Independent publishers jeopardised by Google search changes

8 April 2024

Google seems to have it in for small, and or independent publications and blogs… Google: whatever did we do to you?

Changes last month — known as core updates, which occur regularly — to the way the search giant indexes and ranks websites on search results, have seen scads of sites excluded from the listings. Google claimed one goal of recent core updates was to remove “low quality websites” from the rankings. This may have happened, but they’ve also taken out numerous sites publishing high quality content, in the process.

But some publishers found themselves out in the cold about six months ago, following the September 2023 core update. Retro Dodo, a UK based website that tests and reviews retro gaming products, has seen a sharp decline in traffic since then, something that threatens to wipe out the publication, according to Retro Dodo founder, Brandon Saltalamacchia:

Since September 2023, Google has hidden our site from millions of retro gamers, reducing our organic traffic and revenue by 85% and causing our business to be on the edge of going under.

Retro Dodo is not alone. HouseFresh, also based in Britain, is a publication assessing and writing about in-home air purifying products, has had the same experience. But that’s not all. HouseFresh has discovered that search results for the products they write about have been supplanted by lists compiled by other publishers, apparently based on recommendations supplied by people who have purchased the products in question.

There’s nothing wrong with user recommendations — many of us rely on them when considering a purchase — but the recommendations appearing in the search results suggest these products have been individually tested and reviewed by the publisher, when in fact they have not:

Savvy SEOs at big media publishers (or third-party vendors hired by them) realized that they could create pages for ‘best of’ product recommendations without the need to invest any time or effort in actually testing and reviewing the products first. So, they peppered their pages with references to a ‘rigorous testing process,’ their ‘lab team,’ subject matter experts ‘they collaborated with,’ and complicated methodologies that seem impressive at a cursory look.

This doesn’t look to me like low quality content has been removed from search results. And it’s only going to get worse. News broke recently of a deal between Google and news aggregation social network, Reddit, which will see Google granted access to Reddit’s content. This, we are told, will assist the search engine in the “training” of its AI models.

As if there’s not enough fluff in search results, it’s now going to be polluted with AI produced copy. Reddit is great when it comes to seeking out anecdotal information, or the opinions of others in regards to particular goods or services. Or to find out why the sirens of emergency service vehicles might be blaring in the neighbourhood. But as the basis of solid information for potential search query results? I’m not so sure.

There’s also the point that the Reddit members who wrote much of the content that’s being handed over to Google, will not see any recompense for their efforts. Unless perhaps they are, or will soon be, Reddit shareholders.

So what’s the way forward then for people simply seeking accurate information in response to a search engine query? There are of course alternatives, subscription search service Kagi being among them, but it seems to me many will stay with what they know.

And what’s the way forward for the small independent publishers, whose livelihoods have been impacted, by these recent changes? That’s not so clear at the moment. They might see some traffic from other search engines, and other channels, but hardly enough to keep their operations viable. One can only hope the big search players come to their senses, but that sadly seems like a big ask.


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