The most stressful part of SEO is dealing with the sudden, unexpected fluctuations of search ranks that have, for the past 15 years or so, been inevitable. Google will push a new update to its algorithm, and millions of business owners will watch as their ranks inexplicably skyrocket or plummet. What’s maddening isn’t that a change was made, but that it was made without warning; major updates like Panda and Penguin instigated much hair-pulling and scary conference calls, followed by months of desperate recovery, but neither came with a warning.
Thanks to these iterative pushes, search rankings were once held with a grain of salt—even the most experienced search marketers knew that their hard-earned number one rank might disappear tomorrow. But what about today? Just how volatile are SERPs today compared to Google’s older days of massive revisions, and how ready do you need to be for a sudden, inexplicable change in rank?
Panda was the first major shakeup in the modern age of SEO. In 2011, it affected millions of search queries, rewarding sites with awesome content and punishing those with thin or keyword-stuffed content (which, until that point, was a passable strategy). Penguin followed a similar pattern in 2012, leading many to believe that every year, Google would find some new, major way to update its algorithm and send SEO experts scrambling.
However, this hasn’t been the case. Google’s made some big pushes and some big improvements to its algorithm since—just look at Hummingbird, Pigeon, or the Mobilegeddon update—but none of these have had as substantial an impact on search queries as Panda or Penguin. Google took care of the two biggest problems with its algorithm already: vulnerability to link spam and inefficient graders of content quality. As a result, its newer updates are smaller, focused on specific niches, and generate less of an impact.
Don’t mistake the presence of small updates for a lack of effort or improvement on Google’s part. In fact, Google updates its algorithm almost constantly by pushing forward new micro-updates and data refreshes, which tweak existing algorithms and provide new data with which to rank sites. For example, Panda’s been updating on a monthly basis for the past three years, but you probably haven’t noticed it affecting your ranks—that’s because these micro-updates only affect a small percentage of queries. Slowly but surely, Google is improving, but the volatility factor is nearly gone.
I also want to mention RankBrain here, Google’s latest machine learning algorithm centered on Hummingbird, as I believe it’s the future Google wants to pursue. RankBrain collects data on its own and uses it to, essentially, update itself. As a result, the updates it pushes are tiny, almost to the query level—and it was able to exist for months without people noticing it. Inherently, this system is simultaneously more volatile and less volatile, depending on how you use the word. It processes and pushes far more changes and changes far more ranks per day than anything before it, but these changes are much smaller and less noticeable.
Google’s also done a much better job of being transparent with business owners and search marketers as of late. With the Mobilegeddon update earlier this year, webmasters had months of advance notice to take action and correct their mobile issues—even after several years of cautioning the importance of mobile-friendliness for modern sites. Similarly, Google was relatively forthcoming about the nature and extent of RankBrain, and even published its full search quality raters guide earlier this year. These don’t affect volatility directly, but do show that Google isn’t trying to surprise webmasters the way it has in the past with sudden, massive, unexplained changes.
If you do notice search volatility, there’s one factor you might be neglecting: the individual factor. Google relies on tons of data to formulate search results, including a user’s previous history, a device’s geographic location, and even the nature of the device. As a result, unless you can copy a search “situation” exactly, it’s likely you’ll find some major differences between accounts, locations, and devices. Don’t mistake this for search volatility; Google isn’t changing the ranks on you, you’re just giving it a different set of commands.
Search volatility is always going to exist, but it’s different today than it was a decade ago. Rather than occasional periods of massive volatility, today’s shakeups are more frequent and much, much less noticeable. You might change one position overnight, and then change back again before you notice, or over the course of a few months, steadily drop in ranks. But these changes can hardly be expressed as “volatility,” at least not anymore. Google’s updates are faster, smaller, less impactful, and are more about fine-tuning than overhauling.
What should you take away from this article? The main point I want to get across is that Google’s pretty happy with its search algorithm, and they’re comfortable keeping it relatively stable. Data refreshes, micro-changes, and machine learning-based updates are still constantly rolling out, so you’ll never be fully safe from unexpected changes, but for the most part, you don’t need to be constantly watching over your shoulder. Just keep making the best content you can, listen to Google when they warn you, and stay up-to-date on the latest best practices.