As a local business, you may not have time to pay close attention to the goings-on at Google. However, changes in Google’s search engine algorithms can affect businesses across the globe, including mom and pop businesses right here in Lancaster County. If any portion of your new customers find your business via an internet search, then your business can be impacted whenever Google makes a change. In this article we’ll summarize what Google’s algorithm changes are and what they mean for your business.

First – the basics

Why do Google updates matter? They matter because Google’s algorithms control what appears in search results. So, if a local consumer types “hardware store near me” into Google, Google decides whether or not your hardware store’s website appears in the list of results and, if it does appear, how high on the list. Google’s algorithms change frequently, many times per year. So, while your hardware store might have appeared at the top of the list last time you checked, it might not appear that high on the list after a Google update. Appearing high on the list of search results is important because most consumers don’t scroll past the first page of search results.

There are two types of Google updates, regular updates and core updates. Regular updates are generally unheralded in the mainstream press and have smaller impacts on specific types of searches. Regular updates happen frequently. An example of a regular update was an April 2021 update for search results for product reviews. That type of update would only affect sites that have product reviews, like e-commerce sites. Google also regularly does spam updates to attempt to keep junk websites from appearing in searches.

The other type of update is a core update. Core updates only happen a few times a year. Core updates are broad in scope and affect most types of searches. An important Google blog post about core updates can be found here and it is definitely worth a read. As Google explains in that blog post, their focus is on high quality, original, trustworthy content when determining which sites will outrank other sites in search. Google is continually assessing the content of every website to determine if it is relevant, valuable, and useful to searchers. In Google’s perfect world, every time a user searches for something, Google would provide the perfect website as the first result.

Google uses the acronym E-A-T to summarize how it identifies quality websites: E-A-T stands for Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness.

• Expertise – Google has different expertise requirements for different types of content. For example, a site that has product reviews from ordinary users can rank highly for expertise since these users, even though they don’t have expert credentials, can be considered experts because they have used the product. However, for YMYL sites (Your Money or Your Life) the standards are higher. YMYL sites are focused on content such as health, news, safety, law, finance, and shopping. Google has higher expectations for YMYL sites and will look for site authors to have relevant credentials.

• Authority – Google assesses your site’s authority by looking for links to your site from other sites, as well as mentions of your site on other sites. If your site’s content is widely cited and shared by other sites that’s an indication to Google that your site has authority.

• Trust – Google assesses trust by noting several attributes on your site, such as: privacy policy, terms of service including refunds and exchanges, clear contact information, product specifications (if applicable), product reviews (if applicable), and positive reviews on other sites.

Overall, if you think about the content on your own site from an E-A-T perspective, you’ll have a clear lens through which to assess whether your site’s content meets Google’s definition of quality.

Because Google is always trying to make search results more relevant for users, it needs to do regular updates to its algorithms. So if your store’s website dropped down in search results after a Google update, it’s because something in your website’s content or metadata is no longer considered by Google to be as relevant to that particular search as it used to be. This is actually a good thing in the long run because the more relevant Google’s search results are to users, the more users will trust Google to provide the right information. This means that when your business’s website appears in a Google search results page, consumers will trust that your business will satisfy the need they searched for. However, as you’ll read in the paragraphs ahead, Google’s updates don’t always work perfectly or predictably.

The best way to increase the likelihood that your business’s site appears in relevant searches is to pay continual attention to your site’s search performance. This is called Search Engine Optimization (SEO). You can read more about SEO here and here. Most small to medium sized businesses do not have the resources for an in-house SEO expert. If this is the case for your business, then you should invest in a shared SEO expert through contracting with a Lancaster County digital agency such as LNP Media Group. While an SEO expert cannot 100% “future proof” your site against Google algorithm changes, an SEO expert will stay on top of Google algorithm changes and will help your site respond appropriately. This will make your site “future responsive” and help your site achieve and maintain good organic search placement over the years.

What changes after updates?

Google does not directly state the detail of changes in their core updates, but resources like Search Engine Journal and SEM Rush publish articles with observations and information from SEO experts. Reviewing multiple such sources revealed the following list of significant changes and impacts from updates.

1. Volatility – Many experts report that there has been significant volatility in search rankings (and thus in traffic generated by searches) after core updates. Experts have indicated that some sites may have gained traffic after a core update, only to lose it after the another core update, or vice versa. This is because every update may have unintended consequences in search results which, as they become apparent, may require a correction in a succeeding update. If your site’s organic traffic has experienced a sharp dip or boost, it may be because of this post-update volatility. Consult your local SEO expert to understand the specific factors that may be in play on your site.

2. Certain types of sites were more affected than others – According to SEM Rush, Google core updates affect almost all industries. However, some industries are uusually slightly more affected than others. If your business is in an YMYL category, your website is more likely to experience search/traffic volatility than other types of sites. Generally speaking, Google is especially cautious about content on health, medical and financial sites because searches that produce links to spammy health, medical or financial sites can have a significant negative impact on users. When just looking at the mobile web, sites that are in other industries like real estate, people/society, and beauty/fitness may also experience increased volatility in search rankings after core updates. The specific reason behind this mobile web volatility for certain industries that are not YMYL is not clear. If your site has been affected, consult a local digital agency for an SEO consultation.

3. Certain sized sites may be more affected than others – In 2021, also according to SEM Rush, sites with small to medium sized traffic (500k or fewer views per month) were more affected by the core updates than large sites in some core updates. That was relevant to Lancaster PA businesses because most businesses in our area will have sites with small to medium amounts of traffic. However, other core updates in 2023, for example, did not seem to affect sites by size. Again, check with your local SEO expert to understand the impact of core updates each year.

4. Sites with common content – Sites that publish content that is readily available on other sites (think song lyrics, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and business directories) may experience more volatility than other types of sites as a result of Google core updates. This is because the identical nature of the content makes it hard for Google to determine which sites should rank higher. Although this should not be an issue for local Pennsylvania business sites, a solution to this issue is to always add unique, relevant, value-added content to any pages that have commonly available content.

5. Reviews – Google releases updates focusing on sites with reviews. and as-of 2023 “reviews” includes not just product reviews, but any type of review. In essence, these types of updates are intended to reward sites that have high-quality, relevant reviews, and penalize sites with thin or negative reviews. However, the concept of a “thin” review does not relate to word count, it relates to quality. Reviews, ideally, should be written by named authors who have expertise in the products or services they are reviewing. The reviews should be original, helpful, personal, and insightful. Google’s review updates may penalize sites that over-use affiliate links and that have a lot of ads on their review pages. This is because Google has accurately determined that users don’t like being overwhelmed by monetization strategies while they are in an information-gathering phase of their shopping journey. You can read more about review updates here.

6. People Also Ask – Have you ever done a search and found, just below the first few results, a box that says “People Also Ask” with several questions underneath, all related to your search? That is Google’s People Also Ask (PAA) feature, which was introduced in 2015 and has expanded into over half of search results pages, according to SEM Rush. PAA is Google’s way of refining searches, by letting you see related terms/questions other searchers are using. If you click on a PAA box, it will expand and you’ll see a short answer. Google’s core updates continue the expansion of PAA into more searches. Worth noting is that Google has stated that requests from businesses to update/remove information in PAA boxes will take longer than other types of update/removal requests. This is because the PAA results are more “indirectly” sourced. The details on this seem scant, but you (or your SEO expert) should pay attention to PAA results as they relate to your business’s website.

7. Less country code top level domain crowding – Country code domain crowding is when several search results have the same domain name listed multiple times but with different international country code extensions. This can happen when an international company has multiple sites with the same top level domain name, but different country codes extensions such as .ca, .uk, .rs, etc. For local businesses in Lancaster PA, this is not an area of concern, but it’s worth noting that Google’s core updates have made this less of an issue for users overall. Conceivably, this could result in a Lancaster County business’s site moving up on the page because there should be fewer repeated international domains taking multiple positions on the page.

8. The impact of page experience – While Google pays some attention to user experience when determining rankings, content is more important. If your site is mobile-friendly, loads quickly, is secured (using HTTPS instead of HTTP), and doesn’t have disruptive interstitial ads, then your site most likely qualifies as having a good user experience. Google will use page experience as a tiebreaker when determining how to rank several sites with equivalent content. As always, your local Lancaster SEO expert can help you make changes in these areas if needed.

Closing thoughts

With Google frequently changing how it evaluates and ranks sites, what is a Lancaster County business owner to do about keeping up with and responding to these changes? The best approach is to keep a consistent focus on providing a great user experience. As a site owner, you need to understand what your users want and then deliver it to them. For example, most users now visit websites via their phones, so making sure that your website offers a great mobile experience is critical. You also need to ensure that your site navigation is clear and that there are no deadend pages (404 errors) to frustrate users. Put the time and effort into populating your site’s pages with useful, honest, clear content that provides value to your users.

And, finally, if this all seems too much to worry about while also running your business, consider contacting LNP Media Group for SEO services. SEO is a long-horizon project and requires expertise with Google’s ever changing rules. SEO does not have a payout within a week, it pays out over the course of six months and longer. This is a long term investment that pays off when new customers find your business again and again at the top of a crowded Google search results page.