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Google search engine algorithm tweak affects small businesses

Google search engine algorithm tweak affects small businesses

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Google’s update changed how small businesses operate their site [File]

Google’s update changed how small businesses operate their site [File]
| Photo Credit: AP

Google made major changes to its search algorithm and spam filters earlier this year to get rid of low-quality content — but the effects have proved devastating to some smaller websites.

Online businesses have been left considering layoffs and even site closures after Google’s massive upgrade in March and April caused catastrophic drops in traffic.

Gisele Navarro is one of the unlucky ones whose website got caught up in Google’s dragnet.

The 37-year-old Argentine runs the HouseFresh website with her husband, and they had been building a healthy niche in product reviews for air purifiers since 2020.

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There were no ads, no product placements and no soft-pedalling — if a product was bad, the site’s reviewers would say so. They earned commissions from clickthroughs to Amazon.

But Google’s update changed all of that.

Missing site

“We found that we went from ranking number one — because we were one of the only people who had actually done a review — to not even showing up,” she said.

HouseFresh used to get around 4,000 referrals from Google search a day, but this has since collapsed to around 200.

The dropoff in business has been so bad that Ms. Navarro said she had been advised to shutter the site and start over with a new domain name.

Underpinning the frustration for Ms. Navarro and many others is the lack of clarity over how Google ranks results.

The U.S. firm is notoriously secretive about its algorithms — so much so that an entire industry known as “search engine optimisation” (SEO) has grown up trying to game the algorithm to get more clicks.

The latest update sent SEO experts into a tailspin, desperately trying to unpack why some sites were boosted and others getting downranked.

Google said in an email that its update was designed specifically to give users “fewer results that feel made for search engines”.

“The only changes we launch are ones that our experiments have shown will meaningfully improve results for people. And we do believe that these updates have been helpful,” Google said.

Yet Ms. Navarro showed in a widely shared blog post in May that people searching for product reviews were increasingly being fed ads and content that appeared to be AI-generated or SEO-maximised.

Other material boosted by Google’s update included user-generated content from websites like Reddit and Quora.

Google defended this approach saying “people often want to learn from others’ experiences”, adding: “We conduct rigorous testing to ensure results are helpful and high quality.”

But staff at one European news website said their articles were now being routinely outranked by largely irrelevant content from Reddit.

The site publisher, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said referrals from Google had plummeted by between 20% to 30% since the update — and cutbacks would be inevitable.

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