The New Yorker:

Leaked documents provide a glimpse into the inner workings of Google Search—and contradict the company’s public claims.

By Kyle Chayka

In March, Gisele Navarro watched Google Search traffic to her Web site, HouseFresh, disappear. HouseFresh evaluates and reviews air purifiers. Her husband, Danny Ashton, launched the site in 2020, when the pandemic created a spike in demand for air purification, and at its peak the business had fifteen paid contributors. (Navarro and Ashton also work together at NeoMam, a content studio that Ashton founded.) Google traffic to HouseFresh had been slowly declining since last October, but the recent drop was far more dramatic—from around four thousand daily search referrals, or click-throughs from Google results, to around three hundred. The site makes money from affiliate fees, taking a small cut when a reader follows a link from HouseFresh to purchase an air purifier online; less traffic means less revenue, and the site can now only afford to pay one full-time employee. Navarro told me, “We are living our lives like Google is gone for us.”

The drop in traffic to HouseFresh has coincided with internal changes to Google’s search function. In late 2023, Google rolled out a series of algorithm modifications; with a “core update” in March, it made those changes permanent. HouseFresh reviews previously ranked highly on Google searches for air purifiers, but lately its articles have been buried below recommendations from brand-name publications—Better Homes and Gardens, People, Architectural Digest (which is owned by Condé Nast, the parent company of The New Yorker). Navarro even noticed Rolling Stone, the music magazine owned by Penske Media, recommending anti-mold humidifiers. To her, it seemed as if media companies were making a grab for affiliate revenue without the expertise that her own site had worked hard to cultivate—and it looked as if Google was rewarding them for doing so. HouseFresh followed Google’s guidelines for search-engine optimization, or S.E.O.s—the company suggests that Web sites “provide original information” and demonstrate “experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness”—but this no longer seemed to have any effect. 

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