Google’s Explosive March Updates: What I Think

Woman working on laptop, holding a cup of coffee.
On March 5, Google launched its first core algorithm update of 2024, in addition to unveiling updated spam policies and a spam update. Plus, its helpful content system was integrated into its core algorithm update system.

Google told Search Engine Land it would reduce unhelpful content in the search results by up to 40%.

In addition to sites that were negatively impacted by the core update, Google unleashed a slew of manual actions on sites that violated its most current spam policies.

Some sites were completely de-indexed. Many of these sites were likely driven by AI content.

via GIPHY

After an initial analysis of the updates and Google’s documentation, I am going to share what’s going on with a large part of the latest updates. In this article:

The Focus Is Largely on AI Content

Are you using AI content for your website? Now is a good time to evaluate your methods (if Google hasn’t already done that for you in its latest core update.)

If you sailed through this last update, does that mean you are immune? Probably not. Google’s algorithms continue to evolve, and Google’s main goal is to take out the trash.

With the rise in popularity of AI content in recent times, Google knew it had a looming problem on its hands.

I discussed at Search Engine Land a while back that AI content could create a world where the quality of an answer in the search results would be average at best — only as good as the AI would allow.

If you consider that many AI content tools are connected to the web, the AI is reading its own generated content to come up with ideas for more generated content.

Google has faced quality problems like this before. Over the years, Google has combated many different tactics that degrade its search results.

This is just another example of something that has become “spam” – AI content. But there are still ways to do it right.

What Google Is Now Saying About AI Content

So what did Google have to say about AI content in its recent announcements?

Here, Google talks about how it is addressing the “abusive behavior” of using AI content:

To better address these techniques, we’re strengthening our policy to focus on this abusive behavior — producing content at scale to boost search ranking — whether automation, humans or a combination are involved.

There’s a lot to unpack in that one statement. Let’s break it down.

Producing Content to Rank: Is It Spam?

Google says it is targeting content at a scale that’s intended to boost search rankings.

But isn’t all content created for SEO intended to rank?

Google has an opinion, but doesn’t go into too much detail:

There are some things you could do that are specifically meant to help search engines better discover and understand your content. Collectively, this is called “search engine optimization” or SEO, for short. Google’s own SEO guide covers best practices to consider. SEO can be a helpful activity when it is applied to people-first content, rather than search engine-first content.

It sounds like what Google is saying is that SEO is an afterthought.

Google seems to downplay SEO so that people follow its guidelines for creating helpful content first, then tack on SEO to make it perform better.

Sounds logical.

Except we all know that SEO isn’t just an add-on and that we first start with keyword research and trending topics to capitalize on the success of content before creating new content.

So, again, the question is: Aren’t we already producing content to boost search rankings?

Here’s what I think: Automated mass production of content with no regard for adding value is the problem.

Human-Edited AI Content: Is It Spam?

Google says it’s targeting websites with content that is totally automated, written by humans or a combination.

So AI content can be bad even when there is a human touch to it. That means if you are using AI tools, tread carefully.

AI tools are not inherently bad but abusing them is.

Here, Google talks more about the idea of “scaled content abuse”:

Examples of scaled content abuse include, but are not limited to:

  • Using generative AI tools or other similar tools to generate many pages without adding value for users
  • Scraping feeds, search results, or other content to generate many pages (including through automated transformations like synonymizing, translating, or other obfuscation techniques), where little value is provided to users
  • Stitching or combining content from different web pages without adding value
  • Creating multiple sites with the intent of hiding the scaled nature of the content
  • Creating many pages where the content makes little or no sense to a reader but contains search keywords

The first bullet is key: You can use AI tools all you want, and you can edit AI-generated content all you want, but if you’re not adding something unique – an expert perspective, personal experience, etc., then your content could be a fair target for Google enforcing its spam policies.

The third bullet elaborates: Don’t use AI tools that merely stitch together the information in the search results into a new article without adding some extra value.

It is fine to take keywords, make a list, make a unique outline, and from there devise your own content … just do not plagiarize or create generic content.

Even before the use of AI, content creators would look at the top-ranked pages as research for what they write.

However, even that has potentially caused an existential crisis for Google. Others have written about the downward spiral of the quality of the search results, and Google has been ramping up efforts to surface better content.

In a nutshell, you need to have something original, regardless of how you create the content.

The main point here is to differentiate your content. What is happening with AI content is generic content that doesn’t add anything new to the conversation.

So, What Is Content Spam Now?

Google’s job is to weed out the garbage no matter how the content is created. So it will lean heavily on its algorithms to identify what is quality content.

Google has taken many approaches to this in the past, and it will continue to evolve. In its latest iteration, Google has clarified what spam content is, and had this to say recently about AI content and new spam policies:

Our long-standing spam policy has been that use of automation, including generative AI, is spam if the primary purpose is manipulating ranking in Search results. The updated policy is in the same spirit of our previous policy and based on the same principle. It’s been expanded to account for more sophisticated scaled content creation methods where it isn’t always clear whether low quality content was created purely through automation. [Emphasis added.]

What methods might Google use to further determine quality?

Many things. Perhaps high bounce rates, poor sentiment in reviews, low site trust, a high degree of similarity to other documents, no inbound mentions and lack of website maintenance.

Google also had this to say:

This will allow us to take action on more types of content with little to no value created at scale, like pages that pretend to have answers to popular searches but fail to deliver helpful content.

SEL spoke to Google, and a Google rep clarified:

What are examples of pages that pretend to have answers but fail to deliver? Tucker [a Google rep] explained that those are the pages that start off by stating it will answer your question, lead you on with low-quality content, and never end up giving you the answer to your questions:

  • “Our long-standing spam policy has been that use of automation, including generative AI, is spam if the primary purpose is manipulating ranking in Search results. The updated policy is in the same spirit of our previous policy and based on the same principle. It’s been expanded to account for more sophisticated scaled content creation methods where it isn’t always clear whether low quality content was created purely through automation.”
  • “Our new policy is meant to help people focus more clearly on the idea that producing content at scale is abusive if done for the purpose of manipulating search rankings and that this applies whether automation or humans are involved.”

Surviving Google’s Algorithms

We are in the midst of another shift in SEO, where we continue to define quality.

There is no room for flying low under the AI radar or it’s a certain crash. It’s vitally important that organizations remain white-hat current on changes related to SEO requirements to remain visible and relevant within search results.

Assess and Pivot

For the near future, protection is job No. 1. Navigating changes in search algorithms requires businesses to periodically reevaluate their SEO tactics.

We recommend comprehensive SEO audits to surface any current or potential threats.

Adjusting to algorithm updates, adapting to rules as they change, and abandoning manipulative tactics even if they once worked are all key parts of maintaining high rankings in search engines.

Adopt Best Practices

Adopting best practices is indispensable to top rankings. Just because it is an SEO practice in your industry, doesn’t mean it is good.

Yes, that’s a bit obvious but if everyone did it then there would not be chaos over these updates.

The zone of acceptance is like a water balloon – shifting shape as the rules change. Adhering to core principles can make you almost immune to algorithm updates.

Create Quality Content

Quality content remains key in building a lasting online presence.

By producing user-centric content that offers something unique and of value, you can build trust, authority and credibility within your niche, not only helping with algorithm changes but also strengthening your overall online presence.

Spend time thinking about and creating helpful, people-first content.

Relevant topics are key for maintaining audience engagement and producing high-quality content that resonates with audiences.

By understanding your target audience’s needs and conducting extensive research using SEO tools, you can quickly locate trending or pertinent subjects that resonate with them.

But just be sure you are adding something unique to the conversation, and it’s not a “copy/paste/reword” approach.

See my AI content beginner’s guide if you want to continue leveraging AI’s benefits in your content creation.

Track Progress

Taking a set-it-and-forget-it approach to publishing content will harm you in the end.

As Google releases core updates, you need to understand how your site is faring after the dust settles.

You must use analytics tools to see what is working. Monitor progress, identify issues and pivot as needed.

Have you been impacted by Google’s March updates? Our SEO experts can help you get your SEO program back on track. Reach out to us today.

FAQ: How can businesses search rankings survive Google’s explosive March core and spam updates?

Google’s constant algorithm updates can wreak havoc on a business’s search rankings. The good news is you can implement certain strategies to survive Google’s explosive March updates and be prepared to handle any future update. Let’s go over them:

Understand Google’s updates: Familiarize yourself with the specific changes introduced in the March core and spam updates. Always stay current on the latest algorithm updates and adapt your SEO strategy accordingly.

Enhance website content: Craft high-quality, engaging content that caters to your target audience’s needs. Identify keywords that are relevant to your audience and naturally incorporate them. Make sure your content provides value and addresses pain points for your users.

Focus on site speed: User experience is one of the biggest ranking factors in search engines, and site speed is a critical component of that. Google prioritizes fast-loading pages, so focus on improving your website speed by compressing images, reducing code and utilizing caching techniques.

Improve mobile experience: Google has moved to mobile-first indexing, meaning that the search engine will prioritize mobile versions of webpages for ranking. Optimizing your site to be mobile friendly improves user experience, ensures your pages load faster and provides a consistent experience across platforms. Improving in this area will help your website survive any future update.

Build authoritative backlinks: A solid backlink profile tells search engines that you are an expert in your field. You can build high-quality backlinks by reaching out to industry influencers or websites for guest blogging opportunities. When your content is great, other people will naturally start to link to it and help establish your brand as a trusted authority.

Optimize on-page elements: Optimizing the on-page elements of your site is a great way to survive Google updates. Why? On-page optimization keeps your site relevant, ensures your content is useful for your users, improves user experience and when done right, it improves your search engine ranking. On-page elements include things like content, images, videos, meta tags, title tags, headers and URLs. Optimizing these elements helps search engines understand what your content is about. The better they can understand, the better your chances of earning high ranking.

Leverage social media: Social media is a powerful marketing tool to engage with your audience and get the word out about your brand. It can attract a wider audience to your content and website, improve your online presence and positively influence search ranking through social signals (likes, shares, comments, etc.).

Monitor and analyze performance: Utilize web analytics tools to track your website’s performance and make data-driven decisions. Continuously monitor your keyword rankings, organic traffic and user behavior and look for ways to improve your strategy.

The rules of SEO change every day for everyone, but with these tips you can futureproof your website to survive any future algorithm update.

Step-by-Step Procedure

  1. Stay up to date with Google’s algorithm updates, including the March core and spam updates.
  2. Analyze your website’s content and improve its quality, relevance and optimization for targeted keywords.
  3. Do thorough keyword research to find the keywords your target audience is searching for. Incorporate the keywords into your content throughout your site.
  4. Always evaluate your content strategy. Optimize your content to match search intent and provide value for your users.
  5. Evaluate your website’s speed and optimize it by compressing images, reducing server response time and leveraging caching techniques.
  6. Optimize your website to be mobile-friendly and responsive. Provide a seamless experience across all devices to significantly improve user experience.
  7. Work to acquire high-quality backlinks and build a solid backlink profile to establish your brand as a trusted authority.
  8. Optimize on-page elements such as content, imagery, videos, meta tags, title tags, headers and URLs. Be sure to include your keywords into these elements.
  9. Connect with your audience on social media platforms. Utilize social media to promote your content and encourage your audience to like, share and comment.
  10. Monitor your website’s performance using web analytics tools, tracking keyword rankings, organic traffic and user behavior. Adjust your SEO strategy as necessary.
  11. Regularly audit your website to identify technical SEO issues. Promptly fix any broken links, duplicate content, or improper redirects you find.
  12. Always stay updated on the latest trends and best practices in SEO. SEO training is the best way to do this.
  13. Engage with others in your industry by participating in forums, guest blogging, or collaborating with influencers. This is a great way to increase your online presence and establish trust.
  14. Struggling to adapt to algorithm updates? Losing traffic and ranking after a core update? You may want to consider hiring a reputable SEO agency or consultant. Our SEO experts can work with you to get better results from your SEO — just let us know how we can help.

Bruce Clay is founder and president of Bruce Clay Inc., a global digital marketing firm providing search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media marketing, SEO-friendly web architecture, and SEO tools and education. Connect with him on LinkedIn or through the BruceClay.com website.

See Bruce's author page for links to connect on social media.

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3 Replies to “Google’s Explosive March Updates: What I Think”

Thanks for sharing the information about Google Updates related to AI.

Great (and timely) article Bruce :-)

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