The Verge recently posted an article by reporter Mia Sato on how the internet has ‘reshaped itself around Google’s search algorithms’. The article examines the effect that SEO is having on the user experience of Google, and how things might look in the future if current trends continue.

Sato starts by giving an example of using Google to answer a question she was curious about: are divorce papers public record in New York?

I did a quick Google search to find out.

The search results page was filled with my question’s exact words, repeated across site after site — websites for law firms, posts on forums, ads for creepy lookup tools — but the answer to my actual question was harder to find. At the top of the results page on my phone, Google offered two featured snippets of information quoting different websites. The first one: “Divorce records are not public in New York due to the sensitive nature of many divorce proceedings.” The second: “Due to the state’s underlying legislation regarding family law cases, each divorce is a matter of public record.”

Google bolded both snippets, but it wasn’t clear to me how they squared. I clicked on both.

This led Sato to discover an ecosystem she was previously unfamiliar with: law firms churning out articles with the goal of increasing their chances of being discovered on Google by users searching for legal services. The blogs were full of keywords, and existed for the primary purpose of search engine optimisation. But who is writing these myriad articles? Sato spoke to a self-employed content creator who works in this realm:

Many of these blog posts are written by people like E., a self-employed content writer who juggles law firm clients that want Google-friendly content. E. does not have a legal background; they’re just a competent writer who can turn in clean copy. They trawl health department records, looking for nursing homes that get citations for neglect or other infractions. Then E. writes a blog post about it for a firm, making sure to include the name of the offender and the wrongdoing — keywords for which concerned patients or families will likely be searching. (E. requested anonymity so as to not jeopardize their employment.)

E’s name does not appear on the articles that are published by their clients, but Google users come across their content – and content by similar content writers – all the time. Organisations use SEO to increase their visibility online, and hopefully win more business. And Google is so all-encompassing that we are even seeing SEO efforts in real life. Sato gives the example of brick-and-mortar businesses ‘picking funny names like “Thai Food Near Me” to try to game Google’s local search algorithm’.

The relentless optimizing of pages, words, paragraphs, photos, and hundreds of other variables has led to a wasteland of capital-C Content that is competing for increasingly dwindling Google Search real estate as generative AI rears its head. You’ve seen it before: the awkward subheadings and text that repeats the same phrases a dozen times, the articles that say nothing but which are sprayed with links that in turn direct you to other meaningless pages. Much of the information we find on the web — and much of what’s produced for the web in the first place — is designed to get Google’s attention.

In some sense, content writers might see humans as a secondary audience – they are writing primarily for Google itself. Social media is full of advice on how you can ‘hack the algorithm’ and increase your engagement, but Google is outside of this and that makes it more difficult to crack. The average user doesn’t have an understanding of how Google works, and why it ranks one website above another.

Bit by bit, the internet has been remade in Google’s image. And it’s humans — not machines — who have to deal with the consequences.

1. Site performance and accessibility

Sato writes that there’s a disconnect between Google’s public messaging, and the realities of how the search engine works.

Publicly, Google representatives like search liaison Danny Sullivan give a simple, almost quaint answer to business owners who want help: you just need to make great content for people, not Google’s robots.

At the same time, Google’s “SEO Starter Guide” is nearly 9,000 words long with dozens of links to additional material. There are several SEO industry publications, plus an untold number of scrappy blogs, marketing firms, and self-proclaimed SEO gurus promising to demystify Google’s black box algorithm.

She goes on to say that it feels as though the guidelines are there to protect Google’s reputation, rather than help users get search traffic. However, optimising a page for Google does come with some objective positives: fast loading sites, and alt text to make the internet more accessible. Google’s Core Web Vitals, which we’ve written about before, help to suppress sites intrusive ads or slow-loading ads that negatively impact user experience.

A side of effect of these guidelines is homogeneity: 

Valerie Stimac Bailey, a professional blogger of a decade, remembers in 2021 when Google began using a new metric to rank sites, called “page experience,” that emphasized giving readers a “delightful” web to browse. Passing Google’s Core Web Vitals tests became all the more important — Google would look at load times, interactivity, and whether visual elements would move around unexpectedly. 

Bloggers like Stimac Bailey, along with an untold number of other site operators and web companies, saw the writing on the wall: Google might not like your old site, with its giant logos and custom fonts, or the ads that cause text to jump around. Companies like Mediavine, a popular ad-management company, released web design frameworks optimized for this new Google metric and Stimac Bailey, like many others, switched and redesigned her site. But she found the new theme “sterile,” she tells me, and it lacked customization options. It didn’t feel like part of her brand.

The Novagam team are able to build websites that are optimised primarily for the people using them. Secondarily, we consider Google, Core Web Vitals, accessibility, and SEO. Each project has its own set of requirements, and we agree on a balance of all these elements with each client before commencing design work. 

Sato writes, however, that the line between what is good for Google and what is good for human audiences has become increasingly blurred: 

Taking Google’s advice on creating good, fast, accessible websites sounds nice in theory; why not do what the search engine prefers and help your readers in the process? Creators I spoke to acknowledged that changes sometimes benefit Google and readers alike. But the line between what’s good for the search algorithm and what’s good for audiences has become blurry over time, and in some cases, the two are treated essentially as the same thing.

2. Page design and structure of articles

The project of optimizing your digital existence for Google doesn’t stop at page design. The content has to conform, too.

Sato gives the example of question-based subheadings (e.g. “When is the best time of year to rebrand?”). These headings help the reader to scan for the information they need, and Google uses subheadings to determine the Search ranking of each page. Historically, subheadings have been an easy, fast way to juice content for maximum visibility.

Some bloggers and outlets scrape the “People Also Ask” panel on search results pages for ideas: the Google-curated section spits out strangely worded or oddly specific questions like, “What is the healthiest vegetable 2023?” and “What two vegetables can be eaten raw?”

Sean Bromilow, a food writer based in Canada, has reformatted his blog posts in hopes that Google will pick up his content for placement in these fields. On a page for cucamelons, he added an FAQ section featuring questions like, “How do you eat cucamelons?” and “Are cucamelons a GMO?”

“I did that in direct response to Google’s [People Also Ask questions] that they introduced,” he says.

The Q+A format can be useful for moving an article forward and sharing information in an effective way, but some articles use the question-based subheadings in a clunky way, repeating the same phrases and shoe-horning in keywords. From a user perspective, this leads to confusion rather than clarity.

[M]any websites just do what they think Google wants or what’s being recommended by SEO experts, even if there’s no guarantee it will work. Google is both overbearing with manuals and withholding of clear answers. Give too much away, and everyone could game the system. In that void, creators and website operators throw things at the wall to see what sticks. And once they start designing their page for Google, it’s easy for their content to be fashioned for Google, too.

However, some business owners will choose to prioritise their own taste over Google’s. Stimac Bailey says:

At a certain point, I don’t care if it costs me time on site or it costs me ad views or costs me bounce rate or whatever it might be,” she says. “I like my site to look the way I want it to look, so that’s what I’m going to do.

We’re more than happy to support clients that opt for this approach, and understand that every client (and every project) has unique goals.

3. Keyword research and what content is made

Keywords are the secret ingredient that makes your content popular. Sato notes that many writers and marketers use an arsenal of research tools to ‘assess whether there’s enough interest to write the article or make the video in the first place’. 

When Stimac Bailey writes for her London travel blog, for example, she strategically picks topics that the site will be able to rank highly for — keywords and topics that are too competitive get put on the backburner.

“[My writers and I] work on picking topics together, but we need them to be productive because not only am I [monetizing them], I’m paying people for their work, and I’m trying to pay very fairly for that work,” she says. “It’s like, ‘I gotta find these low-competition, high-volume, magic keywords.” For a popular destination like London, those magic keywords don’t really exist.

Some topics are more niche, which makes it easier to find the right keywords. Sato talks to Catherine Cusick, who worked in media for years before creating ‘the Self-Employed FAQ’. Cusick’s guide answers questions that those new to self-employment can’t find answers to elsewhere, and so most of these answers are behind a paywall. The few articles that are free to access are where Cusick is able to apply SEO efforts. 

For these articles, she is only targeting long-tail keywords — lengthier search terms that are often more specific and, as a result, have fewer people searching for them and are less competitive.

“The keyword search term that I am going for is, ‘How to pay yourself from a single member LLC.’ My game is entirely long-tail keywords,” she says. “I’m not even competing with ‘How to pay myself LLC.’ Like, that’s too high of a term for me, let alone something like ‘LLC.’”

This approach does come with a challenge, Cusick finds there to be a disconnect between her audience and the SEO requirements she must meet to succeed. She believes that it’s now impossible for one article to meet both needs.

Sato returns here to Google’s refrain that web content should be helpful, relevant, and made for human audiences. Google spokesperson Jennifer Kutz spoke to The Verge, saying: 

“We’ve given longstanding guidance to create content that’s first and foremost helpful, and we work very hard to ensure that our ranking systems reward content designed for people first. Many sites perform well on Search simply by creating this helpful content, without undertaking extensive SEO efforts.”

She goes on to explain that Google has focused its efforts on reducing the amount of content that is created solely for search engines.

Sato expresses concern over a common tactic that is used to boost search rankings: tailoring content to exactly match common search terms. This prompts users to visit a page that they think will answer their question. 

That doesn’t guarantee content will be better or even good — and sometimes, how users search can create an echo chamber of errors, oft-repeated misinformation, or poorly researched content.

Sato speaks to Bromilow, the food writer, who experienced an instance of these multiplying errors. 

For a while, he says that Google was returning a litany of incorrect information about Ethiopian cardamom, or korarima. Though black cardamom and korarima look similar, their flavors are not. Websites and writers — and by extension, Google results — were confusing the ingredients. At one point, Bromilow says the first picture on Google Images was of the wrong plant. 

“If people are searching the wrong thing because that’s what they’ve been given, how do you return a result to them that explains that they’re incorrect, while also being found by them?” Bromilow says. “You don’t want to reinforce the mistake, right? It’s really weird and complicated.”

This issue is further complicated by the fact that many Ethiopian recipes are being translated from Amharic to English.

[H]ow should Bromilow spell the names of dishes? Should he use whatever spelling people are searching for the most? A post on savory pancakes sums it up, in which the Canadian Bromilow explains why he’s opted to omit the “u” in savoury: “The choice, while it breaks my maple-syrup filled heart, is obvious — savory is searched for more often, and using that spelling is more likely to [get] a recipe noticed by the all-powerful and oft-mysterious search engine algorithms.”

In order to gain some first-hand experience of what writing looks like when SEO is the primary purpose, Sato decided to put a popular SEO tool to the test. The tool, Semrush, is reportedly used by 10 million people. 

Among its suggestions: write a longer headline; split a six-sentence paragraph up because it’s “too long”; and replace “too complex” words like “invariably,” “notoriety,” and “modification.” Dozens of sentences were flagged as being confusing (I disagree) — and it really hated em dashes. I rewrote my prose over and over, but it didn’t seem to satisfy my robot grader. I finally chose one thought per sentence, broke up paragraphs, and replaced words with suggested keywords to get rid of the red dots signaling problems.

Sato was not impressed with the result, likening it to ‘an AI summary’ of her story. Paragraphs became predictable, and her sentences lacked nuance. Her writing had lost its voice. 

Now imagine thousands of website operators all using this same plug-in to rewrite content. No wonder people feel like the answers are increasingly robotic and say nothing.

4. Building “trust,” Google’s way

In December 2022, Google updated the metrics it uses to assess the quality of the content it serves up to searchers. Previously, the company looked for expertise, authority, and trust in webpages — now, the company said it would tack on experience to the rating system. In SEO parlance, it’s called E-E-A-T

Demonstrating experience by Google’s standards is supposed to show audiences that the person producing the content has participated in the topic matter in some way. If they’re writing about hairdryers, one way to show experience might be a reviewer mentioning how they’ve tested different products themselves. If someone is recommending a restaurant, they could indicate they dined there. The emphasis on experience and trust is in response to issues that, in some ways, are Google’s own creation — on Search, anyone can profit from clicks, including websites spewing disinformation. 

Sato notes that it’s easy to spot attempts to demonstrate ‘experience’: author bios that include words like ‘expertise’ and ‘credentials’, enhanced bylines to some stories, past tense verbs like ‘travelled’. All of these subtle changes serve to illustrate lived experience to Google, because in this case, experience means trustworthiness.

The problem, of course, is that anyone can write up an author bio promising years of expertise — and writing that you’re an expert doesn’t make it true. In November, Sports Illustrated was caught publishing articles attributed to AI-generated authors, complete with specific biographical information and what they like to do in their free time.

Reputable news outlets face the challenge of producing work that meets Google’s standards and is still high-quality. After all, integrity is essential in journalism: readers would notice if articles were crammed full of SEO keywords in lieu of high-quality information. 

Shelby Blackley, SEO editor at The Athletic, emphasizes that her work’s goal is to get reporters’ stories in front of readers without sacrificing the integrity of the journalism for Google’s algorithms.

“The philosophy that I’ve always had is the journalism comes first. And regardless of what we try to do from a search perspective, or what Google wants, [that] is always going to be after the journalism.”

WTF is SEO? Is a newsletter that Blackley co-writes with Jessie Willms, who is SEO editor at The Guardian. This newsletter serves as a guide for newsroom SEO editors that need to ensure the reporting quality of articles and also help make this content visible on Google. 

But even as publications double down to try to prove their experience, and AI-generated synthetic content floods platforms, Google is increasingly trusting and elevating individuals — and sometimes anonymous users. Earlier this summer, some in the SEO industry noticed that Reddit’s visibility on Google was skyrocketing, and Google later revealed it had deployed a “hidden gems” algorithm to surface content from forums or blogs. It’s as if Google saw the discourse about adding “reddit” to the end of search queries and decided to systematize it.

Sato writes that ‘sleazier’ SEO strategists are ready to exploit whatever Google prioritises.

There are product recommendation articles with titles like “Best Espresso Machine Reddit 2023” and entire websites filled with reviews “according to Reddit” that appear to be fake accounts talking to each other. Some subreddits are overrun with affiliate link spam.

The problem with setting up an ever-scaling system of winners and losers is that someone will always try to cheat and, at least for a bit, they’ll get away with it.

5. Generative AI and the future of Search

Earlier this year, Google unveiled what could become the biggest shift in how people find information online since the advent of Search: results generated using artificial intelligence.

When users opt in to Search Generative Experience (SGE), Google puts AI content front and center, spitting out AI answers and placing them above organic search results. Google has experimented with how to cite sources its AI tool is pulling from, but SGE takes up valuable real estate on the results page, pushing down standard links and potentially killing publishers’ traffic. Why keep scrolling if you can find an answer to your cooking question right at the top of the page?

Of course, SEO experts are already thinking about how this shift could impact their work, and what this will mean for content.

Publishers could double down on creating content in categories that Google won’t include in SGE, for example, like health, finance, or others where the risk of getting it wrong could have negative consequences. Google calls those categories Your Money or Your Life and says SGE, like Search, requires a higher bar for ranking in these areas. Publishers have a way to block Google from training its chatbot, Bard, on their work, but there’s currently no way to opt out of SGE without also disappearing from Search — a death sentence for most outlets.

It’s not just publishers who are thinking ahead: bloggers and influencers must also try to prepare for what this will mean for their businesses.

Zhen Zhou, who runs the cooking blog Greedy Girl Gourmet, recently started a second site focused on traveling in Asia with elderly relatives, believing it’s a niche that is relatively untapped on Google. The hope is that the travel blog and its contents will fare better in the face of generative AI search results than Asian cooking will.

“Maybe after a while the AI will trawl the internet enough to give you just as good recommendations, but at least I think there’s slightly more longevity there,” Zhou says.

Others are taking a different approach.

Cusick says she is doubling down on the tactics that work for her, which are often one-to-one, intimate interactions with potential customers.

“I have zero desire to satisfy a checklist for generative AI or suddenly change tactics in a way that doesn’t align with my values,” she says. These days, outside of Search, Cusick has found success through in-person speaking events or private Discord communities — instead of hitching her wagon to Google and its algorithm, these avenues feel more sustainable.

Even for Google itself, there might be changes ahead. There are signs that Google’s monopoly on search could be under threat.

The US v. Google antitrust case hinges on Search, its biggest and most ubiquitous product. Other platforms like TikTok are increasingly being used by young people as a search engine, and the video platform has been testing a partnership with Google to insert search queries into TikTok results pages.

The advent of AI has led SEO experts to think about how to reliably reach target audiences on a long term basis. The answer could be found with algorithms: they ebb and flow; ‘what sticks around is the audience base who comes straight to you.’ Sato acknowledges that although prioritising Google is a hard habit to break, that doesn’t mean Google cannot be usurped. She writes: ‘[T]hough 25 years of living in Google’s world feels eternal, it’s also a drop in the bucket. If Google knows anything, it’s that a young upstart can come along and change everything.

But no matter what happens with Search, there’s already a splintering: a web full of cheap, low-effort content and a whole world of human-first art, entertainment, and information that lives behind paywalls, in private chat rooms, and on websites that are working toward a more sustainable model. As with young people using TikTok for search, or the practice of adding “reddit” to search queries, users are signaling they want a different way to find things and feel no particular loyalty to Google.

It’s all but certain that a new era of content relentlessly optimized for AI search engines is bound to result in the same kinds of problems we have today. And with that realization, there is a chance at another way forward, without the almost religious dependence on Google; searching and creating for a vacillating overlord feels increasingly futile.

Sato ends by saying:

And when the creators and searchers leave the web for good, Google will have nobody to blame but itself.

However this story develops, Novagram will remain committed to creating websites that work the way our clients want them to: whether that’s a human-centric or artistic response, prioritising SEO, focusing on UX and UI, or a combination. Check out our work to see some of the websites we’ve built for clients in a range of industries.

We are Novagram, a UK creative agency
specialising in branding, design and digital development