Google takes aim at SEO-optimized junk pages and spam with new search update


The Google search application is seen running on an iPhone
Image Credits: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto / Getty Images

Google today took aim at the SEO industry, which has gamified search rankings to destroy the value of Google Search results. Often, consumers’ web searches for product recommendations, reviews, deals, and discounts return low-quality or spammy websites that don’t deliver the expert reviews or useful promotions they promise, despite their high ranking. That’s about to change with the company’s latest search update, the company said.

On Tuesday, Google announced a search quality update that will specifically focus on improving the search quality ranking of websites and will update Google Search’s spam policies. In the case of the latter, Google’s new policies will address the need to keep low-quality content out of search, like “expired websites repurposed as spam repositories by new owners,” it says, as well as obituary spam.

Overall, the update intends to improve Google’s ranking systems to downrank pages that were “created for search engines instead of for people,” the company’s announcement explains. That is, sites that have a poor user experience or that were seemingly designed to match a very specific search query will be impacted. Google estimates that through this update and its prior efforts, it will be able to reduce low-quality and unoriginal content by 40%.

Although Google’s blog post fails to mention the term “artificial intelligence” or “AI” directly, its detailed post on Search Central does. The company explains the impact this new technology is having on the web by explaining that scaled content creation methods often leverage “automation.” Because of the sophistication of these technologies, it’s not always clear if content is human-created, if automation was involved, or if it’s a combination of the two.

Instead, Google says it will focus on the abusive behavior of creating content at scale to boost search rankings, regardless of how the site was created. This could impact web pages that pretend to offer answers to popular search queries, but don’t actually provide much value to the end user.

Google tells us the ranking changes will “directly address low-quality AI-generated content that’s designed to attract clicks, but that doesn’t add much original value,” according to spokesperson Jennifer Kutz. “The updates will also address other types of content — content that may be primarily created by humans but that doesn’t add much value for users. The ultimate goal is reducing the presence of pages that feel unsatisfying, and lack original content,” she said. The scale content abuse policy will focus on content that’s created by humans, generative AI, or other automated means, Google noted. 

Google’s changes will also address “site reputation abuse,” which is when a website that typically features valuable content also hosts low-quality content from third parties on their domain, in an effort to confuse users and lean on the site’s existing reputation. The company offers an example of how an educational website may also include payday loan reviews to gain ranking benefits, but we could also imagine this impacting the numerous product review sites that seemingly no longer do real hands-on testing, just pretend that they do.

This issue was recently raised by 404 Media, which pointed to recent German research that found that Google’s Search quality was objectively getting worse, after analyzing thousands of search terms over the course of the year. Search marketers have also agreed with this assessment, saying the scammers were winning. Meanwhile, independent sites that focus on a niche market, like HouseFresh’s air purifier review site, are hurt by the increases in SEO spam, which drowns out their human-led, expert product research. HouseFresh wrote “Google is killing independent sites like ours” in a blog post last month, which dove into how product recommendations from big media publishers were outranking its reviews on Google, even though they didn’t appear to be legitimate editorial reviews.

The update will also tackle expired domain abuse, which intends to mislead consumers that new content is part of an older site, and when domains are resold and repurposed to boost low-quality content and spam.

If Google successfully addresses these problems with its search quality update, it could have a significant impact on how consumers perceive the usefulness of Google Search, which many people have become increasingly concerned about in the wake of AI advances. Publishers are seeing diminishing clicks to websites and new startups, like Arc’s web browser and news readers are looking to employ AI to summarize information at the expense of website traffic that keeps publishers’ sites alive.

Google says it’s publishing its policy two months in advance of enforcement on May 5 to give site owners time to make changes.

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