SEO Insights: January 2024 Report


January was a relatively quiet month in terms of ranking fluctuations and updates in Google search results. It probably means that something big is brewing so it wouldn’t be surprising to see some significant update rolling out in February. Watch this space!

With all the AI-induced search drama of 2023 behind us, we can reflect a little on how things have settled and what’s important going forward.

This is also probably a good time to discuss website content and how this is evolving in terms of quality and rankings.

SEO Starter Guide

During the latest Google Search off the Record podcast, John Mueller, Gary Illyes and Lizzi Sassman from Google discuss the new updates coming to Google’s own SEO Starter Guide.

The SEO Starter Guide has been around for several years and is being continuously updated. However, Gary and Lizzi have been working on a complete overhaul of the guide – which has been long overdue – to make it more useful and more aligned with how search and websites work today.

Although there were no major insights from the podcast, it is interesting to hear that the new guide, which is expected to launch soon, will be significantly shorter than the current guide.

The current guide has over 8000 words, whilst the new one will have just over 3000. When discussing how this page ranks for the search term “seo”, currently in position 3, Gary stated that it’s likely to lose rankings after being updated!

That’s a slightly surprising statement. Here’s what he actually said along with the follow-up comments from John and Lizzi:

GARY: “I mean, it will probably fall in rankings because we are also cutting a lot of text that people might be searching for mostly because we are trying to make the doc tighter and get rid of stuff that is less important nowadays to focus on right from the beginning at least.”

JOHN: “So I think I need to get one question out of the way. Are you saying Google looks at the word count?”

LIZZI: “It does sound like that’s what you’re implying, that we will fall in the rankings because it’s no longer 8000 words. Is that what you’re saying?

GARY: “That’s precisely what I’m saying. Of course. No. But I mean, if you think about it, like, if you don’t have those words on the page anymore, then how would you rank for them?”

Now, before you go adding lots of new content to your pages, we need to better understand what was, probably, the intended message behind this discussion.

We’ve tested this.

We ran an experiment a few months ago on an e-commerce category page where we removed ALL of the content and left just the products on the page. There was a lot of content!

It is a common technique with SEO to add additional content to e-commerce category pages to increase their perceived value to search engines. Users generally don’t want to read a lot of text when looking to buy products, so this content is generally added to the bottom of the page.

So what value is there in having this content there at all?

In our experiment, removing all the content and monitoring it over several months, we observed no negative impact on category page rankings for the main target search terms.

In other words, the content that was previously there had no impact on the rankings for the key terms.

This seems to contradict what Gary was saying when shrinking the content on the SEO starter guide.

However, there is a key difference here….

Search visibility and rankings

In their discussion, they talk about rankings and not search visibility. However, they do mention that removing words will prevent the page from ranking for those words.

And that’s the key difference.

When a user lands on an e-commerce category page, they expect to see either products or links to the subcategories…not “War and Peace” on that particular subject.

Google wants to present a relevant result if it perceives the intent is shopping-related, and that’s either products or category pages.

In our experiment, although the rankings for the main search terms were not affected, there was an overall decrease in the traffic to the page as we had removed some of the related words that users searched for.

However, conversions were not impacted because the traffic that was left was exactly the type of traffic that actually converts.

The key takeaway here is that it’s better to have less content and ensure that it’s very focused. Yes, ensure that the related terms are on the page but focus on keeping it as brief as possible to not detract from the main focus of the page.

Traffic for traffic’s sake has no value. Traffic should be targeted and relevant, even if it means that you sacrifice less relevant traffic. It is heartwarming to see traffic increasing, but if it doesn’t improve the bottom line, then it’s just noise on the website.

It’s much easier to maintain content of higher quality than quantity, which is more difficult to update and keep on top of. Outdated content tends to decrease in rankings over time.

With the proliferation of AI-generated content on the web, the trend is always to create lengthy articles that never quite get to the point. But this is generally not a good strategy. Searchers are generally lazy…they want information to be easily digestible and they want it quickly.

We always work with our clients to create pages that are great for users, not just search engines. Knowing that Google uses search engagement metrics for rankings, focusing on users and ensuring they have a great experience is how you can improve rankings and conversions.

Less is often so much more.