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13th March 2024 - Chris Regan

Unpacking Google's New Spam Policies

Last week, Google announced two new updates to its search engine: the March 2024 Core Update and an update to its spam policies. Below, we’re exploring what this new spam policy contains and what it means going forward.

Google's New Spam Policy Update

What Is Google's Spam Policy?

Before explaining the changes to the new spam policies, it’s probably worth defining spam within the context of SEO and explaining Google’s need for a spam policy.

In the context of SEO, spam refers to unethical practices that attempt to manipulate search engine rankings unfairly. It involves exploiting loopholes or using deceptive techniques to gain a higher position in search results without caring about the search engine's primary goal: providing genuine value to users.

The need for a spam policy comes from tactics used by spammers and Google having to make it very clear what they consider unethical. This allows Google to counteract these tactics by identifying them in their algorithm with core updates or hitting websites that successfully use spammy tactics with manual penalties that either decrease their visibility with Google or thoroughly remove them from the rankings.

What’s New?

Google's new spam policy update aims to combat unethical practices that manipulate search engine rankings, such as expired domain abuse, scaled content abuse, and site reputation abuse. This update is designed to ensure quality content for users and maintain the integrity of search results.

From our understanding of the latest announcements, this has taken the Helpful Content Update further, expanded the signals and approaches it uses to judge a page's usefulness, and pushed these across multiple systems. In their own words, Google said this is a more complex update than usual, so we expect some substantial changes based on this update.

Expired Domain Abuse

A tactic that has been used for many years is repurposing an expired domain. As a website ages, the domain name normally builds strength and reputation within the search engines. When a domain name expires, that strength and reputation are kept, allowing an opportunity to repurpose the website with new content but piggyback off the original strength and reputation that the original website built.

This has allowed spammers to take advantage of this method. As the domain already has strength and reputation, spammers get a headstart on building strength and reputation. They can then use that strength to rank content more easily than with a fresh domain.

Within the new policy, Google has given three examples of how this tactic is abused;

  1. An expired government agency website is being used for affiliate content.
  2. An expired not-for-profit medical charity website selling commercial medical products.
  3. An expired school website is being used to promote casino-related content.

The above examples show how the tactic can be used unethically. The content the new websites promote will provide little or no value to the website's original audience, which built its reputation and strength. These examples show relevant domains and irrelevant content.

Google’s new spam policy does say that using expired domains for your website is fine as long as the website is original and intended to serve the user first.

Scaled Content Abuse

The new policies advise on what Google classes on scaled content abuse; this looks at content strategies that create mass content at scale with the main purpose of building traffic to a website and not delivering value to the audience. Often, a strategy like this doesn't focus on quality or uniqueness because the goal is to create a large amount of content. It’s often a response to already available content with nothing new.

Google previously warned against scaled content abuse. However, they specifically named automatically generated or AI-generated content, creating a grey area for websites adopting this tactic, who could argue that the content is manually created. They’ve changed the policy so it doesn’t matter how the content is created, whether manually, automatically or AI-generated; if it focuses on creating content at scale with large amounts of unoriginal content, then Google sees this as an abuse of spam policy.

Some high-profile examples of scaled content abuse which we’ve seen in the last 12 months include;

Site Reputation Abuse

Site reputation abuse occurs when content is published on reputable sites without proper oversight or is designed to manipulate search rankings, leveraging the host site's existing strength and reputation. This often involves third-party pages like sponsored content, advertisements, or partner contributions largely independent of the host site's usual editorial control. Whilst there is certainly some value in third-party content, it is considered an abuse of Google’s spam policy when the content isn’t aligned with the website's core audience and offers little to no value to the user.

The new spam policy states that Google understands the need for third-party content and will still accept “native advertising" or "advertorial” content; however, it does need to serve the website's audience and fit in.

Google has also warned that although this new part of the policy has been announced, it won’t come into effect until 5th May 2024, giving websites that host this kind of content time to remove the content or at least block it from Google or risk a manual penalty for their website.

A high-profile example of site reputation abuse comes from a method dubbed Parasite SEO. If I suggested this to any of my clients, they would probably guess from the name alone that this isn’t good practice. As the name suggests, it takes advantage of the host website’s reputation and strength to promote whatever content it likes.

Why the Update in Spam Policy?

Google often changes its policies, guidance and core algorithms to provide its users high-quality content and the best results possible. As the web evolves and technology advances, these policies must adapt their language to define what Google considers unethical.

Working in this industry, I’ve learned that spammers will always find a new way or tactic to exploit to cut corners and get the best results with the littlest amount of work. They will always read between the lines of any policies or guidance provided by Google to try and gain an advantage. Because of this, you’ll often see new policy updates where Google has to cover these exploits or offer more guidance when something has been interpreted incorrectly.

The consequences of violating these policies can lead to manual penalties for websites, which reduce their visibility within the search engine or, in some cases, fully remove them. Changes to the policies will mean that sites that previously didn’t technically violate the spam policy will now do, and Google can penalise them with manual penalties.

What Does This Mean for Your Website?

We advise anyone looking after their website to review the new spam policy update by Google and ensure their website complies with this policy. It doesn’t employ any of the tactics mentioned above.

If you’re noticing a considerable reduction in your traffic, look at Google Search Console, where you will be alerted if you’ve received a manual penalty and advised on how Google believes you’ve used tactics that breach these new spam policies.

We’re unaware of any of the clients we work with using any of the tactics mentioned, but if you would like further advice on how the update could affect your website or your current strategy, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Implications for the SEO Industry

We’ve already seen the initial results of this update, with many websites adopting these tactics being hit hard with manual penalties that have seen huge dips in traffic.

With these new changes, the updated spam policy, the March 2024 Core Update, and the 2022 Helpful Content Update, Google's message is clear. Make sure your website caters to your audience and focuses on providing value, unique content that is helpful and useful for your users.

Final Thoughts

As always, with these types of changes, we welcome the new update to the spam policy. Our beliefs on how SEO should be done are fully aligned with Google through our user-experience approach.

With that being said, I just want to make a point on the damage this is doing to our industry. This isn’t aimed at the update, as Google can only do so much to warn users against these tactics and penalise them when they abuse these policies. It’s aimed more at the spammers that are using them.

It has to be said that SEO can be a difficult sell. Sometimes, when I speak to SMEs who have some form of experience using an SEO service, they often have a negative perception of what it is. This is usually down to a bad experience or just from the 100s of cold emails they get monthly, making them think it’s a spammy service with little to no value for their business.

For anyone who is using these techniques or other techniques that are known to be unethical, use them on your own websites or side projects. By all means, you're taking the risk, and if you're penalised, it’s only your own business; you're damaging. However, using them out in the wild on websites of real businesses is reckless. Not only are you putting that business at risk of building unsustainable strength, but you are also putting that business at risk of damaging its reputation as a business. If this isn’t bad enough, for me, the worst thing is the damage this does to the confidence in the SEO.

As I’ve said above, these policy changes won’t stop spammers from using unethical practices, and they’ll simply find something else to exploit. If you look into one of the most famous examples hit by this update, late last year, the person behind it boasted about the results he’s achieved all over X/Twiter. It gathered a lot of attention, some positive and some negative, but eventually, it was hit hard with a full removal from Google. If you look into this person, they are now using this as a case study to attract new clients. Obviously, they left out the bit just after they got great results and the site was fully deindexed.

It takes a lot to build trust with businesses for SEO services, and for me, how can businesses trust SEO agencies when this is what’s out there?

References

Google's Official Annoucement

Google's Explanation Blog

Chris Regan

About the Author

Chris Regan

Chris is the Managing Director and Founder of Arriba. With a degree in web development and over 10-years of experience in the SEO industry, Chris is an expert in all aspects of user-experience and technical SEO.

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