Google uses algorithms to serve searchers the best possible answers to their questions. The famous algorithm that ranks websites and determines what people see first on the SERPs gets updated all the time. Website owners and SEO professionals alike get their knickers in a twist about these algorithm updates.
Algorithm updates big and small
Google makes algorithm updates on a daily basis, so you need to get a little more specific about what you’re going to worry about. Recently, for example, Google announced that it would be ranking websites based on their mobile appearance rather than their desktop appearance. If you don’t have a mobile-friendly website, you have something to worry about.
Google generally tells us about this kind of update. Google typically gives them names, too. Penguin, Panda, and Hummingbird are all important updates. If you somehow missed them and haven’t updated your website in years, they could be an issue for you.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of chatter right now about Update Maverick. Google didn’t make up this name, they didn’t announce it. Their blog is all about open source and doesn’t mention any super-important algorithm updates in the recent days.
Instead, we’re seeing forum conversations with people claiming that their websites have lost half their traffic, that they will be driven out of business, or that their traffic has increased by 50%. This kind of discussion is every bit as useful as the Facebook posts detailing the effects Mercury in retrograde is having on people’s lives.
So the first point to consider is that there are hundreds of algorithm updates every year, and most won’t have much of an effect on your website’s traffic and conversions.
Some SEO bloggers are showing data points. The rankings data shown below is from our lab site. It looks pretty much the same as all the other sites we’re managing — that is, rankings haven’t changed much. Certainly not enough to be statistically significant.
What does it mean to say that something is statistically significant? It means that the changes you’re seeing can’t be a matter of random chance. According to the math, that is.
We can see some changes in the rankings at our lab site. But they mostly look normal, and they certainly aren’t big enough that they couldn’t be explained by random chance.
But what about those 50% changes? Maybe they’re changes in a small data set. If you had 14 visits yesterday and 7 today, you’re not looking at numbers big enough to prove anything.
In fact, we’ve been surprised to find out how big a change you must have to see statistically significant numbers. Quiet.ly offers a clear set of instructions on how to determine whether your data’s changes are indeed statistically significant, using Excel.
Our favorite skilled statistician recently assured us that we get more engagement when we are more active in social media — even though, he casually remarked, the degree of difference in our data wasn’t statistically significant anyway.
I’m going to stick my neck out a little and tell you that if you only have access to analytics for a few websites, or you’ve only been working with analytics for a few years, you probably can’t tell what’s a big change caused by an algorithm update, as opposed to normal fluctuation or something caused by weather, headlines, or a viral social media post.
What’s normal, anyway?
If you’re doing a good job with your SEO, you should see traffic that looks roughly like this over time:
When you’re not doing anything for your website’s SEO, you should see traffic that looks roughly like this:
If you’ve fallen afoul of an algorithm update, you will see something more like this:
Because reading those forum conversations might make you feel like Google is out to get you, but actually, algorithm updates are improvements in the product. They create a better user experience for people searching with Google. That means that algorithm updates don’t mysteriously penalize good websites.
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Build the best page you can for each of your audience’s questions. This is what we do, and we don’t see problems with Google’s algorithm updates.