Marketing leadership faces quite a predicament — organic is consistently a website’s highest-converting channel, while also being completely dependent on an ever-fluctuating search engine.

SEOs need a series of checks and protocols — a response plan — not just to weather the algorithm storms, but to proactively leverage them for growth. They need to quickly assess damages, discover opportunities in the shuffle, and lay out next steps whenever updates roll out.

Yes, Google’s search algorithm is constantly changing. By some estimates, minor updates happen up to six times every day — over 2,000 minor algorithm updates every year — to say nothing of the significant core updates Google pushes about five times every year.

In this algorithm emergency response guide, we outline six critical steps to take in the event of a suspected algorithm update:

  1. Gather trusted industry reports
  2. Assess bottom-line impact on rankings and traffic
  3. Investigate the SERPs
  4. Review page-level ranking factors
  5. Review domain-level ranking factors
  6. Roll out a communication and execution plan

An SEO’s job isn’t just to grow a website’s organic traffic, but to communicate to leadership the impact that organic is having on the bottom line. This guide will help you know what to do and what to communicate.

Let’s dig in.

Gather Trusted Industry Reports

With over 2,000 yearly updates to the algorithm, it’s very possible you won’t see a traffic-impacting update coming your way. It may also be difficult to decipher whether fluctuations are coming as a result of your optimization and backlinking efforts or if Google’s been tinkering again.

Luckily, there are brilliant SEOs with massive access to data and key connections within Google who are constantly reporting. As with any news source, there’s also a fair amount of speculation that can be difficult to sift through.

Here are a few trustworthy sources we immediately turn to when suspicion is running high:

Following these entities and/or setting up Google Alerts for them will ensure you’re aware when an update hits.

The key when assessing every algorithm update is to understand what Google appears to be “targeting” with its update: quality of content, page speeds, backlinks, etc.

Beyond looking for the specific targets, it’s also essential to step back and review Google’s high-level goals. Google makes money by providing the best possible information to users searching on its engine. Every update is made with that goal, so every reactive response we make to these updates should be in the pursuit of improving our end users’ experience.

Assess Impact on Rankings and Traffic

You need to get your arms around this and it’s best to start with the bottom line. Your leaders’ first question will be: are we making money or losing money as a result of this update?

Using your analytics tools, measure the percentage of loss or gain in both traffic and organic-sourced revenue. Keep tracking this every day for at least two weeks as algorithms tend to roll out gradually.

Digging deeper, you need to know which keywords are shifting.

We use STAT for this because it keeps historical, daily data of Google Rank and Google Base Rank for any keywords you’re tracking, providing precise detail around when rankings change.

Historical ranking data in STAT

Examine how rankings have changed over time to pinpoint precisely when specific keywords could have been impacted by an algorithm update.

You’ll notice that if one keyword has shifted, often other keywords within the same topic will also have moved. This is why it’s best to analyze losses and gains on a page-level.

My favorite way to see this is by pulling up Google Analytics and creating a comparison that only shows you traffic coming from the “google/organic” session source/medium. This is done by going to Reports > Add comparison at the top next to All Users > Include Session source/medium > Dimension values: google/organic > Apply. You can deselect the All Users audience to only see the audience just created.

Building comparisons in GA4

Simply set the conditions for your comparison as shown to isolate your organic traffic in Google Analytics 4.

Once you’ve created your comparison, head over to Reports > Engagement > Landing Page. You’ve now got a list of all your pages that are visited first as a result of an organic search. Start looking at before and after comparisons of the data to see which pages have fluctuated in traffic.

It is at this moment that you must decide whether the algorithm update is so impactful on your rankings, traffic, and revenue that you need to inform top-level leadership. You have the industry reports and you’ve captured the impact on your website — we advise over-communicating with leadership, letting them know that you’re aware of what’s going on and that you’re digging deeper.

Investigate the SERPs

Now that you know which of your pages and keywords are seeing fluctuations, it’s time to identify the “winners” and “losers” of the update. The best place to start, regardless of your specific rankings on the SERP, is to analyze the top 10 listings.

STAT’s Archived SERPs feature shows the top 10 listings for any date after which tracking was set up.

The Archived SERPs tab in STAT

Go back in time by selecting a date to see detailed listings of what was on the SERP that day.

First start by asking these questions:

  • Who moved up?
  • Who moved down?
  • Did any new domains hit the top 10?
  • Did any domains fall out of the top 10?
  • Are the new top 10 results recognizable, higher-authority domains or do they represent a more diverse set of listings?

Next, ask:

  • What types of listings moved up?
  • What types of listings moved down?
  • Is Google favoring informational or transactional pages for this particular keyword?
  • Is Google looking for long, complex answers to this query or is it looking for straight-to-the-point FAQ responses?

Review Page-Level Ranking Factors

SEO execution is broadly thrown into three categories: on-page content, off-page authority, and technical — one page at a time, we need to evaluate how our page stacks up to the new standard of the update for each.

On-Page Content

One of the quickest ways to compare your content with the top 10 results is to compare H2s. Does your content address the same subtopics as Google’s favorite results?

You’ll also want to pay attention to characteristics like structure, length, metadata, and multimedia usage such as video and images.

Also consider how other listings are meeting E-E-A-T factors. Does the content have an updated or recent publish date that seems fresh? Is the content author reputable? What sources establish the author’s credibility?

Off-Page Authority

Next up, tune into the off-page authority of competing pages. Look at metrics such as:

  • Number of backlinks
  • Link quality
  • Link velocity (how fast the page is acquiring backlinks)
  • Anchor text ratios

Is your page stacking up against competitors well with backlinks or is the discrepancy in volume and/or quality tanking your ranking?


Finally, investigate the technical page-level components.

Start with the site map. Is this specific page in the site map? Check that the page is not excluded in robots.txt.

Remember to use canonical links to prevent duplicate pages from cannibalizing your page ranking.

Look at your page speed, compare structured page data with other ranking pages, and write alternate text for any images. This consideration for sight-impaired visitors isn’t about ranking, but compliance with ADA requirements improves user experience and may become relevant for ranking down the road.

Review Domain-Level Ranking Factors

You may have just discovered a series of important page-level factors that need to be addressed. However, we sometimes run this page-level analysis and find it to be a competitive wash — everyone in the top 10 can look nearly identical from an on-page, off-page, and technical perspective. So, what gives?

Google’s E-A-T guideline identifies Expertise/Experience, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness among its most important ranking factors in its algorithm.

This is not only demonstrated on a page level, but on a domain level. It’s the reason why a website could have a page that is arguably “better” than what’s found on the top 10, but not rank. Google needs to see that your domain — and your entire entity — demonstrates these values.

Domain-Level Content

If your domain-level content is suffering, you need to establish topical authority.

“Topical authority is a measure of authority built up through proven expertise and trust in your field. The more high-quality, informative pieces of content there are on your site, the more likely your website is to be perceived as a trusted source of information on a particular topic.” — Zoe Ashbridge, Senior SEO Strategist, Forank (How to earn topical authority in 2022 and beyond)

If your site is hurting here, do keyword research to find the related content keywords, organize your keywords into clusters or pillars, and get to work building and linking new authoritative content.

Domain-Level Authority

Your domain-level authority comes from backlinks. Zoom out and survey your site’s overall domain rating and your overall backlink profile compared to competitors. There are lots of helpful tools that can help you accomplish this — one example (that you can use for free) is Moz Link Explorer.

Domain-Level Technical

Finally, scan your site for glaring technical issues. Check in for these common failures:

  • Page errors or page status errors
  • 404 errors
  • Redirect chains
  • Core web vitals
  • Overall indexability

Roll Out a Communications and Execution Plan

With a much clearer picture of what has changed, how it is impacting your business, and what it will take to “win,” you’re ready to execute. More importantly, you also have the ammunition to communicate to key stakeholders.

It’s becoming increasingly rare that an SEO has the skills or access to make all necessary changes to their website. It’s time to communicate with developers, content writers, and top leadership.

Give them a brief that rolls together all of your findings:

  • Trusted industry reports
  • Reports of the bottom-line impact on rankings and traffic
  • Examples of changes on the SERPs
  • Opportunities to improve page-level ranking factors
  • Opportunities to improve domain-level ranking factors

And then give them their specific tasks. Do this and you’re on track to mitigate losses, seize opportunities, and prove why you’re an essential asset to the company when so much is dependent on Google.