There’s nothing like a good core algorithm update to get the industry buzzing. Ever since Google started confirming core updates back in March 2018, we’ve come to expect a good shaking of the rankings multiple times each year. But are we blowing things out of proportion? Is there too much “core update” hype out there? Are the confirmed core updates any more impactful than your run-of-the-mill unconfirmed update? Are we too focused on what Google is confirming at the expense of what Google is not confirming?
Are confirmed core updates actually more impactful than unconfirmed updates?
A quick look at a rank fluctuations weather tool will tell you that Google’s confirmed core updates are for real. Each and every core update incarnation has displayed extremely high levels of volatility. There’s really no doubt about it. Just look at the volatility recorded during the June 2019 Core Update:
At the same time, many of the unconfirmed updates that Google rolls out are themselves incredibly substantial. In fact, an anonymous July update had many of the rank fluctuation weather tools displaying rare levels of volatility:
Right off the bat, you can see why asking if we’re getting a bit too carried away with the core updates is a legitimate question. And it’s clearly problematic if the core updates are acting as a red herring that distracts us from the impact of the unconfirmed updates. It seems we may have a problem on our hands.
Let’s be clear about something, the confirmed core updates are serious ranking events that legitimately deserve our attention. A breakdown of the volatility increases presented by the confirmed updates clearly tells us there is reason for concern. Here’s the niche level data for the volatility increases seen during June 2019’s core update:
The question here is not if the core updates are powerfully impactful. One look at the data above and it’s obvious they are. The volatility increases are downright scary. The question, however, is how do they stack up compared to unconfirmed updates? A look at a ranking weather tool is one thing, but what does the actual data say?
To help contrast the confirmed updates to their unconfirmed counterparts I calculated the volatility increases for three unconfirmed updates and compared them to the last three core updates. Specifically, I analyzed the volatility for the Medic Update, the March 2019 Core Update, and the June 2019 Core Update, as well as that of the unconfirmed update that directly preceded the March 2019 update, the unconfirmed update that followed the March 2019 update, as well as the infamous July 2019 unconfirmed update.
Top of the SERP rank volatility: confirmed vs. unconfirmed Google updates
Here’s the data on the volatility increases seen during the core updates versus that which was recorded during the unconfirmed updates at the top 3 positions on the SERP:
The first thing to take away is that not all core updates are equally impactful at the top of the SERP. Clearly, there was a propensity to see lower levels of rank fluctuations during the March 2019 Core Update relative to its counterparts. Of course, that tendency varies from niche-to-niche.
In terms of the core updates relative to the unconfirmed updates, there’s clearly a trend indicating that the core updates more greatly impact rank at the top of the SERP than the typical unconfirmed update.
That said, some of the numbers seen during the unconfirmed July update approach the levels of rank volatility seen during the March 2019 core update, even surpassing them in certain instances. This would seem to dispel the notion that an unconfirmed update is intrinsically less potent than a confirmed core update.
Page one overall volatility: confirmed vs. unconfirmed Google updates
A look at the top 10 results overall presents a bit of a different narrative than what we’ve seen at the most prominent ranking positions:
Leaving aside the Medic Update, which from the data appears to be a beast all unto itself, there’s a large narrowing of the gap between the rank volatility seen during a core update compared to your run-of-the-mill rank fluctuation event. While the unconfirmed February 2019 update seemed to be a far less consequential update relative to the core changes, that trend does not apply across the board.
Just look at the July 2019 unconfirmed update. In this instance, the levels of increased rank volatility surpass both the March and June core updates. In July, the rank volatility increases recorded for the Travel and Retail niches surpassed the rank volatility levels observed for those industries in both March and June.
Even the YMYL niches saw greater levels of fluctuations during the July update as compared to the March core update! During the March 2019 Core Update, the Health niche saw rank volatility spike 70% while the Finance niche saw a 60% volatility increase. Fast forward to July and the Heath and Finance niches sported an 81% and 69% increase in rank fluctuations respectively among the top 10 results.
That said, in my estimation, the data from April is the most significant. The April unconfirmed update shows an overall volatility increase that falls within the general ballpark of the fluctuation increases observed during the June 2019 core update (with there being an 11-percentage point differential). In April, both the Gambling and Retail niches saw greater increases in rank movement among the top 10 results than during the June update.
This is important to note as it takes the volatility data from the July unconfirmed update from being an outlier or a”one-off” to being perhaps reflective of the underlying power of an unconfirmed update.
The sudden shift in narrative once you move from the top results to the page one SERP overall is itself noteworthy. As is evident, the official core updates are far more impactful to the top positions on the SERP than your average algorithm change. However, once you factor in positions 4-10 an entirely new storyline emerges, one where the unconfirmed update approaches the significance of the official updates Google periodically rolls out.
Are we blowing core updates out of algorithmic proportion?
Based on the data there is a strong case to make that the average unconfirmed update has the real potential to throw rank into a tizzy much the way a core update might. This is particularly true when dealing with the bottom two-thirds of the SERP. With that, and considering the amount of buzz, chatter, and overall notoriety the core updates receive, I would say we’re blowing things far out of proportion.
Not all unofficial updates are equal in their volatility (though, for the record, nor are all core updates equal in their volatility). Still, it is very much the case that an unofficial algorithm update has the potential to both fall within similar rank volatility ranges of the core updates and even to surpass their volatility in unique cases… once you move past the top three positions on the SERP.
Short answer… In my opinion, yes, we have a tendency to hype up the core updates at the expense of not giving some of the other algorithmic changes the attention they deserve.
Is there a legitimate reason to focus more intently on confirmed Google updates?
I want to qualify my statement about giving the unconfirmed updates a bit more notoriety and over-hyping the core updates. Aside from the unusual levels of rank volatility at the top of the SERP, there is good reason to focus on the core updates. The recent run of core updates is singular in the trends they have a tendency to display. Core updates are unique in that they tend to have some consistent themes and latent messages embedded within them.
Take the discussion around E-A-T and YMYL sites that has emerged as a consequence of the core updates. There’s tremendous value in that coming to the forefront. If you look carefully, the data above does generally show that the Health and Finance niches are subject to far more volatility than the Travel and Finance industries during a core update.
This, of course, begs the question as to why this is happening. The answer to which is a conversation in its own right. (I personally think it has to do with Google profiling sites and walking away with trust issues when a site does not do what it intends or says it is meant to do, which is all the most pertinent when that content speaks to your safety. But again, that’s a conversation for another time.) The point is, seeing these trends and picking up on these latent tendencies embedded within the core updates helps to advance the SEO conversation and SEO understanding in ways not much else can.
Because the core updates more prominently display observable site-level patterns, honing in on them and making a big deal out of them is very much on target!
Every algorithm update needs love
Every update Google rolls out needs to be discussed on some level. Every update impacts any number of sites bringing with them real consequences that impact a site’s bottom line. The amount of attention due to a Google update should be relative to its overall impact. When it comes down to it, that’s all I’m advocating here. The notion of ascribing potency to an update simply because of its status or labeling just doesn’t make good sense to me. I think we’d do well to make sure we don’t get caught up in the hoopla of Google’s confirmation to the detriment of seeing an unconfirmed update for what is, highly impactful. The result of doing so will be greater industry attention on more updates with more ideas and insights being sprinkled across the SEO industry!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.