There’s an epidemic in the SEO industry, and it won’t go away. For years, and what will be years to come, people have been producing low-quality content for Google bots and muddying the search results.
Google’s primary purpose is to produce the best experience for users using their service. In the case of search results, this means providing the answer to a user’s question, the item they’ve been searching for or the most relevant service provider. Google succeeds when this user takes as few clicks as possible to be satisfied with the result of their search. There’s been a shift in sentiment recently that Google is getting worse at their goal, and more and more ‘fluff’ is rising to the top of results. Ultimately, I do think that Google is still (mostly) succeeding but is fighting a losing battle with spam and has over-saturated the results with ads.
But how do people interact with search results, and is Google doing a good job of matching their results to the user’s intent? There are some key takeaways from a recent survey done by Backlinko, which offers some interesting insights:
Only 9% of Google searchers make it to the bottom of the first page
Only 17% of users bounced back to the search results
The majority (59%) of Google users visit a single page
19% of searchers click on a Google Ad during their search.
This study, which kept keywords quite broad, certainly suggests that the majority of users are quickly and efficiently finding what they are looking for. But what does this mean for us as SEOs? Mostly it means that when it comes to results for our clients, it’s first page or broke. But why are users reporting that Google isn’t matching their intent as well as it used to?
Here are two Reddit threads, with over 200 commenters in each, mostly agreeing and discussing the decrease in quality. A quick search for “Google worse - Reddit” shows many more threads in the same vein within the last 12 months.
There’s plenty more negative sentiment, but a couple I’ve hand-picked include:
“past the first 3-5 results, the rest will be slightly altered versions of the exact same thing”
“Its goal is not to get you the best answer but to monetize your enquiry. “
So where does Google fall down? My theory is that search quality rapidly decreases the more long-tail the search. A long-tail search is a query that is usually intentional and consists of 3+ keywords, usually presented as questions. These are particularly searches where users are not interested in ads, and not finding the answer to a question quickly can be more frustrating. A 2017 survey from a keyword tool HitTail showed that over 70% of all searches done on Google were long-tail. And this is where I’ve seen the most gamification of search results.
It’s not uncommon to see SEOs bragging on LinkedIn showcasing their case studies presenting the gamification of long-tail search. One study presents the method of using a script to crawl all of the suggested questions and FAQs on Google and using scaled AI to generate content for each of them (x100,000). These low-quality content methods then proudly show websites from going 0-100K clicks in a matter of 6 months, only to leave out the traffic drop in subsequent months as Google catches up with them.
This is a dramatic example of the kind of thing that can be done to make a quick buck, but it does highlight a huge flaw in Google’s algorithm in that they are fighting an endless battle with spam. I think the whole SEO industry is contributing to this from the bottom to the top, no matter how positive our intent. And it all stems from the SEO ethos of making data-informed decisions.
What is the official stance, and why do we get confused as SEOs
The Google guidelines officially say, “Google's automated ranking systems are designed to present helpful, reliable information that's primarily created to benefit people, not to gain search engine rankings in the top Search results.” For SEOs, it’s quite ironic that this is the first line of the Google guidelines on creating content because the whole industry has a primary purpose of increasing traffic through Google.
So there’s been a shift (for the last decade) in the SEO industry to create better content for the user, but the ultimate goal will still always be to get that piece of content as high up in search results as possible. But this isn’t all bad. We can take merit from the SEO industry trying to improve their website content and online experiences because this will make everybody’s websites better at the end of the day.
How do we know what content is better for the user?
Keywords. You can speak to anybody in the SEO industry, and you won’t get 5 minutes into a conversation before they are mentioned. Before we start creating content, we need to know what people are looking for. You can write the best piece of copy ever created, but if there isn’t anybody searching for it, more specifically, the keywords within it, it will never get found.
This is another reason that I think there’s such a difference in the quality between the highly searched keywords and long-tail. Every SEO and his dog have found the keywords that they want to show for and got to work creating the best content they can for them. High search volume keywords are highlight optimised and have improved user journeys, whereas the long-tail is (mostly) forgotten about.
The base of most SEO strategies is to look at the search results for target keywords and to reverse-engineer the ranking factors. When SEOs look at the websites at the top of the results they end up recreating them, leading to the rise of copy-cat pages, further bloating search results.
Let’s stick a bunch of links here
Have you ever tried to read a piece of content and noticed there is a hyperlink every other sentence? As SEOs, we’re told the importance of adding hyperlinks to anchor text. The strategy behind this is that we’re signalling to Google which keywords relate to which pages. It’s very easy to forget that we should be adding hyperlinks to content only if they benefit the user and make sense within the content. You’ll notice that the majority of links added to this article are used as references for sources (which are helpful); it’s much more strange to sledgehammer in a link to web design.
But again, we hit the issue of whether we’re doing something for the user or for Google. It’s well known that Google bot uses hyperlinks to find pages and build connections and semantic meaning between them (this means Google is looking at the anchor text you add a hyperlink to and using this to understand what the page is talking about). Without these internal links, you won’t get very far with an SEO strategy.
And it gets much more confusing when we think about web authority and SEO backlinks. It’s well known that people have been creating blog spam and link networks (PBNs) in order to game Google’s algorithms, and frustratingly, there are cases of this still working evening in 2023. Google is doing its best to catch up with these dodgy black-hat methods, and we recommend you steer well away from them, but it’s another case of SEO-added spam to the search results.
2024 and onward
With the rise of generative AI, such as chatGPT and Google Bard, I predict that we’re heading into a sea of spam, and Google’s ship has some pretty big leaks. The general landscape likely won’t change very quickly for big target keywords, with Google still relying on serving up good user experiences. However, looking at long-tail keywords is where we will start the see the largest shift.
Firstly, Google and Bing are trying to replace long-tail searches with AI-generated answers. The idea here is that if you are searching for an answer to a question, if the AI can solve this for you, they can simply do this in search results without the need to send you to a different site. The issue here is that the jury is still out on whether AI content can be trusted as a source, we’ve seen many cases of AI’s simply making up things and getting variable facts completely wrong. Unfortunately, it seems that the SEO spammers have already beaten Google and Bing to producing lots of AI generated content for long-tail keywords.
Moving out of the SEO world, these AI tools will give non-marketers and non-content savvy people the ability to quickly produce content. I’d expect many business owners to jump on the AI bandwagon and start producing content using AI. All will fall into the trap of having similar content produced and not being ‘helpful, reliable information’ (see Google’s guidelines earlier). Maybe Google and Bing will get ahead of all of this, but for now, spam is here to stay.