Google January 2020 Core Update & What We Learned from it

Google carried out its most recent Core Update around January 17th. Now, slightly more than a month after the January 2020 Core Update, with most dust settled, we’re looking at the learnings from the reshuffle.

A Google Core Update is a major change to Google’s search algorithm. In other words, it’s a reassessment on how Google ranks pages. The basic criteria like quality content, authority and good backlinks have not changed for ages. What does change during the Core Updates is how Google values those criteria and how it determines what quality and authority look like.

Historically, most core updates have been about content quality. This one is no different. Generally speaking, sites with better user experience and more thorough content have fared better. We’re looking at the finance sector for this SEO experiment as financial keywords have always been difficult to rank for.

Are Social Signals Important in January 2020 Core Update?

No. A simple and straight answer. We analysed all winners in the financial category and they were all doing exceptionally bad in therms of their social signals. Most winning sites have fewer than 100 Facebook fans and their social feeds have very little activity. Outdated posts, no “thumbs-ups”, no retweets. I don’t get this – companies with millions of turnaround whose business model is heavily reliant on lead generation, and their social media strategy is so poor, putting that in a polite way. But hey, this is an entirely different topic.

SEO experts have been deliberating on this topic for ages – why does Google not use social signals as a ranking factor. Google has recently confirmed that E-A-T is a major part of its algorithm and might have gained more weight after the January 2020 Core Update. E-A-T stands for expertise, authority and trustworthiness. How do you determine expertise of an author without authorship tag and without looking at social signals? Google says it carries out E-A-T assessments based on two factors:

  1. PageRank – it’s how many authoritative sources link to your pages,
  2. Machine learning based on tests carried out by human Search Quality Evaluators. Back in 2017 Google had carried out 200,000 content evaluation experiments involving human evaluators. They want to teach Googlebot to think in a similar way to a human brain.

When you read an article, you’re likely to understand if the information is trustworthy and written by a person who knows stuff. For example, the new influx of fake celeb news where you see Gordon Ramsay or Martin Lewis advising on Bitcoin investments. Most people will understand that this is fake and can’t be trusted!

The emphasis is on the word “most”… In MOST cases you will be able to tell the difference between a professionally written article and a load of BS. What happens if you’re given two articles on Quantum Physics – a real one and a fake one. Will you be able to tell the difference? I certainly won’t. To support my point, I will also tell you about one of my clients who was a winner after this January update. His website deals with HVAC and I’ve written most of his content. Am I an authority in HVAC? Nope! Not even close. Yet, Google has decided to reward my content.

Why Did Google Reward my Average HVAC Site?

Hand on heart, the HVAC site is average and there is nothing remarkable about it. However, here is the trick. All you need to do is to make sure your site is only tiny bit better than the other average sites within your niche. When you’re building an HVAC site, you don’t have to strive for it to be better than Britannica.com. It only has to be better than your direct competitors. Your product descriptions should be slightly longer and better than competitors’, your site speed slightly higher, customer journey has to be slightly better.

You’re only competing with the sites who rank for your key terms. This is the thing that most SEOs forget when they’re building or optimising sites. You have to focus on what’s going on in your narrow niche, that’s why you have to always do your competitor research first.

Have Backlinks Played any Part in this Update?

In our opinion backlinks had virtually no impact on the January 2020 Core Update. At least not in a way that you can pin it down. We looked at both Majestic TrustFlow (TF) and MOZ DA and the results were all over the place. Two of the winning sites have a TF of 5 and DA below 20. On paper, this is considered atrocious.

Ask SEOs if you can make money with a site that’s got TF:5 and DA:20, and most will tell you – NO! Of course, I’m not saying that you can suddenly stop building links, however, what these two sites in question have that competing sites don’t – is content. Lots of it and good quality. They both post regular, long-format, well-researched blog posts.

You may ask, why do they not gain backlinks naturally if their content is so good? Well, let me bust a myth for you – small and medium sites don’t earn natural links. They just don’t. To get links you either grow your site to a global status or you ASK for links. To say there is any other way of gaining backlinks is completely misleading.

Concentrate on User Experience and Quality

So, let’s look at this site – it’s one of the losers in the financial category. Now compare it with this and this one. If you were searching for a financial product, which site would you find easier to navigate, and eventually, which site would you be more comfortable to entrust with your credit card details? Right answer! 😁

The losing site failed mobile friendliness test, its site-speed score is lower than competing websites, its content pieces are shorter and harder to find than competitors’ and the overall user experience is poorer. Google announced the so-called “mobile first” approach in 2018 and it was rolled out across the board in mid 2019 so no excuse! If you imagine the human Google Search Quality Evaluator assessing the sites in question, it would be extremely easy for them to determine which site deserves a ranking boost. We can only assume that in this case after January 2020 Core Update, the Machine Learning has proved to be working and Google has boosted the sites that deserved it.

Main Takeaways

January 2020 Core Update Takeaway

So, based on what we’ve learned from the January 2020 Core Update, what are we going to change in our strategy? Well, nothing really. The focus is still on making websites that are slightly better than the competitors’.

It boils down to improving visitor experience, producing content that answers the questions asked by the specific visitors in the specific niche, and throwing an odd backlink in the mix. If you adopt this approach and look at your website with these criteria in mind, you will soon find that your rankings are improving.

Arvid Linde

I blog about cats, SEO and the synergy between marketing and sales.
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