Leveraging Google’s Freshness Update for SEO

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Google’s “freshness update” debuted in November 2011, but it’s taken some time for things to finally shake out regarding this latest enhancement to the SERPs.  However, after a few months of tracking the impact this algorithm change had on the SERPs, we’re confident that the following recommendations represent the best way to leverage Google’s freshness update for SEO in today’s natural search environment.

But first, a little background on this important change to the search results pages…

The Impact of the Freshness Update

The Google freshness update was launched at the end of 2011, with the stated goal of providing more current results for queries that demand real-time answers – not evergreen content.  This distinction is best explained with an example, so imagine that – on a given day – you enter both of the queries, “House M.D. episode recap” and “how to cook carrots” into Google.

In the first example, it’s clear that you want “fresh” results.  You probably aren’t looking for a recap of an episode that aired months ago, so Google would be wise to find the most recent results mentioning this keyword phrase – even if these newer pages wouldn’t otherwise be ranked highly based on the traditional SERPs ranking factors.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a recipe that will show you how to cook carrots, you don’t need the results of your search query to be recent.  Instead, you want the best possible carrot recipe found on the web, which will likely be pulled by the traditional ranking factors the search engines use to parse results found over the history of their indices.

With this in mind, Google launched its freshness update in order to a) identify search queries in which recent results should be prioritized over more historically authoritative pieces of content, and b) determine how to serve up the most timely, yet accurate results.  The specific search queries impacted by the freshness update are, for these reasons, termed “QDF” – or “query deserves freshness.”

According to Google, this update impacted about 35% of search queries.  And while that sounds like a pretty big number – especially considering that the initial Panda rollout impacted only 11-12% of results pages – the relative impact was actually quite a bit smaller.

The key distinction lies in “queries versus pages”.  Although there are millions and millions of possible keyword combinations (each of which has its own page in the natural search results), each of these combinations isn’t being entered into the Google search bar every day.

For example, consider a major event like the Super Bowl.  In the days leading up to sporting’s biggest event, the number of search queries related to this topic will likely increase proportionately compared to other industries or niches.  If Super Bowl related keyword phrases account for 10% of all search queries during this time, the percentage of search queries affected by the freshness update could be quite high, even if the number of results pages affected is much lower.

This is why, typically, most QDF search queries relate to celebrities, upcoming events and news items within specific industries.  Understanding the specific queries in your industry that are affected by the freshness update is a vital part to determining how to leverage these changes for SEO.

How Does Google Select QDF Results?

As a webmaster, these changes should uncover some obvious opportunities for your brand.  If you can successfully identify the QDF keyword phrases within your industry and position your content to be chosen for inclusion in a freshness-affected results page, you stand to see a substantial SEO benefit if your result displaces a site that would have otherwise achieved high rankings from traditional SEO.

As usual, Google has offered no clear explanation as to how the content displayed for QDF results is chosen, although there’s plenty of speculation amongst the SEO crowd about the sources that might be tapped.  The Google+ network is an obvious option, which is why it’s as important as ever to be sure you’re sharing content on this site and prompting users to “+1” your articles from within your own site.

However, another alternative theory suggests that content shared via RSS – specifically through Feedburner, which Google owns – could be a natural way to capture data on which pieces of content are being read most in relation to a QDF query.

Strategies for Promoting Your Own “Fresh” Content

So, with all these different elements of the freshness update in mind, what specific actions should you take in order to maximize your potential exposure through QDF queries?

The following are a few of the strategies we’ve developed in response to this algorithm change:

  1. Stay on top of industry news.  This should go without saying, but if you want to capture the potential of the freshness update and leverage it for SEO, you need to be aware of the events and news items that are making the rounds in your industry.  To do so, make watching Google News, Google Insights, Google Trends, Google Hot Trends and any relevant, industry-specific news sites a part of your daily routine.
  2. Watch for QDF results.  As you browse through SERPs in your industry, take note of the specific search queries that are showing QDF results (as demonstrated by a cluster of date-stamped posts at the top of the natural results).  In some of these cases, “freshness” may be evaluated on an ongoing basis, meaning that it might make sense to continue to target these keyword phrases in the future.
  3. Write short, yet informative blog posts.  Not every piece you publish on your blog needs to be Pulitzer Prize worthy.  In fact, when it comes to freshness, faster is often better – even if you’ve only published a quick reaction to a breaking news event.  Certainly, keep up your set schedule of publishing good evergreen content for your readers to reference, but balance these efforts with shorter, newsworthy articles as well to leverage the freshness update for SEO.
  4. Publicize your posts through a variety of sources.  Since it isn’t entirely clear how Google is processing results for QDF queries, it’s best to publicize your posts through a variety of sources.  Obviously, both Google+ and the Feedburner RSS service should play a role in your promotional efforts, but don’t neglect the potential impact of other popular social media and social bookmarking sites as well.
  5. Piggyback on current events.  Suppose you run a website in an industry that doesn’t have as many opportunities for QDF results.  Instead of getting upset about it, trying piggybacking onto other current events outside your niche.  For example, if you run a sales strategy blog, running an article titled, “Sales and Marketing Lessons from This Year’s Best Super Bowl Commercials,” could help you to pick up interest and traffic from the fresh results generated from this popular sports contest.


Overall, try to pay attention to the types of content in your industry that are receiving exposure through QDF searches.  For which specific search queries do you see “fresh” results appearing?  How long, on average, are the articles that get listed in the fresh results?  Do the types of websites that get picked up for the fresh results have any common features?

By paying attention to how QDF queries are being applied to your industry’s keywords and following the strategies above, you should be able to quickly and easily uncover ways to leverage Google’s freshness update for SEO.

Image: BrittneyBush

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