Google update concept illustration
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Google has announced its first core update of 2024: the March Core Update, which it calls “an evolution in how we identify the helpfulness of content”.

This will be accompanied by a spam update taking aim at persistent forms of spam that Google wants to eliminate.

The core updates are designed to “surface the most helpful information on the web” – an effort that Google began back in August 2022 with its Helpful Content Update (HCU) – while the spam update will target practices like using expired domains as spam factories, or devoting part of an authoritative website to SEO-driven spammy content.

Together, Google has pledged that the updates “will collectively reduce low-quality, unoriginal content in search results by 40%”.

To anyone who believes that the quality of Google results has trended downhill in recent years, these announcements should be welcome news. But how effectively will Google’s changes tackle the problem at hand? And will the methods that Google uses also hit sites who are earnestly trying to rank – the content “by people, for people” that Google claims to want to uplift?

SEO Twitter (‘SEO X’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it, so we’re going with Twitter for the purposes of this article) has a wealth of thoughts on this subject, and we’ve rounded up some of the pithiest takes to help you parse this change.

The automated content creation that Google is taking aim at: AI content or programmatic SEO?

Veteran SEO consultant, speaker and author Aleyda Solis posted an annotated screencap of Google’s news highlighting the dubious SEO tactics she believes Google is taking aim at with its announcement. Notably, she highlighted the term “Scaled content abuse” and wrote, “(Low value) Programmatic SEO” (and also labelled “Site reputation abuse” with “Parasite SEO”).

This is an interesting point because most have assumed that “Scaled content abuse”, which Google describes as “using automation to generate low-quality or unoriginal content at scale”, is a way of referring to AI-generated content. Coming from Google, a technology company with significant investments in generative AI, however, this seems a little contradictory.

SEOs are debating whether Google is trying to walk the line of discouraging only ‘low-quality’ AI-generated content – something that has been discussed since the HCU was first rolled out. This may still be the case, and Google’s vague wording lets it cover more bases. However, the use of the word “scale” is also key.

Writing for Search Engine Land, Barry Schwartz got some more depth from Google on the updates, and concluded that “any method of producing content at scale for the purpose of ranking in search” goes against Google’s guidelines. This is essentially the definition of programmatic SEO – or pSEO – as its methods are all about scaling up content production (creating lots of landing pages using a template and a database) to match the scale of search traffic in the present day.

Programmatic SEO proponents hold that pSEO is not necessarily spammy (hence why Solis highlighted “low value” programmatic SEO) and can be used to produce insightful content if done right. We might have to see whether Google’s algorithm agrees.

Is Google coming after niche sites?

Tony Hill, who describes himself on his website as a “niche site owner since 2005”, questioned whether Google’s wording in its announcement means it is “coming after the traditional niche site model”.

Google wrote that it is fine-tuning its algorithms to detect “unhelpful” webpages, which “could include sites created primarily to match very specific search queries.”

However, Hill pointed out that Google’s own SEO guidance in its Google Search Essentials documentation tells site owners to “Use words that people would use to look for your content, and place those words in prominent locations on the page”. This is, in fact, the basic essence of keyword optimisation for SEO.

Arguably, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with creating content or websites just to match specific queries as long as this content does satisfy the query (and doesn’t just give the appearance of doing so). But Google’s issue might be that this content is so hyper-targeted that it’s unhelpful when it appears as a result for any other type of search.

Hill is right that Google has in effect created its own monster – SEOs do what they do because Google has the potential to deliver huge volumes of traffic if you can get to the right spot, and Google’s business model depends on this being so (not only because it benefits from SEOs discussing and engaging with search, but because paid search positioning needs to have value).

The flip side of this, however, has always been the highs and lows brought about by The Algorithm (Ori Zilbershtein summed up long-time SEOs’ perspective on this ‘rollercoaster’ with his selection of GIF).

SEOs are sceptical that Google will deliver

Barry Schwartz held a poll to ask SEOs whether they think that Google’s March updates will really deliver on the promise of “reduc[ing] unhelpful content from showing up in the search results by 40%”.

The response was overwhelmingly sceptical, with 79% of SEOs voting ‘No’ at the time of writing, with more than 1,000 votes cast.

In the replies, many users expressed hope but had their doubts, with several voicing fears that “lots of smaller quality sites [might] get caught in the crossfire” (Charlie Conti) or that the update will “take some decent sites with it too” (Peter Mindenhall).

As Daniel Hart put it, “It depends what the update thinks is unhelpful – the same problem for the last 6 months.”

Indeed, Google has been tackling this problem for some time (much longer than six months if you count from the initial announcement of the Helpful Content Update), and the fact that it still needs to roll out updates like these shows that this is far from a solved issue. You can’t blame SEOs for being sceptical that this latest wave won’t change much.

Many users have lampshaded the predictable cycle of Google Core Updates, with Mark Williams-Cook making a humorous graphic depicting Core Updates as an eternal cycle in turn favouring big brands and spam sites.

As Carl Hendy wrote in a still-pertinent May 2020 tweet, the basic takeaways from a Google Core Update tend to be reliably consistent:

Google has warned that the March Core Update will be “a more complex update … involving changes to multiple core systems” with a rollout that could last up to a month, bringing ranking fluctuations as it goes. Authoritative sites that play host to some spammy content (known as “Site reputation abuse”) are being given two months to get their house in order, with those penalties taking effect from the 5th May.

As always, it will be a while before the true impact of Google’s updates is revealed, and in the meantime, there’ll be plenty to keep SEOs busy.