On 3 December 2020, Google announced that a broad core algorithm update was being released. By 16 December, the rollout had been completed.
It is important to bear in mind that any Google update, including a core update, may affect different SERPs very differently. So general conclusions like “this update was about X, Y and Z, and affected the SERPs in this particular way” may not make much sense for individual verticals, regional SERPs and so on. Updates may not even begin and end for some individual SERPs at the same time as for others.
Hence, I decided to look at a very narrow case: online casino SERPs in the UK. As a disclaimer, it is worth noting that how these SERPs look to you may differ slightly from how they look to me and my rank tracker because of personalisation, location, search history and a bunch of other reasons why we can no longer get the same Google SERPs for everyone. The rank tracker collects what it collects as best as it can based on its settings; what I see when checking the SERPs manually is seen in a private browsing window so as to minimise the effects of personalisation.
If we look at the top 20 organic results history over the last two-month period, we can notice certain movements starting on 3 December. However, the SERP does not really stabilise to the previous levels of activity after 16 December – we can still see quite a lot of changes, whether or not they are still connected to the core update. Historically, it has never been a very static SERP but up to 23 December the levels of activity are definitely more intense than usual.
For a second opinion, I have also pulled up the SERPs comparison for online casino in UK Google at the beginning of December vs now from SISTRIX:
According to both sources, admiralcasino.co.uk is the biggest loser in this update, dropping from no.1 all the way to the middle of the second page:
Who is the winner then? One might say grosvenorcasinos.com, jumping from the bottom of the first page to no.1, but its ranking there is anything but secure. It faces fierce competition for top spot from casino.netbet.co.uk and 888casino.com:
In the meantime, 888casino.com’s positions are also shaken – if it used to spend a week at a time at no.1 right after the beginning of the core update, it’s no longer doing so well:
Meanwhile, there is one more candidate for us to call a winner: gentingbet.com. It only broke into the top 5 on 14 December, but it has remained there ever since:
One site has managed to stay in the top 5 for the entire update and now seems even stronger than before, fluctuating between no.1 and no.2 daily: casino.netbet.co.uk:
If we had analysed this SERP right after the update had been announced, or even as its complete rollout had been confirmed by Google, we may not have been aware of all these changes. This stresses the importance of not jumping to conclusions about updates too early.
Among other peculiarities of this SERP before and after the update, it’s interesting to note that before the update, the entire top 10 consisted of casino brand sites, highlighting the “do” intent of the query. Right after the beginning of the update, however, we see a Wikipedia article appearing at the bottom of the first page, as if Google starts having second thoughts about the user intent and throws in a bit of “know” content.
Having answered the question “What happened?”, let’s move on to the next question: “Why?”
A blog post titled ‘What webmasters should know about Google’s core updates’ at Google Search Central (mentioned in the December Core Update announcement) states: “It’s also important to understand that search engines like Google do not understand content the way human beings do. Instead, we look for signals we can gather about content and understand how those correlate with how humans assess relevance. How pages link to each other is one well-known signal that we use. But we use many more, which we don’t disclose to help protect the integrity of our results.”
Clearly then, we should look for something measurable. Links are the most obvious candidate, being specifically mentioned in the above quote.
I use Majestic for link analysis, however it is worth noting that this is a third-party tool and the data it uses may not be the same data that Google uses. In other words, any of the links reported for each site in Majestic may or may not be given the same weight or any weight at all by Google – Majestic may not even know about all the links Google knows about.
That said, here is the comparison of the link profiles of our winning and losing sites:
The losing site, admiralcasino.co.uk, has the least links from the least domains, the lowest TrustFlow (a Majestic proprietary metric usually indicative of the link profile quality – NOT used by Google), and it is the only site with Topical Trust Flow not relevant to games or gambling (again, this is a Majestic metric, not Google’s, but may be useful to see how relevant a site’s link sources are to its topic). Link loss may not play any role in losing rankings in this core update – after all, both Netbet and 888 have a higher percentage of lost links than Admiral Casino. However, first, these links may or may not be really lost (see my article Raiders of the Lost Links from issue 76) and second, just looking at the number of lost links, we do not know anything about their quality and whether or not they were helping the site at all. If you ever suspect the site has lost its rankings due to lost links, a detailed link profile audit is required to detect any issues.
Site speed probably didn’t play an important role in this update for this SERP. Historically, igaming SERPs are full of very slow sites – and current winners are no better than losers in this regard. I have compared the five sites in question using the Chrome UX Report Compare Tool:
Admiral Casino is quite slow but it’s not the worst – Netbet is. However, this doesn’t stop it from ranking successfully. GentingBet is the best and it may or may not have contributed to its recent growth in the SERPs.
Finally, another interesting detail: Admiral Casino is not only an online casino but also a physical casino with a number of offline locations, as is Grosvenor Casinos. However, if we search for each of these casinos, Google shows also a local map with locations of offline casinos:
If Google considered casinos with physical locations not suitable for the online casino query, we probably wouldn’t see grosvenorcasinos.com ranking either.
JULIA LOGAN is an SEO consultant at irishwonder.com. Her specialities include on-site/technical SEO and SEO security audits, link profile audits, online reputation management, negative SEO investigations and private network consulting.