Well, SEOs and site owners had a heck of an end to the summer of 2022. It all started with the Helpful Content Update (HCU), which rolled out on August 25, 2022. The rollout of Google’s new site-wide signal took a little more than two weeks to complete (and it only seemed to impact the most egregious sites). I covered that heavily on Twitter while analyzing the update.
But we didn’t have much time to rest after the HCU rollout completed, since Google then rolled out the September 2022 broad core update. That was surprising, especially since I spoke with Google about the HCU and Product Reviews Update prior to the HCU rollout, and didn’t hear anything about a broad core update launch that would follow!
So, now we had a broad core update rolling out that can make the earth shake, and after a new site-wide ranking signal rolled out (the HCU). What else could happen?
In a move that surprised many (due to timing), Google then rolled out the September 2022 Product Reviews Update (PRU). And PRUs can be core update-like for sites that contain products reviews content. Although we knew the next PRU was coming, the timing of the rollout was extremely surprising since Google overlapped the broad core update and the Product Reviews Update.
That’s right, it’s another algo sandwich from Google, which can bring a ton of confusion for site owners and SEOs. To make matters even more confusing, both the broad core update and the PRU completed rolling out on the same exact day (September 26, 2022). Needless to say, many are confused about which update impacted their sites.
And if you’re an SEO history buff, then you might know that algo sandwiches are not new for Google, just rare (pun intended). Google has rolled out overlapping updates, or updates very close to one another, several times in the past. The one that really sticks out to me was the Panda, Penguin, Panda algorithm sandwich from April of 2012 (where all three updates were rolled out within a 10-day period). It was a triple decker sandwich packed with thin content, spammy links, and topped with Google’s famous hot sauce. As you can guess, many were confused about what hit them at the time… which led to several of my posts about Pandeguin (the combination of Panda and Penguin).
Here’s a graph from my post about Pandeguin showing a site impacted by all three updates:
Covering The Confusion Based On Overlapping Major Algorithm Updates:
In this post, I’m going to cover the two overlapping major algorithm updates that rolled out in September 2022, the confusion that set in for some site owners and SEOs, interesting things I saw during the combined rollout, my recommendations for sites impacted during the algo sandwich, and more.
So strap yourself in, grab your favorite sandwich sauce, and maybe a pickle for good luck. It’s going to be a bumpy ride in Gabe’s Deli for this post. Let’s jump in.
First, here’s a quick table of contents for those that want to jump around the post:
- Visualizing the confusion. Was it the broad core update or the Product Reviews Update?
- Welcome To Google Land – The Overlapping of Major Algorithm Updates.
- Don’t assume it’s the PRU, it could be the broad core update.
- Look at this trending (if you dare).
- A final September PRU tremor correcting some issues with the July PRU.
- More Negative Impact for Sites Hit By Helpful Content Update (HCU).
- Google on how the PRU evaluates sites. Site-level or url-level?
- Structured Data helping Google understand if your content contains reviews. Really?
- Google adds examples of product reviews to its documentation.
- Final tips and recommendations for site owners.
Visualizing the confusion. Was it the broad core update or the Product Reviews Update?
First, let’s get the dates right. The broad core update started rolling out on September 12, 2022. And many sites saw impact very quickly with the broad core update. I started documenting movement about one day into the rollout, which is quick.
For example, here are several sites seeing immediate impact:
Then the Product Reviews Update started rolling out on September 20, 2022 in the middle of the broad core update rollout. It was eight days into the rollout of the broad core update. And this is where things get interesting, and confusing. Many sites saw a ton of movement starting right at that point. Some were product reviews sites, but some were not. Not even close actually…
Here are some examples of product review sites seeing movement when the September PRU rolled out. This would be clear PRU impact in my opinion (without confusion based on the broad core update):
But not all sites impacted were as clear as those… There were many sites that don’t contain reviews that were impacted heavily starting on 9/20 (right when the PRU started rolling out). And that led to massive confusion about which update actually impacted sites seeing a lot of movement. In other words, was it the broad core update or the Product Reviews Update impacting the site? Only Google knows… or do they? I’ll cover more about that soon.
Here are some examples of sites that don’t contain reviews or affiliate content at all that were heavily impacted starting on 9/20. These were reference sites, news sites (without affiliate content), e-commerce sites, recipe sites (without affiliate content), and more.
Welcome To Google Land – The Overlapping of Major Algorithm Updates
I have said “Welcome to Google Land” many times over the years, and for good reason. It can sometimes feel like you are on a roller coaster, run by AI, in a land of confusion, with no games or stuffed animals at the amusement park to make you feel better.
Google usually tries to keep major algorithm updates separate so site owners can better understand which update actually impacted their sites. Google’s Danny Sullivan has explained that in the past (and even right before this algo sandwich rolled out!)
But, and like I said earlier, there are times that major updates do overlap. This was a great example of that… When the September PRU rolled out during the September broad core update, Google provided some advice to site owners. Google’s advice was basically that if you have product reviews, then it’s probably the PRU impacting your site. If you don’t, then it’s probably not.
And as you can guess, the word “probably” definitely caused some concern. And it wasn’t long before we saw sites that didn’t have product reviews that were impacted heavily when the PRU rolled out.
Here are tweets from Google about the overlapping rollout:
Don’t assume it’s the PRU, it could be the broad core update:
It’s also worth noting that since the core update was still rolling out, site owners could not simply assume it was the PRU impacting their sites on 9/20. Based on what I saw across many sites, I do believe we saw an uptick from the broad core update right on 9/20 when the PRU rolled out. That was either coincidental, or not. But again, many sites without product reviews were heavily impacted on that date.
For example, here is visibility trending from a recipe site without any product reviews or affiliate links that was impacted on 9/20. Some users are leaving a quick review of the recipe in the comments, but that’s not really what the PRU should be targeting. So either the PRU is flawed there or it was the broad core update impacting the site. Personally, I believe it was the core update impacting the site, but I can’t say for sure. The site owner is super-confused. They were impacted by a previous broad core update by the way, which is interesting.
Here is a quote from the site owner about the situation:
“When the September core update started rolling out my site wasn’t affected at all. But the day the PRU started, it took a relatively big hit (it dropped by about 20%). The site doesn’t have product reviews or affiliate content at all. Unfortunately, the overlapping updates can send you down a rabbit hole trying to fix things that aren’t actually a problem… since you don’t have a clear idea of which update caused the drop.
“For example, if it was the Product Reviews Update, then you would think I should be focused on improving reviews content (but I don’t have any reviews)… Or is it the comments that sometimes have quick reviews of recipes from users? And if it was the core update causing the drop, should I focus on improving the site overall? It’s just very confusing when all I’m trying to do is publish great recipes for my users…”
And if you think that’s a tough situation, then look at this trending (if you dare):
The site contains mostly informational content, but does include some reviews (and affiliate links). Google is clearly having major issues understanding the type of site and whether it should rank well. The site has experienced massive swings in rankings during multiple major algorithm updates (including reversals outside of those updates). Below, you can see impact from a broad core update, Product Reviews Updates, and then random swings outside of major updates.
Which then led to others sharing their trending on Twitter, which showed similar ups and downs.
Note, I’ll come back to this case shortly… since the next section ties in nicely. Yep, it’s like Inception for SEO. :)
A final September PRU tremor correcting some issues with the July PRU:
So, based on what I explained with the 9/20 impact, could there be a flaw with the September PRU? It’s possible… and I was pretty vocal about some problems I saw with the July PRU. At the time, I said that we could see Google correct those flaws via a tremor or with the next PRU.
Here is my tweet from July explaining we might see a correction:
Thankfully, a change was rolled out! At the very end of the rollout of the September PRU (on 9/25), a number of sites surged back from the dead that were impacted by the July PRU. I tweeted several examples when this happened.
Time will tell if some issues with the September PRU get corrected and those sites bounce back like these did on 9/25.
And remember that site from earlier with insane trending? Well, here we go again. That site surged back again on 10/15. Yep, after the broad core update and PRU completed. And after the site dropped heavily during the late PRU tremor on 9/25. Again, Google is having a very hard time understanding where this site fits in, the type of content it contains, etc.
More Negative Impact for Sites Hit By Helpful Content Update (HCU)
After the Helpful Content Update rolled out, there was some confusion about if the HCU could contribute to broad core updates (as another signal). Google’s Danny Sullivan explained the updates are separate, but if you were impacted by the HCU, and if you have broad core update issues, then the combined effect might not be optimal for you… Basically, the effect can be compounded.
Here is a tweet from Danny about this:
And here are some sites that dropped with the Helpful Content Update and then saw more of a drop with the September broad core update:
Google on how the PRU evaluates sites. Site-level or url-level?
Based on the varying levels of impact by the Product Reviews Update, and how it impacted some sites that contain a mix of informational content and reviews, Google received some questions about how the PRU evaluates content. For example, is it evaluating at the url-level or site-level? And, how does Google determine that a piece of content is a review in the first place (especially if the site has other types of content)?
Google first responded quickly about the latter question and recommended that sites might want to add structured data to clearly signal to Google that the content was a review. Then when questioned about that point, Google took some more time internally before responding.
Then Danny Sullivan responded and first explained more about how the PRU evaluates websites. He explained that if your site contains a lot of product reviews, then the PRU can be like a site-wide evaluation. i.e. All content can be evaluated… But, if your site contains a mix of content, and reviews don’t make up a large portion of the content, then the PRU evaluates more on the url-level.
Here are Danny’s tweets about that:
This made complete sense to me based on analyzing many sites impacted by Product Reviews Updates. For sites where a majority of the content is comprised of product reviews, the site could be heavily impacted by the PRU (and any content on the site could be negatively impacted).
For example, here is a site that focuses on product reviews that was impacted heavily by the April 2021 PRU. Notice the massive drop when the update rolls out:
And for sites that contain a mix of content, like news sites that also publish some product reviews, then it wouldn’t be like a site-wide evaluation. In other words, not all content would be evaluated by the PRU. For example, here is a news site that contains review content in a specific section. The site overall took a hit when the PRU rolled out, but the section with reviews REALLY took a hit.
First, here is the drop overall for the site:
And here is the drop for the reviews section:
This does reinforce the idea that adding all reviews to a section could help Google identify where reviews are on the site. John Mueller explained that the PRU works more broadly on a site or section-level depending on how the site is structured content-wise.
And that dovetails nicely into the next section of my post about structured data and Google identifying reviews…
Structured Data helping Google understand if your content contains reviews. Really?
For sites that contain a mix of content, Danny Sullivan explained that Google can use structured to help it understand if a piece of content is a review. But, it’s not required and it’s just one of several signals they use to understand if content is a review.
And this from earlier in the conversation:
I’ve been vocal that this is pretty ridiculous to me. I mean, Google with all of its unbelievable natural language processing power needs site owners to feed it structured data to understand if it’s a review? That’s crazy. Also, many site owners don’t even know what structured data is and how to use it. That said, if your site contains a mix of content (including reviews), then I would add structured data to signal to Google which pieces of content are indeed reviews.
And if you think that structured data statement from Google caused more confusion, you would be right. I had several site owners reach out to me claiming they were hit by the PRU because of structured data errors, the wrong structured data used, etc. Unfortunately, even though I don’t believe that’s the case, I can’t say it’s NOT the case with 100% certainty.
Google adds examples of product reviews to its documentation.
With each Product Reviews Update, the algorithm continues to evolve. One question I get often is about the types of content that can be impacted by the PRU. For example, is it supposed to just target sites with product reviews or can sites with other types of reviews content be impacted? I’ve seen sites with user-generated content (UGC) reviews get impacted in the past and I’m not sure Google is really targeting that type of review with the PRU. Well, I’ve seen less and less of that with each Product Reviews Update. Google does seem to be focusing just on product reviews with the latest iterations of the PRU.
Also, Google recently refined one of the help documents about the Product Reviews Update. Specifically, Google added three examples of the types of reviews content that can be created by site owners (and I’m assuming Google is saying these are the types of review content that can be evaluated by the PRU – at least for now). And those examples don’t contain UGC reviews.
It’s just worth noting for anyone creating reviews content (or any site owner that has UGC reviews).
Final tips and recommendations for site owners impacted during the September 2022 algorithm sandwich:
If you were impacted during the latest algorithm sandwich, then the tips below could help you get moving in the right direction. I hope the following recommendations help cut through some of the confusion:
- If you were impacted starting on 9/12, and before 9/20, then you were impacted by the broad core update. You can read my posts about broad core updates to learn more about them, how to identify why you were impacted, and learn the best path forward from a remediation standpoint.
- If you were impacted starting on 9/20 when the PRU rolled out, and you have a mix of content on your site beyond reviews, do not assume it was the PRU. It could have been the broad core update. I covered this earlier in the post, and I have seen many sites impacted on 9/20 that had no reviews or affiliate content at all.
- If you were impacted starting on 9/20, and you do have a lot of product reviews content, then you should work to improve your content based on Google’s best practices. You can read my previous posts about Product Reviews Updates to learn more about them.
- If you have a mix of content on your site, including reviews, then I recommend adding structured data to identify the reviews content (since Google explained it uses structured data as one signal for identifying reviews). I still think it’s crazy that site owners need to do this… but I would probably do it to make sure Google can understand what is reviews content and what’s not. Remember, we’re dealing with machine learning systems and mistakes can definitely be made by Google on this front. Just check the reversals in my post above to see examples of that.
- If impacted by the September broad core update, run a delta report to understand what dropped, and why. For example (if it was the core update), was it a relevancy adjustment, intent shift, or is it overall site quality problems. Then form a remediation plan based on what you find.
- If impacted by a major algorithm update, don’t just compare specific urls in the SERPs if that’s the case. With site-level quality algorithms at play, the overall quality evaluation could be dragging rankings down. And for some urls, the content on that page might have little to do with that url specifically dropping. Improve overall… that’s what Google wants to see.
- For broad core update remediation, using a “kitchen sink” approach is your best path in my opinion. That’s where you surface all potential quality problems and work hard to fix as many as you can. Look to improve overall. That’s all you can do in the age of machine learning-based major algorithm updates.
Summary – Overlapping major algorithm updates can cause confusion for sites owners and SEOs. Try your best to cut through that confusion…
I hope this post helped you better understand the major algorithm updates that rolled out in September of 2022. Unfortunately, two of those major updates overlapped for a week. And when that happens, it can cause massive confusion for site owners and SEOs. By reviewing the points in my post, and understanding the dates you were impacted, you can form a plan of attack remediation-wise.
And like I explained in my post, don’t be surprised if we see some corrections and adjustments based on the latest updates. Again, “Welcome To Google Land”. Good luck.
Back to top>>