Is Google’s search algorithm hurting smaller websites?

A mobile phone with google's homepage is in the center of the frame. A bar chart is overlaid with 4 descending red bars. An arrow with a downward trajectory is above it. Everything is tinged in red.

I discovered recently that my website saw an abrupt, large drop in traffic from Google Search at the beginning of October of last year. When I looked in Google Search Console, I was surprised to see that the total clicks from Google Search for my website dropped 46% in just a 3-month period.

Google Console search results for for June until Dec 2023. It shows a big decline in total clicks in October.

Here are the Google Search Console figures for the August and November of 2023 to show the shift:

Period Total Clicks Total Impressions Average Click-through rate (CTR) Average position
August 2023 10.2K 501K 2% 18.8
November 2023 5.49K 336K 1.6% 19.8
-46% change -33% change

This was a head-scratcher because I did not change anything in this period. I consistently publish and update original content. I follow Google’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO) best practices as far as I can tell.

Fortunately, there is no commercial imperative for my website, so it does not hurt my pocket. Though, it is a disappointing development that people are finding my content far less often. Have I done something wrong? Or has Google changed drastically?

Has Google changed its algorithm for the worse?

The quality of Google’s search results has deteriorated. [1] [2] [3] Google is fighting against a tsunami of spammy content trying to game its algorithm. Also, it is trying to pivot more towards AI (Artificial Intelligence). This is yielding some unexpected results.

The most worrying trend is that websites like mine are losing a lot of search traffic for no apparent reason. It looks like some websites are being demoted.

The a-ha moment for me was when I read the BBC’s investigation into Google’s changes to its search algorithm. Their research has shown that over the last two years, updates meant to make Search more “helpful” has devastated many website owners who say they are following Google’s best practices.

Websites such as,,, and the have lost over 60% of their search traffic since September 2023; whereas Instagram, Quora and Reddit saw big gains. The trend is that the search algorithm appears to be favouring larger websites with user-generated content. According to Semrush, Reddit saw a surge that amounted to a 126% growth in traffic from Google Search since September 2023. This has contributed to its Q1 2024 earnings reaching $243m (£191m), an increase of a whopping 48% from the year prior.

What piqued my interest in all of this was the timing – September 2023 was seen as turning point – this was the same timeframe as my big decline! What happened in September 2023? 😵

Several times a year, Google makes significant, broad changes to their search algorithms and systems. Google refers to these changes as core updates. Core updates involve changes to Google’s algorithm aimed to make results better. Little to no detail is given on the changes. These changes are announced on the Google Search Status Dashboard. Here are the core updates towards the end of 2023:

I guess my website has been reclassified as spam! 😅

A spam pizza with the word 'spam' spelled out in spam meat.
Reclassified! Image credit: cookipedia, licensed under CC BY 4.0

Perhaps the spam websites that ingest and repurpose some of my content are dragging me down! 🤷‍♂️

Is Google demoting or reclassifying websites?

Google states that its core updates do not target specific pages or sites. It does not demote websites:

In fact, there’s nothing in a core update that targets specific pages or sites. Instead, the changes are about improving how our systems assess content overall. These changes may cause some pages that were previously under-rewarded to do better in search results.

Whatever the algorithm is actually doing, their reward system has flaws. The cream is not rising to the top of the rankings in some cases! I have seen a modest improvement on the ranking of my content since last year, but it is still well below what it was. Google’s says the following on assessing your own content:

[…] pages that experience a change after a core update might not have anything wrong to fix. That said, we understand that those who may not be performing as well after a core update change may still feel they need to do something.

We suggest focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward. To learn more about how to create content that’s successful, see our help page on how to create helpful, reliable people-first content. It has questions that you can ask yourself when assessing your own content.

The common refrain is to focus on making high quality content for people (not the algorithm). The rest will take care of itself. This sounds like solid advice, but I would not follow it if your livelihood depends on Google rankings. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a dark art that allows some folks to prosper doing almost the opposite. Let’s look at one such cautionary tale.

The cautionary tale of HouseFresh

HouseFresh is a small independent web publication focusing on air quality products. The site was started in 2020 by Gisele Navarro who had experience in reviewing these types of products. She does firsthand rigorous tests on purifiers to give accurate, detailed information. HouseFresh is an example of what was a burgeoning industry of independent publishers producing exactly the sort of helpful, reliable content that Google says it wants to promote.

Things went well in the beginning for HouseFresh, its reviews started to climb high in the rankings on Google for terms related to air purification. The website grew into a thriving business with 15 full-time employees. Then, in September 2023, they noticed that they were displaced for some search terms by lifestyle magazines and media outlets, which were not testing the products. The hammer blow was Google’s algorithm update in March 2024 that led to a 91% loss of search traffic to HouseFresh. That is catastrophic.

HouseFresh outlined their hypothesis on how they lost rankings on terms that they held for some time. For example, the query “best budget air purifiers” that HouseFresh ranked at #2 since May 2023 is now led by sponsored posts, best-of lists from big media sites, advice from Reddit threads, and Google Shopping product listings. They have been outmanevoured by publishers who have developed content strategies that can corner some terms and topics.

Search on for 'best budget air purifiers' on may 31 2024. The top results are for sponsored results, new york times, reddit, better homes and garden wired.

One such SEO content strategy is called “keyword swarming". Gisele was tipped off about this strategy by an self-proclaimed former employee of Dotdash Meredith, a large American digital media company that operates websites across many categories such as Lifewire (tech), The Spruce (home and food), VeryWell (health), TripSavvy (travel), and ThoughtCo (education). The strategy is to identify small sites that have cemented themselves in Google results for a specific valuable term or topic, and publish vast amounts of lower quality content on these terms. It can be easier to climb the ranking if you have a network of websites that can link to each other. This could explain why you can see multiple articles published by websites belonging to digital media companies ranking at the top of Google for subjects that are at best, tangentially related to their general content.

While these visible patterns support the claim that digital media groups are gaming Google, there is an element of guesswork at play – correlation does not imply causation. Whatever the exact strategies employed by digital marketers are, they are succeeding in the short-term. Google is getting a bloody nose from the targeted production of content at scale and domain reputation manipulation.

It is awful when SEO exploitation costs honest folks jobs. It appears that the algorithm is not demoting websites per se, but it is rewarding the wrong behaviour. Content production for the web is a precarious trade. You don’t want to get down in the dirt to fight organizations that are employing these tactics.

Is Google able to tackle site reputation abuse?

Google has been more vocal about how they are tackling spammy, low-quality content. They’ve made several updates to their spam policies over the last year. Google rolled out a new spam factor called “site reputation abuse” that came into effect on May 5th. Google sees site reputation abuse as websites with their own good quality content also hosting low-quality content provided by third parties with the goal of capitalizing on the hosting site’s strong reputation. For example, a third party might publish air purifier reviews on a trusted educational website to gain ranking benefits from the site.

Moz reported that there has been signs of Google penalising domains on reputation abuse, nine of the top ten sites penalised were a coupon or discount code subdomain. These ones are probably the clearest violators and are easier to single out. I guess time will tell if they can consistently weed out offenders and restore more parity.

A collection of 2,500 internal documents from Google has been leaked this month filled with details about data the company collects. The documents have been confirmed as authentic. Google spokesperson Davis Thompson told The Verge in an email, “We would caution against making inaccurate assumptions about Search based on out-of-context, outdated, or incomplete information”. While I agree that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on a clutch of leaked douments, there is merit in analysing the documents to get a sense of what the company is thinking.

The most notable revelation is that Google representatives have misled the public in the past when discussing how they assesses and rank content for Search. Rand Fishkin said the following after reviewing the documents:

Many of their claims directly contradict public statements made by Googlers over the years, in particular the company’s repeated denial that click-centric user signals are employed, denial that subdomains are considered separately in rankings, denials of a sandbox for newer websites, denials that a domain’s age is collected or considered, and more.

Testimony from the antitrust suit by the US Department of Justice previously revealed a ranking factor called Navboost that uses searchers’ clicks to elevate content in search. The evidence strongly supports that click-centric user signals are being used as a ranking factor contrary to previous public statements by Google.

If Google are choosing to make clear false claims about Search to the public, it makes them less credible. I will treat their recommendations with a larger dose of skeptism in future.


The decisions Google make on Search have a profound impact on anyone relying on the web for business. Google is continually fighting against people trying to game its algorithm and regularly updates its algorithm to combat spammy content. Recent changes have harmed small businesses, even those who follow Google’s best practices. My own experience is that I saw quite an abrupt, big decline in the rankings for the content on my website towards the end of last year. There was no apparent reason.

Digging into why this is happening has been eye-opening. Google is getting a bloody nose from the targeted production of content at scale and domain reputation manipulation. Whatever the exact strategies employed by digital marketers are, they are succeeding in the short-term. The investigative work from the BBC shows that one possible corrective measure being employed by Google is to favour big websites with user-generated content, such as Reddit, as more reliable sources. None of this is good news for small independent publishers.

You could say SEO is an unavoidable game and is just a fact of the web. This is a tired rigmarole. This seems different to me. Recent document leaks show that Google has misled the public in the past when discussing how they assesses and rank content for their search engine. Making “helpful” content is not enough. We are being left to read between some blurry lines.

P.S. Also last week (May 30), people have reported that Google Search Console is showing a decline in the number of links reported in the links report. It appears to be an issue that Google is investigating.

  1. It’s not just you, Google Search really has gotten worse - Mashable ↩︎

  2. Is Google Getting Worse? A Longitudinal Investigation of SEO Spam in Search Engines by Janek BevenDorff, Matti Wiegmann, Martin Potthast, and Benno Stein ↩︎

  3. Google just updated its algorithm. The Internet will never be the same - BBC ↩︎