'Google's search engine is broken': How an algorithm change is costing people their livelihoods?

Earlier this year, Google made significant changes to its search algorithm and spam filters to get rid of low-quality content, but the effects proved devastating for some smaller websites.

Online companies have been forced to consider downsizing and even closing their portals after Google's massive overhaul in March and April caused a catastrophic drop in traffic.

Giselle Navarro is one of the "lucky ones" whose website was affected.

The 37-year-old Argentinian runs the HouseFresh website with her husband. As of 2020, they have found a niche in air purifier reviews.

No ads, no product placement, no scams - if a product is bad, reviewers on the site say so. The couple earns from clicks to Amazon. But Google's update changes everything.

"We found that from number one in the rankings - because we were one of the few people who actually did real reviews - we didn't even appear (in the search engine results)," Navarro told AFP.

A year ago, HouseFresh received about 4,000 Google search referrals a day, but that number has since dwindled to about 200.

The drop in business was so great that Navarro was advised to shut down the site and start over.

Updates are "useful"

At the heart of Navarro's frustration, and that of many other sites, is the lack of clarity about how Google ranks results.

The American firm is notorious for hiding its algorithms - so much so that an entire industry known as "search engine optimization" (SEO) has sprung up trying to game the algorithm to get more clicks.

The latest update has sent SEO experts into a frenzy, desperately trying to figure out why some sites are winning and others are going "invisible".

In an email to AFP, Google said the change was made specifically to provide users with "fewer results that feel like they were made for search engines".

"The only changes we're rolling out are those that our experiments have shown will significantly improve outcomes for people. And we truly believe these updates have been helpful," the company said.

Still, Navarro showed in a blog post in May that people searching for product reviews are increasingly getting ads and content that appear to be AI-generated or SEO-optimized.

Tough Market"

Other content boosted by Google's update includes user-generated content from websites like Reddit and Quora.

Google defended this approach, saying that "people often want to learn from the experiences of others," adding: "We conduct rigorous testing to ensure that the results are useful and of high quality."

However, officials at one European news website indicated that their articles were now regularly overtaken by irrelevant content from Reddit.

The site's owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said that since the update, referrals from Google have dropped by 20 to 30 percent. Redundancies will be inevitable.

"In this already difficult market, this is a serious problem for independent publishers like us," the portal said.

All the affected businesses AFP spoke to said they were now urgently looking for ways to move away from relying on Google searches - whether through a newsletter, creating a podcast or finding other ways to attract an audience.

The head of a financial technology news publication said that all of his competitors hired SEO firms "to buy traffic."

"We don't do that, but it's getting harder for us because those sites didn't go down as much as ours did after the Google update," he said.

Navarro has turned to video previews and newsletters to try to reconnect with her audience. And despite the bad experience with Google, she remains optimistic about the web.

The numerous messages of support and the increase in the number of referrals from alternative search engines such as DuckDuckGo encourage her.

"All of humanity's knowledge is on the web, and that's worth something. I don't want to give it up just because Google is broken," Navarro emphasized. | BGNES