Now that we are saying goodbye to 2019, it is a perfect time to reflect on what took place in the world of search engine optimization and how you can use the knowledge to craft better SEO strategies for 2020.
Most of us can agree that 2019 was an incredibly eventful year for SEOs. We all saw a significant number of Google algorithm updates and ongoing keyword ranking fluctuations in different industries as Google continues to “improve overall user experience.”
Without any further ado, let us dive into a quick overview of SEO in 2019 and see what happened from the start of January up to December.
Google reveils key information about Unnatural Links and the need for Disavowing
2019 started with a significant statement from Google’s representative, John Mueller, on unnatural links. When asked if there was a difference between a human being adding unnatural links on a site compared to a bot, John made it clear that it was the responsibility of the site owner to ensure their website is clean no matter how content and links are added onto it.
John made it clear that even if someone decides to spam or hack your content, you need to do everything you can to clean up your site and make it look good. Before this update, the stance had always been “you do not need to disavow the bad links you have no control over“.
Only a couple of weeks later, John Mueller gets asked again about disavowing links in a webmaster hangout. He revealed that disavowing bad links may help Google algorithmically trust your links more.
That last statement, together with the previous one in the month of January 2019, basically made it clear to the SEO community that the need for disavows is not over, as Google had made it sound in previous forums. There are still situations where link auditing and disavowing will help :
- avoid algorithmic devaluation if your site is under negative SEO attack
- avoid a manual penalty if the webspam team assesses your site
- strengthening the perceived value of your web content by Google
LinkResearchTools Organizes a links-only Conference in Vienna
The first-ever link-only SEO conference in the world took place in Vienna in January. The conference brought together the best SEO experts from different parts of the world to discuss off-page SEO issues and how to take SEO to a whole new level.
It also served as a networking event that provided attendees with an incredible opportunity of meeting amazing people from all over the world and a chance to make new friends.
Some of the key topics discussed were quite blackhat, eg: how to build and maintain PBNs, link buying and selling. But there were also quite interesting sessions on SEO competitive analysis, outreach, PR as well as more technical sessions on Google penalties and how to avoid them, Redirected links and REL-Canonical linking.
The conference was an opportunity to sell the fantastic tool for link analysis: Linkresearchtools, however all the proceeds from the LRTcon went to charity. The 2020 edition is scheduled to take place in Vienna next May 28th to May 30th.
Google Confirms E-A-T Is an Essential Part of the Ranking Algorithm
The acronym E-A-T, standing for Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness, became popular in 2018 when Google’s Quality Raters Guidelines (QRG) went public. The 2018 E-A-T algorithm update was released as part of Google’s campaign to battle credibility issues of content.
According to QRG, a website must possess a set of pre-defined qualities to score high when it is evaluated under the E-A-T guidelines.
Basically, E-A-T tells Google whether a page contains valuable and credible information that people are looking for. It helps Google know whether a page can be trusted.
On February 19th 2019, Google confirmed E-A-T to be an essential part of their ranking algorithms. However, the announcement did not come as a surprise since many SEO professionals already suspected that E-A-T was a critical ranking signal. This is still a debatable topic today that causes signification agitation and disagreements in the industry.
Martin Splittz joins John Mueller on the Google Hangouts
Being a Webmasters Trend Analyst at Google, Martin Splittz brings in a different dimension to Google Webmaster communication channels.
His angle is JS frameworks for website building do not necessarily have to bad for SEO if implemented correctly. I’m obviously cutting a long story short.
Community members welcomed his arrival on the search engine optimization scene since he brings with him new insights into site crawling, rendering, and indexing.
Google Rolls Out the March 2019 Core Update
Google rolled out the first major update of 2019 on its algorithms on March 12th through to March 13th.
Google’s Danny Sullivan announced that the update would be referred to as the “March 2019 Core Update” to cut back on confusion.
There was a ton of movement across different sites, categories, and countries. While some people believed that this was an extension of the Medic update that had impacted mostly health/medical niche websites, a significant movement was reported across the board.
In its mission to fight disinformation in the YMYL space, key players in news, e-commerce, games, coupons, and may more niches were hit badly as they reported substantial traffic drops after the update.
One of the verticals especially badly hit was health or medical information websites prominently displaying health-related information going against medical consensus
Here’s the drop experienced by a client in the ‘Peptides’ Ecommerce industry who turned up to me for help around May 2019 to run a website audit:
Google also explained that the March 2019 Core Update wasn’t a full reversal and had nothing to do with the other neural matching updates.
Google Ditches the Rel=Next/Prev Annotation
– March 21, 2019 –
For many years, webmasters had been using the rel=next/prev markup tag to communicate to Google that some web pages were all part of a larger set of pages.
Typically, if you had an article split into several pages, you could use this tag to tell Google that the pages were all part of the same set. The search engine would then combine all signals and content from all pages in the same set.
However, on March 21st, 2019, Google’s John Mueller confirmed during a Google hangout that the search engine had stopped supporting the annotation completely. It was unclear when Google had stopped supporting the markup, but according to John, it was a “number of years ago.”
This came as a complete shock to the SEO community and anger manifested across many different corners stating the disappointing fact that Google had kept this quiet.
At the same time Google seemed to ignore the fact that astounding amount of resources, time and effort had been going into integrating the rel prev next tag according to google’s guidelines, particularly for those dealing with enterprise SEO.
Google Search Console Starts to Show Google-Selected Canonical URLs
On March 26th, Google announced that it had added a new feature inside GSC that will allow users to see which URL has been selected as the canonical version for a web page.
To access this new functionality, you need to navigate to the inspection tool and enter your webpage’s URL. This tool was introduced to help webmasters see what Google was actually seeing and stop using guesswork in their work.
Ahrefs Announces Plan for New Search Engine
On March 27th, Ahrefs CEO Dmitry Gerasimenko announced on March 27, 2019 that the company had plans to develop a better search engine that supports content creators and protects user privacy much better.
In his proposal, Mr. Gerasimenko described a more open and free web that rewarded talented content creators with a revenue split. The new search engine will seek to correct some of the common flaws he feels Google has that are bad for publishers and users.
While this sounds like a good idea from a publisher point of view, feedback from the SEO community was far from positive, with many thinking that this was ‘fail’ idea. Let’s wait and see!
Google’s indexing bug causes mayhem
Due to some technical upgrades carried out by Google’s engineers, Google started dropping pages out of the index. Something that Googlers thought could get resolved in a few hours, took them over a week to get the bug fixed.
A few months later, in august, Google wrote about it, to explain to the webmaster world what really happened.
Google’s Monopolistic Practices on the spotlight again
For many years, Google has been accused of creating an existential threat to many internet retailers with its firm grip on digital advertising.
In fact, the company was recently hit with a monopoly abuse charges, and the investigation is still ongoing in the United States.
Rand Fishkin, founder of SparkToro has been proactive at creating awareness of how much the world of search is unfairly dominated by Google, and things won’t change any time soon.
In an exclusive interview with Webcertain published on April 1st, he reveals how digital marketing is being disrupted by various traffic giants such as Google and what marketers need to do to achieve desirable ROI. You can watch the interview here:
Google Makes Improvements to GSC
In May, Google announced the introduction of three new reports to Google Search Console (GSC). They introduced the unparsable structured data report and two enhancement reports to the user interface.
The primary purpose of the unparsable structured data report is to aggregate all parsing issues that usually stopped Google from identifying the feature type. You can use this report to check if Google was unable to parse any of the structured data you tried to add to your website.
The two enhancement reports that were introduced included the logo and sitelinks searchbox enhancements report. Community members had also complained of the missing legacy tools in the new GSC user interface. Google listened to the complaints and reinstated the legacy tools under the legacy section.
Yoast SEO Becomes the First WordPress Plugin to Provide Defragmented Schema Markup
Experienced webmasters know that proper markup helps search engines see and understand how web pages are related to one another.
Technically, if you have poor markup implemented on your site, you will make it harder for Google to understand your site structure and potentially lose out on relevancy or other factors where semantics play a role.
Fortunately, Yoast SEO can now take care of all that with its defragmented schema markup that is also included in the free version of the plugin. So if you use WordPress, you may want to give this a try. Otherwise you should still do your best in 2020 to have schema structured data well implemented on your sites.
June Core Update
Although Google does not usually provide details about an upcoming update before it is officially announced, Danny Sullivan pre-announced the June Core update on Twitter on June 3rd. This was the 2nd time that Google pre-announced an algorithm update.
This was five days to the actual rollout date. The June Core Update seemed to target news sites with Google raising the quality bar for news topics.
The search engine seemed to be going after news sites that offer low-quality content for news topics, as well as punishing sites whose medical, health content was going against scientific and traditional consensus, again. Eg: Dr Merkola site plunged
Health, e-commerce, cryptocurrency and news sites were hit, as well as a bunch of different niches in the YMYL space.
Google for Jobs Launched in France
Google for jobs was made available in France for the first time on June 7th, 2019. The primary purpose of this service is to aggregate job openings from the leading French job boards and provide a quick summary in one place.
Searching by specific location the key phrase “vacancy” and a specific job type, you are redirected to a results page that provides you with the latest job opportunities.
To make this possible, Google partnered with leading job sites in France, such as HelloWork, Figaro Classifieds, and Pole Emploi.
This was just one more move by Google into monopolizing one additional vertical. Previous ones were: hotels, travel… and new ones will arrive in future years.
The move prompts reaction from British and European job boards who have since formally complained to the European Court and Competition Watchdogs in the UK to investigate Google for unfair exploitation of their search engine and abusing their dominance to favour their own assets in the search results pages.
Google Starts to Add Timestamps to YouTube Videos in Search Results
In mid-July, there were several reports that Google was testing YouTube timestamps in SERPs. This means that users could jump to specific sections of the YouTube video that answers their question, hence eliminating the need to watch videos in their entirety.
This change is still being tested in a few countries, and if Google decides to roll out the change globally, video content creators will be required to have timestamps and descriptions on their videos.
Google Reveals More Information about Its Core Updates
On August 1st, Google’s Danny Sullivan published a blog post focusing on essential details that webmasters need to know about the search engine’s core updates. In the blog, Google re-emphasized the importance of content and why webmasters must adhere to all guidelines set while creating content to avoid losing their rankings.
There was also a section talking about the quality rater guidelines, E-A-T ranking factors, and how you can recover from a major algorithm update. In this article Google links out to prominent SEOs who actively participate in Twitter conversations, release reports and run tests. This causes some stir as other SEOs see this as a service endorsement.
SparkToro Publishes Research Showing That Less Than Half of Searches Now Result in a Click
Rand Fishkin strikes again with a SparkToro report based on a comprehensive piece of research that was conducted using data collected by Jumpshot to prove the increasing number of searches that don’t result in a click. The study showed how click-through rates have changed over time.
A clear pattern was established; while the organic searches were shrinking, there was an increase in paid CTR. The trend was more predominant on mobile devices, where more than half of all searches take place.
For smart marketers, this research meant that there was a need to start finding ways of getting value from zero-click searches and seek out keywords with a higher CTR potential. There is also a need to get your content optimized on Google’s own properties, such as AMP, YouTube, and Maps.
For those following Google’s monopolistic practices, this shows just one more, with clearer scientific and credible evidence that Google’s competitive behavior is aggressive and unfair, to say the least.
Google Introduces Sponsored and UGC Tags as Alternatives to Nofollow
On September 10th, 2019, Google announced the introduction of two tags to complement or sustitute the “nofollow” attribute. The “sponsored” and “User-Generated Content (UGC)” tags were introduced to improve the performance of the “Nofollow” tag.
With the introduction of the sponsored link attribute, it means that all sponsored /advertising links can be labeled as such, while untrusted or unsure links can still be labeled with the “nofollow” attribute.
The User-Generated Content (UGC) allows webmasters to clarify that they don’t editorially endorse specific hyperlinks on their websites. The UGC tag also enables Google to know that the link is within user-generated content such as a forum post or comment.
September 24th Core Update
Google published a global update to its core algorithm for the third time in 2019 on September 24th. This was a global update meaning it affected all niches and search indexes. And just like the June update, the September 2019 core update was pre-announced on Twitter.
The rollout lasted two days, resulting in massive rank fluctuations. SEO experts believe that the September update mainly targeted YMYL and finance sites. These two categories recorded high volatility compared to sites in other niches.
The Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) update began rolling out on October 21st for selected English-language queries.
In simple words, this update is designed to help Google better understand the context of words in various search queries. The primary aim of this update is to improve user experience and ensure that the search results remain relevant.
Google open-sourced BERT in November last year, which means that anyone can use the BERT code to train their own language processing systems for question answering or any other task.
Useful reading/listening: Google Bert Update: what it means
“BERT and family improve the state of the art on 11 natural language processing tasks. Even beating human understanding since linguists will argue for hours over the part of speech a single word is.
But what if the focus of a page is very weak? Even humans sometimes will be like “what’s your point?” when we hear something.
And pronouns have been very problematic historically but BERT helps with this quite a bit. Context is improved because of the bi-directional nature of BERT.
“There will still be lots of work for us to do since we need to emphasise importance, utilise clear structures, help to turn unstructured data into semi structured data, utilise cues on content light pages (e.g. image heavy but not text heavy eCommerce pages) using such things as internal linking.” – Dawn Anderson, says
Later in December Google announces that BERT has been rolled out to about 74 languages, BUT only to serve data for feature snippets. It’s worth taking that into account before concluding on whether Google understands non-English languages with the same accuracy as English. I personally think they don’t.
Here’s a tweet from Dawn Anderson on the matter:
New page speed reports integrated in GSC
Speed reports also started rolling out in GSC in October.
The November 7th Update
Webmasters in the United States who run affiliate sites in health, travel, food, and lifestyle sectors observed massive changes after what is believed to be another Google update rolled out on November 7th.
Between November 7th and 8th, webmasters in these industries reported massive changes in their search engine rankings. Multiple food and lifestyle blogs reported a 30%+ drop in their traffic.
Google confirmed via the Twitter account, Google SearchLiasion that it had made several updates to its core search algorithm during this period. However, it refuted claims that the updates were targeting specific niches or industries.
The tweet further stated that the updates made during this period were only part of changes made regularly to the search algorithm. Some webmasters suspected BERT to be the cause of a massive decline in traffic over this period, but Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, explained that BERT could not be responsible for such traffic decreases.
He clarified that only a core update could cause such massive changes in rankings. Kevin Indig, former SEO consultant at Searchmetrics and now VP SEO & Content at G2, termed the update as “aggressive” and compared it to the first Penguin update that Google rolled out in 2012.
Webmasters and SEO experts also believe that the November 8 algorithm update focused on discounting value of reciprocal link schemes, link parties, etc and greatly affected Travel and Recipe bloggers.
Google Updates Its Search Quality Evaluator‘s guidelines
Google made a few minor changes to its search quality evaluator on Thursday, December 5th, 2019. The minor revisions added to the evaluator emphasized diversity, impartiality, and language referring to users. The guidelines now explain why individuals conduct searches and the specific ways in which they perform them.
While Google continues to gain market and increase its revenue, there is no secret that the company is motivated to provide users with the best search results possible. The same thing applies to other search engines making SEO a much more complicated aspect of digital marketing.
With over 400 algorithm tweaks every year, the leading search engines in the world have found a way of keeping SEOs on their toes. I hope that this roundup provides you with a clear vision of what to expect in 2020 to make your sites rank better.
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a fruitful 2020!