SEO In 2019: A Year In Review.
As we ascend (or descend depending on how your first week of the new year went) into 2020, it’s time to review 2019 and focus on the most important, interesting and fun topic possible: search engine optimisation. So, what has 2019 brought the SEO world and how will this year’s events and changes affect us in 2020? Read my blog as I go through the biggest changes for SEO over the past year.
Mobile-first indexing is an update which can be traced all the way back to 2016. This was an updated which changed the way Googlebot viewed, indexed and ultimately ranked your website. Back in the day, Google would use the desktop version of a website to index and rank your website. However, as the share of mobile users on Google increased (reaching 65% in 2019) Google made a common sense decision: websites should be indexed and ranked based on their performance on mobile. At first, this was quite a big deal. At the first announcement, Google was already ranking mobile-responsive websites higher than those that weren’t responsive. However, still into 2016 many websites weren’t responsive, instead they opted to hide/show content depending on the user’s device, or even use a subdomain for mobile users – for these people, mobile indexing was a huge issue.
Roll forward 3 years into 2019, and mobile-first indexing is reaching completion for roll-out. In May of 2019, Mobile-first indexing became the default choice for all newly created websites. Previously Google would monitor a website and change to mobile-first indexing when the webmaster made the appropriate changes to ensure the website is actually responsive and compatible with mobile indexing. This change shows the importance of mobile devices, and a mobile-focus within Search is here to stay.
In September 2019, Google announced a big update on the way it handled the ‘nofollow’ tag, and added two extra optional tags to provide extra insight. Before this update, any link with a ‘nofollow’ tag would not get any credit (or ‘link juice’) when found by Google. However, due to many big publishing websites employing a blanket no-follow attribute on any external link, Google finally took action and now treats nofollow as a hint rather than a directive – meaning Googlebot can actually make a choice on whether to give credit to a nofollow link or not (many SEOs believe Googlebot actually behaved like this before this update was announced.)
Another part of the update was the addition of two entirely new attributes: ‘ugc’ and ‘sponsored.’ This allows webmasters to give additional insight into a link. UGC means User Generated Content, which can be anything on a website created by a user – such as a comment on a blog. Sponsored means – yep you guessed it – the link is part of a sponsorship/advertisement, and therefore is a paid link.
Google has given no insight into how these new attributes are handled in relation to nofollow and dofollow and says adopting the new attributes is entirely voluntarily: websites using the new attributes will not be given any sort of ranking boost and websites that don’t use the new attributes won’t be penalised.
It will be very interesting to see how Google decides to weigh and handle these new attributes in the future.
In October 2019, Google announced the BERT update and claimed it to be the biggest update to Google Search for the past 5 years. BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) is a technology Google started rolling out into Google Search which allowed the search engine to understand queries better than ever before through the improved use and recognition of synonyms, related phrases, prepositions etc.
With this update came mass-confusion in the SEO world – even more confusion than usual when releases a big update. SEOs around the world demanded to know the secrets on how to optimise for this strange new ranking signal called BERT… until they found out it’s not a ranking signal at all, it just allows Google to understand longer, and “controversial” queries better than it previously could.
Some Smaller Updates.
In June 2019, shortly after releasing a Core Algorithm update, Google announced the release of the website diversity update. The aim of this update was to limit the amount of times a single website could show for a search query to two (although this could sometimes be expanded to three results.) This update also began to treat subdomains as part of the root domain: meaning in Google’s eyes, a subdomain and root domain are all the same website.
This site diversity change means that you usually won't see more than two listings from the same site in our top results. However, we may still show more than two in cases where our systems determine it’s especially relevant to do so for a particular search….— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) 6 June 2019
In February 2019, Google published a white paper to explain how it counters disinformation in Google products including Search, News and YouTube. It was in this white paper that Google acknowledge that it changes the weight of certain ranking signals and algorithms depending on the search query: namely searches which have an impact on the user’s well-being. These searches are known as YMYL queries or YMYL websites (Your Money or Your Life.) An example can be someone searching for medicine, Google will increase the weight on it’s EAT algorithm (Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness) to ensure only professional and trusted content written by experts is ranked and visible to users.