The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic offered an unprecedented window into how search behavior can affect rankings. “Outside of the core updates, you haven’t really seen this much volatility [in such a short timeframe],” said Rank Ranger’s Mordy Oberstein, regarding the prolonged period of rankings fluctuations he witnessed between March 15 and April 3.
During our search disruption session of Live with Search Engine Land, Oberstein, search consultant Marie Haynes, Olga Andrienko of SEMRush, Dr. Pete Meyers of Moz and Search Engine Land News Editor Barry Schwartz discussed how the drastic shift in search behavior may have prompted Google’s algorithms, resulting in over two weeks of rankings volatility.
Not your typical search behavior. “What we initially thought was a Google update, turned out that the whole world had changed their search patterns,” said Haynes, who noted that she saw changes on Google’s search results beginning on March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.
“If you are seeing changes, it’s either related to changes in search traffic patterns by the world or Google adapting to that,” said Haynes, “and I don’t think they’ve written a specific algorithm for [the coronavirus] — they’re adapting to how the world changes their searches, and I think the trick for us now is in trying to interpret what’s happening.”
Heavy emphasis on YMYL. “Google has been tweaking everything around Your Money or Your Life [YMYL] and these health kind of things,” said Meyers. Last year, Google confirmed that, for YMYL queries, it may give more weight in its ranking algorithms to expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (EAT) signals. The health crisis would, presumably, be a very applicable scenario for Google to double down on such signals.
“And now, this crisis comes along and I wonder if it is triggering all that work they’ve done over the last six months with core updates to a degree maybe that they didn’t even anticipate . . . it’s almost like they set the stage for reworking the algorithm around these problems and then this is their live test,” Meyers said.
Why we care. This rare conflux of elements (a worldwide health crisis and Google’s prior work to emphasize EAT) provides us with a rare glimpse of what can happen when search behavior dramatically deviates from the norm, enabling us to gain a better understanding of why our rankings have risen or fallen.
As search behavior gradually returns to normal, businesses and publishers should keep data on how they were impacted during this time, but also be mindful that this data may not be useful for year-over-year comparisons. Annotating the fluctuations in Google Analytics and Search Console can help you keep track of these events.
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