January 16th drops: Google update or end of year code freeze?
We’ve recognised a lot of flux and drops in Google from November – January – between large groups of sites within the same sector, and internally between category and landing pages – and obviously we’ve been trying to put our finger on just exactly why this is.
As with any level of fluctuation, there could be a number of reasons. Here’s a few:
- Google’s ongoing, real-time RankBrain signal (October 26, 2015)
- Google’s revision of its Quality Rater Guidelines (November 12, 2015)
- Talk of a quality related update known unofficially as “Phantom III” (November 19th, 2015)
- Google’s announcement that Panda is now part of its Core Algorithm (January 10th, 2016)
And now there’s one more to add to the list:
January 16th: Suspected update
Everyone was back in force on Twitter just a week after Google confirmed it’s Google Algorithm had been updated, to report and discuss the unusual and fairly drastic flux that they were seeing on January 16th. Similar speculation occurred around November 19th, 2015 regarding another unconfirmed update called “Phantom III”
Looking at Algoroo it’s pretty clear something occurred around January 16th – As we can see above, with spikes humorously coined “Burj Khalifa”.
January 16th update: Twitter explodes with talks of update
— AJ Ghergich (@SEO) January 17, 2016
— Ralf Seybold (@1stSEO) January 16, 2016
And Gary Illyes, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, confirmed that this fluctuation was still indeed off of the back of the Core Algorithm.
@AdilAdilrehman core algorithm. Not penguin
— Gary Illyes (@methode) January 18, 2016
But to us it seemed like there was more to it than this...
With the use of our enterprise SEO platform, we came across quite a few drops across the Finance industry, most notably within Confused.com and Compare the Market.
January 16th update: Compare the Market suffers drops across Insurance search terms
As we can see, Compare the Market incurred drops in its Insurance search terms across the board - but only momentarily - and recovered after a few days.
January 16th update: Confused.com also suffer drops across insurance related search terms
Confused.com's performance seemed to mirror Compare the Market's. It dropped out on January 16th and recovered almost immediately.
January 16th update: Confused.com pages which suffers drops actually have high quality content and UX
When we explored some of the pages which incurred a loss in positions, both via Confused.com and Compare the Market, we found to our surprise that they actually displayed a good amount of relevant copy.
January 16th update: What really happened?
As we've discovered, there were quite a few drops in a variety of sectors around the 16th of January, but we found on closer inspection that some of the worst affected didn't really seem to fit the bill of the "poorly optimised, content thin site", which we would usually have expected to see struggling as a result of a Google core update, quality-based algorithm update.
In fact, many of the pages which suffered around this time seemed to display healthy amounts of crawlable, unique copy.
Also, many of the sites affected seemed to return to their former rankings within only a few days. If the recent flux was a result of an algorithm update, then we'd usually expect them to take longer to recover. So, what really caused all this SERP madness?
Matt Cutts suggests that "End of year code freeze" is the reason for drastic January 16th drops
On January 26th, 2016, Matt Cutts, the Head of the Google's Webspam Team, was on TWIG#336 (This Week in Google) and went through Google's Core Algorithm Update in detail (below).
What he said that stood out to us the most, though, was that Google doesn't "tend not to roll out a lot of algorithmic changes right in mid-December" and instead "freeze[s] your code".
He also stated that "You see a lot of changes, often right at the beginning of the year, cause everything has been waiting to go out." and attributes the recent drastic flux to "a lot of stuff [that's] been building up in the pipeline."
So, that's that cleared up. It seems the arbitrary flux encountered over the last few weeks may simply be due to Google tinkering with code over the holidays - which is why recoveries tended to happen instantaneously. See more examples below from the Travel sector, which support this.
January 16th update: British Airways suffers drops in Holiday based search category, due to end of year code freeze, but recovers immediately
January 16th update: Low Cost Holidays also suffers drops in Holiday based search category due to end of year code freeze, and also recovers
Google's Core Algorithm Update did, however, cause permanent drops for some sites around January 16th...
January 16th update: Waitrose drop even further down in Google across Household terms
January 16th update: Waitrose also drop further in Google across Food Cupboard terms
It seems that some sites, like Waitrose, were actually affected by the quality based Core Google Algorithm Update, and not just by "End of year code freezes".
Waitrose positions have gone from bad to worse for a range of Household and Food Cupboard search terms, and since it hasn't really recovered, it seems that it's fallen foul of Google's Core Algorithm Update on January 10th, 2016.
How can I stave off the negative effects of an update?
As we've seen, there are multiple affecting factors in determining Google rankings and performance (RankBrain, Google's Core Algorithm, Phantom III etc.), so the key takeaway from this article is simple: You should always be prepared for an update - whether that's by creating detailed, relevant and unique copy for each page of your site, or implementing a strong spiderweb of links between your key collateral.
You should also be monitoring the performance of your content, and the general SERP landscape, on a daily basis in order to be able to react instantly to any form of update. Pi Datametrics is the only SEO platform that enables you to analyse both of these things everyday, and therefore helps you to prevent any devastating drops.
We now know for future years to expect lots of fluctuation in Google at the beginning of January due to the coding freeze that's implemented over the festive season, but we shouldn't become complacent. This flux could mask some serious drops which may become long-term, and therefore every bit of negative movement is a cause for concern and should be addressed in the first instance.