What does Google’s March 2024 CORE UPDATE mean?

Meme: SEOs when Google announces the Next Google Core Update

Google’s algorithm updates roughly 600 TIMES A YEAR – or twice a day (on average).

These frequent alterations are governed by small automated tweaks, which aim to refine the results to maintain quality, like movements of the steering wheel while driving continuously along a rod-straight highway.

But, like driving down that highway, the road is actually never straight; there are changes in terrain, outside influences, cross winds and other unknowable factors that may come along.

Eventually, all these minor aberrations combine to throw the results out BIG TIME. Getting back on track requires a course correction – we know them as Core Updates. They happen around four or five times a year.

Lately, there has been much criticism that Google’s search results have been substantially declining in quality. Much of this is because of Artificial Intelligence being used by websites to try to boost rankings  artificially, by producing large amounts of content – either fully automatically, or guiding human producers – aimed purely at search engines.

Perhaps the last time a decline as bad as this happened, Google launched Semantic Search with Hummingbird in 2013, which changed the face of SEO: no longer was it good enough to stuff a page full of keywords and all their variations or mis-spellings, websites had to show they knew what they were talking about. Today, you can search for a keyword, and find the results you are goven don’t even contain it.

Since the mid-noughties, the science of SEO has rapidly developed, not least because Google itself has literally spent billions of dollars on ways of defining the best result for every search, including hiring military super computers to crunch the numbers. However, the advent of cheap, widely-available AI has once again given website owners the opportunity to “chase the algorithm”.

Rival search engine Bing has already incorporated AI platform ChatGPT into its results – to limited success, and earlier this year, Google took the brave decision NOT to incorporate the engine behind its own AI, Gemini (formerly Bard), into the SERPs. Surely Google had hoped to “fight fire with fire” by weeding out the lates AI clutter with a “hunter/killer” AI. But that never happened. 

Which brings us to the March Core Update – with its profound changes to the core ranking algorithm and other systems – as a response to the “AI menace” 

Chris Nelson from Google’s Search Quality team told a respected industry source this week that the March Update was “more complex” than usual, including “changes to multiple core systems”.

It seems this also includes the transition of the algorithm review system itself from a semi-monthly basis to continuous update. This is a significant indicator of behind-the-scenes developments and often signals big updates to Google’s underlying infrastructure – software or hardware. This was the case with Hummingbird.

Prime among the new targets is an old faithful – spam – which Google believes is once more skewing results badly and impacting search quality.

Changes revealed in documentation released this week include:

  1. De-emphasis of Links:
    Google recently has already declared that inbound links “no longer feature in the top 3 ranking signals” , and now describes links only as a “factor in determining the relevancy of web pages”. They used to say “important factor”. There seems to be a renewed focus against “creating low-value content primarily for the purposes of manipulating linking and ranking signals”, targeting “paid” links where a network of sites is created simply for the purpose of pointing links from contextually relevant pages, aka Private Blog Networks (PBNs). Since there are literally hundreds (if not 1000s) of factors in today’s algorithm, not being in the top 30 – let alone the top 3 – does not affect the relative importance of inbound links to modern SEO. What is more important is that a site is less and less likely to rank well purely by link building, which had been possible until quite recently.
  2. Content Created For Link Manipulation:
    This update rolls up the functions of last September’s Helpful Content update. In short, you should create helpful content for people and not simply to rank in search engines. The new guidelines update the old “spammy automatically-generated content” policy that now goes beyond just “spammy auto-generated content” to include any method of producing content at scale for the purpose of ranking in search – including humans – which Google stresses is against its guidelines, add: “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.”
  3. New Signals Related To Outgoing Links:
    This element targets what some call “Parasite SEO”, where third-party sites host low-quality content with poor relevance to piggyback on the ranking power of third-party websites. This is a technique much beloved of sites flogging ED drugs and other dodgy wares. We often discover links such as these in our toxic link sweeps of clients. Google explains: “Such content ranking highly in search can confuse or mislead visitors who may have vastly different expectations for the content on a given website.” However, the new policy doesn’t consider all third-party content to be a violation, “only that which is hosted without close oversight and which is intended to manipulate SERPs.” The new rules will be phased in from May 5, so if you’re doing this, be warned.
  4. New Expired Domains Signal:
    The practice of buying an expired domain and repurposing it to take advantage of existing SEO value will be frowned upon in the future, especially if the new site does not closely match the old one.

Google says this complicated Core Update will take at least a month to roll out, and since “no plan survives its first contact with the enemy”, expect tweaks, adjustments (even perhaps back-tracks and U-turns) as the days and weeks pass. 

TL;DR:

  • CONTENT IS STILL KING but it must be of quality and usefulness – emphasis on actually answering questions, not using questions as a hook to snag traffic.
  • IN-BOUND LINKS ARE NOT A MAGIC BULLET SOLUTION – while they will certainly assist great SERPs they must be only part of a content-based SEO plan.
  • PIGGYBACKING ON OTHER SITES’ REPUTATIONS – via irrelevant outbound links or buying up old expired domains – will now be a negative ranking factor. There is no upside.

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