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Understanding Google’s November 2019 Search Algo Update: 11 Sites Analyzed

For the first time since I started blogging – back in 2008 – I have been massively hit by a Google Search algorithm update. What makes it even worse is that this time, my biggest sites – my main ones – were hit.

So I decided to dig a bit deeper and try to find out the reasons for the penalties (or the traffic boosts, if any). I will share with you my findings today and it will surely be an interesting read, although I must warn you that the conclusions won’t be too obvious.

For today’s article, I have the Google Analytics data of 11 websites. I will share with you how the November Update affected them all, share with you the niches of the websites and try to find some common grounds.

It’s worth saying that although I read online that this Google Search update started on November 5th, 2019, in my case the effects started to be felt on November 8th and it’s still pretty early to see the extent of the effects because movements are still made even today, on November 10th.

I will make sure to update this article if anything notable changes, but until then, let’s dig in to the data. It’s the first time ever that I share this kind of data with the world, but I just felt that I had to get it out of my system and maybe regain some sanity. Because this Google Update hurt!

Websites, Analytics & Notes

Out of the 11 websites that I will analyze below, 2 of them don’t seem to have been affected by the update at all. 3 of them got a boost in traffic, while 6 of them saw a big hit.

I am also comparing the traffic stats in the screenshots below with the same period of the previous year as I believe this is how comparisons should be made and not previous week.

So, just to make things clear – the ORANGE bar shows last year’s traffic in the same period, while the BLUE bar is the traffic this year.

Part I: Blogs with no apparent penalty

Website #1 – Health Niche

This is a blog that I started 5 years ago in the health niche, talking about a very specific condition that I’ve been dealing with. It has high quality content but few links – all White Hat (so no guest posts or bought links).

The blog was hit by all the previous Google Updates, but apparently it has been ignored by this one. Traffic is still some 64% lower than last year, despite me editing many articles to make them even more complete and useful (which has seen some minor improvements in the User behavior).

I was actually hoping for a boost here after all the changes and improvements, but it appears that it wasn’t enough for Google. But with how things stand at the moment, I’ll take anything that’s not a traffic drop and call it a win!

Website #2 – Travel Niche

This is a website about a particular country. I bought it in 2018 and it has sub-par content, written by somebody who doesn’t speak English too well. I did manage to edit many articles and make them more useful (and with fewer mistakes), but for the most part they’re left unchanged.

The website was hit by the September update and I do see a downwards trend on the final day in the report, but hopefully it won’t continue to go down.

All in all, traffic is almost double compared to last year, but it was much, much higher before the September and October updates (but it might be seasonal). But apparently it managed to escape this one unharmed.

I am not sure what kind of link building the previous owner did, but it seems to be regular stuff: a few guest posts, comments and not much else. So this site doesn’t do really well in the backlink area.

Website #3: Mobile & Apps

This is a blog that I have been ignoring for the past few years, but which is still delivering some nice traffic overall, despite it going down because I no longer publish new content.

I initially placed it in the “blogs that got hit” section, but after further analyzing the trends last year, it seems to follow the same patterns and traffic seems to be unchanged following the last Google Update.

This is a blog that has a relatively strong backlink profile – and one that I keep as a back-up in case things go wrong. So I might have to turn my attention back to it again after this update! It’s just in a niche that I am no longer interested in and fresh content is not easy to produce

Part II: Blogs that got a boost in traffic

Website #4: Travel Website

Now we’re moving to a website that saw an apparent boost in traffic. This is a general travel blog that has been launched in November last year, and it has absolutely no backlinks built by me. (There are still some of the regular spam links that the Search Console reports, but it doesn’t really have any real link).

Surprisingly, the update seems to have actually boosted its traffic, but at under 30 users per day, it doesn’t mean much. It could mean that this algorithm update is not related to backlinks, though…

Website #5: General reviews / affiliate site

This is a website that I did minimal work on for the past couple of years. I’ve done all sorts of experiments with it, including building some PBN links (which the Google Search Console never even reported, so I considered them nothing but a waste of money – and solid enough reason not to try that again).

It has mostly poorly written content by cheap freelancers and especially outdated articles (published a couple of years ago). Surprisingly, despite getting all sorts of penalties over the years, it seems to have received a boost this time.

This one actually started on November 5th and we’re looking at a 50% traffic increase. Even though it has very few users visiting per day, since it’s an affiliate website exclusively, I can consider it a win.

However, I am still surprised, because it doesn’t follow any of the SEO rules: it has a poor backlink profile, outdated and poorly written articles out of which 95% are affiliate, it has no about us page, no authors page, no authority and no actual niche, covering all sorts of products.

Website #6 – Gaming Blog

This is a decent quality blog that has just started to get an infusion of new content starting late October. It is a fansite of a specific franchise of games, one that received a new entry this year and I started writing about it.

I decided not to compare organic views from Google to last year since it’s not relevant, but it does look like it has received a boost in traffic with the previous update. This makes me happy, because I personally wrote good content for it.

What is most surprising (to me) is that the blog gets more organic traffic from Bing (almost double) and similar amounts from DuckDuckGo. This is my only blog that doesn’t have Google miles away from all the other search engines.

Since we’re talking about a passion project here, I didn’t really do any active backlinking. The blog itself does have a few backlinks from some High DA/PA websites and a few posts on Reddit… but that would be about it.

Part III: Blogs that got hit by the November update

Now comes the sad part: the blogs that got a huge traffic drop in the rankings. And this is where I hurt the most, because some of these blogs are my main money makers. The ones above give me maybe 5% of all my income. So to call this a blow would be an understatement…

Website #7: Travel Blog

I never managed to buy a good website – I simply seem to suck at that. And this is the most expensive one I bought – at $2,000, in the travel niche, covering a specific area in Europe.

I made the transfer on September 22nd, and on the 24th-26th it has been hit by Google’s September update, and then the October update took a bit away as well. It seems that this November update put another nail in its coffin, reducing it’s already reduced traffic by 50% more.

So when I bought this site, it was bringing in about 350 organic users per day and in the past couple of days, it all went under 100. Massive hit!

Also pretty much unexpected, because the blog doesn’t seem to have a bad backlink profile (some guest posts and comments, but nothing black hat seems to have been done) and it has really good content: well written, informative, useful and very long form.

So with all these data, I would still buy the website if I were to bid again, unable to anticipate a potential penalty. I really don’t understand Google sometimes…

Website #8: Gaming blog

This is a blog about a specific and pretty popular mobile game. I haven’t published any new content in about a year, but it’s still going strong. Or it was going strong, as it has been hit by this recent update, losing about 33% users.

It was a big surprise to me, since all the other blogs that cover the same game don’t have as strong of a backlink profile as it does, while the articles seem to be copied (or at least inspired) by mine. They are not longer, nor better… so it really baffles me.

What I found out here based on my research is that the main keyword (which was “game’s name guide”) has dropped from spot #2 to #9. I was ranking with the guide article, obviously, but now Google ranks on the first 3 spots other fansites – but their main pages instead.

So when you search for “Game’s name guide” the three positions are no longer actual guides, but the homepages themselves. This seems pretty strange, because any user clicking any of those first 3 positions would have to do some extra searches on the said websites in order to actually get to the guide.

Website #9: Travel Blog

This is a blog that has received a lot of love from Google lately, growing slowly but steadily.

It is a blog dedicated to a particular country in Europe and I would dare to say that it’s probably the best resource over the internet for this particular country. It has a loyal readership, complete (and long articles) and 100% white had link building.

It’s true – it doesn’t have a ton of backlinks, especially not from larger publications, but it was still featured on some of the larger travel websites out there. I was shocked to see it lose 20% of the traffic over night, but at least looking at that year-to-year comparison makes me feel a bit better.

Looking at the search console, it seems that the entire drop is caused by a single keyword losing its rankings: it dropped from an average position of 2.5 to 8. Fortunately, all the other main keywords seem to have been unaffected, although there is a bit of a dance that started on October 20.

The main keyword that lost its ranking was taken over by Wikipedia (which is #1 for that keyword), followed by other higher authority websites with longer content. The latter are general travel blogs, but for that doesn’t really influence the quality of the article or its usefulness for those searching for that particular query.

Website 10: Tech Blog

Another massive surprise for me, as this blog was getting a lot of love from Google this year, growing tremendously and seeing traffic almost triple compared to last year.

Then, out of nowhere, it got hit by Google’s Hammer and I don’t like the downwards trend that I am seeing!

This is a general tech blog, featuring a host of informational articles, product reviews and top lists.

In this case, the drop in rankings seems to be a matter of Google’s alogithm that doesn’t really work well, though: I have lost ranking on several of my main keywords (different articles) targeting very specific long tail keywords.

So, let’s say that I had an article titles “best laptops for gamers” that was ranking well. Now it dropped a few positions, making way for articles on higher authority websites, but simply titled “best laptops”.

While a robot like Google could consider that “best laptops” automatically offers the “best laptops for gamers”, in reality that’s not the case. I would personally never click that former result, because it’s not what I want.

The same would go for, let’s say, “best camera for macro photography” – a generic “best camera” might not offer me what I need. Same goes with “best ebook reader for left handed people” – a “best ebook reader” won’t work.

These are just examples, and not the actual keywords that I lost ranking for, but they follow the same rules. So in this case, the articles that took over are now less useful (some of them completely useless) for the particular long tail keyword that they’re ranking for.

Website 11: Mobile Gaming

This is where Google’s hit hurt the most, as this is the website that’s getting a ton of traffic and represents the bulk of my income. It’s a mobile gaming blog, covering everything from new game launches, to lists of best games and guides. There are zero affiliate articles here (in case somebody’s considering that the update has something to do with that).

This is also my most authoritative website, with the highers DA/PA and the most solid backlinks profile: many big name websites have linked to us, including Wikipedia and all the other major websites in the mobile gaming niche.

Yet, it got a massive hit and even got under the amount of visitors it was getting last year.

This blog ranks for tens of thousands of keywords and there’s not one or two articles that bring in the majority of the traffic, so it’s really difficult to see what actually happened as it’s too early. But it’s simple to see that its rankings have dropped from an average of 9.5 to 10.7.

However, the interesting thing here is that impressions count reported by the Search Console has dropped significantly: from a steady average of 220,000 impressions to 150,000 over night.

Since we’re talking about tens of thousands of keywords, it’s difficult to say if we lost many keywords completely. The main ones are still there and I wouldn’t consider the drop related to the average position change, but more to the impressions.

We saw something similar in July, when the impressions dropped over night on the 24th, from an average of 400,000 to 280,000 and normalized at around 220k in October.

And the only thing I can relate this with is us losing some of our keywords. While some were very generic and our articles probably didn’t really offer the user the information they need (as it is the case below where we were ranking high for a particular game’s name, but with a tips & tricks article. Still, people were visiting the article and leaving comments… so it wasn’t something that was completely useless):

The first sudden loss of impressions on a keyword (we simply stopped ranking on that keyword)

Either way, in this particular case, it seems to be related to Google’s search intent update – and it’s something that doesn’t always make the right judgements.

Conclusion

It’s very difficult to say what are the exact causes of the drops here. There seem to be some conclusions that I would draw based on the data that I analyzed from the websites above.

First, there are two important things that DON’T seem to have caused the traffic fluctuations:

1. The page speed: I thought that page speed was the reason of the drops initially, because all my pages load in over 3 seconds. But since some got a boost and some didn’t change (although the load times are similar), that’s definitely not what happened.

2. Backlinks: this one doesn’t seem to be related to backlinks or site authority. Sites with zero to no backlinks did well, while highly authoritative ones were penalized. Also, the quality of the articles of the sites that were penalized is generally better than on the ones that didn’t.

So, what is the main cause of the November 2019 algo update?

In my opinion, Google is still trying to figure out the search intent of its users and trying to deliver the best results for their searches.

However, looking at the data on my website, it seems to fail miserably at doing so right now.

It might be a fight on Google’s site against people targeting long tail keywords, which would make absolutely no sense. I doubt that’s the case, though, but one can never really know.

But, as it usually seems to be the case of Google Updating its search algorithms, it doesn’t seem to be anything that we can do to undo the traffic drops.

It’s not niche related, it’s not SEO related, it’s just regular publishers that try to deliver good content that are being hit by a machine that’s trying to learn and understand how humans think and what they want to say when they perform a search on Google.

What it fails to understand is that when somebody searches for a very specific thing, they probably want to see results about that very specific thing and not something generic.

Hopefully, it will learn sooner rather than later, because these punches it delivers are truly discouraging.

Note: I wrote this entire article in one go, early in the morning, after looking at my Google Analytics data and feeling my heart sink. It’s a Sunday morning – when I was hoping to enjoy time with my family instead, so I won’t go an re-read the text that I wrote. So I apologize in advance for all the typos and grammar mistakes that I made.

Also, I want to encourage you to share your findings, opinions, frustrations or happiness if you’re one that wasn’t negatively affected by this update below.

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8 Comments

  1. Hey Luciano, thanks for a great write-up. I noticed this immediately Friday morning and didn’t see anyone talking about, but now the blogging groups are all in a state of panic. So I guess I’m glad I’m not the only one?

    I got smashed by this update. Two sites, one in fitness and one in parenting, completely decimated… Over 40% losses in organic search traffic and major rakings decreases on both. Both were on the rise and getting lots of Google love lately.

    Usually these algorithm updates don’t affect your core rakings, at least in my experience, but a shuffle in the longtail rakings can cause gains and losses. It’s very surprising to see my site plummet for terms I’ve been ranking for for a long time, white hat site, well-researched long-form content.

    Super discouraging. I think they screwed something up and objectively made the SERPs worse here, and hopefully it will correct quickly.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and sorry to hear that we’re both in a similar situation. And indeed we’re not alone.

      It does seem that Google got some things wrong this time – I’ve seen chatter that many old, poor quality articles are starting to rank better, while high quality ones are nowhere to be found.

      The biggest problem – at least in my case – is that the downwards trend seems to continue and I’m almost terrified to check my ratings tomorrow… But as you say, hopefully they will be able to correct this.

  2. Thanks for the detailed write up.

    I have no idea what’s really happening and as of today am down about 30% on my main site.

    No idea what’s happening, the only one small thing I’ve noticed new is that the SERP feature for “review stars” which I added using schema no longer displays on google.

    Maybe this happened earlier though so I don’t know. You notice this also?
    However, one small thing I noticed was review stars.

    1. Yes, the review ratings were part of a different update and I remember the experts saying that this didn’t influence ranking. So this is definitely not one of the main core changes that influenced our drops, since less than 1% of my total articles have review ratings.

  3. Hi Luciano,

    great write up, especially as you did it all in one go. Did your negative impacted sites regain some of their traffic?
    One site I work with lost 70% traffic, as almost all keywords where pushed down 4-6 spots, but at least in the last days it improved 10% each day, hope that continues.

    It’s probably not that, but If google really uses ctr, dwell time, bounce rate and so on to improve their search, maybe they deleted some of that data. Would at least explain why I gain rankings back, because the ctr of my pages should be better than the competition, or google slowly rolls back the algo, as they see they screwed up.

    What I find odd is that a lot of blogs where impacted that at least say they do mostly white hat stuff.

    1. In my case, none of the traffic was regained. My drops are not as high as 70%, but between 15% – 35%. However, as I said, there are no signs of a quick recovery so far.

  4. Thanks for your analysis. I think you’re right when you say “it seems to fail miserably at doing so right now.” I actually found this post when searching for the effect of the update on travel blogs via DuckDuckGo – similar searches on Google are pulling up the blog of a major cruise line and the homepage of a major flight booking website. Clearly, something is still not quite right.

    1. Ever since, I performed a lot more search queries and some of the results are complete crap and absolutely useless. We can only hope that Google will be made aware of that or maybe the AI they’re using to return the search results will improve. Happy to hear that this post is at least ranking somewhere 🙂

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