2020 Google Algorithm Update Guide

The one constant about digital marketing is that it ALWAYS changes. Even the most timeless advice—and there’s some that is truly timeless!—has to constantly be adapted and updated to the current state of technology, design, and search. And, for the most part, it is Google that sets the rules and guidelines that attorneys and podiatrists have to follow to market their practices online successfully. 

The only problem is that Google’s updates feel like A LOT to keep up with! 

Google typically releases several major updates each year, and those are just the updates the search-engine giant confirms. You’re hearing that right—Google also constantly releases ongoing tweaks and adjustments that aren’t officially confirmed. Sometimes, these are small changes that don’t tend to have a significant impact on marketers and businesses. However, sometimes these unconfirmed updates DO have a significant impact, and SEO experts have to “connect the dots” back to Google after seeing unusual ranking changes or other effects on their clients’ websites.

So, not only is it a lot to keep up with, it’s tough to even pin down in the first place.   

Are you feeling a little bit out of the loop with what Google has been up to recently? Don’t feel bad! This is something everyone struggles with. Below, you’ll find a breakdown of the most important updates so far in 2020, as well as other issues that have impacted rankings and search behavior. We’ve broken it all down into “quick bites” and clear guidance so that you can get up to speed and get on with your day. 

Ready? Let’s dig in!

September 2019: Bye-Bye Review Stars!

Review stars in search started disappearing back in the fall of 2019, but we’re including it here because many attorneys and podiatrists weren’t affected by the missing review stars (or didn’t see the change) until the start of the new year.

The confusing part of this change is that review stars didn’t disappear entirely from search. Instead, businesses like law firms and medical practices lost their review stars, but pages for things like specific products and services retained their review stars in search.

Why? The whole idea behind this update centered on removing “self-serving” review stars and making review stars more useful to searchers. For example, imagine you search for “best potato salad recipe.” You’ll probably see a 5-star rating under the first result (like in the image below).

Google Review Star Changes

Thanks to Google’s changes to review stars, you know that’s a rating for that specific recipe, not for the blogger or website that shared it. Since the review stars that used to appear next to law firm and medical practice results were reviews for the overall business—not just that page or its content—it was considered “self-serving,” and we had to wave “bye-bye.”

While this update did affect how your pages display in Google’s search results, there is no particular action that you need to take. You only need to be aware of the change, and you might consider working with your SEO specialist to go after other kinds of “rich snippets” and enhanced search displays that are still available to you. 

Still not clear on what review stars are or why you lost them? Get all the details about why there are no more review stars in search for law firm and medical practice websites. 

January 13, 2020: January 2020 Core Update

Core updates are usually big, broad updates to Google’s main algorithm, and they tend to affect everyone’s rankings all over the world when they’re released. They don’t target just one issue or industry. Instead, they’re an overall, sweeping refresh of Google core algorithm and ranking factors.

Although Google likes to keep its “special sauce” a secret, SEO specialists can unpack the impact on sites and rankings after the release to get a better idea of what was affected. So, in the first update of 2020, the major changes we saw affecting law firms and medical practices included:

  • Bigger rewards for truly excellent content. With this update, Google showed that it has gotten even better at finding the best content out there and sending it to the top. And we’re not just talking about “good” content with this update—we’re talking about content that’s objectively excellent. Pages with thorough, well-written, well-formatted, authoritative, digestible content that’s easy to read rose dramatically. It’s very clear that Google is now much better able to understand the content on a page and judge how valuable and helpful it is compared to competing pages. So, if you’re producing content that offers value and originality to your perfect clients, then you’re definitely pointed in the right direction. 
  • De-indexing of spammy content. Any kind of spammy, low-quality pages tend to get the chop when these big updates are released, and this one was no different. More junky, misleading, ad-stuffed pages that squeaked by in prior updates have now been de-indexed by Google. We see these kinds of changes regularly, and it should be obvious to everyone at this point that Google has no desire to show those kinds of pages to its users.
  • Changes to trust elements. It’s clear that some trust elements were adjusted in this update, but exactly what changed is a little murky. We do know that sites using deceptive practices sank, such as affiliate sites that “trick” readers into clicking on affiliate links. We also saw rising rankings for sites that work on maintaining a good online reputation. So, if you’re on top of stuff like your reviews, ratings, and customer service, and if you have lots of high-quality content pages, then you should be in good shape.  
  • Changes to veterinary health content. We know you probably don’t have a lot of pages about pet health on your website, but we did see these sites held to more rigorous standards in this update—much like sites featuring human health content saw back in 2018 with the “Medic Update.” Pet health content that sank typically didn’t include scientific evidence for its claims, wasn’t written by authorities in the field, or contained thin content or lots of ads “above the fold.” So, the takeaway is that Google is still taking the ranking of any kind of health guidance—human or pet—very seriously, and podiatrists and lawyers should remain vigilant about producing high-quality, ethical, authoritative, evidence-based content for their readers. 

Keep in mind that, with any major core update like this, there is probably not just one thing that is going to totally tank or boost your rankings. There are always a lot of factors at play, but you’ll notice that most of these changes are right in line with Google’s longtime message of offering true value to searchers without “tricking” them with deceptive practices. 

Google offers pretty much the same guidance to marketers and businesses every time they release a new core update. They make it clear that pages that lose some ranking power aren’t necessarily bad—it’s just that, since the last update, there are better pages out there that are more authoritative and relevant, and more deserving of those top spots. Each core update reveals a little more of the direction Google is moving in—so, if you lost or gained in the rankings with this update, it’s likely that you’ll also be impacted by the next core update that’s released. 

January 22, 2020: No More “Double-Dipping” With Featured Snippet Deduplication

Shortly after releasing the big, core update at the start of the year, Google followed it up with a much more targeted change. Pages that appear in a “featured snippet” at the top of the search results no longer also appear in the top regular search position below. This reduced a lot of duplication on the search results page because, in the past, a page appearing in a featured snippet might also occupy the first few organic results. Video snippets and some other featured-snippet variants remained unaffected.

We know a lot of you have achieved that coveted “featured snippet” position with your content, so this might sound like a scary change. However, sites that lost those “duplicate” links didn’t seem to suffer much of a consequence in traffic numbers. In fact, some sites were even able to rise into those spots that had been occupied by duplicate results. 

Overall, this update didn’t have a serious impact on our clients, and there’s probably not anything you need to do. 

Have questions about Google’s enhanced search results or how to position yourself to get them? Give us a call at 888.886.0939 or check out our SEO services for attorneys and podiatrists

March 11, 2020: COVID-19 Pandemic

While this isn’t a Google update, it’s still worth mentioning. COVID-19 has changed a lot of things in our lives since March, including the way we search for information and use the internet. Even without changes to Google’s algorithms, some sites saw significant changes in their traffic and performance with the pandemic. The main thing that changed was actually searcher behavior!

In general, people were not only spending a lot more time online; they were also searching for different kinds of information and businesses than before the pandemic hit. There was a lot of fluctuation in rankings through March and April, but it all seemed to settle into the “new normal” by May. 

If you saw changes in your traffic or rankings during this period, you can’t blame Google for it. However, we saw a lot of practices “pivot” to adapt to emerging client and searcher needs in uncertain times. 

Find out how to pivot during the pandemic

May 4, 2020: May 2020 Core Update

In its second core update of the year, Google continued its focus on helpful, informative content and relevant local searches. It was also the first major update since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Like other core updates, the May core update affected all kinds of websites and industries around the world. However, this update did seem to strongly affect complex, professional businesses—so law firms and medical practices should watch their data carefully now that the changes are rolled out. 

This was a big update with a potentially big impact on lawyers and podiatrists, so it’s a good idea to dig into all the details and recommendations about it. 

Have questions? Find out everything you need to know about the May 2020 Core Update.

August 10, 2020: A Google “Oops!”

On August 10, SEO experts started seeing some alarming and confusing changes with Google rankings. It had such an impact that everyone was sure a major, unconfirmed algorithm update had been released—but the patterns they were seeing just didn’t make a lot of sense. All of a sudden, spammy, black-hat sites were outranking sites with historically excellent authority. 

However, the shock and confusion were short-lived. As it turns out, it was just a massive Google bug! John Mueller, the Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, confirmed in a tweet that it was just a glitch, and it has since been fixed. Whew!

Want to Get on Top of the SEO for Your Law Firm or Medical Practice?

Staying on top of Google’s changes, shifting best practices, and searcher behaviors is a considerable job, but it just comes with the territory when you market your practice online. If you feel like you’re always in the dark, or if you’re worried about a particular update, partner up with an SEO expert that can give you the guidance you need to build a strong, robust strategy that can weather any sudden bumps in the road. 

Need a hand getting up to speed or making the needed changes to your website and strategy? Let’s talk through it all together and get it figured out for you.  

Request a marketing analysis or call our team at 888.886.0939.

Tom Foster
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Founder|Owner, Speaker, Creator of DSS, World of Marketing Podcast Host, EOS Implementor
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