During the 2nd weekend of January 2016, there was a core Google algorithm update confirmed by Googlers. The rankings of thousands of websites were affected. I will try to shed some light on what happened and share some really interesting facts that can help you understand the nature of this algorithm a little bit better.
Looking at the biggest losers from January 10, 2016, we can see that most of the websites hit are news websites. This led some of the SEO specialists to form a hypothesis that this algorithm change was news-related. This diagnosis is definitely wrong though. There is a larger pattern behind all the drops and it clearly points to the conclusion that this algorithm change was actually related to how Google ranks brand-related queries.
First of all, let’s have a look at the biggest January 10th losers from SearchMetrics.
Looking at the domain names above, we can see quite a lot of news websites like:
and the list goes on.
Some of the websites belong to a completely different category though. Let me show you a few examples:
Now it is quite interesting that all the websites mentioned above dropped at the same time. It seems then there is no clear pattern if we only take these sites’ categories into account. Fortunately, we have a lot of detailed data from SearchMetrics that lets us go through each drop and see the lost keywords. I did it and I came up with a very strong hypothesis that whatever Google did on January 9 and 10, 2016 was clearly related to how they handle brand rankings.
Google is now showing different results when we search for brands. Therefore now, when you search for “YouTube”, you will be presented with results that better (in Googler’s eyes) respond to your search query.
Examples of Losers
Let me show you the drops for a few of the websites.
#1 loser in SearchMetrics this weekend.
Theatlantic.com loser keywords – brand queries are marked purple.
#2 SearchMetrics loser this weekend.
What is interesting, “calendar” and “dictionary” keywords are among the top losers, just as it was in the case of theatlantic.com. A bug in the algo, coincidence, or some other reasons we are missing here.
Now let’s have a look at the loser keywords.
And again, we can see mostly branded keywords dropping. Also one common non-branded keyword with the top #1 loser theatlantic.com – “restaurants”.
Before jumping to conclusions, I will share one more interesting example – one of the top losers, but not a news website.
How did they lose their visibility?
Again, almost all of the lost traffic was brand keywords.
The nature of the algorithm
Depending on the kind of algorithm, some of the Google algorithms can only decrease your rankings or make you recover from your previous drop (e.g. Google Panda, Google Penguin) after fixing the issues with a link audit (Google Penguin) or technical SEO (Google Panda). This means that they work on a domain or page level.
The core algorithm changes, e.g. Rank Brain or Knowledge Graph will modify how Google understands your query or ranks a website for a given query. We can still see our website going up or down in rankings, but only if it ranks for the keywords that were affected by the algo change.
Whatever the nature of this algorithm is, it is not targeting a specific domain, but rather queries or query groups.
To prove this hypothesis, let’s analyze winner keywords for the websites with the biggest visibility drops. If my hypothesis is right, the websites dropping for brand keywords will at the same time gain new rankings for other brand keywords.
Winner & Loser keywords
Did all the websites lose visibility for brand-related queries?
This is actually extremely interesting. Most of the “winner keywords” were also brand queries for exactly the same websites that lost visibility due to… lost brand keywords.
Winner keywords – examples
Let’s start with the website that was our #1 loser.
In this case, we can safely say that this algorithm wasn’t page or domain-related. What we see is more of a keyword-related shake-up than any specific kind of website dropping. Unfortunately, that means that it isn’t much you can do if you already were affected by this change.
The pattern for the winner keywords above is identical to the one we saw for the losers. You can see that most of the winner keywords are up by 90 or more positions, which basically means that those are brand new rankings.
This pattern looks identical for the other websites we analyzed earlier.
After looking at the examples presented here and many more which I analyzed, it is certain that whatever Google was cooking this weekend was related to brand keywords.
Why were all those brand-related keywords fluctuating like crazy? I think that I came to the right conclusion after looking at some of the queries with the most significant changes.
Take a look at some of the keywords.
Rankings from January 10, 2016
If you take a closer look at the screenshot above, all the URLs are quite short, often with /google/ directory at the end. In general, all the URLs you see are very broad fits for the “Google” query. It wasn’t like that a week ago.
Rankings from January 3, 2016
Looking at the screenshot above, all the queries that don’t reply to the “Google” query directly (i.e. very specific pages that don’t match the query very well) are not ranking anymore. It is usually the case that such pages are published within news pages.
The pattern we saw last weekend didn’t remove all the news queries though. If we go deeper, we can see that Google engineers assumed that the content publication date correlates with news content, which means the content was either demoted in rankings (older content) or promoted in rankings (fresh content).
Let me show you an example.
Rankings from January 10, 2016
As you can see above, in the case of this query, “Brand Bidding Algorithm” rewarded news pages. Techcrunch and the Washington Post gained #7 & #6 rankings even though both pages didn’t rank for “target” the week before.
Both pages were fresh and relevant. I can imagine them being useful to some people looking for “Target”.
Which pages lost rankings then?
Rankings from January 3, 2016
Two pages that lost rankings were the “Why do people hate Lilly Pulitzer” article published in 2012 at theatlantic.com (our top loser) and “How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did” from forbes.com.
Both results were definitely a poor fit for the query and, after the “Brand Bidding Algorithm” rollout, were replaced with a much better and broader fit.
Lost visibility with an increased number of ranking keywords
During my analysis, I found an interesting example that proves that this algorithm change wasn’t targeting any specific pages. Washingtonpost lost 13% of the visibility due to the “Brand Bidding Algorithm”, even though they gained 5% more ranking keywords.
To be 100% fair in this analysis, I need to show you a few drops that don’t fit this “brand algo” pattern fully.
This was definitely a huge drop, close to a full nuke for ultimate-guitar.com from Google.
I chose to ignore this domain in my analysis though because
- it looks like a manual penalty against ultimate-guitar.com.
- the dropped results were replaced by almost identical ones.
Whatever hit Ultimate-guitar.com seems like a unique situation that only affected their website. There are losers and winners each week and most probably, the presence of Ultimate-guitar.com in the losers category this week is a coincidence.
There is one more group of websites that dropped this week. I mentioned a few of them in my Penguin 4.0 article already, but they seem to be a pattern as well.
Whatever happened this weekend also took down a lot of new websites, potentially spammy ones. Due to their very short life span, and in some cases, clear black hat strategy. I think it is also a part of a regular weekly drop pattern. Let me show you a few examples.
This website is not working anymore, by the way.
As you can see above, there is a good reason not to take those websites into consideration.
All you need to know about this update
If you just scrolled through the data above, or you just want to know the key points about this last update, here it goes:
- it definitely wasn’t Google Penguin 4.0 🙂
- it wasn’t link oriented
- it was keyword-, not domain-oriented – if your website got hit, it was most probably not because of the issues with your domain
- most of the keywords affected were brands
- if your website lost ranking for a brand-related query, most probably it was replaced with a better, broader fit
I definitely don’t want to claim here that I have a magic solution to recover your rankings lost during this “Brand Bidding Algorithm”, but logically there are things you could do to make it happen.
- Try to write fresh content that clearly targets lost keywords.
- Don’t make it too specific.
- Create a valuable category page about the brand.
- Focus on the universal value for users that search for the brand.
- Provide a lot of useful data or a large report about the brand that you are targeting.
- Refresh and improve the content that dropped.
It’s a shame that Googlers didn’t give us some more information about such a massive algorithm change, but fortunately enough, the data gathered here can be the point of departure for your own investigation into this “core algorithm update”.
Is it over?
I already finished this article when I checked http://serp.watch/, as I do daily, and let me show you one of the daily winners from Serp Watch.
It seems that news websites are still being affected with Google tweaking this algorithm so it may not the last word about “Brand Bidding Algorithm”.
Know more about it?
If you have your own experience or findings about this weekend shake-up, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, I’d be more than happy to write about it to our technical SEO community and, needless to say, mention you as the source.