Nathan Landale

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Google is getting even worse for independent sites

An article in HouseFresh, a site dedicated to air quality, hit a nerve in February: it outlined how independent publishers have been gradually bumped out of Google search results, with big media companies taking their place. Months later, the situation has only gotten more dire, according to a follow-up published by HouseFresh.

In February, HouseFresh managing editor Gisele Navarro called out publishers like BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone as some of the culprits that publish content about air purifiers despite a lack of expertise — but Google rewards these sites with high rankings all the same. The result is a search results page filled with SEO-first content, designed to do not much more than rank highly on Google.

In a piece published today, she says HouseFresh has “virtually disappeared” from search results: search traffic has decreased 91 percent in recent months, from around 4,000 visitors a day in October 2023 to 200 a day today.

“We lost rankings we held for months (and sometimes years) for articles that are constantly being updated and improved based on findings from our first-hand and in-depth testing, our long-term experience with the products, and feedback from our readers,” Navarro writes. “Our article [previously ranked at #2] is now buried deep beneath sponsored posts, Quora advice from 2016, best-of lists from big media sites, and no less than 64 Google Shopping product listings. Sixty. Four.”

Google didn’t immediately respond on the record to a request for comment.

The HouseFresh article is a fascinating deep dive into a slice of the internet that is so ubiquitous it’s easy to take for granted: product reviews. Nearly every news site has some of this, even if the products aren’t directly related to the expertise of the outlet. HouseFresh calls out Forbes, for example, which has published a boatload of articles about cats and puppies as a way to try to get readers to buy pet insurance. There is no obvious editorial necessity for Forbes to write articles like “Top 20 Largest Dog Breeds” or “What Fruits Can Dogs Eat?” — until you take a look at the sidebar of these stories, which are filled with dozens of affiliate links for pet insurance that Forbes gets a kickback from every time someone signs up.

This kind of SEO-first affiliate content is being deployed ruthlessly at countless sites. Last year, when CNET was discovered to be using artificial intelligence tools to produce dozens of stories, it was SEO-heavy “evergreen” articles it focused on first. In the cases of Sports Illustrated and USA Today’s AI content debacles, it also was product reviews that were being churned out using automation tools.

The aggressive targeting of top Google search spots — with or without AI — by big media outlets affects small sites like HouseFresh the most. A significant loss of traffic for independent publishers is often enough to shutter an outlet entirely.

“This drop in Google search traffic has affected our income, our capacity to sustain our team, and our plans for the future,” Navarro writes. But HouseFresh seems to be going down swinging: the outlet promises to “uncover scam products” by reviewing the products that big publishers are recommending in product guides.

“And if Google doesn’t want to rank our reviews, we’ll use their own broken results against them to get our takedowns in front of people before they waste their money on an overpriced, overhyped product.”

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