This post was originally published in August, 2020. Last updated: December 15, 2020.
Since you’re here, you’re probably a Shopify merchant who’s been affected by one of the 2020 Google Core Updates - the January 2020 Core Update, the May 2020 Core Update, or the December 2020 Core Update.
If your rankings have improved, congratulations! This means that you’ve been rewarded for creating a beautiful website filled with truly amazing content. (Kudos on making those product and category pages stand out!)
And if your rankings have suffered, you’re not alone. But you’re neither penalised. Google has said it themselves:
"There’s nothing wrong with pages that may perform less well in a core update. They haven’t violated our webmaster guidelines nor been subjected to a manual or algorithmic action, as can happen to pages that do violate those guidelines."
Core updates are “significant, broad changes” to Google’s algorithms and systems, designed to ensure that overall, they’re delivering on their “mission to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers”. Learn more → What webmasters should know about Google’s core updates
Overall, core updates affect (to a different degree) all search results. They’re not aimed at specific regions, languages, topics, websites or web pages.
So, there are two possible outcomes: your website may perform better, or you may experience a drop in organic rankings - it may be significant, or barely noticeable. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with your website - your pages are just being reevaluated against pages that have been published since the last broad core update.
Still, a drop in rankings means less visibility, which equals less sales opportunities. Not a promising equation, I agree.
So, what can you do if you’ve been negatively affected by a core update? How can you recover? Is there a specific thing you need to fix? (Spoiler alert: There might be nothing that needs fixing.) Can you prevent being affected by future core updates?
In this article, we’ll tackle these and other burning questions you may have. We’ll also take a closer look at the three 2020 core updates - the January 2020 Core Update, the May 2020 Core Update, and the December 2020 Core Update.
- The January 2020 Core Update
- The May 2020 Core Update
- The December 2020 Core Update
The January 2020 Core Update
Release date: January 13, 2020 - January 27, 2020
Affected industries (according to Moz):
- Family & Community
- Beauty & Personal Care
- Internet & Telecom
- Law & Government
- Google put an emphasis on YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) topics, i.e. websites and web pages that can directly impact a person’s wellbeing. Examples of YMYL topics include health, family, financial stability, safety, news, etc.
“Domains that relate to YMYL topics have been re-evaluated by the search algorithm and gain or lose visibility as a whole. Domains that have previously been affected by such updates are more likely to be affected again. The absolute fluctuations appear to be decreasing with each update – Google is now becoming more certain of its assessment and does not deviate as much from the previous assessment.”
- Google put an emphasis on E-A-T (Expertise - Authoritativeness - Trustworthiness). Pet health websites may be held to a higher standard.
- Websites that didn’t properly disclose affiliate links may have seen a significant drop in organic rankings.
- Websites that contain ads which cover the MC (main content) of their pages, or ruin the user experience, may have seen a drop in rankings as well.
- Thin content pages, or pages that contain spammy content, seem to have been affected. High-quality content seems to have been rewarded.
How does this affect you?
- Retail is a YMYL category.
- E-A-T is an important quality characteristic.
- Monetization is a common occurrence in the e-commerce world. It is a good thing (that Google IS NOT against), but it must be done properly.
What to do if you've experienced a drop in organic rankings?
What you need to know about YMYL
- “Webpages that allow people to make purchases or transfer money online” are YMYL - Google’s QRG (Quality Raters Guidelines), p.10.
- “Information about or services related to research and purchase of goods/services” is YMYL - QRG, p.10.
- News and information about international events, politics, business, science, technology, and more, are also YMYL topics.
- “Sports, entertainment, and everyday lifestyle topics are generally not YMYL.” - QRG, p.10.
- Information about “voting, government agencies, public institutions, social services, and legal issues” is YMYL.
- Financial advice, as well as advice on investments, taxes, retirement planning, loans, insurance, etc. is YMYL.
- Advice on medical issues and topics related to medicine (e.g. drugs, hospital, how dangerous an activity is, etc.) are YMYL.
- “Information about or claims related to groups of people, including but not limited to those grouped on the basis of race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, age, nationality, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity” is YMYL - QRG, p.10.
- Topics related to big life decisions are generally YMYL (e.g. fitness and nutrition, housing, occupation, parenting, etc.).
We have very high Page Quality rating standards for YMYL pages because low quality YMYL pages could potentially negatively impact a person’s happiness, health, financial stability, or safety. (QRG, p.10)
Considering that retail is a YMYL topic, you must make sure that you meet all YMYL requirements. Your web pages must have strong E-A-T and you need to make sure that you have a good online reputation - every review and testimonial, every customer opinion and feedback matters. Not just the ones published on your website - the ones shared on social media and forums as well.
Having high E-A-T
E-A-T stands for Expertise (of the creator of the content), Authoritativeness (of the creator of the content, the content, and the website) and Trustworthiness (of the creator of the content, the content, and the website).
To understand E-A-T, you must thoroughly read Google’s QRG. Simply put, E-A-T is all about creating the best content and Google’s QRG is like a cheat-sheet for producing truly amazing content.
What you need to know about Google’s QRG:
It’s an extensive document of guidelines for raters - people who go over a large number of pages and assess their quality, i.e. rate them from Lowest to Highest. Note: There are 9 ratings in total: Lowest, Lowest+, Low, Low+, Medium, Medium+, High, High+, Highest). Your goal is to be between the Medium+ and Highest ratings.
Raters have no control over how the pages they rate rank on the SERPs. Rather, they give Google insight on whether their algorithm is serving its purpose - displaying the best and most relevant search results.
To be able to do this, i.e. provide Google with the right information, raters are trained to assess the E-A-T of the pages and the content they review.
This means that examining Google’s QRG will give you a better understanding of E-A-T and where you stand, as well as what you can do in terms of improvements.
What you need to know about E-A-T:
- “High E-A-T medical advice should be written or produced by people or organizations with appropriate medical expertise or accreditation” - QRG, p.19. This concerns you if you sell food supplements, or pet health products, for example.
- “High E-A-T information pages on scientific topics should be produced by people or organizations with appropriate scientific expertise” - QRG, p.20. This concerns you if you sell skin care products and publish articles on how they’re made, their ingredients and their impact on the skin, etc.
- “High E-A-T financial advice, legal advice, tax advice, etc., should come from trustworthy sources” - QRG, p.20
- “High E-A-T advice pages on topics such as home remodeling (which can cost thousands of dollars and impact your living situation) or advice on parenting issues (which can impact the future happiness of a family) should also come from “expert” or experienced sources that users can trust” - QRG, p.20. This concerns you if you sell furniture or home decor and offer additional services such as interior design services, planning, 3D modelling, etc.
- “High E-A-T pages on hobbies, such as photography or learning to play the guitar, also require expertise” - QRG, p.20. This concerns you if you sell photography gear or musical instruments, as well as other products that could be considered “hobbies”, such as snowboards, skis, climbing gear, camping gear, sailing gear, sports equipment, etc.
- High E-A-T articles shouldn’t contain factual errors. The content should be written in a way that helps readers gain a better understanding of the topic at hand.
- High E-A-T pages must be relevant and up-to-date. This means that they must be maintained and updated on a regular basis.
Google’s advice is to take a closer look at your pages and think about their topics. Ask yourself: Does this page require expertise to achieve its purpose? If yes, what kind of expertise? Some pages require more expertise than others.
Because different types of websites and webpages can have very different purposes, our expectations and standards for different types of pages are also different.” (QRG, p.8)
Important note: In some cases, the content doesn’t have to be written by an expert for the page to have high E-A-T. “If the person creating the content has the type and amount of life experience to make him or her an “expert” on the topic, we will value this “everyday expertise” and not penalize the person/webpage/website for not having “formal” education or training in the field. It’s possible to have everyday expertise on YMYL topics.” - QRG, p.20
Bonus tip: Examine your Shopify store for trust issues. For example:
- Is your content free from easily identifiable factual errors?
- Do you have an SSL certificate (so that the transactions are secure and transparent) enabled?
- Do you work with a credible payment provider?
- Do you have detailed Policy pages?
- Do you have a detailed About page?
- Does your Contact page contain enough information? Note that a website that handles transactions must offer an easy and convenient way for customers to reach out and get assistance, i.e. you must provide an email address and a phone number (and if you don’t offer 24/7 support, you need to provide information on working hours as well); if you have a physical store, you need to provide information on its location, working hours, as well as add a phone number.
- Disclose all affiliate links - according to Google’s QRG all affiliate links must be properly marked as such. This means that if a page contains affiliate links, it must be clear exactly which links are affiliate, i.e. which links lead to product pages on affiliate websites. To achieve this, you can label your affiliate links as sponsored, or ads; you can also add an official widget, or use plain text. The best practice is to label all affiliate links with “rel=sponsored”.
Definitely use rel=sponsored for affiliate links, if you can. And to be more complete: affiliate links are not bad. It’s fine to monetize your site. Google’s OK with that. There’s no need to hide them, just use the right kind of link if you can. (John Mueler, Google)
- Having ads on your website is also fine. There is one rule of thumb - they shouldn’t cover the MC of the page, or ruin the shopping experience in any way (including slowing down your website). It is also a good practice to make sure the above-the-fold content doesn’t contain too many ads and provides value.
Reassessing thin content pages
Thin content adds little or no value (to the website, to the conversation, to the lives of readers etc.).
Google considers a page to be a thin content page if the page fails to serve its purpose because it doesn’t have enough content. Doorway pages, low-quality affiliate pages, and scraped pages with duplicate content are also considered thin content pages. For example, a thin content blog post page would be an article that doesn’t provide the promised information (it doesn’t answer the question, it doesn’t solve the problem, etc.), or an article that is copied from another source. Another example of a thin content page would be a product page that contains only a price and a “Buy” button and no or very little information about the product.
Thin content pages can and will hurt your rankings. Therefore, it’s essential that you reassess them - if you need them, you must fix them, and if you don’t, it’s best to delete them entirely. Ultimately, your goal is to ensure that all pages on your website are original and genuinely help your customers.
Notice that some thin content pages aren’t particularly bad. For example, it’s okay if an article has a low word count, as long as it manages to serve its purpose. In addition, some pages will naturally have a lower word count than others (e.g. gallery pages, and pages that display videos) - as long as these pages manage to serve their purpose and convey their message, there’s no reason to worry.
Producing high-quality content
High-quality content is something Google has always and will always reward. So, if you want to rank high on the SERPs, you must produce high-quality content. There’s just one issue with this statement - it is incredibly difficult to define what “high-quality content” means. I feel your pain - I’ve been trying to find the perfect definition for the past five years!
However, high-quality content does have some characteristics that can be pinned down:
- It serves its purpose. Let’s say the purpose of the page is to provide information or, more specifically, to answer a particular question. Its content would be considered high-quality if it provides a thorough and helpful answer. And if the purpose of the page is to sell a product, its content must be designed and produced in a way that entices customers to convert. Simply put, high-quality content meets the searchers’ needs, i.e. it is optimized for search intent.
- It adds value (to the topic, to the conversation, to the lives of its readers, etc.).
- It addresses a specific problem and provides a solution.
- It is written (or reviewed) by an expert, or by someone who has enough knowledge (and real-world expertise) on the topic at hand. Keep in mind that firsthand experiences are becoming more and more important.
- It is well-researched and trustworthy.
- It is unique, original and created with care. It isn’t mass-produced, scraped, or copied, etc.
- It does not contain any errors (factual, grammatical, and more).
- It does not contain too many ads (that cover the MC of the page, or ruin the UX).
- The page loads fast and functions properly on all devices.
To sum up, you must always strive to produce the best (most helpful, valuable, fun, etc.) content out there. And you must constantly improve the content you’ve already created, so that it is always up-to-date and relevant - two things that are very important to Google.
It is also essential that your content is written by experts in the field - especially when it comes to YMYL topics like a person’s health, financial stability, happiness, living situation, and more. What does this mean?
Example I: Say you sell pet products. Your pet health articles, including articles about different types of food and supplements, must be written or reviewed by a veterinarian. And if you publish articles on specific training techniques, they must be written by a certified trainer.
Example II: If you sell food supplements, your content must be written by experts in the field such as nutritionists, endocrinologists, gynecologists, gut health specialists, and more.
Example III: And if you sell skin care products, you must make sure that your content is written, or reviewed by a wide range of experts - from lifestyle bloggers and makeup artists to facialists, dermatologists and scientists.
Having your content written or reviewed by experts is paramount to having strong E-A-T. Strong E-A-T is the key to high organic rankings in 2020 and beyond. And, given the amount of content that is being produced on a daily basis, we expect Google to put even more emphasis on it in future broad core updates.
Bonus section: What Google considers “high-quality content”?
Google’s advice is to make sure you offer the best content you can - this is what their algorithms seek to reward. They’ve created four groups of questions that can guide you and help you achieve this:
- Content and quality questions: Have you done extensive research or analysis? Does the content share original findings, or firsthand experience, i.e. does it provide value? Does the content cover the topic in depth, i.e. does it serve its purpose? Is the headline descriptive, does it match the topic of the content? Would you bookmark the page? Would you share it?
- Expertise questions: Is the website trustworthy and authoritative? Is the content trustworthy (e.g. does it cite high-authority sources, is it free from factual errors, etc.)? Is the content written by an expert? Would you trust the information for issues referring to your health, happiness, money, etc.?
- Presentation and production questions: Is the content free from grammatical, spelling and stylistic errors? Is it detailed and well-produced, or does it seem mass-produced? Does the page content a large number of ads that distract the user from the MC (main content)? Does it look good on all devices?
- Comparative questions: Is the content better than other similar content? Does it meet the user’s expectations, i.e. does it serve its purpose and is it created to add value to the readers’ lives?
Read more → Webmasters Google Blog - Core Updates
Ultimately, the best practice is to focus on creating high-quality content in the long-term - Google has clearly stated that they want to see significant improvement in quality over the long-term.
It is also a good practice to get user feedback and use the insights to identify possible quality issues with your website and its content, i.e. find out if there is anything in particular that you need to fix. If there is something you need to take care of, you need to prioritize the tasks and tackle all problems one by one.
The May 2020 Core Update
Release date: May 4, 2020 - May 18, 2020
Note: According to SEMrush, the May 2020 Core Update brought unprecedented SERP volatility - from 9 to 9.4 points. In comparison, the January 2020 Core Update led to average volatility of 8 points. In other words, the May 2020 Core Update seems to have impacted the organic rankings of more websites.
Affected industries (according to SEMrush):
- Real Estate
- Pets & Animals
- People & Society
Note: These are YMYL industries that were also affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Other affected industries include finance, shopping, news, sports, online communities, arts & entertainment, internet & telecom, computers & electronics, beauty & fitness, home & garden, hobbies & leisure, law & government, jobs & education, and more. Learn more → Neil Patel, Google’s May 2020 Core Update: What You Need to Know
- Google put more emphasis on E-A-T - signals used to determine E-A-T were reassesed. Many small websites that proved their expertise (in a certain niche or on a specific topic) saw improvements in organic rankings. Some of them even managed to outrank larger websites with higher domain authorities.
“Dominant players are no longer assured top results if the quality is not right as many websites with a good E-A-T fundamental base have high quality content … You don’t have to be one of the strongest of the strong as long as you have a solid E-A-T base. In my opinion, this seems to have been Google’s way of correcting for E-A-T.”
- Many health websites seem to have been impacted.
- Trustworthy content seems to have been rewarded. Websites with high-quality content (that contains original research, or shares real-world expertise) experienced a huge increase in rankings.
- Google seems to be getting better at understanding search intent and providing the most relevant (and helpful) results in response to a searcher’s query (especially when it comes to YMYL topics).
“At its core, Search is about understanding language. It’s our job to figure out what you’re searching for and surface helpful information from the web, no matter how you spell or combine the words in your query.”
“With the latest advancements from our research team in the science of language understanding–made possible by machine learning–we’re making a significant improvement to how we understand queries, representing the biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search.”
- Google seems to be getting better at understanding link quality. For example, websites that contain unnatural links (i.e. created solely for SEO purposes) seem to have seen drops in organic rankings. On the other hand, websites with natural backlinks from high-authority sources seem to have been rewarded.
- Websites with good page loading speed seem to have experienced a boost in rankings.
- Google seems to have put an emphasis on accessibility - it seems that the goal of the May 2020 Core Update was to improve the overall user experience. Thus, more accessible websites may have seen an increase in organic rankings.
What to do if your rankings have suffered?
Note: We covered E-A-T and high-quality content in the section on the January 2020 Core Update. Please, check the section above for more information on these topics.
If you want to rank high on the SERPs, understanding user intent and optimizing your Shopify store for it is paramount.
Two weeks ago we published a detailed 18,500+ words guide to search intent optimization - you’ll find everything you need to know about all four types of search intent and Shopify. We covered everything from best practices and actionable tips to inspiring examples.
High-quality backlinks send Google a strong trust signal. Thus, building high-quality backlinks is essential to your off-page SEO success.
Learn more about the different types of backlinks and link building strategies and tactics:
Interlinks (or internal links) help your customers navigate your website, as well as help search engines understand the hierarchy of your website better.
Interlinking is an important signal Google uses to assess the relevance and quality of pages.
When it comes to interlinking, there’s one rule of thumb - interlinks must be created with care. If a page leads to another page on your website, there must be a reason why; there must be a logical correlation between the pages. For example, the interlinked page could build up on the information the main page provides; or, when appropriate, you can add links to your product pages in your blog posts (with promotional purposes).
Best practices (according to Moz):
- The anchor text of internal links should be descriptive and contain keywords. As always, avoid keyword stuffing.
- The key to creating a successful internal linking strategy, is to build an SEO-friendly website architecture and use interlinks to spread link equity.
To improve your site speed, you can:
- Keep your Shopify liquid clean.
- Remove the microdata from your store.
- Delete all product pages you don’t need, i.e. product pages that won’t convert because the product has been sold out and you’re not planning to offer it again.
- Delete other pages you don’t need (e.g., old blog posts that cannot be updated).
- Optimize your product pages.
- If a category contains very few products, consider merging it with another category (if appropriate).
- Optimize your images for SEO.
- And more.
You can use WebPageTest to test your website’s performance.
To make your Shopify store more accessible, you can:
- Ensure your website supports the latest browser versions.
- Ensure your website functions properly on all devices.
- Use high-contrast color schemes and minimalistic design.
- Write descriptive alt tags - aside from helping search engines understand images, alt tags are read by screen readers, thus, making your website more accessible to visually impaired customers.
- Add subtitles to your videos and include captions for sound effects (if applicable).
- Make sure that forms are easy to use and fill out.
The December 2020 Core Update
Release date: December 3, 2020 - Present
Note: According to Semrush data, the average search volatility on December 4, 2020 had a score of 9.4 - similar to the volatility of the May 2020 Core Update (source: semrush). This suggests that the December 2020 Core Update will also have a substantial impact across many different industries and sectors.
Affected industries (according to Semrush):
- Internet & Telecom
- Beauty & Fitness
- Arts & Entertainment
- Online Communities
- Pets & Animals
- Computers & Electronics
- Home & Garden
- Hobbies & Leisure
- Food & Drink
- And More
Websites in the Online Communities, Shopping, and News sectors saw the biggest position drops.
According to RankRanger the December 2020 Core Update "showed even more changes than the May update in some areas, especially in the top three results." (source: Search Engine Land)
How does this affect you?
Since Shopping is one of the most negatively affected sectors, the timing of the algorithm isn't perfect for retailers - sure, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us, but we're still in the middle of the holiday shopping season.
What to do if you've experienced a drop in organic rankings?
If you've noticed a serious drop in rankings (due to the December 2020 Core Update), follow Google's advice - don't make significant changes to your website before the algorithm has fully rolled out. Also:
- Work on your Shopify store's SEO - do an SEO audit and fix all SEO issues, improve your on-page SEO, optimize your Shopify store for search intent, provide a stellar page experience, and more. Keep learning: Shopify SEO in 2021: The Beginner's Guide, The Expert's Guide to Shopify SEO
- Keep creating high-quality content - this includes everything from sales banners, newsletters, and social media content to product descriptions, blog posts, and videos.
- Add structured data to your website - this will help Google understand your website better, as well as increase your chances of getting rich results snippets, and ranking higher on the SERPs. Learn how to add structured data markup to your Shopify store → Structured Data for Shopify: The Definitive Guide 
To sum up, think long-term and focus on quality.
We also advise you to stay on top of current trends that are shaping the future of e-commerce - you can read the annual Shopify Plus State of Retail report and learn more about what to keep your eye on, where to put in extra effort and how to adjust to the ever-changing e-commerce landscape. The report focuses on 5 major issues: online competition, consumer behavior, fulfillment, brand building and marketplace dominance, and retention.
The January 2020 Core Update:
- Google put an emphasis on YMYL topics and E-A-T.
- Pet health websites may be held to a higher standard.
- The rankings of websites that didn't properly disclose their affiliate links may have suffered. The same is true for websites which contained ads that covered the MC of pages, or ruined the user experience.
- Thin content pages seem to have been affected.
- High-quality content seems to have been rewarded.
The May 2020 Core Update:
- Signals used to determine E-A-T were reassessed. Health websites were seriously impacted.
- Trustworthy content was rewarded.
- Google seems to be getting better at understanding search intent and link quality.
- Websites with good page loading speed seem to have experienced a boost in organic rankings.
- Google seems to have put an emphasis on accessibility.
The December 2020 Core Update:
- The update affected multiple sectors and industries. Retail was one of the most affected industries.
- The update came in the middle of the holiday season, which is quite inconvenient if you've experienced a drop in rankings. However, there are several things you can do to recover - from producing high-quality content (which Google loves and rewards) to improving your Shopify store's SEO and adding structured data markup to your website.
- Core updates affect (to a different degree) all search results. They’re not aimed at specific regions, languages, topics, websites or web pages. The purpose of core updates is to help Google adjust their algorithms and achieve their ultimate goal - to provide the most relevant search results and reward the best content.
- There’s nothing wrong with pages that may perform less well in a core update. They're just being reevaluated against content that has been published after the previous broad core update.
- If your rankings have suffered, there might not be anything specific that needs fixing.
- There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, or a set of specific actions you can take to recover. The best practice, and Google’s advice, is to focus on producing high-quality content and improving the overall quality of your website in the long-term.
- Read Google’s QRG (regardless of whether you’ve experienced an increase in organic rankings, or you’ve been negatively impacted). Examine them. Pay attention to every detail that concerns you. Knowing what Google seeks to reward is the key to creating the type of content that would get you to the #1 spot on the SERPs.
- Google’s Quality Raters Guidelines (ORG)
- Marie Haynes Consulting - January 2020 Core Update
- Marie Haynes Consulting - May 2020 Core Update