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November 23, 2023

Latest Google updates have led to massive traffic changes for news websites

An autumn of major Google changes has led to despair and confusion at news publishers.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Some news publishers in the UK, US and elsewhere have been “profoundly affected” by a string of Google search and Discover updates since September affecting traffic and, as a result, revenue.

Websites with a traditional focus on scale, often built with the aid of SEO explainer-style articles, appear to be among the hardest hit while sites with a better user experience due to having fewer adverts – therefore many more subscription-focused newsbrands – report being less affected.

Google said it has not specifically targeted publishers but that its aim is to “show helpful and reliable results”.

Since September, updates rolled out by Google have included a “helpful content update” deemed to have been “noticeably more impactful” than the last of its kind in December 2022, an October core update and another in November, and a reviews update also this month. “Core” updates are the significant, broad changes to Google’s search algorithms and systems that tend to take place a few times a year – not usually twice in two months.

The two November updates had not yet finished rolling out at the time of writing, while a bug was discovered in the October rollout that had a significant effect on traffic through Discover, Google’s personalised content feed. That glitch has since been fixed although not all publishers have reported seeing an improvement as a result.

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Latest core updates having ‘profound impact’ on news sites

SEO expert Lily Ray said: “The Google updates from September to November 2023 have profoundly affected news and publisher websites, leading to significant shifts in these websites’ traffic and visibility. This is particularly evident in Google Discover traffic and visibility in Top Stories and the Google News tab, and for many website owners, has resulted in a substantial decrease in revenue.”

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Ray added that although “volatility is expected” in both Search and Discover from core updates, websites in a sample she received saw “more extreme” changes than many recent algorithm changes.

Polemic Digital founder Barry Adams, an SEO consultant for news publishers, shared a similar analysis with Press Gazette. He said: “Every time there’s an announced Google algorithm update, many publishers anxiously wait to see what the impact is going to be. Some updates pass with barely a flicker, while others have a profound impact on a site’s Google traffic and, by extension, their revenue.

“Both the October and November core updates seem to be of the ‘big impact’ variety, with hundreds of sites seeing massive traffic changes – some positive, some negative.”

One publisher, who kept their website domain anonymous, told Ray they had “simply disappeared from Discover and News with the November core update. In October we felt a strong impact, but now in November the business has completely collapsed. Six years of hard work and now everything has turned to ashes.”

Ray created a questionnaire for publishers to fill in about how the updates have impacted their sites, and received results from more than 150 publishers around the world (the biggest proportion, 31%, of whom were in the US) – although those badly affected were likely disproportionately represented due to the self-selecting nature of the survey.

Nonetheless 72% claimed they were no longer seeing their articles appear in Google’s Top Stories widget or prominently in the Google News tab unless they sorted by most recent.

A similar proportion (73%) said they had seen their Google Discover traffic drop to zero during the previous three months, contributing a significant hit to ad revenue. Many “expressed frustration” that they did not see a large increase after the glitch was fixed.

Adams told Press Gazette: “Some sites are now seeing a recovery in their Discover traffic, but others see no sign of Discover returning to previous levels, which has led to speculation that the bug may only be partially fixed or that there might be another bug wreaking havoc in Google’s systems.”

Sites that suffered before ‘hit again’

Overall Ray said many had reported a “drastic decrease in page views and traffic, with figures dropping from several million to significantly lower numbers like 1-2 million or even less”. This was thought to be often linked to a combination of the Google updates rather than one alone.

She also reported that a “frequent concern was the disappearance of sites from Google Discover and Top Stories” particularly after the October core update – and often those affected were also badly impacted by previous updates.

This suggestion was echoed by Adams, who said: “Some sites that were negatively affected by updates in previous years and that managed to reclaim much of that lost traffic are now hit again. This makes me think one or both of these latest updates are refreshes of systems that Google had introduced or updated earlier.”

Adams added: “I also see user experience factors play a bigger role: A common thread among many sites that lost traffic is that they featured advertising that intrudes on reader engagement with the content, such as ads that take over part of or the whole screen and autoplay ad videos that take up a big portion of mobile screens.”

One head of SEO at a UK publisher with multiple brands told Press Gazette they believe the results of the latest updates show Google appears to be moving away from ad-based sites that have primarily chased clicks in the past.

With the continued increase in zero-click search results – in which Google provides the answer to a question or the information sought in the search – this means news sites that have previously created a lot of SEO explainer articles will see a decrease in referral traffic.

This may explain why the expert told Press Gazette the hardest hit brands in the latest updates appeared to be those with a lot of historic SEO content that had not recently been updated. Refreshing those articles is making a noticeable difference on their brands, they said.

This appears to fit with previous Press Gazette analysis of how the search visibility scores for major UK and US news websites as measured by Sistrix were affected by the October core update.

This data does not tell the full picture, as Press Gazette has heard concerns that referral traffic has fallen further as a result of the changes that began in November. But it does appear to confirm the nature of many of the worst hit sites.

All of the worst 15 sites in our ranking for decline in search visibility by percentage were owned by Reach, which mostly has a strategy of scale to drive digital advertising revenue, with the exception of Ladbible in eighth place.

Ray also noted “frustration” from some that although they had made improvements to their sites and created original content their sites were not seeing recovery. Another trend, she said, was a “general sentiment of confusion” with the guidance given by Google not universally deemed as being clear or specific enough.

A Google spokesperson said: “We’re constantly improving our systems with updates to make sure we continue to deliver on our mission to show helpful and reliable results. None of our recent updates target specific pages or sites, including publishers.”

Google’s search liaison Danny Sullivan said on X (formerly Twitter): “Search and content can move through cycles. You can have a rise in unhelpful content, and search systems evolve to deal with it. We’re in one of those cycles.”

But he added that “we have seen some of the issues people have raised and there are all types of ranking improvements already in the works to deal with these”.

Of the Discover glitch, a Google spokesperson said: “We recently had a bug in Discover which may have caused some publications’ traffic to drop for a short period of time. As soon as it was discovered, we fixed the bug and communicated to the ecosystem.”

Publishers told to be aware of third-party content and review changes

Adams also warned against having too much third-party commercial content such as betting odds and e-commerce, saying sites with a high amount of this “are starting to see indications that these Google updates are targeting those practices. To prevent more pain later down the line, for those sites it might be prudent to dial down the volume of commercial content and focus more on proper news content”.

Cameron Nichols, head of SEO at US customer experience company Merkle, also noted on Linkedin that third-party content has been a factor in recent rollouts such as September’s helpful content update.

Nichols said: “The recent changes in Google’s treatment of third-party hosted content signals a shift that site owners need to be aware of and consider their practices going forward. While early indications show that only those pages hosting third-party content are being impacted, the focus on ranking original and valuable content is ongoing.  

“While not all search updates are created equal, and some may have more noise than news, this is one that should get your attention. If website owners are leveraging third-party content, now is the time to consider shifting these practices and prioritising efforts that produce unique, quality content and looking to invest in resources that can support these efforts.  

The next thing to watch may be reviews, under the latest ranking update. Google says it aims to boost reviews that “share in-depth research, rather than thin content that simply summarises a bunch of products, services or other things”.

SEO expert Luke Budka, AI strategist at Definition, told Press Gazette he predicted this could impact news publishers’ ranking and traffic and advised they should analyse specific parts of their sites in their Google Search Console accounts to learn which sections take a hit.

“It probably means a load of publishers need to reassess their review process,” Budka said. “Google isn’t going to rank review content that doesn’t offer additional value, just because it’s on a high authority news website, anymore.”

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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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