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Paola Bergamini
28 January 2021
Reading time: 6 min.

Google December 2020 Core Update: what changed with the latest Google update

The “December 2020 Core Update,” i.e., the latest Google algorithm update, was released on December 3rd, just before the Christmas holidays. Here’s what changed and the impacts of this core update.

The year that just ended certainly didn’t spare itself in terms of upheavals, and as if that weren’t enough, Google saw to adding another shakeup to an already tumultuous 2020 with the release of its “December 2020 Core Update,” the latest update of its algorithm.

If marketers were hoping to peacefully take some time off, at least to celebrate the end of the year, this latest update saw to crushing that last hope too. The first side effects were felt as early as December 4th: if the January 2020 update led to an average volatility of 8 points, that of December caused volatility rates that reached peaks from 9 to 9.4 points in almost all categories.

So let’s see if now, more than a month later, these initially recorded changes led to any real consequences and what actually changed with this latest update.

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What is the Google Core Update?

The Google Core Update is an update of the criteria used by the Google algorithms that occurs with a certain periodicity. There were three main updates in 2020: January, May, and December.

The aim of these updates is to optimize the crawling, indexing, and positioning activities carried out by the search engine to offer users increasingly accurate answers that meet their needs.  In particular, Google’s latest updates have focused on improving the analysis of web page contents carried out by Rank Brain, the algorithm’s artificial intelligence. In fact, the goal is to further refine the ability of this artificial intelligence to understand the intent of a person’s search at a semantic level in order to reward web pages that offer users quality content. 

However, we don’t know what this latest update actually consisted of. There are very few certainties when it comes to core updates: Google never explains the practical changes in the work of its algorithms, merely limiting itself to officially announcing its updates, as was also the case in December 2020.

What are the possible impacts of an update?

Any update of the criteria on which Google’s algorithms are based can have an impact on the positioning of any website in search results, in any part of the world and in any language.

When Google announces an update, it therefore means that the positioning of your website may be subject to positive or negative changes, depending on your sector and the keywords that interest you. 

After an update, the so-called “roller coaster” effect is likely to occur, i.e. a few days of adjustments during which a web page can quickly lose and acquire positions in the SERP, meaning the list of web page results related to the query entered. To verify the actual impacts of an update, you must therefore wait for such adjustments to subside before evaluating the real changes at the end of the adjustment period. In its official announcement tweet, Google itself anticipated that the update would take a couple of weeks to settle, announcing it would fully roll out by December 16:

So an update can be an opportunity to see your website rewarded and climb up the list of search results, or it can penalize your business, with a drop in visits to your site that can easily cause a drop in sales on your e-commerce site, in requests for services, in downloads of resources, etc.

The consequences of the December 2020 Core Update

Effects similar to the previous update of May 2020 were seen in the weeks following the release of the December 2020 Core Update, with very high volatility peaks that led to predicting one of the most significant incidences of the last two years’ updates.

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According to data from SEMRush Sensor, in the first few days after its release the sectors most affected by the changes in the update were real estate, travel, health, books, animals, work, and education, all categories already particularly affected by the impacts of the pandemic.

At the category level, the websites which were penalized most and lost the most positions were those for online dating, followed by shopping and news sites:

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On the side of the winners, we instead find the categories Business & Industrial, Internet & Telecom and Beauty & Fitness:

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According to the SEO community, the December 2020 Core Update was undoubtedly an important update of great impact: those who suffered the impacts of this update (negative or positive) witnessed a change from 10% up to even reaching 100% compared to their previous ranking levels.

How to understand why you were penalized and what to do to remedy it

There’s nothing wrong with pages that may perform less well in a core update. They haven’t violated our webmaster guidelines nor been subjected to a manual or algorithmic action, as can happen to pages that do violate those guidelines. In fact, there’s nothing in a core update that targets specific pages or sites. Instead, the changes are about improving how our systems assess content overall. These changes may cause some pages that were previously under-rewarded to do better. […] Pages that drop after a core update don’t have anything wrong to fix. This said, we understand those who do less well after a core update change may still feel they need to do something. We suggest focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”

This is what Google declares on its blog for webmasters. There is therefore nothing wrong with pages that are penalized by an algorithm because those pages have not violated any guidelines.

Google invites those who have been penalized to focus on the quality of the content offered and to consult a series of tips shared on the blog that can help them understand the potential reasons why they were penalized and how to improve their website to gain positions in the next updates.  These tips are nothing more than questions you should honestly answer to test your site’s quality and effectiveness:

  • Does your site offer original and valuable content?
  • Are the titles and descriptions engaging and consistent with the content?
  • Would you share your content with friends?
  • Is your content reliable? Does your web page contain errors?
  • Does the content seem well thought out? Are there too many ads? Is the site displayed correctly on all devices?
  • Does the site have an added value compared to other competitors? Does the content meet users’ needs and expectations?

Our advice is to always monitor your website and try to keep it updated, constantly taking care of the quality of its content and optimizing browsing. Keep Google’s tips in mind and focus on always offering valuable content rather than optimizing your site for a particular algorithm update. If Google updates are increasingly oriented towards awarding quality and value, your work will inevitably be rewarded by future updates and your site will maintain a good positioning over the long term. 

Summing up

Updates to the operating criteria of Google’s algorithms can prove decisive for the positioning of your web pages and have significant impacts on your business.

Constantly monitoring these updates and how they affect your chance of being found on search pages is essential: analyze your positioning and periodically review the quality of your website using the guidelines suggested by Google.

Make sure you always offer quality content that gives added value and always keep your site updated to avoid being penalized by the next core updates.

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Paola Bergamini

I was born in 1993 in Como and I escaped from this little town to study in Milan, where I graduated in 2017 in philosophy. I've always been interested in marketing and communication and I love writing and reading. As Content Editor at MailUp, I try to keep up to date with Email and Digital Marketing news, in order to share trends, theories and tools about this constantly evolving sector.

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