A Guide to Navigating Google’s Search Algorithm in 2023
14th September 2023
Google’s search algorithm informs one of the most powerful ways for businesses to reach relevant and valuable audiences worldwide: Google’s organic search results.
Connecting audiences with information in a fraction of a second, this algorithm may seem like the most critical aspect of SEO to focus on — an area to be mastered.
In practice, this would be as futile as training to outrun a cheetah in order to become the fastest human:
- It’s an impossible goal: Google is making constant updates to its search algorithm, with some being announced and some not.
- The goal will distract from human-specific factors that inspired you in the first place: Learning how to please an algorithm is not the same as learning how to please a human audience. If the latter is neglected, strong organic performance won’t last long.
Fortunately, the announcements Google does make about its algorithm updates are informative, instructive and helpful. Additionally, it’s possible to see and learn from organic search success stories which reflect Google’s search aspirations. All of this contributes to an understanding of what Google search is striving to achieve, where it’s heading, what it’s combatting and what systems are actively being used.
This understanding can underpin an effective approach to creating a great website that gets meaningful engagement from organic search audiences. In this guide, we’ll explore some of the most important elements to draw inspiration from.
Get to know Google’s reigning algorithm principles
When thinking about Google’s algorithm and where it’s going, revisiting the search engine’s key guidance for content creators is a good starting point.
The phrasing for Google’s content-based criteria (in other words, what Google wants to rank) has evolved over time. The most recent manifestation is an initialism known as E-E-A-T, which stands for experience, expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness. It’s important to be aware that this comes as part of Google’s wider topic on creating helpful, reliable, people-first content, but as E-E-A-T provides a more precise way of framing such content, it translates into more actionable guidance.
When using E-E-A-T as a launchpad for gauging the direction of organic search, be sure to test applying the principles in the context of both your domain and the content you’re creating.
If you have a site covering certain YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) topics where Google search needs to ensure high-quality content, E-E-A-T should provide inspiration for making your site stand out.
For example, think about the appropriate level of ‘expertise’ required for providing quality financial or medical advice compared to tips and tricks for a videogame.
Let’s explore each aspect of the E-E-A-T criteria in turn.
The ‘experience’ criterion was added to the existing E-A-T initialism in December 2022, which makes it a particularly interesting recent development and one that’s potentially indicative of the direction in which Google search is heading. It’s also notable that this update was made in close proximity to the helpful content update, which was also introduced in December 2022.
According to Google, experience plays an important role in situations where first-hand experience is deemed a desirable element of the most helpful content on a topic.
Against the current backdrop of proliferating AI content, experience is also a great way to showcase the human element that AI simply cannot compete with.
How to consider the experience factor in your content:
A good rule of thumb is to think about the best way to address your audience. If the content suggests a first-person perspective would be most helpful, that’s a good sign that a demonstration of experience should be factored in. Some examples of such content are travel guides, product reviews, and recipes.
How Go Up has employed the experience factor:
For Trade Nation, we created a guide on ‘How to start trading’ which used video content from first-time traders talking about their experience with the trading platform. This achieved first-page rankings shortly after and was a key driver for sign-ups.
In Google’s search rater guidelines (Google guidelines used by search raters to help evaluate its performance), the difference between electrical rewiring advice coming from a skilled electrician and a home antiques enthusiast is used as an example to distinguish expertise.
Bearing this in mind, it’s important to think about how expertise is communicated. For example, hallmarks of expertise can be found in the author (experience), content (quality) and domain (relevance). If any of these items are falling short, the others are likely to automatically be insufficient too. In this way, it’s important to think of how the principles of E-E-A-T can stack.
How to consider the expertise factor in your content:
Whether you’re creating content yourself or are working with a team, put yourself in the reader’s shoes and ask yourself if your domain and the attributed author are sufficiently credible to create the planned content.
Beyond this, it’s also worth thinking about how expert information is presented on your website. This applies to the expertly created content and the person behind it. For the former, make information easy to digest across all devices. For the latter, enable the reader to see that there is an author and that they’re an expert in their field.
How Go Up has employed the expertise factor:
For Bywaters, we ran a content strategy that unlocked the dormant expertise that their domain already possessed. Having already established a great reputation as a sustainable waste management company, our content strategy saw us leveraging this expertise in the format of focused informational content which covered important aspects of their value proposition.
Authoritativeness is the first criterion where Google asks its search raters to look for reputational information outside the website itself. This means there is a marked benefit to being cited in an authoritative context on a website other than your own.
This is another point where it’s vital to think about context.
For example, receiving numerous external citations from highly regarded websites on one topic doesn’t mean your organic will improve for another.
How to consider the authority factor in your content:
Take the same approach that Google encourages for its search raters on determining authority: Google your company and monitor the results where you’re mentioned. You can also do this for your competition and find opportunities for coverage that may be beneficial.
How Go Up has employed the authority factor:
On the Inpay SEO campaign, our digital PR team matched the expertise of Inpay with the most highly regarded publications in their field. This resulted in external coverage from expert publications which Inpay were also able to harness as a trustworthiness factor.
Out of the full range of the E-E-A-T criteria, Google has said that “trust is most important”. Google also acknowledges that the full range contributes to trust, so there’s an opportunity to revisit them to consider the trust factor they unlock.
Depending on your context, there are also certain trust-based user expectations that are important to fulfill.
For online retailers, for example, an easily found and detailed contact page is absolutely necessary.
How to consider the trustworthiness factor in your content:
Consider the other factors described by E-E-A-T and see how they can be put to use to demonstrate trustworthiness. You should also consider your website from the perspective of a new visitor and rate it based on what you expect to find.
How Go Up has employed the trustworthiness factor:
For Amigo Loans, we knew we were dealing with a YMYL topic. Part of our campaign’s success was based on converting and consolidating informational content which was thin and difficult to navigate to. By making key guidance more accessible and easier to digest, the site became a far more trustworthy resource.
Monitor indications of where the algorithm is going
We’re going to assume you’re keeping a keen eye on Google Analytics and Google Search Console, and observing changes in the search results where you’re competing. While these are key activities for any SEO campaign, any changes you’ve been witnessing aren’t necessarily indicative forecasts of Google’s changing appetites.
Keeping an eye on the bigger picture is just as valuable as closely monitoring the progress of your own website and competitors.
Fortunately, Google provides an algorithm update history which allows us to investigate recent developments and unpack insights that hint at Google’s vision for the future.
At Go Up, we believe the helpful content update in December 2022 and the information gain patent that came before it were especially indicative.
June 2022: the information gain patent
Prior to the helpful content update, but seemingly devised in relation to it, Google was granted a patent on “information gain score” in June 2022. In simple terms, this patent allows Google to calculate how unique content is from the rest of the content in that topic area. The search engine can then use this metric to actively promote or demote content based on how unique it is.
This would effectively allow Google to target AI-generated content and new content farms. This is because AI-generated content and content farms often produce content that is not unique, as they are simply regurgitating information from other sources. As a result, this content is ripe for demotion.
Even content that consists of different words arranged differently could be demoted if it lacks uniqueness.
This is because Google is looking for content that provides new and valuable information to users. If your content does not offer anything new, it is unlikely to be ranked highly by Google.
December 2022: the timely helpful content update
For many digital marketers, 2022 will have been the year that AI came onto the radar as a seemingly genuine productivity-boosting resource for the first time.
Its proliferation went hand-in-hand with AI adoption — for instance, in November, CNET used AI to help write 77 published stories which covered topics including home equity loans and closing bank accounts. For everyone witnessing, it seemed as though mass-scale content generation was right around the corner.
It’s likely no coincidence that the end of 2022 saw Google releasing its helpful content update, designed to “better ensure people see original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results”.
The phrase ‘written by people, for people, in search results’ effectively eliminates the value of AI in content for Google search without rigorous and deeply human-led editorial processes.
It was also in December 2022 that Google added the extra E for experience to E-E-A-T, something that AI will never be able to rival a human on.
What does this mean for where Google’s going?
In short, Google wants to rank content that demonstrates E-E-A-T to an extent that it could not have been solely produced by AI. Think along the lines of richer and diversified content experiences. The information gain score and helpful content system are forcing innovation in the content marketing space, and content creators are now under more pressure to produce unique and valuable content that will rank well in Google search results.
This is leading to the creation of more high-quality content that is more helpful to users, especially with ‘experience’ as a key factor.
Know what an algorithm update looks like
Navigating an algorithm update requires you to know when they’ve happened and whether you’ve been impacted. Just because your traffic has improved or declined near an algorithm update, that’s not necessarily the reason why.
While Google has a good habit of announcing the start and end of core algorithm updates, they may still occur while websites are undergoing technical changes or entering a season where search demand changes radically. Both of these could massively alter the amount of traffic and impressions a website receives in organic search.
You wouldn’t want to mistake these changes for an algorithm update and take the wrong course of action as a result.
It’s important to be aware of what may be impacting any visibility changes that you witness. Daniel Waisberg, Search Advocate at Google created this image to help people diagnose traffic changes.
Respond to an algorithm update appropriately
If you have been hit by an algorithm update, it’s key to understand the extent to which this has occurred. The first port of call should be understanding your data sources.
Google Analytics and Google Search Console can sometimes present large sums of data which are easy to misunderstand.
With a reporting framework that filters important website perspectives, it’s much easier to see what’s changed and how to take action.
At Go Up, we use bespoke Google Looker Studio reports to create a series of dashboards which specifically examines areas of a website that are critical for business success. With detailed reporting, it’s easy to rule out red herrings.
For example, there may have been growing clicks and impressions for irrelevant terms that were dialled back by an algorithm update. This could cause Google Analytics and Google Search Console to spell massive organic search declines, post-update. However, this traffic was never valuable and there’s likely no need to take any action.
When you understand the level of impact and the dust has settled on the completion of the algorithm update, it’s important to evaluate your new site’s standing and your previous and new competitors for target terms.
If you can eliminate other factors, including technical hygiene, seasonality and reporting glitches, it’s time to consider the application of E-E-A-T factors.