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Google’s Last Major Update of 2021

The November 2021 Core Update Included a Significant Readjustment of Ranking Factors

December 19, 2021 | Posted in: Search

As anyone working in SEO will tell you, Google’s algorithm is an ever-changing list of demands that gives marketers a moving target to hit with website content. Employees at Google make tiny edits to the algorithm as frequently as multiple times per day, but we typically only see a true “Core Update” every few months. The previous update landed in July and search results have been relatively consistent between then and late November.


Google’s Last 2021 Core Update

In mid November, Google’s Webmasters Twitter account publicly announced that they would be pushing out a Core Update:

Almost immediately, we started noticing changes in search results. Google has labeled this release as a “spam update” but didn’t give much background on what type of spam they were targeting. Sometimes their spam actions are looking for offsite behaviors and other times they’re tightening the screws against banned onsite tactics like white text on white backgrounds, showing Google a different page than regular users, and hiding content behind images. From what we’ve seen so far, the update was prompted by an increase in medical industry publications of varying quality.


Google Ranking Movement by Industry

In looking at the Semrush volatility charts, the healthcare sector saw the most volatility:

rankings volatility

Source: Semrush

This chart tells us that Google is most likely cracking down on pandemic opportunists running COVID scams and publishing misleading health-related articles. Anytime searches for one category start to rise, spammers and fraudsters naturally start popping up. In the same way social media networks are trying to curtail misinformation and “fake news,” Google is taking steps within their search algorithm.

Small Change, Large Impact

Because Google uses one algorithm for all websites, it is common to see a ripple effect across related industries. For example, the disruption to healthcare queries is even impacting results for adjacent categories like marijuana dispensaries.

After the release of Google’s newest Core Update, our Strategists were seeing as many as 15% of the websites listed on page 1 getting swapped out with newcomers who were previously on the second page of results. That is a massive change!

A ranking shakeup like this presents great opportunity but also great risk. The best maintained websites will gain share of voice from neglected websites that haven’t stayed on top of their optimization.


Ranking Disruptions by Device

An equally interesting change in the final Core Update of 2021 is the widening discrepancy between mobile and desktop results. Our clients across dozens of different industries are starting to notice surprisingly unique search results when typing in the same query on their mobile device versus a laptop or desktop computer. The mobile version of Google has diverged from the desktop to now border on existing as an entirely different search engine. Google has even started crawling the web with a different bot for desktop than it uses for mobile.

When you first learn about mobile results differing from desktop, it may seem odd, but there are some legitimate reasons why Google has chosen to do this:

  1. The web looks very different on a mobile device. Some of the most beautiful desktop sites are tough to use on a touchscreen and deliver a subpar small-screen experience.
  2. Proximity and physical location are well-known ranking factors. Google has a pretty good idea of where your laptop is connecting to the internet and uses that information to tailor your results, but they can pinpoint your mobile phone’s location to almost exact GPS coordinates. Due to this, mobile results are significantly more sensitive to your location.
  3. Mobile users are often looking for different things than they would on desktop. They gravitate towards quicker and more instantaneous online behaviors versus the often research-focussed nature of desktop users.
  4. Average speeds of home internet connections are still far superior to tower-based mobile networks. Google will punish uncompressed websites that load slowly on any device, but those rankings drops get harsher on the mobile web.

Another commonly known ranking factor is browsing history. Google tracks your history and tries to deliver the types of results they think you will like. Their personalization gets much stronger when the user is logged in. Users on mobile devices are almost always logged in, while desktop searchers are more likely to use Google anonymously and receive more generic results.

One additional factor to consider when looking at differing Google results is the type of device and browser you are using. Google has access to a lot more information when you’re using an Android device and Google Chrome versus something like a Macbook with Safari. On the same computer you may even see different results when searching on Firefox versus Chrome because Google has more data to personalize your results with when you’re using their own browser (Chrome).


Google My Business (GMB) / Map Listings

One place in particular that made the Core Update particularly destructive to some website’s rankings is the Google My Business section at the top of localized results. For local business keywords, the typical search results page will include a map with only three GMB profiles followed by the regular results. If your business got bumped to fourth or lower in the “local pack,” you will no longer be visible in that section of page 1. Losing just a single spot can be the difference between appearing on the top of page 1 and not showing up at all!

Since the Core Update, we’ve seen less consistency across GMB results. Variability of this type is likely to be tightened up as Google starts to process the data from this update. It’s very common for Core Updates to shake up results in a few unintended ways. Google’s team will allow user behavior to glide the results order back into place. Google watches what people click on and uses that to evaluate the quality of their sorting methods.

During some of our post-update testing we’ve been seeing higher-rated, more-reviewed, and physically-closer results get pushed below profiles with no reviews and less overall clout. Due to this, the map section of search results has become wildly less predictable. Our assumption is that Google will roll this back as they did with a similarly unpopular minor update in August.


What can I do to protect my rankings?

The best thing you can do for long-term website rankings is to maintain an ongoing SEO campaign that reacts to algorithm changes as they appear. Google is very tight-lipped about their updates and often will release them without any prior notice or confirmation after the update goes live. It is the job of search engine optimization professionals to monitor both search results and publications coming out of Google about their changing standards and requirements.

A great analogy is that your Google visibility is much like a stock portfolio. Left unmonitored, it can be costly when things start to change!

For GMB in particular, a time-tested reliable tactic is review generation. Encouraging customers to leave feedback on your Google My Business profile is a fantastic way of showing Google that you are still relevant, continuing to do business, and a desirable place for them to send search traffic. Fresh five-star reviews go a long way!

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