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The Month That Was September 2023


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September was a whirlwind of activity, packed with transformative Google updates, new features on our social media screens, and so much more.

There’s no time to waste – let’s take a look at what September had to offer in the world of digital marketing:

SEO in September

September has been a big month for search, with two big updates sending the world of SEO alight. Google sure knows how to keep us on our toes. Here are the highlights:

  • Google’s August Core Update finished rolling out on September 7th, but which sites took the hit?
  • The 4th Helpful Content Update left many websites with a significant reduction in traffic, reshaping the online landscape once again in the quest for quality content.
  • Eric Lehman, a Google employee of 17 years, revealed that Google does use click data for rankings…despite the search engine fiercely saying otherwise.

Insights from Google’s latest core update

The second core update of 2023 was announced on August 22nd 2023, and was active for two weeks as it rolled out globally, completing as of the September 7th.

But what are Google’s core updates actually intended to do?

Think of them as Google’s commitment to continuous improvement, ensuring that the search results you receive are not only relevant, but trustworthy too.

So, what types of sites saw an impact?

Directory-level and URL-level ranking changes were observed, with root domains and affiliate-level rankings remaining relatively stable. At the same time, if you operate a topic-related landing page, you will have noticed an uptick in your rankings.

Large music and reference domains, such as and, found themselves riding the wave of success, experiencing ranking gains thanks to their music-related content.

On the flip side, top players such as huge general marketplaces like Amazon, eBay and Etsy faced some turbulence, witnessing a decline in their rankings.

Google stresses that there’s “nothing wrong with pages that may not be performing as well as they were before a core update.” Instead, these changes are all about improving how Google’s systems assess content overall. This means that some pages that were previously overlooked might now find themselves in a brighter spotlight in search results.

Helpful Content Update 4

Google has a system called the Helpful Content System for promoting quality content and reducing the search presence of content that is determined not to be helpful.

And, as of September 14th, the fourth update to Google’s Helpful Content System began its rollout out, and is still currently underway (as of September 25th). It’s too early to tell the winners and losers, but there are certainly some patterns to be drawn already.

Here are some early observations:

AI content gets the green light

In an interesting twist, Google has changed their stance on AI-generated content. Before this update, the Google Guidelines explicitly stated that good content should be “written by people”, for people, but the search engine has quickly backtracked (AI is here to stay!).

Google has apparently now realised that it cannot win the battle against AI content and is now focusing on the quality of the content, regardless of its origin.

Google’s Gary Illyes’, made a fair point on the topic:

“As long as I will learn from it, learn correct information, why would it matter?”

To read more expertise and key takeaways from Illyes, see here.

Affiliate sites take a hit

Google is cracking down on content that doesn’t provide real value to users. If your website heavily relies on affiliate traffic or covers a sprawling, (or even sporadic) array of topics, you might have felt the tremors.

Most affiliate sites post content that is overly thin, unhelpful and intentionally broad to appeal to a very wide audience – not so helpful in Google’s eyes.

‘Good’ sites caught in the crossfire

We’re seeing sites that are considered ‘honest’ seeing an impact, particularly travel bloggers, when writing about a range of places is seen as sporadic content. These types of sites often rely on ad impressions and affiliate partnerships to keep the lights on, and this update has hit them hard.

This was highlighted when a travel blogger – whose website was 9 years old – reported losing 80% of their web traffic overnight.

It appears that the travel blogs taking the brunt of the impact are those inundated with affiliate links to other sites, offering thin and disjointed content solely to anchor to their sponsorships – a big red flag. This simply screams to Google that they’re not the experts!

Their content lacks value and unique perspective, highlighting to the Helpful Content System that this could have been authored by anyone, rather than an expert on the topic. This doesn’t align with Google’s E-E-A-T criteria, particularly the ‘Expertise’ part.

However, even travel bloggers who refrain from drowning their content in affiliate links aren’t immune. Those who churn out a LOT of content each week are also experiencing a hit.

It does make sense, how could one person truly know the 15 best underground jazz clubs in New York, but also where to eat in Dublin if you’re a coeliac, but also have written an ultimate Vietnam road trip guide all in the same month?

Well, they can’t.

Nobody can ever truly know all this information for certain. And that doesn’t bode well for the second E in E-E-A-T – experience. Google values accounts of people’s firsthand, real-life experiences, and they don’t think these accounts are realistic.

To try and minimise the impact, it’s important to consider how you’re monetising your blog, whether or not it adds value to the conversation or if it’s just retelling what other people have already said.

The Helpful Content Update 4 is intrinsically tied up in E-E-A-T, and vice versa, and everything is pointed towards Google leaning further into honesty in content and the inherent trust communicated therein.

Click data for rankings

Google has always strongly denied using click data to sort search results. However, the recent courtroom testimonies of software engineer Eric Lehman, a 17-year Google veteran, have thrown a curveball into the SEO arena, sparking fervent debates and discussions.

While it’s not actually confirmed yet, it’s still one to keep an eye on. Speaking on the topic at a recent hearing, Lehman stated:

“Pretty much everyone knows we’re using clicks in rankings. That’s the debate: ‘Why are you trying to obscure this issue if everyone knows?’”

So, why is this something Google would want to deny? Well, because if it were true, SEO marketers would easily be able to manipulate clicks and, thus, the SERP. And, Google doesn’t want people to think that, having made efforts to maintain a level playing field and prevent such manipulations.

Google has clarified its stance by asserting that while they do utilise click data, it’s primarily for personalisation purposes. They use this data to understand your preferences and behaviour to deliver a tailored SERP based on your previous clicks.

Overall, while Google certainly does use click data, it probably isn’t as a direct ranking signal…though we can’t say this for certain.

September’s social media updates

There’s never a quiet month in the world of social media, with updates, new features, and more constantly gracing our screens. This is what took our interest this month:

  • In a bid to stop the spread of misinformation, YouTube introduced a verification system for healthcare content creators.
  • Instagram elevates Close Friends lists, allowing users to share feed posts to just their close friends list.
  • Meta announced a pilot test of a paid version of Facebook and Instagram, where you can scroll ad-free.

No more fake news! Verification system for healthcare workers

In a world awash with misinformation, it’s sometimes tough to separate fact from fiction, especially when it comes to health matters that require the truth.

YouTube is on a mission to ensure that when you seek health advice on their platform, you get it straight from the experts. To make this happen, they’re giving a green light to health professionals in the UK with a creator verification system.

When searching for health-related content within the platform, you’ll see a “health shelf” – a curated list of videos at the top of the search results. These videos are explicitly labelled as coming from trusted health sources.

How do they decide who makes the cut? Well, YouTube has implemented a rigorous “multi-step process” in collaboration with the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC), the NHS, and other stakeholders, including the Royal College of Nursing. This process validates real healthcare professionals, ensuring that their content is accurate and reliable.

This move comes two years after YouTube made a significant announcement: a complete ban on vaccination disinformation. It was a response to months of criticism for its handling of Covid-19 vaccination misinformation.

YouTube envisions this new verification process as a stepping stone to wider adoption across other social media platforms. The goal is to ensure that users across the digital landscape receive a steady stream of useful, truthful content. It’s not just about health; it’s about setting a higher standard for truthfulness in all aspects of online content.

Exclusive Insta posts: Share feed posts with close friends only

Sometimes, you’ve got moments that are just for your inner circle. Way back in 2018, Instagram added a ‘Close Friends’ option to Stories.

Here’s how it worked: You could select a group of people from your followers and, when posting a Story, decide whether it should go to your public Story for all your followers to see or just to your ‘Close Friends’ list.

You’re able to tell the difference when you share with ‘Close Friends,’ – you’ll see a green ring around your story to remind you that you’re sharing with your inner circle.

Instagram’s CEO, Adam Mosseri, has been keeping a close eye on how users share content, noticing that users now share more content via DM than they do in feed posts or Stories.

To keep up with this trend, Mosseri and his team have been hard at work, introducing features that align with it. This includes collaborative posts, post collections in chats, and, you guessed it, Close Friends feed options.

In a world where privacy and personal connections are king, Instagram’s ‘Close Friends’ feed option is the key to a more exclusive and personalised experience.

Ad-free Facebook? Yes, please

In a bold move to enhance user experience and give power back to its users, Meta has unveiled a paid, ad-free version of Facebook and Instagram that allows you to bid farewell to those intrusive ads and enjoy a distraction-free scrolling experience.

Meta’s move to introduce the premium service is an attempt to address concerns raised by the EU regarding data privacy and ads. The company has been involved in a legal battle with European regulators over allegations of privacy violations from its ad-tracking services and data transfers, resulting in a hefty $1.3 billion fine for transferring data of European users to the US, a violation of GDPR.

To address these concerns, Meta is offering users the chance to enjoy an uninterrupted and distraction-free scrolling experience.

But, of course, good things rarely come for free. To access this ad-free utopia, you’ll need to subscribe to Meta’s premium service. While the exact pricing details are still under wraps, it’s clear that Meta is taking a bold step towards diversifying its revenue streams.

What does this mean for marketers? Well, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, the absence of ads may lead to more engaged and focused users. On the flip side, it means you’ll need to get even more creative and strategic to capture the attention of users who opt for the ad-free experience.

Paid media in 2023

Staying ahead of the curve is essential for advertisers, so here’s what went down in paid media this month:

  • The Google tag has replaced the Google Analytics: GA4 Configuration tag

Google tag to replace Google Analytics: GA4 Configuration Tag

Google Tag Manager has announced an exciting update, as of early September, you will now be able to deploy a Google tag within Tag Manager.

The Google tag will replace the Google Analytics: GA4 Configuration tag, which will come with various benefits:

Enhanced integration with other Google products

The Google tag is designed for seamless integration with other Google products. This means it can effortlessly send data to multiple destinations within the Google interface. For instance, if you’re running Google Ads campaigns, you can configure your Google tag to send conversion data via Tag Manage – a game-changer for streamlining processes.

Settings variables

With the Google tag and GA4 Event tags, you can now harness settings variables at both the configuration and event levels:

  • Configuration: This allows you to set parameters that are loaded when the Google tags load. For instance, let’s say you run a website available in multiple languages, and you’re keen on segmenting your audience based on their language preferences. Instead of slogging through the tedious process of manually updating each tag, you can create a configuration variable with a language parameter.
  • Event: This lets you set additional parameters with each event. For example, suppose you own an online store, and you are having a sale. Naturally, you want to keep a close eye on how many customers are snapping up these deals. Instead of tediously adding a discount parameter to each tag, you can tap into the power of an event settings variable. Simple.

If you’re currently using GA4 configuration tags, here’s the good news: they’ll seamlessly and automatically transition to the Google tag. Everything will continue functioning just as it did before without you having to take any action.

Time for spooky season!

And would you look at that, another month gone. October has arrived, and we’re ready to embrace the Halloween season.

Is your marketing strategy giving you a fright? Let’s chat today.

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