The search environment is always changing, but recently, we've seen a couple of larger shifts that have created some noticeable difference in Google's search results. In this article, I'll explain some of the main ones and guide you on how to design your content to keep getting found on search.
As usual, a lot of the changes are designed to benefit Google's users and serve them with information that is helpful and relevant. Marketers and SEO people are good at finding tricks and taking advantage of technology like AI to get a temporary performance boost on search, and these changes are Google's way of closing the loopholes and making life harder for dishonest online publishers. Fortunately, content creators who invest time and resources in high-quality, useful content that focuses on solving problems and answering questions don't have anything to worry about!
Let's start by taking a look at a significant recent change to Google's algorithm.
In a continual effort to refine its search algorithms, Google introduced its August 2023 Core Update on August 22, in a rollout that lasted for 16 days and 3 hours. Core updates are significant as they aim to improve the relevance of search results, which in turn could affect website rankings across various sectors.
The aftermath of this update saw mixed reactions from site owners, with some reporting better placements while others experienced a drop. According to Searchmetrics, the core update impacted mainly informational and transactional queries. Domains with high E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) scores and exceptional user experience saw an improvement in visibility. These metrics have become increasingly important as they are indicative of a website's quality and reliability to users.
The August 2023 Core Update primarily emphasized the following:
The source of the above list is the blog post Google August 2023 Core Update: Winners, Losers & Analysis By Lily Ray.
A notable revelation from this update was Google's struggle with the surge of content generated through AI tools like ChatGPT. While creating high-quality content that adheres to E-E-A-T standards remains crucial, the widespread availability of AI tools has made this task more challenging. Interestingly, Google has stated that its algorithms do not differentiate between human-written and AI-generated content, but rather focus on the quality and helpfulness of the content provided.
Moreover, the August core update saw an amendment in the Google Search Central documentation, highlighting that Google has now started indexing CSV files, broadening the spectrum of content types it recognizes.
This update's broader implications hint at Google's ongoing commitment to prioritizing high-quality, user-centric content amidst the evolving digital landscape. The experiences from this core update serve as a reminder for website owners and SEO professionals to continually adapt to Google’s algorithmic changes, ensuring their content remains relevant, reliable, and valuable to users.
On September 28, 2023, Google announced the completion of its latest core update named the Helpful Content Update, wrapping up a rollout that started on September 14.
The central idea behind the Helpful Content System is to better reward content that leaves visitors feeling satisfied. This system automatically identifies and diminishes the visibility of content perceived to have little to no value or not being particularly helpful to users. Through this initiative, Google is encouraging creators to focus more on the user's experience rather than merely catering to the search engine's algorithm.
Interestingly, this update also saw Google loosening its guidelines on AI-generated content. Previously, the emphasis was on content "written by people," but the updated guidelines now stress "helpful content created for people in search results," indicating a recognition of the value that AI can bring to content creation, so long as the content remains useful and relevant to users and that it's been reviewed by an (human) expert.
The original guidance:
"Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results."
The updated guidance:
"Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content created for people in search results."
The Helpful Content Update brought changes to the rules about hosting third-party content. Now, Google wants website owners to make sure that any third-party content on their site is high-quality and helpful to users, just like their own content.
Google has introduced warnings against attempts to fake updates on pages and mimicking freshness. This change is in line with the broader objective of promoting original, high-quality content over deceptive practices aimed at gaining a fleeting advantage in search rankings.
Pretty quickly after this updated was released, site owners started noticing big changes in search results. There were reports of some sites losing 40%-60% of their traffic, although it seemed like these sites published a lot of not-so-helpful content. Conversely, other sites saw big increases in traffic after working with quality and following Google's content guidelines.
As always, it's hard to define a single cause for an increase or decrease in traffic for a single site, but as usual, if you focus on helpful, relevant content created for people and not for search engines, you're likely to perform well on search.
You might have seen Google's "how to" results when you've been searching for something practical. These were a kind of rich result where Google extracted content from a webpage and presented it as a step-by-step how-to guide right on the search result page.
FAQ rich results are fairly similar. In these results, Google extracted the key FAQs from a searched-for page and presented them as an expandable list on the results page.
On the left, an example of an FAQ rich result — and on the right, how the same result will look now they're discontinued.
If you haven't seen either of these types of search result yet, you're too late — Google has discontinued them in an effort to clean up their results pages. The only exception is FAQ results, which will continue to appear only for authoritative, well-known government or health authority websites. Time will tell what Google's next experiment will be!
As OpenAI's ChatGPT gets better, more and more people are cutting out the middleman and using it as a kind of conversational search engine. SGE is Google's response — this AI-enhanced search experience mixes traditional search results with a kind of chat feature and smartly-chosen additional content.
Google says SGE works better for slightly more complex search queries. One example they give is a user searching "good bike for a 5 mile commute with hills". SGE then uses AI to interpret the query and comes back with a product recommendation for some appropriate e-bikes, with a short explanation of why an e-bike would be a good choice. The user then gets prompted to ask some logical follow-up questions, like, "can you ride an e-bike in the cycle lane?" However, they can also use SGE like a chatbot and type in their own followup question.
At the moment, SGE is in the testing phase in a few selected markets around the world. Depending on where you are you might even be able to test it out via Google Labs.
Microsoft took advantage of its investment in OpenAI when they outfitted Bing with its own AI search tools earlier this year, so now Google has to catch up. Who knows, maybe this could be the start of an AI arms race in the search industry.
Since it has been a few months since Google released their first implementation of SGE (Search Generative Experience), they have now been able to analyse how users have received this new way of searching. There are some interesting conclusions from this first test period:
Using schema markup for video is beneficial because it helps search engines understand and index the video content more effectively, leading to improved search visibility. Additionally, it can enhance the video's presentation in search results with rich snippets, potentially increasing click-through rates.
This month's tip is therefore to use the service classyschema.org/Video to generate schema markup for video.
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And if you've read this article and realised you need some outside help to adapt to these changes and perform well on search, get in touch for a discussion.