snippets as absolute lists

If I’m going to burst your Featured Snippet bubble by illuminating the fact that they already aren’t the panacea of all things traffic, it’s incumbent on me to bring up lists. The common notion is that Featured Snippets present lists, either numbered or bulleted, are unassailable. The user is shown a partial list which can only be fully accessed with a click. What could be better?

Let me take you back to February, where we all lost our collective minds at the discovery of a Featured Snippet that required a tab to expand for the URL to come into purview. In my estimation, the outrage was a bit misplaced. In reality, I hardly believe the query, “seeds with highest omega 3” was ever going to produce the expected clicks from the Featured Snippet. Here’s what the zero-position box for the query traditionally looks like.

Google, zeroing in on the word highest presents a list of the seven seeds that contain the most omega 3. Notice, there is no prompt to explore more items as is traditionally seen with Featured Snippets. For the user looking to merely find those seeds that contain high levels of omega 3, there is not some imperative need to click. Traffic, in this instance, would come from users in search of information that goes beyond the surface intent of the query. There will be traffic to this site, just not in the way one might imagine. As you can see, expandable tabs hiding URLs were not needed to discourage clicks. The format of the Featured Snippet intrinsically does that for us.

The placement of “full list” content within the Featured Snippet appears to be categorical. Taking the example from above, many instances where the query incorporates language that reflects degree (i.e., most, highest, etc.) produce such Featured Snippets. In the below example, it would appear from the snippet that these fish, and only these fish, are those with high levels of Mercury.

However, when looking at the site itself (see below), we discover that the list shown within the Featured Snippet is part of a larger list of fish that are high in the potentially poisonous substance. The format of this Featured Snippet’s content discourages the need for a click, to a degree.

Why it’s only going to get worse

Having presented why it is conceivable that our take on the impact of Featured Snippets may reflect what the SERP feature was in the past, not what it is now in many cases, but I need to elaborate on why I think this is only going to get worse.

There have been downright huge strides in Google’s ability to better dissect and understand what comes its way and how to present it on the SERP. Within the last year, we’ve been introduced to two powerful machine learning elements: Google’s neural matching and Topic Layer. My point is not to tout the advent of better ways to take in a query and spit out results. Rather, it’s to have us all remember that Google only wants to get better and for Featured Snippets that means not just more relevant content, but more concise content as well.

Google has no interest in showing its users snippets of content on the SERP that are long-winded. The idea is to offer the user a concise snippet of content that best answers their query. The more refined that content is, the better… as far as Google is concerned. And with the addition of all this AI, it’s well on its way. This leads me to Fraggles.

As brought to light by Mobile Moxie’s Cindy Krum, Fraggles offer Google the opportunity to present highly-specified content on the SERP. The specific indexation of small fragments of content only makes it more likely that the content found within a Featured Snippet will be that much more concise.

To make matters worse, and as demonstrated above, Google is already very efficient at pulling a word or two out of the main snippet content and using it as a form of Direct Answer. As Google’s current machine learning properties assimilate information and as new elements are introduced, this process will become increasingly refined, and potent.

All signs point to Google not only wanting to present shorter, more direct, hyper-concise content within the Featured Snippets but on its way to do so.

It’s not as bad as it seems

Now for the good news.

The moment a URL is placed at the very top of the SERP, it will garner clicks. A Featured Snippet, despite what I’ve found, will still be a win. My concern is that it may not be the win we expect. I also think we may be overestimating the potential of the SERP feature and its status as the ultimate win.

At this point, I don’t think you need to sleep with one eye open as Google marches towards putting Featured Snippets on a content diet. But it would be a good idea to carefully watch emerging trends and be aware of what is likely coming down the pike.

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