One of our first articles of the New Year actually looks at what we have just left behind, and that will massively influence the work of all those who have a website and seek visibility on search engines. We do an overview of everything that affected the algorithms of Google during 2020, remembering the various core updates (and minor ones) and focusing on the big news coming, namely the passage indexing and page experience update, so we can be prepared at our best.

Google algorithms, news of 2020

It has not been a slow year for Google’s search algorithms, summarizes Barry Schwartz on Search Engine Land, despite the pandemic that marked 2020, which will remain for everyone “the year that brought introspection, slowed people down and made them focus less on business and more on family”.

The “business, however, must continue” and so did the SEO, in the wake of the many updates and announcements coming from Google – after all, quantity and quality not dissimilar from the algorithmic changes of 2019: from classic broad core updates to advances in machine learning efforts with BERT, from passage indexing to the upcoming Google Page Experience to the inevitable minor and unconfirmed algorithmic changes, The activity of the Googlers has been truly intense even in these particular months.

The 3 broad core updates of 2020

January, May and December: last year were these months when Google decided to give a jolt to its SERPs (and the entire SEO community) launching its broad core update

  • January 2020 Core Update. 2020 had just begun when Google started its first basic update, the January 2020 Core Update, which began to be implemented on January 13, 2020 and completed the rollout in a short time, already after a few days (while, generally, basic updates take two weeks to be complete permanently). Like almost all other broad core updates, the January 2020 update was huge and had an impact on many sites.
  • May 2020 Core Update. At the height of the first phase of the pandemic – a bit surprising, perhaps – came the second basic algorithmic update, released on May 4 and completed on May 18. The May 2020 Core Update was bigger than the previous one, so much so that Schwartz defines it as an “absolute monster“.
  • December 2020 Core Update. We come to a more recent history: after seven months of “silence”, last December 3 Google released a new update, right after the shopping period for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but before the great season of sales for the holidays at the end of the year, and this timeliness has irritated (and affected) many in the industry. The effects of the December 2020 Core Update were intense and there were various and big spikes in several stages until December 16, the day Google announced the end of the rollout.

The evolution of Google’s algorithms

As we know, the broad core update is just a part of Google’s daily work to update and improve its search algorithms – one in which it gives a scrambled to its rankings in the light of new qualitative parameters or changes in the search intent.

During 2020, in particular, the effort started in 2019 on Google BERT, which now expands to all queries (at least for the English language), while initially it spoke of its impact on about 10% of all queries, and covers many areas, including verification of stories with fact-checking.

Moreover, Google “stated in an event that BERT helped improve by 7% search results on specific queries” and revealed that “efforts to integrate BERT into the search were codenamed DeepRank, a project that Google has perhaps begun as early as 2017″

Passage indexing, the indexing of content passages among SERPs

One of the most disruptive announcements – also due to the scarcity of information actually provided – arrived during the Google Search On event: shortly, the search engine algorithm will be able to “locate specific content passages on a page and rank those individual parts of the page in Google Search”.

This novelty, called by Google passage indexing should “help pages that are not well optimized for search” and will not change “the way Google indexes content, but rather the way it will rank that content” (and therefore it would be more correct to define it passage ranking, as noted by Schwartz).

Ranking of content passages, what we know so far

According to the anticipations, the passage indexing should affect about “7% of search queries in all languages once implemented globally” and sparked the SEO community, expected the release of this update in SERP as early as 2020 – and therefore should be now imminent – especially for the potential effects on the ranking of pages.

Not much details have been provided on how the rating system will work or how these steps will look like that Google will “dig up” on broader content (and probably less focused than the user’s specific query); recently, however, Danny Sullivan responded to several solicitations from Barry Schwartz himself and made a few things clear.

The Public Liaison for the Search has in fact explained that the indexing of the passages “will not change the look of the results” – that therefore they will have regular and not widened snippets, like the featured snippets (partially contradicting the image shown as a preview during Search On) – and confirmed that “it will only concern the ranking” of “pages that previously Google did not classify”. This is because Google’s algorithms now “are able to understand content better and deeper even within longer web page content”.

It is, ultimately, another “simple ranking mechanism that we will use to identify and show the most relevant pages for a search”, without aesthetic differences compared to the results to which we are accustomed (which concern the entire content).

Page Experience Update and Core Web Vitals

In May 2020, Google officially spoke for the first time about Core Web Vitals, or the signals useful to measure the level of user experience provided by a site; after a few weeks came a rather significant announcement, that the same Core Web Vitals would have been part (along with “a number of signals including old factors, such as mobile friendly pages, loading speed, HTTPS protocol, severity against intrusive interstitial ads) of the Google Page Experience, a new complex ranking factor used by algorithms that, at least initially, will be applied only to mobile rankings and not to desktop ones.

We have explored the scope of this update several times – whose official debut is expected in May – which invites us to put users at the center of the work of site optimization: in addition to the new weight for technical factors such as loading, interactivity and visual stability, the update will lead to other changes in SERP, and in particular will open to all sites (and not only to AMP pages) the possibility of appearing in the carousel of Featured News and will ensure a “visual indicator” (not yet revealed) pages that have optimal scores for these signals.

Other Google’s changes in 2020

Barry Schwartz’s article also traces several different algorithm changes, updates, tweaks or bugs that were also very much present during the year.

First, there were several “unconfirmed Google algorithm updates, some of which seemed super large and some of which were later confirmed”. Then, in August “Google found a bug with its search results that also messed things up for a while, followed by a bug related to local search that Google confirmed”.

The news list also includes:

  • Advances in language understanding with artificial intelligence, including “a new spelling algorithm, the ability to index individual specific steps from Web pages, and new techniques to help people find a wider range of results“.
  • Updates to Google Maps, including “real-time information expansion on peak times (busyness) and details on health and safety precautions related to COVID-19 companies”. In addition, “in the near future users will be able to find information about a restaurant, shop or business in Live View using AR”.
  • Can users “use the microphone icon in the Google search bar or the Wizard to ask what this song is? or find a song, or start humming for 10-15 seconds to get results for that song”.
  • New features for “Lens and Augmented Reality in Google Search to discover (and even apply styles) products while users browse online”. Thanks to augmented reality, Google allows users to virtually experience retail showrooms, including the ability to virtually test a car or make-up products.
  • Lastly, the “Duplex technology now calls on companies to automatically update useful details such as store schedules and take-away options on Search and Maps”. Google revealed that in 2020 “Duplex has been used to bring more than three million updates to companies such as pharmacies, restaurants and grocery stores that have been viewed over 20 billion times in Maps and Research”.

What to expect from Google in 2021

The article closes with some evaluation of what we can expect in the coming months on the research front. First of all, the eyes are already pointed towards May and the start of the Google Page Experience, but even before it should debut, as said, “the change of the indexing of the steps”.

In addition, in March the mobile-first index switch will be completed which, although not technically “a modification of the classification algorithm, could bring classification changes based on changes to indexing” pages.

But Barry Schwartz advises us to “expect more: other core updates, so you need to create content and websites able to survive these updates; other advances in understanding languages and queries; other changes to the Search, with the aim of improving relevance“.

Ultimately, advises the author, “expects and even embraces change, because that’s what Ees do best: adapt and anticipate change“.


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