The Google Algorithm in 2019: Year in Review

Forget Brexit, the UK general election and Donald Trump, the Google algorithm was a lot more unstable in 2019.

From regular core algorithm refreshes to Google actually pre-announcing updates before they roll out, the last 12 months has been eventful for digital marketers everywhere.

This is nothing new of course, as 2018 was one of the biggest algorithm shakeup years, with the introduction of a Mobile-First Index, Mobile Speed update and the ruthless E-A-T/Medic update, which still has webmasters licking their wounds as we close out 2019.

As we enter a new decade, let’s first recap the year that was. Below are some of the highs and lows of the last 12 months in Google’s algorithm.

2019 Google Core updates

Several Core updates were released throughout the year. These varied in severity and significance, but all of them left their mark.

March 2019 Core Update — March 12, 2019

The first Google Update of 2019 was rolled out on 12th March 2019, as confirmed by Google a few days later on Twitter:

This caused substantial disturbance in the search results, as several sites were affected which had previously seen improvements or losses in the August 2018 Medic/E-A-T/YMYL update.

Sistrix believed the March 2019 Core Algorithm Update was a rollback on the August 2018 overhaul. Their UK winners and loser data showed that 75% of the winners were previous losers, which could confirm their theory.

However, later insights revealed that while numerous expertise, authority, and trust signals were tweaked, this was not an update that affected only medical sites.

Search Engine Land has a great article here with more info on the update and crucially, stories of recovery.

This update was the first time Google began naming their Core Updates, as Danny Sullivan explained:

Google typically stayed away from naming algorithm updates, so this was a refreshing change. What next, will Google start pre-announcing algorithm updates before they rollout? Ha, don’t be ridiculous.

June 2019 Core Update — June 3, 2019

On 2ndJune Google pre-announced the June 2019 Core Update:

A day later the search engine confirmed the update was live:

Who saw that coming?!

In all seriousness, pre-announcing algorithm updates like this is a massive help to webmasters, as outlined in the later Google Algorithm Pre-Announcementssection.

Pre-announcements aside, what actually happened? Well, this is where things get a little confusing, as the Core June 2019 update (3rd-8th June) overlapped with the diversity update (4th-6th June).

The effect was significant, with worldwide publications like the Daily Mail and CCN sharing how badly they were affected during this period.

Rank Ranger had some interesting insights on the June 2019 algorithm impact here and even compared the March Core update to the June Core update.

Unfortunately, Google didn’t explain what they changed with the June update and shared the following pearls of wisdom:

So, while the pre-announcement was a refreshing change to algorithm protocol from Google, the details of the update remained typically vague.

September 2019 Core Update — September 24, 2019

This was the second consecutive time that Google pre-announced a core update on Twitter

Sistrix shared their data results and summarised that the update was “once again, affecting health sites. There are also examples of media sites being affected. In Germany and Spain, we’ve seen some examples from the travel industry”

While heavily affected in the June 2019 Core Update, the Daily Mail recovered significant visibility according to Sistrix:

Examples such as this once again led webmasters to thinking this was another rollback on previous algorithm changes.

Search Engine Land aggregated the thoughts and findings of many outlets, concluding that the refresh apepared ‘weaker’ than the June Core update:

November 2019 Update – November 7-8, 2019

From the 7th to the 8th of November, webmasters reported massive changes in search engine rankings. This prompted Google to reluctantly admit a change had happened in the algorithm. However, unlike the friendly pre-announcement tweets, their response was rather combative:

These prickly tweets continued in a thread:

A former SEO Consultant at Search Metrics, Kevin Indig, referred to the November Update as “aggressive”, likening it to the first Penguin Update in 2012.

So, even though Google did not pre-announce this algorithm update, and even though they claimed it was one of several regular refreshes, it had a significant effect across the web.

Google BERT Update  

BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) was released on 22nd October 2019 and evaluates the full context of a keyword by considering the words before and after it.

This allows Google to understand the intent behind a query and better satisfy users who search more conversational terms.

In this article, Google gives an example of this in action, with a searcher looking for information on visas when travelling from Brazil to the US.

“The word “to” and its relationship to the other words in the query are particularly important to understanding the meaning. It’s about a Brazilian traveling to the U.S., and not the other way around.”

They continue “Previously, our algorithms wouldn’t understand the importance of this connection, and we returned results about U.S. citizens traveling to Brazil. With BERT, Search is able to grasp this nuance and know that the very common word “to” actually matters a lot here, and we can provide a much more relevant result for this query”

Google claim that the BERT update as “the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.”

On the 9thDecember, Google tweeted that the BERT update was now rolling out across 70 languages worldwide:

BERT promises to be as big of a shakeup in the algorithm as the August 2018 Medic update was. We expect to see several refinements and iteration updates on BERT over the next 12 months, as Google better understands language and queries within search.

Google Algorithm Pre-Announcements

As touched on earlier, along with the June 2019 Core Update, Google surprised everyone by formally pre-announcing the algorithm changes via their Search LiaisonTwitter account.

Google later claimed that this would likely be an ongoing occurrence moving forwards:

Source – Search Engine Roundtable

If this is true, and the pre-announcements do continue into 2020, this would be a huge help to site owners everywhere. Having enough warning before an update rolls out, allows webmasters to prepare their data and websites accordingly.

I strongly believe the more transparent Google is with their algorithm details, the better the job webmasters will do adhering to their requirements.

“Focus on building great content” is fine advice, but the lack of specifics on this, and other advice they give, can lead to misplaced assumptions and expectations.

If Google said “this update affected X, go and work on your X” more often, the web would be in a much healthier place as site owners could focus on and improve required areas without ambiguity.

Personally, I have my own theories why Google started pre-announcing these changes and why I don’t think it will continue, despite what they said. You can read more about these in the next section.

To Index, Or Not To Index?

Whisper it quietly, but Google made some self-imposed mistakes this year with their algorithm.

During spring of 2019, they had several bugs within their index that massively affected the way they crawled the web. This resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of websites losing organic traffic and visibility for several days.

The cynics amongst us could speculate that suddenly pre-announcing algorithm updates just a few weeks later (for the first time ever!) was a sorry in disguise. But that’s none of our business.

Deindexing Bug — 5th April 2019

Google dominates the search engine marketplace with a 88.47% market share, as of April 2019, so when they start dropping pages inadvertently from their search index, it’s big news.

So what happened? Well, in typical Google fashion, they were quite vague. Webmasters initially noticed something wrong with their indexed webpages on 5thApril, with Google responding two days later:

According to Moz, 4% of the Google index was hit by this bug – a substantial figure!

Additionally, the fact it took Google several days to fix and resolve the issue is another indication of its severity:  

The clearest explanation we got was when Google added to their ‘Data anomalies in Search Console’ that “Because of internal management of our Search index, some pages of your websites might have been dropped from our index for a period of a few days without any action on your part. The matter has been resolved, no further action from your side is needed.”

Will we ever know the true extent of the bug and what caused it? Probably not. We can just hope it never happens again. Oh, hang on…

More Indexing Bugs — 22nd May 2019

SURPRISE! More indexing bugs in 2019, and not just one this time, but two!

On 22ndMay Google tweeted the following from their Google Webmasters account:

This was quickly followed up with a resolution tweet a few hours later:

All good, right? Nothing to see here. However, this wasn’t the end of the story, as a indexing issue was announced just a day later:

Once more this was followed up with a resolution tweet, however this came 2 whole days later:

As you can imagine, given this recent indexing bug trend, webmasters were unhappy having to deal with the loss of organic traffic, revenue, conversions, rankings etc through no fault of their own and they were quick to voice their annoyance when replying to these tweets:

So, for those keeping count, that’s three indexation bugs over the span of 6 weeks, affecting the traffic and visibility thousands of websites.

This was shortly followed by Google starting to pre-announce their algorithm updates for the first time ever. But as we said, that’s none of our business.

There we have it, an eventful Google Algorithm in 2019: Year in Review, right? So, how did your site fare over a busy last 12 months and are you in the best shape possible as we enter the New Year? Speak to Salience today and with our help, you’ll go roaring into the 20’s!

Related – 7 SEO Predictions for 2020