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April 5, 2023

Google core update in March has ‘comparatively mild’ impact on news publishers

Publishers were less affected by March's core algorithm update than they were six months earlier.

By Aisha Majid

Google‘s latest core algorithm update had less of an impact on news publishers’ search visibility than the last major update six months earlier, new data suggests.

The search engine giant implemented a core update in March, its first in six months following September’s major algorithm change which notably penalised many publishers.

Of 68 leading publishers tracked by Press Gazette, 19 saw a visibility gain of at least 10% in the March update, while 30 saw an increase in visibility of more than 5%.

The biggest winner was aljazeera.com, which saw its search visibility – a measure of success in Google search results – increase 44% from 11 to 16 points between 15 March, when Google began rolling out the update, and 28 March, when the update was completed.

Ladbible, whose visibility score increased by 35%, and Sky News, which was up 32%, were also big winners.

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The Guardian, the news site on our list with the largest visibility score and one of the top ten news sites in the UK by audience reach, also saw a large gain in this update. Visibility for theguardian.com increased by 20% from 212 to 253 points.

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Mirror Online was up 18%, while Mail Online, which in the past has criticised “woke” Google for downgrading its stories in search results in favour of left-leaning publishers, was up 13%.

Sistrix’s visibility index measures how successful a website is in Google search results, assigning higher scores to sites that rank better in search results. While Sistrix says its visibility index is not a traffic index, search is a major driver of traffic to many news sites.

SEO experts told Press Gazette the latest core update had been “comparatively mild” for publishers with whole websites benefitting rather than specific content types.

Dan Wood, director of SEO at digital marketing specialists GA Agency, said: “News websites are often impacted by core updates and it’s no surprise. Google wants to improve the quality of content it provides to users in its results pages, and news publishers are typically a trustworthy source of information.

“However, there doesn’t appear to be specific themes or content types that have been impacted. Instead, the websites as a whole seem to have benefitted.”

While Wood says that this March core update was bigger across the board for sites of all kinds, our analysis suggests that September’s update had a more significant impact on news publishers specifically.

Barry Adams of Polemic Digital said: “Many recent Google core updates have had profound impacts on many news publishers, both globally and in the UK. This latest update is a comparatively mild one, with most publishers suffering little to no fluctuations that would exceed the usual daily ups and downs.

“It seems this latest update contains a more accurate evaluation of quality signals, with many publishers that are considered top journalistic outlets rewarded with increased visibility. It’s nice to come out from the other end of a Google core update without the news industry sounding panic alarms.

“I hope this is a continued trend and Google has stopped narrowing the space it awards to news websites. News should remain a strong part of search – users expect news articles as part of a search result, and news sites are among the most trusted sources of information. Google’s search results should reflect that.”

Of the websites in our list, 29 saw visibility losses, although most changes were small.

Just four sites (radiotimes.com, rt.com, lancs.live and express.co.uk) saw visibility falls of over 20%. Russian site rt.com saw the biggest absolute fall (51%) as its score dropped from an already low base of 0.5 to 0.2 points. The Express website saw a large fall in relative visibility, dropping by 31% from 21 to 15 points.

A significant number of news publishers found their search visibility either unchanged or slightly affected as a result of this update.

The Sun, where insiders have in the past said their original reporting was being downgraded in favour of follow-up stories from rival titles, saw a small visibility gain of 2.5 points (6%) in this update. The red-top website saw a similar gain in the September update, gaining two points (3%).

The BBC and The Independent were among other major UK newsbrands by audience size that saw visibility changed only slightly. The BBC’s news domain score increased less than one point (3%), while visibility at independent.co.uk was unchanged.

While the workings of Google's algorithms are unknown and Sistrix’s visibility index does not include top stories, a key driver of traffic to news sites, or the Google News tab, Adams previously told Press Gazette that he believes Sistrix data likely reflects similar changes in visibility in the top stories box.

Google modifies its search algorithms to improve search results. Most changes are small, while other updates such as 2022’s Helpful Content Update or this year’s Review Update target specific topics or industries. However, several times a year the search giant rolls out major changes known as core updates which are large enough to be noticed by web publishers and search marketers.

According to Google, core updates are designed to ensure that the search giant presents the most helpful and reliable results for searchers. Google says that core updates are not targeted at specific pages or sites.

While core updates affect where sites rank, other factors internal to a publisher such as technical issues and changes to a site can also affect its rankings during a core update rollout.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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