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Searching on Google, consumers expect to find the most reliable information without a second thought.

And the search giant continues to take steps to ensure that’s what its users experience, with its most recent changes announced in March — this time with part of its focus on addressing “low-quality, [artificial intelligence]-generated content that’s designed to attract clicks but that doesn’t add much original value,” Davis Thompson, spokesperson for Google, told PhocusWire.

While some travel industry players have found Google’s tweaks to be inconsequential, others said they’ve seen a traffic dip that could hurt business. Google’s ongoing tweaks keep site owners on their toes, said Mike Coletta, senior manager of research and innovation at Phocuswright.

“If your business model relies on free traffic from Google, you’re holding your breath a little bit with every update,” Coletta said. “Less so if you are highly confident that you have the best content for the query, but still, you’re essentially at the mercy of their whims.”

Google’s update to “multiple core systems” 

Google said its update is meant to be helpful.

The update should benefit all kinds of creators putting out content that is high quality, said Thompson.

Quote

If your business model relies on free traffic from Google, you’re holding your breath a little bit with every update…. Less so if you are highly confident that you have the best content for the query, but still, you’re essentially at the mercy of their whims.

Mike Coletta, Phocuswright

“Our recent Search updates are designed to surface the most helpful, high-quality content on the web – empowering creators who are producing content to help people,” said Thompson.  “Our systems aim to surface a diverse range of sites and reward high-quality content, including affiliate-supported content, regardless of publication size.”

Google’s system changes are outlined in a blog post with a separate page for web creators on the changes. The change has to do with content created through automation, which Google called out for manipulating search results, among other factors.

Google shared that its March 2024 update is more complex than past iterations given it involves changes to its “multiple core systems.”

“It also marks an evolution in how we identify the helpfulness of content,” Google said.

Google cautioned that rankings might fluctuate more than with a typical update as systems become updated – the changes were anticipated to roll out over a month after the update’s launch. And on May 5, Google will enforce a new policy defining “low-value, third-party content produced primarily for ranking purposes” as spam. 

It directed creators who may not see rankings to their liking to its “FAQ” page for assistance.

In its blog post outlining the changes, Google referenced its past work to eliminate bad search results.

“For decades, we’ve relied on advanced spam-fighting systems and spam policies to prevent the lowest-quality content from appearing in search results — and that work continues,” said Google.

Google has always sought to improve its search results and to reduce low-quality, spam-like results, Coletta said.

“But that’s very subjective,” he said. “You know, a small travel blogger might be the best source of information on a destination. But … it can be harder for them to build up a lot of authority on Google, which tends to favor large, recognizable brands.”

Google’s tweaks can cause shifts in traffic

Some travel sites have felt the effects of Google’s changes more than others.

Rami Nuseir, head of marketing at Stay22, a travel affiliate marketing company that supports 900 travel bloggers on its platform, said some of its content creator partners lost up to 75% of their traffic “overnight.”

“It’s difficult for some and devastating for others,” said Nuseir, adding that the loss of so much traffic translates to a loss of 75% of livelihood.

Isabel Leong, author of travel blog Bel Around the World and a coach on search engine optimization, said she’s seen an “evident decline” in traffic with the latest update from Google – though she thinks many of the effects on website traffic were inadvertent given the need for Google to respond to the rapid adoption of AI for content creation.

“However, as biased as I may [be in saying] this, penalizing bloggers, whose work is written based on personal experience, is unfair to say the least, as we pride our work (and job) on delivering quality, authentic content for our audiences,” Leong said.

Ben Lloyd, director of digital marketing services at Cloudbeds, said the hotel software company hasn’t noticed a change in its clients’ traffic since the Google update — something he credits to their emphasis on high-quality content.

“To some extent this is not surprising, as the whole point of the changes from Google was to reduce spam and unhelpful content across search results for users – something we work hard to ensure our partners aren’t doing via putting in place high-quality standards for design, technical implementation, and content,” said Lloyd.

At Civitatis, a tours and activities platform serving the Spanish-speaking community, the changes Google has made have actually prompted an uptick in traffic for its websites, according to Raúl Valencia, head of SEO at Civitatis.

“The latest Google updates have had a really positive impact on our domain,” said Valencia, adding that the company’s sites serving markets in Spain have seen 60% increases, while those serving markets like Brazil have tripled.

Another factor affecting travel websites in Europe could be how the timing of Google’s update coincides with the recent introduction of the European Digital Markets Act (DMA), said Javier Delgado, CEO for Europe, Middle East and Africa at hotel booking technology provider Mirai.

The DMA is having “a direct and negative impact on traffic for many hotels,” he said, making it difficult to judge the impact of Google’s tweaks in the European Union.

“Nonetheless,”  Delgado added, “the Google changes come at a bad moment and make this a tough time for hotels trying to market themselves online.”

Not everyone understands Google’s changes

Despite Google’s efforts to outline its changes, Stay22’s Nuseir expressed confusion about how to improve or maintain search rankings.

“The issue is we don’t know what the rules are,” he said. “There is a disconnect between what Google is claiming they are penalizing, [versus] what they are actually penalizing. Until they clarify what the rules are, we’re all in the dark, and at their mercy.”

Yet in the view of Civitatis’ Valencia, it was inevitable that there would be more competition amid the search rankings as the number of travel-focused domains rises, regardless of the changes made by Google.

Nuseir doesn’t totally disagree.

“Google is well-meaning; they want to make content more unique, less spammy, and less AI-generated,” he said. “Thus, they will be pushing Reddit, Quora and forums. But I’m not certain that pushing these is the best solution, as much of that content is not what people are searching for.”

All the same, the lack of clarity on Google’s end has been a problem as perennial as its updates, according to Coletta.

“They keep [updates] a bit opaque so people have a harder time trying to game the system,” he said. “But a lot of people think they could still be clearer, and that has been the case for a long time.”



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