Key Takeaways From Google’s March 2024 Spam Content Update

Google search results on a laptop screen
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When it comes to Googling a question we need answers to, there’s nothing more frustrating than clicking on a link that purports to have those answers, only to read an entire page or blog post and find that it provides no information whatsoever. Google’s March 2024 Search algorithm update is the latest in their fight against websites and pages that do just that. They’ve also updated their spam content policies to further minimize the impact of unhelpful and malicious web pages.

Building on the 2022 Helpful Content Update, Google’s March 2024 core update includes upgrades to their search algorithm that aim to reward content that was written for people, providing them with answers to their questions, by elevating it to the top of search results and removing or suppressing content that was produced for search engines, i.e., what they refer to as “low-quality, unoriginal results.” How does Google’s algorithm separate helpful from unhelpful content? What kind of spam content is the latest to be added to their “new and improved spam policies?” Let’s get into it.

Quick Summary of What’s Changed With Google’s March 2024 Updates

According to their web creator’s blog, the Google March 2024 core update is more involved than their regular updates, as this one improved several core systems, including enhancements to Google Search ranking systems. Since the Helpful Content update and subsequent Google search updates in 2023, their core ranking system has evolved to use various signals and systems to identify ‘helpful’ content to prioritize in search results.

Google also augmented their spam policies in response to the growing issues of:

  • Site reputation abuse
  • Expired domain abuse
  • Scaled content abuse

Aided by the AI revolution, Google has seen a recent rise in these methods of gaming the system to increase a website’s rank in search results. The updated policy on site reputation abuse doesn’t come into effect until May 5, 2024, however, to give site owners the opportunity to conduct an SEO site audit and address content or pages they host that may violate the new policy.

The rollout of this latest algorithm update began March 5, 2024, and is expected to take about a month. You can check the status of the update on the Google Search Status Dashboard to find out when the update is complete.

A Closer Look Google’s Updated Spam Policies

The  following are explanations of the latest practices added to Google’s spam content definitions with their March 2024 update:

Site Reputation Abuse

Google’s definition of site reputation abuse is when content created by a third party is posted on a website with little to no oversight by the site owner, and that content is irrelevant and/or unhelpful to users who normally visit that site. These pages are usually created solely to manipulate search rankings. It’s a tactic used by either the hosting site, the content creator or both to avoid the work and relationship-building that goes into a proper link-building campaign.

In the announcement of the March 2024 updated content spam policies, Google made it clear they understand that sites publish promotional blog posts and articles as part of the web economy and are not targeting these ‘advertorials’ or ‘native content.’

This updated spam policy is a great reminder that cutting corners on fundamental work that needs to be done in any job usually ends up costing you more in the end. Partner with a reputable SEO company that provides professional SEO link-building services to ensure you a) don’t violate spam policies and, b) maximize the effectiveness of your link-building campaigns. Well-crafted, helpful content posted to quality sites provides valuable links pointing back to your own website – a crucial component of improving your website’s search engine rankings.

Expired Domain Abuse

Expired domain abuse happens when someone buys a domain name that was not renewed by the previous owner of a well-trafficked site, likely one that has good domain authority. They use its existing traffic, backlinks, search rankings, and desirable reputation to manipulate searchers into visiting unrelated, unhelpful content or malicious sites to get around Google’s spam detection and helpful content systems.

Shady man wearing sunglasses in front of a laptop

Scaled Content Abuse

Google’s spam policy regarding automated content has always been that any content, whether produced by human, machine, or a combination of both, that was solely created to rank well in search results and is unhelpful to their users is considered spam.   This updated policy, however, specifies content created at scale as a direct response to spammers pumping out a massive amount of web pages with the help of mainstream generative AI tools like ChatGPT. These pages contain low-quality content that provides little to no information or value to a searcher and are created to boost a website’s search rankings.It’s important to note, however, the difference between automated spam content and automated content that’s just unhelpful. When done to manipulate search results, it’s considered spam that can get all or part of your website removed from Google search results. However, relying on AI to write blog posts and web pages containing generic, superficial content might not get you de-listed from Google, but it will eventually get your website classified as unhelpful and negatively impact your search rankings – especially in light of this latest algorithm update and the more sophisticated iterations to come.

Other Forms of Spam Content

As a reminder, here’s a brief summary of a few common forms of content and website behaviours that violate Google’s spam content policies:

  • Hacked Content. Hackers sometimes exploit a website’s security flaws to achieve their ultimate goal of gaining people’s personal information. They do this by injecting code into a website’s existing pages, adding fake pages, or redirecting traffic to a malicious site. If your website is hacked, however, violating Google’s spam policies is likely low-priority on your list of concerns.
  • Malware and Viruses. Pages that contain malicious programs that either harm a device, download unwanted programs to it, change its settings, or collect or leak personal information are removed from Google search results. If you host downloadable programs, confirm they’re not bundled with applications that violate Google’s Unwanted Software Policy. It’s also a good idea to check all downloadable files on your site to ensure their safety and that all your website pages meet the thresholds established in the Google Page Speed Update.
  • Sneaky Redirects. Some websites show pages and URLs in search results that send users to a different URL and website when they click the link to trick them into visiting their pages.
  • Hidden Texts or Links. Another trick that violates Google’s spam policies is the act of hiding text or links on a webpage that are unrelated to the subject matter and would seem out of place to a visitor of the site. The text or links are added to help the page’s search rankings and is formatted to be invisible to users.
  • Keyword Stuffing. As the name implies, this is the practice of constantly repeating a keyword on a web page to try and rank for it, making it unreadable or nonsensical. This also applies to pages that contain large blocks of numbers or lists of geographic locations.
  • Scraped Content. Any content – text, videos, images, etc., taken from websites or platforms that is simply posted to another website with minimal or no changes made to it and without any further insights or information is considered spam content.
  • Thin Affiliate Pages. This refers to pages that contain affiliate links to product or service providers, where the product descriptions or user reviews are copied from the provider’s site. Affiliate pages that include your own reviews or product information aren’t considered ‘thin’ or spam content.
  • User-generated Spam. If you host a forum or file-sharing platform, or your site contains pages with comments sections, you must constantly be on the lookout for spammy comments, links, or files uploaded by users. 

Google systems flagging one of your pages and a human reviewer determining that it violates their spam policies can result in a manual action that will cause some or all of your site to be removed from Google search results. They’ll also notify you of the manual action on your Google Dashboard and provide you with instructions and resources for addressing the classification.

Google’s March 2024 core update to the Search algorithm and how it affects search rankings is also a concern for website and business owners.

Google search page on a laptop screen

Breaking Down the Effects of Google’s March 2024 Core Update

Google’s March 2024 Core Update signifies a significant step in their mission to provide user-oriented, helpful content while reducing the visibility of unoriginal, spammy, and uninformative pages. This update to the Search algorithm is designed to refine Google’s ability to identify content created primarily for search engine rankings instead of genuinely assisting users, ensuring searchers are connected with high-quality websites. As an aside, trying to optimize your content for search engines is one of many common and ineffective link-building myths.

It’s worth noting that Google is integrating the “helpful content system” directly into the core systems, meaning that future core updates will automatically include upgrades to the search engine’s mechanism for distinguishing between content written for people and algorithm-driven content. As with many Google core updates, fluctuations in website rankings should be expected as search results adjust in response.

How Google Assesses Content Helpfulness

Here’s a quick summary of Google’s guidelines for creating “helpful content.”

  1. Understanding User Intent. This is about aligning content with what users are actively searching for. Whether they’re looking for advice, products, or services, your content should directly address these needs, providing users with exactly what they’re looking for without unnecessary detours.
  2. Comprehensiveness and Originality. Google values content that provides a thorough insight into the topic at hand. Also, don’t ever mimic existing content. Present new information or perspectives that enrich a searcher’s understanding of the subject.
  3. Authority and Credibility. For sensitive topics where inaccurate information could adversely affect readers’ health, financial stability, or safety, demonstrating knowledge and reliability is paramount. Authentic information, backed by credible sources, contributes significantly to the content’s value. Google summarizes this principle with the acronym EEAT and values SEO content writing, which demonstrates that it was written by someone with experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.
  4. Clarity and Simplicity. Information should be presented in a clear, accessible way. It’s about breaking down complex ideas into digestible pieces, making sure the language is easy for the target audience to understand.
  5. Engagement and Layout. An engaging presentation that holds a user’s attention is also important. This includes using relevant images, interactive elements, and an organized structure to enhance readability and keep users engaged.
  6. Optimization for Mobile. Given the shift towards mobile browsing, your content must perform seamlessly across different devices. Mobile optimization ensures accessibility and a better user experience, factors Google takes seriously.
  7. Website Performance. Aspects like quick loading times and secure HTTPS connections affect a site’s user experience and, by extension, its helpfulness. Efficient, secure websites are more likely to rank better.
  8. Honesty and Transparency. Steer clear of misleading, clickbait headlines or unnecessary advertisements that detract from the main content. Honesty in content creation and presentation is crucial for gaining user and Google trust.

In short, Google’s benchmark for “helpful content” has remained consistent. They prioritize content that answers user questions, enhances their knowledge, or solves their problems effectively and efficiently.

The word Audience written on a whiteboard with arrows pointing to it

Crucial Google Search Ranking Factors

Google’s testing process and rating guidelines are vital components impacting how the search engine delivers relevant and high-quality results to its users. This is how they work in a nutshell.

Search Algorithm Testing

Before Google implements changes to its Search algorithm, it conducts rigorous testing to determine the potential impact on search results. This involves A/B testing, where two versions of search results are shown to different groups of users. The performance of these variations is analyzed based on user interaction data, like click-through rates and session duration.

Google uses these tests to gauge whether new algorithm changes improve the relevance and quality of search results. Typically, thousands of these tests are run every year to ensure that adjustments are beneficial to a user’s search experience.

Quality Raters and Guidelines

Google employs a team of quality raters — third-party individuals who assess the quality of search results based on specific guidelines they provide. These guidelines offer a detailed framework for evaluating webpage quality, focusing on EEAT factors as well as a website’s overall user experience.

The data from quality raters do not directly influence search rankings; Google uses it to understand how changes to the algorithm might impact the user experience. It helps them identify weaknesses in their search results and confirm that algorithm updates align with the goal of providing users with relevant, reliable, and useful information.

Search Quality Rater Guidelines are publicly available and provide insights into what Google considers high-quality content – a valuable tool for content creators and SEO professionals to understand how to create and optimize content that aligns with Google’s quality expectations. Adhering to these standards can improve your chances of ranking well in search results.

What to do if Your Website’s Search Rankings are Affected by the March 2024 Core Update

If a Google update negatively impacts your website rankings, don’t panic; fluctuations in rankings can be normal after a major update. Give it some time for the changes to settle and for your website’s rankings to stabilize.

That said, however, if you start noticing that previously lower-ranking competitors are performing better post-update or have passed you in search rankings, learn from them. Analyze and understand what they are doing differently or better. Look for patterns in the types of content, user experience, and other factors that may be contributing to their success.

A sheet of paper in a typewriter with the phrase Google Core Update typed on it

Other ways you can look to improve your website’s search rankings include:

Auditing Your Content. Review your content against Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines. Ensure that your pages provide value to users and exhibit expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.

Analyzing User Experience. Use tools like Google’s PageSpeed Insights and Mobile-Friendly Test to find and fix issues with your website’s usability, mobile-friendliness, page speed, and security settings.

Evaluating Your Backlink Profile. Assess your backlink profile for low-quality or spammy links that could be affecting your site’s trustworthiness. Use tools like Google Search Console to identify and disavow harmful backlinks.

Monitoring Search Performance. Keep an eye on your site’s performance in Google Search Console. Look for trends in impressions, clicks, and rankings to identify which pages have lost traffic and look for possible reasons why they might be underperforming.

Improving and Refreshing Your Content. Update existing content to ensure it is comprehensive, still factually accurate and relevant, and serves a user’s search intent. Consider adding new, high-quality pages that address gaps in your current content or emerging user needs.

Engaging Your Community. Use social media, email newsletters, and other platforms to maintain engagement with your audience. This can help drive direct traffic to your site and reduce your dependency on organic search visitors while you recover.

Staying Informed. Keep up-to-date with Google’s guidelines and industry best practices. SEO is an ever-evolving field, and staying informed can help you adjust your strategies proactively.

Being Patient and Persistent. Recovery from a core update can take time. In some cases, significant improvement might not be visible until after the next update. Continue to refine and improve your website, focusing on providing the best possible experience and value for users.

Implementing these strategies, especially with a proven SEO specialist in Toronto, can help mitigate the impact of the March 2024 and future Google core updates. Remember, the goal is to align your website more closely with Google’s focus on delivering the best user experience and the most relevant, authoritative content to future-proof your website against algorithm updates.

About the Author

Paul Teitelman - SEO Consultant

Paul is a well-respected Canadian SEO consultant and link-building expert with over 15 years of experience helping hundreds of companies rank for competitive keywords on Google. He is a Toronto-based SEO consultant who is passionate about search engine optimization and link building. Over the years, he has made a reputation for himself as a leader in the industry by consistently delivering phenomenal results to his growing client base.