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13 SEO takeaways from Google’s Elizabeth Tucker at SMX Advanced

SMX Advanced opened with a bang today as Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz interviewed Elizabeth Tucker, director, product management, Google Search.

Here are some highlights of the wide-ranging keynote interview, which included discussion on creating helpful content, the biggest Google core update ever, why Search results may be volatile and more.

1. What to think about when creating content: helpfulness + satisfaction + experience

What should SEOs and content creators think about when building content to serve the user and rank well in Search?

Google’s North Star is getting people to satisfying and helpful results, Tucker said. She paraphrased a well-known quote from NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, which is that as SEOs and content creators you need to skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been:

  • “Think about what we are trying to do … and where we are going and aim for that. … Think about content that’s helpful, satisfying and has good experiences.”

2. Why you should focus on the big picture

Some SEOs have misconceptions about how ranking works and can get too caught up in technical details, Tucker said.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to making great content because great content comes in “many flavors, shapes and sizes” Tucker said.

Her advice? “Focus on the big picture”:

  • “We are trying to satisfy people with all of these different informational needs with all sorts of different great types of content and great websites. I do worry that when people kinda get down in the weeds on specific technical details or signals we may or may not have, it might take away from that big picture question of ‘is this helpful satisfying content [and] are people gonna have a great experience?’”

3. Why the March 2024 Core update rollout took 45 days

In short, it was a lot of work. Google carefully changed “a lot of different core systems.”

There was “some re-architecture work” to help Google do a better job of showing helpful content. This included improving its core systems by bringing in new signals, Tucker said:

  • “We actually had a mini war room going on. We were doing live monitoring of capacity and latency in our data centers because it is unusual for us to roll out so many different changes at once. We did so successfully.
  • “However, there were a few times when we noticed hiccups [e.g., an unexpected capacity issue]. We paused, we slowed down and we made sure things rolled out smoothly. So yes, it took 45 days.
  • “We really do have to be careful when we’re rolling out changes to these large-scale systems that have to operate around the world for billions of queries a day in all languages. There’s a lot of hard engineering we need to do to make sure that Search works successfully.”

Dig deeper. Google releasing massive search quality enhancements in March 2024 core update and multiple spam updates

4. Google’s March 2024 core update was its largest core update to date

The March 2024 core update was “unprecedented,” according to Tucker. She agreed this was the largest core update in Google’s history.

When she was discussing the update with executives, Tucker was told “not to break Google”:

  • “So we did a couple different updates to different core systems simultaneously. I don’t think we’ve ever quite done that before. … We took our time and we did it right.”
  • “We did not break Search. That was one of our big goals.”

5. Why it took Google a week to tell us the March core update was over

Google’s March 2024 core update rollout completed April 19. So why didn’t Google tell us that until April 26?

Because it was “a pretty complex operation” and Google wanted to be absolutely certain everything had rolled out, Tucker said:

  • “We wanted to make sure all the changes were entirely rolled out. … Hundreds of people were involved. So just answering the question of are we done yet? involved so many different pings and discussions. I think there was a little bit of uncertainty at one point whether we were finished.”

6. What led to the 45% reduction in unhelpful content

In March, Google said its search quality enhancements would reduce unhelpful content by 40%. Why did that number change to 45% when Google announced the rollout had been completed? Tucker explained:

  • “Before we roll something out live to 100% of Google traffic, we are testing in a testing environment. Sometimes there can be a little bit of difference in performance that we see in a testing environment versus a full rollout.
  • “The numbers that I trust are the numbers after we’ve rolled out to 100% of Google traffic. And then we’ve done multiple point-in-time measurements [on real live traffic] and gotten consistent numbers. … And that’s where the 45% came from. Those real measurements after rollout.”

7. How Google defines low quality

Many SEOs and content creators have been frustrated by Google’s unclear definition of “low-quality content.”

Tucker told us that Google didn’t have a formal definition of “quality” when she started working there.

Some lively and sometimes contentious discussions led to Google creating a “unifying notion of what quality means.”

This is captured in the page quality rating guidelines within the Search Quality Rater Guidelines document, Tucker said:

  • “…we rigorously define high-quality, low quality, we give examples. And this document is truly the foundation of how third-party evaluators then go and evaluate our results for quality.
  • “And I think what makes quality so incredibly difficult is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all easy way to think about it. It’s actually a fairly nuanced thing.
  • “Because what you want in a high-quality result for a search like [symptoms of a heart attack], you want really accurate, comprehensive information. Might be really different than what you might think of a search for [cute kittens]. You want really adorable kittens.
  • “So we’ve laid it all out in our search quality rater guidelines. We take into account the quality of the main content. Things like accuracy for informational content. Talent and skill. We look at things like page experience – can people find the main content easily?
  • “We have E-E-A-T (experience, expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness). We have a lot of things we think about and they play different roles depending on the different types of content.
  • “So take a look, it’s all there.”

8. What causes radical fluctuations in Google Search rankings

Google doesn’t release any “baby” core updates – “I think I would know” if Google did, Tucker said.

So what causes volatility in Google Search results in times when Google hasn’t announced any updates? Tucker said a bunch of different things are likely going on:

  • The things people search for change radically day by day. (“A Taylor Swift concert happens and like boom, we’re just seeing radically different traffic.”)
  • Content on the web constantly updates.
  • Google’s core systems are constantly refreshing on different cadences.
  • Several smaller search improvements may have launched.

Tucker added:

  • “When we monitor and look at the kinds of results we’re showing on Search, what people are engaging with and so on, we do see some radical fluctuations even if we don’t change a thing.”

9. How many systems are involved in Google’s core updates?

Tucker said she couldn’t give us “a good number” for how many systems are part of Google’s core updates. “I don’t know. Sorry, there’s just no good way for me to count.”

Why is this? Tucker explained:

  • “I think if you were to get five search quality engineers into a room and ask them how many systems we have, you’d get at least 10 answers. … I might give you like three different answers myself.
  • “I think we sometimes get into these pointless arguments about what is a signal, what is a system, what are subsystems vs. main systems, which ones are core systems, which are supporting systems.”

10. Google won’t discuss any signals mentioned in the leak

As for the huge Google Content API documentation leak, Tucker declined to discuss any specific signals, adding:

  • “There are bad actors. You know when we release a lot of information about how specific signals work, it becomes a vector for abuse. That’s frustrating for me, too.
  • “I’m a total search quality nerd. I would love to be able to share more but we have to be incredibly careful.”

11. Statements made by Google spokespeople were ‘accurate’

Since the leak, some in the SEO community have been angry at Google spokespeople like Danny Sullivan and John Mueller – essentially accusing them of lying to us all for years.

Although Tucker isn’t aware of every statement made by every Google spokesperson, she told us that the statements she’s aware of “are accurate.” Also, Google’s search systems are constantly changing.

  • “Things do change over time. We are constantly changing our signals and our systems and how they work because Search is really dynamic.
  • “So we’re constantly making changes and so a statement 10 years ago may not still be true today. However, I will say I don’t know of any inaccurate statements that a Google spokesperson has ever made.”

12. Google wants feedback from SEOs, content creators and publishers

Tucker’s message was simple: “We’re listening, we care, keep the feedback coming.” She added:

  • “We’re working hard to make sure that Search lives up to the expectations, not only of people who come to Search but also the creators, the publishers who are putting great content out there. So we’ll keep working on it. Keep talking to us, we’re listening.”

SEOs play two wonderful roles, according to Tucker:

  • Making great websites: SEOs help create great content and page experiences for people – that Google Search can also understand so it can “surface the best of the web.”
  • Providing feedback: Tucker said SEOs are a group that holds Google to its own “high standards. So a huge shout out and thank you to everyone in the SEO community.”

How to watch the keynote

Register for SMX Advanced to see Tucker’s full interview – as well as dozens of other sessions today and tomorrow.

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