“Which Update?” Is the Wrong Question

With the combinations of Google Updates taking places within short periods of time, one of the more frequent questions I encounter as an SEO is, “Which update _______ (fill in the blank with a comment related to either drops on increases in rankings)?” While I understand the instinct to relate X to Y and have fallen victim to the simplicity of it many times myself, we have to remember that this is entirely the wrong way to look at search algorithm updates. While normally I try to write articles directed as passing on a specific piece of information or skill (normally – not always), this time I’m hoping to pass across a learned (the hard way) limitation in focusing in on a specific algorithm or update.

The truth of the matter is this, inherent in the question, “Was my ranking drop related to Panda or Penguin?” is a frightening truth, a belief that it could be either and thus, a belief that the site is lacking in the area of links, quality, and content. That’s quite the lack of faith and if it’s well placed (i.e. any of these areas actually could cause a problem) well…that just illustrates the title of this article. The question to determine a specific one issue is misplaced, rather – a complete re-evaluation of the site and your online presence has to be evaluated. After all, let’s say it was a Penguin penalty that hit you THIS TIME. You focus and get it fixed and for what, to get hit with a Panda or Pirate or Plankton update down the road.


Another major issue is that most people don’t fully understand how the algorithms themselves can impact your rankings and thus looking to a single algorithm tends to put the blinders on to other areas. Let’s say for example that you noticed a drop in your organic traffic starting in late September. That would tie in pretty tightly to the Panda 4.1 update and so it would seem pretty logical to start vetting your content. A drop in traffic tied to the Panda algorithm has to be related to content, right? Wrong, and it’s this focus on a specific update tied to a misunderstanding of the updates themselves that can cause a huge issue.

Now you may be thinking, if Panda is about content and more specifically, getting rid of low-quality or thin content (which it is), then how can a drop in results right after a Panda update not relate to having low-quality content or content that’s sending out a false-positive signal? Imagine a world where you did some less-than-stellar link-building. Let’s imagine that those sites you build links on had low-quality content. Now imagine what happens to the value of the links to your site when they get hit with the Panda update.

So yes, you got affected by the Panda update, but no it’s not related to your content. But do you see what happened there, if you focused on looking just to what the update itself was defined to do you’d be looking in entirely the wrong location for the issue.

So What’s the Right Question?

The right question to ask will depend on your skill level and experience. So let’s break it down to its simplest form:

Beginner SEO or Management

If you’re just at the entry level stages of being an SEO or if you’re not even an SEO and simply responsible for making business decisions, then the question is simple, “What can we do to improve out content and link profile?” You need to do a thorough and unbiased review of your content and your backlinks and develop strategies to improve both.

At this experience level, you can’t hope to understand the complexities of what different algorithms may or may not be doing and so you need to fully vet everything. You may start at the most likely culprit based on which algorithms you believe may be affecting your traffic but it’s important to address the full scope of the site.

Intermediate SEO

At this stage you’ll have between two and five years of experience and seen your fair share of updates come and go. With that we can safely assume you know not to panic and that you can think beyond the obvious. The question to ask if you’re at this stage is, “Which ranking signals could possibly be affected by the update I believe has affected the site?” You’ll then begin your audit of the site starting with those elements. Once that’s completed, it’s time for a full review of the content and links to insure you’re not about to get kicked with a different update or on the chance you missed something or were in correct in what you believed caused the issue.

Expert SEO

I decided to include this, though the question is the same as for the intermediate with a special caveat…being an expert (which I’ll qualify as more than five years of experience) leads to a terrible habit, the habit of thinking you’ve seen it all and know it all. I know, I’ve fallen into this trap myself and been burnt by it. If this is a site you’ve been working on for a while it may be time to call in outside help so they may be able to see the forest through the trees.

To steal from Tim Ash, none of us know our baby is ugly but anyone who’s ever seen babies before knows some are and some aren’t. If you’ve been the lead SEO on a site for years, you may not see the glaring issues with your own environment and it may be time to get some new eyes on it, eyes that don’t think they know it all and have seen it all. If you’re lucky, you have staff with experience in this area, but if you don’t you may need to hire a set of eyes to do an audit of your site. Either way, an expert in a ranking drop situation can almost be worse than a beginner at times in not knowing their own baby is ugly, especially if they have other sites doing well.


…nothing. If your rankings are hit with an update, it’s time to fully review all the elements, not just the ones you think about. Don’t change algorithms, build what you know will be strong and what will withstand updates and if you drop, look at the structure as a whole. After all, there’s no point in buying new tires for your car if your clutch is about to die.

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