7 min

Google’s December 2020 Core Algorithm Update: What Every Marketer Needs to Know

Ian Helms Director of Content Marketing

After nearly a seven month wait, we finally got it: Google released its aptly named December 2020 core algorithm update on December 3, 2020—right in the middle of the holiday shopping season.

As usual speculation about the full impact and how to combat any negative results have been running rampant, we’ve put together the insights, analysis, and action steps you need to understand how these changes will impact your business in the days and weeks to come.

The winners & losers of the December 2020 google algorithm update

The December core algorithm update was Google’s third major update in 2020, following previous rollouts in January and May. According to Moz’s MozCast temperature score, this was the third heaviest hitting named SERP (search engine results pages) update over the past few years.

Lily Ray at Path Interactive assessed the impact across industries and identified the top five categories with the greatest percentage increase in SEO visibility as a result of the December update:

  1. Arts & Entertainment
  2. Relocation & Moving
  3. Finance
  4. Science & Education
  5. Accounting & Taxes

On the flip side, the industries that saw the greatest percentage decrease in organic visibility were Natural & Alternative Medicine, Addictions, Senior Care, Dating, and Sports.

Understanding SERPs: Content quality and search intent matters

All of this SERP analysis leads us to a rather astounding conclusion: Extremely reputable sites that are authoritative, trustworthy, and run by folks with lots of experience have seen major SERP decreases since the December core algorithm update. 

This is particularly interesting given Google’s well-documented focus on expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T).

Rank Ranger released a qualitative analysis of actual pages impacted by Google’s latest algorithm update. The report confirmed a lot of what we already know—that content quality matters—but it also gave us some context for what has changed in this latest algorithm update. In short, Google has started paying more attention to how content appearing on the SERP aligns with search intent.

For example, the CDC’s website was among those with major SERP losses. It’s Skin Cancer Screening page previously ranked number one for “skin cancer detection,” a term that generates an estimated 320 monthly searches and 425 monthly organic sessions to the top URL, according to SEMrush data. 

After the December update, however, the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology’s Skin Cancer Detection page surpassed the CDC’s page ranking, taking its spot at number one. While the page only ranked for 27 total keywords in November, it shot up to 117 total keywords following the update.

Why? The CDC seems to fit all of the E-A-T criteria. But, as Rank Ranger’s report explains, the major issue with the CDC page is that its content was didn’t actually align with the query’s search intent. Instead of providing information about what skin cancer looks like or how to identify it, as the new top-ranking page does, the CDC page describes different tests and methodologies. Its content, however expert, authoritative, and trustworthy, doesn’t actually include the information people are searching for.

Our content marketing and SEO experts saw similar themes across the board. As many sites and pages experienced shifts in SERP visibility, it became increasingly clear that the lost or decreased keyword rankings were associated with keywords that weren’t truly relevant to the search intent.

This begs the question: Should the content have been ranking number one for that query to begin with?

When consulting with smaller businesses or new websites in the past, we’ve had bleak outlooks on those companies ever having the ability to compete with bigger brands that dominated Google’s first page for highly competitive terms.

Of late, however, we’re seeing Google working to correct these issues. Just because you’re a big brand or a large site doesn’t mean you deserve a page one ranking. We saw similar adjustments after Google’s SERP diversity update in June 2019 that took action to prevent a single web domain from monopolizing page one search results.

This can be a tough pill for brands to swallow—particularly those that were resting on page one laurels or pulled back on content and SEO efforts after making it to the top of the SERP—if they see lower SERP visibility post-update.

Embracing a core algorithm update: Content still reigns supreme

It’s no surprise that mature brands and traditional brick-and-mortar stores whose websites were built years prior and never updated often struggle to go head-to-head with digitally-native D2C brands and mobile-first sites. That divide is likely to grow with Google’s very clear and public announcements around the importance of page experience as part of the impending Core Web Vitals rollout in May.

Google’s advice, as always with core algorithm updates, is to maintain quality content. This advice says a lot (without actually saying a lot), but these more recent updates are helping paint a clearer picture of what the search engine means by “quality.”

If your site was affected negatively by the December 2020 core algorithm update, it’s time to play defense. That advice goes against our generally proactive content marketing and SEO strategies we recommend to our clients at Wpromote, but it’s a necessary step to fix what’s broken and re-establish authority before you can start to think too far ahead.

A content inventory analysis can help assess the health of existing evergreen content and prioritize the optimization of content that could use some help. You can achieve a simple version of this analysis by cross-referencing a page’s organic traffic with its keywords.

With this information, you’ll be able to distinguish content that’s ranking for relevant keywords within striking distance of page one but not generating organic sessions, and then apply a micro-level qualitative analysis to make incremental improvements. 

How to incorporate search intent into your content strategy

  1. Look at what type of content is ranking on page one for a specific query, then identify what information that content includes that yours does not. For example, if you notice that all of the page one results are “how-to” articles, and yours is positioned as a 101, educational piece, consider repositioning your content accordingly.
  2. Take a first-hand look at how top-ranked content is presented on the site. Does the top-ranked page include a subtopic that your post is missing, or does it include more supplementary images (with keyword-rich alt text) than you have on your page? If so, build more of these into your content.
  3. Take a look at the more technical aspects of top-ranked sites. What is the URL structure associated with the top posts? How does the page speed for top content compare to yours? What is the internal and external linking strategy? 

Just like how you might incorporate Google’s E-A-T standards into your content, you can take a similar approach with search intent. Look into your analytics to identify what topics generate the most organic keywords and traffic. Dig into what content keeps visitors on your site the longest and what contributes to the most conversions.

Once you have that information, begin to apply these insights to your future content and evolve your strategies accordingly.

Find out how your brand needs to pivot in 2021. Check out our free marketing guide for the new year using insights from Google—and effectively position your brand to win in the face of changing behaviors and expectations.

Google Update SEO


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