December’s Google Core Update: Industry Insights in Retrospect

latest google update

The latest Google core algorithm update was rolled out recently in December 2020. And, although we’ve all turned our back on the year that’s just past and aim to discard it from memory, it’s key that SEOs don’t forget the importance of the latest update.

The insights

Looking back on the update, the below search marketers said the following:

Michael Martinez (@seo_theory) – Founder of SEOTheory

“Based on what I’ve seen in online discussions, people are confused and frustrated. They don’t really know what happened and few seem to have any theories as to why things changed.

In a general sense, it feels to me like Google rewrote a number of its quality policy enforcement algorithms.

Nothing specific in mind but other people’s sites I’ve looked at struck me as being okay, not great. Some of the sites in our portfolio went up, others went down.

Again, it just struck me as being about enforcement or algorithmic interpretation of signals mapped to their guidelines.

Not about punishing anything, but maybe about trying some different approaches to resolving queries.”

Dave Davies (@oohloo) – Beanstalk Internet Marketing

“The December 2020 Core Update was a unique one to watch roll out. Many sites we work with started with losses and ended with wins, and vice-versa.

So clearly it had something to do with a signal or signals that cascade. That is, where the change caused one result, but once that new calculation worked its way through the system, it produced another. Like PageRank recalculating, though this one likely had nothing to do with PageRank.

Alternatively, Google may have made adjustments on the fly, or made other changes during the rollout, but I find that less likely.

If we think about the timing, and how it ties to the rolling out of passage indexing and that it’s a Core Update, I suspect it ties to content interpretation systems and not links or signals along those lines.

We also know that Core Web Vitals are entering the algorithm in May of 2021 so there may be elements to support that in the update, but those would not be producing the impact we’ve all been seeing presently given that Web Vitals should technically be inert as a signal at this stage so at the very least, there would be more to the update than that.

As far as general community reaction, this one has been difficult to gauge past “it was big.” As one can expect in any zero-sum scenario, when one person is complaining about a loss, another is smiling all the way up the SERPs.

I suspect that before the end of January it’ll become clear exactly what they were rolling out and why. I believe it has to do with future features and capabilities, but I’ve been around long enough to know I could be wrong, and I need to watch closely.”

Daniel K Cheung (@danielkcheung –Team Lead, Prosperity Media

“I think we as Search/Discoverability people need to stop thinking about Core Updates as individual events and instead look at Core Updates as a continuum of ongoing tests and ‘improvements’ to what we see in the SERPs.

So when I refer to the December core update, I want to stress that it is just one event of many.

For example, some affiliate marketers and analysts have found sites that were previously ‘hit’ by the May 2020 update to have recovered in the December rollout. However, this has not been consistent.

And again, here is the problem, we can’t talk about sites that have won or lost because it’s all about individual URLs.

So looking at pure visibility across an entire website doesn’t really give us any clues.

There are murmurs of 301 redirects, PBNs, low-quality backlinks and poor content being reasons why some sites have been pushed from page 1 to page 6-10 of the SERPs (practically invisible).

But these practices have always been susceptible to the daily fluctuations of the algorithm.

What’s been really interesting throughout 2020 is that there have been very few reports of manual penalties within GSC.

This has been eerily replaced with impression and click graphs jumping off a cliff without the site being de-indexed.

In my humble opinion, core updates are becoming less about targeting a specific selection of practices, but rather, an incremental opportunity for the algorithm to mature.

Now, I’m not saying that Google gets it right 100% of the time – the algorithm clearly doesn’t and I don’t think it ever will (due to humanity’s curiosity).”

My thoughts…

The insight that I find particularly interesting is from Michael Martinez, of ‘people are confused and frustrated.’ From my experience, I see this, too. In the latest core update, there is certainly fewer tremors and significant signs that make SEOs think ‘oh, this has definitely happened.’ And, that has got people thinking about their strategies.

Daniel K Cheung offered a good way to look at Google core updates in that we ‘need to stop thinking about Core Updates as individual events and instead look at Core Updates as a continuum of ongoing tests’.

It is a lot of people’s opinion that Google is, in fact, enforcing its recent algorithmic efforts of understanding queries better. Or, perhaps, it is preparing itself for the upcoming May ‘core web vitals’ updates. One thing is certain, though – that no one, other than Google themselves, is certain.