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Is it getting harder to rank on Google?

There are over 1 billion sites on the world wide web, with 252,000 being created every day. The vast majority (82%) of these sites are inactive, leaving around 192 million websites that are active. With so many websites competing for attention, publishers are continually looking for that extra edge on how to rank highly on Google. The pursuit of ranking highly on search results gave rise to the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry, which first gained traction in the 1990s when Yahoo was the dominant search engine, and continued throughout Google’s usurpation and dominance.

For those who managed to rank on the first page of Google for a particular search term, there’d be a variety of benefits. The website would gain exposure, gaining popularity and making it easier to build an audience. The publisher could benefit financially in selling products on the site or through ad revenue, which naturally increased in tandem with website traffic. And while the SEO industry has often had answers to help websites perform better, frequent updates on Google’s ranking system is creating more uncertainty.

Over the years, the SEO industry has had to contend with the never-ending question, “Is SEO dead?”. This question can in part be attributed to the poor reputation the industry has acquired as a result of SEO practitioners who’ve used unscrupulous methods to ‘help’ their clients, including purchasing backlinks and incessant blog commenting. But it can also be attributed to a more recent phenomenon; that SEOs themselves are struggling to find the right solutions.

For many years Google’s advice has been to make pages for users, not for search engines. User-experience has always been a priority; something that SEOs could advise on with relative confidence. However in September 2023 Google’s Helpful Content Update caused chaos. Many website owners experienced a disastrous impact on their impression and visitor counts. Some were getting tens of thousands of visitors a day to their websites and then, nothing. Others had healthy traffic volumes from Google’s Discover page and then, nothing. For publishers whose main source of income was their website, businesses were ruined. Writers had to be let go.

In the ensuing chaos, SEOs benefitted in that clients desperate to ‘fix’ their websites grew. But what could SEOs offer that they hadn’t before? Google advised site publishers to focus on people-first content, which they define as “content that’s created primarily for people, and not to manipulate search engine rankings.” The definition itself created confusion. Those who publish content on websites are of course doing so to rank highly, not to float around somewhere on page 20 of the search results. SEOs complained to Google that their ‘helpful’ system was anything but helpful. Small, independent publishers with specific expertise were being outranked by large companies who had limited expertise in the subject matter. Brand authority, it appeared, mattered more than helpful content.

Google’s focus on ‘authoritative’ content also convinced some SEOs to believe that having an author bio with credentials would help. The idea was to convince Google that there is an actual writer with relevant expertise behind the article published. Google, however, disabused people of that notion, outlining that determining the authority of an article was based on a variety of signals and not just an author profile picture with a few lines about their work experience. Despite Google’s frequent clarifications – and to their credit, they have a Search Liaison who answers questions – the general consensus is that it’s getting hard to rank.

Similarities abound with the YouTube algorithm, which has the power to make or break a channel. One day, you’re a content creator getting a steady stream of views and subscribers. The next day, the recommendation system has forgotten all about you. A Google update is now met with similar apprehension, and of course, many memes exist to express this concern.

Meme of a person progressively turning into a clown with each Google update.
There are many memes out there indicative of public sentiment to a Google update.

For many website owners and SEOs, there’s a lot of conflicting directives. Google talks about making things better for the user but sites are also required to have cookie pop-ups and banners, arguably one of the worst things to happen to user experience. AI is also flooding the web with generative content that is incredibly frustrating for the user experience, but appears to get a pass as Google confirms it isn’t against their guidelines. Google states that AI content will be penalised if used to manipulate search results, but again, this is confusing. People write articles to be read, not for them to disappear into the ether.

Image of a Wired.com article about how to avoid 'infuriating' cookie pop-ups, with a cookie pop-up.
A Wired article on how to avoid ‘infuriating’ cookie pop-ups, with a cookie pop-up.

And the use of AI systems to game Google’s algorithm appears to be one step ahead. A recent phenomenon is through automated scraping. A publisher spends hours on an article. They publish it after considerable research and effort. An AI bot scrapes the content and publishes it on their own site, managing to rank highly on Google’s search results while the original author’s work is nowhere to be seen. The solution, as it’s always been, is to keep producing original, high quality content and to not succumb to the temptation of using black hat SEO tactics. However, with frequent Google updates that throw one’s impression and visitor counts upside down, with low-quality AI-generated content managing to get visibility on Discover and on search results, and with large established brands continually filling up the top spots in rankings, what options are left for the small-scale independent publisher?

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