PlusHeart Issue #25 - Surviving an SEO-pocalypse
On non-gaming sites publishing gaming guides, and the coming Google Change (tm).
Happy issue 25! We’re one away from my goal of 26 when I started PlusHeart (one per two weeks for an entire year). I’ve already lined up a new audio interview for it (recorded as of publishing on Substack) and it should be a good time.
This week, though, we’re going to talk about SEO, and the idea of gaming websites that aren’t quite gaming web sites.
If you’ve picked up a new game during its first month, you’ll note that if you search for a question (especially about the first 5-10 hours of the game), you’ll likely come across one-shot articles from news organizations, specifically tailored to that question. This is by design, and popped up once publications realized that they could (probably barely) pay freelancers to populate hundreds of small articles for their site, and the search traffic would do the rest.
The thing is, it’s become a bit formulaic, and this strategy extends to other areas of the Internet, too. I’ve had to explain to multiple parents and relatives why there’s an essay about the author’s personal history (or well, maybe a made-up history) with pizza before the article gets to the recipe that you’re there for. Without it, Google won’t rank it, and without search traffic, sites die. Non-gaming news sites (Heavy, Mic, Newsweek, USA Today, etc) are big offenders of doing this with gaming, and when I started noticing it, it really annoyed me.
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This isn’t a “how dare they cash in on my passion” thing, because the hustle is there to be exploited. It’s more the shift away from information sharing that benefits any kind of community, and it comes at the expense of other people who care.
Part of this PlusHeart issue was spawned by a discussion on /r/Dota2 about the “decline” of a Dota 2 YouTube channel that used to post longer videos. Now, their videos are short, clip-friendly, and perceived by the thread to be “low-effort” or “borderline AI-generated”, and previous fans used this thread to vent their frustration.
While I’m sympathetic, the issue is that the channel has no control over what YouTube views as popular, and if they want to continue generating income, they are effectively at the mercy of the algorithm. This is, unless they want to put the extra effort into a patronage model, which has its own set of problems concerning scale and workload.
So it becomes an issue of:
Which channels can afford to shift their strategy?
Which channels aren’t going to burn out in the process?
Which channels are going to lose their fanbase in the process?
Bringing it back to the news sites doing their own blogspam, none of these issues really matter to them. They don’t care about gaming, so they aren’t disappointing people or burning resources: the same freelancer can crank out 500 articles, and people searching for “how do I complete Mission X” on Google can get their answer.
The same principle applies to this YouTube channel: in order to survive, they must adhere to strategies that prioritize lower-effort, higher-volume, quicker content that is served in smaller bites. A lot of people dislike this, and that channel must also do damage control. After all, who is more important? The volume of viewers that come from the new strategies, or staying broke while catering to the old ones?
Another reason I’m bringing this up is that Google is apparently changing their algorithm in a so-called “helpful content update”. Their post on the matter specifically seems to call out behavior like this, with questions like:
Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?
Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).
Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
The problem with this is that so much feels very… unprovable. Google’s use of “content made for humans” lacks a definition, and that “did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?” question seems vague. What are they going to do, make the judgment call themselves as to how authentic a publication is?
Apparently these new rules apply site-wide in terms of de-ranking and punishment from the algorithm, instead of just to specific posts:
Any content — not just unhelpful content — on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in Search, assuming there is other content elsewhere from the web that’s better to display. For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.
This has triggered a reaction of deeming an “SEOPocalyse” where previously safe methods of generating traffic and income are now going to become defunct. I’m not holding my breath, mostly because there will always be ways to game this, and we don’t know the exact motivations about this kind of update.
Are Google just suddenly benevolent (laughable)? Are Google just deciding that the time is right in order to switch “vibes” of posts? Are we just going to end up with a slightly different, still-gamed tone of posts? Are we all just going to be replaced with AI content?
I know this post isn’t exactly gaming or esports specific, but I wanted to bring it back to the idea of information being shared altruistically, with the ideals of building a culture. This kind of content (the mass-spam, 500 one-question web page strategy) worked, but it felt hollow giving my traffic to sites that didn’t really care about gaming. I know I’m likely a minority on this kind of moralization, but at the same time, I hope this update brings a bit more viability back to blogging, solo sites, and curation of information.
As I’ve said on Twitter, informations moving away from wikis and sites and more towards videos on YouTube and Discord’s terrible search indexing has really been terrible from a position of accessibility and readability.
I know the days of .txt guides on GameFAQs are long gone, but I’m hoping that some of what made that era of content great can trickle through again.
I’ve opened a feedback thread for PlusHeart, mostly in an effort to narrow down a niche that I can better serve. If you read the newsletter, please consider dropping a line here, or on that post.
I’ve written a lot this past little while:
A “knowledge log” of software and services I use regularly
A tutorial about recording podcasts to different audio tracks
A tutorial about automating your lights with an open-source tool
When I’m listing these things out, man, I’m just struck with this “your writing is all over the place” feeling, and it kind of sucks. I like writing about these kind of things, but along with PlusHeart, there’s so different in subject that it’s kind of hard for me to build anything on that.
I find writing very satisfying and fulfilling, but I also want to do it well in terms of building an audience. I’m hoping I can kind of figure out a good place to limit myself and focus on in the future.
Thanks for reading.