August 23, 2022

Google is Coming After Bad SEO Content Again

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and SEOs trying to game Google. But when there are 5.6 billion searches per day, is it any wonder that people will try to get their piece of the pie?

But it seems that Google is tired of just how blatant some of the gaming is. According to the Google Search Central Blog, the company is introducing its helpful content update:

The helpful content update aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.

The update will start rolling out next week. We will post on our Google ranking updates page when it begins and when it is fully rolled out, which could take up to two weeks. This update introduces a new site-wide signal that we consider among many other signals for ranking web pages. Our systems automatically identify content that seems to have little value, low-added value or is otherwise not particularly helpful to those doing searches.

Any content — not just unhelpful content — on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in Search, assuming there is other content elsewhere from the web that’s better to display. For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.

The emphasis is mine, and I’ll come back to it. To clarify to publishers what is and isn’t “helpful content,” Google created a long list of questions to ask yourself (included on the blog). Reading them makes it painfully clear what kind of content Google is going after.

I’ll give a few examples. Last night, I finished watching the new League of Their Own show on Amazon Prime. I thought it was pretty good, so I googled “League of Their Own Season Two.” There are many stories about “what we know about season two so far.” Spoiler alert: they know nothing. But there is page after page of this stuff. So, Google asks, “Does your content promise to answer a question that actually has no answer, such as suggesting there’s a release date for a product, movie, or TV show when one isn’t confirmed?”

Quick aside: you know your content is dangerously awful when Google creates an entire call out to a specific type of content.

Then there are all the sites that re-write or curate original reporting. According to PressGazette:

The Sun has previously complained that its original scoops get buried in search results beneath stories by rivals that effectively rip their work off. A test of this theory by Press Gazette appeared to show it borne out.

In an Ofcom consultation last year, Sun owner News UK said: “The platforms prefer recency over provenance of news content, meaning that the incentives to invest in breaking a story is diminished. A publisher who rewrites a story is more likely to receive traffic referrals via platforms than a publisher who invested in writing the story in the first place.”

Historically, Google has prioritized newer stories rather than older ones, which punishes the publisher that initially wrote the story. But as Google asks, “are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?” In this case, the answer is probably yes.

But I think the first question stands out: “Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?” Over the past year, I’ve seen a proliferation of AI-written content platforms. If you’re trying to get traffic, why write articles when you can pay a platform to create them for you? You’ll be able to get a lot more content created in the same time.

Naturally, this new update is the reaction from Google.

But what publishers have to be careful about is the part that I bolded in the first section. Google hands down different kinds of penalties. Some are page-level, meaning the individual story page might not rank competitively, but the overall site is okay. These suck, but you get past it.

In the case of the “helpful content” update, the penalties are site-wide. Google will ding the entire site if the search engine determines there’s too much unhelpful content. And according to Google, it could take months for the publisher to recover.

This is important because many publishers will often deploy multiple audience strategies. The site’s core will be its high-quality content, meant to serve people. But then, behind the scenes, it’ll run lower-quality, SEO-first content. And that’s the real risk. You may create great content, but if enough of the site is crap, everything gets penalized.

So, what should you do? You know what content you’ve created that might not be great. Audit it and ask yourself the questions that Google shares. Does the content pass the snuff test? If yes, great. If not, consider removing it. This is a controversial stance because you’re effectively shutting down a traffic source before you’re penalized; however, with it taking months to recover, it might be worth the short-term drop anyway. This is your call, though.

This doesn’t mean you can’t deploy an SEO strategy. But you should tackle it more thoughtfully. Do keyword research to inform where there’s an opportunity, but don’t write with the algorithm in mind. You should avoid keyword stuffing, focus on answering a complete question, and ignore repetition. Ultimately, what Google’s looking for are signs that you are trying to game its platform. If you avoid doing that, you’ll be fine.

Want to succeed with Google? Create great content and make sure your site is a good user experience. Not sure what that means? Read what I wrote a year ago about Core Web Vitals.

Has Condé made the transition?

A few months ago, Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch did a podcast interview with Kara Swisher about his first three years at the company.

Well, when you think about Condé Nast, a company that’s over 100 years old and grew up as a magazine publishing company, even though you know, a majority of our revenue is digital today, it became very large and very successful on the back of a structure that worked. It was the right strategy when this was a magazine company. It’s just that this is no longer a magazine company.

So, it’s made the transition from magazine brand to digital. And the results appear to be pretty good. Axios wrote last week that:

Condé Nast is expecting this year to exceed the nearly $2 billion in total revenue it saw in 2021 thanks to continued growth in its advertising business, a source familiar with the figures told Axios.

For the first half of this year, Condé Nast — which is home to publications like Vanity Fair, Wired, Vogue, Architectural Digest and GQ — saw an 11% growth in advertising, a spokesperson confirmed to Axios.

That growth was fueled by a +13% growth in digital advertising year over year, as well as print advertising gains.

$2 billion. Not many media companies can report $2 billion in revenue. In a story published in July, Puck suggested a different narrative.

According to my sources, V.F. and GQ each turned under $60 million in U.S. advertising revenue last year; Wired just under $50 million. And 2021 was a good year for the advertising business. Many expect those numbers to decline over time. (According to someone familiar with the situation, these three brands are having strong years. As a private company, Condé Nast’s accounting practices, and the way they handle booked revenue across their internal organizations, are private. However, representatives for the company pushed back strongly against these numbers. “Condé Nast strongly disputes these figures,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that Puck has chosen to run such inaccuracies.”)

Which story is correct? It’s hard to say because, as Puck wrote, Condé is private. However, I suspect we would have seen some stories about layoffs if numbers were even weaker this year than last year.

I think it’s impressive that Condé has made this transition from print to digital. But a big question to ask is how it was able to do it. While there are likely a lot of justifications, I think this one part in the podcast mentioned above talks to it:

Well, look, I think a lot of things go back to culture. And it’s something that, to me, is very, very important. And when I joined the company, I knew I had a lot of work to do in this area. And I knew the reputation of the company. And there were aspects of it that I really wanted to embrace, like its commitment to excellence and commitment to really high quality journalism. But there are other aspects of it, frankly, that didn’t match a company that I wanted to work for.

It was very internally competitive and especially in the U.S. business and sort of reputation of sharp elbows and—

Condé needs to win at the company level. While it wants each publication to be independently successful, it needs all publications to think of themselves as part of Condé rather than competing with Condé. This is where a house of brands can succeed if its brands can operate primarily independently but with crossover where it makes sense. And in a digital world, this is even more important.

Ultimately, it’ll be interesting to see how Condé performs over the coming years. But, compared to many of its contemporaries, it does seem that it has made the transition.

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