The Ides of March Came Early This Year for SEO

Et tu, Googulus? 

On March 5th, Google rolled out a significant core update for “Helpful Content.” This update and a separate spam update have shaken things up (quite a lot) in the SEO world. 

Official core update announcement:

Launched alongside the spam update (which will take about 2 weeks to complete), this March 5th update places a hefty and continuing emphasis on serving “Helpful Content.” 

The double duo has caused significant disruption for multiple sites across the board, with SEO, white hat, and grey hat (not the black hat, though…because silence is golden!) discussing why sites that have taken the hit may have “deserved” it. After all, what’s helpful to one person might be useless to another. 

The discussions on X are worth following. They reveal how long-standing SEO techniques, quite beneficial to small businesses with limited resources, are being impacted. 

Some solopreneurs have seen their website traffic plummet overnight, and even worse, some have been de-indexed (removed from Google’s search results) due to manual spam penalties.

Spam itself comes in various forms. You may have encountered some of them yourselves. My clients have been viciously backlink-spammed. Shameless competitors have plagiarized their content. It took us a while to clean up.

I’ve always been curious about SEO since Stone and I started in the late 90s. Back then, I can safely say light to heavy-duty spam built the search results – whoever creatively spammed the best won. 

Google came along, and SEO adapted to Google’s guidelines. Here we are…you decide how you want to stay in the game, if you can stay in it at all.

One thing’s clear: Google aims for cleaner, organic search results. 

However, Google is also a for-profit company. Big corps with the resources to game the system likely aren’t going anywhere. They can negotiate and maneuver due to their financial power and resources. 

Unfortunately, smaller and niche sites, even those legitimate ones that got swooped up, are having a tough time. Some may not recover from these updates.

You’d better watch out. Santa is coming for AI-generated content.

Put some elbow grease into those AI-generated content pieces instead of pumping them out like a nut, People. 

Google’s been quite transparent about their “Helpful Content.” I think the AI content-producing capability has been abused so much that Google turned off the spigot to slow things down. 

AI is going nowhere, but your sites might if you’re too trigger-happy with content at scale.

Can all of us strive towards Google’s E-E-A-T content criteria? Sure. Isn’t that a positive step, even though we know the playing field isn’t entirely even?

Lots of opinions aside, here’s what I know so far.

Google is now “using a variety of innovative signals and approaches” to detect high-quality content. 

The update is designed “to improve the quality of Search by showing less content that feels like it was made to attract clicks, and more content that people find useful.”

This latest update “marks an evolution in how we identify the helpfulness of content.”

Yes, it’s an evolution, alright. And some websites might have gone extinct. I’m not complaining. But I can imagine how stomach-churning it would be for some small businesses, who makes a few thousand dollars a month running a few affiliate websites and having them completely disappear. It’s shocking.

Here’s another one: Google Search’s core ranking systems are designed to better ensure people see original, helpful content that leaves them feeling they’ve had a satisfying experience.

“Feeling” is entirely subjective. So, do the best you can to satisfy the people. Read through their FAQ and guidelines.

Google is penalizing sites where it detects:

  • Expired domain abuse: People buy expired high-authority domains and put unrelated content on those domains to manipulate their rankings.
  • Scaled content abuse: Whether AI, human, or a combination of both, it doesn’t matter. You go to Google jail if it’s a large amount of unoriginal content with no value to readers. No soup for you.
  • Site reputation abuse: This technique, sometimes known as “parasite” or “barnacle” SEO, involves content being paid to be hosted on high authority sites like WebMD, Forbes, NYT, etc.

    More details here:

    This is significant because Google is asking these big publishers and news sites to self-report and block those pages by May 5th.

    However, Google is also telling these authority sites that they can pass go if they can demonstrate a certain level of editorial involvement in content production.

    Be prepared to see all kinds of on-page signaling badges such as Experts-Approved, X Number of Editors Vetted, Deeply Fact-Checked, and 100% Verified. Perhaps a few more outlandish ones… It’s Our Truth,  Scientifically Consulted, Certified, and Fact-Based.…who knows? 

Other basic signals we know of, like keyword stuffing, shady link buying, and spammy redirects, still apply. However, this latest update heavily emphasizes the first three issues above.

Do’s and Don’ts

Doesn’t matter what type of sites you have; there are no shortcuts to SEO.

Spend time writing good content for your audience. Inform, educate, or entertain them with valuable content.

Write your own and/or use good copywriters, AI-assistants, no matter, vet your content. Make it unique by injecting your perspective, real-life experience, videos, photos, etc.

Monitor your traffic data. Use Google Search Console. It’s free.

Don’t panic (yet) if you see fluctuations. The rollout may take up to a month. You should be fine if you’re doing mostly white hat or not doing SEO at all (as in “I don’t even know what SEO is“).

Do show your expertise. If you’re an e-commerce, show trust through authentic customer reviews, unique product content, user-friendly navigation, secure checkout process, etc.

Don’t manipulate backlinks, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. 

Those emails you get offering to put your links on high DA sites? Vet them carefully. The 80/20 Rule applies here. 80% are those vendors that stink up the whole market. Could be even worse, 95/5. It’s a gamble. A risk not worth taking, especially if you’re new to the industry. 

Google can clap you with a manual spam penalty for unnatural links. (Another reason to monitor Search Console because you’ll see that Manual penalty notification.)

Don’t use AI to churn out content. It’s bad enough we have drive-bys telling people to blog daily. Now, we have people putting up massive AI content daily to gain traffic. 

Some people are masters at it, but that’s a particular niche where, if your risk tolerance is low, do not go there. You’ll end up either fighting or playing hide and seek with Google’s update. And most Davids cannot fight this Goliath. Stick to their general guides. Take good care of your sites. That’s the best you can do. 

Before you can build good content and backlinks, you need to understand what determines good content (go read the new E-E-A-T guidelines) and what determines good backlinks (having some experience helps so you don’t get duped).

While you’re at it, you might as well read the search rater’s guidelines.

There are technical aspects to SEO, but for most local and small businesses with limited resources, it’s best to focus on building your strengths by creating decent content and acquiring high-quality backlinks from relevant websites. 

You don’t need massive amounts of backlinks. You should just be consistent in getting a few good ones.

Good content that informs, educates, or entertains your target audience will usually attract visitors and backlinks. A well-structured website with a clear hierarchy is also important for SEO, but it can be addressed later as you grow.

My clients with the best SEO results (so far) are the ones whose sites our team built from scratch. It takes weeks to lay out the structures, URL hierarchy, landing page plan, etc. But we know the client is starting with a clean site, which, in the long run, makes our job as their SEO more effective. 

For many, the cost of gutting an entire site and rebuilding is high. And it is. For example, large agencies charge 10K and up for a site audit, and implementing the changes can be another significant cost.

But don’t worry too much. You won’t croak if your site structure is a tad messy. A slightly messy structure won’t necessarily cripple your SEO. I’ve seen some severe cases where technical SEO issues were so critical they had to be addressed because they severely impacted rankings.  Thankfully, these are rare occurrences in my experience.

This is it for today. Here, hoping you survive and thrive through this Ides of March.

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