How the Google HCU + Core Algorithm Updates Impacted Blogs and Independent Voices

I had never been affected by an algorithm update before in my entire 5-year blogging career.

I’d seen chatter in the Mediavine Facebook group many times, but thankfully I scrolled right past it as it just wasn’t relevant to my site.

Other bloggers told me “Just wait, you’ll get hit one day,” but part of me didn’t believe them.

That’s because I write about topics that few others write about, yet a decent amount of people search for. I do this because I know my niche well and I write the articles that I myself wish existed.

This comes so naturally to me that I never even bought a keyword research tool. The keywords are just too obvious to me.

My time was coming, however.

September 2023 Helpful Content Update

In September 2023, the SEO and independent blogging industry suffered the equivalent of a 10 richter earthquake. 

Google’s “Helpful Content Update” shifted previously stable keyword rankings, and catapulted bloggers and niche content websites to the bottom of a very long list.

It didn’t matter if you had original photography, first-hand experience, or professional credentials.

If you ran a blog, you were out.

Bloggers who previously ranked for even low-volume, long-tail queries were effectively removed from the SERPs, despite providing the best answer to a query. 

Most long-tail queries now show results for high-level web pages that discuss the general topic.

As an example, searching Google for “how to divide estimated taxes when most income is received in q4” brings up a long list of articles focusing on generally paying your estimated taxes, despite the query requesting information about how to handle Q4-heavy income (such as Christmas tree sellers).

Doesn’t seem so helpful, if you ask me. 

Most media companies won’t create an article around low-volume, specific (“long-tail”) queries. It just isn’t worth their time. 

That’s where bloggers filled a much-needed role. They would produce the content needed and serve the user.

Google’s Helpful Content Update changed all that. 

Google now forces its users to read corporate media company-owned and high DA website articles on the general topic if these publications haven’t written an article to address the specific query at hand.

Similarly, Google dropped most independent sites that managed to rank for high-volume queries off the first several pages in favor of primarily large corporate media companies, established commerce websites, and service professionals.

Essentially, Google sent a strong message saying: “If you own a content website, we don’t want you.”

Google made it clear it wanted to show websites owned by people who actually worked in the field they were writing about.

They wanted to show websites written by people, not bloggers.

User-generated content forums like Reddit and Quora shot up in the search results. Google presumed these people weren’t motivated by making money and thus their words were seen as more “authentic.”

Bloggers tried to prove their humanness by including links to their LinkedIn pages, but the damage was done.

Google didn’t trust bloggers anymore.

Ranking Independent Blogs is a Risk

I can understand why Google did this, even if it results in less helpful search results for many queries. 

The truth is that I’ve always been surprised that Google ranked independent websites at all. 

The fact that anyone can spin up a WordPress website and rank for a search term just by publishing long-form content is quite surprising and inherently risky. 

It leaves much room for abuse, as we all know. 

In the past, Google has managed to cut the spam out of its results fairly well. 

While the SERPs were not devoid of spam altogether, they were mostly clean and helpful. 

So what changed?

The Introduction of AI

If you ask me, AI changed all that. 

The introduction of ChatGPT in 2022 meant that bloggers (and spammers) could produce content at a much faster pace than ever before.

Before long, AI article-writing tools like Jasper, Koala, and Byword were becoming mainstream in the blogging world. 

These tools allowed bloggers to produce a piece of long-form content in a matter of minutes.

Influencers and high-ticket course peddlers like “Income School” promoted blogging as primarily a way to make money easily.

Instead of encouraging the public to write content about topics they know about, they pushed topics like “Blogging: Do Less, Get More” implying that blogging was nothing more than a tool to make money from.


They sold you courses, memberships, and site audits, all while refusing to reveal their own sites, further damaging the industry’s already shady reputation.

These videos and rhetoric resulted in the internet getting flooded with low-value, made-for-Google content.

Google’s Reputation

Partially because of this, Google’s reputation has nosedived in the last few years.

Many people have been so frustrated by reading long-winded SEO articles littered with pop-up ads, that they’ve resorted to appending “reddit” to the end of every search query in order to find what real people are saying.

The advent of AI meant that anyone could mass-produce content that hasn’t been fact-checked and rank it – potentially hurting people.

Consider the public reactions to the following hypothetical scenarios:

  • AI-generated misinformation is published on a DotDash Meredith-owned website.
  • Ai-generated misinformation is published on an anonymous blogger’s website.

Can you imagine the backlash these two scenarios would receive?

In the first case, all the backlash would go to the publication, its editors, and its parent company DotDash Meredith.

In the second scenario, all the backlash would fall on Google.

People would say: How could they put this website at the top of their results? How could they show this to people? How irresponsible!

Now do you see why Google punished independent, anonymous bloggers?

Between the frustration of reading wordy blog posts and the risk of AI misinformation, Google was in between a rock and a hard place.

It was – and still is – simply too risky for Google to show content that may contain false information, even if it’s published on a reputable website.

The Cost of Crawling the Web

At the same time, after watching several of Koray Tuğberk GUBUR’s videos, I learned that crawling the web is actually quite expensive. 

Google doesn’t want to crawl a bunch of junk SEO pages, of which bad-faith bloggers are creating millions every day thanks to AI and unnatural scaling techniques.

So what did they do?

Google Threw the Baby Out with the Bathwater

They destroyed everything. They threw the baby out with the bathwater.

It just isn’t profitable for Google to waste its resources to wade through junk AI content when it could simply rank editor-approved content written by real media companies.

Was it the right move?

Lots of SEOs speculated that Google would eventually reverse its algorithm updates after they saw and heard complaints that search results weren’t helpful.

But Google actually doubled down on its effort to kill niche blogs in the SERPs this March 2024.

Then, Google Came for Aged Domains 

The March 2024 Core Update saw Google target even more common SEO techniques that both good and bad-faith actors used to game the search engine’s algorithm including publishing on an aged domain.

Acquiring an aged domain with authoritative backlinks used to be a way to get a site to rank fast without going through the sandbox phase.

What many spammers did to exploit this was buy an old, expired domain with lots of good backlinks, relaunch the site, and blast it with thousands of articles about completely unrelated topics. The domain’s authority meant the articles would rank high – whether the content was good or not.

Once again, Google threw the baby out with the bathwater and punished anyone who bought an aged domain in the past.

I bought 3 aged “premium” domains over the last 2 years, and each of these websites saw a significant drop in the search results on March 8 due to this update, even though I did this for branding purposes rather than for backlinks (most of which were quite old anyway).

The domains I bought were good, brandable terms, and I thought by buying these domains, I was improving the internet by putting them to good use and writing about their actual topics.

Not according to Google.

I was lumped in with the spammers and punished for making use of a good brandable domain.

Surprisingly, Google’s March update prioritized fresh domains, which I think is an odd move considering spammers can easily purchase a $10 domain to take advantage of this.

But that’s life.

Google Doesn’t Owe You Anything – or Does it?

While it sucks that Google grouped my well-intentioned premium domain websites in with every other spammy aged domain, I have to remind myself that Google is a private company and it doesn’t owe me anything.

…or does it?

At the same time, Google also faces its own existential battle: a massive anti-trust lawsuit brought by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).

Google’s 90% monopoly share of the search engine market means it effectively controls the information the public has access to.

Should one private, for-profit company have so much control over the population?

If Google receives so much market share, it’s reasonable to think that it should be held to some impartial standards when deciding which websites to show in front of everyone.

Yet, it’s not currently.

The algorithm is decided behind closed doors, without input from anyone besides Google’s stock-holding executives.

For now, it’s just wishful thinking that this lawsuit will force Google to level the playing field and rank content according to each page’s quality – not the media company behind it.

Independent Bloggers and Media Companies are Treated Differently by Google

Regardless of what happens with the lawsuit, relying on one company for income is inherently risky and I’ve always known that, which is why I prioritized diversifying my income with multiple websites and working on gaining traffic from other sources like Pinterest.

The fact is that media company websites and bloggers are held to different standards. Forbes and DotDash are allowed to show as many intrusive ads as they please because they have the domain authority to do so.

If indie bloggers do it, well, they must be “inauthentic” and punished.

Should you lower your ad density? Many bloggers on Twitter speculated that lowering ad density would result in their blogs regaining their rankings.

Should you add an extensive Author page detailing all your expertise and credentials? Maybe, but Google still knows you’re a blogger looking to make money and that makes you “bad.”

I thought of making all these changes myself but then I concluded that no, it is not worth it.

You just can’t win when the cards are stacked against you.

Jump through one hoop and there’ll just be a bigger one down the line.

I’m getting off the Google train.

Instead, I recommend pivoting to other traffic sources.

Personally, I’m focusing on growing my Pinterest and Newsletter traffic.

What This Means for the Future

What about the future of blogging? Is it still worth it to write SEO blog posts?

Lots of SEOs are saying they’ve never seen so much destruction before. 

I keep telling myself that everyone thought that Panda and Penguin were the end of blogging as we know it, yet somehow, blogging is still around.

I still write SEO blog posts using keywords, but I also write posts that make me happy to write about.

In a way, losing so much Google traffic is liberating.

I’m a creative at heart. I love sharing beautiful things like my photography with the world – even if it doesn’t “rank” in the SERPs.

I can go back to doing that without fear I’d “damage” my site’s reputation in Google’s eyes.

I also wonder if the same thing that happened to advertising will happen to blogs.

People resonate with the voices of other people rather than corporations.

It’s the reason why we don’t see air-brushed ads anymore, we see influencer marketing, sponsored posts, and UGC ads made by real people.

(Whether influencers have truly kept it real is a topic for another day, but you get my point.)

It’s also the reason why we see curvy women showing the diversity of the human body instead of Victoria’s Secret models in lingerie ads.

I wonder if blogs with an authentic, human voice will see a resurgence in the coming years.

I’ve never liked reading media company-produced articles because they’re always written by a journalist who was assigned a topic that he or she probably didn’t really want to write about – and it shows.

For that reason, I’m going to keep blogging. And I think you should too.

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1 Comment

  1. Great Post, Really liked the way it has explained the update from google algorithm and it has effected our websites. I was wondering the cause and here got my answer. Thank you for such a great information.


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