- 2022 saw nine confirmed updates (including two core updates,) five unconfirmed instances where volatility was observed in page rankings, and one data outage that caused chaos for 48 hours
- Video and commerce sites were the biggest winners in the May core update, while reference and news sites lost out most, especially outlets without industry specificity
- This theme largely continued and saw ripple effects from the helpful content update
- What were these ebbs and flows, who won, who lost? Let’s find out!
- Joe Dawson takes us through another round-up post that gives you the complete picture of Google’s moves
Only three things are certain in this life – death, taxes, and an industry-wide hubbub whenever Google launches an algorithm update. Like any year, 2022 has seen substantial changes in how the world’s largest search engine manages traffic and page rankings, with some businesses winning and others losing out.
Arguably the most significant change in 2022 is awareness of the rise of AI for content creation, becoming a hot topic in the world of marketing software. “Helpful content” updates have intended to bolster content written by human beings, penned with consumer needs in mind, over auto-generated articles designed to game the SEO system.
Has this been successful, or is the world of online marketing set for a rise of machines in 2023 and beyond? Similar to my last year’s column, let’s review the Google algorithm updates issued in 2022. I hope this helps you decide for yourself and build your business model around the latest developments in page ranking.
Complete list of 2022 Google updates
2022 has seen nine confirmed updates to Google’s algorithms, while an additional five instances of volatility were noticed and discussed by influential content marketing strategists across the year. We also saw one major data outage that caused a short-term panic! Let’s take a look at each of these updates in turn.
1) Unconfirmed, suspected update (January)
The core update of November 2021 was famously volatile, and just as web admins were coming to terms with a new status quo, further fluctuations were noted in early January 2021. Google remained tight-lipped about whether adjustments had been made to the algorithm, but sharp adjustments to SERPs were acknowledged across various industries.
2) Unconfirmed, suspected update (February)
Again, webmasters noticed a sudden temperature shift in page rankings in early February, just as things settled down after the January changes. While again unconfirmed by Google, these adjustments may have been laying the groundwork for the page experience update scheduled for later in the same month.
3) Page experience update (February)
Back in 2021, Google rolled out a page experience update designed to improve the mobile browsing experience. In February 2022, the same update was extended to encompass desktop browsing.
The consequences were not earth-shattering, but a handful of sites that previously enjoyed SERPs at the top of page one found their ranking drop. As with the mobile update, the driving forces behind the page experience update were performance measured against Google’s core web vitals.
4) Unconfirmed, suspected update (March)
Fluxes in page ranking and traffic were detected in mid-March, with enough chatter around the industry that Danny Sullivan, Public Liaison for Search at Google, felt compelled to confirm that he or his colleagues were unaware of any conscious updates.
5) Product reviews update (March)
March saw the first of three product review updates that would unfold throughout the year. As we’ll discuss shortly, ecommerce sites experienced a real shot in the arm throughout 2022 after the core updates, so this would prove to be a significant adjustment.
The fundamental aim of this product review update was to boost sites that offer more than just a template review of consumer goods – especially when linking to affiliates to encourage purchase. Best practice in product reviews following this update includes:
- Detailed specifications beyond those found in a manufacturer description, including pros and cons and comparisons to previous generations of the same item.
- Evidence of personal experience with a product to bolster the authenticity of the review, ideally in the form of a video or audio recording.
- Multiple links to a range of merchants to enhance consumer choice, rather than the popular model of linking to Amazon.
- Comparisons to rival products, explaining how the reviewed product stacks up against the competition – for good or ill.
The product review update did not punish or penalize sites that failed to abide by these policies, preferring to list a selection of items with brief (and arguably thin) copies to discuss their merits. However, sites, that offered more detail in their assessments quickly found themselves rising in the rankings.
6) Core update (May)
The first core update of the year is always a nerve-wracking event in the industry, and as always, there were winners and losers in May’s adjustments.
The most striking outcome of this update was just how many major names benefitted, especially in the realm of ecommerce, much to the delight ecommerce agencies around the world. Sites like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy saw considerable increases in traffic and prominence following the update, perhaps due to the product review update that unfolded two months prior.
Video sites also saw a spike in viewers and positioning following the May update. YouTube videos began outranking text articles while streaming services such as Disney Plus and Hulu rose to the top of many searches. Health sites began to see a slow and steady recovery after the May core update, for the first time since the rollout of 2018’s Medic update.
News and reference sites were the biggest losers in the May core update. News and media outlets suffered the most, especially those with a generic focus, such as the online arm of newspapers. Big hitters like Wikipedia and Dictionary.com were also pushed down the pecking order. Specialist sites that dedicate their reporting to a single area of interest fared a little better, but still took a hit in traffic and visibility.
7) Unconfirmed, suspected update (June)
Minor nips and tucks frequently follow when a major core update concludes. In late June, many webmasters started comparing notes on sharp changes in traffic and page ranking. Google failed to confirm any updates. These may have just been delayed aftershocks in the aftermath of May’s core update, but the industries that saw the biggest adjustments were:
- Property and real estate
- Hobbies and leisure
- Pets and animal care
8) Unconfirmed, suspected update (July)
More websites saw a sharp drop in traffic in late July, especially blogs that lacked a prominent social media presence. SERPs for smaller sites were among the biggest losers in this unconfirmed update.
9) Product reviews update (July)
A minor tweak to March’s product review update was announced and rolled out in July, but caused little impact – while some review sites saw traffic drop, most were untouched, especially in comparison to changes at the start of the year.
10) Data center outage (August)
Not an update but a notable event in the 2022 SEO calendar. In early August, Google Search experienced an overnight outage. This was revealed to be caused by a fire in a data center in Iowa, in which three technicians were injured (thankfully, there were no fatalities.)
This outage caused 48 hours of panic and chaos among web admins, with page rankings undergoing huge, unexpected fluctuations, a failure of newly-uploaded pages to be indexed, and evergreen content disappearing from Google Search.
Normal service was resumed within 48 hours, and these sudden changes were reversed. All the same, it led to a great deal of short-term confusion within the industry.
11) Helpful content update (August)
The first helpful content update of 2022 saw significant changes to the SEO landscape – and may change how many websites operate in the future.
As the name suggests, this update is engineered to ensure that the most helpful, consumer-focused content rises to the top of Google’s search rankings. Some of the elements targeted and penalized during this update were as follows.
|AI content||An increasing number of sites have been relying on AI to create content, amalgamating and repurposing existing articles from elsewhere on the web with SEO in mind. On paper, the helpful content update pushed human-generated content above these computerized texts.|
|Subject focus||As with the core update in May, websites that cover a broad range of subjects were likeliest to be hit by the helpful content update. Google has been taking steps to file every indexed website under a niche industry, so it’s easier for a target audience to find.|
|Expertise||The EAT algorithm has been the driving force behind page rankings for a while now, and the helpful content update has doubled down on this. Pages that offer first-hand experience of their chosen subject matter will typically outrank those based on external research.|
|User behavior||As a part of the helpful content update, Google is paying increasing attention to user behavior – most notably the time spent on a site. High bounce rates will see even harsher penalties in a post-helpful content update world.|
|Bait-and-switch titles||If your content does not match your title or H2 headings, your site’s ranking will suffer. Avoid speculation, too. Attempts to gain traffic by asking questions that cannot be answered (for example, a headline asking when a new show will drop on Netflix, followed by an answer of, “Netflix has not confirmed when >TV show name< will drop”) suffered in this update.|
|Word stuffing||Google has long denied that word count influences page ranking and advised against elongating articles for the sake of keyword stuffing. The helpful content update has made this increasingly important. 1,000 relevant words that answer a question quickly will outrank a meandering missive of 3,000 words packed with thin content.|
12) Core update (September)
The second core update of 2022 unfolded in September, hot on the heels of the helpful content update.
This update repaired some of the damage for reputable reference sites that suffered in May, while those impacted by the unconfirmed update in June continued to see fluctuations in visibility – some enjoyed sharp uptakes, while others continued to hemorrhage traffic.
The biggest ecommerce brands continued to enjoy success following this update, while news and media outlets continued to plummet in visibility. Household names like CNN and the New York Post, for example, were hit very hard.
The fortunes of medical sites also continued to improve, especially those with government domains. Interestingly, the trend for promoting videos over prose was reversed in September – YouTube was the biggest loser overall.
13) Product reviews update (September)
A final tweak was made to the product reviews update in September as part of the core update, and it proved to be unpopular with many smaller sites, which saw a substantial drop in traffic and conversions. As discussed, it seems that 2022’s core updates have benefitted the biggest hitters in the market.
14) Spam update (October)
In October, Google rolled out a 48-hour spam update. This was an extension of the helpful content updates designed to filter out irrelevant and inexpert search results, in addition to sites loaded with malicious malware or phishing schemes.
Sites identified as potential spam during the update were severely penalized in terms of page ranking and, in some cases, removed from Google Search altogether. The most prominent targets of the update were:
- Thin copy irrelevant to the search term, especially if auto-generated
- Hacked websites with malicious or irrelevant redirects and sites that failed to adopt appropriate security protocols
- Hidden links or excessive, unrelated affiliate links and pages
- Artificial, machine-generated traffic
15) Helpful content update (December)
Early in December, Google began rolling out an update to August’s helpful content update. At the time of writing, it’s too early to announce what the impact of this has been. However, it promises to be an interesting time.
The August update faced criticism for being too sedate and failing to crack down hard enough on offending sites, especially those that utilize AI content and black-hat SEO tactics.
Many site owners will be crossing their fingers and toes that this update boosts genuine, human-generated copy created by and for a website’s target audience. The impact will become evident early in 2023.
This concludes the summary of 2022’s Google algorithm updates. It’s been an interesting – and frequently tumultuous – twelve months, and one that may set the tone for the years to come.
Google will always tweak and finesse its policies, and attempting to second-guess what Alphabet will do next is frequently a fool’s errand. All the same, it’s always helpful to check in with Google’s priorities and see which way the wind is blowing.
Joe Dawson is Director of strategic growth agency Creative.onl, based in the UK. He can be found on Twitter @jdwn.
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