Everything You Need to Know About the Big March 2024 Core Update

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March saw Google release a core update, a helpful content update, and multiple spam updates to enhance the quality of search results. With all of these updates and those released by Google over the past decade, Google hopes to reduce unhelpful content in Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) by 40%.

Many websites have already lost a chunk of their traffic, and murmurs among the SEO community suggest that the impact of this update will be felt for a long time.

But what does ‘unhelpful content’ really mean according to Google? How can you determine if any of your web pages fall in this category to safeguard your search rankings and website traffic? Is there a way to recover traffic lost due to core updates?

Read this blog to find out more about this update and how you can navigate the changes. 

But first, let’s talk about what this update means and how search engines define ‘unhelpful content’.

Why Are These March 2024 Updates a Big Deal?

Not only was the March core update the first core update of 2024, but this update is said to be making big changes to several components of the overall ranking system. 

Google will now be using new and innovative signals to assess the helpfulness of content sitewide. As a result, search rankings for the entire website can fluctuate, and many websites will lose traffic either temporarily or permanently. 

Even according to Chris Nelson of Google’s Search Quality Team, “March 2024 update is more complex than our usual core updates.” 

This update is also Google’s answer to mass content production and the amount of pressure it puts on Google’s search systems.  

In a time where AI tools can produce hundreds of articles a day, indexing and ranking content is a challenge for the algorithm. 

With this update, chances are that the quality of search results will further improve as its algorithms automatically filter out a large chunk of content for being ‘unhelpful.’ Less spam will also likely lead to a better search experience for users. 

Google’s blog makes it clear that the update is another move to curb content abuse tactics that have worsened with the arrival of AI on the scene: 

“Today, scaled content creation methods are more sophisticated, and whether the content is created purely through automation isn’t always as clear. To better address these techniques, we’re strengthening our policy to focus on this abusive behavior — producing content at scale to boost search ranking — whether automation, humans, or a combination are involved. This will allow us to take action on more types of content with little to no value created at scale, like pages that pretend to have answers to popular searches but fail to deliver helpful content.”

“There will be more fluctuations in rankings than with a regular core update, as different systems get fully updated and reinforce each other,” Nelson added.

The only way to come out unscathed of updates like these is to evaluate your website and see if your website needs to change anything per newer search engine guidelines.

We’ve also heard that many hundreds of sites have had manual penalties applied, effectively banning them from appearing in search results. This issue is much more difficult and time consuming to resolve due to the nature of this series of updates. There’s also no guarantee that any site changes you make and reconsideration requests you submit will resolve the issue.

What Does Helpful Content Mean According to Search Engine Guidelines? 

Google has released multiple helpful content updates over the last 2 years and the basic guidelines of what helpful content means remain the same. In fact, the work for this March 2024 update started with the release of the August 2022 helpful content update. 

According to Google Search Central, helpful content updates reward “people-first” content that gives users a pleasant experience on the web page. Meanwhile, content that doesn’t meet a web visitor’s requirements is likely not to perform well.

“This [March] update involves refining some of our core ranking systems to help us better understand if webpages are unhelpful, have a poor user experience, or feel like they were created for search engines instead of people. This could include sites created primarily to match very specific search queries.”

The point that it drives home is that any website that creates poor-quality content with unoriginal research/opinions or very similar keywords is likely to suffer.

Is your Website at Risk of Losing Rankings with These Updates?

If your website has been creating content that genuinely answers users’ questions and offers a pleasant user experience, you’re likely going to be fine. But if you’re not sure, ask yourself these questions to make sure you are creating helpful website content:

  1. Does this content offer any unique opinion, research, or value that other web pages don’t offer?
  2. Is the content factual and easy to understand? 
  3. Is it easy to understand the information presented on this web page with clear sourcing? Does the page look trustworthy?
  4. Is the article written to add value or just to rank in search results? Is it good enough to be bookmarked or shared by visitors?
  5. Is your website using tons of automation and creating lots of articles on similar topics in hopes of ranking for at least some search phrases? 
  6. Has the content been written by someone who has deep knowledge of the topic or regurgitates the same information as other articles on the topic?
  7. Is the user experience optimized for all devices? Are distracting ads or popups taking away from the browsing experience? 

If the answers to these questions are positive, you’re likely fine, and your website performance will return to normal after a few weeks. However, if you do find some issues with the quality of your website, your website may be at risk of losing its traffic. 

Pro Tip: Google posted some advice on its blog to help website owners and content creators prepare for core updates. The principles of what good content means remain largely unchanged as Google as a search engine always wants to show the best content for its searchers. This page also offers some more questions to evaluate the quality of your content. 

Will March 2024 Core Update and Spam Updates Affect All Types of Content?

As of now, the update will only focus on English language searches. The update is said to roll out automatically in the next few months with the help of machine learning. Though Google’s algorithm is not specifically targeted at any niche, these types of content stand to be affected most:

  • Online educational materials
  • Arts and entertainment
  • Shopping
  • Tech-related

What to Do if Your Website Loses its Search Rankings?

We understand that it may be tempting to go and fix your lost search rankings right away, but you’ll be better off waiting.

You don’t want to make too many changes and spend your resources on short-term fixes. Once you’ve been hit with a core update, your website will likely need to prove to search systems that it no longer publishes spammy or unhelpful content over time. This also means that any changes you make today may not affect your rankings for several weeks or months. 

This is supported by what Danny Sullivan, a member of Google’s Search Liaison team told Search Engine Land in a conversation: 

“Sites identified by this update may find the signal applied to them over a period of months. Our classifier for this update runs continuously, allowing it to monitor newly launched sites and existing ones. As it determines that the unhelpful content has not returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply.”

So what should you do? While Google didn’t publish any new advice for this core update, it has previously reiterated the same things multiple times about past core updates. 

 “We suggest focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”

It also advises waiting it out to see if your rankings automatically recover after some initial fluctuations. 

“We know those with sites that experience drops will be looking for a fix, and we want to ensure they don’t try to fix the wrong things. Moreover, there might not be anything to fix at all.” Google added, “There’s nothing wrong with pages that may perform less well in a core update.”

If your rankings don’t recover after a few months, you should use the content quality guidelines that we shared before to focus on creating a better content strategy. Over time, Google will start trusting your website more and your helpful content can rank again. 

The other part of the update involves what is sometimes referred to as Parasite SEO. This is where a large, well known website publishes content that’s off topic, but due to their huge domain authority, they can easily outrank niche/specialty sites. This has been a thorn in the side of many niche sites ever since the Vince update in 2009. However, Google announced that this part of the update will not take effect until May 2024, giving those sites a few weeks to prepare. This is quite unusual for Google to give prior notice, so we anticipate that this will have a big impact when it rolls out.

Our Opinion: Are These Updates Welcome or Unnecessary? 

Our SEO team welcomes these updates as we believe in creating people-first content that follows the latest content quality guidelines, and are confident that our clients will fare well through these changes.
In our opinion, database-driven websites that curate content from other sources and summarize it using generative AI may be hit.

Review/affiliate sites that don’t provide enough unique content and added value will likely be hit, as Google has been on a crusade against these sites for the last few years.

News websites that post a lot of guest posts may also get caught up in this, and it won’t be surprising if big name publishers also suffer, especially after the May portion is released.
The fact that this update has been announced two months before its final roll-out is complete indicates that this is going to be big, so it’s best to start evaluating your content now.

Ironically, the overarching goal of the whole update seems to be aimed at tackling AI generated content at a time when Google itself is also experimenting with showing results with AI generated content within the SGE.

However, if you’re looking to enhance the quality of your site’s content we suggest reading our post: Top 10 Ways to Supercharge Your Blog Content Strategy.