Last updated: May 21, 2021
The November 8, 2019 Google update may have been a link related update
Google has been much better lately at informing the SEO community about large algorithm updates. On November 8, 2019, however, Google appears to have pushed out a significant update. They have said nothing about this update other than these tweets:
What can we learn from these tweets? Here is our interpretation:
- Google ran several updates last week. But then, they are always running updates. Some are more impactful than others.
- The fact that Google didn’t share about this update means it may be possible that there is no means of recovery if you were hit. (We’ll discuss this more later in this article.)
- Google ended these tweets by referring to their blog post on core updates. This blog post discusses Google’s guidelines and has a heavy focus on E-A-T. The question though, is whether this current update was a core update or not.
Update (added May 21, 2021)
It turns out that November 8, 2019 was quite a significant update for many sites. Over the last two years, we have received many requests for help for sites that started to see traffic declines on this day. We do think that this update changed how Google values links. As described throughout this article, most of the sites affected had used link building tactics that many SEOs consider "white hat" including getting links from guest posting, roundup posts, top 10 lists, etc.
We have not had significant success in reversing these traffic losses by disavowing. We have seen improvements in sites that follow our general recommendations for improving overall site quality which are described at the end of this article
We do not believe that Google penalized sites that used these types of link building tactics. Rather, we believe that Google got better at determining that this type of link is not one they want to count as a recommendation that should pass PageRank.
Our new recommendations for what you should do if affected by the November 8, 2019 update are laid out at the end of this article.
Early thoughts on what happened November 8
We often joke that Google tends to run major updates when I, Marie am traveling. I’m sure that this is not the case...it’s probably just coincidental as I travel a lot! While I was not away this weekend, I did actually take the weekend completely off, without even checking in on Twitter. On Monday morning, I saw many tweets and mentions from people who had suffered massive drops in Google organic traffic over the weekend. We also had a large influx of requests come through our contact form from businesses who had very large traffic drops and were looking for help.
In this article, I will share with you our early thoughts on what is going on with this update. Most of our client base saw very little change in rankings and traffic beyond what is expected for the season. However, for those who did see changes in traffic, we found some very interesting correlations.
Please know that this article contains a lot of theory. We do feel strongly that this update is closely tied to link quality, but we do not know this for sure. There is also a possibility that thin content could play a role. We will update this article as more information becomes available.
As with any significant update, my team and I have gathered information from many sources to find examples of sites that were affected either positively or negatively at this time. We look at our own client base of hundreds of sites, our intake emails, Twitter, several help forums, Search Engine Roundtable and other sources. Something that we noticed is that of the sites that saw declines this weekend, there were quite a few sites from the following industries or categories:
- recipe bloggers
- affiliate sites
- travel sites
- aggregator / directory sites
Almost every site that we looked at that saw drops had issues with unnatural links pointing to their site. At first we wondered if the data was skewed, as we do have a lot of clients that originally came to us because they potentially needed disavow work. But, we do not think this is the case.
Here is one site that we filed a thorough disavow for just over a year ago. We did no other work for this site other than a link by link audit. We filed a disavow with hundreds of domains in it, many of which contained links in articles that were very clearly made for SEO purposes alone. They have been seeing incredible improvements since then and then dropped significantly on November 8:
In looking at these links, many were the same type we previously had disavowed. It looks like this site may be experimenting with purchasing Private Blog Network links. If so, it’s not working well for them!
Another site that we recently reviewed is seeing a 35% drop in Google organic traffic. In the links section of their site quality review, we wrote that we had “serious concerns with the quality of [their] link profile”. They had loads of in-article links that were definitely there just for SEO reasons.
There were several other sites with a similar pattern as well.
We then looked at our clients who had seen improvements over the weekend. We had several sites seeing increases on November 8, 2019. Here are a couple for which we have permission to share:
Please know, however, that it is really early to say whether these increases were solely due to an algorithm update. We’ll need more time to say that for certain.
None of our clients who saw nice improvements were ones for whom we had recommended a thorough link by link audit. It is interesting to note that some were sites for which we had recommended trimming out a large amount of thin content. We’ll note this but given that some of the sites that saw improvements have not yet cleared out thin content, we feel that this is likely coincidental rather than a cause for their gains.
We feel very strongly that this is a link related update. It could have other components, but links are likely very important!
Our current theories on what Google changed on November 8, 2019
Keep in mind that at the time of writing this, less than a week has passed since this update happened. We will hopefully have more data soon and will update this post if our theories change.
It is possible that Google has gotten better at figuring out which types of links to count as mentions.
Most of the sites that saw drops in traffic had links that most of us would likely call, “grey hat” and some of the SEO community (although not us), could even consider “white hat”. These are links that for the most part aren’t illegal or even unethical, but really don’t truly represent natural mentions. Here are some examples of the types of links that we feel used to work to help sites, but may no longer do so as of November 8, 2019.
Many of the sites that saw drops were web design sites or other similar sites that have links from their clients’ footers. An example would be a site that makes websites and includes a footer link on each of their clients’ sites saying, “Web Design by ABC Websites”.
It is interesting to note that Google made changes to their guide on link schemes to add the following (the bolded part is new):
“Requiring a link as part of a Terms of Service, contract, or similar arrangement without allowing a third-party content owner the choice of qualifying the outbound link, should they wish.”
This used to say, “Requiring a link as part of a Terms of Service, contract, or similar arrangement without allowing a third-party content owner the choice of using nofollow or other methods of blocking PageRank, should they wish.”
“Qualifying the outbound link” links to Google’s page describing rel=nofollowed, rel=sponsored and rel=ugc. We believe that the point they are saying here is that if you are getting links because it’s a requirement of using your product, then those truly are not natural mentions or recommendations of your website. If you provide customers with a web template and a requirement for them to use it is to include a footer link back to you, this goes against Google’s guidelines. Links like this should be either nofollowed or should use rel=sponsored. Either is fine to use.
Examples of this could include a web design company that includes a link in each of their designs that points back to their site, or perhaps a directory that will give you a higher placement on their website if you link back to them.
Although this is a few years old, we have good information here on footer links and SEO.
Reciprocal blogger links
We feel that one of the reasons why many recipe sites saw a decline in traffic could be that they were previously benefitting from link schemes. We saw that many of the recipe sites who saw drops, had a lot of links that look like this:
We’re not saying that these are necessarily unnatural! If you have a recipe blog and other recipe bloggers truly want to recommend your website, this is great. However, for some of the recipe sites that saw drops, we saw enough of this type of link that we feel there was potentially a pattern of manipulation. Even if these links are not all reciprocal links, we feel that these links could be the type of link Google talks about in their link quality guide, where they mention, “Excessive link exchanges ("Link to me and I'll link to you") or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking.”
If you are a blogger who is involved in a program whereby you regularly link out to other bloggers and in turn, they include links to you, then these links may have helped in the past. The question now is whether these links are actually hurting sites or whether Google is simply recognizing them as manufactured votes for your site and just discounting them.
Please know that it is perfectly acceptable in Google’s eyes to ask other people for a link. It’s the scale and also the intent to manipulate rankings that is the main concern.
Top x lists
Several of the sites that we reviewed that saw drops seemed to have a disproportionate number of links from top 10 lists. We see this a lot in link audits and often struggle when we are determining whether these are actually natural links.
Take for example, an article on an authoritative site that is called, “The Top 10 Salon Software Products”, or “Here are 8 amazing pumpkin pie recipes”, or “Traveling to India? Here are the best travel blogs”.
When we see a site that has a large number of links in lists like this we start to wonder how those links were obtained. On one hand, your site may truly be one of the best of its kind and it may get mentioned a lot. We’ve been mentioned in several posts that talk about the best SEO blogs. (Thank you!) And we certainly did not pay for any of those.
But, in some cases, the way you get on these “top x” lists is to pay for inclusion. We think it is possible that Google recognized that many of these links are not truly votes for your site. We’re not as confident on this point just yet though, as we are with the above theories.
In-article links and PBNs and possibly some guest posting
Google’s link scheme guide has always recommended against, “exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links”. Links from Private Blog Networks (i.e. a network of websites that are only set up to be able to link out via articles) and articles that were written solely for SEO have been considered unnatural by Google for years now.
We do think it is possible that Google has now gotten better at determining which links from articles are truly mentions of your site and which are there simply for the PageRank.
We have seen several reports of Blackhats complaining that their PBNs stopped working for them with this update.
Is the November 2019 Google update connected to BERT?
Given that Google recently announced they are now using BERT to better understand queries, we did spend some time theorizing that perhaps this update could be connected to BERT. At this point, this theory is a little weak. The idea is that it is possible that BERT allows Google to do a much better job at understanding the content on a page. Let’s say that these are two competing pages:
1) A recipe page that is relatively good and is linked to from many recipe bloggers.
2) A recipe page that is REALLY good but does not have a lot of links.
In the past, the first page would be much more likely to rank as it has links from many bloggers. But, what if Google’s newfound ability to better understand language allows them to determine that the content on page 2 truly is better? This could mean that it starts to outrank page 1 even without links.
Or, in other words, page 1 may have previously ranked well on the power of links, but now that Google can better assess page quality, those links to page 1 are no longer as important in Google’s ranking decisions.
We’ll keep this theory in mind going forward, but at this point we really do think that this update was mostly about Google’s ability to detect which links are true mentions for your site.
Should you disavow if you were affected by this update?
This section has been updated in May of 2021 to reflect our recommendations after analyzing many sites affected by this update.
If you have been building links with any of the link building tactics mentioned above, it does not appear that doing a link audit and filing a disavow will mitigate these losses. The only sites that we feel we have been able to help with a disavow recently are those who had previously done a massive degree of manipulative link building. We've described this more in our recommendations for disavowing in 2021.
If your traffic started to decline on November 8, 2019, this likely means that you lost some PageRank from links that Google used to count as recommendations. To recover lost rankings for these pages, we recommend the following:
- Ensure there are no technical issues impeding Google's ability to crawl the page and see the content.
- Critically look at this page in the eyes of the questions Google says to ask yourself in their article on what website owners should know about core updates.
- Do all you can to demonstrate E-A-T on your site and off as well as described in our article on E-A-T and SEO.
- Look at pages that are now outranking yours and ask yourself why users may find these more valuable. As Google's language understanding capabilities improve, we believe they will get better at recognizing which pages do the best job of helping a searcher find what it is they set out to research in the first place.
If you need help improving the quality of your website, here is more information on our site quality reviews.
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