The Latest Google Update Slams Traditional Publishers
[UPDATE: This article was updated at 6:37pm ET on 4/16/2019 and 12:49pm on 4/18/2019 based on feedback from Scientific American and The Atlantic, which both refute that they have experienced the drop in Google search traffic as reported by Searchmetrics.]
Google’s long love affair with traditional, respected publishers may have come to an abrupt end last month.
According to analysis conducted by Searchmetrics, such venerable publishing brands as The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and Harvard Business Review suffered declines in U.S. Google search traffic of more than 40% during the week after the company updated its core algorithm on March 12. The New York Times, Scientific American, TIME, Wired, and Harper’s BAZAAR were also among the 20 magazine and newspaper brands with household names that ended up on Searchmetrics’ “losers list” of websites with double-digit Google declines.
It should be noted here that because Searchmetrics' analysis of the impact of the Google update on publishers' sites is based on third-party estimations, the data is not 100% accurate. Case in point: Rachel Scheer, head of communications at Springer Nature/Scientific American says, "We have not seen a decline in Google search traffic on Scientific American’s website.” Similarly, a spokesperson from The Atlantic claims its "search visibility increased month-over-month in the time period of the algorithm update."
That said, Searchmetrics's findings provide some indication that there may be a trend afoot. As with much that relates to Google's search recipe, publishers remain much in the dark.
The winners list of sites enjoying a traffic boost of 10% or more, according to Searchmetrics, has only a few well-known publishers, such as Buzzfeed, TechCrunch, Space, and The Wrap. And they’re all online-only newcomers.
A few caveats:
- Breaking news, a viral video, and a myriad of other factors unrelated to Google can cause a website’s search traffic to spike or dip from one week to the next. Drawing broad conclusions from changes to a particular site’s traffic is dicey at best. (But when a particular category has 20 sites that suffered big losses and zero that earned big gains, something is afoot.)
- Some search experts say that Google results are still “bouncing around,” apparently because of post-March 12 tweaks.
- Even SEO experts see no clear pattern – just a few hints – as to what the core algorithm update might have entailed.
- It’s highly unlikely that Google made a conscious decision to punish traditional publishers. It didn’t decide, for example, that Buzzfeed (up 36%) is “better” than The New Yorker (down 44%) or that Updateland.com (up 118%) is superior to Wired (down 24%). Google tweaked its core algorithm to give searchers results that are more likely to satisfy them. Now it’s up to publishers to figure out how to minimize the collateral damage.
Here are some hints as to what might have happened that affected traditional publishers:
Authority Always Wins
Google used to judge the authoritativeness of content almost entirely on the web site’s reputation, but it shifted last year to placing more emphasis on the author’s expertise. So it seems, for example, that health-related searches are more likely to turn up content written by physicians and less likely to highlight articles by healthcare journalists.
Compounding Google’s shift to author-based evaluations is the recent demise of its Google+ platform. Many publishers worked with their staff writers to build out their Google+ profiles, so that Google’s spiders would be aware of the authors’ expertise and experience.
Publishers seem to be adjusting slowly to these new realities. Consider this author profile: “Ed Yong is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers science.” That’s it – no reference to Yong’s many science-writing awards, his articles for leading science publications, or his best-selling book and popular TED Talk on microbes. And of course no link to his Google+ profile that detailed all those accomplishments
Google’s guidelines for search quality ratings have long equated print publications with credibility. For example, it advises its raters to look for “a highly authoritative source that is known for original content creation (newspaper, magazine, medical foundation, etc.)”.
But the magazine industry’s biggest newsmaker in recent months has been David Pecker, CEO of American Media, Inc., who has been accused of making illegal hush payments to protect President Trump. Controversies about dubious medical advice from Goop and Dr. Oz The Good Life also haven’t done much for the industry’s reputation. Keep in mind that Google has a patent for using “natural language processing to determine whether people are generally saying positive or negative things” about a business.
Users in Charge
Among the March 12 winners were Homeadvisor, Digg, and Yelp, suggesting that Google is continuing to provide greater weight to user-generated content. You can debate all you want the accuracy of Yelp reviews and that they’re no match for expert opinions, but what matters to Google is that people want more information about what other people think and have experienced.
What Google Giveth, Google Taketh Away
Some niche and seemingly high-quality health and personal-finance sites were hit especially hard by Google’s previous core algorithm update last August. Many of those same sites saw significant search-traffic boosts after March 12, suggesting that Google had rolled back some of the previous changes. Because search is a zero-sum game, the niche publishers’ August pain was probably traditional publishers’ gain – until March 12 came along.
Mr. Publisher, Tear Down That Paywall!
The publishing trend of shifting toward more revenue from readers has two down sides from a search standpoint: 1) More pop-up and interstitial ads, which Google hates, to promote subscriptions. 2) Fewer links from other sites. On my blog, for example, I make a conscious effort to avoid linking to sites with paywalls, leaky or otherwise.
What’s a publisher to do? It’s best not to look for a silver bullet – the one fix that will magically boost your Google results – but rather to take what Glenn Gabe calls the “kitchen sink approach”: “Google is evaluating many factors when it comes to these broad core ranking updates. My advice is to surface all potential problems with your site and address them all.”