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(Hard)Core Algorithm Updates
The most volatile market in the world is not Brazil, Russia or China. It’s Google Search.
No platform has as many changes of requirements. Over the last 3 years, Google launched 8 Core, 19 major and 75-150 minor updates. The company mentions thousands of improvements every year.
Every platform improves its algorithms, but not as often as Google. Instagram launched 6 major algorithm changes over the last 3 years. Linkedin launched 4.
On social platforms, however, the changes affect what a single person sees. On Google, they affect what everyone sees - and the revenue of companies. The consequences can be severely good or bad. A single Core update can tank your traffic significantly. Hardcore.
Survival of the fittest
Google's systems evolve over time through natural selection, keeping what works and eliminating what doesn't. Search is a zero-sum game that’s getting harder to play because the growing wave of content constantly raises the bar for high quality.
According to Ahrefs’ content explorer, 35M new pages were launched in September in the English language alone. Adapting to these standards is survival of the fittest.
⚠️The problem: Google updates have become unpredictable instead of enforcing a straight line, which makes SEO less predictable as a channel.
“Core update” is a kitchen sink term for lots of different things. Some speculate Google wants to give at least some notice before making bigger changes out of fear of regulatory pressure.
Some core algo updates tweak the weight of signals like backlinks, content, brand searches or user behavior. Gary Illyes from Google recently mentioned backlinks are not in the top 3 ranking signals anymore. Makes you think.
Other Core updates tune user intent and deem other sites as better destinations to answer certain query patterns.
Or, they “localize” queries and decide that the results should vary by region.
Generally, Core Updates are updates of systems based on machine learning. When systems detect changes in user behavior and learn from ongoing tests, they spit out a pattern (users prefer certain sites for certain answers or the best sites have “factor x” in common) that rolls out to all sites.
Core updates introduce genetic mutations (algo updates) to the system that players (websites) must adapt to. But not every mutation survives, and when they die, they send mixed signals.
Healthline, for example, is pushed back and forth by Core updates like a sophomore by a bully. The site is “on the edge of a filter”, meaning Healthline targets queries that see a lot of SERP changes or does something that sits on the line of what Google deems borderline good or bad.
These sites were punished by the Helpful Content Update a year after being rewarded by the same algorithm. What signal is this sending?
Public companies rarely name SEO as the culprit for lower revenue because seeing significant losses from one channel shows you’re not diversified. But what happens when organic traffic tanks is that companies have to make it up with paid traffic, which is many times more expensive.
Chase the algo
The solution to adapting to the evolution of Google's systems is to change how we analyze, act and plan around (Core) algorithm updates.
There used to be a time when SEOs dissected every Google change and learned a lot. Then, algorithm changes became more complex, and Google shared less information. “Don’t chase the algo” became en vogue. But it was a mistake. We should have chosen “don’t obsess, but analyze it as good as you can”.
Understanding Core updates starts with understanding affected SERPs, keywords and pages. We cannot fully reverse engineer Core updates, but we can approximate their impact by looking at what happened and what patterns we see.
Tools like Chat GPT’s Advanced Data Analysis allow us to leverage AI to fight back and find patterns at scale.
Two qualities make it easier to thrive in unsteady waters: patience and proactivity.
Practice patience: don’t celebrate too soon, don’t mourn too quickly. When you see gains from an algo update, wait 6 months before you bank the win and vice versa.
It’s hard because who wouldn’t want to pop champagne when SEO traffic grows 20-30% overnight? But it signals caution and healthy skepticism.
Inhouse SEOs need to invest time to inform leadership proactively about confirmed algorithm updates and their impact. Show how you plan to act (not equal to “react”) to better understand the impact.
Bad form: "Google says we shouldn’t try to analyze core updates, so we’ll just take the hit."
Good form: "It’s too early to tell, but we’re already looking into it and will come up with an action plan once the dust has settled."
Some work won’t take effect before the next (Core) algorithm update launches:
Content that was impacted in Search or Discover by one might not recover—assuming improvements have been made—until the next broad core update is released. (source)
As a result, you have to plan for work that takes 6-12 months to show an effect, like “quality of life” improvements”: technical issues, thin content, low-quality content. By giving that work “breathing room” over a longer time span, you can manage expectations and increase the likelihood of seeing and impact. Leadership buy-in for such a workstream is critical.