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Google has released algorithms and publishers are confused

This autumn, Google has released not one but three algorithm changes over the course of a month that affected content rankings specifically of product reviews. As a result, publishers are overwhelmed. Why? It simply showcases how the tech giant can cause disruption for publishers that have built businesses around trying to take advantage of its algorithm to reach people.

Many companies have expressed that they’re still trying to fully unpack to what extent these algorithm changes have impacted their search traffic and how to accommodate Google’s latest content guidelines in their edit strategies.

However, other publishers, like CNET, said their businesses experienced no ill effects from these rollouts, in part because their editorial approach to commerce content already follows Google’s guidelines.

On Google’s end, it claims that the algorithm changes were intended to prioritise search results considered the most helpful to internet goers, or content that’s “written by people, for people.” This means articles with expert insights, as well as original photography and original content descriptions (not regurgitated from the manufacturer’s website), will be ranked higher in search results. A Google spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment on the record.

Amro Naddy, vp and general manager at U.S. News & World Report’s 360 Reviews, during a panel at StackCommerce’s Activate event earlier this week,  jokingly stated “I burned some extra candles on my altar last night and prayed to the oracle to save us.”

So what can publishers do to save themselves? “You need to be able to absorb a 10 [to] 25% fluctuation [in search traffic] pre- and post- an algorithm change,” said Naddy, who did not share what these figures have looked like at U.S. News & World Report. There, internal SEO experts are explaining what these changes could mean to the commerce team, though Naddy was sheepish to say more about how his team was modifying its strategy to appeal to Google’s new standards.

The latest batch of algorithm updates comes a little over a year after an April 2021 product reviews update, which favoured content that compared products to one another as well as content that expressed expert knowledge.

The change was welcomed at the time by one publishing exec from a company with a large commerce operation, who spoke anonymously to Digiday last year. They added that they were hopeful it would clear out some of the “shitty” commerce content from the top SEO rankings because a lot of it was starting to feel “very pay for play.”

“There’s definitely been a big flurry of updates. Our SEO team has been quite busy,” said Turrentine, who oversees a team that does exactly what Naddy was suggesting.

Once a Google algorithm update is live, Turrentine said an executive summary is created by the SEO team, which then spends a week or two fully understanding the update and noting which pieces of content or subject matters have been impacted. From there, recommendations are made by the SEO team to the edit team regarding headlines, keywords and format, if necessary.

“We follow Google’s guidelines as they provide them, to the extent that they do, which is not very much,” said Turrentine, but despite the lack of insight from Google, CNET avoided taking a rankings hit this time around. “If we saw any change, it was really centred around that [Sept. 12] core [algorithm] update [and] it was a positive change for us.”

Spira, who only recently joined Hearst in the same week as the Activate event, only spoke at a high level about strategies for avoiding a reliance on Google traffic.

“While Google traffic is so performative and so successful in terms of converting users into actual purchasers, you are dependent on that algorithm, and you are like an algorithm change away from missing your quarter and it’s a bloodbath,” Spira said.

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