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Google core algorithm update: brand terms

Google core algorithm update: brand terms

Over the weekend we saw an incredibly big shuffle in Google search results. I wrote about it earlier this week, as we were researching what happened. I’ll be honest: we’re still researching. But let me update you on what we know and don’t know about this Google core algorithm update.

What we know

We know a few things about this update now. Despite all the promises about a Google Penguin update early this year, this is not it. It’s also not Google Panda. But there’s news about Google Panda anyway, which I’ve written a separate post on:

Read more: ‘Google Panda part of Google’s core algorithm’ »

How we know that this is not Penguin or Panda? Googler Gary Ilyes said so. New Google star Zineb Ait tweeted that this update didn’t have a name but was “just one of the frequent quality updates” (in French).

What did this Google core algorithm update change?

So… What changed? We don’t know. The changes are… Weird. We’ve been using a couple of datasets to look at this update, but most of all we’re looking at SearchMetrics. They publish a list of winners and losers every week and this week the changes seem to have happened mostly for news sites, specifically for brand terms. For instance, check this list of the keywords that the biggest loser in the US, the Atlantic, lost its position for:

Keywords the Atlantic lost traffic for

Almost all of these are brand terms.

Bartosz has written a good post (with tons of interesting screenshots if you don’t have access to SearchMetrics), that touches on some of the things I had seen too. He calls it a “brand bidding update”, which I don’t think is right. I do agree with him that the change was in the type of results that Google shows for brand queries. The switch seems to have been from news articles to more “timeless” URLs.

Slugs and/or site structure?

You won’t believe this, and it’s a correlation only (so don’t say I’ve said this is true), but I’m seeing a high correlation between the keyword(s) being the first word(s) of the slug (the URL) and the ranking. It can’t be that simple though. It’s very possible it has to do with a better site structure for the winners versus the losers. Some of the biggest winners are category URLs on sites that have good optimization for their categories and good internal linking, like Mashable. So… This might be a good time to revisit your Category SEO tactics:

Read more: ‘Using category and tag pages for your site’s SEO’ »

Visibility impacted, but traffic?

SearchMetrics (and many similar tools) calculate a score based on the amount of traffic for a specific term and the position you’re ranking on. The idea is that if you rank, for instance, #3 for a term, you’ll receive a certain proportion of the traffic for that term. This is a very valuable way of looking at a site as a site’s visibility score usually has a high correlation to a site’s traffic.

The problem with this visibility score is when searches are mostly navigational. For instance, we rank in the top 7 for [[google analytics], but we get close to 0 traffic for that term. The reason is that 99.9% of people searching for [[google analytics], actually want to go to Google Analytics.

This means that the actual changes in terms of traffic for this update, even though the changes in visibility are huge, will differ highly per term and will, very often, be negligible. This is in my opinion something in the SearchMetrics visibility score that has to be changed, and something I’ve discussed with my good friend (and SearchMetrics founder and CTO) Marcus Tober before.


The impact of this Google core algorithm update in terms of search results and visibility was huge, the impact on actual traffic might not be as big. There are definitely things we’ll need to figure out over the coming weeks / months though, like what the importance of site structure and URLs are. Interesting times!


23 Responses to Google core algorithm update: brand terms

  1. Paul
    By Paul on 24 January, 2016

    Seen the same on many sites, most positive but some odd drops. Looking forward to another update.

  2. Christian Junius
    By Christian Junius on 21 January, 2016

    Thanks for the post.

    I am very interested in the results of further investigations. Fortunately, our website has made a leap upwards …

  3. Eric Folts
    By Eric Folts on 20 January, 2016

    Good to know! We’ve recently seen some unexpected dips in rankings, eager to see how this update pans out.

  4. Kamalesh
    By Kamalesh on 19 January, 2016

    Thanks for your insights on this weird google core algorithm update. This really has a great impact on rankings globally. Please keep posting more updates as I can see huge changes in my website rankings. It is silent and robust update which puts webmasters fall thinking.

  5. Praveen Kumar
    By Praveen Kumar on 19 January, 2016

    Thanks for your information.. I just learned things that I don’t know about SEO…. I keep visiting your site again..

  6. Andrea Lekies
    By Andrea Lekies on 16 January, 2016

    Thank you for the article. I have a question about the slug/url: We have some old url´s from the time before using yoast. They are too long but rank well for important keywords. I´m afraid I loose that if I delete the old url. Shall I keep the old (and too long) ones? Or should I rename them and use a redirect?

    Thank you, regards, Andrea

  7. Richard Aucock
    By Richard Aucock on 15 January, 2016

    Such valuable info – appreciate your analysis and insight!

  8. Michael Vittori
    By Michael Vittori on 15 January, 2016

    Since 12th January, I’ve noticed big changes and fluctuation in Google Italy serps. I’m talking about very competitive queries, like tourism related. It’s like a shake, similar to old Google Dance. Reading your interesting post, I’m thinking about that Google is trying to understand and rank well websites for some competitive queries. What did you see in USA, Joost?

  9. Philippe
    By Philippe on 15 January, 2016

    Great to know this, high time I optimize my category landing pages!

  10. ahmed
    By ahmed on 15 January, 2016

    hi … there was a huge changes in my target keywords an the first page has shown more linkes from the news
    and i have url from my website has completely panned from search result after the url arrive to 2 page
    i don’t know why and there is no msg from google in search concel
    any way thanks for the post .. i’m waiting for your plugin update

  11. Jamal Hosseini
    By Jamal Hosseini on 15 January, 2016

    Even some Google employees don’t really understand everything that’s happening with the web’s most dominant search engine…

    • Corinthias P.M. Sianipar
      By Corinthias P.M. Sianipar on 22 January, 2016

      The term “employees” does not necessarily mean the ones who have the responsibility of developing any algorithm behind the Google engine. Someone may ask anyone at Google and says that he/she has asked Google’s “employees”.
      In fact, the Non-Disclosure Agreement at Google will always be the very basis for anyone at Google (even ones who handle the algorithm) to say that they “know nothing” about the engine.
      On the other hand, Google engine combines excessively huge relations of algorithms, making it nearly impossible to learn the engine’s exact behavior.
      Thus, just enjoy the show, pal!

      Cheers. :)

  12. Janmejai
    By Janmejai on 15 January, 2016

    Most of the impacted urls, are the popular ones and brands.

  13. Sagar Ganatra
    By Sagar Ganatra on 15 January, 2016

    It Might be new algorithm because from News Update Google Search Pattern will Change.All Paid Ads you will in Google Sidebars and Negative space. Organic part will be less.
    Sagar Ganatra

  14. Michelle Sanchez
    By Michelle Sanchez on 15 January, 2016

    We’ve seen thin competitor sites that happen to have the keyword in the slug outranking ours recently, despite the sites being poorly written with low domain authority. We’ve been trying to put our finger on why this could be; wonder if it comes down to url.

    • Dennis
      By Dennis on 17 January, 2016

      Content is only part of the equation while domain authority can’t be relied on, for example if someone builds link from a private blog network and the crawlers from Majestic, Moz, Ahrefs are blocked on the sites that are part of the network than you won’t see the DA (domain authority) increase as it’s all hidden for Moz and others.

      They could’ve a lot more links than you think they have!

  15. Nirav Dave
    By Nirav Dave on 15 January, 2016

    Hey Joost,

    Great Post. I have a question,

    For a long time I have been reading contradicting solutions on the internet where people are suggest not to have tag & category pages at all as they are considered to be duplicate content. What’s your take on this? Are tag and category pages good or bad for SEO? If they are good, then what are those important factors which needs to be considered or implemented on such page so that your site is not penalised in anyway.


    • Gani
      By Gani on 18 January, 2016

      Actually, to make a page as SEO friendly the primary keyword should be placed near the top level domain(in case of static page), that is why category/tag is not permissible. Whereas in dynamic web page, category is undeniable. And for that different strategy should be followed.
      Possibly your site will not be penalized if you use them, I suppose ;)

  16. Nicholas Dutko
    By Nicholas Dutko on 15 January, 2016

    I was wondering what happened to my sites because I have started gaining some extra ranks. I notice more leads coming through my sites and when I looked under my ahrefs account I noticed a pretty big jump with a fairly decent amount of keywords. I like to see positive results. I hope other good sites see a nice uptick.

  17. Robert Dinse
    By Robert Dinse on 14 January, 2016

    I saw a dramatic drop in traffic to my site these last couple of days. How much of this is relevant traffic remains to be seen.

  18. Michael Romano
    By Michael Romano on 14 January, 2016

    Thanks. Will be very interested to learn more when the data can be analyzed.

  19. Chris
    By Chris on 14 January, 2016

    Awesome post Joost.

    Looking forward to your further findings with this Google Update as you discover them.

    Stay Awesome!

  20. Montserrat
    By Montserrat on 14 January, 2016

    Thanks and please do tell us more of your findings!

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