Surviving the SEO Shake-Up: Publishers vs. Google’s New Game

Scott Messer of Messer Media analyzes the latest SEO challenges for publishers amidst Google’s shifting algorithms and priorities, offering insights and strategies for adapting to the new digital landscape.

Is Google Search broken? Definitely not, and that’s the wrong question to ask.

Two weeks ago, a beleaguered product review site, HouseFresh, dropped an update about their battle, and frustration with Google Search and the state of SEO competition overall. Similarly, SEO experts like Lily Ray and Glenn Gabe have been documenting the rollercoaster of the latest algorithm updates that have walloped publishers across the board.

We are all used to competition and tough days, but it is impossible to prepare for the agony of a foundational shift. The speed of change is accelerating, so it may be helpful to climb a bit higher on the mountain and gain some perspective. Here are my takeaways:

  1. Don’t hate the player, hate the game 
  2. Unless the player is Google (They’re playing a different game) 
  3. Play a different game

And that’s the hardest part. Everything that publishers have held holy about traffic is suddenly upside down. The traffic walls are closing in, and few exit routes are available.

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

For most of us, the rules of the traffic game are set by the search and social platform giants. We spent countless hours obsessing over the Facebook and Google Search “guidelines” to find exploitable advantages. When the preferences of these benefactors shifted whimsically, publishers were quick to adapt, pivot, or die.

Publishers learned early that building empires on borrowed traffic was risky, but compared to social media’s turbulence, Google felt like a predictable bedfellow. Conquering search was hard but meaningful. It was an artful dance of scaling quality content, or at least being of enough quality to win a coveted first position on a search results page. It was one of the few areas in digital publishing where your “library” held a residual value.

We live in a relatively free capitalistic society, and as such, anyone is allowed to enter the ring and play the game. Kudos to my publisher comrades for finding that angle, that wedge, that thing that made your scale possible. Perhaps we were jealous of those gains, but we were never mad at you for doing them.

As Brian Morrissey so eloquently put it, everything in media is a “racket.”  The pursuit of traffic is a hustle, and the monetization of that traffic is a racket. It’s survival of the fittest, but fitness is subjective to the rules of the game.

Desperate for success and strong on the scent of promised pageviews, publishers doubled down on perilous traffic games. Some flourished in influencer videos, native articles, social games, or long-tail SEO. Some ended in a bang, but many are bleeding out from a thousand paper cuts. Yet, scores of publishers find a way to carry on.

This publisher resiliency, however, comes at the price of polluting our resources. The distribution platforms (search, social, reader apps) are curators of content, responsible for delivering its customers an experience far from the garbage of the web. But we can’t have nice things, and we tilted these platforms beyond their intended capabilities. So did we break Google Search? Not really, but kinda.

The Pandemic broke Google Search. The recent SEO content explosion and resulting chaos were a perfect storm that Google wasn’t ready for. The surge in online shopping meant the world needed a gazillion more “best of” articles, and every gadget needed a review. Simultaneously, scaled SEO tools were being democratized, enabling just about anyone to find the right topics and keywords for expansion or attacking competitors. Throw in some zero-interest financing, AI-powered content generation, SEO-threadbois and a social-traffic squeeze, and you get an unmitigated overgrowth of…crap.

Google Is Playing a Different Game

The Tsunami of Crap, however, is part of a much larger weather pattern known as “the Enshittification.” By that logic, Google’s prerogative to dominate the ads business may summon its demise. The internet’s recent pivot to SEO ushered in hundreds of high-powered competitors of varying quality to the SERP battles. Content volume was metastasizing at unfathomable rates, and it was harming the utility of Google’s search results. Searchers resorted to manually adding “in Reddit” to queries or leaving Google entirely and using non-Google AI chatbots. I don’t think Google panics very often, but I’m pretty sure someone said, “I think we have a problem.”

In typical fashion, the Google Search team rolled out a steady barrage of ranking algorithm updates. They prioritized Reddit and Quora posts and other pre-filtered sources like Instagram and Twitter. Google launched Search Generative Experience(SGE) to stem the tide and flex some anti-competitive muscles. In their latest rounds of updates, Google handed out the dreaded manual action to publishers, a certain death knell for most.

Unphased, Google marches forward, as if this were all part of the plan. Amidst the chaos, the revenue teams were busy carving up the SERP page. Ads, SGE, and more ads.

Google is playing a fundamentally different game than everyone else in Search. Without a doubt, Google’s top prize is its “Google Ads” products. They are optimizing for their outcomes, which explicitly do not include sending traffic to publishers.

If you think that Google is optimizing for making revenue on your GAM account, think again. In 2023, Google pulled in 56.9% of its ad revenue ($175 BILLION) from “Google Search & Other,” and only 10.2% of revenue ($31 billion) from the Network.

They gained $12.6 billion in Search revenue YoY, and only lost $1.5 billion in the Google Network. Google footnotes that the “The overall growth [in Search & other revenue] was driven by interrelated factors including increases in search queries resulting from growth in user adoption and usage on mobile devices; growth in advertiser spending; and improvements we have made in ad formats and delivery.” (emphasis mine)

Got that last part? You’re not going crazy. Total search queries are up, traffic to publishers is down, and Search revenue is up. Google is here for the ads, their own ads.

Google Ad’s job is to sell products and take credit for it. Google will fight relentlessly to disintermediate anything that stands between a user and the product Google is promoting on behalf of a paying client. Generative AI searches will do this very well, as the service will synthesize myriad sources (including Reddit) to return a sourceless result and a well-placed carousel of ads. Raptive posits that SGE will cost creators  $2B in revenue,  and others predict traffic losses of 10%-25% and higher by 2026. 

In a recent interview on Bloomberg Originals, Google CEO Sundar Pichai discusses the shift in search and answers if Google Search is broken. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t think it’s broken but he does acknowledge that the AI boom created a glut of content and it’s Google’s responsibility to provide users with a quality experience.

Play a Different Game

It’s not about digital web publishers. Consumers are Google’s customers, and advertisers are their clients – everyone else is just expendable. HouseFresh is right about many things, especially that “Google doesn’t owe HouseFresh traffic.” Despite all that publishers, content creators and the general public have given to Google (ahem, structured data), Google doesn’t owe any of us anything.

A media company’s mission is to create and monetize their intellectual property. Under that lens, there is so much possibility, but it all starts with good IP and a plan. Endurance comes from adaptability. And that’s the hardest part.

It’s not easy to just uproot your business and find a new game to play, let alone be successful at it. Not everyone can be a direct traffic destination, and not everyone has the momentum to upstart a newsletter business. Sure, there are successful media companies that found a different game at their inception, but it’s unreasonable to expect that everyone can find a new niche.

I am truly empathetic for brands that will not survive, and I know that journalism, fair democracy, and so much more are at stake here. The internet is forever, but how it works will always change. But humans crave information and diversion, and thus media will endure.

As creators, we must always look forward and anticipate change. Make unforeseen pivots a planned part of the business plan. We must make investments based on their future return value, not based on justifying the sunk costs of our past. Let it go.

It’s time to take a long look out on the horizon and start to chart your new course. It’s out there for us, but we must work hard to find it. Godspeed to all.