The Most Volatile Year in Search Ever: Takeaways From 2017

By Sara Smith

While Google makes thousands of minor updates to its algorithm each year, 2017 was unusual because we saw a record breaking 12 major updates! For reference, a typical year will see 3 to 4 major updates. The sheer quantity of core and quality algorithm updates caused search rankings and traffic to fluctuate across every industry and left many search marketers scrambling to keep up. At ChoiceLocal, we wanted to take a step back and review our SEO and digital marketing strategies over the course of the year and share how it affected you, our partners!

The majority of algorithm updates in 2017 were a direct result of the ‘Panda’ update – Google’s infamous updated search filter that aggressively penalized what they identified as “low quality websites.”

Throughout the year, we consistently adjusted our strategy to anticipate Google’s next move, while also reacting to these major changes. The most successful tactics we found this year focused on delivering high quality content updates and making adjustments to important local listings to help Google ‘find’ your business more easily.

Despite all of the updates we saw in 2017 we helped our partners increase keywords ranking in the #1 position by 224% and increased total ranking keywords by 65%.

Quality Content Updates: ChoiceLocal consistently created and maintained keyword-rich, relevant and superior content on our partner’s sites. We localize all site content and do massive keyword research to find the most highly searched terms in a specific area. What works for one does not work for all! Eight of the 12 major updates were designed specifically to penalize sites with low quality or minimal content. Our digital marketing partners, with their high quantity and quality content, were rewarded with high rankings after these updates!

TAKEAWAY: Don’t skimp on your site content – make sure all pages on your site are full of highly relevant content.

Google My Business Audits: August 2017’s ‘Hawk’ update swooped in and narrowed the local search proximity filter, which suppresses results of similar, nearby businesses and only displays what Google deems “the most relevant result.” While this update was helpful for many of our partners located close to similar businesses, it is important to note that similar businesses will STILL be filtered (i.e. removed!) from search results if they are in the same office building, or even on the same block.

If your business is in a shared building or business park be sure to check the Google My Business listings of your neighboring businesses. Are they marked correctly with suite numbers? Is a business that has subsequently moved or closed still listed? In the event you find something incorrectly labeled you have two options: to talk to the nearby business and ask them to update their listings themselves or to ask ChoiceLocal to do it for you! This will limit any confusion Google may have and will help your business navigate its way through the proximity filter.

TAKEAWAYS: Make sure your Google listing, and those of your neighbors, are 100% accurate. If your local business is in search of a new office, avoid ending up close to any of your competitors and close to your ideal clients. ChoiceLocal offers a Senior Dollar Analysis to help you find the ideal office space!

In addition to the 2 major strategies above (continual quality content updates and Google My Business audits), each of the 12 major Google algorithm updates called for specific adjustments to our strategies based on how each affected our clients.

See below for the total keyword rankings for all of ChoiceLocal’s partners throughout the year and how each update affected keyword rankings.

digital marketing



Keywords that show up in position 1
Keywords that show up in position 2-5
Keywords that show up in position 6-10
Keywords that show up in position 11-50


Intrusive Interstitials (January 10) – Confirmed update penalized sites with content not easily accessible due to popup ads or messages that the user must dismiss.

Unconfirmed Update (February 1) – Minor update penalized sites utilizing “spammy links”.

Unconfirmed Update (February 7) – Major update that penalized low-quality sites, specifically sites with thin content, mobile rendering problems, deceptive or aggressive advertising and other UX barriers.

Fred (March 8) – Confirmed update that negatively affected sites that appeared to be created solely for generating advertising revenue with no benefit to web users.

Quality Update (May 17) – Week-long shift in rankings that again affected sites with aggressive advertising techniques, UX issues or low-quality content.

Unconfirmed Update (June 25) – Major unconfirmed update that primarily targeted sites ranked positions #6-10 in food/beverage, health/fitness, gambling, retail and travel industries. There was fluctuation in rankings, though there was no clear pattern to the fluctuations.

Quality Update (July 9) – Unconfirmed update related to site quality and UX

Quality Updates (August 14 & 19) – Following an almost monthly pattern, yet another series of unconfirmed updates targeted typical quality concerns such as aggressive advertising, UX issues and thin content.

Hawk Update (August 22) – Strictly local update reversing the wide proximity filter that of the Possum update (September 2016).  Google tightened proximity filter that suppresses nearby businesses of similar industry, though will continue filtering businesses in the same building and even down the street.

Fall Flux (September 8 – October 12) – Series of updates that saw shifts in rankings related to quality, UX and page layout.

Snippet Length Increase (November 30) – Confirmed update doubled the length of search snippets to 300 characters.

Maccabees Update (December 12)- Google confirmed several minor changes to core algorithm that targeted sites with keyword permutations, low quality content, and aggressive advertising.

As you can see, the scope of these changes is significant. For those whose focus has continually been on high quality content and UX, all the gains are there to be made and will likely continue to be in 2018.

Be sure to check our blog regularly for more informative content about SEO, PPC, digital marketing and more.


About the Author

Sara Smith is SEO Team Lead at ChoiceLocal. Outside of work, you will find her traveling to new places, reading a good book by the fire, hiking with her dog, or spending time with her family.

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