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Google Search’s Core Updates Are Crushing Sites And Reshaping The Web

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Had enough of marketing changes and disruption this year?

Too bad.

Google Search, the web’s largest traffic and revenue generator for two decades, is in the midst of sweeping overhauls that have already altered how users are funneled around the internet.

Last month, Google completed the rollout of its first “core update” of 2024, which tackles spam and low-quality content in search.

There are typically two or three core updates per year, while specific problems are raised by publishers or advertisers and addressed on a rolling basis.

But even greater change is coming.

Beginning this week, Google will begin enforcing a new spam policy, which is not a core update but promises further disarray and traffic falloffs for many publishers.

The backstory

Google’s most recent spam core update was an unusually difficult and complicated one, according to an SEO consultant who spoke with AdExchanger anonymously due to nondisclosure agreements with Google on certain search beta products.

It was a thorny change, they said, that grew out of a more targeted update – the “helpful content update” in September – and involves multiple core systems that rank and counter-rank each other.

The helpful content update focuses on whether the information on a given page will be valuable to a search user. The new core update might, for example, counter-balance a high helpful content score on a specific URL by flagging a publisher for spammy practices elsewhere on its site.

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One important systemic change Google Search has made, the SEO consultant said, is to downrank sites at the publisher level, rather than at the URL level, when the search algorithm spots what it considers unhelpful content or spam. Instead of losing traffic to that one URL or section of the site, this causes publishers to experience more widespread downrankings for their main site.

Say a digital media site with no objectionable practices also has a section with a coupon directory or pay-to-post options like sponsored content. Some of that content exists primarily to help the publisher monetize, not necessarily to contribute value to web users, and thus could fall under the spam policies and end up bringing down traffic sitewide.

Consider Forbes, which was recently exposed for operating a subdomain (www3.Forbes.com) where it engaged in shady monetization tactics.

Publishers that engage in problematic advertising practices on one part of their site could previously simply stop that behavior without affecting the site overall. Now, that might now count against the site’s holistic search rankings.

What’s the issue?

Many publishers have been hurt by these spam and content updates. But is that a bad thing?

In a way, Google’s recent search updates are like ad tech companies addressing MFA sites, said one publisher consultant, who requested anonymity to speak about a customer with a nondisclosure agreement.

MFA sites were created in response to what agencies and ad tech companies said they wanted: cheap, viewable, human impressions. For years, Google told publishers – via its own best practices and also by driving traffic to certain types of sites – that coupon directories and aggregated content laden with search metadata is what the algo wants. Now, all of a sudden, those content strategies are regarded as spam, and site traffic is down by 70% to 90%.

Many publishers and SSPs complain of being unfairly tagged as MFA – but there’s a reason they are. It’s because they employ practices like serving six or more ads above the fold when a site loads, the publisher consultant said.

But the most recent Google core update is much more complicated than simply addressing MFA content, they said.

Many sites have pay-to-publish-type content that shouldn’t necessarily be punished. For instance, many reputable publishers post sponsored content or have native advertising that looks like original content but is pay-to-post and often published by a third party.

Wagging the long tail

Smaller and specialty sites also claim they’ve lost out to big-name publishers as a result of Google’s helpful content update.

HouseFresh, a product reviews site specializing in air purifiers and similar home appliances, says its search traffic is down 90% since Google’s March/April core update. Instead, that traffic is going mostly to large publishers, such as Dotdash Meredith, according to HouseFresh, even though those bigger sites often aggregate reviews from niche pubs and generate content at scale simply to monetize affiliate traffic – which flies directly in the face of the core update.

And it isn’t just publishing companies. Tuta Mail, an encrypted email service in Europe, said its site traffic is down 90% since the March core update.

“Obviously, Google changed something in its search algorithms, but we do not know what they changed or why,” Tuta Mail CEO Matthias Pfau told Reuters.

What’s next?

So you’ve been affected by Google Search algo updates. Join the club.

The big question is: What can be done? Unfortunately, not much.

Pfau said Tuta Mail has received “radio silence” from Google. And the SEO consultant who spoke to AdExchanger noted that a particular frustration for publishers is that Google really isn’t explaining or fixing problems on the go.

In fact, Google isn’t approaching this as a problem for it to solve on the backend, the consultant said. Google’s feedback to publisher customers is that they must work on their own sites and should organically see improvements between now and the next core update later in the summer.

What rankles small and midsize sites most, said the publisher consultant, is that the recent Google Search updates don’t really seem to be about promoting helpful content and spam protection.

“Who’s winning here?” they said. “Shouldn’t that be a clear indicator?”

Their point is that, if any companies are “winning” Google Search right now, it’s large platforms, namely Reddit and Google itself. When Google reported Q1 earnings in April, Search was the main driver of revenue growth. YouTube revenue was also up and is now on track to earn more than $100 billion per year.

But the Google network business – the ad revenue it provides to third-party sites and publishers – was down. Not just experiencing slowing growth, mind you, but seeing year-over-year declines.

Reddit, however, has rocketed up Google Search pages since last September, when the helpful content update began favoring “forums” and “authentic reviews.”

These are great changes for Reddit, which is forum-based and has lots of logged-in users posting product reviews. But Reddit also recently signed a very lucrative deal to license its data to Google to develop the latter’s AI software, plus a commitment to spend hundreds of millions of dollars with Google Cloud as a customer over the next three years.

Pinterest began jumping up Google Search listings for recipes and other searches beginning in February at the expense of smaller cooking and recipe sites. That was shortly after Pinterest signed a major traffic partnership with Google Ads.

It used to be that sites would follow Google’s stated guidelines to succeed in search, and doing so would be rewarded, said the SEO consultant. The frustration boiling over with publishers now is that listening to Google’s best practices and advice isn’t helping. The problems are only getting worse.

While Google is telling publishers to totally overhaul their practices, the consultant said, it appears that “the real way to win more search revenue is to sign a major data sharing and Google Cloud spending contract.”

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