Update: We have updated this article following confirmation from Google of a second broad core update in April 2018, which our analysis shows was a partial reversal of the previous algorithm changes.

On Monday 12th March 2018, Google confirmed the roll-out of a broad core algorithm update. Since then, our Technical SEO and Data & Insight teams have collaborated on extensive analysis, calculating the (largely positive) impact for our clients.

A “core” update affects the main organic search algorithm, which determines how results look, and crucially who ranks where. But, given Google’s woeful summary of the update, we undertook a proper investigation. We set out to discover if the update hit some verticals more than others, or if its alignment with talk of a mobile-first index was beyond coincidental. Our findings in brief:

TL;DR:

  • Several tabloid newspapers have lost more than a fifth of their visibility in organic search since the latest Google update.
  • Meanwhile, digital-first publishers and well-optimised broadsheets have recorded gains in the UK and the US.
  • Google is furthering its own interests, demoting lyric sites and dictionaries made redundant by featured snippets, and increasing the visibility of YouTube videos.

We’re going to share some aggregated, anonymised headlines in this post, plus a deeper analysis of data from Searchmetrics, one of the web’s foremost third-party SEO tools. Read on to learn who is a beneficiary of Google’s latest algorithm update, and who is in the digital doghouse.

A comment on modern algorithm updates

Before blinding you with statistics, a brief remark about recent Google updates.

Personally, I don’t find algorithm changes as frightening as in the days of Penguin and Panda. The vast majority of reputable SEO professionals make data-driven decisions layered upon best practice. This certainly applies at RocketMill. We focus on building better websites, rather than more backlinks, and this protects us from the worst extremes of algorithmic fluctuation.

However, modern updates are not without their challenges. For starters, the official information is hopeless. Google’s statement about the update, delivered via a nondescript triplicity of tweets, told us:

  • Google release several core updates per year
  • Some sites may note drops or gains
  • There’s no fix other than to focus on building great content

No shit, Sherlock. We devote our lives to following Google’s vague directions, only for them to change course without a care.

I speak as a marketer, not just an SEO analyst. Indeed, even my colleagues in the paid search quarters are not immune from Google’s fiddling, as our go-to search engine decides some queries don’t deserve results at all! (Is this blurring the lines between traditional results on your desktop and voice results on your mobile? To be continued.)

Another concern is how long it takes these blasted updates to roll out. Almost a week after the early warning signs, it seems the core update may be claiming fresh blood. As I finish this piece on Thursday evening, the algorithm monitoring tool Google Grump reports the largest fluctuation in its history. It’s akin to past Phantom updates, where each successive change reverts the effects of its predecessor.

(Shortly after we first published this article, Google confirmed the update launched on 7th March. Almost two weeks later, on Monday 19th March, webmasters around the globe were reportedly still experiencing rank fluctuations following the Google broad core algorithm update.)

A graph of fluctuations in Google organic search results, showing increasing turbulence towards the middle of March 2018, ahead of a huge spike on the 15th of March.

Beware the Ides of March: Google Grump highlights major turbulence in search results on 15th March 2018.

Not since the cool-down of Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer have so many endured squeaky bum time for so long. Though, to torture my analogy, I suppose we just have to accept that Google owns the ball, and indeed the stadium.

If we fancy a kickabout, we have to tolerate Google as both player and referee.

Who has been hit by the 2018 Google update?

To separate the victors from the victims, we used Searchmetrics to analyse trends across behemoths of the internet.

Searchmetrics is the ideal tool for this kind of task. Typical ranking trackers record where a website places in search results for one or more keywords. This is useful for hygiene monitoring and cursory analysis, but to gauge overall trends requires complex Excel formulae and lots of manual effort. Searchmetrics saves the legwork, as once a week it combines data on rankings, search volume, and keyword universe to determine an overall score for almost every domain on the web. This saves our brainpower, which we can use to explore the data instead – much more rewarding!

Following the most recent core algorithm update, we exported the 100 highest-scoring domains in the Searchmetrics index on 15th March, and then compared their visibility scores in the UK and the US with the previous week. This yielded net and percentage increases or decreases since Google’s update. We used this data to sort the domains into winners and losers, verified via manual checks. (Hat tips to Dom Calisto, Luke Smith and Rhys Jackson for pulling this together.)

For total transparency: whereas the UK scores updated on Thursday in the wake of the update, Searchmetrics scrapes US search results on a Sunday. Therefore, our American numbers reflect a earlier stage of the algorithm update roll-out. There are undoubted trends in the US data, and correlation with our UK findings, but it may be too soon to draw long-term conclusions.

Losers: tabloid newspapers

Hot off the presses: four of the five biggest net losses were national newspaper websites. Two were red tops – The Mirror and The Sun, which respectively lost 27% and 21% of their organic search  visibility. They were joined by Mail Online and the Daily Express, which both saw a 20% fall in their visibility score. The Daily Record placed 25th in our list of losers, with a 24% drop in visibility.

In our era of fake news and fact checks, Google has tired of tabloid journalism – or at least how it translates onto the web. Newspaper sites use clickbait and keyword stuffing to lure users to thin content with intrusive adverts galore. Notably, BuzzFeed also saw a 30% drop, and they are wont to try similar techniques. These sites all dropped visibility in the USA, too, with all but The Sun amongst the 100 biggest losers across the Atlantic.

In short, these publishers need to clean up their acts if they want to make the right sort of headlines.

A screenshot of an article on The Sun newspaper website about British Summer Time, with three keywords stuffed into the headline.

Love it or hate it, it’s hard to believe this is the same paper whose front page once exclaimed “FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER”.

Winners: digital-savvy publishers

Conversely, it was reassuring to see quality publishers amongst the UK’s clearest beneficiaries of the recent algorithm update.

Some of these publishers were digital natives, including (the aptly-named) Digital Trends and The Verge, each growing 54% from the previous week’s score. Likewise, TechCrunch saw a 24% boost in visibility in the week following the update. But, many publishers with large ranking increases were traditional print titles which have kept apace with digital transformation. British winners include Wired UK (+25%), The Guardian (+11%), and FT.com – a RocketMill client, no less – which saw its SEO visibility score on Searchmetrics rise 14% week-on-week.

A graph from SearchMetrics showing steady growth in FT.com's organic search visibility since March 2016.

It was a surprise to see huge American domains amongst the UK winners, with The Washington Post and The New York Times growing by an average of 34% in the UK. Cosmopolitan.com appears on both the UK and US winner lists, with Searchmetrics ignoring its country-specific subdirectories and scoring the domain as a whole.

The Guardian is the only solely UK-centric site amongst the top 100 domains in the US, with the 12th greatest net increase on their previous week’s score. (BBC.com, the ad-supported version of the Beeb’s website, was the 74th biggest grower in the US with a 3% rise against last week.)

There are two takeaways here. Firstly, Google is rewarding quality editorial with an excellent user experience. Secondly, those geographic outliers may settle in time, but we can draw a conclusion about the power of domain consolidation: of these six successful publishers, only Wired operates separate .co.uk and .com properties.

Losers: dictionaries & song lyrics

Do you remember when Google’s motto was “don’t be evil”? Tell that to the owners of dictionary and lyric sites, which make up 11 of the 100 biggest losers in American search results.

Searches for [define X] or [X lyrics] return a featured snippet on desktop search results, with user needs fulfilled by the results page with no need to click through to a website. So, having scraped content collated on the dictionary and lyric sites and shared in good faith, it seems Google may have demoted their visibility in organic search.

Featured Snippets for the Google search queries "define ostentatious" and "hey jude lyrics".

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na… Hey Google! What gives?

Evidence for the dictionary sites is inconclusive: Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries saw visibility decline between 1% and 3% in the US, which is a low signal-to-noise threshold in the context of this research. However, The Free Dictionary felt an 11% fall in visibility in the US, and a 20% drop in the UK, which supports my theory. Searching for [free dictionary] sans definite article promotes Google’s dictionary above the all but name-checked lexicon.

An interesting side note is the growth of Urban Dictionary. In contrast with more traditional counterparts, their UK visibility jumped by almost a third. I presume Google does not want to surface definitions for yada yada yada, Cheese Touch and bruh.

Searchmetrics data shows a distinct drop in visibility for lyric sites. Songfacts.com, WhoSampled.com and Musixmatch.com fell between 19% and 24% versus last week in the US. Well-known rival services also suffered, with MetroLyrics.com and LyricsFreak.com declining 14–15% across the pond. AllMusic – the most visible of all these sites as a raw metric – dropped 6% week-on-week.

The sad takeaway for marketers is: prevent your service becoming a commodity.

Winners: streaming video networks

Back in Blighty, our biggest overall gain was enjoyed by… YouTube.  The Google-owned video streaming social network enjoyed a 13% rise in its UK visibility, taking its Searchmetrics score to 8.2m. This makes YouTube the second-most visible site in the UK behind Wikipedia, at just over half of the encyclopedia’s 15.2m total visibility.

While YouTube’s success is predictable, you might be surprised to learn that its streaming video competitor Dailymotion increased its visibility by 31% last week, more than twice as fast as its main rival. (I’ll admit, Dailymotion has a lot more room to grow than YouTube!)

As a marketer, recognise the importance of leveraging this growth. It is easy to be sucked into finessing your website in pursuit of higher rankings, but YouTube represents another owned channel with colossal domain authority. Piggyback off the success of the streaming sites by publishing relevant video content to rank for keywords that might seem beyond your reach. Then, use paid and organic marketing on YouTube to funnel the streamers your way.

Other trends

Here are some other themes from our analysis of both first-party and third-party data:

  • Searchmetrics mobile data updates monthly, while its desktop scores update weekly, so it’s difficult to draw direct comparisons at this stage.
  • Our client with the greatest percentage increase in organic performance versus our projection is undergoing a huge content-led restructure. While the recency of this activity means we can’t attribute the success to algorithmic fluctuation, it is a reminder not to be fearful of a well-planned and well-executed migration.
  • Three clients with touchpoints in the financial sector have recorded significant growth against forecast, with larger fluctations than other sectors we monitor. This is great news for them, and us, and perhaps indicative of greater-than-average ranking variation for financial brands.
  • When analysing your own performance, remember to factor in seasonality and spikes. For example, the following chart of organic traffic from Google to one of our clients’ websites suggests a sizeable drop against forecast (the bottom graph) since the Google update (the grey dashed line). But, the raw data (the top graph) shows a spike in traffic a couple of weeks ago – caused by #BeastFromTheEast. Now the snow has melted, the traffic has gone away, with no algorithmic involvement.

Three graphs showing the cumulative impact on a website's organic traffic since the Google update, skewed by a major weather event in early March.

Update: April 2018

Just over a month after Google confirmed the broad core update, webmasters reported their suspicions of a new change to the Google algorithm in April 2018. Official confirmation from Google arrived on the evening of 20th April:

RocketMill has analysed the latest Searchmetrics data for UK websites, published four days after those initial suppositions. We found that of the 20 domains with greatest improvement in visibility last week, 10 were amongst the biggest losers from the initial update. Domains including express.co.uk (+12%), mirror.co.uk (+8.2%), and thesun.co.uk (+5.9%) benefited from growth in organic visibility last week, though not to the levels enjoyed prior to the original broad core update in March.

Our conclusion is the April 2018 update was a partial rollback of the original Google broad core algorithm update.

A graph from Searchmetrics showing The Express, The Mirror and The Sun increasing their organic search visibility on 19th April 2018.

What goes down can come up: The Express, The Mirror and The Sun increased their SEO visibility by 6–12% between 12th and 19th April (but they’re all still down versus March).

Rounding up

As SEO consultants have come to expect, the latest Google algorithm changes rolled out with little fanfare and negligible acknowledgement. We are left to dive deep into our data to identify the websites and verticals with most reason to celebrate, or reset.

Our analysis should remind publishers to practice good copywriting built upon sound technical and UX foundations. It must also prompt marketers to define a genuine USP to avoid commoditisation in our fractured search landscape.

RocketMill are pleased to have helped our clients grow their organic search traffic, or at least weather the storm. If you’re reading this piece as a casualty of the core update, heed our advice (which aligns closely with Google’s sentiments), and get in touch to use the full marketing mix to protect your business from algorithm updates beyond its control.