Summer passed and Google did not release a major update of their algorithm as we have learned to expect. Then, in the last week of the Quarter (officially in Fall though) SEOs reported major fluctuations in search results and claimed to have spotted a major update! This turned out to be a bug in Google’s index and is still being corrected as we write this post.
In fact, Google had 3 indexing problems in the last week of September that may have affected your site’s visibility and traffic. We will have a look at these first and then go through the other news from Google from July to September 2020.
Canonical Indexing Bug
Reports of major changes in ranking started around September 23rd with, in parallel, reports of users seeing odd values for canonical URLs in Google Search Console. Canonical URLs are Google’s way of treating duplicate content: when many pages have the same content, Google choses one page as the canon (i.e. original version) and will show that in search results rather than its copies. You can also specify your own canonical URL in the HTML code of pages. See Google’s guide on consolidating duplicate URLs.
The index of canonical URLs got mixed up around September 22nd and it appears that completely random URLs were being used as the canonical versions for pages in the same site for a part of the index. The bug was being slowly corrected by October 6th. It affected ranking for thousands of sites.
It seems rare to have this sort of massive error in Google, but something similar also happened in April 2019.
Google News Indexing Bug
From 6:45pm to 8:45pm ET on September 28th Google News did not index any news stories – although obviously many news sites did publish new stories during these hours. The bug was revealed on the Google Search Liaison account on Twitter @searchliaison.
This is an interesting account to follow for information on Google updates and, now, bug reports.
In parallel to the canonical indexing bug, Google also reported problems with indexing mobile versions of pages. Through the Google Search Liaison twitter account again, they communicated on October 2nd: “The mobile-indexing issue impacted roughly about 0.2% of our index, beginning in early September but really spiking from around the middle of this week through late yesterday. We’ve since restored about 1/4 of those URLs & keep reprocessing more”.
In March, Google announced that it would be moving to mobile-first indexing in September 2020, but this deadline was pushed forward to March 21st.
Ranking on Google Discover: New Guidelines from Google
In July Google published new guidelines on how to feature in their popular Google Discover service used mainly on smartphones through the Google Search application. Any website can be listed on Google Discover, there is no need to be approved for Google News, but it will mainly index fresh posts with a clear publication date, and information about the publisher and author (similar to Google EAT recommendations) and will filter-out click-bait titles. Having high-quality images, at least 1200 px wide is very important, and you should enable the max-image-preview:large setting (this is enabled by default in SEOPress).
Virtual Webmaster Unconference WordPress session
Still unable to organize physical events Google’s Aurora Morales & Martin Splitt (pictured below) organized an online unconference for webmasters on August 26th. Unconference, not because it was online, but because it was organized around interactive sessions with webmasters rather than presentations by Google staff as seen in previous Webmaster Conferences. One of the 17 sessions concerned Google’s plugin Site Kit for WordPress, the roundup from Google simply stated that this “showed that users were confused about data discrepancies they see between Analytics and Search console in the plugin”.
The succinct roundup of all 17 sessions can be found here.
Googlebot will work over HTTP/2
In September Google announced that its crawling robot, Googlebot, will use HTTP/2 to connect to websites where this is possible and when it deems it useful to do so. HTTP/2 is useful for Google because it increases the speed at which pages are downloaded. Whereas this may help some sites get indexed quicker and more often, having HTTP/2 is not considered as a ranking factor.
Although HTTP/2 was adopted by most browsers as early as 2015, a lot of webservers still do not use it. You can test if your site “speaks” HTTP/2 by using KeyCNDs HTTP/2 Test.
It is generally advised that you should upgrade to HTTP/2 for SEO because it should improve page speed as experienced by users on Chrome – information that Google does use as a ranking factor. Changing from HTTP/1.1 to HTTP/2 is a change to the server software, done by your hosting provider. No changes are needed to your website.
The news here is more the surprise that Googlebot did not use HTTP/2 before 2020. John Mueller, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, had already stated in a Webmasters Hangout in November 2015 that he expected it to be ready by the end of that year, or early 2016.
Local Ranking Factors 2020
Whitespark have taken over the mantle from David Mihm and Moz in producing the Local Ranking Factors survey. By asking a series of questions to several Local SEO experts, the survey gives interesting insights into how Google’s local ranking algorithms work – specifically for two types of results: the Local Pack (supplied by Google Maps) and the organic results.
BrightLocal published a long review of the 2020 results: Local Search Ranking Factors 2020: What Affects Local Rankings?
Unfortunately, no question in the survey deals specifically with the question of Schema.org structured data as a ranking factor. But On-page factors are important. In a separate article on How to Optimize for Local Search, Brightlocal do cite “Use Local Business, Organization, Product and Service Schema” as one of the 4 things you need to do on-page to optimize for local search.
If you haven’t added structured data to your WordPress site yet, read our articles on How to add schema markup to WordPress using the SEOPress plugin.
Google launch Web Creators and a new WordPress plugin
In September Google launched an interesting initiative that they say is “A community for web creators to grow and get inspired”. A web creator is anyone who creates content for the web and that includes bloggers.
One of the first announcements on this new platform was the official release of the Google Web Stories WordPress Plugin. This has been shortly followed by the news that Google Discover now features a Web Stories carousel.