How Google detects and penalizes AI content

Does Google penalize AI content?

 

Do you receive a constant barrage of social media ads on how AI content can “Drive millions of visitors to your site” or “Write an eBook in five minutes”?

If so, you will probably be sceptical of the veracity of these ads. For one thing, if their methods were so successful, why are they paying Instagram or Facebook to advertise? Why not just use their own methods to market themselves?

Nevertheless, it sounds tempting and perhaps you've experimented with AI generated content for your own SEO. If so, you may have been hit by Google’s March 2024 algorithm update.

 

AI Meta Description case study

In late February 2024, we decided to experiment with a single page. We took an 8,000-word blog post on creative writing exercises and replaced the Meta Description and introductory paragraph with AI content created by ChatGPT.

The result?

A huge drop in organic traffic from around 40 clicks a day to zero. This is despite the vast majority of the 8,000 words being original content.

AI Meta Description case study

I tracked traffic for five days to see if it was just a blip and would recover. When it became obvious it wasn’t going to, I rewrote the Meta Description and first paragraph and resubmitted the URL to Google. I breathed a sigh of relief when the traffic bounced back to its former levels.

This is a clear indicator that Google penalizes AI generated content in the search result and that only a small amount of AI text can make a big difference to your SEO success, particularly if you're using ChatGPT.

 

Can Google detect AI content?

Google invest a considerable amount of time identifying and rewarding high-quality content. But how can they detect whether an artificial intelligence content generator has been used or not?

They apply a similar method to other AI content detection tools, with an advantage in terms of the data they can access. Their SpamBrain algorithm uses a range of strategies to detect AI content:

  1. Unpredictability – Google Gemini writes its own AI content. They can ask, “If I was writing this, what word would I use next?” ChatGPT is also open source, meaning they can do the same with ChatGPT content. The more predictable, the more likely it’s written by AI.
  2. Burstiness – Humans vary sentence structure and length much more than AI content generators.
  3. Duplicate content – Thousands of websites are now using AI content. If similar sentences appear on these sites, it’s a red flag.
  4. User-experience – High-quality and relevant, human generated content will have higher time on page and lower bounce rates.

 

Google’s March 2024 algorithm updates

Google’s Search Status Dashboard provides dates of different algorithm updates.

 On 5 March 2024, they launched two updates, one addressing spam, one part of a core update. As they were launched simultaneously, it’s impossible to separate which impacted a specific site, unless you have received a manual penalty.

Google spam update March 2024

Google stated:

“We believe these updates will reduce the amount of low-quality content in Search and send more traffic to helpful and high-quality sites. Based on our evaluations, we expect that the combination of this update and our previous efforts will collectively reduce low-quality, unoriginal content in search results by 40%.”

Source: Search Engine Journal

It’s worth noting that our experiment with the AI Meta Description was completed before this latest algorithm update.

 

Spam update

The Google spam update took two weeks to rollout, so if you noticed a drop in traffic between 5 March and 19 March 2024, it may be due to this.

Google’s spam policy is lengthy and unsurprisingly includes keyword stuffing, hidden text, and various manipulative practices. Google have also added a new section on “Scaled Abuse”. In it, Google state they will penalize AI content creation that:

  • Uses generative AI tools or other similar tools to generate many pages without adding value for users.
  • Stitches or combines content from different web pages without adding value.
  • Sites that copy content from other sites, modify it only slightly (for example, by substituting synonyms or using automated techniques), and republish it.

It’s worth noting that AI tools like ChatGPT do all of the above.

 

Core update

The Google core update takes up to a month to rollout. It may impact your site between 5 March and 5 April 2024.

Core updates are broad changes to Google’s search engine algorithm which they implement every few months. They measure the quality of content, rewarding sites with “helpful, reliable people-first content”.

 

Manual penalties from Google

With their latest algorithm update, Google are penalising automatically generated content in a major way.

The Tweet below shows ten sites which have been particularly impacted:

Sites penalised by Google spam algorithm update

According to Search Engine Journal:

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that the volume of sites affected by this update may reach historic levels not seen since the Panda and Penguin updates.”

If you’ve seen a substantial drop in your Google search ranking, check whether you have received a manual penalty by following these steps:

  • Create a Google Search Console account if you don’t already have one.
  • Click the drop-down option in the top left and select your website from the list.
  • Scroll down to Security & Manual Actions.
  • Click Manual Actions.

You should see “No issues detected”.

Manual actions

 

Algorithmic penalties

If you have a manual action, there will be instructions on how to resolve it. If not, it means your drop in ranking is due to an algorithmic ranking factor, or some other change, like a competitor outranking you.

To identify which URLs have lost traffic, complete the steps below:

  • Log in to Google Search Console.
  • Click the drop-down option in the top left and select your website from the list.
  • Click the pencil icon next to Date: Last 28 days
  • Click Compare.
  • Enter the dates for the most recent week in the top row and 26 February to 3 March 2024 in the bottom row (the week before Google implemented their latest algorithm).

Custom dates

  • Click Apply.
  • Click Clicks Difference to sort the results, so the largest drop in clicks appears first.

This gives you a good indicator of which pages have been penalized, so you know what to prioritise in order to resolve the issues.

 

Can you use AI for SEO?

March’s spam algorithm update doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use AI in your SEO process. You can still use it to:

  • Complete keyword research, including identifying semantic keywords.
  • Brainstorm ideas for blog topics and other content.
  • Compare your content to top ranking content in order to get an idea of what they do differently.
  • Proofread your work and suggest edits.

What it does mean is that writing huge swathes of text or using it as the primary way you generate Meta Descriptions is not wise.

 

Google penalty recovery

Whether it’s a manual or algorithmic penalty, Google penalising your site always requires action. If you’ve experienced a substantial drop in ranking as a result of their spam algorithm update, the steps you need to take are:

  • Complete an SEO content audit and fix any content that’s low quality or has been written by AI.
  • Consider deleting all AI generated pages from your site.
  • Manually rewrite the Meta Title and Description of pages that have lost substantial traffic. Include keywords and write in an engaging, accurate fashion.

 

If you would like help recovering from a Google penalty, get in touch to discuss our SEO audits and content writing services. We provide content in multiple languages and all text is written by experienced and qualified native speakers who understand the subtleties of SEO.