If your business depends on traffic from organic search, then you're probably paying very close attention to the changes Google made over the weekend to its algorithm. According to the company, it was just a routine update. In fact, Google has declined to give any specifics or guidance to websites regarding the series of changes it made.
Some have asked if we had an update to Google Search last week. We did, actually several updates, just as we have several updates in any given week on a regular basis. In this thread, a reminder of when and why we give specific guidance about particular updates....-- Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) November 12, 2019
But if your site was one of the many that experienced a dramatic drop in traffic coming from Google, it was anything but routine. And for content publishers especially (this site included), when the strategy you've been using to drive traffic to your site suddenly stops working, it's a big deal.
Unfortunately, Google doesn't give you a whole lot of information to work from. In fact, John Mueller, Google's webmaster trends analyst, was pretty clear in a live chat this week that while the effect on many sites has been dramatic, to Google this is just business as usual, and these updates don't represent massive changes to the overall algorithm.
Still, it's particularly confusing that some search queries are now returning results with sites that are mostly spam, while previously high-ranked content has suffered. This is especially the case in niches like travel or food blogs.
The good news is, even if Google isn't telling site owners exactly what changed, there are a few things you can do to make sure your content continues to reach your audience.
SEO best practices still matter
It might go against what most people think, since many of the sites that were penalized were using good SEO practices. Here's the thing: SEO best practices are a baseline, not an end goal. The end goal is relevant content, and that's what Google cares about. Everything else is just a signal that the content might be a good answer for a reader.
For example, Google considers site speed, and you should definitely focus on how quickly your site loads for a variety of reasons. But there are millions of top-ranking sites that are slow, but they are still the best overall answer. Does that mean site speed doesn't matter? Of course not; you should definitely try to do everything you can to create the best experience for your audience. But even once you've done all of those things, you still have to create content that is the very best for your audience.
Search Engine Journal does a good job of pointing out that "the traditional things SEOs focus on, mainly technical SEO, have little to do with fixing an update that's highly likely about relevance."
Which leads us to an even more important point ...
Google is more interested in relevance than optimization
Last month, Google started rolling out an update that uses deep learning known as bidirectional encoder representations from transformers (BERT). That technology aims to better understand natural language, instead of focusing on specific keywords. In fact, sites that appear to be overusing keywords are paying a price for it, even if those keywords are relevant. It's hard to write a blog post about a recipe for pumpkin scones without using the words "pumpkin scones" (or "recipe," for that matter) a few times.
As these changes take effect, Google is less influenced by keywords, as it is able to discern intent through natural language and phrases. That means when you create content, your goal should be simple: Create the most relevant content for your audience. It also means that trying to force keywords into phrases in ways that aren't natural to a reader are now going to be flagged and valued less than simply trying to write naturally.
Google is important, but it's not everything
Google is absolutely important as a source of traffic. The world's largest search engine handles almost six billion queries every day. It drives close to half of all internet traffic. That's extremely significant, but it's not everything. In fact, in addition to making sure your content is easily findable by your audience, it's worth considering whether there are other channels that can help you reach the right customers.
One of the biggest benefits to taking a holistic approach to attracting visitors to your website is that many of those efforts will actually increase your search results as well. Creating quality and relevant content that gets shared across social networks and other sites demonstrates that your content is valuable and trustworthy. That is reflected by the quantity and quality of inbound links, which help both generate traffic and tell Google that it should consider you authoritative, which helps you rank higher.
Anytime you choose to build your business on someone else's platform, if the rules or policies change, your business is at risk. That's true whether you're a retailer selling on Amazon, a local business advertising on Facebook, or a small business creating content to be found on Google.
I'm not suggesting you stop trying to attract customers through organic search -- that would be really bad advice. I do, however, think many businesses might benefit from considering whether it's wise to place all of your eggs in Google's basket when a "routine" update to an algorithm can mean a loss of 30 percent of your business.