100% written by a human – no AI used. 

If you have spent any time in the last few months on social media and you are connected with people in technical roles around AI, digital marketing, or SEO, you would not have been able to avoid the intense discussions about the major negative effects of recent Google updates on many websites and the absolute business-ending results for many website owners and businesses. 

Much of the information is shared by SEO and tech experts, so it is a bit complex for the layperson. So, I thought this would be a good opportunity to simplify what’s going on, kind of like “Google Updates 2023 to 2024 for dummies” (no offence intended).

I won’t give a lengthy introduction to algorithms, how search engines prioritise information, AI, or SEO. If you aren’t sure about any of these things, there is plenty of information already out there.

Let’s cut to the chase. 

What’s Google up to?

Google has reacted to several issues in a particularly aggressive way.

  • Content created to manipulate Google and not for human users (sometimes called over-optimisation)
  • Parasite SEO (gaining links from high-value websites that have sections unrelated to what they do – paid links)
  • Spam – more crackdowns on spammy activity, manipulation, poor quality content, tricks and hacks to game search results
  • Mass-produced content using AI

And a lot more, but I promised to keep this as simple as possible.


Google is the biggest advertising platform on the planet. Between 2013 and 2023, they increased ad revenue from USD$51 billion to USD$237 billion. This is out of a total revenue of USD$305 billion! So we can all see how important this aspect of Google’s business is compared to its many other products. What’s their primary focus? To protect market share and continue to grow revenue and profitability. If you keep this in mind, everything they do makes sense.

What is the biggest challenge Google has faced in its entire existence?

Being left behind by AI, becoming less relevant, and not anticipating technological shifts in behaviour. The rise of Open AI and integration of AI into competitors like Bing has seen Google scrambling and reacting in uncharacteristic ways.

Is it working?

Intention number 1: improve search results and eliminate as much poor quality or spammy content as possible.

Have they succeeded? In many cases, no. Most people in SEO are noticing shocking results for many queries and some are actually dangerous. One result shared a way to clean a washing machine from Reddit that will create lethal chlorine gas! Another one recommended drinking glasses of urine to quickly pass a kidney stone.

Traditionally, Google has handled medical queries and other potentially life-changing searches reasonably well. Through the use of EEAT for this area of search (known as YMYL or your money or your life) Google has ensured the top results were from trusted, reputable sources in most cases. 

This all seems to have gone out the window through a couple of big updates which I will cover below. The promotion of Reddit and Quora into the top results for many queries has meant a prioritisation of socially sourced popular content that in many cases, comes from people who are unqualified to be seen as experts.

Ironically, Google has also hit sites other than Reddit and Quora for user-generated content.

Intention number 2: reward content that is helpful to users by pushing it up the search results.

Have they succeeded? Unfortunately, the update that was supposed to do this was much more punitive. It was more about searching for and nuking content that Google didn’t consider helpful. This is where a lot of the pain surfaced. Website owners who had been creating content that is helpful in their niche for years and had monetised the content through ads were suddenly without revenue as they disappeared from organic search. 

The ultimate insult came when Google removed this type of content because it was spammy and then reproduced it exactly with no attribution in the new AI Overview (Search Generative Experience) results they are currently adding to their search results.

People are justified in feeling anger about this kind of behaviour. Many SEOs refer to it as theft, illegal use of material, copyright infringement or simply evil.

That’s a bit of a taste of what I have been seeing over the past few months. If you want to go down the rabbit hole you can check out the social media feeds of some of the following. 

  • Rand Fishkin
  • Dr Marie Haynes
  • Glenn Gabe
  • Lily Ray
  • Cyrus Shepard
  • Aleyda Solis
  • Dr Pete Myers

There are definitely some interesting exchanges on Twitter; sometimes these are with representatives of Google.

Google Updates

Firstly, Google makes a large number of updates every year. Some are relatively minor and barely cause ripples on the tools tracking volatility in results. For example, Google launched 4,725 changes to search in 2022 alone!

In 2022, Google also ran:

  • 13,280 live traffic experiments
  • 894,660 search quality tests
  • 148,038 side-by-side experiments

However, some changes have seismic effects. These are the big updates that are sometimes pre-announced and sometimes not. In this case, the many SEOs tracking volatility bring up the big changes, and in most cases, Google admits they have rolled out an update. In most cases, Google will articulate what they are trying to do (see above about helpful content, etc.).

I’m starting this simple guide with the September Helpful Content Update, as this was the first of the really big ones. Here they are:

  • September 2023 – Helpful Content Update (HCU)
  • October 2023 – Spam Update
  • October 2023 – Core Update
  • November 2023 – Core Update
  • November 2023 – Reviews Update
  • March 2024 – Spam Update
  • March 2024 – Core Update
  • May 2024 – Site Reputation Abuse Update

Here is a quick summary of what they were about and what happened as a result.

Helpful Content Update

As previously mentioned, this update was supposed to improve the performance of genuinely created content to help people. However, it was a sitewide classifier that identified and penalised content and websites created primarily for ranking well in search engines rather than to help or inform people. The really tough part was this classifier (a penalty) was applied sitewide. This meant websites with a majority of good, honest content still saw reductions in organic traffic of 95+ per cent. Devastating!

Can you recover from it? All the data I have seen says no, not so far. Not until Google rolls out further updates will these people be free. The advice is to remove any unhelpful content, do everything right (?), improve what you have, and wait.

Some of the main types of websites hit were:

  • Bloggers and particularly niche sites
  • Travel blogs
  • Recipe sites
  • Style and fashion
  • Food and drink
  • Hobbies and interests
  • Health and fitness
  • Home and garden
  • And many more

To stay out of the firing line, here are some suggestions from Google’s rater guidelines.

Common helpful or beneficial page purposes include (but are not limited to):

  • To share information about a topic.
  • To share a personal experience, perspective, or feelings on a topic.
  • To share pictures, videos, or other forms of media.
  • To demonstrate a personal talent or skill.
  • To express an opinion or point of view.
  • To entertain.
  • To offer products or services.
  • To allow users to post questions for other users to answer.
  • To allow users to share files or to download software.

That’s all very well, but many sites hit were doing exactly these things.

October 2023 Spam Update

This one mainly focused on spam in languages other than English. Google said that the update should “reduce the visible spam in search results, particularly regarding cloaking, hacked, auto-generated, and scraped spam. This update seemed to be about spam in Turkish, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Hindi, Chinese, and other languages. It seems that there was more going on with this update, as you will see in the next section.

October 2023 Core Update

Core updates are in Google’s words, “significant, broad changes to our search algorithms and systems”. As the Core Update and Spam Updates were rolled out so close, it was difficult for analysts to share which caused which results. We just know it was extremely volatile. It also followed closely after the completion of the August Core Update, so this is an added influence. There is some thought that the October Core Update undid some of the effects of the August update, as in “Whoops, not that much!”.

Who was affected? Most volatility was experienced in the following:

  • Shopping
  • Arts and entertainment
  • Games
  • Internet and telecom
  • Beauty and fitness
  • Business and industrial
  • Home and garden
  • Travel
  • Food and drink

Starting to see a bit of a pattern here.

November 2023 Core and Reviews Updates

Again, we had to deal with two updates rolling out simultaneously, which made it hard to know which was doing what. However, different effects were experienced at different times, which helped the analysis. We know it caused significant impact and ranking volatility for many websites.

The Review Update targeted review content, including products, services, destinations, games, movies, etc., in multiple languages. The advisory said it promotes “insightful analysis and original research.” Another note was: “Content impacted by the reviews system may recover over time if you’ve made improvements to your content. However, note that our automated assessment of review content is only one of many factors used in ranking content, so changes can happen anytime for various reasons.”

Who suffered from the most volatility?

  • Science
  • Health
  • Pets and animals
  • Games
  • Travel
  • Internet and telecom
  • Arts and entertainment


March 2024 Spam Updates

This one hammered content abuse, automated content produced at scale. It also targeted expired domain abuse which had been a popular SEO hack. I had watched, with some amazement, SEO “experts” on Twitter openly bragging about how they used AI to create hundreds of thousands of pages in days to game Google’s results. They really didn’t think bragging about cheating the system would escape the attention of Google? 

These sites saw devastating drops. The key thing to take away from this is that if it feels like you are cheating, it is too easy, and you are not offering anything of value, then ultimately, you will fail. That is the golden rule of SEO.

Who suffered?

  • Massive automated content sites
  • Large-scale spam sites
  • Tricky aged domain sites

March 2024 Core Update

This was a huge and complex update. Multiple systems were updated, and volatility was off the charts. Google said that “unhelpful content” would reduce results by 40%. 40%! That’s massive. At the same time, Google’s Helpful Content Update was incorporated into the core ranking system (it had previously been an independent rollout).

What was it about? It aimed to further demonise thin or unoriginal content, AI spam, content created solely for search engines, and the usual suspects. For some, this was the death blow. Having been seriously injured by the HCU, this spelt the end. Unfortunately, many legitimate sites were caught up in this.

This update also went deeper into discovering and removing generative AI spam. From Google “We believe these updates will reduce the amount of low-quality content on Search and send more traffic to helpful and high-quality sites.” Sounds good.

As always, this is much simpler than the reality of such a complex system. Many sites were hit hard. We even saw some variances in the organic results for some of our larger content-focused clients as the waves came through.

What do you do if you got hit? 

The advice for those hit by this update and the previous ones I have covered.

Assess your site’s content relevance and quality:

  • Does it provide original information?
  • Is it complete or comprehensive?
  • Is it written by an expert who knows the topic well?
  • Does it have a clear purpose?
  • Does it give value to the reader?
  • Is it trustworthy?
  • Is it free from spelling or grammatical issues?
  • Is it written for human users or search engines?
  • Does it support your website’s primary purpose?

And on the technical side:

  • Fix your mobile performance
  • Pay attention to page loading speed
  • Ensure good user experience
  • Pay attention to site structure, navigation, helpful internal links
  • Minimise errors
  • Beware of over-optimisation

One last one (for now!). 

Site Reputation Abuse

This one had Parasite SEO in the crosshairs. It had become fairly common practice for some large sites to have sections dedicated to topics irrelevant to their primary purpose. In many cases they monetised these areas purely for SEO abuse.

Examples were large educational sites with sections where people could add content such as payday loans, casinos and other unrelated content to gain powerful backlinks. Again, some SEOs bragged about how it was working online. Doh!

Another example was large media sites that have a coupons subdomain to get SEO traffic from the many people searching online for discount coupons before purchasing.

Any third-party content produced for ranking purposes (yes, most of the web) without close oversight by a website owner will be considered spam. These were both manual and automated actions and it was savage.

Google was not intimidated by the size of these organisations. However, most of the removals were not site-wide like the HCU. They only manually removed the offending sections. That may change when the automated version is completed. Both subdomains and directories were hit.

Sites like these were hit:

  • CNN
  • USA Today
  • LA Times
  • Business Insider
  • Daily Mail
  • 7 News (Australia)
  • 9News (Australia)
  • The Mirror (UK)
  • Irish Times

No sign of any New Zealand media sites at this stage. 

Google did give advance warning, so others like Forbes and WSJ manually blocked these directories to Google before the rollout.

The advice is to remove the offending sections completely. And wait. Even though the penalty is directed at the offending section, there is a flow on to the signals from the rest of the site, so an overall drop is experienced.

As Dr Pete Myers said in his post on Moz: “Regardless of how we feel about the outcome, this was not an empty threat, and SEOs need to take Google’s new guidelines seriously.”


There is a constant tension between SEO practitioners who play by the rules, who don’t look for tricks to hack results and those who are prepared to risk clients and their businesses in the quest for fast, big results.

I have had prospective clients refer to what we do as “the dark arts” or our “magic trick box”. Suffice it to say, we don’t work with those two armchair experts.

Google protects its massive market share.

It is a constant cat-and-mouse game with unscrupulous SEOs and hackers.

Sometimes, Google’s hammer is actually a cluster bomb, not a sledgehammer (yes, I said bomb). 

There is always collateral damage with any major update.

Google is heading into a new world of AI, where they may not be at the top of the game, which I think terrifies some at the top.

So they are reacting and they are reacting in some ways that are damaging to the quality of their product. It must be tough working in the Search Quality Division right now.

To you, I have this to say.

If you have indulged in any tactics for your website that don’t feel natural and could be seen as spammy, you definitely should reverse course. If you work with an agency that is not transparent about its approach, philosophy, and methodology, you should probably rethink your relationship. 

If your business is damaged, your agency will not come to the rescue if they have been using manipulative tactics.

I have said this many times to clients and partners:

  • Always create content for your ideal human user
  • Ensure all content has a high level of uniqueness and originality
  • Build your reputation offline as well as online
  • Optimise for Google but not too much
  • Keywords are your guide, exact match is folly
  • Make sure your website is a high-performance asset
  • Eliminate errors and search robot crawling issues
  • Think about user experience, the customer journey and measurement
  • Be in for the long game

I hope you have found this guide useful.

We have spent almost 20 years studying search engines, social media platforms, content and digital marketing. We firmly believe the only approach to digital marketing is an ethical, informed one. Our approach is more about deep analysis, developing customised strategies and bringing the best combination of experts together to achieve optimum results.

But we don’t promise huge results, fast. What we do promise is that we care about you as a client and we celebrate your successes with you. We know it takes hard work and time, and we are always clear about that.

Thanks for reading. If you want to discuss your project, feel free to book a consultation using the button under my author profile. While you are here, you can subscribe to future posts.

Thank you. Ngā mihi.