Publishers Slammed by Latest Google Update

Traditional publishers are feeling a chill from Google since the middle of last month, according to D. Eadward Tree in Publishing Executive.

“Google’s long love affair with traditional, respected publishers may have come to an abrupt end last month,” Tree writes.

“Such venerable publishing brands as The AtlanticVanity Fair, and Harvard Business Review suffered declines in U.S. Google search traffic of more than 40% during the week after the company updated its core algorithm on March 12, according to Searchmetrics.”

(This is unsettling news and comes on the heels of Facebook’s rather dramatic “Publishers, save yourselves” announcement back in February. It’s especially troubling given the current attitude of mistrust and fake news on digital channels; traditional publishers are more needed than ever, and these roadblocks to engagement are not good for consumers.)

Tree notes that the apparent “winners,” with traffic boosts of 10% and up, are online-only content providers like Buzzfeed, TechCrunch, Space and The Wrap. What’s going on? Tree has some key insights into what may be happening.

“Google used to judge the authoritativeness of content almost entirely on the web site’s reputation, but it shifted last year to placing more emphasis on the author’s expertise,” Tree writes. “So it seems, for example, that health-related searches are more likely to turn up content written by physicians and less likely to highlight articles by healthcare journalists.”

Then there’s the demise of Google+. Publishers used Google+ profiles for their journalists to add credibility and authority; this strategic advantage is now gone.  And some big names in traditional publishing are in hot water these days, leading to credibility gaps that are impacting the entire industry.

“Keep in mind that Google has a patent for using ‘natural language processing to determine whether people are generally saying positive or negative things’ about a business,” Tree notes. These bad apples could be adding a general stink to the whole barrel.

Then, of course, there is Google’s new preference for user-generation content over brand-generated, plus the addition of paywalls on news sites.

The publishing trend of shifting toward more revenue from readers has two downsides from a search standpoint: 1) More pop-up and interstitial ads, which Google hates, to promote subscriptions. 2) Fewer links from other sites. On my blog, for example, I make a conscious effort to avoid linking to sites with paywalls, leaky or otherwise.”

Tree’s insights are excellent, as usual. His recommendation? Don’t look for a silver bullet that will magically fix this, but “… take what Glenn Gabe calls the ‘kitchen sink approach’: ‘Google is evaluating many factors when it comes to these broad core ranking updates. My advice is to surface all potential problems with your site and address them all.’”