Five large-scale Google algorithm updates have occurred in the past three months, possibly breaking some kind of record. This year seems to be the culmination of the broad themes from the last decade of SEO advice, converging in a combined fruition. Publishers are now compelled to adhere to the principles of quality content, user experience (UX), and delivering value to users, as the algorithm has reached an advanced stage capable of discerning these aspects.

One of the most intriguing aspects of these consecutive algorithm updates is their impact extending beyond traditional organic search rankings. Freestar, the programmatic ad partner for over 1,000 enterprise websites, has observed a decline in traffic from multiple Google sources in certain cases. While Google has previously indicated that algorithm updates can affect visibility in Google Discover and other search result areas, the past three months have shown a more pronounced impact.

The range of publishers experiencing negative traffic impacts in recent months spans various niches, sizes, and locations globally.

Now, let’s review the five significant recent updates. Although each update has its nuances, the overarching goal in all of them is to prioritize UX, content relevance, and helpful content.

Google Updates Between September and November

  • September 14, 2023 — Helpful Content Update
    • Targets UX issues, aggressive ads, and content over-optimized for SEO.
    • Forces publishers and webmasters to consider what experience is genuinely helpful to the reader.
  • October 4, 2023 — Spam Update
    • Targets thin, copied, misleading, and overly promotional content.
  • October 5, 2023 — Broad Core Update
    • Encompasses a broad sweep of the entire index, re-evaluating sites against all their signals.
  • November 2, 2023 — Broad Core Update
    • Broad core updates can impact Google organic, Google News, and Google Discover traffic.
  • November 8, 2023 — Reviews Update
    • The last announced Reviews update, as Google claims the system is continuously improved.
    • Websites writing reviews on any topic may face algorithmic impacts due to low-quality penalties. Here is the extensive list of factors Google is looking for.

Publishers often dismiss spam updates as not applicable, but Google targets four key elements in spam updates regularly encountered:

  1. AI-generated content lacking value.
  2. Unpermitted article scraping.
  3. False claims and clickbait headlines.
  4. Thin affiliate content (listicles, roundups, review content).

Extreme Impact to Google Discover

The impact on Google Discover has been more pronounced than usual, with many publishers experiencing significant drops in traffic. Despite a glitch in early November affecting Discover traffic, recovery has been limited for most affected sites.

Discover traffic has historically exhibited inconsistency. I often advise publishers that experiencing 300,000 pageviews from Discover one day and then literally zero the next is considered “normal.” This personalized content feed, available in the Chrome app and soon on desktop, relies solely on the user’s search history. While all indexed content is eligible, there are methods to optimize for Discover compatibility, such as ensuring feature images are at least 1200px wide. However, there is no guaranteed method to optimize for increased traffic.

In a recent overview of her research on Discover declines, Lily Ray highlighted a staggering statistic. She noted, “Many site owners reported a significant drop in traffic, experiencing a decrease from tens of thousands or even millions of impressions to nearly zero. This includes drops from high daily figures, like 300,000 or 50-60,000 unique visitors, to almost none.”

In another statement, she emphasized the substantial “impact on well-established, authoritative sites.” Even websites with a longstanding claim to years of authority and quality content reported significant drops in traffic. This challenges the prevailing notion that authoritative sites are immune to the effects of Google updates.

The Future of Discover

Anticipating the transformative shifts orchestrated by Google in this domain, I predict that Discover will emerge as one of the most crucial traffic sources in the years ahead. Google has long expressed its aspiration for “query-less search,” aiming to seamlessly offer users the next article they need before they consciously seek it.

When contemplating “query-less search,” I draw parallels to social media platforms that craftily present captivating headlines, compelling me to click unexpectedly. This presents an opportune moment to compete with the waning reliability of Facebook and “X” (formall known as Twitter) as traffic sources for publishers.

A notable enhancement in Discover supporting this analogy is the recent introduction of the “follow feature.” Allowing users to effortlessly select publications for their feed with a single click harks back to the simpler times of Facebook and X.

For those aspiring to enhance their content’s visibility in Discover, Google provides the following guidance.

The substantial adjustments in Discover and the imminent SGE (Search, Google, Ecosystem) have given rise to uncertainty. However, for industry insiders questioning the future of SEO (yes, it will evolve; it always does), publisher traffic, and the enduring value of websites, I can confidently declare: we are just scratching the surface.