The Google core update December 2020 was announced via Twitter on December 3rd 2020 with just a few hours to go before roll-out, causing quite the stir in the SEO community. Following two other updates in January and May, this update’s timing was unusual, right before the holidays and after the mayhem of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
The update was a broad core update, designed to re-evaluate SERP rankings to improve the search results’ quality and relevance. As with each broad update, every industry was impacted by Google’s changes to its ranking formula. To analyse the update’s impact, we use keyword winners and losers to see which terms and pages are favoured by the Google algorithm, based on search intent, as pages move up and down the SERP.
So, what happened?
Analysing the Final Google Core Update of 2020
The December update focused on content, E-A-T (expertise, authority and trustworthiness) principles and improving Google’s interpretation of search intent and content match, which evolves based on human behaviour.
While Google didn’t give much away about quality signals following the update, we can infer a few important insights. Namely, that Google continues to focus on improving user experience, favouring content which is detailed, relevant, based on search intent and which reflects the buyer’s journey. Fast loading speed and a visually appealing landing page are also important quality signals.
Key Findings from the December Google Core Update:
- Google is focused on user intent and matching content.
- A rise in non-purchase product queries leading to editorial content rising in rank, for example in the medical sector.
- A blending of transactional and informational head terms in search as the start of the buying journey shifts online.
- Across both desktop and mobile, we saw the most movement on medical, financial and music-related websites.
- Brand rankings have fallen on review sites like Trustpilot.
- Branded search terms generally falling in rank, and the importance of brand engagement on social media channels is evident.
- Increased rankings for job sites like LinkedIn and Indeed.com.
An analysis of the winners and losers brought some interesting results. For example, medical sites showed some fluctuation following the Google core update December 2020 (see Figure 1). As a whole, the medical sector won on e-commerce search terms where traditional e-commerce sites fell in rank for the same terms and some of the main winners were editorial pages or pages where editorial content was provided alongside product information. This change in the ranking is indicative of the blending of transactional and informational head terms as the buyer’s journey shifted online as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Experts from Searchmetrics suggest that many users are conducting the research phase of the buyer’s journey online, rather than in brick and mortar shops, hence why 9 out of 10 e-commerce sites in the US, like Amazon, have dropped in the rankings. The drop in rank of large e-commerce sites is promising for smaller businesses seeking to compete on head terms. These trends suggest that users now favour more detailed information about products before completing their purchase in order to compare options and prices, evidencing the importance of creating quality content alongside optimising technical SEO as part of your digital marketing strategy.
Figure 1: Analysis of Winners by Searchmetrics
Similarly, music-related websites also saw fluctuations (see Figure 2). Artist names fell in rank on sites like Spotify yet editorial or news pieces targeting the same keyword were favoured by the change.
Figure 2: Analysis of Losers by Searchmetrics
The pandemic has potentially impacted all businesses’ online visibility, whether B2B, B2C or brick and mortar. COVID-19 may have influenced some of the rank changes; top of the funnel queries have shifted online as people’s buying habits have changed due to closures and lockdown measures. While we can’t say this for sure, we can say that the businesses that have adapted to serve customers online have fared better throughout the pandemic.
Small sites especially seem to be doing well at a local level during the pandemic, so now really is the time to improve your local SEO while all your customers are at home. Start by setting up Google My Business if you haven’t already, so that you can benefit from local pack visibility. Showing up in a local pack is especially important as Google prioritises search results based on a customer’s location and needs. This will help you reach relevant customers so you can hit the ground running when things start returning to normality.
- Create high-quality, value-adding content that fulfils Google’s E-A-T principles.
- Fix technical SEO issues to improve user experience on your site.
- Evaluate where you’ve lost rankings as a result of the core update, consider re-targeting terms and update your content to show Google quality signals that your content is still relevant.
So, a month on, what can we say about the Google core update of December 2020? Really, nothing too profound. Now that the water has settled, we notice that it was the timing of the latest core update that shook SEOs worldwide more than the actual content of the update. In reality, Google’s advice has remained pretty consistent, referencing this 2019 post by Google’s Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan: practice good SEO and continue to maintain the quality signals that will help you rank.
Overall, it backs up our feelings that playing the long game with SEO is worth your time, effort and investment. Your traffic and rankings may improve after a subsequent core update, but there’s also a chance that they won’t improve and you must remember this when creating your content. Our team of digital experts suggest that you don’t make rash changes to your site, which may damage your site’s quality or reputation. Instead, focus on improving your web pages’ overall quality with relevant content, technical SEO and on-page optimisation.