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Slaves to the ’Rithm

Managing search-driven audiences – and the arbitrary changes the big search companies make to their algorithms – is getting harder and harder. Here, Darren Smith, CCO of House of Oddities, shares some of the key strategies you can employ to minimise the damage.

By Darren Smith

Slaves to the ’Rithm

We’re all pretty used to publishing being a fast-moving, ever-changing world, but managing changes to search engine algorithms takes the bloody biscuit. You know how it is: you develop your core audience strategy, craft editorial plans and responsive teams ready to deliver the news without fear or favour, tweak your SEO to best attract eyeballs… and then Google changes its algorithm and your whole plan is in tatters.

In 2022 ten of the leading UK news websites were impacted by Google’s changes. According to Sistrix, Ladbible’s visibility in Google’s rankings fell by 52%; while the i and Mail Online both saw a drop of 37%. This matters: for good or ill, Google is the biggest single source of traffic for every major news website in the UK. And every drop in audience means a loss of traffic, of ad revenue, and of influence.

‘Managing the algorithm’ has been a sword of Damocles hanging over editors for far too long – and it’s about to get worse, with Google’s AI Overviews threatening to destroy search-based audiences in huge quantities.

So: what can you do about it? Here’s a few strategic choices you can make, from the benign to the radical. But when it comes to handling the coming apocalypse, I would encourage every publisher to think as radically as possible.

Follow the (new) rules

Fairly simple, but in the short term, make sure you read the official Google reports following any update, so you know what may change and why. Don’t panic – updates take a few volatile weeks to settle, and you may not be impacted at all. If you have affiliates or freelance contributors, make sure they’re over the changes too.

But don’t forget the golden rules

Google (in theory) states that it doesn’t want to punish genuinely helpful content. So, check through your SEO plan and editorial, and ring-fence any that could be considered (and be honest) a bit clickbait-y. Follow the fundamentals of SEO – make sure every article is clear, well composed, and of a high quality. Rearrange certain pages to promote the content over the advertising, so the user experience is improved. And provide strong (organic) backlinks to keep users on site and index more pages.

Spot the (downward) trends

Take immediate action on any pages (or page types) that suddenly drop off in traffic. Recipes, sports reports, or newsfeeds need clear written language without all that added bumf that keeps eyeballs scrolling. If you find one of your sections goes dark, then it may need an immediate rewrite. And do it quickly, before too much damage is done: don’t wait around hoping it might get better. And if that doesn’t work, it may be time (gulp) for an editorial audit. An in-depth cluster analysis of your content will identify which stories are not getting picked up, and you may be able to find a common theme or style that helps you to understand why and change it.

Hedge your bias

Whichever way your editorial stance might lean, to make the most of most algorithm changes you need a balance of opinions. Google’s AI Overview is going to lean more towards providing a definitive answer to search questions, and if your editorial takes a counter-prevailing view, it’ll more likely be discounted. And of course, make sure these are human-written, and the highest quality.

Refocus your audience strategy

News (and magazine) publishing used to be the original discovery engines – the places where you would find out what is happening around the world, and gain new knowledge and insight too – but that time has gone. And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but it ain’t coming back.

What surprises me is how quicky as an industry we capitulated to the big search giants. For the past ten-fifteen years we’ve dedicated our time to hacking SEO and gaming the algorithms to keep audiences coming (at a steadily declining rate). Last month, at the Media Leader’s Future of Brands conference, Leonie Roderick, The Times and Sunday Times’ head of audience development, said on stage that “Google is hugely important for us”. Talk about feeding the hand that bites you.

Now, with the advent of Google AI Overviews, Google is set to become no publisher’s friend. It’s only natural that the corporate monolith is devising more and more ways to keep its own users on-site, rather than clicking those pesky links (unless they’re sponsored ones, of course). And this could be the death-knell for some publishers unless they radically change their relationship with the search giant.

What seems to have been forgotten is that while newspapers were the original discovery engine, that’s not all they were. More than anything, newspapers were a habit.

You got your paper and scanned the headlines at breakfast, the sports on the train, the crossword at lunch, and so on. You didn’t buy rival papers, and you didn’t skip a day.

To beat the algorithm (and blues), publishers need to rekindle that habit with its audiences. Forget SEO: focus instead on making your homepage a premier destination for news, insights, all the stuff your audience needs to know. Sidestep Google and be the URL people bookmark or type instead, searching for a trusted source rather than an AI conglomeration.

To do this requires a commitment to quality content, slow-food stories that audiences can come back to and share organically, and a more thoughtful approach – especially to the news. You can’t be first anymore in an age of TikTok, Twitter, Meta and Google. But you can be better – so invest in more analysis, more real-world context to give audiences something tangible beyond just finding out what’s happening. Scale back SEO-friendly listicles in favour of real, romantic, first-hand accounts. Become the habit that gets audiences direct to your door.

And – most importantly – finally get back to thinking of Google as your main competitor, rather than a handy crutch for cheap eyeballs.

This feels like a make-or-break moment for publishers; and I for one hope that more step out of the shadow of Google, rather than vainly trying to feed a machine that’s slowly killing our industry.

About us

House of Oddities (or HOO, for short) is a full-service content agency that dares to be different. With decades of experience in bridging the gap between editorial and commercial in News UK, GQ, The Telegraph, The Economist, Monocle and more, our team can provide the strategy, insight, wild ideas and creative production skills to help publishers transform their solutions offerings to brands and clients. You can find out more at