Tiny Bites: Understanding and Reacting to Google Algorithm Updates

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An orange photograph of someone sitting at a laptop with the title of Ewen Finser's episode of the Tiny Bites podcast, 'Understanding and Reacting to Google Algorithm Updates.'

Welcome to Tiny Bites from the Food Blogger Pro Podcast! In this episode of Tiny Bites, Bjork interviews Ewen Finser from Venture 4th Media about the recent Google algorithm updates.

Understanding and Reacting to Google Algorithm Updates

Google has been… very busy in Q3 and Q4 of 2023. If the updates feel nonstop, it’s because they have been:

Some of these updates may impact your site traffic positively, some may impact your site traffic negatively, and some may have no real impact. But every update tends to cause some unease for online creators. So what can you do about them?

What exactly is the Google algorithm and why is it updated?

The Google algorithm is essentially how Google indexes and categorizes all of the content that is published online. You can also think of it as Google’s ever-changing thesis on what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘valuable’ content.

Updates occur in response to new information Google has, tweaks to what they think is valuable, and/or how they measure or evaluate content. The algorithm is constantly changing and evolving.

Google released their most recent Helpful Content Update and used AI to determine if entire sites were helpful or not helpful (while previous updates tended to be on a post-by-post basis). If a certain percentage of your content is deemed unhelpful, your content will be deprioritized in the algorithm. This update did not include rewarding helpful sites, but rather penalizing unhelpful sites.

How should you approach the Google algorithm updates?

The #1 thing you can do to anticipate and respond to Google algorithm updates is to focus on creating high-quality, user-first content. There will be ebbs and flows with every Google update — know that if your traffic goes down with one update, it might go up with the next update. Because of this, it’s important to avoid huge course corrections after updates.

But what if your site was negatively impacted and you can’t figure out why? Ewen has noticed a few takeaways from the recent Google algorithm updates that might explain why:

  • Older sites tend to perform better.
  • Market leaders tend to perform better.
  • User experience with display ads may play a role.
  • Topical relevance matters (i.e. does your content cover too broad of a subject matter? Do you have gaps in your content?)

How should you respond to Google algorithm updates?

The first thing to do after any update is to let the dust settle. It usually takes two weeks to roll out an update. Wait to change anything on your site so that you can determine that any traffic changes were, in fact, due to the update (and not just a natural ebb or flow).

Ewen shared lots of great tips for reacting to Google updates and creating content that is more resilient when these algorithm updates do come. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Use data (like from Google Analytics) to inform decisions.
  • Experiment and test hypotheses.
  • Understand what your audience wants.
  • Avoid chasing trends that are only working right now.
  • Solve a problem for your audience.
  • Follow SEO best-practices.

If you’re looking for more concrete suggestions for responding to an algorithm update traffic dip, consider:

  • Turning down the ads on your site for a bit, or removing intrusive video ads for a time.
    • See if that change has any effect on user experience and/or site traffic.
  • Filter through your content and consider the posts that aren’t getting any traffic at all.
    • Update those posts if they are relevant to your overall content strategy and have the potential for traffic.
    • Otherwise, delete/redirect.
  • Look at your inventory to assess where you have big gaps in content.
  • Consider diversifying your traffic sources (email, social, etc.).

Last, but not least, check out this guide from Google with questions to ask yourself to help you uncover potential opportunities for improving your content.

Thanks, again, to Ewen for joining us on the podcast. We hope this episode provided some additional context, guidance, and encouragement when it comes to Google algorithm updates.

Learn more:

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].

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Transcript (click to expand):

Emily Walker: Hey there. This is Emily from the Food Blogger Pro team, and you’re listening to Tiny Bites from the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. As a reminder, Tiny Bites is our news or current events based podcast that we release whenever we feel like we need to get an episode out as quickly as possible. With all of the Google algorithm updates recently, we felt like we just needed to get an episode out to our listeners to chat about what these updates are, how you can best approach them for your food blog, and just what your mindset should be around all of these different helpful content updates and other algorithm updates.

Bjork is chatting with Ewen Finser all about these Google algorithm updates, and it’s a really useful episode that we know you’ll get a lot out of. As a reminder, head to foodbloggerpro.com/podcast to check out the show notes where we’ll include some links and other helpful information with just some more detail about everything that they chat about during this episode. So without further ado, I’ll let Bjork take it away.

Bjork Ostrom: Ewen, welcome to the podcast.

Ewen Finser: Thanks, Bjork. Great to be back, I guess. It’s I think the second or third time I’ve been with you and with your audience.

Bjork Ostrom: We have these conversations, just you and I. Like for instance, in the Las Vegas airport when we ran into each other after going to a conference, Rhodium. And the great thing is we get to capture it and roll it up and send it out to thousands of people. And it’s great because you have this deep expertise in this world of content creation. And the nice thing about having a conversation with you is it’s outside of just the food space. You know the food space, familiar with it, but really you know content creation at large because you’ve done it in multiple different niches.

And so what we’re going to do, I’d love to hear a little bit about your background, and then we’re going to jump in and focus really specifically around Google algorithm updates, knowing that there’s a lot of people who listen to this that have been impacted, some positive, some negative by the recent one. But you know this world well because you know content and you know content production and you know digital content really well. Can you talk about why that is and your brief overview of the world of online businesses and content businesses?

Ewen Finser: Sure. Well, I’ve been stuck in this world for 10 years now.

Bjork Ostrom: And you can’t get out.

Ewen Finser: With a couple websites that hit and then over time launched a couple more, built up the team, and then kind of stumbled into a media company accidentally. And then I think another turning point was probably 2017, 2018, we had some significant exits and then was-

Bjork Ostrom: Exits meaning you had built some sites over the last three to four years.

Ewen Finser: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: They were doing well enough that you were able to sell those for a significant amount.

Ewen Finser: Yes.

Bjork Ostrom: So you kind of had this influx of capital.

Ewen Finser: Sure, yeah. And this was a great outcome. It was beyond what I’d ever expect was possible in the space. And then had this time to reflect on what I wanted to do. And through that was turned on to this idea of, well, scale really, because once you have an exit, you look at what do you want to do? Can we do it again in different verticals? And so we kind of went about, both within our core company, which is Venture 4th Media, it’s our holding company, we started launching new sites. And then raising some external capital from investors. And we have done that in various iterations, really focusing on this idea of ground up versus acquisitions and having done a little bit of both and realized that the grass is always greener, right? But having built and bought, really kind of understood the unit economics around building.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Ewen Finser: And so we kind of set out with a bunch of different theses around verticals we wanted to get into. We used external capital to scale those from zero, and we’ve entered all sorts of verticals from gaming to fashion, to pets to tech. You name it, we probably have a site in a vertical that you’re familiar with. But really with this idea of let’s throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks and then double down on stuff that sticks. And so that’s kind of like our mantra is fire bullets, then cannonballs. Always be testing. We launch a bunch of sites all at once in a big cohort and then try to analyze the data and figure out which ones are working and double down on them.

And so I’d say the last five years has been focused on this thesis of how do we achieve scale? We’ve built tech platform to support our content process. We’ve built out our content teams with hiring writers and working with creatives, our design chops, all the stuff that you need to scale. And so today we’re kind of at this juncture where we have a lot of different sites out there in the wild. Some have matured very nicely, others that didn’t survive, and that’s okay, and a whole bunch of in the middle of that spectrum. Yeah, that’s primarily I guess on our monetization sites, affiliate and display ads. And we do some sponsorships as well, but essentially that’s what we have. It’s over a hundred different websites across these different portfolio companies that we operate.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. If I can say that back to you, let me know if this feels accurate. Venture 4th Media, it’s kind this company at the top, and this is a company that you own. It’s all content sites, so you produce content, but the interesting thing that’s maybe a little bit of a contrast for probably the majority of people who listen to this podcast is you take the approach not of going in. You aren’t creating content for a hundred different sites. You’re strategizing at the high level and saying, “Hey, we think there’s an opportunity in whatever niche it is, pets. Okay, let’s look at this category and think about what are the different categories underneath that we can create pet sites for.” Maybe it’s like you discover the opportunity to create a Dalmatian site and you focus in on Dalmatians and it’s dalmatianlovers.com, and then you go and you find Dalmatian lovers to create that content. And so they have to know dalmatians and they have to be good writers.

Your strategy is a lot around understanding an audience, understanding opportunity, creating systems around working with writers, bringing those people in and scaling those up. I think the thing that’s interesting about your role specifically is that a huge part of it is search and analyzing opportunities that you see using tools like Semrush, Ahrefs, these keyword analysis tools that give you a little bit of an insight into how people are searching online to find opportunities. And from the ground up, these sites don’t exist. You’re not acquiring them from the ground up, building them to get enough search traffic to make them into these valuable sites that you either keep and they cash flow and then you use that money to build other sites or to sell them because as we all know, a business is an asset and that’s a valuable thing and people would want to buy that. So does that feel like an accurate reflection of the landscape for you and Venture 4th?

Ewen Finser: Yes, I think that’s what differentiates us. Of course, we do some acquisitions here and there, but that’s not our core competency. It’s kind of bringing these things to life and you’re right, and essentially I kind of think of ourselves today as almost like a platform company in a sense. And then really what we’re about is finding experts. That’s its own skill. Where do you find people that are passionate about dalmatians and then bringing them into the system and training them up to the point where they produce content that is suitable for web audiences. And so really we found that’s been, I guess the secret to the sauce has been finding these experts. That’s the fun part for us is finding these people that are just so passionate about something, but they don’t necessarily have the whole business plan figured out. And so we kind of bring the plan, but we need the experts. And that’s I think, not to spill the tea a little bit on Google, but that’s kind of where they’re headed is experts, right?

Bjork Ostrom: Experts.

Ewen Finser: Who’s creating this content, not just what are the words on the page. And so we’ve found that’s actually the key leverage point for us.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, interesting. And so that’s a good tie into the topic that we’re going to be talking about, which is Google search engines, but really Google, and you kind of alluded to this, and I actually just finished up a conversation with Jeff, MarketMuse, who we both know also from Rhodium, and he was kind of reiterating this idea of the importance of experts, but we know all of these things from different places. We get information, but we really see the impact of those as Google rolls out these updates to their algorithm. And there was recently within… There’s always these algorithm updates. There’s little tiny updates that are happening, but there’s recently some pretty significant ones. Can we just step back and for those who aren’t familiar or are kind of new or maybe haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about search or educating themselves on the world of search, can you talk about what an algorithm update to Google is and what’s happening behind the scenes when those roll out?

Ewen Finser: Yeah, it’s been for 10 years to have seen everything, and I’ve seen this evolve. Essentially, the algorithm is what indexes and categorizes all of the content that gets published out there. And I kind of look at it like Google’s changing thesis on what is good content. Because a lot of times at the ground level for a blogger or sometimes operating one site, you’re like, hey, I lost my first position and it kind of feels unfair. It’s like, who moved my cheese? And it’s Google basically reaffirming a new direction for what they think is valuable. It’s this constant pull of Google projecting in this document called the quality rater guidelines, which is like the gospel. This is what they give individuals who are going to evaluate sites for whether they’re useful and helpful and all those nice things. And they project, this is what we want.

They want people just to publish quality content from out of the goodness of their hearts and do it the right way. But that’s kind of what they’re looking for. But then of course, because it’s an algorithm, there’s this whole SEO community that is on different ends of the spectrum are either following it to the T or they’re experimenting in this grey hat area where they’re gaming the system. And so Google’s in this constant tug of war with the people that are gaming the system, right? And there’s this fine line between SEO best practices and the gamification. And so it’s a whole rabbit hole we can go down, but essentially that’s what these algorithm updates are. They’re in response to some new information that Google has, some updates, some tweaks to what they think is valuable and how they measure that. And that’s kind of the messy part of it is it’s constantly changing, it’s constantly evolving.

Bjork Ostrom: And so you talked about grey hat, these ideas that they’re in the world of search for those who haven’t heard it before, there’s kind of these different hats that you could wear depending on how you approach SEO, white hat, grey hat, black hat. Black hat being like you found something that maybe is in violation of Google’s best practices or recommendations, but it works. And so paying for links would be an example. Paying for follow links would probably be one of those things that lands in the black hat world. But do you have examples of some of those algorithm updates that have happened in the past to help paint the picture of what that functionally looks like, what Google is going for, and then what it looks like when the algorithm update happens?

Ewen Finser: Yeah, back when I was getting started, it was Panda and Penguin. They used to name these updates after animals, and those were essentially targeted at spam and sites that were kind of just mass-generating spun content or using…

Bjork Ostrom: Spun content. Can you explain what that is for people who aren’t familiar?

Ewen Finser: I guess back in the day, and this is actually kind of full circle now with AI, you could use article spinners to just create content that had the keyword density, that had the number of phrases were repeated even to the extreme where you’d see someone publish a piece of content that just had a keyword list. Or if back in the day for the old folks at the end of the article, sometimes you would just put keywords as like, this is what we want to rank for. And Google’s like, okay, but of course that can be gamified. And so all these updates back then it was kind of about that is over-optimization that the SEOs were doing. I think more recently, a couple of years back, there was some Google health updates where they kind of targeted content that was, if you were giving medical advice, they kind of brought the hammer down on sites that didn’t have any business or Google’s eyes didn’t have business dispensing medical advice.

In the past, Ewen could just publish a health blog with medical opinions, and those could actually rank fairly well along with WebMD and all these other more authoritative sources. And so that was…

Bjork Ostrom: One that had maybe doctors fact-checking or writing the articles.

Ewen Finser: Right. And then I think maybe a year and a half ago, two years ago, there is the product review update where Google said, look, a lot of sites out there aren’t actually testing the products. They don’t have firsthand experience. They’re just regurgitating product specs. So that was the update targeting sites that had a preponderance of doing that frequently. And then this most recent helpful content update, which is kind of a further turning of the dial, which is I think I’d almost don’t want to label it quite yet because we’re still processing what it actually means. But in general, it’s kind of like Google is always trying to optimize for better, more helpful, more transparent, more authoritative, all these things are generally where they’re trying to go. They’re just measuring it in different ways and hopefully getting closer to the truth.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And it’s interesting, I’ll use the medic example, and it paints a picture really well of generally speaking, what is Google trying to do? Okay with that update, they were trying to make sure that if a piece of content was about health advice or medical advice, that the person writing it had the authority to speak on that. So it’s not Bjork or even writing about the best ways to recover from knee surgery because we thought it was a keyword opportunity and would rank well. It’s like a knee surgeon, but then the complicating factor is how you, and you kind of alluded to this, how do you distill that down into an algorithm or a process that a computer follows to make that decision on whether this person is an expert or not? And that’s where it gets complex where hey, maybe 90% of the time it’s going to do a good job of saying, this person probably shouldn’t be writing about it, this person should.

But 10% of the time, maybe it was a doctor and they did have complete authority on it, and for whatever reason they got caught up in this algorithm and their content was deprioritized in the search results. So it’s not perfect. It’s also interesting because what happens is these algorithms are pushed out and then people start to experiment and say like, okay, what do I need to do in order to appease this algorithm? And that’s kind of where either best practices or the grey hat comes in where you’re finding what are the opportunities to kind of manipulate or twist or kind of get around this. So what is your approach as you think of content creation serving the algorithm versus serving the user versus just doing the best piece of content that you can imagine?

Ewen Finser: Yeah, I mean it’s a really tricky dilemma. You hit on it. It’s like find the right balance. And I think at one level we kind of look at the horizon, we say, okay, let’s just publish quality content around topics that we think are interesting. And so I kind of lean more in on keyword research and market research to identify gaps in the market and then create topical plans to give to our team and work with our experts to create those plans and then go execute against it, right? In that sense though, I am working with the search engine, right? And I think even with its most recent helpful content update, Google’s said, well, we just want people to come back to this refrain of people should just publish helpful content, but clearly that’s not the way it works. People won’t just wake up one day and say, I want to write about, I don’t know, pottery vases or something.

And they just, oh, let’s write about that randomly. And actually Spencer Haws had a recent, I think article or post or something that kind of went viral around, is blogging dead basically… Or did Google kill blogging? And I think there’s kind this interesting dilemma where if you just bury your head in the sand and say, I’m just going to write whatever I feel like without having any SEO awareness, you’re not going to get very far because you may not be publishing the right content. You might keep doing that for months and months and not have anything to show for it. On the flip side, if you’re kind of over optimizing or really trying to hack your way and just creating the links or the topics that you think Google likes or have low competition or whatever, you can end up getting caught up in these algorithms as even some of our sites have, because even though we’re doing all the right things following the letter of law, we’re not doing any grey hat.

We are using data to inform our decisions. And so sometimes that gets us caught up in updates. And so it’s not a perfect science, but I kind of fall in spectrum of use data to inform your processes. Don’t get too hung up on keyword density or what do you put in the H2, H3, H4, because that tends to change a lot. And so it’s a little bit of a gamble that eventually Google’s going to figure out that your content is high quality. But at the same time, everyone always thinks their content is high. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that says, oh, my content is really bad.

Bjork Ostrom: Right.

Ewen Finser: It’s like you have to constantly reassess what you think is quality content.

Bjork Ostrom: The hard part… In our world, I can speak to this, I don’t know how true you see this to be true is a lot of times it works. You look at an outline that’s generated and you fill that in, maybe it’s even like you fill it in with some AI content. You kind of go the way of these data-driven content creation processes and it works, but then it doesn’t work. You get penalized for it. And so there is this weird art and science of being aware, being aware of what best practices are, being aware of what’s working, but then also, and I think this is at the core, and I would be interested in your response to this. Always trying to think about how is this going to be as best as possible for the person who’s going to consume this content?

Ewen Finser: Yes. I think Google has said that too is right for your audience. And so a hundred percent, I think putting it through that lens of even I’m constantly reminded of this when I go to search for some of my articles on my mobile device and be like, a lot of us might use Mediavine or Ad Thrive, and you’re like, oh man, all those ads, this videos popping up. You’re like, wait, is that really the best experience? And so that is a really good forcing function, right? And at the same time, to your point, we still have to use data to inform where we go. And so yeah, it is this constant. And so one of my approaches is just to experiment. And so we have a bucket of sites we call the skunk works where we just try different things, black hat, grey hat, white hat, just to test a hypothesis, or if we do this, we publish AI content, what does that do? But we don’t test that out on our babies. We do that kind of off to the side.

And for the sites we’re really focused on, we try to really invest in that high-quality content that really serves the user. But yeah, it’s a tricky balance and there’s no easy answer where you can just say, oh, that’s it. That’s the way.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. And it’s hard when you see somebody doing it and it works, but it feels like, wait, is that actually the best way to create content in the world? And maybe it is, maybe that’s the answer, but also a lot of times it works for a season, article spinning as an example. I guess the point is this. If there’s two things that you could chase, you could chase the trend that’s working or you could chase an understanding of your audience and content that resonates and problem solving, which is an abstract skill, and then kind of putting the exoskeleton around that of SEO best practices. That to me feels like the solution and it’s still not perfect. But generally speaking, it’s like human first. It’s understanding your audience, building around them and then saying, what are best practices from an SEO standpoint, technical type considerations.

Ewen Finser: And I think AI is a perfect kind of corollary for this because it’s this marriage of deep subject matter expertise with powerful tools. That’s where massive growth can happen. And so for someone who’s not familiar with the subject, if you pop it into some Chat GPT, you’ll get an article or you’ll get some words on a page that read well, and it sounds credible. It’s like that person at the dinner party who knows a little bit about everything. But if you poke under the surface a little bit and if you had that experience or that context or that expert in the room, they would immediately poke holes in that article. And so that’s kind of where the interesting part comes where if I were to use Chat GPT for, I don’t know, some digital marketing topic that I know about or I’m gluten-free so I know a lot about that.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Ewen Finser: If I were to use Chat GPT to create an article on that, it would be relatively easy for me to spot the inconsistencies, but also to leverage it to do certain things where I’m like, okay, it can do that. It can do that for me. It can be kind of an assistant, but I’m not relying on it for everything. And I think on either extreme, that’s where things can fall down, where you’re just publishing… We come across this all the time with some clients we’ve worked with where they’ve been publishing great content, they’re putting their heart and soul into it, but there’s been no exoskeleton to your point.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ewen Finser: And so it’s just very disorganized and it needs some of that tightening up from an SEO perspective, maybe internally linking better or having a better category hierarchy structure. And the flip side, there’s all sorts of AI sites in the wild that are just very well interlinked, but a ton of kind of spun sites where they don’t pass the smell test for an expert. And so both ends of those spectrums I think have problems, and it’s the people who could find that happy balance between those two that are going to have a lot of success right now and in the years ahead.

Bjork Ostrom: Yep. So helpful content update. Can you talk a little bit about what happened with that? And then I’d be interested to hear your reflections on what happens if you’re negatively impacted, what do you do? What was it, what happened? And then how do you respond?

Ewen Finser: Yeah, and also with the end in mind, the first thing we do after any update rolls out is nothing because-

Bjork Ostrom: Let the dust settle essentially.

Ewen Finser: We let the dust settle, particularly because these updates usually take about two weeks to roll out completely. And so some of what happens at the front end isn’t what ends up happening at the end or you’ll dip down and come back, or even this most recent update is very confusing. There was the helpful content update, and then there’s a core algorithm update and a spam update right in between. In a period of a month, really end of September through October, there were these three updates that rolled out. And so the problem becomes correlation causality. It’s like, well, this happened, so maybe, but what caused it exactly? And if you start messing with the dials too quickly, it’ll be very hard to determine, well, was that just a natural bounce? And we’ve had sites where they’ve been negatively impacted initially or even with one update two years ago, and all of a sudden with helpful content, they start bouncing back and we didn’t do anything to those sites.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. So that’s like you didn’t change anything. It was just like Google-

Ewen Finser: Google turning the dial.

Bjork Ostrom: Fine tuning. Yeah.

Ewen Finser: And so we got in the zone of happiness or whatever, and then we got lucky. And so that’s the first thing we do is just assess the situation.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure.

Ewen Finser: And then, yeah, so the helpful content update was really just a further fine tuning of this Google update algorithm discussion dialogue that’s been happening for years. And I think the difference for this, we talked like Jeff Coyle would be them using AI now as a classifier within their algorithm to make labels essentially about sites in general. Is this a helpful site or is this an unhelpful site? And so it’s kind of a site-wide classifier. I think that’s the big change in past updates where maybe in past algorithm updates you might have some of your articles were impacted, but not all of your site. This one was basically Google coming in and having this classifier saying the majority of your content is not helpful. Therefore, we’re going to kind of deprioritize anything your site publishes. And there’s been a couple interesting case studies here, and maybe I’ll send over a couple of them that I’ve seen where they’ve been trying to dig into really understand, well, what does it actually mean at a fundamental level. It’s all theories. Google’s always going to say, well, helpful content, that sounds great, but in reality, what does that actually mean?

And essentially, if a certain percentage of your content is deemed unhelpful, you’ll get kind of deprioritized so that for some of those sites that could be like 70% reduction, 80% reduction.

Bjork Ostrom: In traffic.

Ewen Finser: In traffic.

Bjork Ostrom: Have you seen that or know people what happened-

Ewen Finser: Yes, we do have some sites that did see that, but then complicating that there’s also… This was kind of a negative update. It wasn’t Google rewarding helpful sites. It was Google classifying unhelpful sites, whatever they thought. And again, so what they think or what their algorithm determines is unhelpful. And so you could have just been actually not impacted, but because of the changing in the SERPs, you could have seen some impacts. Right? For example, the most common search landscape change is now the elevation. And not because Google gave them extra points, but just because of how the algorithm works of Reddit and forums and Quora, all these user generated content platforms now are getting priority because they’re generally helpful sites, even if the specific Reddit answers are really not helpful, they’re getting priority.

Bjork Ostrom: Reddit overall is viewed in this update as a helpful site.

Ewen Finser: It’s basically labeling all these sites either… Well, I guess if you’re unhelpful or not unhelpful, and then I guess there’s some theory being, well, maybe there’s going to be another update where they reward helpful sites then becomes a positive kind of classifier. But as far as we know, as far as I know, it’s this negative classification of really it’s the unhelpful content update from what I’m seeing.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. One of my curiosities with that, and you kind of alluded to this a little bit is I know sites, and I’m sure you’ve talked about some of your sites or know of sites that were negatively impacted, but we wouldn’t think of them as unhelpful. They’re like, Pinch of Yum in this case wasn’t impacted. I think probably saw an uptick. But we know sites that saw a downtick in terms of quality content, very similar in a very similar category as well. And so if I was listening, I’d be like, wait a minute, we put so much time and energy into our content creating this quality content. We’ve been doing it for 14 years. Is that what you’re talking about, where we’re now at the stage of trying to understand if something was negatively impacted, why that was viewed as unhelpful or do we know at this point?

Ewen Finser: No, we don’t know. And that’s the hard part, and that’s where some of these case studies are diving in and looking at the data correlation of like, well, a couple I guess heuristics that I’ve seen, right? Older sites have tended to perform better, so that could be maybe for Pinch of Yum because it’s been around for a while and it’s been a market leader. A lot of the leaders were kind of elevated. It’s almost like Google took the top 10 positions and said, okay, we’re going to have three authority content sites, three user-generated content sources and a bunch of e-com sites and maybe Facebook or LinkedIn or something. We want to spread it around a little bit. And so if you didn’t quite make the cut, that’s what it feels like at the end.

If you didn’t quite make the cut of market leader in your space, you’re at the end of the first page or bumped to the second page versus if you are… Reddit, interestingly enough, is usually not the first result, but it’s present on almost every single search query in the top 10 results. But in position, what I’ve seen is position two, but mainly three, four, five it’s like Reddit gets some sort of exposure in that middle of the pack maybe above the fold.

Bjork Ostrom: Interesting.

Ewen Finser: That’s one effect. The other effect is I’ve seen a little bit of correlation between shorter content actually performing better. Now I’m not sure if this is because it’s shorter or because sites that have been around for a while used to produce shorter content. So is it an age thing or is the content size? But certainly I think that’s kind of where Google might be headed. Another theory is that because they’re using AI, the classifier has a certain number of credits and so it can only look at a certain number of words on the page. And so if you have a 5,000 word resource page, it’s like after 2000 words maybe just whatever, I can’t do that, so I’m just going to judge you on your first 2000. And that’s another theory out there is that, well, if you have ad heavy setups or you have intrusive display ads or those pre auto roll video players or something that could be affecting it because that tend to get to that first kind of initial above the fold page load. There’s all sorts of theories like that.

I don’t know how much weight I want to put in any of them, but I think in general I’m kind of like, okay, yeah, user experience with display ads, that seems like something that could be a negative signal because again, coming back to if I’m a user, visiting a site, getting inundated with ads probably doesn’t feel good. I think that long content and the trend has been add more to your top performing pieces kind of over-optimize them, and if the easiest way to out your competitors is just to do more words, I think that has led to, again, from the user perspective, recipe sites are a great example where because there’s an incentive to have more content, to get more ad impressions, you have somebody looking for a gluten-free pancake recipe. They come to that page and they get in the beginning of time, pancakes were created by, and you’re like, no, no, no. I just want the recipe. But you have to scroll through and see all those ads to get their actual recipe. And so that’s something that seems to make sense to me.

But some of the other factors are, I think topical relevance might have something to do with it too, where if you’re too broad or all over the… Or just chasing keywords without thinking of the whole subject matter or the whole category, you might be getting into some trouble there too.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. It sounds like all of these are the contemplations that are happening early as the dust settles, as kind of a last consideration, last topic to talk about, what does it look like? At what point are you ready to take action as a creator? So let’s say somebody’s listening, they’ve been negatively impacted. It’s a bummer. They’ve been working for years to build up this momentum. How do you then start to rebuild? And I know sites really, huge sites that have had this, was like seven or eight years ago, 50% of the traffic goes away, but then they rebuild and they put things back together and they get the traffic back and even Pinch of Yum, we’ve had seasons where things have gone down and then things go up. But what does it look like? What is your mindset or what should the mindset be for a creator who maybe doesn’t have a portfolio of sites to hedge it, but they have one site, it’s been negatively impacted and now they need to rebuild after being hit?

Ewen Finser: Well, it’s a great caveat because obviously when you have many sites, sometimes we make the decision to forget about it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Ewen Finser: Because it’s not worth it. And I think that’s still kind of affects maybe an individual site at a certain point, being really conscious of the resources you’re expending into the thing that isn’t working anymore. That’s just a helpful… To know at least allocate for those costs. But I think one would be now is probably a good time. I think the updates rolled out. There’s some chatter out there, maybe they’re going to come out with a correction update where some people get it back, the people that were mistakenly impacted will get some bounce back and that’s okay, but at this point I’m not really waiting for that. I’m still looking to take some actions. And so I think starting with the things that are just the easiest things that make sense that I was describing earlier and you were describing, if you just experience your content as a user, what feels like the right answer? And so a couple of things I might do in this situation if I had a site is actually I might turn down the ads for a little bit and just kind of try that or maybe Mediavine wrapped it.

They all have these different settings I think you can either manually or through their support, ask for them to do. Maybe go in the lowest settings for a little bit or getting rid of that intrusive video just to see if that has any effect on your user experience. And then I look at your content inventory. I kind of take a look at all the articles I have on the site, how much traffic are they getting and filter actually for the ones that are not getting any traffic at all and go through this exercise which can be called content pruning. But I think that’s one very specific thing you can do, but just assessing that content for running it through a process of keep and refresh is that article… Maybe it’s a topic that has volume around it that fits with your overall topical map, but just it wasn’t your best effort. And so go back and redo that content with your best effort and make it the best piece of content out there right now.

But the other approach could be actually it’s not really worth that effort, but maybe I’ll merge it with another piece of content that is similar and is kind of better. And so maybe that makes sense just to merge that content and redirect it. And then another approach could be just redirect it. It’s not getting any traffic. Maybe it’s an outdated recipe or you tried talking about… This goes back to the topical map. Maybe you’re looking at gluten-free site. You tried talking about paleo, you did 10 recipes on paleo. They never got any traction. Maybe you actually get rid of those articles and say, you know what? That didn’t work. That experiment didn’t work. We went a little bit too far. And actually maybe that is confusing Google as to what you’re an expert at. And so starting to prune those topics away, I kind of start there. And then I might look at the existing inventory. Where do we have big gaps? If we’re talking about, again, gluten-free is a good example and we’ve just never talked about certain or never create a recipe or a piece of content around certain subcategories within that.

Maybe go out and create those articles right now. And then I think those are the big things I do. I think honestly, anything else, I’m not so sure. There’s all sorts of theory about, because forums were benefited, maybe you should add comments back. I don’t think that can hurt. I think from a user perspective, comments could be helpful. A lot of times there’s some great goodness in the comment section as long as it’s not spam, but I’m not going to go adding a forum to all of my sites necessarily. But that’s something to think about. How do you increase engagement on the site? And so that’s tactically how I react to the update if you care about Google traffic. And then there’s probably another question of how do you diversify? So you don’t have…

Bjork Ostrom: Out of just searched traffic, and that’s where you think of email, you think of social, and we could spin up another conversation to cover all of that. That’s awesome. Really helpful to have your perspective on it. I know you’ve seen all sorts of different angles as you’ve worked with hundreds of sites. It’s such a rare thing that you have as an independent creator, independent business owner to have had hundreds of different touchpoints with different sites in different categories is just a super unique perspective. So usually at this point we’re like, hey, here’s how you can connect with somebody to buy the thing they have or to work with them. I heard you reference clients at one point. I know that you’ve been gracious enough with us. We’ve jumped on a call and paid you for your expertise occasionally, but is there a way that listeners could work with you in some way? Or is it just following along with you, joining your team if you need writers, but this is your chance to pitch, but what do you pitch? I don’t know.

Ewen Finser: Yeah, this is usually my problem, we don’t have a lot, but occasionally I do some consulting. It’s not a business line of mine, but I like helping other entrepreneurs and I like, I love content. So I kind of nerd out to it. You can find me on LinkedIn, Ewen Finser, E-W-E-N. It’s pretty unique name. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one. And just reach out to me that way. Actually recently, I was telling you Bjork, before the call, we acquired a newsletter called Niche Media Publishing. It’s Nichemediapublishing.com and that’s where I actually am sharing a lot of my thinking and reaction to a lot of the updates and what’s happening in the media world. And I don’t really have products in there yet, but maybe one day. So that’s a good way just to get on the list and keep in touch with me, my thinking. And then we do have a service called Content Teams, contentteams.io where we help brands find writers, but that’s also just a byproduct of what we’re doing all the time.

And it’s not a main revenue line or effort for us, but it is something we do offer because we do get approached by people saying, hey, how can we work together? Or-

Bjork Ostrom: How can we do what you’ve done with your process of hiring writers? And you’ve done it a hundred times and if somebody’s never done it before…

Ewen Finser: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. Because if you’re at that point maybe where you’re thinking of, oh, maybe I can scale it. I think there’s a growing trend out there where there’s like, I’m going to start a second site or a third site, and once you get maybe to that third site, that’s been my experience. It starts to get a little bit out of control. And so that’s where building a little bit of a team could be helpful. And that’s what we’re trying to solve. Basically, it’s a headhunting service. We’re not an agency. We just want to find you the experts or find you the specialists to help you scale your business and then walk away and not have anything to do with it long-term and not have to charge a retainer or anything. That’s the model for content.

Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. That’s great. And I just signed up. I’m your newest Niche Media Publishing subscriber. It’s official.

Ewen Finser: Cool.

Bjork Ostrom: All right, Ewen, thanks so much for coming on. Really appreciate it.

Ewen Finser: Awesome, thanks Bjork.

Emily Walker: And that’s a wrap on Tiny Bites from the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. We hope you got a lot out of that episode. We know that Google algorithm updates can be really nerve wracking or stressful, and hopefully from everything you learned from this episode, you’ll be able to approach them with a little bit more strategy and just some more peace of mind. Like I mentioned at the beginning of the episode. Head to foodbloggerpro.com/podcast to check out the show notes and leave any questions you have for us there. Thanks so much for listening.

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