Google’s Announcement on CTR and HCU

  • June 10, 2024
  • SEO
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In a series of tweets, Google’s Search Liaison addressed inquiries about the relationship between click-through rates (CTR) and the Helpful Content Update (HCU) regarding Google’s website ranking methodologies. They emphasized that if the conjectures about CTR and HCU were accurate, it would be infeasible for any new website to achieve a ranking.

Users Are Voting With Their Feet?

Search Liaison’s response was prompted by a tweet quoting Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s statement, “Users vote with their feet.”

Here is the tweet:

“If the HCU (Navboost, whatever you want to call it) is clicks/user reaction based – how could sites hit by the HCU ever hope to recover if we’re no longer being served to Google readers?

@sundarpichai “Users vote with their feet”,

Okay I’ve changed my whole site – let them vote!”

This tweet seems to link Pichai’s statement to concepts like Navboost, user clicks, and website rankings. However, as we will clarify, Pichai’s comment about users voting “with their feet” does not pertain to clicks or ranking algorithms.

Background Information

Sundar Pichai’s reference to users voting “with their feet” is unrelated to clicks. The issue lies within the context of the interview question and Pichai’s response, which centered on “AI-powered search and the future of the web.”

The interviewer from The Verge cited HouseFresh, a website that reported a decline in traffic, attributing it to Google’s transition to AI Overviews. HouseFresh’s grievances, however, predated the AI Overviews and were focused on big media outlets’ low-quality reviews out-ranking independent websites like theirs.

HouseFresh elaborated:

“Big media publishers are inundating the web with subpar product recommendations you can’t trust…

Savvy SEOs at big media publishers (or third-party vendors hired by them) realized that they could create pages for ‘best of’ product recommendations without the need to invest any time or effort in actually testing and reviewing the products first.”

Pichai’s response does not explain HouseFresh’s traffic decline. His comments were about AI Overviews, while HouseFresh’s concerns were about being outranked by larger, low-quality brands—these are distinct issues.

  • The interviewer from The Verge erred in associating HouseFresh’s traffic concerns with Google’s AI Overviews.
  • Pichai’s statement was not related to clicks or rankings but rather to user satisfaction with AI Overviews.

Here is the interview question published on The Verge:

“There’s an air purifier blog that we covered called HouseFresh. There’s a gaming site called Retro Dodo. Both of these sites have said, “Look, our Google traffic went to zero. Our businesses are doomed.”

…Is that the right outcome here in all of this — that the people who care so much about video games or air purifiers that they started websites and made the content for the web are the ones getting hurt the most in the platform shift?”

Sundar Pichai responded:

“It’s always difficult to talk about individual cases, and at the end of the day, we are trying to satisfy user expectations. Users are voting with their feet, and people are trying to figure out what’s valuable to them. We are doing it at scale, and I can’t answer on the particular site—”

Pichai’s response is unrelated to website rankings or the HCU. His statement implies that users are inherently determining the value of AI Overviews through their engagement, not that it influences clicks or rankings.

SearchLiaison’s Answer

To provide full context of SearchLiaison’s response, here’s the tweet that initiated the discussion:

“If the HCU (Navboost, whatever you want to call it) is clicks/user reaction based – how could sites hit by the HCU ever hope to recover if we’re no longer being served to Google readers?

@sundarpichai “Users vote with their feet”,

Okay I’ve changed my whole site – let them vote!”

SearchLiaison’s response:

“If you think further about this type of belief, no one would ever rank in the first place if that were supposedly all that matters — because how would a new site (including your site, which would have been new at one point) ever been seen?

The reality is we use a variety of different ranking signals including, but not solely, “aggregated and anonymized interaction data” as covered here:”

The person who asked the original question followed up with:

“Can you please tell me if I’m doing right by focusing on my site and content – writing new articles to be found through search – or if I should be focusing on some off-site effort related to building a readership? It’s frustrating to see traffic go down the more effort I put in.”

When engaging with clients who express concerns about “writing new articles to be found through search”, it is important to delve deeper into what they mean. Often, clients refer to strictly adhering to Google keyword data and emulating competitor strategies without fully leveraging their unique expertise and reader insights.

SearchLiaison’s guidance was:

“As I’ve said before, I think everyone should focus on doing whatever they think is best for their readers. I know it can be confusing when people get lots of advice from different places, and then they also hear about all these things Google is supposedly doing, or not doing, and really they just want to focus on content. If you’re lost, again, focus on that. That is your touchstone.”

Site Promotion To People

SearchLiaison next addressed an important query regarding off-site promotion and emphasized the significance of focusing on the readers. Many SEOs prioritize promoting sites to Google primarily through link building.

Promoting sites to actual people is crucial. Many high-ranking sites engage in this practice and it indirectly contributes to their higher search engine rankings.

SearchLiaison elaborated:

“As to the off-site effort question, I think from what I know from before I worked at Google Search, as well as my time being part of the search ranking team, is that one of the ways to be successful with Google Search is to think beyond it.

Great sites with content that people like receive traffic in many ways. People go to them directly. They come via email referrals. They arrive via links from other sites. They get social media mentions.

This doesn’t mean you should focus on getting a bunch of social mentions or email mentions, as these alone won’t magically rank you higher in Google. Instead, it means building a site aimed at real users and not just for search engines. Ultimately, our ranking systems are designed to reward high-quality, user-focused content.”

What About False Positives?

The term false positive often describes scenarios where a high-quality site loses ranking due to incorrect algorithmic classification. SearchLiaison provided reassurance to such sites, suggesting that future updates might rectify these errors.

He tweeted:

“As to the inevitable “but I’ve done all these things when will I recover!” questions, I’d reiterate what we’ve said prior. A future core update might bring better results, as discussed here:

It might also be that, as mentioned earlier, the issue might be with us and not the sites. Future updates aim to improve our performance in these respects:”

SearchLiaison highlighted a tweet by John Mueller noting the search team’s efforts to surface more helpful content in future updates.

“I can’t make any promises, but the team working on this is explicitly evaluating how sites can/will improve in Search for the next update. It would be great to show more users the content that folks have worked hard on, and where sites have taken helpfulness to heart.”

Is Your Site High Quality?

Many website owners believe their content is high quality. However, occasionally, despite adhering to SEO best practices, they may not achieve the desired results because those practices might inadvertently backfire.

A common misstep is mimicking competitors but attempting to enhance it. As someone deeply involved in SEO for over two decades, I’ve observed that this approach often leads to creating content that’s tailored more for search engines rather than users. It results in patterns suggesting the site lacks originality and offers nothing new than what is already available.

Before concluding that everything about the site is optimal, it is essential to ensure that genuinely everything is in order.

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Michael Vi

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