Our special guest for episode 354 of the award-winning EDGE of the Web podcast was Mordy Oberstein, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Rank Ranger. Host Erin Sparks spoke with Mordy about the latest Google core update that started rolling out on May 4. Here’s what we learned:
Mordy Oberstein: His Background and Experience
If you’re not using Rank Ranger, shame on you! It’s a fantastic tool, and Mordy Oberstein is their Chief Marketing officer (CMO). Mordy’s content can be found on Search Engine Land, as well as his own In Search SEO Podcast on Rank Ranger.
Mordy used to be a teacher in Baltimore City, and then he moved to Israel, where he ended up working for an education software company. Because he was the only native English speaker there, he was writing all the teacher manuals in English, and then they asked him to also handle all the company’s website and social media and everything else in English. He was happy to oblige but had no idea what he was doing. But he started researching it and got into it and eventually ended up at Rank Ranger, where he’s been for nearly five years. And that’s where he gets to think, write, and talk about Google all the time. It’s his dream job come true!
What’s great about a tool like Rank Ranger is that it helps make more effective use of the Google Search Console (GSC). There’s lots of great stuff in GSC, but every time you go in it’s like you’re starting fresh from scratch with building and structuring your queries, but Rank Ranger has great features that let you save particular sets of keyword filters and tag filters and so on so that it’s pulling that data live from GSC without you having to do it every time from scratch in GSC.
Google Core Updates 101
Mordy tends to broadly look at Google updates in two categories: Big core updates and smaller core updates. In the big core update category you have updates like the Google Medic Update of August 2018 or the Google Update of January 2020. In the smaller core updates you have ones like the June 2019 core update and the March 2019 core update. This May 2020 core update definitely falls in the BIG update category. Medic was the biggest update recently, but it was outshined by the January 2020 update, and this May 2020 update is even bigger than those, by quite a lot as well, not just a little bit.
Insights About the May 2020 Core Update
A lot of the time with these core updates you’ll notice a volatility impact that affects some niches more than others, such as the impact the March 2019 update had on YMYL (your money, your life) sites. But in this May 2020 update we’re seeing across-the-board volatility impacts. Does that mean it’s COVID-related or not? Who knows. But it’s really unusual to see the volatility hit right across all the niches and categories. And in spite of what others may be saying, Mordy thinks no one is safe in this core update. It’s even affecting local search. It really is unusually wide-spread in terms of sites affected (whether the effect is positive or negative).
Why Did Google do a Core Update During a Pandemic?
Every Google update sparks controversy of some kind, but this May 2020 update really has people worked up because they’re rolling it out in the middle of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 global pandemic. For many companies reeling from the economy coming to an abrupt halt, having to deal with such a big Google core update feels like adding insult to injury, at least for those who seem to be experiencing negative impacts from the update.
Mordy notes he’s almost feeling sorry for Google (emphasis on almost). Here they are rolling this thing out when so many companies don’t have their teams in place, their SEO team, their marketing team, their content team—everyone’s working remotely and trying to figure things out, so there’s a lot of frustration about this update being rolled out. But Google is trying to get people better results, especially in these crazy COVID times. So it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation for Google.
Was the May 2020 Update Caused by the Pandemic?
A lot of the chatter out there about this latest core update is whether or not it is specifically a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Or was this something Google was planning all along? How quickly can they gear up and roll out a core update? Everything started shutting down in mid-March, and then six weeks later there’s a core update from Google.
Mordy thinks the most likely scenario is that this was supposed to be a March core update, because Google did March core updates in both 2018 and 2019. So this was probably a core update that was already in the works and then it was delayed because of COVID, and maybe they did a good deal more tweaking in light of COVID because there are definitely some COVID-specific things happening in this update. But not the way you might expect. So some of the big trusted health sites like the CDC or Harvard Health, were seeing big upticks when COVID first hit, which makes sense. But in this update, those big gains have scaled back, probably because Google has gotten a better grip on how to handle COVID and what it means and so forth. The state sites that have lots of COVID updates and keywords, though, are all over the map up and down, leaping ahead and falling behind, it’s like a horserace or sporting event. Hard to say what’s happening with those. If it’s about what’s becoming the next COVID “hot spot,” then Goolge would appear to be a week or two behind what’s really happening.
But the thing to keep in mind in all of this is that Google is trying to figure out what are the best results to serve up for any given query, and that’s what has been changing so rapidly in all kinds of searches related to COVID, such as “small business loans” and things like that because the policies are constantly changing, so Google has to do this kind of update to try to better meet the needs of users searching for information they need during a crisis.
Now, if you think about how normally Google treats retail/ecommerce sites very differently from YML sites, which makes sense. But when you’re in a pandemic, even the retail/ecommerce sites now have to be treated as if they’re YMYL because people want to know the potential health impacts of having packages delivered to their homes, and many of those sites now have COVID-related content not just on their home pages but on their shipping pages to explain how it’s going to be handled safely. This is part of why this update is having such broad impacts across categories and types of sites. The sites that have included important COVID-related information where it’s needed have done well in this update, and those who should have included COVID information and didn’t have fallen in rankings in this update because of it. This is what it looks like, though unconfirmed with enough data and study.
There are those who might question whether or not Google should be penalizing a company for not having a COVID-updated shipping page, but then again plenty of people are saying you should be penalized if your site isn’t providing this kind of information people need during a pandemic because lives are at stake! But what about the small business sites that have a harder time being agile and pivoting quickly in these situations? Should they be penalized? It’s a tricky thing for Google to figure out, and not everyone’s going to be happy with whatever they do, no matter what they do.
It might be useful to see what Google is aiming for with Google My Business (GMB), which it has been pushing hard lately to contain as much very specific and relevant content as possible that is going to help people, and right now that includes COVID-related information. If that’s what Google wants to see of GMB, it’s safe to assume that’s what they want to see on all sites.
Another interesting example has to do with credit card affiliate sites. What those sites want to do is present users right away with a list of the different categories of credit cards you might want to explore, but if this pushes the “main content” of the page below the fold, Google is penalizing those sites big-time because Google doesn’t want users to have to scroll through a bunch of stuff ot get to the main content of the page. So keep that in mind – main content above the fold! The one exception to this was a site that allowed the list to push its main content below the fold, BUT it was also the only site or page out there in their category to have a COVID message above the fold and their rankings were doing very well, even though they violated one aspect of what Google wants (main content above the fold), they more than made up for it by having something else Google thinks is even more important right now, which is COVID-related content for your business/site.
Connect with Mordy Oberstein and Rank Ranger
Twitter: @MordyOberstein (https://twitter.com/MordyOberstein)
Rank Ranger Twitter: @RankRanger (https://twitter.com/rankranger)
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