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Roundup of Google updates from March 2020

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March will certainly be a memorable month for a number of reasons – particularly here in the UK where the global coronavirus pandemic began to have huge impacts on the everyday lives of people up and down the country. 

It was also a busy month in the SEO world – notably how businesses with an online presence were going to respond to the drastic changes in how things are run. This has been helped somewhat with tweaks Google have made in how information is displayed and specific measures they have taken to help support customer communication.

We delve into these issues and many more, in detail below.

Stay on top of the constant Google updates and get help with your SEO today.

Timeline of Google updates from March 1st-15th
Emily Kemp, Marketing Executive at MintTwist

4th Mar – What to do about SSL certificates when merging domains

On 4th March, an inquisitive SEO on Twitter was seeking clarification from Google’s top employees with regards to the importance of an SSL certificate on your old website once you have migrated it to a new domain.

After a brief back and forth between a few individuals, the ever reliable John Mueller stepped in to confirm that it is best to maintain an SSL certificate for your old website, even if this is just to ward off any would-be spammers.

With regards to the length of time that the SSL certificate for the old website should be kept, he had this to say:

4th Mar –Should I be using a sitemap?

John Mueller was certainly busy on 4th March as he also made an appearance in an episode of Google’s Search Console training series on YouTube. He asked the question If I don’t have a sitemap, will Google find all of my pages?”.

Daniel Waisberg, who was running this particular episode replied with some helpful advice. Essentially, if your website is fairly small and the pages are well linked, then Googlebot can easily discover all of the relevant content. However, a sitemap may be of use if your website meets any of the following criteria:

  • Your website is large
  • Your website has isolated pages
  • Your website is new
  • Your website changes frequently

It is also important to note that Waisberg states a sitemap does not come with any guarantees – not every page in a sitemap will be crawled and on the other hand, URLs left out of the sitemap can still be found by Googlebot.

If you are unsure as to whether or not to use a sitemap, we suggest erring on the side of caution and implementing one anyway as it has no negative impact on SEO performance. 

5th Mar – Google move 70% of websites to mobile-first indexing

Google confirmed that 70% of websites it has indexed have now made the switch to mobile-first indexing. The remaining 30% will be shifted across by September at the latest. 

You can check in Google Search Console, in the settings page (as shown below) to see whether your website has a mobile-first indexing status, as well as in the URL inspection tool.

9th Mar  – Photos and videos uploaded to Google My Business are now subject to review

Google has updated its content policy for Google My Business listings by stating that photos and videos will now be reviewed prior to publication. 

It is unclear whether they will be reviewed by AI or a human team of reviewers – which may well lead to further delays in publication. However, we do know that this is only applicable for content uploaded by other users and not the business itself. 

Google’s own publication criteria can be found here.

10th Mar – Google offer advice on Google My Business listings amid Coronavirus outbreak

Google provided its first piece of advice for local businesses who had been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and how they could utilise Google My Business to display relevant information to any would-be customers. 

As this point, no new features had been added but Google did publish a new dedicated coronavirus support page that advises businesses on how to keep customers informed in light of the current situation using the tools currently on offer.

The main recommendations from the support page are as follows:

  • Keep contact information up to date
  • Update business hours if these have been affected
  • Use Google Posts to share timely updates of any news about your business
  • Update business description to reflect any changes to operations in the current pandemic. This includes if your business is operating as normal.

You might also be interested in:
Ultimate list of 16 FREE digital marketing resources during the coronavirus outbreak

11th Mar – Google claim that paid external backlinks don’t work

John Mueller was asked the following question on 11th March and his reply will be of interest to many SEOs out there:

Are backlinks important in ranking factors? Because nowadays 80 to 90% of websites are buying backlinks which I think is very unethical.

But these websites are also ranking on the first page. Why?

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

While Mueller confirmed that external links are indeed a ranking factor, he goes on to state that they are just one of many:

We do use links in our ranking algorithms. We use a ton of other factors as well. So it’s not the case that links is the one thing that will make your website show up in the search results, regardless of what other people do.

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

This essentially confirms what we, as SEOs, already knew – what really matters is whether a webpage answers the users search intent. However, his next point was certainly of interest.

Mueller goes on to comment on how often he sees websites simply mimicking the SEO tactics of other competitors within their niche, regardless of whether this affects the rankings or not:

This is something where we also see that a lot of sites do things that aren’t really necessary for their website and web search.  They’ll go off and buy a ton of links and then we ignore all of those links.

So just because you’re seeing people doing something that looks kind of weird doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re actually profiting from that in a sense that there are lots of reasons why sites can rank in the search results. And it doesn’t have to do with anything sneaky that they’re doing.

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

In the wise words of Fleetwood Mac, “go your own way!”.

You might also be interested in:
An actionable link acquisition strategy

11th Mar – Google creates NHS knowledge panel

Google announced that it will be rolling out a new style of knowledge panel, specifically built for pulling information directly from the NHS website.

This will be the same content available on the NHS website itself, but this change simply makes it easier for users to find information on over 250 different health conditions.

Google Search Now Shows NHS Advice In The UK

Google specifically mentions that this information is by no means a substitute for medical advice. Here is their announcement on the change:

Now, we’re making it even easier for people in the U.K. to find trusted information from the National Health Service (NHS). Beginning this week, when you search for health conditions like chickenpox, back pain, or the common cold, you can find Knowledge Panels with information from the NHS website that help you understand more about common causes, treatments and more.

Google

12th Mar – Focus on the quality of your content

During a recent Google Webmasters Hangout, John Mueller was asked an interesting question on the importance of quality content and what exactly represented ‘quality’ content in the eyes of Google.

Mueller responded by stating that you, the publisher, had a much clearer idea of what quality content looks like for your audience than Google’s algorithm. 

Quality, in general, is of course a completely subjective term. Consequently, users should be focussing instead on how to provide the most useful answer to a particular search term and the resultant user intent. This means concentrating on relevance, rather than the abstract notion of quality. 

The following statement from Mueller suggests that publishers should be centring on what user’s will respond to as high quality, rather than what Google’s algorithm would regard as high quality:

So that’s something where I wouldn’t worry too much about what Google thinks about quality content. But rather you need to show that you really have something that’s unique and compelling and of high quality.

So instead of trying to work back how Google’s algorithms might be working, I would recommend trying to figure out what your users are actually thinking and doing things like user studies, inviting a bunch of people to your office or virtually to show them something new that you’re providing on your website and ask them really hard questions where sometimes the answer might be we don’t like your website or we were confused by your website or we don’t like the color of your logo or something.

But kind of this is the hard feedback that’s really important to get and a lot of times these are things that you might not agree with but if all of your users are saying this then maybe that’s something you need to consider as well.

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

For example, you will often see cases where webmasters have collated reams of 5,000-word pages that aim to provide a more in-depth answer than their competitors in a bid to outrank them. However, users may be looking for a far more succinct answer and thus, competitors with shorter, but more relevant and useful, content, will in fact rank higher. 

Essentially, content creation is not one size fits all and each piece of content should be individually tailored to helping solve a specific search query in the most user-friendly way. Simple!

You might also be interested in:
Content marketing tactics to help your franchise grow in 2020

13th Mar – Brighton SEO is postponed until October 

Sad news for anyone hoping to attend our favourite Search Marketing event of the year – Brighton SEO. 

As a result of the current coronavirus pandemic, they have taken the wise decision to postpone the event, originally scheduled for 17th April, until 1st and 2nd October. 

For further information on the plans for October’s event and to find out what will happen with your tickets, read the statement from Brighton SEO.

15th Mar – Google makes Premium version of Google Hangouts Meet free

As an unprecedented number of workers and students confine their daily lives to their homes for the foreseeable future, Google is waiving fees on the premium version of Hangouts Meet until 1st July in a bid to help ease the transition somewhat.

A few premium features that will no doubt benefit schools and businesses include:

  • Option to record meetings and save to Google Drive
  • Live streaming to an audience of up to 100,000
  • Increase in the limit of participants per call to 250

You can read Google’s statement in full here.

15th Mar – Annual BrightLocal survey reveals Google My Business optimisation as the most valuable local marketing service

BrightLocal’s latest local search industry survey has placed Google My Business optimisation as the most valuable local marketing service – one place ahead of onsite optimisation. 

The annual survey looks at the business practices, pricing, salary and services offered by 475 local marketers. This revealed that the top 5 most valuable services are:

  1. Google My Business optimization
  2. On-site optimization
  3. Reputation management
  4. Citation management
  5. Website design

Despite not being considered the most valuable service, local marketers still claim that SEO is the best online tactic for attracting new clients. 

The survey also looks into which marketing metrics are held inn the highest esteem by local businesses. The clear winner here was Google rankings – which even outranked new customers and new leads.

You can read the incredibly insightful survey in full here.

Timeline of Google updates from March 16th-3oth
Emily Kemp, Marketing Executive at MintTwist

16th Mar – Mueller provides clarification on Google’s Page Lauyour algorithm

For context, in 2012, Google released its Page Layout algorithm that penalised websites that showed too many ads above the fold. This was a response to complaints received by Google that content was often difficult to find when they clicked on the result and were faced with an influx of ads, rather than the content they were expecting. 

Google stated at the time that a ‘normal degree’ of ads was acceptable but, as expected, many SEOs wanted exact figures to clarify what a ‘normal degree’ was. 

Google’s John Mueller was asked this question on Twitter recently and his response was as follows:

Mueller’s response confirms that there is no affirmative number to abide by when it comes to the acceptable number of ads displayed above the fold. Instead, it is about focussing on whether the content is easy for users to find. This is what webmasters should concentrate on moving forward.

16th Mar – Google Assistant can now read entire web pages

Google Assistant now has the ability to read entire web pages on Android, akin to an audiobook or podcast, with the simple command “Hey Google, read this page”. This feature is available on any Android phone running on Lollipop or above.

This will be read out loud in a natural, expressive fashion (with a choice of several different voices) and users can even adjust the reading speed to suit their own requirements. Furthermore, the feature is available in 42 languages via the translation menu.

While there is no work required for webmasters to enable this feature, you are able to reject it through the implementation of a nopagereadaloud tag.

16th – Google releases new event schema in light of COVID-19 pandemic

As events of all sizes are cancelled or moved online across the entire globe, Google has released new event schema to help communicate these details more clearly in the SERPs.

The most significant of these is the addition of the ‘eventStatus’ property. This allows webmasters to highlight whether their event has been cancelled, postponed or rescheduled, rather than removing it from the SERPs entirely. Here are a few features it can help with:

  • Cancelled event: Set eventStatus property to EventCancelled, keeping the original date under startDate.
  • Rescheduled event (new date known): Update startDate and endDate with the new dates. Can also mark eventRescheduled to include the previousStartDate.
  • Postponed event (new date unknown) – Leave the original date, but change eventStatus to EventPostponed.
  • Event changed to virtual: Update the eventStatus to EventMovedOnline.

You can read the full list of changes from Google here.

20th Mar – Temporary removal of Google My Business features due to COVID-19

On March 20, Google released the following statement in relation to certain Google My Business features:

During the unprecedented COVID-19 situation, we are taking steps to protect the health of our team members and reduce the need for people to come into our offices. As a result, there may be some temporary limitations and delays in support as we prioritize critical services.

No new reviews will be published in the reviews section, although presumably any left within the current window will be retrospectively published once the pandemic has calmed. Existing reviews, will however, remain visible. This also extends to Q&A content.

New listings, claims and verifications for critical health-related businesses will be prioritised during this timeframe. Consequently, other businesses that do not fall into this category may experience a delay in the publication of new listings, claims and verifications. 

Google Posts functionality remains untouched for now, so you are still able to share any updates with customers through your Google My Business listing. While this may change as the situation develops, we recommend taking advantage of this clear channel of communication while it lasts.

21st Mar – Google launches Coronavirus information site and new search experience for specific COVID-19 queries

As they had previously touched upon, Google released a dedicated COVID-19 site with resources and information.

The new site delivers a combination of education, prevention information and local resources. It consists of these sections:

  • Health information
  • Safety and prevention advice
  • Data and insights
  • Resources to help
  • Links to donate to relief efforts
  • Latest news from Google’s blog

While there is just a US version currently available, many believe that this will be rolled out worldwide, in a variety of languages, in the coming days and weeks.

Further to the dedicated information site, Google has also updated its search experience for Coronavirus-related queries by displaying information from health authorities accompanied by data and visualisations. See below for a couple of examples of the current features, which we expect will be expanded in the near future.

22nd Mar – Google responds to query about warnings for manual penalties

During a recent Google Webmasters Hangout, one particular publisher informed John Mueller that his website had been negatively impacted by a link based penalty that had put a serious strain on his business and his 12 employees.

He asked John Mueller if it was possible that Google may, in the future, offer warnings prior to these penalties being implemented so that the strain on businesses is reduced and organic traffic is not lost.

Mueller’s considered response to this request touched on the impact beyond publishers themselves. He replied:

Okay, now with regards to sending a warning, that’s something we do discuss from time to time. I don’t know if that’s something that will change.

The primary reason why we tend not send a warning is that when we run into this kind of situation where the web spam team notices that there’s a problem, then usually that’s something that’s affecting the normal search results already.

So that’s something where users are seeing bad results and we know users are seeing bad results, then that’s something where we want to take action as quickly as possible and to resolve that.

So for the most part, that’s always kind of tricky to say we would send a warning when we know it’s currently in a bad state.

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

This is a fair point as the organic traffic previously visiting the website likely arrived, at least in part, due to the work that caused the link-based penalty. As a result, the drop in rankings and subsequent loss of organic traffic as a result of the penalty, is essentially just restoring the website to its ‘natural’ place in the organic hierarchy. Mueller builds on this:

One other thing, especially with regards to linking reconsideration requests… one of the tricky parts there is that sometimes the site’s rankings is partially due to some of these link schemes that they were doing.
So by fixing those link schemes and removing them or disavowing them, then you’re removing some of that… artificial support that was for that website as well.

So it won’t necessarily be the case that when the manual action is resolved that it’ll pop back up right at the same place as it was before.

Just because you’ve… removed that artificial aspect and like well you’re in the natural place again which might be a little bit lower than before.

It depends a little bit on how the algorithms looked at that in the past.

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

In summary, it appears that Google will not be utilising a warning system for manual actions any time soon, as their priority is maintaining true and fair results pages.

22nd Mar – Interesting insight into handling of manual penalties and reviews

During the same Google Webmasters Hangout mentioned above, one publisher asked John Mueller a series of questions about how Google handles manual penalties and reviews and the answers were certainly interesting. 

The first question pertained to the amount of time that Google spends looking into each reconsideration request, to which Mueller replied:

Because these are manual reviews, we can spend a little bit more time but it’s also the web is big and we have a limited time so what usually happens is someone will look at the bigger picture of the website and try to determine if there’s really a strong pattern of unnatural issues here which could be all kinds of things.

With links it’s always a bit tricky. That’s something where the manual reviewer has to double-check a little bit more and see, is this something that probably the website did by themselves, or is this something maybe a competitor did or someone is trying to harm them… by doing these links.

And if we can recognize that it’s not in their control we’ll try to find a way to just ignore those links.

But they do spend a little bit more time to look at the website as well.

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

The last sentence is of particular interest, as it indicates that prior to requesting reconsideration, a webmaster must ensure that their website is squeaky clean in all aspects of SEO. Google do not just investigate that specific penalty upon reconsideration. 

The next question in the series asked “Do you have multiple teams in multiple languages or just one big team in the US?”To which Mueller responded:

We do have multiple people in multiple locations for multiple languages… just because sometimes websites are hard to understand in different languages and just looking at kind of the number of links makes it really hard to determine is this kind of unnatural or is this just… maybe one language that they don’t speak and all of the links look like this because that’s a very common word… I don’t know.

So that’s something where we do have multiple teams in different locations that on the one hand that makes it a little bit fairer with regard to international websites.

But that also means for some languages in some locations we might not have as many people as for other locations. So that sometimes slows things down with the reconsideration requests.

John Mueller, Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google

There were many more interesting questions asked during the series. The two above were simply the ones that generated the most discussion within SEO communities. Check out the rest of the video below:

25th Mar – Google’s ‘Search for Beginners’ series comes to an end with Google My Business episode

Google’s latest ‘Search for Beginners’ YouTube video is a 101 style feature on the basics of Google My Business. While this is the last in the series, Google insists it will maintain a solid output of content on the Google Webmasters YouTube channel. 

As indicated by the title, this is very much aimed at beginners or DIY SEOs so for many experienced members of the search community this will not be of particular use.  

If you are interested in learning more however, or simply require a refresh on local SEO, find the video below:

26th Mar – Google provides advice on how to handle online activity for your business during the Coronavirus pandemic

On 26th March, Google released a helpful blog post that offered advice to businesses who have been impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. This information is centred around helping businesses to temporarily pause online activity, while minimising negative impacts on search rankings. 

If the closure of your business is temporary in nature, then Google strongly recommends keeping the website online but limiting certain aspects by marking items ‘out of stock’ or restricting access to the checkout.

The main list of recommended actions are as follows:

  • Make it easy for customers to see what’s happening with your business through the use of a prominent site-wide banner
  • Update structured data to reflect current status of products/services
  • Disable the cart/checkout process
  • Use Search Console to request a recrawl of your website in order to display the most recent, relevant information. 

Read Google’s advice on the matter in full here.

26th Mar – Google My Business advice for healthcare providers

Google recently released a support section in their help centre specifically aimed at healthcare providers. 

It is certainly no coincidence that this advice comes at such a busy time for the health industry in general. Google hopes that by increasing the online prominence of various healthcare providers, that people will be able to access information and medical advice online rather than physically visiting medical practices and falling foul of social distancing measures.

In this support section, Google specifically highlight the following features that are of particular use to the Google My Business profiles of healthcare providers:

  • Highlight key information such as hours of operation and contact information
  • Engage with patients
  • Upload photos to show patients how to find the practice
  • Add an informative list of specific health services offered (including descriptions and prices where necessary)
  • Using Google Posts to inform patients of the latest updates
  • Upload photos and diagrams to help prospective patients learn about specific services provided.

You can view the support page in its entirety here.

30th Mar – Latest Google Search Console updates 

At the end of March, Google updated Search Console to allow users more control over their account preferences. This includes the data they see displayed in the SERPs as well as the email notifications that they receive.

In late 2018, Google announced the inclusion of a Search Console summary card in the SERPs when you were logged into the corresponding Google account and searched for the website you managed. 

Screenshot of Google Search Console summary card appearing at the top of the SERPs

After the most recent update, users will now be able to switch this feature off should they not want to stare at their data incessantly.

With regards to the changes to email preferences – previously site owners would be bombarded with updates via email from Google Search Console. Since the update however, site owners now have much more control over the types of emails they receive. This can be done via the email preferences page, as shown below.

Google Search Console Updates: More Control Over Data & Email Notifications
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