How Google Screwed the Blogging Community

How Google Screwed The Blogging Community with their “Helpful Content Update”

If you’re not in the blogging community, you probably have no idea that Google’s “Helpful Content Update”, or HCU, has effectively demolished the livelihood of hundreds, if not thousands of small to medium-sized bloggers. But you probably have noticed a big change when you search for anything now right?

At the top of search results you’ve got the AI-generated content (literally taken directly from articles written by bloggers), then you’ve got Reddit (do you really care what feralcat451 thinks are the best places to visit in Uzbekistan?), and then you’ve got Quora (I’ve only ever scrolled Quora for funny stories about in-law family drama). Next in line are a few videos that are especially unhelpful if you’re anything like me and always have the sound on your phone off. And finally on to regular articles which are now almost exclusively from massive publications like Forbes and Conde Nast.

There was a time, prior to October of 2023, that you would’ve seen a post from the Wandering Wheatleys somewhere there near the top. If you searched for “best things to do in Tashkent, Uzbekistan” you’d find a piece that I wrote while I was actually in Tashkent and you’d see my face in all of the photos since I was there, meticulously documenting my adventures.

High Speed Train: Tashkent to Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Now I’m not saying that feralcat451 shouldn’t have an opinion about Uzbekistan. And I’m not saying that the writer for Conde Nast wasn’t sent to Tashkent for this writing assignment. But… were they? Wouldn’t you rather read an article written by an actual decent writer who actually visited the place in question and who is by no means a millionaire but gets to make a few pennies from you scrolling their post?

Because executives at Conde Nast make over $400,000 annually and the CEO of Reddit has a 193 million dollar compensation package. Small to medium-sized bloggers like us are just trying to make enough so we can stay home with our kids while they are little. Or to keep us on the road so we can keep writing about the cool places we’ve been.


Google and Bloggers: a Reciprocal Relationship

Google is a search engine. They require articles to be written to serve up for anyone running a search. Their little AI-generated blurb at the top of your search results requires information from bloggers like us that is up-to-date and accurate. What happens when we all have to stop creating content because we can no longer make a living blogging? All of that AI content is going to be dated.

And, of course, us bloggers count on Google to get our content out into the world. Without Google we have to rely on Pinterest, our newsletter, social media, and other search engines (although Google is a monopoly and holds about 90% of the global search market, hence the current antitrust lawsuit). So the relationship between Google and bloggers is reciprocal – they rely on us and we rely on them.

And because of our reliance on Google, bloggers constantly bend to their desires. They say “you need backlinks!” “search engine optimization!” “keywords!” Google said “jump” and we said “how high”.

And now with the Helpful Content Update, we are being punished for all of the things Google was asking us for a year ago. Now too many keywords make us “spammy”. There’s no such thing as SEO anymore. Articles titled “top 10 things to do in this place” are all of a sudden flagged as “unhelpful”.


Why They Did It

Don’t you find it a bit strange Wandering Wheatleys went from being a website that Google constantly served in the top 3 spots to dropping us to the 50th page? None of our content is written by AI, it’s all written either by us or by our writers (who are seasoned travelers).

My best guess as to why Google went so far with this update is that there ARE a lot of spammy sites that are completely written by AI. I think Google plugged a few qualifiers into their system (i.e. websites with patterns like “best things to do in…”) and it’s gotten out of control. I’m not certain even Google understands what is going on with Google search.

It does seem especially convenient that Reddit is being consistently pushed to the top of search results right after they signed a 60 million dollar deal with Google earlier this year.

But why they’re prioritizing Quora, TikTok, YouTube, and only massive publications, I don’t know. As a user I find it extremely frustrating – I have separate apps for all of these and if I want to search for a recipe and watch a video (I don’t), I’ll open up my YouTube app myself. I’d love to hear what readers think about their new search results in the comments.


What We’ve Lost (Traffic)

Since August of 2023 (right before the HCU), we’ve lost about 90% of our search traffic. And 90% of our revenue. No matter what we do – how many articles we publish, how we modify our existing content, it continues to drop about 10% every day. We assume that we’ll hit zero Google search traffic in the not-too-distant future.

How Google Screwed the Blogging Community

What We’ve Lost (People)

I won’t bore you with my personal sob story about how much I’ve loved being a travel writer and hiring people to join our team and having the freedom to stay home with my kids in their formative years. But what I will tell you about how we built a solid team of incredible people who are now out of work because of Google.

Jem, our amazing Blog Manager lives in the Philippines and was making $3/hour before we hired her. She has grown and taken on so much more over the years working for us and we would never have seen the kind of growth that we have (prior to HCU) without her hardwork and determination. She now makes 6 times that wage and has been able to take her family on trips and help support her sisters. But we’ve had to cut her hours in half since the HCU.

Justine was our Editor who we hired when she was living in Vietnam (although she’s originally from California). She moved to Dubai and had the freedom to travel while hiring writers for Wandering Wheatleys, editing all of our articles, and writing a few of her own. We have had to cut her editing work completely and now she just writes a handful of articles every month. Her income has had to be cut by about 80%.

Our fabulous writers – Nicola, Richard, and Jacqueline all worked for us for years. They were able to live wherever they wanted, travel as much as they wanted, and write whenever they wanted. They wrote about the cool places they’d been and they loved the freedom they had as Wandering Wheatley writers. We have had to completely let all of them go.

Our other website, About Asheville, was also impacted by the HCU. One would think this is a site that Google would love – it’s a niche site that focuses only on a city, all of the writers are local, and the owners (us) live in Asheville as well. Now if you search “things to do in Asheville” you’ll see at least 6 articles from Explore Asheville (the CEO’s compensation package is close to half a million dollars this year) before you ever see an article from About Asheville. We’ve had to cut the work of those writers as well.


Other Google Horror Stories

Megan Starr has a similar story. She has 4 websites, 2 of which were obliterated by the HCU in September 2024 and one that lost around 60% of traffic from it. The other one was not touched (perhaps because it was a site that partnered with the US government and other organizations for tourism development in a specific country). Fast forward to March 2024, the one site that lost 60% of traffic with the initial HCU has been completely decimated. She had 10 employees who she had to part ways with given the circumstances.

In 2022 and 2023, her income from the sites was just shy of 7 figures and she was making more in one day (give or take) than she is making in an entire month now. This has affected her visa status in the country she is living in (imagine explaining to the German government how you can go from making nearly 7 figures to barely enough to live off of in today’s environment with no explanation).

She has been blogging for 15+ years and has seen a lot of industry changes, but this is the first one that she says feels almost illegal and like their monopoly is violating laws that would otherwise be enforced if the web wasn’t such a ‘grey’ space. Nevertheless, she is trying to stay optimistic, as she loves her job and helping people travel.

Shreeyeh of Bae Area and Beyond said “My site was severely impacted by the HCU update. I lost more than half of my traffic and revenue in September 2023. I had 49,000 sessions in August 2023 and then 9,400 sessions in October 2023. After that, the later Google updates also impacted my site leaving me with 2,500 sessions in April 2024. Once thinking that my blog could be a passive full-time income, I’ve had to rethink that and consider diversifying my income streams.”


How you can Help

Want to help the small and intermediate bloggers who work hard to bring readers interesting and accurate content? There are a few easy things you can do…

First, why not switch from Google to Bing or DuckDuckGo? It’s easy to change the default on your phone. Second, instead of clicking on the top 3 posts, try scrolling past TripAdvisor and Reddit to the second or third page. Third, bookmark your favorite bloggers and try searching directly on their page when you need to find a recipe or a travel itinerary instead of searching Google. Fourth, click our links! If you click one of our affiliate links (like Amazon or Booking) we get a small commission which helps us to continue doing what we love.

And fifth, share this story about how Google screwed the blogging community! Maybe our real life stories will make it back to them…

Author

  • Valerie Wheatley

    Val grew up in Portland, Oregon but moved to Oahu on a whim back in 2013. She sold her house and all of her belongings and bought a one-way ticket. Since then she’s taken two around-the-world trips and has visited 60-ish countries while living out of a duffel bag.

    Val started documenting the Wandering Wheatleys travels back in 2013 as a way to update friends and family about her whereabouts and to relay humorous daily interactions. The only readers were her mom and her mother-in-law but that didn’t stop her!

    These days you’ll find Val dreaming up future trips, creating new travel content, managing a team of amazing travel enthusiasts, and chasing around her two adorable but naughty kids.

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