What Went Down in Google’s March 2024 Core Update

Between March 5th and April 19th, 2024, Google gradually rolled out a significant update to its core algorithm that is now widely considered to be one of its most impactful changes to date. The March 2024 Core Update, as the update is called, is also one of Google’s most anticipated, given how much the content landscape has changed since the explosion of generative AI technologies in late 2022. Google’s announcement of the update was, on the surface, fairly harmless. Virtually every update Google has ever rolled out has seemingly been for giving users of its search engine more value. However, because this was the first major core algorithm update since generative AI went mainstream, search engine optimisation (SEO) experts and other digital marketers were understandably apprehensive, since generative AI technologies have become just another part of day-to-day content creation. As with all previous Google updates, the initial rollout of the March 2024 Core Update was soon followed by a lot of confusion. Some digital marketers made bold claims that Google was punishing all detected instances of AI use, though most others seem to have provided a more measured view.

Why Did Google Roll Out the March 2024 Core Update?

The primary objective of the core update was to improve how Google assesses content and interprets user intent, something that has become necessary because of the proliferation of low-quality AI-generated content. Unlike previous updates which had a comparatively more limited scope, this one integrated the principles of the Helpful Content Update (HCU), unveiled in September 2023, directly into the core ranking algorithms. This integration means Google’s algorithms should now better able to prioritise content that is original, useful, and engaging over content designed primarily to manipulate search rankings. Whether it actually does what Google claims it’s supposed to do is not completely clear. However, a few months onward, the update seems to have done a fair job of improving the relevance and quality of typical search engine results pages (SERPs).

Key Changes and Enhancements Introduced by the March 2024 Core Update

  • Integration of Helpful Content Principles. The direct embedding of the helpful content criteria into the core algorithm means that content helpfulness is now a fundamental part of how all content is evaluated by Google. This also means that helpfulness is considered alongside other core metrics like Experience, Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness (E-E-A-T).
  • Broader Scope. Aside from downgrading “unhelpful” content, the update also tweaks how Google Search processes user queries and defines relevance. The update seems to have resulted in a rather broad approach affecting more parts of the search experience than SEOs may typically account for. Aside from merely optimising for keywords, website owners should also look into improving page speed, cultivating genuine user interaction, and providing content with real value.
  • Long-Term Impact. This update probably signals a long-term shift in how content quality is evaluated, not just on Google, but on the other search engines that typically follow the tech giant’s lead. As far as Google Search goes, its future updates are likely to build on the foundation laid by the March 2024 changes.

What Does it Mean for AI-Generated Content?

There has been speculation that the update directly targets AI-generated content. In fact, you will not find a shortage of SEO professionals who make that claim. So far, however, high-quality AI-generated content seems to be unaffected, with many website owners reporting increases in organic traffic despite them having leaned into AI-assisted content creation in the previous year. For now, it seems that so long as published content is original, engaging, and genuinely helpful, it is likely to perform well in this new paradigm, regardless of its origins.

What to Do if Your Site Has Been Penalised

  • Hope for a Corrective Update. If you believe your website has been unfairly impacted, doing nothing may be the right move. In the past, Google has often spent several months fine-tuning recently launched algorithms after major updates to address unintended consequences. If you change things up too drastically, your site might inadvertently send the wrong signals once the update has been finalised. In the meantime, however, you may want to look into alternative approaches for your digital marketing.
  • Enhance Content Originality. Your content must try to add to the discourse revolving around a topic. Fortunately, you don’t always have to be a contrarian or go the clickbait route to do this. Sharing first-hand knowledge and expert opinions in your own words is often enough. If you have the resources, you can also engage in original research or critical reexaminations of existing data. Creating original media assets like images, videos, and infographics can also further enhance the value of your content.
  • Make Your Content More Helpful. You can never go wrong if you focus on being genuinely helpful to your audience. Strive to solve real problems experienced by your audience and provide unique insights when you can. Directly engage with your audience and tap into search query reports to understand what your audience values.
  • Optimise Content Presentation. Make your content easy for human visitors to read and navigate. Use headings, short paragraphs, bullet points, and tables of contents to simplify the reader experience, and consider including a TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) section near the top to quickly meet the user’s needs.
  • Develop E-E-A-T. Google has been encouraging all website owners to nurture and showcase Experience, Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness for years now. If you haven’t developed a strategy for earning these yet, it’s about time you did. Start by doing the following:
    • Showcase Experience: Humanise case studies with personal anecdotes.
    • Establish Expertise: Highlight qualifications and demonstrate them with in-depth content.
    • Build Authoritativeness: Gain peer recognition, write for authoritative publications, and earn backlinks.
    • Cultivate Trustworthiness: Ensure visitor security and offer clear disclosures on your website.

Stop Writing for Machines

With some exceptions, most of the websites that were ultimately penalised by Google following the March 2024 Core Update were probably flagged because of poor content quality—not because they used AI. Many, if not most, of the sites that were rewarded on the SERPs after the update also used AI, so AI usage alone probably isn’t enough to trigger Google’s disfavour. If anything, it’s the predictable tendency of digital marketers to write for search engine bots that is likely to blame. Websites with good content stewardship and pro-audience editorial policies overwhelmingly benefitted from the March 2024 update, regardless of whether they used AI. Those that did overwhelmingly applied a human touch to better appeal to human audiences. After the last tweaks to the update are rolled out, “writing for the machines” in the manner that once typified SEO-centred content creation may no longer be a way to earn your place on Google’s search engine results pages. This shift underscores the critical importance of conducting marketing and SEO activities that fully understand the value of creating content for human readers. By focusing on the needs and interests of human audiences rather than solely catering to search engine algorithms, your business will be able to drive more authentic, more meaningful, and more sustainable results.

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