The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing everyone to reevaluate their priorities, not least digital marketers and SEO professionals. This is mainly due to the unprecedented search result volatility that the industry has witnessed recently.

Entire populations now go online for work, socialising, information and entertainment, which is causing mass confusion according to Peter Meyers, marketing scientist at Moz.

“We don’t know right now if the web is changing, if Google is changing something, if people’s behavior is changing; but, we also know that people are just doing things so differently that it’s nearly impossible to set [these things] apart,” he said in a recent episode of Live with Search Engine Land.

So how big have search result fluctuations been? And what other factors have been responsible for them?

The scale of rankings volatility

“From March 15 through April 3, you’re talking like 16 days of volatility — that hasn’t happened the last few years,” said Mordy Mordy Oberstein of Rank Ranger, a monitoring service which measures daily search result fluctuations for 10,000+ domains and keywords.

One possible explanation for such volatility is because Google’s algorithms, which differ according to industry, are behaving unexpectedly due to changes in trends.

“Google has different algorithms for every industry, and seeing changes across industries meant for us that the complete and drastic changes in search behaviour must have caused the algorithm to understand and behave differently and give different results or update the SERPs,” said Olga Andrienko of SEMRush.

Site updates and index changes

Because of safety precautions such as social distancing, a huge number of businesses are having to ramp up or ramp down their website activity.

“Huge e-commerce sites suddenly have to show all their products are out of stock or remove products or add products,” said Search Engine Land News Editor Barry Schwartz. “We’re seeing massive changes to sites that trigger index changes and ranking changes.”

This has also forced businesses to find alternative ways to make money, such as offering products or services they didn’t previously. Websites are introducing additional functionality too such as pick-up and delivery options, which is fuelling the indexing and ranking fire.

The rise of Your Money, Your Life (YMYL) queries

Last year, an update to Google’s algorithm emphasised expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness (EAT) for your money, your life (YMYL) queries, particularly for health-related searches.

As search consultant Marie Haynes explains, this is exactly what’s happening right now: “If you do searches for anything that’s important and related to the Coronavirus right now, you’re going to see recognisable, authority health sites that are ranking well.

“And you almost wonder if it’s possible that Google’s algorithms . . . managed to figure out that the way people are searching, they’re searching for health queries and it seems to be very important to people’s health right now, so we’re only going to take results from large, trustworthy health authorities.”

The influence of the user

With machine learning now an integral part of how Google operates, it could be that users are actually rewriting how algorithms work according to their recent behaviour. Even if COVID-19 is playing a part in search result volatility and fluctuations, the influence of the user can’t be underestimated either.

“I don’t want to over-generalise about [machine learning], but when you have user inputs feeding the system, then the algorithm is, to some degree, rewriting itself as our behaviours change — and so, is that us? Is that COVID? Or, is that the algorithm?” speculated Myers.

However, this theory has been disputed by Google’s John Mueller, who says that user behaviour shifts on a regular basis: “These kinds of shifts are things that our algorithms have to watch out for, so it’s not something that I’d say would be specific to this current [pandemic] situation,” he said.

Google’s own reaction to the COVID-19 search experience

Ever since February, there has been a notable difference in the way Google has presented search results for coronavirus-related queries.

For example, new features such as the ‘Help and Information’ box have appeared along with a COVID-19 alert sidebar and statistics panel. But despite the fact these new features were manual updates, they have not had an impact on the widespread volatility SEO professionals have been witnessing.

“I don’t think they’ve written a specific algorithm for ‘here’s what we do because of the coronavirus’; they’re adapting to how the world changes their searches,” Haynes said, “The trick for us now is in trying to interpret what’s happening.”