HouseFresh has virtually disappeared from Google Search results. Now what?

Two months ago, we sounded the alarm about independent publishers being demoted on Google to give way to big media sites. This is what happened next.
By
Updated on May 3, 2024
Written by
Gisele Navarro
Gisele runs the day-to-day operations of HouseFresh. She supports Danny with product tests and is focused on continually improving our content. She is also the human behind most of our social media accounts.

In February 2024, we published an article warning readers not to trust product recommendations from well-known newspapers and magazines ranking at the top of Google search results. 

I wasn’t expecting so many people to care (even though I secretly hoped they would), but we’re still getting emails and messages about it ten weeks later.

In these two months, I have talked to air purifier manufacturers, HouseFresh readers, other independent publishers, Dotdash Meredith employees, well-known activists, tech journalists, Redditors, SEO professionals, and even Google employees.

Today, I want to share some things I’ve learned and some things that happened after publishing that article.

I’ll take you through the tactics big media publishers use to outrank independent sites online. I’ll also cover what Google has done since we published our exposé and what they’ve announced they’re going to do. Lastly, I’ll share what happened to HouseFresh over the last two months. SPOILER: It’s not looking good for us.

That’s a lot, so I hope you’ll stay with me until the end (but no hard feelings if you don’t).

Dotdash Meredith allegedly developed an SEO content strategy called “swarming” to out-publish independent sites

Why indie publishers are being buried in search results by content published on multiple sites belonging to the same group

Within a few days of publishing the David VS Digital Goliaths exposé, I received an anonymous tip from a former Dotdash Meredith employee, who informed me of an SEO content strategy they implement called “keyword swarming.” 

Through this strategy, Dotdash Meredith allegedly identifies small sites that have cemented themselves in Google results for a specific (and valuable) term or in a specific topic, with the goal of pushing them down the rankings by publishing vast amounts of content of their own.  

 “Swarming is about drowning out a competitor,” said the person who reached out. The objective is to “swarm a smaller site’s foothold on one or two articles by essentially publishing 10 articles [on the topic] and beefing up [Dotdash Meredith sites’] authority.”

By the way, if “keyword swarming” is indeed a strategy, then it’s clear that it’s not just something you will find in the air purifier space. Dotdash Meredith could be doing this across many other products and topics, utilizing its wide range of publications.

That could explain why you will find multiple articles published on sites belonging to Dotdash Meredith ranking at the top of Google like this:

Is Dotdash Meredith to blame for choosing to “swarm” Google search results by leveraging their network of websites and their machine to create content at scale?

Personally, I think it’s not great for the internet, but I understand that if that the leadership at Dotdash Meredith is simply focusing on making money for IAC shareholders.

“IAC’s vision for Dotdash Meredith — to be a flywheel for generating advertising and commerce revenue — is finally starting to pan out. 

[…] More than 80% of Dotdash Meredith’s traffic and digital revenue come from its core sites, such as Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, and Southern Living, that deliver a form of what one might think of as commerce-related service journalism.”

— Allison Schiff, managing editor of AdExchanger

However, I don’t want to turn this into a personal crusade against Dotdash Meredith because it’s not.

The reality is that, whether they have a name for it or not, every other digital goliath is monetizing their websites by using the same tactics.

Let’s take Forbes.com as an example. 

Connecting the dots between puppies, affiliate commissions, and Forbes

Why Forbes.com is flooding the web with affiliate-focused SEO content on topics far outside their area of expertise

Do puppies come to mind when you think of Forbes? If not, they should.

In the last few years, Forbes has pumped out thousands of articles about puppies, dogs, kittens, and cats. But why?

Well, if you pay attention to the URLs of the articles, you might notice that the majority of them sit inside ​​forbes.com/advisor/pet-insurance/, which is the space where Forbes publishes their pet insurance affiliate content:

The Forbes Advisor team published all this content about cats and dogs because they needed to build Forbes.com’s authority in the space to compete with sites such as Dogster or Canine Journal.

The vast majority of pet-related content on Forbes.com pre-2020 wasn’t written from the point of pet expertise, and it wasn’t tied to highly searched keywords that would drive monetizable traffic:

To give the pet insurance affiliate section of Forbes the best chance to succeed, the Forbes Advisor team pumped out A LOT of content about pets and built A LOT of links around the topic with statistics round-ups designed to obfuscate the original sources in order to increase the chances of people linking to Forbes.com when using the stats:

All this hard work paid off in the form of an estimated 1.1 million visitors each month to the pet insurance section of Forbes Advisor:

This happened at the expense of every site that has produced content about dogs, cats, and other pets for many years before Forbes.com decided to cash in on pet insurance affiliate money. 

They successfully replicated this model again and again and again across the huge variety of topics that Forbes covers today. 

Trusted publications are being flipped by SEO-minded people with a taste for affiliate money

Step one: buy the site. Step two: fire staff. Step three: revamp the content strategy to drive new monetizable traffic from Google

Did you know that 19-year-old sports blog Deadspin is now a gambling affiliate site?

That’s right. Just a few weeks ago, Deadspin was sold to a newly formed ghost digital media company that immediately fired all Deadspin’s writers before announcing it would start referring traffic to gambling sites.

Stuff like this happens all the time, but most people don’t follow media news, so they’re completely unaware.

For example, if I mention Money, you might think of a magazine you could find at any newsstand since 1972. But what if I told you that the physical production of its magazines stopped in 2019?

The Money brand is now owned by Ad Practitioners LLC (recently rebranded as Money Group), a company that profits from affiliate links and has developed an ad network.

You probably had no idea about this because Money.com looks just like it always has, and its About page focuses on its long history while failing to disclose who is behind the site:

In an interview with Axios, one of the owners of Ad Practitioners LLC said that Money was hemorrhaging cash before the acquisition and explained how it’s now thriving:

“Powel, a former Google executive, saw an opportunity to rebuild Money’s editorial strategy around intent-based personal finance content that’s typically surfaced from search results instead of clickbait business stories about celebrities and their wealth. 

Big digital media companies like DotDash Meredith and Red Ventures rely on a similar strategy.”

— Sara Fischer, senior media reporter at Axios

In true ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ style, Ad Practitioners LLC leveraged the public’s trust in the Money brand, its high-authority domain, and long-standing history as a finance publication to sell air purifiers — without any actual testing, I might add:

But it’s not just air purifiers.

Wondering how to reprogram your garage door opener? Let Money.com explain. Looking for the best paint sprayers? Money.com can tell you.

The key here seems to be adding ‘for your money’ to the title to keep things loosely tied to the financial aspect of the website:

This is how the people behind Money.com are “building upon the legacy” of the brand.

I’m nearly done kicking the big guys, I promise.

Big media sites are laying off journalists while partnering with marketing agencies that use AI to write commerce content

Exploring the trend of publishers that have been caught lying about AI-written, search traffic-focused content in the last six months

Commerce content is quickly becoming the main monetization route for media publishers. In fact, a 2023 survey by Digiday showed that 81% of publishers consider commerce content a vital part of their revenue growth strategy, with 43% reportedly producing 16 to 26+ new pieces of commerce content each month.

And while media publishers ramp up their commerce content, they also seem to be ramping up the layoffs. 

So, who is writing all these commercial pages? 

“The financial incentives for the current trend are strong, and as media companies continue to cut newsroom staff, the lure of cheap AI content is hard to resist,” said longtime service journalist Joe Lindsey in his article Commerce content is breaking product reviews. He continued, “The latest permutation of commerce content is that publishers outsource some or all of it to a third-party provider, which is called a commerce content partnership, and that’s where AI is pushing in.”

He’s not wrong. 

Reports claim that big media publishers such as Sports Illustrated and USA Today have published commercial content written by AI under fake author names. In both cases, the media giants blamed a third-party partner who provided content to the publications. 

In a statement to The Post, Gannett said the articles on USA Today “were created through a deal with a marketing firm to generate paid search-engine traffic.” According to The Verge, the firm behind these AI product reviews is called ASR Group Holdings. When following the lead, journalist Mila Sato found that ASR Group also uses the name AdVon Commerce.

What a coincidence…

The owner of Sports Illustrated released a similar statement when Futurism uncovered their use of AI-generated content: “The articles in question were product reviews and were licensed content from an external, third-party company, AdVon Commerce […] AdVon has assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans.”

Yet, when searching through LinkedIn, I could find multiple AdVon employee profiles that clearly specify the use of AI as part of their job:

Where does this leave the role of journalists in these publications?

“As a journalist, all of this depresses me,” wrote Brian Merchant, the technology columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He continued, “If journalists are outraged at the rise of AI and its use in editorial operations and newsrooms, they should be outraged not because it’s a sign that they’re about to be replaced but because management has such little regard for the work being done by journalists that it’s willing to prioritize the automatic production of slop.”

But all hope is not lost.

Google set a deadline for big media sites to stop spamming the web

How the “site reputation abuse’ spam policy could affect big media sites, and what they’re doing to prepare for Google’s deadline

Here’s a recap so far:

  • Digital media conglomerates are developing SEO content strategies designed to out-publish high-ranking specialist independent publishers.
  • Legacy media brands are building in-house SEO content teams that tie content creation to affiliate marketing revenue in topics that have nothing to do with their original areas of expertise.
  • Newly created digital media companies are buying once successful and influential blogs with the goal of driving traffic to casino sites.
  • Private equity firms are partnering with companies like AdVon to publish large amounts of AI-generated content edited by SEO-focused people across their portfolio of media brands.

And here’s the worst part:

Google’s algorithm encourages all of them to rinse and repeat the same strategies by allowing their websites to rank in top positions for SEO-fueled articles about any topic imaginable. Even in cases when the articles have been written by AI and published under fake authors.

But Google has set a deadline for big media sites to stop spamming the web: May 5.

In early March 2024, Google announced an update to its spam policies, which included a point about “site reputation abuse” aimed at sites publishing pages with the purpose of manipulating search rankings by taking advantage of the site’s ranking signals.

Unfortunately, Google’s documentation only deems “site abuse reputation” as spam when the site uses third parties to produce and/or publish pages to manipulate search rankings.

The fact that U.S. News & World Report is hiring an SEO-focused Commerce Editor to publish 70-80 content updates per month tells me that, hopefully, these big media sites will start cleaning up their acts and move away from contracts with the likes of AdVon. 

But what happens when an in-house team carries out this type of “site reputation abuse”?

It also makes me wonder about the future of initiatives like Taboola Turnkey Commerce. In an article titled How Product Recommendations Broke Google, reporter John Herrman explained how Taboola’s proposal “claims to offer the benefits of starting a product-recommendation sub-brand minus the hassle of actually building an operation.” 

This sounds like the exact same thing Google deems as spam. 

Meanwhile, Forbes.com has reportedly blocked the coupons section of its site (forbes.com/coupons) using a noindex directive to prevent Google bots from indexing the page. Perhaps more media giants will follow suit in the coming days opting to deindex entire sections of their sites.

Will the rankings change once we reach the May 5th deadline? We’ll have to wait and see, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Google’s latest algorithm update led to a 91% loss of search traffic to HouseFresh

Broad pages with generic recommendations from big media sites have been pushed to the top, followed by Google Shopping product listings.

When Google announced its March 2024 core update, it said it was “a more complex update” than usual. 

A couple of days after Google’s announcement, many websites were hit with manual actions that could be traced back to the presence of a significant amount of AI-generated content.

But none of them were big media sites.

Any hope we might have had of this update leveling the playing field for independent publishers like HouseFresh disappeared the moment we saw our traffic plummet on March 9th:

Now, this is the point where I clearly state that I know that Google doesn’t owe us anything. We don’t simply deserve to get search traffic because we exist or because we say we should.

That said, I disagree with those who are quick to shout, “Having a website is not a real business!” or those who reply with “Google doesn’t owe you traffic” when small independent sites complain about Google favoring big and/or spammy sites while gaslighting us into thinking that our content is not helpful enough for readers.

If we don’t stand up for our right to a free and open web, we’ll be stuck with platforms that only let us reach other people when we pay for it.

We lost rankings we held for months (and sometimes years) for articles that are constantly being updated and improved based on findings from our first-hand and in-depth testing, our long-term experience with the products, and feedback from our readers.

For example, let me share the current Google results for “best budget air purifiers,” a query we’ve ranked at #2 since May 2023.

Our article is now buried deep beneath sponsored posts, Quora advice from 2016, best-of lists from big media sites, and no less than 64 Google Shopping product listings. Sixty. Four.

There is also a clear proliferation of generic lists. 

When you’re searching for affordable or budget-friendly products, are you looking for the best you can buy or just whatever’s available?

I’m asking because it seems Google expects everyone to find what they’re looking for in the same “best X of 2024” list, regardless of the specific query they’re searching for.

In this particular case, I am looking for the best budget air purifiers, but the generic articles by big media sites ranking at the top of search results are not aimed at those on a budget:

Many of these ‘best-of’ lists of recommendations feature products that cost over $1000 — that is hardly an affordable price tag for most people, let alone someone on a tight budget.

And it gets worse.

The screenshot above was edited to highlight only big media sites. Another unfortunate pattern appears when looking at the full list of Google search results: the further you scroll down the results page, the more product listings Google will serve you.

That’s right. Google is pushing products instead of helping searchers find what they are looking for.

Let me show you the extent to which Google search has become an online shop:

We regularly talk with people who feel confused by all the choices and jargon thrown at them when trying to buy an air purifier.  

In the middle of this confusion and lack of clear information, Google relentlessly serves product listings full of jargon, brand logos, special offers, retailer URLs, 5-star ratings and SALE tags:

Google is drowning the very recommendations searchers are trying to find while surfacing generic best-of lists, 2016 Quora advice, and SO MANY products  — many of which SUCK and don’t even meet the search criteria.

We are seeing this happen across every term we used to rank for and have lost to Google’s latest core update, which they announced had finished rolling out one week after it did

This is also evident when using Google SGE.

When searching for this same query, you get served with three product recommendations, two of which are “sourced” back to Google Shopping:

It all makes sense when you consider this was said during their latest earnings call: “We’re […] confident in the role SGE, including ads, will play in delighting users and expanding opportunities to meet user needs.”

So, it’s no longer just about Reddit and big media sites getting pushed to the top with sub-par content.

Google’s intention to encourage you to buy directly from search results (a.k.a. ‘meet your needs’) is evident, even in cases where you are just researching what’s out there.

The web seems to be getting claustrophobically smaller.

Personally, I’m done with banging my head against these terrible Google results.

That’s why I’ve gone back to how I used to use search engines in the early days of the web: mix and match. If I don’t find something on DuckDuckGo, I check Kagi, Bing, Google, and Brave. This is something I’m teaching my children, too. 

I might not be able to end Google’s monopoly of search engines worldwide, but I can do it in my own home.

The future of HouseFresh

What we have done, what we will do, and what we were told we should do.

We’ve been wracking our brains for months to figure out what’s wrong with HouseFresh.

We received many messages from all sorts of people, and the vast majority of them were as clueless as we were about why Google keeps demoting our site. 

Believe it or not, this includes people who work at Google.

Many SEO professionals have shared reasons why they believe HouseFresh has been punished, with theories that range from using the word “air” too often to writing titles that aren’t cool enough.

Some of the most echoed explanations include:

  • We have affiliate links in many of our articles

    This is how we sustain HouseFresh. We buy the products with our own money and spend weeks testing them, writing in-depth reviews, and shooting video content. If you buy a product after clicking on one of the affiliate links on our site, we receive a 3% commission at no extra charge to you. This allows us to continue providing quality content. We’re extremely clear about this and have disclaimers all over our website and YouTube channel.

    I can’t imagine Google would demote our site because of this business model, seeing as it’s the same model that supports the very same big media sites Google keeps ranking at the top of the search results.
  • We conduct keyword research as part of our content strategy

    Something that Google spokespeople have said more than once is not to do things to “show Google” anything, such as writing content to manipulate search engine rankings. Many have argued that having a keyword strategy (writing content to answer queries that users search for) could be considered manipulation.

    Many independent sites are deleting and “de-optimizing” articles, hoping that somehow that’ll fix Google’s issue with their sites. We have published many valuable articles based on questions people have about air purifiers and highly searched-for terms around the best units for specific use cases, but that shouldn’t instantly label our articles unhelpful. Plus, de-optimizing them will definitely affect traffic from other search engines, so we’re not going to do that.

    If Google keeps rewarding useless overly-optimized SEO content written by AI published on big media sites while punishing little sites because they wrote articles trying to answer a question readers have, then fuck Google.
  • We are not a brand

    We understand that we need to prove ourselves as a trusted, reliable source of information. This is an ongoing focus, but becoming a recognizable brand takes time. 

    Unfortunately, people might not see us as a reliable brand if we’re constantly pushed down the search result rankings in favor of magazines with pedigree (even if their content strategy has pivoted to completely unrelated niches). But we’re trying and will keep trying for as long as we can afford to exist.

    That said, the belief that only established brands can make it to the top of Google shows that we have normalized being surrounded by logos to the point where we’ve forgotten what the internet used to be like. We’ve forgotten that the web is supposed to be an open forum where anyone can produce great content. We’ve forgotten that Google was once the world’s best digital librarian, not the judge of a popularity contest.
  • Google Search is broken

    Every week, there seems to be a new article from a reporter trying to figure out what the heck happened to Google Search. Theories range from SEO breaking Google to AI changing the landscape, but everyone agrees that something is broken for the results to be this bad.

    I’ve worked in the content marketing side of the SEO industry for most of my career, and there’s one story I’ve heard multiple times that might explain what’s happening. The problem started when the objectives of Google Ads started ruling the decisions of Google Search.

    You see, Google’s founders believed that Google Search and Google Ads should be completely separate entities. However, in December 2019, the founders gave up control just before the separation of Search and Ads became a blur when the Head of Google Ads took over as the Head of Google Search in June 2020. Since then, search results have become flooded with ads and all kinds of functions designed to influence how we search for information. Years of this power dynamics and the introduction of machine learning could have led to the awful state of search results today.

    If you want the full rundown, a recent newsletter from Ed Zitron explores this story in detail: The Man Who Killed Google Search.

Whatever the reason, Google’s algorithm believes our website isn’t good enough and that visitors will have a bad experience if they land on it.

As a result, since October 2023, we’ve gone from welcoming 4,000 people from Google Search each day to just receiving 200. And of those 200, most are adding “HouseFresh” to their searches to find us specifically. 

This drop in Google search traffic has affected our income, our capacity to sustain our team, and our plans for the future.

But we’re not going down without a fight.

We’re doubling down on our mission to uncover scam products. Our target will be every shiny air purifier that big media sites are pushing. 

Not a week will go by without us having something to say about some crap product big media sites are recommending or without us revealing some lie they’re feeding to their readers.

And if Google doesn’t want to rank our reviews, we’ll use their own broken results against them to get our takedowns in front of people before they waste their money on an overpriced, overhyped product:

The only thing we can do to get a seat at Google’s table is to use their obsession with freshness and their reliance on popular platforms to create a ripple effect around our content.

We will be relentless on YouTube, Reddit, X, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, our newsletter, and every other platform where it makes sense for us to be. 

We will keep Google busy crawling our name and our content again and again and again and again and again. And again.

Because even if Google decided to virtually erase HouseFresh from its search results, we still exist on the open web.

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About the author

Gisele Navarro

Gisele runs the day-to-day operations of HouseFresh. She supports Danny with product tests and is focused on continually improving our content. She is also the human behind most of our social media accounts.

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Support HouseFresh

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We are ad-free and buy all the devices we test with our own money. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission, which we use to fund new product tests. Learn more