On April 19, Google concluded its first core update of 2024 – 46 days after it began on March 5. The multifaceted rollout was Google’s largest, and most complex, update in some time, touching multiple core ranking systems.

With the express intention of reducing “unhelpful content” in the SERPs by as much as 40%, the update was as ambitious as it was extensive. Placing it in an historical context, the update is on the same scale as the Florida (2003), Panda (2011), and Penguin (2021) updates which reshaped organic search. 

The timing of the March 2024 core update is significant. In recent months, Google has come under heavy criticism for the quality of its search results, with forums like Reddit and Quora gaining increased – and some would say outsized – visibility in the SERPs.

Google has also had to contend with the ongoing scandal of “parasite SEO” – the practice of publishing content on high authority, third-party sites, purely to manipulate search engine rankings.

But by far the biggest challenge for Google is managing the explosion in AI-generated content. Although Google doesn’t take issue with automation in principle, AI content is by its very nature inconsistent with the search engine’s stated policies around experience, expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (EEAT). 

AI-generated content, published purely to manipulate search rankings, rarely contains unique perspectives and learnings from real-world experiences, ultimately rendering it unoriginal and unhelpful. In Google’s terminology, such practices amount to scaled content abuse, a key target of the March Core Update.

The limits of AI in content creation and marketing
Having witnessed firsthand the profound shifts in the industry, I’ve come to realize that while AI holds transformative promise, the heart of marketing still lies in the people, their ideas, and their strategic thinking.

What is a core update? 

Before we progress any further, let's firstly define what we mean by a core update. In essence, a “core update” is a significant change to Google's core ranking algorithm that seeks to improve the relevancy and quality of search results for users.

Unlike minor updates, which are regularly implemented to address specific issues, core updates are more extensive in scope, and typically impact all types of content. 

These major algorithmic updates happen periodically, typically several times a year, and can greatly impact how websites perform in organic search. After the conclusion of a core update, some sites may experience ranking improvements while others may see declines.

Why is the March 2024 core update different?

Google’s latest core update was more far-reaching than anything we’ve seen in the last couple of years. Several core ranking systems were updated over a six-week period, leading to increased volatility. Adding to the complexity of the update is the fact that the Helpful Content System was incorporated into the core ranking system.

What’s more, the rollout began with a series of extensive spam updates alongside the core update, resulting in an uptick in both automated and manual actions. At the beginning of the update, hundreds of sites (many of which relied on AI-generated content) were simply removed from the index overnight. 

Taken together, the various prongs of Google’s March update combined to have a seismic impact on the makeup of the SERPs. +90% traffic drops have been widely reported, and many sites have fallen out of the SERPs completely.

So, yes, the March 2024 Core Update was different from anything that's been released by Google for a number of years. Not since the Medic update in 2018 have we seen this many sites lose this much search visibility in a single update. 

Which categories have been impacted by the update? 

The impact of the March update was widespread, affecting a broad range of publishers and industries. Here's a rundown of some of the categories that saw the biggest shifts in search visibility.

HCU impacted websites

The biggest losers in the update were typically sites initially impacted by the September 2023 Helpful Content Update (HCU). Affected sites had been hopeful of recoveries in the March core update, but any turnarounds have been few and far between. 

If your website was impacted by the HCU last year (and you’re yet to see any recovery), it’s clear that Google still views your content as unoriginal, unhelpful, and created primarily to attract clicks. Google has likely come to this conclusion through studying user engagement signals. 

Achieving an HCU recovery is possible, but it will likely take months, if not years, of work to ensure your content is truly people-first.

Affiliate bloggers

Affiliate websites were typically the most heavily impacted by the update. The reason for this goes back to Google's guidelines around helpfulness and experience. Unfortunately, too many niche blogs and review sites were found to be advising on products without demonstrating genuine expertise or verifiable experience.

Plus, can content really be considered "helpful" when it claims to be impartial, yet promotes products in which the publisher has a vested interest?

Related to this, many "made for advertising" (MFA) websites also saw significant traffic drops in April, pointing to the importance of user experience in the search ranking system.

AI-generated content websites

Here's where things get complicated. Despite what you might hear from some quarters of the SEO community, Google did not set out to target AI-generated content in the March core update.

Instead, the algorithm changes were focused on removing repetitive, unoriginal, and unhelpful content from the SERPs. It just so happens that a lot of content that falls into this bucket was created by AI, and often at scale.

The pitfalls of generative AI and its responsible use in marketing
As a marketing leader, you’re likely intrigued by the potential of generative AI, but it’s important to be aware of the potential pitfalls and ensure its responsible use in marketing.

When evaluating content, Google is looking for signs of "low effort" creation. Does the page contain unique insights, evidence of real-world experience, thorough fact-checking and citation, and comprehensive topical coverage? Whether the content is AI-generated or otherwise, it simply won't fly if it fails to meet these criteria.

The March core update has commonly been interpreted as an "anti-AI" algorithm change for this reason: AI content, more often than not, fails to meet Google's E-E-A-T standards. The method of creation is of secondary importance.

What's next for SEO?

Last year, our sister community, Revenue Marketing Alliance, published an article on the future of SEO, which we termed SEO 2.0. Despite the recent upheaval to the SERPs, nothing has materially changed since then.

The way forward for publishers is to prioritize quality over quantity – and to focus heavily on improving the user experience. If we're right in thinking the Google algorithm is increasingly reliant on user signals, then traditional SEO methods (keyword optimization, link building, etc.) will no longer be enough to secure success in organic search.

How to succeed in SEO with human-focused content
According to Jeff Coyle, Chief Strategy Officer and Co-founder of MarketMuse, by gaining an understanding of how search bots actually crawl your site, you can give your content teams more freedom to create the great content your customers deserve and value.

Instead, SEOs need to focus not only on acquiring traffic but also on engaging that traffic when it lands. This means ensuring that content is comprehensive, answers genuine questions, and helps users solve real problems. While almost all publishers would claim to be doing exactly that, most, frankly, aren't.

Creating truly helpful content means addressing real pain points experienced by your audience. The keyword research comes later. What Google is looking for is content designed to help users, not attract clicks for the sake of clicks.

This isn't to say that keywords are suddenly unimportant (they're still vital to the way organic search works), but keyword selection and optimization should be a secondary consideration. Addressing the problem, or answering the question, comes first.

Should publishers use AI to create content?

The extent to which publishers can use generative AI will be heavily debated over the coming years, but it's in some ways the wrong question.

AI-generated content isn't bad simply because it's AI-generated. Rather, it's often bad because it doesn't add anything to the conversation. And without lots of human intervention, it can't add anything original no matter how much it tries. Remember, these are Large Language Models – they're simply predicting, not thinking.

To win in the current search landscape, you need to produce content that's original, and which adds a new, or unique, perspective on the topic. It's hard work that takes time, experience, and expertise. When used cleverly, AI can certainly speed up some elements of the creation process, but the March Core Update has shown that scale can't compensate for subject matter expertise.

There's certainly a role for generative AI in supporting complex tasks. This can include content planning, data analysis, lead generation, large-scale content repurposing, and programmatic SEO campaigns.

In each of those areas, AI can give the content creator a significant advantage, and allow for even higher levels of creativity. But the short-lived era of "one-shot" AI content creation is almost certainly over.

In other words, you won't be punished for using AI to create content. That's a myth. But you certainly can't expect to win by getting AI to do the hard work for you. That's scaled content abuse – and it's an SEO crime from which you might never recover.