Is fresh content a Google ranking factor?

As with most updates in Google’s history, search industry rumors spread quickly about how to “game” the system.

“Freshness” is a common theme among Google Updates, spanning more than a decade.

And “new content” as a ranking factor has been a continuing point of interest for SEOs, especially among content marketers.

To better understand the debate, we’ll take a look at Google’s “Freshness” updates, specifically what they mean and how (if at all) they affect search rankings.

[Recommended Read:] Google Ranking Factors: Fact or Fiction

The Claim: New Content as a Ranking Factor

Speculation that new content may be a ranking factor started in response to some big updates from Google and has grown into a pretty big claim.

The idea behind “new content” started a few years before Google’s caffeine update.

In 2007, a New York Times reporter was allowed to spend a day with Amit Singhal (senior vice president of search at the time).

During this time, Singhal officially spoke about the solution he had developed to solve the “freshness problem”.

It was a new algorithm that tried to determine when users wanted new information and when they didn’t.

And like all Google initiatives, it had a catchy nickname: QDF for “query deserves freshness.”

Caffeine (2009 Google update)

If you think Google’s major updates are a big deal right now, wait until you hear about the 2009 Google Caffeine update.

It was such a big change that Google provided developers with a preview a few months before implementing it.

Caffeine allowed Google to crawl faster and therefore deliver fresher results from a much larger index.

The indexing update was completed in June 2010, starting the myth of fresh content because Google said, “Caffeine provides 50 percent fresher results.”

Freshness (2011 Google update)

Google announced a “freshness update” in November 2011, four years after the New York Times story broke.

In the announcement titled “Giving you fresher and more recent search results,” Google explained that this was a significant improvement in the ranking algorithm and it noticeably impacts 6-10% of searches.

Featured Snippet Freshness (2019 Google Update)

The freshness updates didn’t stop there. Relevance is still top of mind for Google as they seek to satisfy user queries.

Pandu Nayak, the current vice president of search at Google, announced in 2019 that the company updated its search algorithms to keep snippets fresh, up-to-date, and relevant.

Danny Sullivan confirmed that the Featured Snippets Freshness update was released at the end of February 2019.

Rumors about how to optimize for Google updates spread quickly, and this was certainly true for new content.

Speculations were circulating that by frequently updating content, you could gain an SEO advantage or that updating an article’s publication date can make it look fresh.

Let’s take a look at the evidence behind these claims and whether fresh content is in any way a ranking factor.

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The Evidence: New Content as a Ranking Factor

To decide if “fresh content” could be a ranking factor, we need to understand two things: what the “Freshness” algorithm updates mean, and how they affect search rankings.

QDF

The query deserves freshness (QDF) is very literal.

Google’s solution revolved around determining whether a search query is “hot,” meaning whether or not the user wants the most up-to-date information on the topic.

The mathematical model looked at news sites, blog posts and Google’s own stream of billions of search queries to see how much global interest there is in a particular topic.

For example, Singhal shared what happens when cities experience power outages.

“When there’s a blackout in New York, the first articles appear in 15 minutes; we get inquiries in two seconds,” Singhal told the New York Times.

Such a sudden increase in interest can mean that people are looking for new information.

Caffeine

Unfortunately, many people got the Caffeine update wrong.

Caffeine was not a ranking update. The intention behind this was not even to impact the rankings. It was a complete rebuild of Google’s indexing system.

Indexing and ranking are two very different things.

Indexing is when Google first looks at your content and adds it to their index. That means it has the potential to be ranked.

However, ranking is a completely different story, with much more complex algorithms behind it.

And while Caffeine focused on indexing, it was the Freshness update that affected Google’s ranking algorithm.

Freshness

The Freshness update was an effort to understand when a user is looking for more recent information.

But “freshness” does not generally apply to all search queries.

Google shares information about which precise queries deserve updating on its How Search Works page.

key factors in search resultsGoogle “How Search Works” screenshot, June 2022

Google’s Freshness algorithm seeks to provide the latest information for trending keywords that fall into categories such as:

  • Recent events or hot topics: celebrity news or natural disasters.
  • Events that are repeated regularly: the Olympics or the Sports Results.
  • Frequently Updated Content: Best/Reviews or Tech Industry.

Freshness is a complex topic on its own, so it’s a good idea to learn about it if you’re targeting time-focused queries.

Google Representatives on Freshness: Giving users the respect they deserve

Do we have an official answer? Yes.

In 2018, John Mueller answered a question: Does Google favor new content?

John Mueller on freshnessScreenshot of Twitter thread, June 2022

Mueller’s “no” response should be taken in context with the entire Twitter conversation.

User @anilthakur2u made a joke about updating the title tags on December 31 to become relevant for the next year.

Mueller responded: “SEO tricks don’t make a site great. Give your content and users the respect they deserve.”

Here here!

Updating the publication date is a bad SEO strategy and will not help you rank better.

Want to learn more? get the full Google Ranking Factors guide.

Our verdict: Fresh content is a confirmed ranking factor for some queries

Ranking Factors: Confirmed

When the query calls for it, new content is a Google ranking factor.

Does that mean you have to constantly change the release date? No.

Does it mean that an article could outperform other pages because of the date they were published? Potentially, if Google believes that freshness is critical to the user’s query.

Keep in mind that there are many ranking factors, not just “freshness”.

You may be able to earn a ranking boost if you ride the wave of popular trends, upcoming events, or breaking news, but it’s not an evergreen content strategy.


Featured image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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