It has been known for some time (since at least 2007) that “freshness” is an element Google uses in determining content quality, and is more important to some queries and SERPs than others.
If a URL (content) drops below the quality threshold it can (and will) drop out of Google’s index.
Gary Illyes has confirmed that content can “teeter” on the edge of the quality threshold, and submitting it via Google Search Console can provide a URL with a temporary freshness boost. To quote Illyes, and John Mueller, from 2021.
As we find new URLs, the page may fall out the index, but then you breathe new life into it temporarily by submitting to the index manually.
Yeah, that can happen. But it can also happen that it drops out again a week later, or a different URL drops out. If you’re teetering on the edge of indexing, there’s always fluctuation. It basically means you need to convince Google that it’s worthwhile to index more.
The key part of this is, you need to convince Google that it’s worthwhile to index more.
So specifically looking at the element of Freshness, which is effectively a time decay concept – we need to understand how time decay works algorithmically, and how Google then applies it.
What is Time Decay?
Time decay is a concept used in various types of algorithms, not just in search engines, but also in recommender systems, machine learning models, and more. In the context of search engines like Google, it’s used to prioritize more recent information over older data.
Time decay algorithms work by decreasing the relevance or importance of data as it becomes older.
The basic principle is that newer data is given more importance or weight, while older data is progressively given less importance or weight.
Here’s a simple way to understand how it works:
- An initial weight or importance is assigned to a piece of data (for example, a web page or a search result) when it’s first added to the system. This could be based on various factors like the content of the page, its relevance to certain search terms, and so on.
- Over time, this initial weight is reduced based on a time decay function. This could be a linear function (where the weight reduces at a constant rate over time), an exponential function (where the weight reduces more quickly as the data gets older), or some other function depending on the specific requirements of the system.
- When a search query is made, the system takes into account both the original relevance of the data and its reduced weight due to time decay to determine which results to show.
In the case of Google’s search algorithm, for certain types of search queries that require fresh results (like news articles, recent events, or trending topics), time decay plays a significant role in ranking the search results. This ensures that users get the most up-to-date information when they’re searching for recent events or timely topics.
It is important to remember that time decay is just one of many factors that Google uses to rank search results.
“Query Deserves Freshness”
Google have confirmed in their documentation they utilize a number of query deserves freshness (QDF) systems.
The first noted mention of QDF comes from a 2007 New York Times article, and includes an interview (of sorts) with Amit Singhal, a former head of Google’s search team, and former company Senior Vice President.
Key takeaways and quotes from the article, in understanding the intention of QDF include:
THE QDF solution revolves around determining whether a topic is “hot.” If news sites or blog posts are actively writing about a topic, the model figures that it is one for which users are more likely to want current information.
Although Google already has a different system for including headlines on some search pages, QDF offered more sophisticated results, putting the headlines at the top of the page for some queries, and putting them in the middle or at the bottom for others.
The next record we have of Google talking about QDF in a meaningful and purposeful manner comes from the Webmaster Videos series that Matt Cutts presented in 2013.
QDF In Action
When the Dyn cyberattack happened in 2016 and a large portion of the internet went down, even the Whitehouse was making public statements about what a DDoS attack was and how it was affecting services, DDoS became a phrase being searched for by everyone and not just infosec or “techie” people.
As a result, Google had to revise page one of the search results and to rank prominently for that phrase – which lost its commercial intent – you had to create and become an authority on the topic that even a layman could understand.
“Optimizing” For Time Decay/QDF
There is no direct way to optimize for “freshness”, other than producing fresh, relevant content for time sensitive user queries.
We can however be atune with how freshness can impact SERPs, e.g. how the SERPs change during the Dyn DDOS.
For more time sensitive queries, the algorithm prioritizes fresher content over older, possibly more authoritative content.
The QDF algorithm works by taking into account the nature of the search query, the user’s behavior, and the content available on the web. Here’s a simplified version of how it might work:
- Identify the type of search query: Some search queries are more likely to require fresh content than others. For example, a query about a recent news event or a trending topic is more likely to “deserve freshness” than a query about a historical event or a well-established fact.
- Look at user behavior: Google also considers how users are interacting with search results. If users are more likely to click on and engage with newer content for certain types of queries, those queries might be identified as deserving freshness.
- Consider the available content: If there’s a sudden influx of new content about a particular topic (for example, if many news articles are being published about a breaking news event), Google might identify this as a sign that queries about this topic deserve freshness.
When the QDF algorithm identifies a query that deserves freshness, it adjusts the ranking of search results to prioritize newer content. H
This doesn’t mean that older content is disregarded completely.
Google’s algorithm still considers the relevance and authority of content when ranking search results, so a highly relevant and authoritative piece of older content might still rank highly for a query that deserves freshness.
It’s important to note that, while freshness is an important signal for certain types of search queries, it’s not the only factor that Google’s algorithm considers when ranking search results. Other factors, such as relevance, authority, and the user’s search history, also play a crucial role.