“We don’t know right now if the web is changing, if Google is changing something, if people’s behavior is changing; but, we also know that people are just doing things so differently that it’s nearly impossible to set [these things] apart,” said Peter Meyers, marketing scientist at Moz, commenting on the unprecedented search results volatility he and others have observed since COVID-19 broke out in the US.
The global pandemic has caused nearly everyone to reevaluate their priorities, prompting businesses and search engines to adapt as well. During our search disruption episode of Live with Search Engine Land Tuesday, hosted by Search Engine Land News Editor Barry Schwartz, Meyers and search consultant Marie Haynes, Olga Andrienko of SEMRush and Mordy Oberstein of Rank Ranger discussed the magnitude of the fluctuations, as well as the factors that may potentially be responsible for them.
Extraordinary rankings volatility
“From March 15 through April 3, you’re talking like 16 days of volatility — that hasn’t happened the last few years,” Oberstein said, referencing the fluctuations reported by Rank Ranger’s algorithm monitoring service, which measures daily search result fluctuations for 10,000+ domains and keywords.
“Google has different algorithms for every industry, and seeing changes across industries meant for us that the complete and drastic changes in search behavior must have caused the algorithm to understand and behave differently and give different results or update the SERPs,” Andrienko said, providing one potential explanation for the fluctuations.
A wave of site updates
Website content is also in flux as distancing and other safety precautions continue to impact businesses: “Huge e-commerce sites suddenly have to show all their products are out of stock or remove products or add products,” Meyers provided as an example, adding that “We’re seeing massive changes to sites that trigger index changes and ranking changes.”
Many businesses are also scrambling to find ways to make money online by offering products or services they may not have previously. Site owners are adding support for online transactions and pick-up or delivery options, fundamentally changing how their sites work.
Marketers are also shifting focus to longer-term goals, such as preparing for a post-COVID economy: 63% of respondents said that SEO would gain in importance either slightly or steeply during the economic downturn, according to a survey by Conductor. The wave of businesses adapting their sites and strategies could also help to explain the recent rankings fluctuations.
Haynes noted Google’s algorithm update last year that emphazises expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (EAT) for your money, your life (YMYL) queries. With that announcement, Google said “that, especially in health queries, they want to surface sites that are known as authorities,” said Haynes. “And we see that: if you do searches for anything that’s important and related to the Coronavirus right now, you’re going to see recognizable, authority health sites that are ranking well,” she said.
The idea that pandemic-driven search behavior is now triggering Google’s previous health-related algorithm updates was also shared by Meyers, who suggested that Google itself may not have anticipated the degree to which rankings would be affected.
The search behavior shifts and how they feed into Google’s algorithms aimed at surfacing trustworthy YMYL results was encapsulated by an anecdote Haynes shared: “We had one client who, at the beginning of all this, had a post that went really well, all about how to make hand sanitizer. And then, all of a sudden, they were on page three — they were [previously] ranking top three for that.”
“And you almost wonder if it’s possible that Google’s algorithms . . . managed to figure out that the way people are searching, they’re searching for health queries and it seems to be very important to people’s health right now, so we’re only going to take results from large, trustworthy health authorities” Haynes said, noting that the top position for that query now belongs to Healthline. “[The nature of the query] went from basically, ‘here’s how to save a few bucks,’ to ‘here’s how to not die,’” Meyers commented on the search intent shift.
Google: “Interesting speculation”
“I don’t want to over-generalize about [machine learning], but when you have user inputs feeding the system, then the algorithm is, to some degree, rewriting itself as our behaviors change — and so, is that us? Is that COVID? Or, is that the algorithm?” said Meyers, noting that several factors may be responsible for the rankings volatility.
“Is it possible that searcher behavior is influencing the algorithm itself?” Search Engine Land’s News Editor Barry Schwartz asked Google’s John Mueller during the Webmaster Central office hours on March 31.
“I don’t think that would be happening,” Mueller said, adding that Google sees user behavior shifts come and go on a regular basis. “These kinds of shifts are things that our algorithms have to watch out for, so it’s not something that I’d say would be specific to this current [pandemic] situation,” he said.
A similar discussion was also started on Twitter by search marketing agency owner AJ Kohn. Long-time Google software engineer Paul Haahr responded saying that it was “interesting speculation” but neither confirming nor denying that search behavior could have such an impact on Google’s algorithms.
Google’s evolving COVID-19 search experience
Haahr also noted that Google has expanded its COVID-19 search experience. We have charted how dramatically Google’s search results for coronavirus-related queries have changed since February.
During the month of March, new features, such as the “Help and information” box, COVID-19 Alert sidebar and the statistics panel, were added to the “corona”-related search results. These new features are manual updates that Google has made to the search results. The manual updates do not have any impact on the widespread volatility.
“I don’t think they’ve written a specific algorithm for ‘here’s what we do because of the coronavirus’; they’re adapting to how the world changes their searches,” Haynes said, “The trick for us now is in trying to interpret what’s happening.”
More about marketing in the time of the coronavirus
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