HCU & Other Google Updates: Why You Could Have Been Hit

Katie Caf Katie Caf
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KatieCafTravel.com got hit hard by the latest Google algorithm updates, just like many other travel sites. Curious about what was going on with the rankings and Google Search, Katie, the site’s creator, started chatting with a bunch of bloggers and SEO pros. Here’s a rundown of what she discovered about Google’s 2023/2024 updates and the changing world of search. We turn the floor over to Katie.

HCU and Other Google Updates: Why Your Travel Blog May Be Affected

My travel site, KatieCafTravel.com, along with many others had its traffic severely impacted by the recent Google algorithm updates. To understand what was happening to my site’s rankings and Google Search overall, I started talking with many bloggers and SEOs. Here are some of the things I learned about Google’s 2023/2024 algorithm updates and the changing nature of Google Search.

Google Algorithm Changes: Key Takeaways

  • Around 80% of travel bloggers in a study were negatively impacted by the 2023/2024 Google Algorithm Updates.
  • No one knows exactly what triggers an HCU penalty, and there have been no documented recoveries yet from the 2023 HCU.
  • Google is promoting user-generated content like Reddit and Quora, as well as blogs connected to real-life brands like tour companies, over information-only websites.
  • While most site owners are only aware of the HCU, there were actually 7 distinct algorithm updates spanning from Fall 2023 to Spring 2024 that could have affected traffic.
  • Google is now showcasing video results from Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube in Search for many travel queries.
  • New sites are typically growing without the HCU/Reviews qualifiers applied but should brace for an algorithmic hit eventually.

About My Site and Changing Strategies

KatieCafTravel.com grew from 5,000 readers per month in September 2022 to over 100,000 in one year until it was slapped down by the recent Google Updates. My site first fell 50% during September 2023 HCU, which was such a heavy blow at the time, but since then it’s only fallen more and more as subsequent updates have raged on. As of now, my site is almost completely removed from Google SERPs; going from 3,500 Google sessions/day pre-HCU to just around 100 now.

The more I study the SERPs the more random the results from the recent Google updates seem. Some big-name travel blogs, with large social followings, high DAs (Domain Authority), and unique content, have practically gone to zero. While sites that are thinly veiled affiliate spam continue to rank. It’s demotivating, to say the least.

Google Search Liason John Mueller has repeatedly said that sites can recover from the HCU, and even grow. It’s hard to have faith when there’s been 0 recoveries and it’s been the better part of a year since the September 2023 HCU.

However, there’s one hopeful recurring theme I am noticing:

Sites that have built a community around their content seem to have fared better.

Many bloggers have social channels, and some do very well on them, but most are keeping their socials and their websites separate. There’s a link in the bio on an Instagram page, but nothing that makes a reader want to click out.

Some blogs that have actually grown during the updates were successfully driving traffic from their socials and Facebook groups to their websites – this creates a community of invested readers. I don’t know whether this is a metric Google is looking for specifically, or if having an invested audience pre-warmed to your brand generates positive user signals necessary to thrive in the current post-HCU environment — but it does seem to be a tactic that works well. The recipe website CJ Eats drives traffic from their Instagram and TikTok reels to their website and was listed as a major update success story by Authority Hacker.

Some Changes I’m Making to My Site and Strategy (And My Advice for You)

Building a community outside of my site is an ongoing process. Here are some quick tips and on-site changes I’ve been implementing to generate positive user signals for readers who find me off of search results. 

  1. Redo site formatting to be more engaging on mobile. I now put my mobile phone next to my laptop with ads and pop-up blockers turned off so I can assess how the majority of my readers will interact with my site. I also send out articles to friends for user testing and ask them to view my site on their mobile phones. 
  2. De-program SEO and write about topics vs keywords. I’m trying to satisfy a user’s journey rather than just aim to rank for a keyword with an article that’s been padded for ads. No more “How to get to x”, or “Is it cold in X?” on a “10 Best Things to Do in X” article to artificially rank a page for more keywords.
  3. Stop doing things “to show Google”. If your photos aren’t engaging, it might be better to use a stock photo rather than a blurry selfie to prove you actually visited Budapest for your article. Similarly, having a lengthy author bio at the beginning of articles, or a poorly made YouTube video, likely won’t help to boost your authority score with Google. But it will make for a worse user experience for your readers.
  4. Title content accurately. Articles that are personal stories about taking an ATV tour in Bali should be titled “My Experience Taking an ATV Tour in Bali” vs “ATV Tours in Bali: Travel Guide”. It’s likely many readers who clicked off the SERPs into the latter title were thinking they would be directed to a tour company site. Match content experience with expectations by providing descriptive titles. 

My Main Theory About the HCU

I have expanded to YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok to grow my brand awareness. It’s something I should have done when I started my site in 2021. I’m optimistic people will continue to consume indie travel content, but it’s been humbling trying to gain views on these engagement-based platforms.

One YouTube short I post gets 10K views, and the next one just 23. Attention spans are shorter than ever. If people don’t already know me and have a reason to stick around for my content, they will scroll right past an engaging intro.

This has led me to my main theory about the HCU: sites that were growing with SEO, and fabricated backlinks, either built or bought, might have been overserved to readers.

I know my site was. I was able to rank for anything pre-September HCU. I remember I wrote one article, “Is Egypt Safe for Women” that ranked #1 for “Is Egypt Safe”. That query probably should have gone to a government site, not a personal solo female travel blog, but it brought me thousands of readers per month, and of course, I didn’t mind ranking for additional keywords at the time.

The combination of being overserved by the algorithm, the tendency bloggers have to pad their content for word count to fit more ads, coupled with a Navboost system that tracks and evaluates user metrics could have been a kiss of death to sites during the HCU.

It’s exceedingly difficult to keep readers engaged in long-form text content if they’re not already interested or invested in the information. Many readers, upon finding a site off of Google that they have never interacted with before, might just click back at the first pop-up or if the author is being a bit wordy. I know I rarely edited my content pre-HCU because I didn’t have to! The wordier my articles were the better they ranked.

I’m not saying what’s ranking now is better, by any means. But it’s important to remember the SERPs are currently crowded with sites that are in different categories from content-only HCU blogs. Forums like Reddit, e-commerce sites, blogs that haven’t been evaluated by the qualifiers yet, and “real businesses” like tourism boards are given precedence in the current algorithm.

The 7 Different Google Algorithm Updates and Changes

1. The 2023 HCU (Helpful Content Update)

The Helpful Content Update is a punitive qualifier applied to sites that were first rolled out in 2022. Not many sites were affected by the initial run, but its second iteration in September 2023 caused massive damage in the travel blogging community. In response to negative backlash about the HCU, Google gave vague advice to publishers to just, “Create more helpful content”, and said that they would not be rolling back the update.

The lack of clear guidance for site owners on how to move forward post-HCU algorithmic penalty has given way to a myriad of theories and superstitions surrounding what caused a site to get penalized. Here are some of the strongest HCU theories 6 months on.

What Could the HCU Have Been Targeting?

  • Poor User Experience: The prevailing theory for the HCU is that it was user-reaction-based. This means that you were penalized if your site had a high bounce rate, or “Pogosticking” rate when a reader returns to search results because your site failed to answer their query. This article and this video by On-Page.ai delve further into this theory. Pop-ups, poor formatting, thin content, wordy or unengaging writing, an overpopulation of ads, or click-bait spammy practices all could have contributed to a site accumulating poor user signals.
  • Switch to Mobile-First UX: In October 2023 Google switched to prioritizing the mobile version of sites for indexing over desktop. Many indie site owners aren’t aware that most blogs are just scrolls of text and ads in mobile view. It could have affected their ranking in a new mobile-user-experience-first algorithm.
  • Use of SEO and Keyword Research: From the beginning of the updates in September 2023, Google made it apparent that the HCU was meant to penalize content not “written for humans”. The greater question there is, what does that mean? Many believe that content not written for humans means just written for SEO. Google bolstered this theory by saying they don’t want “content made primarily to gain search engine rankings”. However, Google’s advice is vague, and sites that specifically target only long tail keywords are still ranking in high quantity.
  • Pattern Recognition: We all think our content is unique because we are humans. Some SEOs told me that from a machine learning standpoint, most travel blogs look the same to an algorithm. We all have the same WordPress themes, formatting, and topics, such as “10 Best Things to do in X”. We, people, can parse that some travel bloggers have been to the locations they write about, but Google’s algorithm cannot. Instead, it just notices patterns. Therefore if your site looks too much like others that are creating spam, you might also be marked as spam.

Here’s what Google Search Liason Danny Sullivan replied to me over X about the algo being pattern-based:

It’s the algorithm. It’s not focusing on a specific site. It doesn’t have a list of sites added to it. It’s automatically understanding patterns that make it think “across all this content, I see these patterns, and this makes me think generally I see spam here.

  • Listicles: Travel websites that publish mainly listicle-style articles were notably hit hard by Google Updates. This could be related to the AI machine learning algorithm noticing spam sites also publishing many listicles. Even if your content is genuine, your 20-best-things-to-do-in-x style article might look similar to a spam site. That wrote a listicle on the same topic, with the same H2s, and the same formatting. Remember, Google is using AI to evaluate sites. AI qualifiers cannot tell if content is genuine, only people can.
  • Branded Search Traffic: Google announced that backlinks are “not the most important ranking factor” on multiple occasions. It leads people to speculate what the new basis of authority in the digital world could be. Many believe that post-HCU branded search traffic is a way to gauge a site’s authority, vs. backlinks which can be fabricated more easily. However, sites like Thrillist which have thousands of branded searches every month were also affected negatively by the updates.

What the HCU Likely Wasn’t About?

  • Ads: While ads might make a site look messy and lead to an overall poorer user experience and subsequent HCU hit, I have seen sites with no ads at all that were also severely impacted by the HCU.
  • Affiliate Links: There are many sites with loads of affiliate links that were unaffected by the updates.
  • Having a shopping cart/ e-commerce element: There’s an online rumor that selling products on your site will protect you from the HCU. But there are lots of travel blogs that sell e-books, photo presets trip-planning services, and coaching programs that were hit by the updates just the same.
  • Custom Site Design/Branding: A poor site design could lead to bad user metrics and an HCU algorithmic penalty. However, I’ve seen some professionally designed sites that were negatively affected.
  • Not Using Google Adsense: It’s an online rumor that sites that used Adsense were favored over sites running ad networks like Mediavine and Raptive. The video from Doug Cunnington showcases some websites that were featured as Adsense success stories but were later algorithmically penalized.
  • Displaying EEAT: EEAT stands for Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. It’s a main tenant of Google Quality Rater Guidelines. EEAT can be displayed by writing in the first person (using I, Me, We, terms), having photos of yourself on your site, linking social media profiles to your website, and having elements like phone number, mailing address, and email of your company on your site. These are good guidelines for websites to follow, however tons and tons of first-person blogs made by real people have been hit by the updates, and Google Search Laison Danny Sullivan has come out and said EEAT is not a ranking factor.
  • Having a High DR/DA (Domain Rating/Domain Authority): High-authority sites like the Culture Trip (down 70%), Planetware (down 90%), and Thecrazytourist (down almost 100%) were negatively impacted the same as small indie publishers.
  • Writing About Different Topics: Many niche travel blogs that only write about one location were hit just as hard in the updates as global travel sites without a specific focus.
  • Getting All of Your Traffic from Google: Diversifying traffic sources to your site is a good practice in the current climate. However, solely relying on Google traffic is likely not a reason a site was hit by the updates. I’ve talked to site owners who still get 100K clicks/month from Facebook, Email Marketing, and Pinterest even though their site was essentially completely removed from Google SERPs.

2. 2023 Fall Reviews Update

The Google Reviews Update, originally called the Product Reviews Update, targets sites recommending lots of products, sales, or services with the intention of pushing the reader toward their affiliate links.

Google’s official documentation says that product reviews are fine, as long as they’re not thin affiliate pages: “Thin affiliate pages are pages with product affiliate links on which the product descriptions and reviews are copied directly from the original merchant without any original content or added value.”.

However, many independent creators provide value and have plenty of photos of using the products they are reviewing were decimated in the updates. Two examples of sites doing everything “right” that suffered substantiative blows are Housefresh.com and Thatfitfriend.com.

3. 2023 Hidden Gems Update

If you have googled a competitive keyword recently and have seen a low DA blog ranking, usually from a hobbyist instead of a professional (monetized) website, this could be due to Google’s Hidden Gems Algorithm Update.

For example, here’s a low DR site ranking for the “things to do in Cairo” competitive keyword. You’ll see these for many “things to do in X” queries. This article isn’t even directly related to the query, it’s probably an unhelpful result but it’s ranking #3 in US SERPs. 

A screenshot of the analytics from a low DR website that appears on the third page of US Google search results for the query 'things to do in Cairo'

Google Liason said that the Hidden Gems update is meant to uncover more helpful content, “Helpful information can often live in unexpected or hard-to-find places… a post on a little-known blog, or an article with unique expertise on a topic.”

This sounds extremely altruistic of Google to want to showcase smaller websites. However, the Hidden Gems Update has made keyword research extremely difficult due to low DA sites ranking for high-volume search terms. It falsely makes appear that these keywords have little competition. In addition, it renders keyword research tools useless.

4. 2024 March Spam Update

The March 2024 Spam Update overlapped with the Spring 2024 Core Update, which now has HCU and Reviews qualifiers baked in. All this to say, from March 2024 forward it becomes difficult to parse which updates you could have been affected by since so many were running concurrently. The Spam Update has very clear language that it was meant to penalize sites for spamming.

One of the most dramatic moments in this Google Update saga was when Google unleashed a team of quality raters to manually de-index sites that were considered “Pure Spam”. Most of these sites were mass-producing AI content, or “building in public” using SEO and trying to game the system. It’s called into question the efficacy of these Quality Raters, as John Mueller, a Google Search Liason, had his site marked as “Pure Spam” and de-indexed accidentally.

Some creators that were building in public using SEO had their entire portfolio of websites manually removed from Google Search Results. It was clear that Google was now waging a war against SEOs looking to manipulate Search Results for profit. But it’s unclear what they would be doing about all of the genuine content creators caught in the crossfire. Considering they couldn’t even protect their own Liason’s website from a Pure Spam manual penalty, how could the evaluating factors be trusted to appropriately judge small sites?

5. 2024 Spring Core Update

Google has always had Core Algorithm Updates and recently ran one in March–April 2024. Many of those affected by the September 2023 HCU update also fell hard during the Spring 2024 Core Update. The reason for this could be that the HCU algorithm and Reviews are “baked in” to ongoing core updates. So, if you have your traffic affected by a core algorithm update, it could be due to the same factors.

Google will no longer be announcing when it runs the Reviews or HCU qualifier in the future, so there’s no way of pinpointing if it was these specific qualifiers that impacted your traffic.

6. May 2024 Site Reputation Abuse Update

May 5t, 2024 was the start of Google’s Site Reputation Abuse Update which targeted big brand sites that were abusing their authority by hosting 3rd party content for pay. This is also what’s called “Parasite SEO“. Not many independent content creators were affected by this update, as it mainly targeted sites with high authority.

7. Other Algorithm Changes: UGC Content Promoted and AI SGE

Even if a site was not hit by one of the punitive algorithmic qualifiers mentioned in this article, most independent travel sites will likely still have seen a decrease in traffic. This is because there has been re-prioritizing in the algorithm overall. Most notably, Reddit and other forums are ranking above indie blogs across the board for all queries.

Google has also implemented more widgets and snippet features than ever before in the SERPs, and it’s unrolling its new generative AI search function SGE. All of these new features Google is implementing will push organic article results further down the page. So, even if a site does not lose rankings, it could still be losing substantial traffic.

May 2024 Google API Leak

Recently, a whistleblower who worked for Google named Erfan Azimi leaked documents related to the way Google’s algorithm operates. The documents are vague, and conjecture is running wild from all sides. There’s a heavy emphasis on a ranking system titled “Navboost”, which some SEOs believe was the basis for the HCU. Navboost aggregates user data, from Google Chrome search engine users from the previous 13 months, tallying positive “Long Clicks” (long reader retention) from “Short Clicks” (bouncing and pogo-sticking). Sites with the longest click will be granted higher visibility in SERPs. 

This is meaningful because previously Google Search Liason had come out and openly stated that Google doesn’t use Chrome Data for rankings. So, many SEOs and site owners feel lied to by Google and are questioning what else the massive corporation may be hiding. 

The Navboost system is just one of many ranking elements the Google API Leaks exposed, but there’s no telling how heavily each ranking element is weighted in Google’s algorithm. This video from Authority Hacker delves deeper into what the Google API leaks could mean for site owners.

📌 Editor’s Note: Travelpayouts’ SEO expert Anton Ivlichev also analyzed the leaked data and shared his tips for travel bloggers concerning their SEO and blogging strategies.

9 Tips for Moving Forward in the Current Climate

  1. Focus on creating content that cannot be replicated by Google Knowledge Boxes or AI-powered SGE. For example, “10 Best Things to Do in Vermont” already has an AI-powered widget answer at the top of Google Search. An article that answers the same query is not creating unique content, even if your perspective on the topic is unique.
  2. If you do product reviews, consider creating video reviews on YouTube in addition to or instead of blog articles. These videos will not increase your website’s rankings, but video content is being given more visibility in search.
  3. Branch out into more than one platform, even if your site hasn’t been hit. Algorithms are changing frequently and many quality content creators are caught in the crossfires.
  4. Always view your site on mobile as well as desktop view. Many bloggers aren’t aware of how their sites re-size on mobile. Be self-critical – Is your site capable of capturing attention on mobile view?
  5. Be extremely wary of people selling courses or HCU recovery services. There have been no documented HCU recoveries. If someone says they know how to prevent Google Algorithm Penalities, they either do not know what they are talking about or they are grifters.
  6. Succinct and engaging content over long-form “Skyscraper” articles. Google has come out and said that word count is not a ranking factor. According to On-Paige there’s a 10% reduction in overall word counts on Page 1 of SERPs post-March 2024. What does this mean? Shorter articles are ranking better than they used to. Focusing on being succinct and engaging over writing long articles for the sake of it might be a better approach in the new algorithm.
  7. Don’t be formulaic. Why does a 1,500-word article on visiting a waterfall need a table of contents, a conclusion, and a hotel affiliate callout panel if the article isn’t about hotels? It probably doesn’t. Focus on making content that’s more engaging and informative for readers over doing what you see others doing.
  8. New sites were not hit by the algorithm updates. Google Liason Danny Sullivan came out and said that the HCU qualifier is continuously running in the background. But I have talked to many site owners that started in 2023, experienced uninhibited growth with SEO, and then were suddenly clapped down by the March 2024 Core Update So, if you’ve just started growing your site with SEO, be wary of future algorithmic penalties whether it’s 6-months or 2-years down the road.
  9. If your site was hit, make an X (Twitter) account and speak up about it! I’ve been in contact with both Google Search Liasons on X by tagging them (@johnMu @searchliaison) and sharing my site. It’s our job to let Google know if we think they’ve done wrong by independent site owners.
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