Google's Freshness Update - Impact and Implications
Google Freshness update hit the search engine result pages (SERPs) a couple of weeks ago and like any major update (especially in the wake of Panda) created stress and anxiety for websites everywhere as fear of another search apocalypse started flooding the SEO forums. The particular angst inducing statement from Google was specifically:
“today we’re making a significant improvement to our ranking algorithm that impacts roughly 35 percent of searches and better determines when to give you more up-to-date relevant results for these varying degrees of freshness”
Nothing makes website owners more nervous then when Google announces improvements!
35% certainly sounded like this would have result in Panda-like tremors – but as the traffic reports and discussion started hitting the Internet, it seemed more like a ripple as opposed to another quake. So what is going on here?
When analyzing Google algorithm changes (and what Google will do in the future), I like to put on my product management hat to try and understand exactly what problem they are trying to solve as it pertains to their product - the organic search results.
Problem number 1: When users are searching for trending/hot topics, content relating to that hot topic would get very little or no coverage in the standard organic results on the SERP. Most likely it would show up in Universal Search of the SERP in the form of news, but the other 10 results would most likely have no content related to the search – essentially giving irrelevant results. Strong, high PageRank pages would dominant over the newer, fresher, more relevant content which yet to garnish any links or reputation. So for instance, if you searched for “NBA Talks” you would see organic results that looked like this:
· NBA.com – would probably head the list because of high page rank and strength for the keyword “NBA”. Very poor relevance.
- Articles talking about the pending NBA lockout from many months ago – this would seem relevant based on the keyword search and likely had strong PageRank and inbound links since they had been around a while. However, this is not what the user is looking for and a poor result for Google.
- Very little new content relevant to the breaking story.
So this part of the update seems to be all about news and trending search terms. By looking at new content being indexed, news content along with dramatic jumps in search volumes for specific phrase, Google can conclude that a certain phrase needs fresh content. In this case, I believe fresh means newly, indexed pages relevant to hot topic. So now if you search for NBA Talks now, you see this:
Wow – forget about the old, high PageRank authoritative content. The results are dominated by new content. In fact 100% of the first page result are fresh and in this case news content. This is a far superior result for than old algorithm which mostly showed older content.
However, search for “NBA”, you see none of that fresh content in the results. Clearly, this part of the Algorithm impacts very specific searches related to trending news, but only for search terms clearly relevant to the trending term.
Problem #2: For certain type of queries, a good result is dependent on freshness. Google specifically gave the example of reviews. If you are searching for reviews, you want to see recent reviews which pertain to the latest version of a product or represent the current state of a business. However, Google’s algorithm returned results based on the authority of the pages which would surface the most relevant content from the strongest pages. The content was relevant to the explicit search term (for example ‘iPad Review’). However, most users probably want to see iPad 2 reviews, even though they didn’t explicitly type that in the search box.
In this case, fresh content can certainly mean long-standing pages that reflected the latest information via updates as opposed to the first case I discussed which appears to be news specific. In analyzing the search results, it still seems that strong, authoritative, content dominates, but with perhaps a tweaking based on freshness.
With a little help from SEMRush, I am able to compare the changes in the search result for ‘iPad Reviews’, pre and post Freshness change.
- Before the change – the top ranking page was an Engadget review for the original iPad 1 from nearly 2 years ago. Probably not the review most users were looking for.
- In fact, the entire first page of results was dominated by old reviews.
Now, after the change, things look quite a bit different.
- This number 1 slot has been replaced with an iPad 2 review, also from Engadget, indeed a much better result.
- The number 2 slot has been replaced with an iPad summary page from CNN with a link to an iPad 2 review (way down below the fold). This is not really a good result (it would have been better to list an iPad 2 review first). It shows freshness in action, but also that high PageRank, authoritative pages can still outrank the more relevant page (with pinch of freshness mixed in).
- Number 3 is still an iPad 1 review (very authoritative with 396 linking root domains, so it is trumping freshness).
- Number 4 is actually a Kindle Fire review which mentions iPad – very fresh (48 minutes old as I write this) – and is an example of how trending stories can make it into the result even if the search term is not the hot-topic.
- Slot 6 is another iPad 2 review.
- However, slots 5 and 7 are really poor results, search result and tag pages, yes, the type of pages everybody has been told are bad and should be de-indexed in the wake of Panda.
Overall, there are better results for the user looking for up-to-date information with a couple of iffy pages mixed in where freshness is trumping quality. Google still has work to do on this.
So what are the implications and how do they affect our SEO strategies going forward? These are my initial thoughts, however since it is in the early days of this update – it will take some more time to reach final conclusions:
- News and timely content will get more visibility. Now, besides showing up in Universal Search and on the News tab, the first page will be dominated by news content. Keep in mind though, that this will not be for general searches but for searches very specific to trending and hot topics. Therefore, a shift to more of a news focus should result in additional traffic due to this increased visibility. It still remains to be seen if, new, fresh content will be able to retain strong rankings over time or whether they will fall back.
- Fresh content is getting more visibility for general searches too – this includes updated content as opposed to just new pages. The impact is more subtle and does not seem to dominate the SERP like the first case.
How much content needs to change before it is viewed as fresh? Too soon to tell but you can bet that Google has put in checks to try and stop the obvious gaming that is probably already in motion (such as randomizing sidebar text snippets or swapping out lists of links). I am not saying these techniques won’t work or you shouldn’t try them … just that if they do work they might not be sustainable as opposed to legitimate fresh content.
- Google is likely categorizing searches to determine whether freshness is important to the quality of the page. A website strategy should focus on freshening content on pages that need fresh content to improve the page (such as review pages).
- I am sure Google will be tweaking this. The PageRank Algorithm did a decent job of making sure that worthy pages made it to the top, even if not timely. I have seen some poor results making it into the search results strictly on freshness.
- In general, the impact of this update does not seem nearly as severe as Panda – however this one might whittle away at your traffic over time if the fresh content tends to slowly take up positions.
This does not mean that site authority and linking programs are not as important as ever. In most case, sites showing up all have strong linking profiles.
In all, a very interesting update form Google and one I am sure they are not finished with. I'll continue to analyze this over time to see the longer term impact.