To set expectations: this won’t be a love letter. But, I do have some kind words to say about the March 2023 Google Core Algorithm Update.
If you’re like me—on the content side of your marketing team, constantly looking at organic search traffic—you may have noticed some dramatic differences between your March and April metrics. And, those differences may not have been in your favor. Which, again, if you’re like me, may have caused you to frantically Google “algorithm updates 2023.” As it turns out, there was a major core algorithm update in March (specifically March 15th-March 28th).
Wait. Don’t panic and go digging into your metrics just yet—it’s really not all that bad. But, before I give my two cents on why, let’s start off with some basics about algorithm updates in general and the March 2023 Google Core Algorithm Update.
What are Core Algorithm Updates?
Since we’re not all SEO experts—speaking from all-too-personal experience—I wanted to quickly touch on what core algorithm updates are to begin with. (Disclaimer: I’m still very much not an SEO expert, but getting there.)
Search engines, like Google, have in-depth algorithms that determine which order web pages show up on the search engine results pages (SERPs). The first page (ranking 1-10) is where you want to be and the first result—the top spot—is the most coveted.
Many factors go into deciding which pages are displayed and over time, these factors evolve. With that evolution comes updates to the algorithm to ensure that users are finding information that matches what they’re searching for. Google previously considered three factors when ranking web pages: expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T).
As of December, however, Google has added a second E: experience (E-E-A-T). In addition to content coming from a knowledgeable, reliable source, Google now also considers first-hand experience when ranking information on the web. For example, as Google says, “actual use of a product [or] having actually visited a place or communicating what a person experienced.”
With that new wrinkle in mind, let’s dig into the March 2023 Google Core Algorithm Update.
What was the March 2023 Google Core Algorithm Update?
As you might know, the powers that be—*ahem* Google—aren’t super forthcoming with the specific details of their algorithm updates. It makes sense. If they laid out every step on how to rank well, every site would attempt to meet that criteria, burying the valuable content. So while it’s hard to know exactly what changed, based on changes to metrics, experts across the web have picked out some key details.
According to SEMRush, this core algorithm update was incredibly volatile. “Volatility is defined as a liability to change, often unpredictably and for the worse. SERP volatility measures the overall amount of change happening to search engine results.” To sum it up: things went a little bonkers.
One stat in particular that jumped out at me from the same article was, “The net effect of the March 2023 Core Update was 8.7% of the top 10 URLs being ranked beyond position 20 prior to the update.” Let’s unpack this.
Essentially, rounding up, about 10% of the pages ranking 1-10 (so, let’s say roughly one result on the first page) were not on the first page before this algorithm update. Not only that, the new first-page results previously ranked higher than 20, meaning they weren’t even on the second page of results before this. Clearly, Google made a huge change to what content is considered valuable.
Lily Ray, Sr. Director of SEO & Head of Organic Search at Amsive Digital (🚨SEO expert alert🚨) published an article about the algorithm update a day after the rollout was completed. She explained that the March 2023 Core Algorithm Update values original and high-quality content. The keyword here being original. As Lily points out, this is “an important consideration with the rise of generative AI content tools like ChatGPT.”
…see where I’m going?
The March 2023 Core Algorithm Update is a Warning
ChatGPT who? Just kidding. ChatGPT and similar generative AI tools certainly aren’t going anywhere and are incredibly useful, but this algorithm update sheds light on an interesting subject: content originality and value. AI content generators have certainly gained popularity in the past few months. They’re quick, they’re smart—what’s not to like?
Here’s the thing: AI is only as good as the information that already exists in the world. In a VentureBeat article, David Schubmehl, research vice president for conversational AI and intelligent knowledge discovery at IDC, said, “Using pre-existing data, AI algorithms are used to make sure that the content fits the interests and desires of the person it is being targeted to.”
“Pre-existing data” is a nice way of saying, “stuff that’s already been done.” AI pulls from a supply of information that already exists. Who’s supplying that information? *Wave* Hi. Us. Content marketers, writers, journalists, etc.
This March 2023 Core Algorithm Update is a warning that Google won’t prioritize repetitive regurgitations compiled by AI, no matter how many “casual + funny” prompts you add to the query. Original, expert-driven content is most likely still going to outrank something churned out by a robot.
Google’s Generative AI Search Functionality
Now, here’s a fun curveball. Google recently (after the majority of this post was already written) rolled out a preview of their generative AI search functionality. Basically, at the top of search results Google’s own AI will be able to populate a module with answers their users are looking for without them having to leave the SERPs.
Before you hit me with an “I told you so,” this AI is no different than the generative AI tools we’ve all come to know and love. I mean, sure, it probably is in some ways—it’s Google, after all—but at the end of the day it’s AI that uses existing data to formulate answers.
So, while it still seems like Google isn’t prioritizing others’ AI-generated content, they’re probably prioritizing their own.
No P(AI)n, No Gain
But this, my friends, is why I—a content marketer—don’t hate the March 2023 Core Algorithm Update. I don’t hate it because it continues to push us. We have to keep being creative, we have to keep innovating, we have to be original.
And before you start banging down my door with long AI-generated lists of why AI is a good thing, I’m not saying AI is a bad thing. It’s a great jumping off point. It tells us where there may be a gap in information, it helps us ideate, it saves us time, and it cures writer’s block. It forces us, the creatives—the humans—to be better. (Remember when Dwight out-sold the computer?)
This core algorithm update is reinforcing the fact that only people can truly connect with people—kind of ironic, huh?
If you’re looking for ways to incorporate AI into your marketing strategies without pissing off the algorithm, check out Denys Kapush’s session from Activate Summit ‘23.