Monday, June 24, 2024

Can 10 Pages Impact Sitewide Rankings?

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Google’s John Mueller answered a question about sitewide impacts on a site with ten pages that lost rankings in the March/April 2024 Core Update then subsequently experienced a sitewide collapse in May.

Can 10 Pages Trigger A Sitewide Penalty?

The person asking the question on Reddit explained that they had ten pages (out of 20,000 pages) that were hit by the Helpful Content Update (HCU) in September 2023. They subsequently updated the pages which eventually recovered their rankings and traffic. Things were fine until the the same ten pages got slammed by the March/April core update. The precise date of the second ranking drop event was April 20th.

Up to that point the rest of the site was fine. Only the same ten pages were affected. That changed on May 7th when the site experienced a sitewide drop in rankings across all 20,000 pages of the website.

Their question was if the ten problematic pages triggered a sitewide impact or whether the May 7th collapse was due to the Site Reputation Abuse penalties that were announced on May 6th.

A Note About Diagnosing Ranking Drops

I’m not commenting specifically about the person who asked the question but… the question has the appearance of correlating ranking drops with specific parts of announced algorithm updates.

Here is the exact wording:

“Our website has about 20K pages, and we found that around 10 pages were hit by HCU in September. We updated those articles and saw a recovery in traffic, but after the March core update around April 20, the same pages were hit again, likely due to HCU. On May 7th, we saw a sharp drop in rankings across the board, and suspect that a sitewide classifier may have been applied.

Question: Can an HCU hit on 10 pages cause a sitewide classifier for 20K pages? Or on May 7th reputation abuse update may had an impact?”

In general it’s reasonable to assume that a ranking drop is connected to a recently announced Google update when the dates of both events match. However, it bears pointing out that a core algorithm update can affect multiple things (for example query-content relevance) and it should be understood that the HCU is no longer a single system.

The person asking the question is following a pattern that I often see which is that they’re assuming that ranking drops are due to something wrong with their site but that’s not always the case, it could be changes in how Google interprets a search query (among many other potential reasons).

The other potential mistake is assuming that the problem is related to a specific algorithm. The person asking the question assumes they were hit by the HCU system, which is something that no longer exists. All the elements of the HCU were subsumed into the core ranking algorithm as signals.

Here is what Google’s documentation says about what happened to the HCU:

Is there a single “helpful content system” that Google Search uses for ranking?
Our work to improve the helpfulness of content in search results began with what we called our “helpful content system” that was launched in 2022. Our processes have evolved since. There is no one system used for identifying helpful content. Instead, our core ranking systems use a variety of signals and systems.”

While Google is still looking for helpfulness in content there is no longer a helpful content system that’s de-ranking pages on specific dates.

The other potential evidence of faulty correlation is when the Redditor asked if their May 7th sitewide collapse was due to the site reputation abuse penalties. The site reputation abuse penalties weren’t actually in effect by May 7th. On May 6th it was announced that site reputation abuse manual actions would begin at some point in the near future.

Those are two examples of how it can be misleading to correlate site ranking anomalies with announced updates. There is more to diagnosing updates than correlating traffic patterns to announced updates. Site owners and SEOs who diagnose problems in this manner risk approaching the solution like someone who’s focusing on the map instead of looking at the road.

Properly diagnosing issues requires understanding the full range of technical issues that can impact a site and algorithmic changes that can happen on Google’s side (especially unannounced changes). I have over 20 years experience and know enough to be able to identify anomalies in the SERPs that indicate changes to how Google is approaching relevance.

Complicating the diagnosis is that sometimes it’s not something that needs “fixing” but rather it’s more about the competition is doing something more right than the sites that lost rankings. More right can be a wide range of things.

Ten Pages Caused Sitewide “Penalty”?

John Mueller responded by first addressing the specific issue of sitewide ranking collapse, remarking that he doesn’t think it’s likely that ten pages would cause 20,000 other pages to lose rankings.

John wrote:

“The issues more folks post about with regards to core updates tend to be site-wide, and not limited to a tiny subset of a site. The last core update was March/April, so any changes you’d be seeing from May would be unrelated. I’m not sure how that helps you now though :-), but I wouldn’t see those 10 pages as being indicative of something you need to change across 20k other pages.”

Sometimes It’s More Than Announced Updates

John Mueller didn’t offer a diagnosis of what is wrong with the site, that’s impossible to say without actually seeing the site. SEOs on YouTube, Reddit and Facebook routinely correlate ranking drops with recently announced updates but as I wrote earlier in this article, that could be a mistake.

When diagnosing a drop in rankings it’s important to look at the site, the competition and the SERPs.

Do:

  • Inspect the website
  • Review a range of keywords and respective changes in the SERPs
  • Inspect the top ranked sites

Don’t:

  • Assume that a ranking drop is associated with a recent update and stop your investigation right there.

Google’s John Mueller alludes to the complexity of diagnosing ranking drops by mentioning that sometimes it’s not even about SEO, which is 100% correct.

John explained:

“Based on the information you posted, it’s also impossible to say whether you need to improve / fix something on those 20k pages, or if the world has just moved on (in terms of their interests, their expectations & your site’s relevance).

It sounds like you did find things to make more “helpful” on those 10 pages, maybe there’s a pattern? That’s something for you to work out – you know your site, its content, its users best. This isn’t an easy part of SEO, sometimes it’s not even about SEO.”

Look At The Road Ahead

It’s been a trend now that site owners focus on recent announcements by Google as clues to what is going on with their sites. It’s a reasonable thing to do and people should 100% keep doing that. But don’t make that the limit of your gaze because there is always the possibility that there is something else going on.

Featured Image by Shutterstock/vovan

Read the discussion on Reddit:

If 5-10 pages are hit by HCU, can it cause a sitewide classifier to be applied?



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