Google's latest updates leave no room for low-quality content

Google recently published 3 updates that had a big impact on organic traffic across many verticals.

Google's latest updates leave no room for low-quality content

Google rolled out three major updates back to back over the last 5 weeks that had significant impact on the organic traffic for a lot of sites. Instead of providing a full list of all affected sites, I want to explain the updates’ impact on SEO strategy.

If you’re looking for update analyses, I recommend the following posts:

Álgorithm updates are increasingly intransparent - or are they?

Despite saying to never overlap updates, Google overlapped updates. Two out of three recent updates are still rolling out:

  • 8/25/22 - 9/9/22: Helpful Content Update (only English language)
  • 9/12/22 - ?: September Core update (all languages)
  • 9/20/22 - ?: September Product Reviews update (all languages)

That makes analyzing their impact difficult, even for SEOs. Non-SEOs can barely understand what is happening, let alone take away any lesson from the most recent updates. They’re dependent on Google’s guidance around updates, which is, to be frank, quite vague. That’s good for SEOs because their expertise is needed, but less good for everyone else.

However, one recognizable pattern is what I call domain flips. Google core updates tend to reward domains for good quality, which can come down to fine differences. When the keyword overlap between domains is high, and they go head to head with each other, they can fight for the same real estate on Google.

One example is the device driver space. Notice how the domains compete so closely with each other that when one goes up, the other one goes down in SEO VIsibility.

Another example is car marketplaces. Cars.com and edmunds.com are going head to head and trade ranks.

cars.com vs edmunds.com in Semrush

The competition is even more pronounced when the sites deal with the same information (commodity content), which is often the case in the cars, real estate, lyrics, recipes, translations, or dictionary space.

Two competing domains can also develop ranks indepdently of each other and then suddenly compete for the same real estate on Google. An example of this is Tenor vs. Giphy (see below). While Tenor got hit by several Core and Product Review updates, Giphy started gaining in the September Core update.

tenor.com vs. giphy.com SEO Visibility

That’s a sign that the domains have the same quality signals (e.g., content quality, user experience, or CWV), and Google evaluates them against each other.

Google giveth and Google taketh away

Almost all sites I looked at that were affected by the 3 most recent updates were either hit or rewarded in Google’s November 2021 and May 2022 core updates (and some even by younger updates).

On one hand, once you’re in a quality filter, it takes a lot of work to get out. On the other hand, many cases exist where a site makes no changes and regains the traffic it lost in a previous update simply because Google “changed its opinion” about the site. Competition in the search results is so high that it can come down to very fine signals.

abbreviations.com has experience with Google’s quality filters

This is different than SERP volatility. As I’ve shown in previous examples, SEO can traffic can come and go away quickly. That can be quite frustrating and make organic traffic unpredictable. But it also says that there has to be a relationship between Core updates and HCU.

Another vertical where this becomes apparent is the medical space. In Germany, a lot of sites that lost organic traffic during the September Core update with questionable health content were also impacted by the May core update:

  • Heilpraxisnet.de (-70%)
  • Gesund-vital.de (-60%)
  • Dokteronline.com (-53%)
  • Gesundheit.de (-52%)
  • Medpertise.de (-50%)
  • Vital.de (-30%)

Google cleans up commodity content

I don’t say Google punishes websites in certain verticals for competition reasons, but because Google can provide a better user experience than most websites. 3 verticals that were punished by the HCU or core update (lyrics, dictionaries, manuals) deal with the classic commodity content problem: everyone competes with the same information.

You can only endure in these verticals with a high amount of user value, a great experience, and additional information than what your competition has.

Here are 3 affected verticals and how a few sites won them:

Lyrics sites

Lyrics sites tend to be very undifferentiated. Google’s Helpful Content update cost some sites drops of -90% and more.

A few examples:

  • lyricsjonk.com
  • geniuslyrics.net
  • lyricsfa.com
  • lyricsroll.com
  • lyricsgoo.com
  • Karaoke-lyrics.net
  • Lyricsfa.com
  • Lyrics-letra.com
  • Lyricsgoo.com

Lyricsroll.com used to own position 5 for the keyword “lyrics for lose yourself” but dropped completely out of the SERPs after the HCU. Google doesn’t just show the lyrics (licensed from LyricFind) in the search results and all other relevant information about Eminem.

Search results for “lose yourself”

I couldn’t find lyrics sites that gained from the HCU - only sites that didn’t lose like genius.com or azlyrics.com. Genius provides commentary and annotations that explain the background and context of song lyrics. That is unique added value that other platforms do not provide and, to me, the key to succeeding with commodity content.

Genius.com provides additional value to the lyrics everyone else has

Dictionaries/encyclopedias

Sites with information about word spelling, synonyms, or grammar have lost a lot of traffic across the board.

A few examples:

  • Yourdictionary.com (-70%)
  • Grammarhow.com (-70%)
  • Ludwig.guru (-54%)
  • Abbreviations.com (-61%)
  • Wortbedeutung.info (-48%, DE)

The only winner in the space seems to be wiktionary.org, which is part of the non-profit organization Wikimedia and creates content through a community. That seems to result in better content, even though it’s also possible that the backlinks from Wikipedia build a stronger trust and authority profile.

Not to forget, Google has been providing and evolving dictionary information for years.

Google displaying synonyms right in the search results

Manuals

Sites that rank for product manuals like manualzz.com (-82%), usermanual.wiki (-60%), manualsfile.com (-74%) or manuals.plus (-72%) lost significant organic traffic from the HCU because - you guessed it - Commodity Content. Another example is beipackzetteln.de (-60% in DE), a domain that provides content from leaflets.

Manuals sites dropped like flies during the Helpful Content update

Only two sites were not affected: manualslib.com and manualsdir.com.

Why?

They display manuals as readable PDF instead of putting the actual content on the page. That prevents the content from appearing as duplicate content in Google’s index.

Hardcore monetization MFA

The September Core update punished sites that target low-competition keywords to monetize traffic with Adsense. I call this Shallow Intent because the user intent is so simple that a click-through to other sites is often unnecessary. There is still an army of sites out there that try, but their lives have become a lot harder.

A few examples:

  • Biographypedia.org goes after terms like “when was {celebrity} born” (-85%)
  • Homequestionsanswered.com goes after terms like “what is a coffee table” (-22%)
  • Askanydifference.com goes after terms like “what’s the difference between peanut butter and jam” (-19%)
  • mathlearnit.com goes after terms like “what is 4/1 as decimal” (-49%)
  • Opening-hours.ninja goes after terms like “when does {local business} open” (-80%)
  • Oeffnungszeitenbuch.de “when does {local business} open” (-55% in DE)
  • Logintipps.com goes after terms like “find login pages” (-92% in DE)
  • Was-war-wann.de “what was when” (-48% in DE)
  • 1prospekte.de “brochures” (-42% in DE)

What stands out across all of these sites is the hardcore monetization with popup Ads that significantly harm the user experience.

Poor ad user experience due to popups

Shallow content + ads = bad experience

The end of cheap product reviews

Publishers and blogs that create product reviews run an affiliate business model. Technically, every click that goes on an organic result is unlikely to land on an ad. That’s a problem for Google because it loses ad revenue. On top of that, if Google sends an organic click to a product review of poor quality, there’s a high chance the user just goes straight to Amazon and reads product reviews there.

Google is offering product comparisons right in the search results to shorten the product evaluation time and send users straight to the right destination (though lately, more videos started to appear for comparison queries). If I had to guess, that destination is ideally not Amazon. As a result, if your domain doesn’t provide very indepth product content with real reviews - meaning the author actually tried the product out - your site isn’t valuable in Google’s eyes.

The fact that Google released four updates in a short amount - one more than the number of Core Updates - of time goes to show how important ecommerce is for Google. Product reviews are an essential part of the shopping user journey. Amazon is the number one shopping destination, and its ad revenue has crossed 31% in 2021. That ad revenue directly competes with Google’s ad revenue.

From: https://developers.google.com/search/updates/ranking

One example is findthisbest.com (-88%), a review site that started tanking on September 1st, meaning it was likely not the Core or Product Reviews update but HCU (Helpful Content Update). To make things more complicated, the domain was heavily affected by the May Core Update in 2022, which had already tanked its language subdomains a couple of months earlier (ca.findthisbest.com, uk.findthisbest.com, or au.findthisbest.com).

SEO Visibility of findthisbest.com

Three things stand out. First, the site doesn’t provide editorial reviews, at least not in coherent text, but product listings. Second, the domain is very broad and reviews products from books to baby toys. How likely is it that the site is an expert in every category? To be fair, big publishers get away with this. And third, the site smells a lot like low-quality AI content.

AI content on findthisbest.com is of very low-quality

Competitors of findthisbest.com like ubuy.com, bestreviews.guide, or bestviewsreviews.com also lost organic traffic at the same time and were also affected by the May Core Update.

Findthisbest.com competitors

The problem is that all 3 updates could have impacted the same site. For example, some domains with product review content were affected by the HCU, even though you’d expect them to be hit by the Product Reviews update. The only differentiator is that HCU was rolled out in English language only, whereas the other two launched globally.

A few more examples:

  • Productz.com (-66%)
  • Familyhandyman.com (-34%)
  • Gadgetreview.com (-42%)
  • Luxuryhotel.guru (-48%)
  • Wethegeek.com (-66%)
  • Topratgeber24.de (-52% in DE)
  • erfahrungen.de (-60% in DE)
  • Testsieger-berichte.de (-44% in DE)

I also see publishers that try to monetize with cheap reviews in danger. Hat tip to Sistrix for digging the data on that up! [x]

The bigger picture: Don’t waste Google’s crawl resources with poor content

In the last 3 years, Google faced one indexing issue after the other:

One big meta pattern that emerges from these updates is that Google needs to save crawl and indexing resources, and sites that waste them with low-quality content don’t have a future.

Cutting corners like writing about a product you haven’t tried, scaling with low-quality AI content, or monetizing low-competition keywords doesn’t work anymore (unless you’re a huge brand).