Every so often, Google updates its systems. Not in a way that will necessarily make you spit coffee over your laptop, or even notice at all, but it’s how the search giant continually refines its methods.
What we’re talking about are behind-the-scenes updates, which tend to come every few months and fine-tune how Google’s algorithm defines and prioritises how results should be ranked. As an inevitable result, some sites will get a boost whilst others lose out.
With almost no details released about the specifics of what has changed, it’s up to digital agencies to fathom what the effects of each update are, and to make sure that clients’ websites are in the strongest position possible to stay relevant.
Recently, Google released two updates in succession. So we conducted an experiment, to see how these affected particular types of websites and to what extent.
Who won? Who lost?
So what did we want to find out? For our own original research into the effects of Google’s latest changes, we measured how businesses’ websites in several different industries fared.
Across 15 different sectors — from retail to technology, architecture to finance — we analysed the 50 of the largest UK companies’ websites in each field. This gave us a comprehensive picture of a variety of different specialisms, appealing to different audiences.
We recorded data for how every particular website fared in search results for their market’s top 10 keywords on 1 December 2022, just before the first update kicked off. We then compared this to the same data for 9 January 2023, just as all the updates were about to be finished and implemented.
For our findings, this data was then aggregated for each sector, to give an overall percentage increase or decrease for each industry. These can be read aloud in the style of Top of the Pops, should you wish.
The building and construction sector is undoubtedly the biggest winner from the latest updates. Brands from housebuilders to civil engineering firms have, as an average for the industry, seen the number of keywords for which they appear in the top 10 results shoot up by an average of 3.73% — without lifting a finger.
The UK’s major homeware brands, as well as the largest food and drinks producers, also have reason to be happy. Both sectors gained significantly from the updates, with an increase of 2.69% and 2.22% respectively.
At the other end of the scale is the logistics industry, with its 5.89% drop outstripping every other sector’s change either way. Although several of the brands we analysed saw a strong uplift in their visibility as a result of Google’s updates, many remained exactly the same. Coupled with a sharp drop in top-ten rankings for several businesses, it means that the field has come out on average as the poorest performer amongst those we analysed.
The second-largest decrease in top-ten keywords, belonging to the travel and tourism sector, was 3.27% — not great, but a lot better than it could have been.
So, what are these updates?
Helpful Content Update (05.12.2022)
The first part of this double-yolker was the Helpful Content Update, which began on 5 December.
This evidently concentrated on websites with content written to be informative and helpful, rather than pages created simply for the purpose of trying to get domains to rank higher in search results.
In many ways, it’s a continuation of a previous refinement by the search giant in September, which weeded out sites written using artificial intelligence (AI) rather than humans — also in an attempt to boost rankings. It took Google only a matter of days to weed out many websites written by AI, which saw their search rankings, and therefore their traffic, nose-dive.
This is all about Google discerning whether something has been genuinely written to help people or to primarily help the website rank better. Something that requires constant refinement and improvement to detect.
Link Spam Update (14.12.2022)
The Link Spam Update was to improve the implementation of Google’s SpamBrain function — the AI system that recognises backlinks to a page that seem unnatural and seemingly there for the purpose of artificially boosting its value.
Starting on 14 December, the update was to eliminate any credit passed by these spammy links to websites, in effect reducing those domains’ value until those links are replaced with more credible ones.
Google began directly ignoring links like these in 2019 with its Penguin Everflux update but, as is the way with all things on the internet, the goalposts shift constantly. This is simply its latest endeavour to weed out efforts to cheat the system, and instead reward those who contribute genuinely helpful insight and knowledge.
Things to learn
A poorly-affected sector might not have made any mistakes
If your business operates in an industry that hasn’t typically done so well out of these changes, it’s important not to panic or act rashly. It’s simply the ebb and flow of how the search landscape works — as every SEO agency knows. Take it as an opportunity to evolve your content further.
Remember the central aim of Google: to provide anyone searching with a question with the most effective answer, which gives them all the information they need in the most clearly-understood way.
The rules of SEO best practice for your content are still as true as ever. Your website needs to be seen to offer information that is either new or well-collated and informative. If what you’re presenting is mirrored by your competitors, your website will hit a ceiling. It’ll be overtaken by sites that offer something fresher — be it advice, research or reviews.
However, the extent to which you must fulfil those requirements is what is transforming. It’s no longer enough to show a broad knowledge of a topic.
Put your brand in the best position
As we’ve seen with the effects of the Helpful Content Update and Link Spam Update, creating content for the sole purpose of boosting rankings in search results — especially if it reads in a somewhat robotic and unnatural way — will cost you. Google is getting ever more savvy about the hallmarks of content created just to climb up its results pages.
You need to display deep expertise, so that you become visible as an authoritative source of information on the industry in which you operate. Your website needs to become a hub to which others go to for their information — with an intuitive user experience.
And that second point is another crucial ingredient — making sure that, however excellent your advice is, people are finding it. A solid technical foundation is part of this battle from an SEO perspective, in order to both maximise the potential your website holds and to hold it there for as long as possible.
Another facet is your site’s backlink profile. Because of the Link Spam Update, and the SpamBrain system it leverages, you need to be more careful than ever about where the links pointing to your website are from. If they’re from sources that have nothing to do with the keywords you want to appear for, it’s likely that you’ll see little to no difference in your rankings from them.
And so, with only restricted citations from a narrow selection of other websites, all that knowledge is a mound of untapped resources.
A digital PR agency can use campaigns to build stories that authoritative websites want to cover — and link to the research, data and expertise on your website. Structured activity will steadily build up your backlink profile from a broad range of sources, signalling to Google that yours is a site that a wide variety of people trust.
In order to track the impact of December’s core updates on page one visibility for a range of sites across different sectors, Tank analysed the website’s of a selection of each industry’s 50 largest UK brands.
Using Ahrefs, Tank compiled a comparison of the number of top ten keywords on December 1st 2022 (pre helpful content update rollout) v January 9th 2023 (post link spam update rollout) for each website featured in the research. The industry average was then taken to provide an overview of how each sector was impacted in terms of organic visibility.