Google Core Algorithm Updates are to SEO, what space is to a hitchhiker. And to take a quote from Douglas Adams in his guide for hitchhikers, and adjust it to our context, it would read:
“A Google Core Algorithm Update is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to a Google Core Algorithm Update.”
And had Douglas been writing about SEO instead of guides for people who cannot afford their own spaceships, he would not have been overstating things with this quote.
Which brings us to the purpose of this article.
If Google Core Algorithm Updates are so mindbogglingly big, certainly we must prepare for them.
Before we get to that, however, let’s make sure we are all on the same page as to what Google Core Algorithm Updates actually are.
What Is A Google Core Algorithm Update?
Also referred to as a Broad Core Algorithm Update, we will just refer to them as Core Updates for brevity through the remainder of this article.
A Core Update is an update to the fundamental building blocks of a search engine.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s start with one.
At an incredibly simplistic scale, one can think of the Core fitting into the overall algorithms like:
Again, this is a brutally simplistic model, but what I am trying to illustrate is that there are a variety of different algorithms that manage, interpret, and output various functions and signals. And then there is "the Core."
If we think about the huge array of different algorithms involved with processing the signals used to rank a page (and to judge one page against another, determine which elements should exist on a specific SERP, etc.) it is simple to see how “Backlinks” are not all lumped together as one metric as illustrated above, but rather assessed on a variety of characteristics, each with different signals, metrics and likely algorithms of their own.
And further, backlinks blend with trust, which has a variety of signals and algorithms unto itself.
The Core, too, will be divided into multiple different algorithms and functions but with one big purpose — to control the rest.
A Different Way to Look at It
As nerdy as it may sound, I find it helpful to think of it, like The Borg of Star Trek fame. And it turns out, that is for a good reason.
For the poor souls unfamiliar, the Borg Collective is a species that consists of individual drones who are connected and controlled by an overall system, running around keeping the Borg Cubes (their ships) operating and conquering more species. And then there is the Queen (The Core in our scenario) that controls and coordinates it all. This is done automatically and over vast distances using communications systems built into each drone, and their Cubes.
Basically, one queen to see over all the parts and keep them working in unison. Like an ant colony. Like Google’s Core.
Fun Google / Borg Fact
I noted above that this association is for good reason. Google actually has a system for large-scale cluster management called —you guessed it — Borg. It, “… runs hundreds of thousands of jobs, from many thousands of different applications, across a number of clusters each with up to tens of thousands of machines.”
On top of that, some of the folks from Google left and entered the microservices space and built technology for connecting different services into one cohesive application. They code-named this system “Project 7” after the famed Star Trek Borg character “7 of 9” in development, and while I don’t know for sure, I suspect I know why the name of this product now (Kubernetes) starts with “Kube”.
That Was A Lot of Nerdy Background
So, before we continue, here is a quick video of the Borg Queen, where she loosely discusses her role to serve as a bit of a break before we dive back into Core Updates.
Optimizing for Google (Not the User)
The reason we have journeyed as we have is that I have always felt it important to understand not just how to optimize, but what you are optimizing for. And no, it is not the user. It is Google.
And before a bunch of SEOs jump down my throat with quotes from John Mueller and even my own past comments on optimizing for users being a path to ranking better, what I mean is that our job as SEOs is to rank well and that means optimizing for Google.
THEIR job is to optimize for users.
So yes, indirectly, we are optimizing for users, and that is important to remember, especially in the context of Core Updates lately, but the semantics matter. Never take your eye off the ball or forget what your role is.
Back to What A Core Update Is and Consists Of
We can hardly talk about preparing your site for a core update without first exploring what they are, now that we know how the Core differs from other algorithms and functions.
A Core Update is, in essence, the updating of the foundation of the system itself, but not necessarily all or even many of the individual components.
Areas that may be upgraded include but are definitely not limited to:
Infrastructure (ex – Caffeine) – A Core Update may involve or have more to do with how pages and data are indexed, than how they are ranked.
Improving The Understanding Of Language (ex – Hummingbird) – A Core Update may involve retooling the way information is understood and processed, rather than how signals are weighted. Basically, changing the input to the sub-algorithms, rather than the output. Note: “sub-algorithm” is my term, not theirs, as far as I know, so you may not find it used elsewhere.
Merging Algorithms (ex – Penguin 4.0) – At some point, sub-algorithms may seem better to roll into other algorithms. With Penguin 4.0, we saw a Core Update that took an infrequently updated algorithm, rolled into the evergreen core.
Broad Signals (ex – Medic) – A Core Update may adjust the way broad signals are calculated. Using the Medic Update as an example, an adjustment to an individual quality or trust signal weight/algorithm would not be a Core Update, but with Medic, the Core was adjusted to reconfigure how the entire trust and quality system functioned for YMYL sites, which undoubtedly included adjustments to how the different algorithms shared information.
E-A-T (ex – Google’s Advice) – In their blog, Google specifically noted that sites impacted negatively by Core Updates need to look at E-A-T. This makes sense when we think of the variety of signals needed to assess E-A-T. They couldn’t be captured in a signal algorithm; they require multiple algorithms working together in multiple onsite and offsite areas. It takes updating The Core, updating the foundation for how the other parts work together, to get that job done.
And probably about 200 other things.
You can sort-of think of The Core as the engine of a car. You can use different gas, tires, spoilers, etc. to make it go faster and faster, but sometimes you just need to replace the whole engine, the part that makes the rest of it function.
A few times a year, Google replaces the engine, when it needs to change how the other parts work together.
So How Can You Get Ready For A Core Update?
You can’t. At least not in any way you might think of as “getting ready.”
I love Google’s description of a Core Update:
One way to think of how a core update operates is to imagine you made a list of the top 100 movies in 2015. A few years later in 2019, you refresh the list. It’s going to naturally change. Some new and wonderful movies that never existed before will now be candidates for inclusion. You might also reassess some films and realize they deserved a higher place on the list than they had before.
And this is correct. It is not that a site needs to have done anything wrong to get demoted, but rather, it can be beaten by sites that are simply a better fit.
This can be due to advances in the interpretation of signals (ex – Google getting better at understanding intent) or better crawling, allowing them to surface content they didn’t find previously.
So, the only way to prepare your site is to not let it ever be beaten.
In short, the only way to capture or maintain the best rankings is to provide the best fulfillment of the intent of Google’s users. In fact, that is a critical component to keep in mind.
The users are not yours; they are Google’s. And Google values them a lot. So much so that they are constantly adjusting their algorithms to cater to them better, and frequently “changing their engine” to do the same.
So, if you want to survive Core Updates, or really any update, you need to take good care of the visitors that Google is lending you.
Take better care than your competitors. And better care than Google can themselves with a featured snippet. Do this, and you will survive the Core Updates.
And for some ideas on how to accomplish that, I cannot recommend enough reading Google’s Quality Rater’s Guidelines.
And if you don’t feel like diving into that, I also wrote a piece on those guidelines which you’ll find here.