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The Publisher Lab: March Google algorithm update, new terms & conditions for the ad industry, & programmatic market shifts

The Publisher Lab: March Google algorithm update, new terms & conditions for the ad industry, & programmatic market shifts

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The Publisher Lab is back with another episode and this week, we’re talking about the Google March 2023 Broad Core Update, new standard terms and conditions in the ad industry, and shifts in the programmatic market.

Google’s newest algorithm update

On March 15, 2023, Google released its first algorithm update of the year and the first one since September 2022. Mozcast, which shows fluctuations in search ranking, showed significant volatility around March 16 and 17. It’s expected the rollout will take up to two weeks.

According to Search Engine Roundtable, it seems like it is affecting more black-hat SEO than white-hat SEO, though it’s still too early to tell. The update does seem to look at all types of content, however, and is far-reaching and has a fast impact.

However, it’s important to remember that it’s impossible to know exactly how a core update affects content and if anyone is pointing out that it affected a specific niche, there is no way to prove it because Google does not divulge that information. During many core updates, after looking at sites that publishers have said were affected by an algorithm update, the data shows that it was something else entirely.

For example, if someone searched “how to build a sand castle” and then searched “how to build a sand castle today,” it’s possible that the searcher could get completely different answers from Google just by adding the word “today.” However, if Google updates the algorithm to make the search less sensitive in some way, where “today” added to the query didn’t matter as much, search results could be completely different than before.

As for black-hat SEO being more affected than white-hat SEO, classic black-hat SEO tactics—like adding a bunch of keywords to the background of a website and making them white—haven’t worked in a long time. And, in some regards, that is the kind of thing that Google is targeting with all algorithm updates; Google is looking to serve results that are the best for a specific query, not just rank sites because they were sneaky in some way.

It’s important that publishers look at their own data when these updates happen; ranking doesn’t affect websites nearly as much as something like “People also ask” or video carousels at the top of the page. Publishers are competing with these features more than they are with other publishers and these features can be way more impactful than how one’s site ranks.

For publishers who are concerned about yet another Google algorithm update, it’s important to remember that the web is changing quickly and it probably won’t matter in 15 years because you likely won’t be getting the majority of your traffic from Google then. Think about a company like Apple—in 2006, it wasn’t even on the map for mobile phones, and Nokia was the most popular cell phone company. Then, within a matter of a few years, it surpassed everyone to become the giant it is today, leaving Nokia, and most everyone else, in the dust. You just don’t know what’s going to happen in a few years.

If publishers are more concerned with how it may affect their site presently, we suggest looking at the data with the biggest time span you possibly can; you will glean more helpful information from that than if you look super granularly; things can change so much day-to-day but you can see broader trends if you look at a greater period of time.

It’s like looking at a piece of artwork—you don’t get within two inches of a painting to see what it is about. You take a step back and allow yourself to see the whole thing.

Ad industry set to revise standard terms and conditions

Ad industry terms and conditions, first developed in May 2001, have not seen any updates in over a decade. Come April 2023, that will no longer be the case.

A task force, composed of advertising agencies, marketers, publishers, and ad tech companies is set to be formed to accomplish this task.

In light of this, publishers may want to consider what their terms and conditions are for their own sites. The way the world is changing, and all of the data that can be collected, may make it important for publishers to know where they stand legally. It would be extremely unfortunate for a publisher to be succeeding and then be hit with legal action by a user or for some sort of copyright infringement.

It may be like eating your vegetables, but it’s important to have terms and conditions on your site that protect it and consider anything unique to your site.

The programmatic market is changing, and it could benefit publishers

The programmatic marketplace currently operates mostly on an open marketplace but for some, that majority may be changing. Many publishers and advertisers are moving towards more controlled environments, which provide better benefits to advertisers, like more targeted audiences and focused device types. Many ad agencies are already selecting SSPs to carry out these curated deals, but this shift of more control of the marketplace back to media agencies that were lost with the popularity of open programmatic.

It’s likely this sort of shift is mostly coming from the advertising side, unsurprisingly.

What we have learned about advertising is that competition drives up revenue for publishers. Publishers should want as many active, bidding parties as possible so that there is competition. While quality may increase with more curated spaces, if there is no competition happening anywhere, the revenue publishers can earn goes down significantly; you either can’t fill the majority of your inventory or the value plummets.

We’ve seen this with Tesla. They were originally one of the most popular EV car manufacturers, if only because they were one of the few. This made it so they could charge more money for the cars because they held all of the inventory. Now, with more car manufacturers creating EV vehicles, Tesla is working hard to find ways to cut the cost of manufacturing their EV cars so that they can compete better. It kind of works in the inverse if you’re on the publishing side.

While it would be great if publishers and advertisers could work together closely and just have a bunch of direct deals in place, it’s going back in time. The reason why the open marketplace exists as it does today is that that scale provides value. If you’re a smaller publisher, how are you supposed to go out and make all of these deals with major advertisers, who probably would want nothing to do with you because you don’t provide much value to them on a grand scale? Even if they wanted to work with you, they couldn’t possibly manage all of these smaller deals; they have bigger fish to fry.

However, if there is a way to make a deal quickly with a bunch of publishers at once, why wouldn’t you?

All in all, these more curated deals are not the way forward, especially for publishers. Realistically, the best thing that could happen is for one ad to show on a publisher’s site where there is a huge premium; the publisher would earn a bunch of money and the advertiser would be guaranteed the most engagement with that ad.

But, as we know, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Questions and comments from the audience

In reference to our podcast in February titled “The Rise of Generative AI and Meta Ad-Targeting Transparency”

I’m very concerned about the future of blogging and income. What’s going to happen when the great deluge of articles gets posted? It just seems like the barriers to entry for writing blogs are gone and I’m concerned about future monetization.

Ultimately, artificial intelligence is a tool and not something that is going to take over writing good content. If you’re a publisher who can be disrupted by AI, then you’re likely not adding something unique or valuable.

Additionally, all source content that AI pulls from is from humans. There is still a need for human-produced content, if not for quality, then at least for artificial intelligence to get its information. While it might seem crazy to make content that will then be used by AI to create more content, your content will still hold more value because you have a real, human experience—that will always (at least in our lifetime) be valuable.

I think you made a brief reference to the importance of originality in writing content.  What else can a blogger do to ensure their content stays monetizable going forward? Could you please elaborate on how a blogger can stay future-proof in these uncertain times?

The best thing a publisher can do is to lean into what they know.

Trying to follow niches that are making a lot of money or that aren’t as competitive as others are not going to be as successful or as personally satisfying.

Consider something that we often see in the US—a CVS and a Walgreens across the street from one another (both are small, “has everything” stores with a pharmacy inside). However, these stores aren’t really competing against each other very much because they serve a completely different customer base.

Even though there are plenty of sites making similar content to what you may want to make, your unique experience is what is valuable. 

Whitney is a former journalist for numerous city-wide newspapers and online media sources and an accomplished digital and creative marketer. She has multiple years of digital publishing expertise and contributes regularly to all of Ezoic's content sources.

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