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Roundup of Google updates from January 2020

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Google on laptop

January has certainly been an incredibly busy start to the year in terms of SEO. A host of new features have been announced by Google, as well as tweaks to existing aspects of their offerings.

From Google Shopping to Google Assistant to Google Collections, we’ve got you covered with all the latest updates from a hectic month!

timeline showing Google news in January 2020

7th Jan – Google Assistant hits 500 million global users

After a quiet first week of 2020, Google informed the public that the number of Google Assistant users worldwide had hit 500 million across all devices, including smartphones, TVs and voice assistants etc.

While these numbers are certainly impressive, studies have shown that they hold just a 9% share of the virtual assistant market. One important caveat to note however is that these numbers are based on installs, rather than monthly users.

Shortly after this, Google announced three key new features that they hope will help to grow the aforementioned market share during the coming year:

  • Longform Reading: Google Assistant will now be able to read articles to the user.
  • Scheduled Actions: Users can schedule Google to conduct specific tasks and certain times of the day, such as the turning on/off of lights.
  • Sticky Notes: Create sticky notes on smart displays via Google Assistant.

Finally, Google also announced that its interpreter mode was to be rolled out globally to support a multitude of businesses, including airports and hotels. This allows users to use a Google Nest Hub that can translate conversations across 29 languages in real-time. While this will obviously be of considerable benefit to international businesses across the globe, it has also proved useful to a wide range of individuals already. For example, Google stated how one Syrian refugee in particular was enabled by Google Assistant to share traditional, homemade recipes to her new community.

Google home voice search assistant

10th Jan – How to optimize for BERT

Since Google released their BERT algorithm update in October of last year, SEOs have spent the weeks and months since trying to work out the impact and how best to optimise for this.

While Danny Sullivan has covered this question previously, by stating that there is in fact ‘nothing to optimize for’, it’s fair to say that many SEOs have been skeptical about his claims.

This was highlighted in a recent Google Webmaster hangout with John Mueller, where a participant asked which types of work can be done on SEO according to the BERT algorithms.

Mueller’s response essentially echoed that of Danny Sullivan’s last year, albeit with some additional detail. He states that what the update was trying to achieve specifically was a better understanding of text – both in terms of questions/queries from searchers as well as an improved understanding of on-page text.

While the query side is not something that SEOs can directly influence, the on-page text is. Mueller goes on to state that “instead of stuffing keywords as much as possible, write naturally”.

This basically backs up what Google has been saying all along about BERT, and that is to write great, natural content that is relevant to your industry and is beneficial to users.

13th Jan– January 2020 Core Update rolls out

Google rolled out its latest core update on January 13th – the daringly titled ‘January 2020 Core Update’.

Its status as a broad core update specifically, means just that – the impacts are broad and on a worldwide scale. It does not target anything specific that is measurable. The best analogy for describing this in simplistic terms comes from Google themselves, who state:

“One way to think of how a core update operates is to imagine you made a list of the top 100 movies in 2015. A few years later in 2019, you refresh the list. It’s going to naturally change. Some new and wonderful movies that never existed before will now be candidates for inclusion. You might also reassess some films and realize they deserved a higher place on the list than they had before.”

Google

Essentially, Google is saying that there is not necessarily any major problems with pages that drop down the rankings immediately after a core update – they are merely being assessed against content that has been published since the last update.

While some will experience considerable gains and losses off the back of the update, the best solution is to simply analyse the content that now outranks your own (if you have been negatively impacted) and determine how you can offer a more comprehensive answer to prospective searchers. Alternatively, if you have experienced an increase in rankings, quietly close your computer down and slip out of the exit to the nearest pub.

14th Jan – Aesthetic refresh for Google Paid and Organic desktop SERPs

Google took the perennially controversial action of refreshing the look of its desktop SERPs from both an organic and paid perspective – aligning this more towards the look and feel of mobile SERPs. Google claimed that one of the major changes was the increased prominence of the ‘Ad’ label for paid results. This new look can be seen in the screenshot below.

screenshot of a Google search for 'online programming course'

As can be seen above, the URL is now above the page title (one of the most unpopular aspects!) and is green rather than black. The other major change is the addition of the favicon icon, to mirror the mobile SERPs. As ever, with aesthetic SERP alterations, the move has proved divisive, although the response has largely been negative.

The major criticism has come from people feeling as though users are being deceived and that the paid results are now less distinguishable from organic results. Google have since responded, saying it will experiment with various favicon placements over the coming weeks. Get in touch with us on Twitter and let us know your thoughts!

15th Jan – New Google Shopping features released

Google’s latest update to its Shopping section makes it easier to find products without having to leave the SERP. When searching for particular clothes, shoes or accessories, Google returns the most popular products for that keyword, complete with reviews.

Users also now have the ability to filter the results by style, brand and model – as seen in the screenshots below.

Google has encouraged merchants to create product feeds in Google Merchant Centre and apply the necessary structured data markup to relevant product pages in order to appear under this latest feature.

17th Jan – Google states that Structured Data does not impact Search rankings

Despite the fact that structured data has never impacted any search rankings and is an optional feature to include, a recent Tweet that went viral had confused many who were less familiar with SEO on Twitter.

LA Food blogger Rebecca Eisenberg caused widespread panic among many DIY digital marketers by misunderstanding a Google Search Console warning, which recommended using calorie count structured data. She was of the opinion that her pages would be omitted from the SERPs.

Having noticed the swiftly increasing prominence of the Tweet, Danny Sullivan promptly replied in order to provide some clarification. The reply is, as follows:

“Yesterday, a concern was raised that calorie information was required for recipes to be included in or to rank well for Google Search. This is not the case. Moreover, structured data like this has no impact on ranking in web search. This thread has more we hope eases concerns…

Content owners can provide structured data as an optional way to enhance their web page listings. It has no impact on ranking. Using it may simply help pages that already rank well appear more attractive to potential visitors.”

Danny Sullivan

This has simply reinforced what many will already know – there is no impact on search rankings from using, or not using, structured data. This said, it is still highly recommended as it has proven to increase click-through rates. Google has also stated it will alter the wording of such warnings in order to prevent any reoccurrences of such incidents.

21st Jan – Data-vocabulary.org Structured Data is no more

From April 2020, any structured data that uses data-vocabulary.org microdata will not be eligible for rich results. Any sites using the original form of structured data should now move to Schema.org structured data before this date.

Data-vocabulary.org was Google’s implementation of structured data that started in 2009. This was then usurped by Schema.org structured data in 2011, which is an open source structured data supported buy Google and other organisations.

Google also announced that they will be sending notices out to publishers still using the original system.

21st Jan – John Mueller provides advice on optimising images for Google Image Search

During his regular Ask Google Webmasters slot, John Mueller provided a number of tips on how to optimise images for search results.

Mueller talks about avoiding optimising images for the sake of optimisation alone. Instead, consider how you want people to find your images and what search queries they can help with. Then think about how your website can be of use to a searcher who enters your domain organically, via the image in question – what may they be trying to achieve by finding your image?

In terms of optimising images for search engines, from a technical perspective, Mueller cites the following points as being key to ranking well:

  • Captions
  • Descriptive file names
  • Descriptive page titles and alt text
  • Loading speed
  • High quality images
  • Relevant and visible placement

22nd Jan – John Mueller advises using less than 5 ‘hops’ in a redirect chain

During a recent Reddit thread, one user asked if it was acceptable to use more than one 301 when redirecting from one page to another. Mueller replied that the less ‘hops’ the better. The more ‘hops’ there are in a redirect chain, the slower the page will load for the user.

Furthermore, Mueller states that Google only follows a maximum of 5 ‘hops’ in a redirect chain and so a page at the end of a chain that uses more than this will not be found by Google when attempting to crawl your website.

22nd Jan – Webpages with Featured Snippets no longer appear twice on page 1

Danny Sullivan confirmed on January 22 that pages in a featured snippet position will no longer have their listing repeated on page 1. This change applies to 100% of all global search listings.

Prior to this update, a webpage that was in a featured snippet position typically appeared twice on the first page. However, this is no longer the case as featured snippets will now count as one of the first 10 webpage positions.

Instead, the organic listing for the featured snippet will now generally appear at the top of page 2 (position 11) – although this is not set in stone.

Although elements of this new update are currently ambiguous, it appears that if you lose your featured snippet, your organic listing will be reinstated to the first page, as duplication is no longer a factor. This was covered by Danny Sullivan on Twitter:

This is a pretty significant change and SEOs across the globe await the impact with bated breath – feed us the data!

23rd Jan – Google Dataset Search is out of Beta

Having first launched in September 2018, Google Dataset Search is finally out of beta and is now home to almost 25 million indexed datasets. The types of data available are incredibly wide-ranging and cover almost any subject imaginable.

Results can be filtered on the type of data, such as tables, text or images, the price of data and of course the subject of the data.

Google search for 'number of dogs uk'

Webmasters can publish their data in Dataset Search by using the appropriate schema.org structured data.

The most popular search terms used on Google Dataset Search thus far include “dogs”, “soccer”, “cancer” and “weather”. Eclectic, to say the least!

23rd Jan – Google enhances its Collections in Search offering

Google has now made it much easier for users to revisit groups of similar pages that they have previously visited.

Using AI, Google will automatically create groups of similar pages, such as recipes or trainers, that you have previously visited. This is to help users go back and look at pages that they may have forgotten to manually save.

The feature was summed up nicely in a quote from Google Search Product Manager Mona Vajolahi:

Remember that chicken parmesan recipe you found online last week? Or that rain jacket you discovered when you were researching camping gear? Sometimes when you find something on Search, you’re not quite ready to take the next step, like cooking a meal or making a purchase. And if you’re like me, you might not save every page you want to revisit later.

Mona Vajolahi, Google Search Product Manager

This is currently only available to US English users but will be rolled out worldwide soon. Keep your eyes peeled.

27th Jan – How does Google rank new websites?

In a recent Webmaster Hangout, John Mueller was asked whether new websites could rank for certain keywords based purely on their content. His response was certainly interesting.

Mueller states that Google essentially estimates whether or not a new site is worth ranking based on certain signals within the algorithm. The question related to whether a new website could rank for competitive keywords regardless of the age of the website. This works on the assumption that time is not a ranking factor and on-page content is the most important component of Google’s core algorithm.

Mueller responds that there are a multitude of factors that could apply to such a theoretical question:

We use lots of different factors when it comes to crawling, indexing and ranking. And sometimes that means that completely new websites show up very visibly in search.Sometimes it also means that it can take a bit of time for things to settle down.

In particular, with completely new websites, one of the difficulties that we have is we might not have a lot of signals for those websites so we have to make estimates. And depending on how we make estimates, it can sometimes mean that in the beginning we show this website a little bit more visibly than like it turns out that the signals tell us in the end. And depending on how we make estimates, it can sometimes mean that in the beginning we show this website a little bit more visibly than like it turns out that the signals tell us in the end.

It could also mean that in the beginning we show this website a little bit… less visibly than the signals might tell us in the end.

So that time period of understanding the website and understanding how it fits in with the rest of the web, that’s always kind of a factor there.

But that can go both ways. It can go in the direction of like you’re shown very visibly in the beginning.

And it can also be that maybe you’re shown less visibly in the beginning and as we understand your website and how it fits in with the rest of the web then we can kind of adjust that.

Although it is clear that Google makes estimates regarding ranking signals for new websites, Mueller did not explicitly mention what these estimates are based on.

The fact that a new website has no other factors except on-page factors to consider mean that these on-page factors must be what Google’s estimates are based on. However, the process of ranking new websites is clearly too complex for a straightforward answer.

30th Jan – Google creates SOS alert for Coronavirus searches

Google first utilised SOS alerts in 2017. These are activated during crises where public safety is under threat. They provide an ad-free SERP with the latest news, links to authoritative information and a selection of safety tips.

The SERPs for the search term ’coronavirus’ now looks like this:

Stay safe!

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