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The January 2020 Core Update: Data & Analysis

January 2020 Core Update Banner

It did not take long for Google to release its first confirmed core algorithm update of 2020. Just two weeks into the new year, Google announced the release of what it has called the January 2020 Core Update. Right from the get-go, all signs pointed to this update being on the larger and more impactful side. Here is a look at the update's overall impact on rank stability, a per niche rank volatility analysis, and a comparison in scope and size to a recent unconfirmed update. 

In other words.... How big was the January 2020 Core Update and who did it impact the most? 

The Overall Impact of the January 2020 Core Update


The update began on January 14th where our Rank Risk Index caught fluctuations reaching a risk level of 107. What does a risk level of 107 mean? It means that the fluctuation increase being tracked was pretty drastic. For example, the March 2019 Core Update saw a risk level high of 89 while the September 2019 Core Update saw a risk level of 79. Clearly this update was "big."

Core Update Rank Fluctuations

As the days progressed, the update's impact waned with lower and lower volatility being reflected by the index on desktop. Mobile showed a slightly different pattern with the third day of the update's roll-out showing an increase in rank volatility that surpassed what was recorded during the second day of the update. 

In terms of length per se, this update's roll-out was a bit longer than is typically seen with the core updates. While the most recent update took over four days to fully roll-out, the September 2019 core update only lasted two days while both the June and March 2019 Core Updates were done and over within just three days. 

Per Niche Volatility Increases During the January 2020 Core Update 


To get a better sense of how the update's impact was manifest I broke down the overall volatility increases by niche, specifically the Travel, Retail, Finance, and Health niches: 

Jan 2020 Core Update Data

There are a few important things to take away from the data here: 

  • One of the unique behaviors of core updates is their impact at the top of the SERP. This was most noticeably reflected here within the Finance and Health niches. 
  • Like with almost all other core updates, *YMYL (Your Money Your Life) niches tended to show significantly higher levels of volatility than non-YMYL niches. 
* Per the Quality Raters Guidelines (QRG), commerce sites would fall under the YMYL umbrella. However, Google has said that the QRG sees E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) differently for commerce sites. Google does use "signals as proxy" to determine E-A-T algorithmically. Thus, it makes sense that the Retail niche, as a rule,  does not see the same level of volatility as say the Health niche during a core update.

  • Rank volatility overall, i.e., when looking at the top 10 positions on the SERP, was extremely volatile during this update. 

Understanding the Relative Power of the January 2020 Update: An Algorithm Update Comparison 

Being that high levels of rank volatility is a relative number, I wanted to get a better sense of how significant the update was relative to recent volatility trends. To do this I compared the volatility increases seen during the January 2020 Core Update to an unconfirmed algorithm update that took place on December 6, 2019.

In early December 2019, instead of rank fluctuations reaching a risk level of 107, a far more moderate 82 was recorded by our index: 

Dec. 6 Rank Fluctuations

To help paint a clearer understanding of just how powerful the January 2020 Core Update was, I compared its volatility to the December 6th unconfirmed update at the top 3, top 5, and top 10 results on the SERP. 

Top 3 Results 

Jan 2020 Core Update Data Top 3 Results

As the January 2020 update did not heavily impact (or as heavily impact) non-YMYL niches at the top of the SERP the only discrepancy between the two updates most clearly exists within the Health and Finance niches. In fact, the Retail niche saw more rank volatility at these positions during the December update than it did in January. In any case, the data from the Retail niche during the December update does not take away from the overall potency of the January core update (as will be shown below). 

In terms of the increases per se, the Finance niche saw a 1,833% increase in volatility during the January update when compared to the early December update with the Health niche showing a 77% increase! 

Top 5 Results 


Jan 2020 Core Update Data Top 5 Results

When looking at the top five results on the SERP the Travel niche starts to show some distance between the volatility it underwent during the December update relative to the January update. Specifically, the Travel niche in January saw a 24% rank volatility increase relative to the data it displayed during the December update. 

Of course, and as can be seen, the Finance and Health niches were also considerably more volatile at these positions during the January core update than they were during the December unconfirmed update. 

Top 10 Results

Jan 2020 Core Update Data Top 10 Results

The data on the top 10 results overall highlights the discrepancy between the two updates. The volatility increases when comparing the two updates when considering the top 10 results were as follows: 

Travel: 105% increase
Retail: 48% increase
Finance: 36% increase
Health: 61% increase

It is interesting that the Health and Finance niches do not show as large an overall discrepancy in volatility increases between the two updates. The two most logical possibilities as I see them are: Either the Travel niche was hit particularly hard during the January update or the Health and Finance niches are generally predisposed to more volatility. More research is needed.  

That said, the overarching theme here is that the January 2020 Core Update was clearly and significantly more volatile than the December 6th, 2019 unconfirmed update. 

What to Do When Hit by a Core Update


Google says that its core updates have to do with relevancy and that the best thing to do is just to create great content. The key here is to understand what 'great content' means to Google. After all, what was once considered quality content may no longer be seen as quality content in an age of machine learning properties that continuously evolve. 

Ever since the Medic Update of August 2018, I've seen that Google displays a tendency towards the profiling of sites, i.e., looking at their identity in order to see if the site a) has a strong identity (as identity and authority are the flipsides of each other) and b) if there are any conflicts in identity that would call the site's trustworthiness into question. It's actually here that I think the tendency of the updates to impact YMYL sites comes into focus. 

That said, finding site-level patterns within the January 2020 Core Update was a bit difficult (in truth, it's always quite difficult). As such, I don't have any concrete revelations for you. That said, and keep in mind that this is entirely my opinion and not based on an exhaustive survey of countless sites, I did notice that some product landing pages lacking in core messaging got dinged here. These pages tended to have ancillary content on the page that either is not related to the core intent of the page itself or where the connection of such content to the page's core intent is not readily transparent.  

Seeing this does make sense when you consider Google's tendency to ensure a site's/page's identity is crisp, clear, and unconflicted (as I mentioned earlier). Again, I want to make sure we're all on the same page here... this is not a data-based analysis... this is just my anecdotal offerings based on a few pages I have analyzed. 

What's Next? 


What's Next

What's next? The continued evolution of Google's machine learning and the adjustments to rank that come with it!

Google is only going to get better and better at looking at sites qualitatively and making adjustments to rank in the form of core updates as time goes on. An obvious point, I know. However, I'm not making it in order to elucidate some sort of new and novel SEO sophistication. Rather, I want to help drive the point that along with Google's increasingly developed qualitative analysis should be a more holistic site and page analysis on our end. I am not discrediting the role and importance of technical SEO and such. That said, I very much feel we should begin to analyze content, pages, and sites from a more "human" perspective. 

About The Author
Mordy is the official liaison to the SEO community for Wix. Despite his numerous and far-reaching duties, Mordy still considers himself an SEO educator first and foremost. That's why you’ll find him regularly releasing all sorts of original SEO research and analysis!

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