Google quietly removed the suggestion that the text of a website should be “written by people” from its guidance for site owners who want to do better in search results, a change first spotted by Search Engine Land. The change will likely accelerate the deluge of AI-generated content that’s already beginning to spread across the web, in part thanks to tools that Google itself is building.
Until last week, Google made it clear that human authorship was one of the most important factors in how high up in Google’s search results links to a site would appear. The very first sentence of Google’s previous Helpful Content Update said its algorithms were tuned to ensure that users see “content written by people, for people, in search results.” But as of September 14th, 2023, that’s no longer the case. The page now says only that Google wants “content created for people” but doesn’t have anything to say about who or what should do the writing. Previously, it was not always explicitly clear whether Google would penalize content for robot authorship.
“This edit was a small change in our documentation for the helpful content system (launched in Aug 2022) to better align it with our guidance on AI-generated content on Search, which we’ve discussed pretty extensively,” a Google spokesperson said by email. “In short, Search is most concerned with the quality of content we rank vs how it was produced. If content is produced solely for ranking purposes (whether via humans or automation), that would violate our spam policies, and we’d address it on Search as we’ve successfully done with mass-produced content for years.”
It’s a subtle difference with major implications. Many websites and publications build their entire editorial strategies around performance on Google, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a multibillion dollar industry. Millions of people go over the scant information Google provides about its systems, and the tiniest changes can have seismic effects.
The business of the internet lives and dies on the first page of Google, but in many respects, getting your website to the top is a guessing game. Google does offer some guidance. The company says its algorithms rank pages based on how “helpful”they are, and about once a year, Google publishes the Helpful Content Update, which includes details about how its systems judge relevance and define “helpfulness.”
In one sense, the language in the Helpful Content Update is about marketing and public relations. Google is so influential that some accuse the company of encouraging websites to write content built for the company’s robots, rather than the people who ultimately click the links that Search serves up. That’s a bad look for a company that says finding useful information is its whole mission.
Google’s Search recommendations are changing as AI capable of generating believable text proliferates. In August, Gizmodo exclusively reported that the tech news site CNET had deleted thousands of old articles in a bid to improve the company’s performance on Google Search, generating an industry-wide conversation about so-called “content pruning.” The most recent Helpful Content Update includes the warning that erasing articles to make your website seem “fresh” is a waste of time.
Update, Sept. 18th, 2023, 12:56 p.m. EST: This article has been updated with a comment from Google.