Over the years, Google updates have caused publishers much grief. The play between content and SEO continues to evolve. Depending on which side of the spectrum you are on - with editorial and content businesses - there’s usually an SEO vs Content conflict. Then there are content and technical SEO aspects that need to be incorporated. Eventually, the fight is to outrank the competition.
We engaged in a conversation to understand the editorial side of the news, blogging, and content business. Speakers included Nandagopal Rajan, Editor New Media and Head of Reader Revenue at The Indian Express; Raju PP, Editor at Technology Personalized; Varun Krishnan, Editor-in-Chief at Fonearena; Tarek Abougabal, Head of MENA at iZooto and head of wtskora and Nash David, Director of Content Marketing at iZooto and an ex-editor.
How editors view SEO
As the head of Fonearena, Varun Krishnan has been dealing with SEO for about 18 years. He has been blogging since 2004 and has been introduced to SEO and search and has seen it evolve quite a bit. “Back then, there used to be PageRank with a toolbar as well. Google has now phased it out. With time we figured out that it’s just an indicator of how your page ranks, and as long as you are doing good in the big picture, it's all fine.”
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Nandagopal Rajan adds, “Earlier, core updates used to happen once in six months. But now, it’s a constant surprise because it's become so frequent and so unpredictable.”
Clearly, Google updates aren’t new. In fact, Google has been trying to highlight quality results through credible content for well over 10 years. Speakers in the session have been creating content for close to 20 years, yet there seems to be ambiguity in Google’s approach,
As Nash put it, “the current search guidelines document by Google hasn’t changed since 2019. The document says the priority must always be on original information reporting, research and analysis with a substantial, complete and comprehensive description of the topic. Or insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious.”
Even credible news websites operating at scale can fail to rank
Nash posed the question of content farms and their impact on credible news websites that operate at scale. Nandagopal with an experience of over two decades in an editorial environment answered, “The Indian Express is apparently the largest WordPress website in the world. On the point of original content, The Indian Express pushes out around 350 original stories each day. Out of which, 250 are byline copies and the rest are syndicated versions by agencies.”
He added that even names such as The New York Times do fewer stories each day. His content was going by Google’s logic, these many stories should have automatically given his publication a head start. But it doesn’t seem to. He continues to face situations where they consistently invest time in research. Sometimes this could be as long as six months before the story is published. As soon as they publish their stories, smaller, lesser-known websites simply reproduce the content with minor tweaks and outrank them.
He commented, “So it's all good on paper. But Google with all its technology could not do a good job of who broke a story or whose story it is originally.”
Nandagopal highlighted the need to invest in editorial professionals, “Coming to content farms, a lot of people do not invest in journalists or journalism. They would rather invest in people who curate content, which actually ends up in getting them a lot of traffic.”
The editorial interpretation of Google updates
Nandagopal added, “My reading from the last few updates - Google is trying to put original content in the front. So a lot of people who do not have a high proportion of original content or in-depth research are not doing so well on ranking. But even here more factors come into play - like what language do you use, which region are you catering to, and so on.”
Tarek remarked with his experience as a sports website operating at a much smaller scale in a different market, “it's amazing to hear that large websites such as The Indian Express are facing problems similar to small publishers. We launched in 2019, and saw some great growth happening in July-August that year. We had SEO going on and that's when we realized that Google is growing very strict, and by December 2019 they had changed everything.”
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He echoed similar sentiments shared by Nandagopal, “We have encountered the problem of getting outranked too. A lot of times we break a story first. But then we see media giants getting ranked by stealing our content. Word to word. And this is what Google as a black box is. The Middle East is known for a lot of spammy websites. In February this year, there was an update by Google to remove spammy websites. And for some reason, we were put under that umbrella. Snce then, we haven’t really been able to recover.” As a native Arabic speaker, Tarek runs his search queries in Arabic. Yet he sees his results in English. This is irrespective of whether he is physically based in the Middle East or UK.
Varun shared his experience as the Editor-in-Chief and CTO of FoneArena for almost 18 years, “Although we do not operate at the scale of The Indian Express, or produce 350 stories a day, we do close to 20-30. We see the same unpredictability. Sometimes a less important piece where you might not have put a lot of effort ends up getting ranked. The problem is also that spammers are getting smart as well. AI tools might end up being smarter than human editors.”
He also agreed with Nandagopal, “there might be times when someone else is sitting on your hard work and labor. I think it’s something you should be concerned about, but not become too obsessed with.”
Even Raju who has been running TechPP for more than 12 years now, added, “I feel more than just content, Google also focuses on user experience. Take the example of featured snippets. You might sometimes end up being on top. The volatility is high and then you don’t know what is working and what isn’t.”
Commenting on search results in a different language that Tarek mentioned earlier, Raju added, “The problem of Google uplifting regional content also comes up with video and YouTube. Google would prefer ranking a half-baked YouTube video in a regional language rather than a detailed article by a top tech website. The challenge is to keep experimenting and seeing what actually works.”
Nandu pitched in here, ”The ROI for creating original content is really low. Whereas the ROI for copying content is quite high, in Google's scheme of things.”
Google’s principles of Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (EAT)
Referring to the example of pushing less credible content that may be geographically relevant, Nash put out a question to the speakers. He referred to Raju’s example of a YouTube video, which even if half-baked, was just very evident that it's their own platform at the end of the day. That holds true even for a featured snippet. As long as you're playing into the rules that go far beyond just search algorithms, even if it's search features such as a featured snippet or the use of a platform such as YouTube, you’re good.
His question to the speakers was about coping mechanisms in dealing with these variables and the unwritten rule that if you prioritize or manage to comply with those requirements you are in a better place. Like leveraging a YouTube video or if you're adding up the schema rules to appear on a featured snippet you have your reward immediately rather than focusing on say the EAT principles that Google itself advocates - Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness.
Coping with search variables
Raju answered, “When I started, I was trying not to get sucked up in this game of SEO. I was writing and hoping that the content would speak for itself. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. So it's hardly about the content anymore, no matter how much you invest into original content, there is no guarantee of returns. No matter what publication or editor, they need to have 99% of knowledge of how SEO works today. You need to keep up with the updates.”
A look at Google updates over the past 11 years:
|2011||Panda||Priority on quality search results. The focus was to weed out content farms.|
|2012||Penguin||Ridding search results of spam links. Content farms were hit.|
|2013-14||numerous smaller updates||Mobile access and UX|
|2015||RankBrain||Built on EAT principles of Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness|
|2017||Maccabees||Further emphasis on high-quality content.|
|2021||numerous smaller updates||Numerous updates focused on enhancing UX and weeding out spam.|
Tarek added, “I feel that every Google update caters to Tier 1 countries and publishers. You’d have seen websites like Daily Mail doing a lot of click-baity content and getting ranked, whereas if we do the same, all of a sudden we would be penalized. So do you follow what everybody around is doing, or do you try to figure out what your niche is?"
"In the Middle East, the biggest problem that I face running a sports website is that football is all year round except summer which is the quiet period. So you are always competing all year long, trying to get to the top. Our website is always getting into top stories, but the pillar pages do not get ranked as much as I would want them to. So Google doesn’t address everybody, in my opinion, it only addresses the Tier 1 publishers. Also, all the information available for SEO is always related to ecommerce for some reason,” he said.
Is Google SEO a black box?
Nandagopal responded to Tarek's opinion, “Tier 1 and ecommerce. So Google is basically chasing revenue. Google's revenue will come from there, they are a business at the end of the day."
He added, "To clear the concepts - In a market like India, Google updates are necessary because 70% of your readers come via Google because India is still not as mature as a country like the US, where The New York Times has 60% of direct traffic. So they aren’t bothered by an update so much."
"Another interesting thing is how Google ranks content. It’s based on something called the 200 points and it does not exactly tell you what they are. It only gives you a vague idea of a few here and there. Also, it doesn't tell you the priority. The priority keeps changing, the pointer that was on #21 might tomorrow be #1 to get ranked,” he said.
Talking about Google as a black box, Nandagopal added, “The problem is that because it's a black box it gives rise to a lot of mumbo-jumbo. This mumbo jumbo is basically aimed at fooling Google. If you use SEO to work towards highlighting what is actually best on your website, you’ll see results, but unfortunately in India that does not happen.
Now the concept of thin content, if I am a publisher who is constantly publishing content around 100-200 words, Google starts penalizing them. It’s fine if you feel it's not good enough to rank, but you shouldn’t be penalizing publishers who do 100-word stories. This is a technical SEO problem. It's a publisher's content strategy, why should Google penalize them?”
Projects such as AMP can be a trend that fades away
Commenting on the views expressed, Nash added, “Given the dependence on Google for traffic, exclusivity takes a back seat. There are efforts to appear on search and top stories. So you always have to play by the rules. Once you play by the rules, you lose the element of exclusivity, and that further becomes a challenge to direct traffic.”
Varun offered his insight from a few years ago, “Google was pushing for AMP pages and would email and call publishers to do more on AMP. The project is still going on, but Google no longer displays AMP pages on top. Publishers who have invested in AMP pages still do it, but it's an additional hassle.”
“The rules of the game are ever-changing. First, they say you need to have a mobile-friendly website. Then they say SSL, and then they say you need AMP. Now it's all about speed. Next would be regional content. One good thing is the focus to enhance user experience, so I do understand that some amount of standards being set for the greater good is fine,” he added.
Varun believes some things are very one-sided, like AMP. He said, “They were earlier incentivizing publishers who worked for AMP, and suddenly they are not. And now I see a lot of push towards regional content. Google is incentivizing publishers who do regional content. So sometimes we publish in English and we are ranked down.”
Nash asked the speakers if they see a pattern here. Nandagopal answered, “No, there is no pattern. No pattern can sustain. The moment you think there is a pattern, an update comes. So I feel that this is intentional by Google. Three years ago, I have seen SEO people talk very confidently. They don’t do it so much now. One thing that Google is doing is to bring user behavior on your timeline. For example, as a diabetic, I always see one story on diabetes and one story on hypertension. But then I do not usually open it. I open topics that I am interested in or languages that I am interested in.”
Nandagopal added, “So we are seeing a lot of the premium content, which is basically a very high-quality, deep-dive kind of stuff that ends up on Google surfaces. So when you start investing in good content it starts appearing and that is the only kind of silver lining we are seeing. We don’t know how long it will last.”
How well is Google responding to paywalls?
Nash posed a question to Nandagopal given his experience with paywalls, “What is the response that you see from Google for content behind paywalls?”
Nandagopal replied, “Paywalls only work with a very small percentage of people. 85% of people only come to your website once. So even if you publish 5 premium pieces every month, it does not work for 85% of people. And the people who actually consume more than 5 stories are 10%. Now this 10% is where your paywall works. But with the scale of The Indian Express, this is a huge number. However, this is where it gets interesting. AMP pages are directly served by Google, so the traffic goes to Google. It is counted as a page view for us, but the paywall meter does not work there. Either you block the person in the AMP session itself or it's very tough. I have spoken to a lot of paywall people over the years. None of them have been able to find a fix to this. So in your paywall strategy, you have to let go of maximum traffic. Google is a bit of a problem there.“
The opinion on experimenting with content formats
Nash put a question across to Varun and Raju on the use of dynamic content or specification pages on most gadget and tech websites to gauge their opinion of its effectiveness. Varun said, “A lot of these things used to work in the past. But now I think the success rate is very low. A lot of content on the publisher's website can show up on Google’s website as well. For example, weather. Google does give the publisher the credit but the user doesn’t really click. Impressions are growing exponentially, but the clicks are not so much.”
Impact of the May Core Update
Talking about the impact of the latest Google Core update from May 2022, Tarek said, “The last update gave us some positive results, but not this time. Also, in the Middle East, the government blocks certain things like AMP for control. Egypt is one of those. So Google keeps emphasizing on why you need to do AMP, but there’s no way we can do it. Why does Google not find alternate solutions to these regional problems? Google only caters to top publishers and all top publishers in the Middle East are government-owned. Makes it very difficult for small publishers to get there. And the same goes for featured snippets. Earlier we used to get very excited, but then we realized it's not getting us any clicks. It is a problem.”
Raju added, “The update hasn’t really affected us much, but I would like to add on featured snippets. I think featured snippets give smaller websites the opportunity to rank above bigger names. Of course, the incentive of being there is less. But if you are not there, it's even worse.
It gives you an opportunity to rank, and target those specific keywords and you can do well.”
Varun responded next, “Some things went well, some things went down. It’s actually better if nothing changes. If things go bad, you have to work extra hard. And if things do well then the moment you are in celebratory mode, you are screwed in the next update.”
The opportunity to build your own audience
Nandagopal added, “I think we have not spoken about ways to cope up. The only way to do this is to reduce your dependency on Google and build your own audience. It’s not an easy job, it would take years but start early.”
Nash countered him, “I see Nandagopal you have already made the move, but what would be interesting to see is how publishers like Varun, Raju, and Tarek can cope with a challenge like that”
Tarek added, “Yes, you do need to build your audience but as you are growing you cannot ignore the Facebooks and the Googles. That is where your audience comes from initially. So I think you need to balance it.”
Varun, “Yes, building your own brand is key, and the hardest part too. Maybe tapping on other media like newsletter, Instagram, etc could help too.”
Raju added his concluding bit too, “Pretty much the same but just want to be blunt here and add that working with Google is far easier than winning loyal subscribers.”
Nandagopal aptly summed up the session with the takeaway: “The only constant is the update and then you move on.”
You can also listen to the recording on our Twitter page. Do follow us for more such conversations.