Note: Just as we were about to publish this article, Google announced they are releasing a core update, called the May 2020 core update. The changes discussed in this article you are reading are regarding an unannounced but significant change that happened the week prior to the core update release. It is possible that these changes we describe were precursors to what we will see with the core update, but we do not know that for sure.
Here is our full analysis of the May Core Google update which launched May 25, 2022.
Last week we reported in our newsletter that there were reports of turbulence in the search results starting May 16, 2022. We had assumed that this was one of those shifts that we have been seeing for a couple of years now where the algo update tools like Semrush sensor are showing turbulence in the SERPs, but there is no word from Google re an update.
I'm not aware of anything specific. We always work to improve the quality & relevance of the search results, so it can happen that a site becomes more – or less – visible over time.
— 🐝 johnmu.xml (personal) 🐝 (@JohnMu) May 25, 2022
It does feel to us like something significant happened at this time. We do not have solid conclusions on what Google changed in their algorithms but would like to share what we know so far.
More community chatter than usual
There are a large number of people commenting on Barry Schwartz’s post on this possible update on Search Engine Roundtable…more than usual. Here is what some commenters are saying:
“I have been doing this for 15+ years. I have never seen an update like this. Literally the search terms I am using show results that are completely irrelevant or extremely low quality. Traffic down by 70%. That’d be fine if the SERPs were full of high quality articles and links. Instead, Google is showing results irrelevant to what I am searching. Very confusing.”
“Most of my sites are down by 30-50%, one of them by 90%. I don’t mind being outranked by better content, but being outranked by 400-words thin articles that don’t even answer searched query… sigh.”
“Most garbage update ever… What is this behavior google.. Reddit and forums ranking, suddenly all of my keywords disappeared from the serp. Sudden pages deindexed… WTH..? And it is not just me, a lot others got affected by this (reported by many on reddit, facebook group etc)… Seems like they literally broke the algo.”
In our own client data, we do not see many sites with significant changes. We have a couple of clients with increases around this time, but most can be explained by seasonality. We have one past client who is seeing obvious losses across pages with affiliate content. Most of these pages are ones that were ranking for queries with the phrase “best” in them. Here is a screenshot from Ahrefs showing just keywords that declined for this client. Even with the specific details blurred out, you can clearly see that the keywords that declined are ones that describe a product and help people make buying choices.
Many of the other sites we reviewed had a similar pattern — posts that dropped were ones reviewing products.
Many affiliate sites hit hard
At this point, we do not think this change was geared specifically towards affiliate sites. However, many sites with affiliate content were very strongly affected.
I asked my Twitter followers for examples of sites that were hit and quite a few of you sent me sites to review.
Most of these sites had the following in common:
- Created solely to post reviews with affiliate links
- Relatively new sites
- Lacking legitimate first-hand expertise. Or, if first-hand expertise was claimed, the author or brand had no online presence to support those claims. There were several sites where the text on the page said something like, “I’ve been learning and writing about x for years now”, but there was no information on the site to explain who the creator of the content was other than perhaps a pseudonym.
While this wasn’t announced as a product reviews update, a large portion of the affected sites we have checked were reviewing products. It is important to note that in Google’s advice on writing good product reviews they tell us to “express expert knowledge about products where appropriate”. Also, in their recommendations on-site quality in their post on what site owners should know about core updates, there are several points that speak to the importance of not only having expertise but being recognized online as an expert.
From that article:
- Does the content present information in a way that makes you want to trust it, such as clear sourcing, evidence of the expertise involved, background about the author or the site that publishes it, such as through links to an author page or a site’s About page?
- If you researched the site producing the content, would you come away with an impression that it is well-trusted or widely-recognized as an authority on its topic?
- Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?
However, not all sites that were affected were affiliate sites.
I saw shifts in YMYL sites last Saturday. But not affiliate sites. Both positive and negative shifts.
— Adam Riemer (@rollerblader) May 25, 2022
Sitewide – Info or Affiliate…it's all red
— Shotmaker (@tharkman) May 25, 2022
— Richard Hornsby (@RichardHornsby) May 25, 2022
Are links a component?
Most of these sites had had some link building done for them. And most of those links were the types of links that Google has told us are manipulative and against their guidelines – primarily links in articles created for SEO.
I changed the domain name of my blog last November. I started to build backlinks to rank. My blog is about technology it has some affiliate posts. I started ranking some keywords and the update happened 😢
— Raul, The Technology Savvy (@raultechsavvy) May 25, 2022
This got me thinking initially that perhaps this was some sort of link-related update.
However, when I posted a poll on Twitter, many people replied saying that they had seen losses and had not done any link building at all.
If you saw losses in Google ranking/traffic starting May 18 or so, did you do much link building?
— Dr. Marie Haynes🐧 (@Marie_Haynes) May 24, 2022
Huge drops in some specific markets with literally 0 linkbuilding.
— Lidia Infante (@LidiaInfanteM) May 24, 2022
This type of pattern – where many of the sites with losses have unnatural links reminds me of the November 8, 2019 unannounced Google update. We initially thought that was a link-related update as many of the sites affected had been actively building their own links. However, in hindsight, as this update followed closely on the heels of Google announcing their use of BERT we now think that it is unlikely that Google penalized sites for link building. Instead, the changes likely came as a result of Google better understanding of what a searcher’s intent was and which content best met that intent. We did disavow work for a few sites following that update and did not find it helped.
If you were hit by the May 16-18 Google change, and you have been building links for SEO purposes, there is no harm in filing a disavow provided you know what you’re doing in choosing which links to disavow. We suspect though that the key to recovery, if recovery is even possible, is in improving your content value and E-A-T.
Changes in SERP features, especially featuring authoritative sites
Lily Ray has noted that large authoritative sites like the CDC and FDA have had a big surge in visibility since May 16, 2022.
Check out the massive visibility surges among these government sites / medical authorities since May 16.
Also, worth noting their growth in general. pic.twitter.com/VxGVtPC3np
— Lily Ray 😏 (@lilyraynyc) May 24, 2022
At first, I wasn’t sure about this as tools like Semrush are not reporting much traffic increase for these sites.
Interesting. I could certainly see this being an update where Google tightened up what was YMYL and gave preference to sites like CDC and FDA.
But overall though, SEMrush is not reporting much significant change overall for the domains. You'd think they'd see huge increases🤔 pic.twitter.com/6BAOgxXQW3
— Dr. Marie Haynes🐧 (@Marie_Haynes) May 25, 2022
However, Lily had an excellent point.
Could be the pesky "Things to Know" panel, which appears to drive "top rankings" but not much traffic. pic.twitter.com/3Tcb0Ewq38
— Lily Ray 😏 (@lilyraynyc) May 25, 2022
“Things to Know” is a new SERP feature. Google originally announced this in their SearchOn 2021 presentation saying it would be powered by MUM. As far as we know, this feature is not yet MUM-powered.
We have a feature of that name, but it's not yet using MUM.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) March 15, 2022
We have heard others say that for many of their SERPs, the People Also Ask accordions were now featured higher up in the search results as well, potentially stealing clicks.
It may be hard to track whether the Things to Know or other Google SERP features are stealing traffic from you as most of the rank tracking tools, as far as I am aware, do not yet track this feature.
I am only able to see “Things to Know” results if I do a mobile search from the US (You can use U Search From to do this).
A few people noted that on May 18, the US saw its first case of Monkeypox. Between this and all of the other tragic things happening in the world right now, it is possible that Google has once again turned up the dial on E-A-T as they describe in their guide to how they fight disinformation. They say, “we have designed our systems to prefer
authority over factors like recency or exact word matches while a crisis is developing.”
(If you want to learn more on this topic, Marie is speaking virtually at SMX Advanced this year on June 14 to explain the specifics of improving E-A-T with knowledge of semantic search. SMX is usually an expensive conference, but because it is virtual this year, they have made it free! You can register here.)
Conclusions regarding the mid-May update
It is hard to say with certainty what happened around May 16-18, 2022 with Google’s algorithms, but we do believe this was a significant change worth monitoring.
While many sites that had built links for SEO were affected, we doubt that this is a change that can be reversed by using Google’s disavow tool. Rather, we suspect that Google has turned up the dial on E-A-T to prefer sites with authority and real-life expertise, and expert-level content where possible.
If you were affected, our advice for recovery remains the same:
- Do all you can to have a technically sound site, but know that technical issues are not likely to blame here unless you have recently made significant changes on your site.
- Pay close attention to Google’s advice in their post on what site owners should know about core updates and also, if applicable on writing good product reviews. While this was not confirmed as a core or a product reviews update, those posts give us great clues into what Google values in terms of quality.
- If you have been doing link building just for SEO, it may be worthwhile to file a thorough disavow. This will not make your content better, but it is possible that it will help Google trust your site more.
- Look at what has changed in the SERPs you want to rank for to get clues. If Google is choosing to rank giant authoritative sites above you, there may be nothing you can do unless Google reverts this change.
- Work on improving your E-A-T. As Google says in their post on core updates, “assessing your own content in terms of E-A-T criteria may help align it conceptually with the different signals that our automated systems use to rank content.”
The MHC team and I are currently beta testing our new Traffic Drop Assessments that tell you specifically what content and keywords were affected and give our opinion on whether recovery is possible. The report includes strategic advice from the MHC team of site auditors on where to focus your recovery efforts. If you are interested in having us produce one of these reports for your site, you can contact us here.
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