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Google is changing its search results to weed out SEO spam

Among other tweaks, it’s targeting automated content that’s harder to spot.

Chesnot via Getty Images

Amid complaints that its search results have declined in quality, Google is tweaking its algorithms to do a better job of weeding out spammy or automated content. The company says the ranking updates, arriving in May, will “keep the lowest-quality content out of search.” Of particular note, Google says its engine will be better at eradicating today’s automated (read: AI-generated) content that’s harder to spot.

Google says it’s taking what it learned from a 2022 algorithmic tuneup to “reduce unhelpful, unoriginal content” and applying it to the new update. The company says the changes will send more traffic to “helpful and high-quality sites.” When combined with the updates from two years ago, Google estimates the revision will reduce spammy, unoriginal search results by 40 percent.

“This update involves refining some of our core ranking systems to help us better understand if webpages are unhelpful, have a poor user experience or feel like they were created for search engines instead of people,” Google product management director Elizabeth Tucker wrote. “This could include sites created primarily to match very specific search queries.”

Google sounds like it’s targeting AI-generated SEO spam with its notes about scaled content abuse. The company says it’s strengthening its approach to the growing problem of sites that generate garbage automated articles (as well as zeroing in on old-fashioned human-created spam).

“Today, scaled content creation methods are more sophisticated, and whether content is created purely through automation isn’t always as clear,” Tucker said. Google says the changes “will allow us to take action on more types of content with little to no value created at scale, like pages that pretend to have answers to popular searches but fail to deliver helpful content.”

AI-generated content farms shotgun-blasting content to game the system are an increasing problem, so Google’s changes — if they’re as effective as promised — will be welcome. Although sites spamming that content exclusively may be easier to spot, it will be interesting to see if scenarios where once-reputable outlets experimenting with AI-generated spam (CNET and Sports Illustrated are recent examples) will be affected.

Another change to the algorithm will tackle the practice of otherwise reputable sites hosting low-quality content from third parties designed to leech off the site’s good name. Google provides the example of an educational site hosting a third-party payday loan review. “We’ll now consider very low-value, third-party content produced primarily for ranking purposes and without close oversight of a website owner to be spam,” Tucker wrote.

Finally, Google’s updates will allegedly do better at rooting out expired domains bought by someone else and transformed into click mills. The search engine will begin treating those websites as spam.

You won’t see the improvements immediately as Google is giving site owners a two-month notice to adapt accordingly. The search engine changes will take effect on May 5.