Google launched several major algorithm updates, including two broad core algorithm updates, between September and November of 2023. While some outcry from the SEO and digital marketing communities is common after Google updates, this time felt different: it appears that these updates are wreaking havoc on the search and Google Discover traffic performance of many publishers around the world.
Here is the timeline of the recent Google updates, plus some other relevant details of incidents that affected the performance of many sites but which appear to be skewing more toward affecting news and publisher websites:
Google Updates Between September and November 2023:
|Google Update or Incident||Dates||Description|
|September Helpful Content Update||Announced on September 14, 2023 and took 13 days to roll out (until September 27).||Google launched a new update to its Helpful Content System. This update appeared to have a more significant impact across many sites than previous versions of HCUs. The update appeared to disproportionately affect many niche, smaller affiliate websites with UX challenges, overly-optimized ‘SEO content,’ aggressive ads, lack of branding, and other potential issues reflecting an “SEO-first” approach, rather than “helpful content made for people.” Google has been clear that Helpful Content Updates, just like core updates, can cause ranking and visibility declines in Google Discover – not just organic search.|
|October 2023 Spam Update||Announced October 4, 2023. Took 15 days to roll out (until October 19).||Google released a new Spam Update, aimed at “cleaning up several types of spam that our community members reported in Turkish, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Hindi, Chinese, and other languages. “|
|October 2023 Core Update||Announced October 5th, 2023 and took just under 14 days to roll out (Oct 28).||Just 2 months after the August 2023 Core Update, Google surprised many people in the SEO community by launching a new broad core update in early October.|
|Ranking Issue (Discover Glitch)||Began October 5, 2023 and lasted 26 days. Announced||On November 1, Google shared that it had found a glitch affecting Google Discover traffic, which was tied to the October core update. Google claimed that some sites seeing declines in Discover may see traffic come back. However, this was not guaranteed, and core updates are known for affecting Discover traffic, as well.|
|November 2023 Core Update||Began November 2, 2023 and has not finished rolling out (as of November 20).||Google launched yet another core update, only a month after the October core update. As with all core updates, it’s possible for sites to feel traffic impacts across SEO, Google News and/or Google Discover.|
|November 2023 Reviews Update||Began on November 8, 2023 and has not finished rolling out (as of November 20).||Right around the same time as the November Core Update was announced and still rolling out, Google formally announced that its newest Reviews update would roll out as well.|
Note: a full history of Google’s updates and official related resources can be found on the Google Search Status Dashboard.
Reactions from Site Owners, SEOs and the Online Marketing Community
With any major Google update, it’s common to hear strong reactions from site owners, both applauding outcomes of Google updates but more commonly, expressing concern or even outrage about how the update played out. Google has provided extensive feedback to these concerns and guidance for affected sites, such as “Core Updates and Your Website.”
However, with these late 2023 updates, it feels like the feedback, concerns, and complaints from site owners and marketers – particularly in the News and Publishing space, have been more extreme than normal. Furthermore, these complaints appear to be coming from sites around the world with content in various languages and not isolated to one particular country, region, or language.
On Friday, November 17, on the social platform X (formerly Twitter), I asked the larger SEO community if others had experienced significant declines in traffic stemming from these updates. The response was overwhelming, with dozens of site owners from around the world sharing their stories and screenshots from their Google Search Console accounts. Many publishers shared screenshots of similar charts, showing sites that previously received thousands or even millions of clicks a month from Google Discover dropping to 0 clicks in either September, October, or November and not recovering ever since (or only seeing a mild recovery).
Below are a few examples where site owners shared significant declines affecting their sites’ performance in Google Discover, Top Stories, News and other surfaces:
On top of dozens of responses from site owners, Danny Sullivan from Google (via the Google SearchLiaison X account) also chimed in, encouraging site owners to share their sites on X or on Google’s forums. In the same X post, Danny indicated that the Discover bug was indeed resolved in October, so these traffic patterns do not stem from that particular bug.
Due to the significant number of messages and X posts from affected sites owners, plus the fact that Danny Sullivan responded and expressed interest in hearing from affected sites, I created a quick form on my personal website that publishers could use to voluntarily send over information about how these impacts affected their sites, which I am using to send a formal response to Danny & Google today. This form has also helped to standardize all the responses to get a better idea of what the impacts have been at scale.
The response has been overwhelming, with over 150 unique publishers from around the world sharing their stories.
Note: the specific information collected in this form has not and will never be used for marketing purposes, and will only be relayed directly to the Google team.
Overall Trends: Who Was Impacted by Recent Google Updates, and How?
Key takeaways among site owners with recent traffic declines (out of 150 submitted sites):
- 73% of overall respondents indicated that they have seen their Google Discover traffic drop to 0 during the past 3 months.
- 72% of overall respondents claim that they are no longer seeing their articles appearing in Top Stories or prominently in the Google News tab, unless they sort by “Most Recent Date.”
- Among websites that lost Discover traffic, the most common complaints were dramatic traffic declines; dropping to 0 impressions and clicks; extreme percentage decreases in clicks ranging from 50-99%, and massive losses in revenue from AdSense and other ad networks.
- Several site owners suggested that their content has either been scraped or reproduced by other sites that have earned visibility with their content
- Site owners expressed frustration that the glitch affecting Discover traffic did not seem to result in additional traffic gains to their sites after being resolved by Google. (Note: Google was clear that addressing the glitch would not necessarily cause improvements for all sites.)
Below are some common characteristics of affected websites. Out of respect for the confidentiality of these publishers, all of the below data and insights are aggregated and anonymized
- Where in the world are the affected publishers?
The below counts show the countries most frequently cited by site owners as the main audience for their websites:
- USA: 40 counts (31.2%)
- Brazil: 12 counts (9.3%)
- Japan: 10 counts (7.8%)
- Spain: 9 counts (7.0%)
- Germany: 7 counts (5.4%)
- India: 6 counts (4.6%)
- UK: 5 counts (3.9%)
- France: 5 counts (3.9%)
- Poland: 5 counts (3.9%)
- Turkey: 5 counts (3.9%)
- Italy: 4 counts (3.1%)
- Canada: 4 counts (3.1%)
- Iran: 3 counts (2.3%)
- Australia: 3 counts (2.3%)
- Sweden: 2 counts (1.5%)
- Pakistan: 2 counts (1.5%)
- Asia (as a region): 1 count (0.7%)
- Portugal: 1 count (0.7%)
- Ireland: 1 count (0.7%)
- Indonesia: 1 count (0.7%)
- Denmark: 1 count (0.7%)
- Greece: 1 count (0.7%)
2. Which categories have been impacted?
Below is a summarized list of the website categories most frequently mentioned by impacted site owners:
- News: 47.65%
- Entertainment: 28.9%
- Technology: 6.71%
- Reviews: 6.71%
- Sports: 6.04%
- Lifestyle: 4.70%
- Gaming: 4.03%
- Education: 4.03%
- Home and Garden (combined): 6.71%
- Music: 2.68%
- Health: 2.68%
- Video Games: 2.01%
- Recipe and Food (combined): 2.7%
- Movies and TV (combined): 2.7%
- Real Estate: 1.34%
- Science: 1.34%
- Fashion: 1.34%
- Travel: 1.34%
3. Among the sites that lost Google Discover traffic, below is a summarized list of which Google updates have impacted the website’s traffic, out of the Helpful Content Update, October Core Update, and/or November Core Update. Note: site owners were given the option to list multiple updates in this question.
- 31.88% of respondents were impacted by only the October Core Update.
- 13.13% of respondents were affected solely by the Helpful Content Update.
- 10.00% were impacted by a combination of the Helpful Content Update, October Core Update, and November Core Update.
- 9.38% of respondents reported being affected by only the November Core Update.
- 8.75% were impacted by both the October Core Update and November Core Update.
- The remaining respondents were affected by various combinations of the above 3 updates.
4. Among the sites that lost Google Top Stories and News Tab traffic, below is a summarized list of which Google updates have impacted the website’s traffic, out of the Helpful Content Update, October Core Update, and/or November Core Update. Note: site owners were given the option to list multiple updates in this question.
Only 70% of total respondents indicated that this situation applied to them:
- 31% were impacted by only the October Core Update.
- 18.24% of respondents were affected solely by the Helpful Content Update.
- 16.95% were impacted by only the November Core Update.
- The remaining respondents were affected by various combinations of the above 3 updates.
4. Below is a summarized list of the most common concerns and complaints raised by site owners whose Discover traffic dropped to 0:
- Dramatic declines in traffic: the majority of site owners reported a significant drop in traffic. Many experienced a decrease from tens of thousands or even millions of impressions to nearly zero. This includes drops from high daily figures like 300,000 or 50-60,000 unique visitors to almost none.
- Clicks and impressions dropping to 0: a recurring theme is the sudden reduction to zero impressions and clicks from Google Discover. Site owners emphasized that after the updates, particularly the October Core Update, their traffic plummeted to zero or near-zero levels.
- Tied to specific Google updates: The updates mentioned, such as the October Core Update, Helpful Content Update, and August 2023 Broad Core Update, were frequently associated with these declines.
- Loss of revenue: traffic wasn’t the only thing that declined. Given that most of these sites make money off ads, many cited a dramatic loss in revenue stemming from these updates
- Being outranked by scraper or plagiarizing sites: some site owners noted that their original content was being replaced in Google search results by other sites that copied or re-hashed their content
- Lack of recovery post-updates: even after Google allegedly fixed certain issues (like the Discover glitch in October), many sites did not see a significant recovery in traffic. While Google was clear that fixing the glitch wouldn’t cause all sites to recover, there continue to be many sites whose traffic has not returned to normal levels
- Frustration and feeling a lack of guidance: a notable sentiment among site owners was the frustration over the lack of clear guidance from Google on specific recommendations for how to recover from these impacts or adjust their content strategy to regain traffic.
- Regional impacts: some responses indicated that the impact was not just global but also affected specific regions, like sites not being available in certain countries or regions post-update.
- Google News impacts: along with Discover, traffic from Google News and Top Stories also saw a decline, compounding the issues faced by these site owners.
5. Below is a summarized and generalized list of complaints by site owners as a whole:
- Significant traffic declines: many site owners reported a drastic decrease in pageviews and traffic, with figures dropping from several million to significantly lower numbers like 1-2 million or even less. This decline was often tied to various Google updates.
- Disappearance from Google Discover and Top Stories: A frequent concern was the disappearance of sites from Google Discover and Top Stories following updates, particularly in October 2023. Some site owners mentioned being impacted by other Google core updates before the late 2023 updates discussed in this article.
- Lack of recovery despite improvements: Site owners expressed frustration that despite making improvements and having original content, their sites did not recover in rankings or visibility.
- Impact on revenue: The decline in traffic has had a direct impact on revenue, particularly for businesses reliant on online visibility for their income.
- Confusion and need for guidance: There was a general sentiment of confusion about the reasons behind these changes and a need for guidance on how to recover or improve their sites’ standings in Google’s search results. While Google has provided several responses and articles about these updates, many site owners feel that the steps to recover are not clear or specific enough.
- Perceived inequity in treatment: Some responses indicated a perception that competitors using AI for content creation or engaging in practices that violate Google’s guidelines were not similarly affected. Some site owners mentioned that, in some cases, these sites even benefitted from the updates.
- Regional variations in traffic: some site owners noted peculiar regional variations in traffic, like receiving traffic from unexpected regions or countries.
- Reduction in organic search traffic: in addition to Discover traffic, there were also complaints about significant reductions in organic traffic from general search results (SEO).
- Impact on well-established, authoritative sites: even well-established websites that claim to have years of authority and quality content reported significant drops in traffic, challenging the popular notion that authoritative sites are immune from being affected by Google updates.
- Loss of visibility in specific features: several site owners mentioned specific features where their content used to perform well, like Google News and specific SERP features or rich results, where they experienced a loss of visibility.
What’s Up with Web Stories in Google Discover?
As a final point, I’d like to bring up a topic that may or may not be connected to the traffic fluctuations many people are seeing in Google Discover: spammy Web Stories appearing in Google Discover.
It’s no secret that Web Stories can drive lots of visibility in Google Discover (although the click-through rate and actual website traffic can be much lower than that seen by other pages and articles).
It seems that spammers have caught onto this fact, and are now generating thousands of low-quality Web Stories that Google appears to be prioritizing more than ever in Google Discover. It appears that spammers have found a way to host the Web Story on a URL that 301 redirects users to an expired domain, where they can read the full article (and therefore see more ads, providing more revenue to the site owner).
In the last two days, I’ve seen the following 6 Web Stories in my Google Discover feed, each of which fit the above description:
The final image is a screenshot of what appeared on my phone after clicking into one of these Web Stories directly from my Google Discover feed – a spammy attempt to install malware on my iPhone.
While Web Stories have appeared in Google Discover for a long time, it seems as if the frequency of these spammy stories appearing has grown exponentially in recent months. Perhaps this is one explanation for why so many publishers are seeing declines – because Google is showing more content types in Discover, such as Web Story content and video content from YouTube.
The Google updates from September to November 2023 have profoundly affected news and publisher websites, leading to significant shifts in these websites’ traffic and visibility. This is particularly evident in Google Discover traffic and visibility in Top Stories and the Google News tab, and for many website owners, has resulted in a substantial decrease in revenue. The emergence of spammy Web Stories in Google Discover might provide a clue about a shift in Google’s content prioritization, and it’s possible that these Web Stories are taking market share away from other sites in Discover.
While volatility is expected during core updates in both Search and Discover, the changes experienced by this website sample are more extreme than many recent algorithm updates. Publishers may be able to future-proof their acquisition strategies by diversifying content formats and channels. There are also always ways to continue to improve your content strategy to drive more traffic and visibility in SEO, Discover and Google News.
Dive deeper into the impact of core updates and search intent on your SEO strategies or let’s talk about how to leverage these insights for your marketing efforts — and elevate your business.