Algo Aggro? How To Future-Proof Against Google Algorithm Updates

16 August 2023

Posted in: Digital SEO

If you have any experience of SEO, you’ll likely be well aware of the rug-pulling ramifications of a major Google algorithm update. Your once well-refined and meticulously-honed SEO strategy? Suddenly in need of an overnight rethink due to Google shifting its goalposts. 

Imagine spending months studying assiduously for an exam, only to discover on the morning of the test that the exam paper you’re primed for has been reworked. This isn’t exactly how a Google algorithm update works, but it’s not too dissimilar from this real-world tale of woe.

Of course, an ‘algo’ update isn’t always a bad thing for website owners and digital marketers. While many discussions centre on the potential negative implications — instantaneous and unexpected drops in rankings and organic traffic, for instance — sites that are already following best practices may in fact be rewarded rather than penalised. 

And while we can’t predict the future of SEO — even Nostradamus might struggle to anticipate what patterns and perils lie around the corner — we can at least ensure we’re adequately prepared for its many conceivable eventualities. 

Like a shipbuilder constructing a seaworthy vessel that’s designed to withstand all manner of oceanic conditions, let’s discover how you can traverse the choppy waters of Google’s undulating algorithms by future-proofing your content. 

Why does Google update its algorithms?

Google makes thousands of tweaks to its algorithms every year. Most of these are so minor that they’ll slip by unnoticed, but occasionally the search engine will roll out a major change (referred to as a ‘core update’) that causes significant SERP-related ripples — website owners are often left praying their page rankings won’t tumble overnight, while digital marketers are scrambling to adjust their SEO strategies in light of the updated rules.

The updates are often given some rather abstract nicknames — Florida, Big Daddy, Caffeine, and Hummingbird are just some examples — and the objective is ultimately to improve the overall search experience; for instance, by clamping down on spam or low-quality content, improving the relevance of search results, or reflecting changes in user behaviour. Some of Google’s most paradigm-shifting algo updates include:

  • Panda (2011), which sought to penalise websites that were publishing duplicate, plagiarised, or ‘spam’ content by assessing each web page based on a ‘quality score’ as it crawled them. 🐼
  • Penguin (2012), which aimed to eliminate irrelevant or ‘spammy’ links by targeting websites whose backlinks looked dubious. This somewhat put an end to the black hat practice of link farming. 🐧
  • Helpful Content (2022), which encouraged a ‘people-first’ approach by favouring original, helpful content written by humans, for humans. First-hand expertise and depth of knowledge are subsequently seen as key differentiators. 💡

Yet while many of these updates sneak up on us unannounced, some are publicised before their release — Core Web Vitals, for example (a set of principles that evaluate the overall user experience of a website), was announced ahead of its rollout in 2020, while many of us will have already heard about the planned release of Google’s Search Generative Experience (SGE), which will incorporate generative AI to improve the contextual relevance of search results.

It’s also important to note that the underlying structure of search engine results pages (SERPs) is constantly evolving, with a plethora of different ranking systems — the core technologies that enable Google to generate search results — in place and new ones being created all the time. Google’s developers are continually testing, evaluating, and adjusting these systems, with the aim of improving the relevance and usefulness of its responses to search queries. 

Of course, these updates may have little to no impact on your website, but they’ll often have fairly significant ramifications. They may cause Google to reevaluate your content, for example, which could lead to a sharp drop in rankings if it fails to meet its modified criteria. If your site is hit by an algorithm update, it’s important to understand the impact — and consider what actions you can take to mitigate it.

That said, while it’s possible to lessen the impact of an algo update through reactive corrective actions, it’s likely to take time for your site to fully recover — possibly resulting in an extended scarcity of traffic and a drawn-out battle to regain your rankings. This is why it’s often better to preempt changes by adopting a proactive approach, keeping abreast of industry trends and ensuring your strategy is as algo-proof as possible. 

Image: Pexels

How to future-proof your site against algorithm updates

1. Create content for a range of intents 

Search intent refers to the primary goal a user has when entering a query into a search engine. Understanding search intent is crucial for SEO — and should be a key consideration when striving to create content that meets user requirements and expectations — but it’s also essential to appreciate that there are many different types of intent. For example:

  • Informational intent means a user is purely looking for an answer to a specific question — for example, “What is content marketing?”
  • Navigational intent means a user knows the specific website or page they want to visit — they might type in “Instagram login” or “Seeker blog”.
  • Commercial intent usually means a user is conducting research with the eventual aim of making a purchase — they may search for “best smartphones 2023”, for example. 
  • Transactional intent means the user is looking to take a specific action, such as making a purchase — their search query might look something like: “Buy iPhone 14 Pro”.

When devising your content strategy, it’s important to consider a range of intents. By addressing multiple search intents, you increase the likelihood that most — or at least some — of your content remains relevant and valuable, even if algorithm changes impact other types of content.

What’s more, different types of content cater to users at various stages of their journey. By providing content for a number of possible intents, you can more effectively engage users, enhancing the overall user experience and sending important trust signals to Google. 

Plus, this approach increases the likelihood of earning valuable backlinks from a variety of sources — for example, some of your content may earn links naturally because of its informational value, while other content earns links due to its commercial or transactional relevance, enabling you to build a diverse link profile.

2. Don’t focus on organic search alone

While SEO is considered to have the highest ROI of any digital marketing channel, it shouldn’t be your sole focus — and yes, this is coming from an SEO agency. The centuries-old proverb about multiple eggs in a solitary basket certainly applies here — when businesses rely too heavily on organic search traffic from Google, they become vulnerable to fluctuations in traffic and rankings due to algorithmic shifts.

Just as an investment portfolio diversified across multiple assets is more resilient to market changes, a diversified traffic portfolio can protect against sudden drops from any single source. If one channel suddenly underperforms due to factors outside of your control, the others can pick up some of the slack and help offset the loss of traffic.

In essence, using a combination of digital channels ultimately allows businesses to create a more cohesive and future-proof marketing strategy — for instance, social media can be used to promote content and continue to drive traffic to key pages, while PPC can be leveraged to capitalise on high-converting keywords that might be more difficult to rank for organically due to changes in Google’s algorithms.

3. Lean on what you know

Google is hungry for what it terms E-E-A-T content (this pun is admittedly less effective since they added the second ‘E’), which stands for Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust. These four pillars are key principles of Google’s ranking algorithm, attributing value to content based on factors such as first-hand experience and the level of authority the brand holds within its industry.

Content which leans on E-E-A-T ideals is likely to stand the test of time because Google places exceptionally high value on it. To that end, leveraging your experience and leaning into your specific areas of expertise is key — create content where you can add meaningful insights and generate tangible value, and tread carefully in areas where you lack knowledge or have little authority. 

It’s also important to align your content with your overriding value proposition, since this will not only help Google build an understanding of your content but enable you to gain authority within a specific niche. Producing bucketloads of content on a broad range of disconnected topics may seem like it would increase your potential overall reach, but content with a clear and overarching focus is likely to be enduringly algo-friendly. 

4. Audit your content regularly

Performing a content audit is a little like getting a physical health check: not only does it uncover any current underlying issues, but it can help ensure you’re in the best possible shape to deal with future complications. Just as Google constantly refines its criteria to deliver the most valuable and relevant content to its users, website owners must also continually hone their content to meet these evolving standards.

One of the most clear-cut ways auditing helps is by ensuring content quality. Google’s updates aim to reward high-quality, informative, and original content while penalising its superficial, duplicate, or spammy counterparts. By routinely reviewing and updating your content, you ensure it retains its quality but also its relevance, aligning with the best practices Google promotes through its algorithmic revisions.

But of course, the technical side of your website has a direct effect on your ranking potential, which means it’s essential to perform periodic technical site audits. Factors such as site speed and mobile responsiveness play a key role in how Google ranks pages, and regularly analysing and optimising these areas can ensure Google doesn’t penalise your site because of a less-than-satisfactory user experience. 

5. Approach AI with caution

While the seismic recent advancements of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT present ample possibilities for SEO teams, automation should be used with at least a degree of caution — Google stresses the importance of high-quality content over how its produced, but is very clear that using AI for the purpose of attempting to manipulate rankings is a strict no-no. 

The future of SEO is likely to be defined by the increasing influence of AI, sure; but for now at least, the technology should not be relied upon to generate content — not least because large language models are effectively summarising what’s already ‘out there’ rather than adding anything new or groundbreaking to the conversation (and as we’ve discovered, first-hand experience and expertise are important factors for Google). 

When applied strategically, AI and SEO can certainly prove to be a fruitful partnership — streamlining laborious workflows and assisting with idea and concept development, for example. But with AI-generated content receiving increasing scrutiny, it’s possible that future Google updates may introduce stricter measures to deter its overuse — meaning sites that aren’t focusing on ‘people-first’ content are likely to suffer further penalties. 

Planning to leverage AI as part of your SEO strategy? Here are a few factors to consider first:

  • Never publish AI-generated content without sense-checking it first. Generative AI tools such as ChatGPT are not immune to inaccuracies and ‘hallucinations’, while the quality of its output is still somewhat inconsistent. Any content produced by AI should be reviewed and edited by a human. 
  • Don’t use AI to manipulate rankings. While Google is more concerned with the quality of your content than whether or not it was produced using automation, using AI-generated content to try to manipulate its ranking algorithms is a violation of its spam policies and is likely to result in strict penalties. 
  • Be very specific with your prompts. The more detailed your prompts, the better quality of response you’re likely to receive. Be very descriptive when asking a tool such as ChatGPT to provide a solution, whether that’s producing a seedlist of keywords, suggesting blog post title ideas, or generating meta titles and descriptions. 

6. Stay up-to-date with industry trends

Naturally, you can better prepare for an eventuality if you at least have an idea of what’s around the corner — you wouldn’t pack a suitcase without checking the weather in your destination, for example. Keeping abreast of industry trends — by following relevant social accounts, signing up to industry publications, listening to podcasts, and so on — means you’re less likely to be sideswiped by algorithmic updates when they do happen.

Not only that, but remaining trend-savvy can also help ensure you’re producing fresh, relevant, up-to-the-minute content, capitalising on emerging search trends and enabling you to rank for newly-popular keywords before many of your competitors do. Producing regular content also signals to Google that your site is active and may lead to your site being indexed more regularly — increasing your overall ranking potential.

That said, evergreen content — that which isn’t time sensitive and therefore has an enduring relevance — shouldn’t be overlooked, since it can achieve a stable online presence that’s less susceptible to fluctuations from Google’s algorithm updates. The sweet spot, of course, is to successfully anchor your more modish, trend-reflective content with a strong foundation of durable evergreen content that will not lose relevance or value over time. 

7. Forget algorithms; focus on your users

While we’re certainly not encouraging you to disregard everything you’ve read up to this point, the reality is that navigating algorithm updates is just an inevitable aspect of working in SEO: we can’t foresee them, we can’t second-guess Google’s intentions, and we certainly don’t have any control over them. But as long as you’re focusing on the most important aspect — your users — you’re best positioned to withstand the fallout.

Google’s priority when building its algorithms will always be delivering the best experience for searchers — algorithmic changes may be a response to shifting behavioural patterns, or simply an exercise in ensuring that users receive relevant, high-quality search results. Putting the user first is the most effective way to future-proof against algo updates because those updates are invariably designed to benefit the user. 

When it comes to your keyword strategy, for example, you should be anticipating the needs of your users above the requirements of a search engine algorithm. Your core approach should focus on how your users search, what they’re searching for, and how your content can help them achieve their goals. And when it comes to your content itself, it should be created with your users in mind, providing tangible value and the best possible user experience. 

Trying to predict the future might be a fool’s errand — my weather app can’t seem to accurately predict whether or not there’ll be a downpour an hour from now — but being prepared for many possible future eventualities is undeniably wise (it’s why I often take an umbrella with me even when my phone insists I won’t need it).

And while there’s no way we can anticipate precisely when a Google algorithm update will hit (and crucially what it will entail), if we’re following best practices now — creating high-quality content matching a range of intents, keeping abreast of industry news, and focusing on the user experience, for instance — when an update does inevitably hit, the damage is likely to be negligible.

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