Google Updates Core Algorithm to Keep Up with COVID-19

Google May Core Update

In the past 30 years, search engines have transformed from simple tools that could locate files on a shared network to a major component of the global economy and online commerce. While many search systems have risen and fallen in the last three decades, Google has established its place as an information titan and a cornerstone of the modern Internet. 

Google is so ingrained into our culture that its name became a verb. Nobody’s going to Bing a recipe when it’s dinnertime. I’ve never heard anyone say they’re going to Yahoo some baseball statistics, and there certainly isn’t anybody asking Jeeves to go find them some quick facts.

When a company grows so vast that its name is synonymous with an action, it becomes a digital force of nature that can change global commerce just by flipping a switch.

On May 4th, Google did just that by releasing the May 2020 Core Update. With everything going on in the world due to COVID-19, most digital marketers didn’t think Google would release any major updates or changes during such strange times. However, Google loves defying expectations and “improving” search results, and we’re now starting to really see just how much COVID-19 and Google have changed digital commerce.

The May 2020 Core Update from a Galaxy Far, Far Away

May 4th is celebrated across the world as the official Star Wars Day. While many people were happy to make a few puns and share memes, our friends at Google chose May 4th as launch day for a core algorithm update that proved the Force isn’t with all of us. 

Back in May, I wrote an article about COVID 19’s effect on digital commerce. I looked at how COVID-19 had changed shopping habits around the world, how it impacted some industries far more than others, and what we might see in the future. When I wrote and published this article, Google had only just unleashed the Core Update (also referred to as the May the 4th Update or the Pandemic Update). Everything was still too new and unknown for anyone to understand exactly what Google was changing. The only thing we knew was that something big was happening.

For most core updates, it takes several weeks for everything to roll out and be tested, evaluated, and adjusted. There are always immediate changes but they’re usually smaller or targeted updates, and don’t appear to all users around the world. 

The May 2020 Core Update was different: it made serious waves in just about every aspect of global search right from the start. Marketers noticed two areas underwent drastic changes: local search results and health-based search results. This makes complete sense: people want to know if local stores are open, or to see if restaurants are offering delivery or carryout. At the same time, people are searching for COVID-19 news, symptoms, testing information, and other areas that relate directly to their health, like personal fitness and recipes.

Google Search Liason Image

A central aspect of the May 2020 Core Update seems to be ensuring users are finding up-to-date information on local businesses (most notable in the Google Maps app) and providing what it feels are the best-possible and most-trusted results for COVID searches. Instead of serving up natural remedies, homeopathic treatments, or homemade “cures” in the search results, Google is focusing on providing news sources, local statistics, shelter-in-place information, and more to help keep people informed.

Restaurant Search Image

As with any change, Google’s May 2020 Core Update has led to some significant concerns in the digital commerce world. Many are questioning the wisdom in releasing such a large change in the middle of a pandemic, but there’s more going on with the May 2020 Core Update than what we’re seeing on the surface.

What Happens When Google Makes a Core Update

When Google sends out a pre-announced update, it isn’t just updating a small chunk of the algorithm or making a few tweaks – those changes happen constantly. Keep in mind that there are likely millions of individual algorithms packed together to form the core, so when Google releases a global update, you can expect one thing: completely unpredictable shifts in search ranking and organic value.  

Now that it’s been just over two months since the update, it’s easier to see how certain industries were affected by the Core Update. As a core update rolls out, Google reviews its index and reevaluates a domain’s content with its new or adjusted settings. This means search results can shift very quickly and with no real notice, which significantly impacts pages or entire domains that were previously performing well. This doesn’t mean a domain has permanently lost rankings. It’s somewhat common to see a domain’s rankings get hit hard by core updates and slowly recover most of those rankings after a few weeks. This is generally a sign that the core update caused unintentional issues with search results. Google’s search team watches for these sorts of changes after a core update and will work to quickly adjust the algorithm to fix these issues (though not always, especially if it interferes with the update’s overall intention).

What Digital Marketers are Seeing After the Core Update

As I mentioned earlier, multiple digital marketing communities were very surprised to see Google release such a large and wide-reaching algorithm update in the middle of a pandemic. While there aren’t exact figures, some marketers believe that the May 2020 Core Update might be the single largest change to global search settings since 2003 (that’s when Google shifted to running semi-regular core updates).

While this isn’t the first update in 2020 (a small one went out in January), it’s absolutely one of the most influential changes the company has made to SERPs in years. COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way people use search engines, and companies like Google are doing everything they can to meet this new search demand and provide what it feels are the best-possible search results. However, defining something like “best-possible” is very subjective and many of Google’s changes have resulted in problems for companies around the world. 

One trend that’s shown up in multiple articles states that larger and well-established brands have seemed to fare much better than smaller, lesser-known brands. There are some theories about this – including the idea that consumers are simply more likely to trust a known brand and order from their site – but if it’s true, then it’s a major issue for smaller brands struggling to stay above water during the pandemic.

When governors began enacting the shelter-in-place orders across the country, we saw an immediate shift in how people were searching and shopping online. Areas like tourism, travel, live events, and “non-essential” products were hit hard by these changes, and many of these areas are still struggling to recover. At the same time, we saw areas like home office equipment, recipes, fitness & nutrition, hobbies, and home renovation double and even triple their regular traffic.

This example demonstrates the large drop in rankings of many domains selling “non-essential” products and services experienced following the May 2020 Core Update. 

Non-essential Rankings Image

This example demonstrates the similarly large increase in rankings many domains selling “essential” products and services saw after the May 2020 Core Update.

Essential Rankings Image

Google predicted all of this happening and jumped to make sure it could keep up with the new search trends and continue providing people with the information they need. While search results have evened out over the last two months, and even with search volatility back to normal levels, companies should be working to ensure their sites are in good shape and ready to handle the new normal in search.

How to Combat Future Google Core Updates

I wish I could say there’s a way to perfectly safeguard your site from future updates, or that there was a way to know how future updates will impact your site. Sadly, I can’t predict the future, and since Google gives digital marketers just enough information to keep us hooked, there’s no way to know what could happen in the coming months or years. 

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way people shop, interact, and do business online. We’re already seeing the number of new COVID-19 cases climbing in states across the country, which is starting to spur concerns about another round of quarantine and the painful effects it could have on domestic and global commerce. 

On top of everything I’ve listed in this post, it’s important to point out that Google doesn’t provide any sort of truly clear or direct guidelines on how to combat the effects of a core update. The search giant’s long-standing reply is to simply ensure your site’s content is the best it can be for your industry and customer base.

The best any domain or company can do is focus on providing informative content, quality products, and excellent services to its customers. Root out any problematic internal links, make sure your mobile site is quick and easy to use, and provide search engines with clear meta data and content focused on the keywords your customers use the most. Above all, be sure you have a great user experience that keeps people on your site and converting from shopper to buyer. This is the only way to stay afloat while Google and COVID-19 continue to make bigger and bigger waves.

Safeguarding and Building Organic Value with CQL

With everything going on at home and around the world, it might be too simple to say that the next six months are going to be complicated. Even though we’re spread apart and working remotely, the people at CQL have focused on supporting our clients and ensuring they’re ready for the changes to commerce. Contact us today if you’d like to know more about how we can help your business succeed in this changing digital landscape.