Organic Search, true news and the burden of trust
How a crisis of trust is sending Search organic again
Helene Klaustrup is SEO Director at Anything is Possible.
Organic search optimisation has leapt to become one of the most relevant and effective channels connecting organisations with the people who need to hear from them.
In 2020 the whole world turned to Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo - not to discover the latest cool stuff, but for life-or-death guidance on surviving an unprecedented threat.
In the carefree 2010s, trust in online sources flatlined for any information more important than finding the best restaurant. High value terms were either sewn up by the world’s big brands - or you paid your premium to get that all-important real estate at the top of the results page.
But recent events reminded us, and the people behind the algorithms, of the importance of organic search for surfacing trusted, relevant content. So the major search platforms are re-emphasising the value of trusted expert content, and that re-opens organic search as a channel for consumers to navigate the storm, bringing new demands for trust, relevance and reliability.
This has fed the ongoing tectonic battles between the web giants. Google are emphasising user experience not through fancy features or tools, but through trust.
Going back to basics, giving their users information they know they can trust with the big issues in their lives. This is a great differentiator, but it hinges on Google being able to keep that reputation intact.
The win for web marketers lies in this feedback loop of trust. High rankings become an automatic trust signal reserved for reliable brands.
A good position on the search results instantly deepens the user’s perception and relationship with your brand. This dependence on the trust inherent to the search engine itself is a point where exciting search challengers like Mojeek are making a difference.
So websites used to gaming the system to hit the top of the page are going to have to start again.
This time, they’re going to have to be serious.
Reactive algo improvements and known unknowns
In line with the changes to all our lives, the pressure on brands and on search engines to deliver relevant and trustworthy information has increased.
We know that sometimes Google is fast to respond to current events with far-reaching algorithm changes. In 2019 search results were altered in response to the US’ worst year for mass shootings. (Sadly, as the world became more stressful under the pandemic, 2020 would go on to be even worse.)
Despite the unpredictable impact it can have on SEO, it is simple ethics on Google’s part to take their role as the world’s information broker seriously, and change their algorithm to upweight authority during times of crisis.
It's inevitable that the same happened in response to COVID-19.
This was probably actioned globally around March 2020 and not yet been lifted. Google hasn’t officially confirmed or denied whether this is the case, but it seems that more authoritative sites have indeed been performing well.
And if that wasn’t enough to get your head around, Google recently launched a big core update.
These big changes to Google’s core algorithms launch periodically, and the latest rolled out in December 2020 with sweeping changes in rankings across a wide set of industries. It’s safe to say that this latest algorithm update has been one of the biggest in recent years.
Taking a quick snapshot of the winners and losers as published by Searchmetrics, we can see established household name sites are among the biggest winners.
It’s difficult to say whether these sites are benefitting because of their klout or because they produce high quality content - because the two thankfully often go hand-in-hand. As they should.
Just as 2020 was a year like no other, December 2020’s algorithm update was also atypical. Normally, core updates affect all pages of a website, or at the very least entire site sections. But this update appears to have affected individual queries.
This means some sites have seen drops for some queries around a topic, but have seen increases in other queries for that same topic.
Initially, it appeared that sites with gaps in their Expertise, Authority and Trust scores (aka E-A-T) were hardest hit, but as the algorithm change rolled out, the impact has evolved and we’ve seen even sites with strong Authority scores hit hard.
This points towards E-A-T being considered holistically as three conjoined requirements - you shouldn’t prioritise one over the others.
So, what to do if you’ve been hit by this latest algorithm update?
Because this update truly appears to be so broad, there isn’t a single thing that everyone who has been negatively impacted should focus on. Instead, you need to analyse your specific domain to pinpoint why your site is affected and the actions you need to take to get back on track.
And continuing to look ahead to 2021, there will be further disruptions, many positive, from the expectation that passage based indexing will come into effect.
This somewhat misleadingly named change - it should more accurately be called passage based ranking - was expected at the end of 2020, but at the end of December Google confirmed that it has not yet been rolled out.
Once it arrives, we will see indexing of individual passages or sections of your web page appearing in search results, ranking on their own merit for relevant queries.
Despite Google’s official statement, we’ve seen recent search queries where specific passages were shown upon clicking through from quick answer cards. This aligns with Google’s move to ignore pagination tags back in 2019, and will likely mean that longer-form content pages will begin to perform better.
It’s beginning to feel inevitable that E-A-T will become even more important to your SEO.
(If all this talk of E-A-T is making you hungry for a quick snack, here’s my takeaway guide to making E-A-T work for you).
While we continue to adapt, work and live through the peak of the global pandemic, E-A-T can only grow in importance for websites trying to rank, especially for money, science or health-related terms.
And as we prepare to emerge from the corona crisis in the coming months (fingers crossed!), that’s where you should focus for long-term search success.