Double Google update: action on content usefulness and spam

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There had been a lack of news about Google’s activities for several months now, but today we found out why: beyond the focus on the development of AI products such as Gemini and Search Generative Experience (which is not yet available in Europe, by the way), the search engine team was in fact working on as many as two very sensitive overall updates, announced precisely in these hours. Thus, the March 2024 Core Update and the March 2024 Spam Update, which differ from the classic interventions we have become accustomed to over the years and make specific focus on useful content and new anti-spam regulations, have started simultaneously. Let’s find out everything Google has told us and everything these updates imply for our businesses.

March 2024 Core Update: improvements to recognize useful content

It’s not just another core update, and this time Google says so directly in the article presenting the intervention: the March 2024 Core Update is more complex, involves changes to multiple active ranking systems, and will take longer to implement.

To be precise, Chris Nelson of the Google Search Quality team explains that this update affects multiple “ranking systems” used by Google’s algorithms (and of course he doesn’t pause to reveal which ones) and that, most importantly, it marks an evolution in the way the search engine recognizes and identifies the usefulness of content.

In practice, as Barry Schwartz summarizes, this March update contains multiple updates at its core because it touches several systems within the main update, which will be rolled out in the coming weeks. Precisely because of this complexity, its full implementation could take up to a month, and Nelson anticipates that “it is likely that there will be more fluctuations in the rankings than a normal core update, as different systems are fully updated and reinforce each other.”

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The underlying goal remains to improve search quality, bringing up fewer and fewer pages that seem to be created for the sole purpose of attracting clicks and, instead, rewarding more content that people actually find useful.

Improvements to the definition of useful: 40 percent less useless content on Google

“In 2022, we began optimizing our ranking systems to reduce useless and unoriginal content in Search and keep it at very low levels,” recalls Elizabeth Tucker (Director of Product, Search) in an article on The Keyword blog.

Now the search engine team has taken another step forward and, thanks to the effects of the March 2024 Core Update, aims to “reduce useless content in Google Search by 40 percent.

The big news lies in the “transformation” of Helpful Content from a stand-alone system to a component of Google’s main algorithm: put another way, now there is no longer a signal or system used to identify useful and “useless” pages, but this operation is performed directly by the overall main ranking system and other related algorithms, using a variety of signals and innovative approaches (somewhat like what happens to the mechanism for recognizing trustworthy information from that which is not, Tucker adds).

As a result of this breakthrough, Google will be better, faster and more effectively able to understand and determine “whether web pages are not useful, have an unsatisfactory user experience, or appear to be created for search engines rather than people,” including in this list of bad practices “sites created primarily to satisfy very specific search queries.”

The direct effect of these updates will be to reduce the amount of low-quality content in Search and the resulting increase in traffic directed by Google to useful, high-quality sites; as mentioned, based on previous assessments, Google predicts that “the combination of this update and our previous efforts will collectively reduce low-quality, unoriginal content in Search results by 40 percent.

What to do if we lose rankings

And so we come to the “inevitable” question that arises with every Google update: how to react if our site and pages lose rankings and visibility?

Actually, as we should know by now, there is nothing new or special we can do to make up for the drop in traffic, as long as we have embraced Google’s “philosophy” and (attempt to) make satisfying content intended for people and potentially useful. Indeed, to use the terminology of the search engine’s guidelines, we should try to create useful, reliable and people-centered content, and not write with the sole aim of gaining organic visibility and traffic.

Then the other classic indications regarding major updates apply: a negative impact on ranking may not signal that there is something wrong with our pages, but “simply” that Google has redefined its quality criteria and assessed that competitors’ content is more in line with readers’ needs. Also, it is good to remember that usually a post-update drop usually recovers only after another major update, although possible positive changes are not excluded even in the intermediate stages.

Google and spam: new anti-spam regulations incoming

But the surprises (and sources of concern for site returns) do not end there because, as mentioned, Google also launched a second March update at the same time, intended to improve the recognition of spam pages, which will consequently be downgraded or even removed from SERPs.

The heart of this intervention is the introduction of new anti-spam policies, which will be that enforced through automated algorithms and manual actions.

The underlying goal is not only to protect users by trying to offer them useful and quality content, but also to ensure that those who produce useful content succeed in Search over those who rely on spam or Black-Hat tactics.

As Tucker further says, for decades Google has relied on “advanced spam-fighting systems and anti-spam policies to prevent lower quality content from showing up in search results, and this work continues,” but the time has come for a crackdown and specific updates to better address “new and evolving malpractices that lead to the display of unoriginal, low-quality content in Search.”

Thus, it became necessary to introduce a new and different anti-spam policy, with crackdowns on other types of these manipulative behaviors, allowing for more targeted and direct action to be taken.

According to Nelson’s explanation, the spam policies are designed “to address practices that can have a negative impact on the quality of Google’s search results,” and to improve their effectiveness, three new policies have been added against bad practices that have greatly grown in popularity: illicit use of expired domains, large-scale content, and host site reputation.

Three new Google anti-spam policies

So let’s try to delve into what spam behaviors Google identified that required special and diverse “treatment.” The word used by the guidelines for these violations is “abuse,”referring to the meaning of “use of something with harmful effects or for harmful purposes.”

  • Illicit use of scaled content

“Scaled content abuse” occurs when many pages are created with the main purpose of manipulating search rankings and not helping users. This illegal practice is usually centered on creating large amounts of unoriginal content that provides little or no value to users, regardless of how it is created.

Google has long had a policy against using automation to generate low-quality or unoriginal content on a large scale, which is only intended to manipulate search result rankings, and originally this policy was designed to address only cases of large-scale generated content where it was clear that automation was involved. Specifically, it was previously made explicit to combat “automatically generated spam content,” that is, content created “programmatically without producing anything original or adding sufficient value for people” (such as text that does not make sense to the reader but contains keywords for the search network; text generated through appropriation of feeds or search results; text generated through automated processes without human review or selection prior to publication, and so on).

Today, content creation methods at scale are more sophisticated, and it is not always so clear that content is created solely through automation. Therefore, to better address these techniques, Google has shifted focus to highlight the purpose of this banned behavior, namely the production of content at scale to improve search result rankings, regardless of how it is produced, i.e., whether through automation, human efforts, or a combination of human and automated processes.

In the search engine’s intentions, this will make it possible to act on multiple types of content with little or no value created on a large scale, such as pages that pretend to have answers to the most frequent searches but, in reality, do not then provide content that is actually useful and relevant.

It is clarified, however, that this rule does not imply a change in the way Google views AI content in terms of spam: the use of automation, including that performed through generative AI, has long been considered spam if its main purpose is to manipulate search result rankings. The scaled content policy has only “broadened” the application cases to account for more sophisticated content creation methods at scale where it is not always clear whether low quality content was created solely through automation.

The bottom line is that large-scale content production is unlawful and prohibited if performed for the purpose of manipulating search rankings, and that this applies regardless of the actual content creator, human copywriter or AI.

  • Misuse of host site reputation

“Site reputation abuse” or even “Parasite SEO,” occurs when a site (generally well-ranked and possibly with excellent content) publishes with little/no oversight or involvement low-quality content provided by third parties that have the sole purpose of manipulating search rankings by exploiting its ranking signals and strong reputation.

Examples of such third-party spam content include sponsored, advertising, partner or other third-party pages that are generally independent of the host site’s primary purpose or are produced without its close supervision or involvement and provide little or no value to users. As Google explains, a third party “might post reviews about payday advance loans on a reputable educational website to gain ranking advantages from the site,” or “a medical site hosting a third-party page about [the best casinos] designed primarily to manipulate search rankings”-such content, placed high in Search, can confuse or mislead visitors who may have very different expectations for a given website’s content.

This rule will go into effect next May 5 to give site owners time to make the necessary changes. From then on, Google will consider spam “third-party content of very low value, produced primarily for rating purposes and without careful oversight by the website owner.” If our site hosts such content we should proceed to block indexing from Google Search to avoid violating the spam rules.

Again, there is an important disclaimer to understand. First, the policy does not apply to all third-party content, but only to content published without careful supervision of the host site and intended to manipulate Search ranking. Thus, advertising content of the “native advertising” or “advertorial” type is excluded from this penalty-and remains lawful and permissible-because this type of content generally does not confuse regular readers of the site when they find it among other articles or when they come to it from Google search results. Therefore, this content should not be blocked from indexing.

Nelson also clarifies what ranking signals a site has: Actually, Google’s main ranking systems are designed primarily to work at the page level, using a variety of signals and systems to figure out how to rank individual pages, but there are actually some site-level signals that are taken into account as well. However, this does not mean that “reputation” or “authority” scores for sites provided by third-party services correspond precisely to “signals from Google or come from Google.”

On the practical side, then, it is not considered spam to host third-party publications under close involvement or review: the article makes explicit the case of sites with a coupon area also created through collaborations with third parties. If the host site is actively involved in the production of the coupon area, it is not necessary to block this content from Google Search, because readers should be able to clearly understand how the site obtains its coupons and how it works to ensure that the coupons provide value to readers.

  • Illegal use of expired domain

“Expired domain abuse,” occurs when expired domains are purchased and reused with the main intent of increasing search rankings by hosting low-quality or unoriginal content that provides little or no value to users.

That is, the weight of the previous brand is exploited to let users think that the new content continues the old business. In practice, one acquires an expired domain name and revamps the site primarily to manipulate search rankings by publishing new content that provides little or no value to users. Furthermore, these domains are generally only created to capture traffic through search engines and do not intercept visitors in any other way.

For example, someone might purchase a domain previously used by a health site and reuse it to host low-quality casino-related content, hoping to have search success based on the domain’s reputation derived from previous ownership. Or, post affiliate content on a site previously used by a government agency, etc.

Used for many years already, this practice is now openly considered spam by Google.


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This wrongdoing “is not something people do accidentally,” but precisely a tactic used by people hoping to rank well in search with low-value content by using the past reputation of a domain name. However, Google clarifies that it is not prohibited to use an old domain name for a new and original site designed to serve people first and foremost.

What happens in case of spam violations

Content creators who remain involved-actively or passively-in these practices are obviously exposed to strong risks of penalization: Google points out that sites that violate the anti-spam rules may in fact have a decrease in ranking in the results or even not be displayed at all as a result of manual action or automated algorithmic intervention.

If affected by a manual anti-spam action, site owners receive the “usual” notice via their registered Search Console account and can request that the action be reconsidered after appropriate corrective changes are made.

New ways to deal with spam and low-quality content in Search

Every day, “people use Search to find the best of what the Web has to offer,” writes Elizabeth Tucker: Google’s classic systems such as rules and automated systems to combat spammers have paid off, but additional work has been needed to address emerging tactics that seek to manipulate rankings with low-quality content, to the detriment of the visibility of useful content and high-quality Web sites.

And so, to improve search quality and usefulness of results, Google decided to make algorithmic improvements to key ranking systems to ensure that the most useful information on the Web is displayed and reduce unoriginal content in search results. At the same time, the team updated the spam rules to keep lower quality content out of Search, such as expired websites converted back to spam archives by new owners or other types of spam pages.

The final piece of advice for those running a site comes directly from Google, which stresses the importance of adapting to these changes in a timely manner to maintain or improve rankings in search results.

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