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Google’s May 2020 Core Update and takeaways for publishers

On May 4, 2020, Google rolled out a core algorithm update Throughout the year, Google makes hundreds of changes to refine its algorithms, the underlying scoring systems that rank the search results we ultimately look at on our phones or...

By Hank Azarian

On May 4, 2020, Google rolled out a core algorithm update

Throughout the year, Google makes hundreds of changes to refine its algorithms, the underlying scoring systems that rank the search results we ultimately look at on our phones or computers. Often these changes are minor and most users or publishers don’t even notice that they’ve taken place.  

Several times a year, however, Google will make “significant, broad changes” to the entire algorithm system, a core algorithm update. These are typically released in batches and regions, taking 1–2 weeks to fully roll out. 

The May Core Update finished its rollout earlier this week, according to Google.

What categories were impacted by the May 4 Google core algorithm update?

This was a wide reaching update, with movement across almost all content verticals. As with other recent core updates, it appears that the May 2020 Core Update had the biggest effect on YMYL (your money, your life) websites. A YMYL website primarily offers content that can directly impact users’ health, happiness, safety, well-being, or financial security.

Some categories with significant changes in organic visibility:

  • Nutrition and recipes
  • Fitness
  • News
  • Drugs, alcohol, and rehab
  • Science and medical news
  • Banking and finance
  • Music and entertainment
  • Natural medicine
  • History

Emerging pattern #1: Search intent

In recent years, Google has introduced search features designed to help readers more easily find the content they are searching for. These features include the Top Stories carousel, video integration, and shopping widgets. 

One of the things we noticed in our network data is that many of the broader search terms that saw rankings shifts were also pages with multiple types of search features.

Google search features try to understand the user intent or “journey”

The goal with these features is to provide user satisfaction by guessing the intent behind the user’s search query. Sometimes this is relatively easy — when certain search terms are used, Google can tell what kind of journey the user is on.

They could clearly be on a transactional journey — using terms such as “buy” or best” shows that they are probably searching for products to purchase. Or a navigational journey, using terms like “where” or “near me” to find locations or services in their area. Terms like “how” or “when” shows that the searcher is likely on an informational journey.

At other times the intent is ambiguous or, to use an industry term, fractured.

General search terms get a lot of features, as Google tries to understand fractured intent

The more general a search term is, the more search features Google shows on the results page. Google wants to provide answers or refinements to the users’ questions in the results, keeping them on the page wherever possible. 

These search features significantly boost the click-through rate (CTR) for the content that appears in them, but they can lower CTRs across the remaining results.

Emerging pattern #2: Comprehensive vs keyword-focused content

As we review rankings by Google across a broad number of keywords, we are seeing more comprehensive content gaining advantage over more heavily keyword-focused content.  

Some of the pages impacted by this core algorithm update may have seen changes in their position based on the level of keyword-focus in their on-page elements – for example repeating the exact same phrase throughout a post on various headings, image alt text, title tags, etc. This often happens when some kind of automation (either human or machine) causes the exact same words to appear on many different parts of the page.

It’s a good time to evaluate each keyword’s use and add variations when reasonable. Aim for comprehensive but not repetitive coverage.

Emerging pattern #3: Inbound links

Inbound links, which help to demonstrate the value of a site’s content to others, increased in importance with the May 2020 Core Algorithm update.

Brief or shallow content

Brief content without many inbound links lost ground in this update. While brief content with a diverse inbound link profile did better (especially with later algorithm adjustments), the overall picture on these types of pages is still relatively clear: 

Google believes comprehensive content is more valuable to searchers.

If pages are essentially doorways to other content, such as a round-up style post, Google deems them as providing less value to users. These “doorway” pages are most likely viewed as shallow content unless the content curation itself is very valuable. 

How does Google know if the act of curation is valuable? If the content has a significant following shown by diverse and active inbound links to the page. 

Content that was previously ranking without a lot of links 

Publishers who have focused on producing great content without focusing on promoting that content and encouraging inbound links were affected by this update. Many top ranking spots were taken by higher-authority sites (with stronger inbound links), making it more challenging for small or mid-sized publishers to regain those top spots in the search results.  

Ahrefs is a great tool that provides sites a sense of how their competitors are getting links. Publishers can identify similar sites and review their inbound links for ideas to solve problems around their voice and content.  

We’re watching the data and repercussions from this update and subsequent adjustments closely and will continue to share recommendations and trends.

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