One thing that search marketers and savvy Webmasters know for sure is that search engine algorithms change on a regular basis. According to Google, they roll out more than 500 algorithm changes per year. While most of these changes are minor, every few months, Google rolls out a “major” algorithmic update that affects search results in significant ways. (Check out this neat video to find out more about how Google decides what goes into each update).
While most major algorithm changes get publicity because of the negative effects that follow it, many sites benefit from an update. If you’ve been:
- Following Google and Bing Webmaster Guidelines
- Writing high-quality and engaging content for your visitors
- Acquiring links naturally
- Getting your content curated throughout the Socialsphere
Then you may end up being one of the sites that experience a boost. In fact, after Google’s April Panda algorithm update, Search Engine Land shared a study that listed samples of sites which were either rewarded or penalized due to Panda’s grading of content quality (although it’s typically the negative impacts that attract the most PR). Regardless, the impact of search engine algorithm updates on your Website(s) should be monitored on a regular basis as they can make or break your business.
In many of the presentations I’ve given on the topic, “History of Algorithm Updates”, I’m often asked a question similar to, “What’s the best way to go about diagnosing any affects from a major algorithm change?” Below are 5 simple steps that I recommend taking after a search engine algorithm has been implemented:
1. Make sure you understand the intent of the algorithm update
Typically, algorithm updates are made with a specific purpose in mind. Take for instance Google’s Penguin update. In this algorithmic change, Google looked to remove sites that were gaming its ranking algorithm through linking techniques long considered to go against Google’s guidelines.
Often times, after an algorithm update, you’ll find a significant amount of information and misinformation throughout the Web and blogosphere. It’s important to be able to parse out fact from fiction so that you know what you’re dealing with. In my opinion, the best way to understand the intent of an algorithm update is to rely on trustworthy sources that have continuously published sound research and points of views. For example:
- Google: Get it right from the Penguin’s mouth. Google is typically good about providing straightforward information about algorithm changes it makes and even future changes in the queue. As an example, in April of 2012, Matt Cutts at Google posted this helpful Panda article on Google Webmaster Central, “Another Step to Reward High Quality Sites”
- SEOMoz: Released a free and helpful weather reporting service called MozCast. MozCast is a site that regularly tracks daily weather patterns in Google’s algorithm. Furthermore, MozCast offers an embeddable widget so that you do not have to remember to keep checking back:
- Search Engine Land: Danny Sullivan’s Search Engine Land is a solid resource for keeping your pulse on the effects and impacts of search engine algorithm updates
2. Check Google and Bing Webmaster Tools for any messages/notifications
If you don’t already have Webmaster Tool products set-up for the domains you manage, you should do so immediately. These tools provide insight into many aspects of your Website’s performance including any issues on your site that may cause or have caused a penalty as a result of an algorithm update.
3. Check your performance data for any increases or decreases
Regardless of whether or not you have a Webmaster Tool notification, it’s still important to continue your diagnostic review to ensure that you’ve covered all of your bases. The next step is to check the organic search performance numbers from your analytics tool (e.g., Adobe SiteCatalyst, Adobe Insights, Google Analytics, etc..).
If you notice a significant or worrisome drop in performance post-algorithm update, you may well be suffering from a penalty.
One important note: Before rushing to fix a problem that might not exist, I highly recommend checking with your Web development/production team to ensure:
- No significant updates were made to your Website and/or server (including blocking Web pages in robots.txt files and removal of live pages without redirects in place)
- Your Web site is not being taken down for lengthy periods of time when a search engine spider may be attempting to crawl it
4. Conduct a visibility analysis on your targeted keywords
After checking your performance data, I highly recommend ensuring that your keywords have not seen a significant drop in visibility. If you are using Searchlight, it is simple enough to look at your keyword rankings prior to and immediately after an algorithm update. If your keywords, en masse, have shot up or down, you may have been affected by the algorithm change.
5. Conduct a competitive visibility report on your keywords
Finally, I recommend validating if the algorithm update may have affected your competitors’ sites. Again, if you are using Searchlight, a competitor analysis is simple to run. Similar to the previous step, I recommend looking at competitor keyword rankings prior to and immediately post algorithm update. It’s important to understand if similar Websites to yours have been impacted from an algorithm change. If so, an immediate round of discovery should be conducted to determine what factors may have caused the site to be rewarded or penalized. Ultimately, this type of competitor insight can help you avoid future penalties and attract boosts to your organic search visibility and performance.
The five steps listed above should help you diagnose any potential impacts from a major algorithm update. Keep in mind, search engine algorithm updates will affect your site whether or not you are optimizing it. If you’ve experienced any impacts (positive or negative) as a result of an algorithm update, we’d love to hear your story.
Follow Adam on Twitter @adamdince