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Will Google Penalise AI Content?
The TLDR answer to the question is… probably not.
Though, of course, to flesh that out, we need to examine Google’s stance in the past and get the crystal ball out to predict the ifs and buts of where AI-generated content will lead us.
However, for now, the headline is:
AI content is not against Google’s guidelines.
However, Google continues to punish duplicated, automated content.
Let’s step back and tackle the question by examining the questions that AI tools, particularly ChatGPT, raise regarding content.
The Emergence of AI Content Writing Tools
The emergence of AI-generated content has revolutionised the world of digital marketing, with ChatGPT leading the charge. As AI advances, it’s only natural for content creators to have concerns and questions about the implications of these impressive yet flawed tools.
We covered the general debate in a blog titled “AI vs. Content Writers: An Uncomfortable Alliance” last month.
However, in that piece, we didn’t delve too much into the SEO implications of AI content.
Market-leading SEO tool Semrush offers advice for using AI copywriting tools, signalling that Google has nothing against AI in principle. However, they recommend using LLMs like GPT-4 only as a ‘starting point’ for great content, encouraging us SEO wizards to ply our trade with the help of AI instead of using it as an all-encompassing solution.
Neil Patel, another go-to source for all things SEO, has a wealth of content advising marketers and copywriters on how to use AI for SEO purposes.
The industry professionals seem to be pro-AI in their interpretation of the latest developments.
Yet, it’s still a question on every content marketer’s mind: “Does/will Google penalise AI-generated content?”
Naturally, the answer to this question will have wide-ranging ramifications on our work as content marketers, especially given Google’s (current) all-conquering status as the godfather of search.
So, let’s take a look at Google’s stance.
Google's Stance on AI-generated Content
Google’s primary goal is to deliver high-quality, relevant content to its users. Its algorithms evaluate content based on relevance, quality, and other ranking signals.
In their own words, Google aims to “reward high-quality content that demonstrates qualities of what we call E-E-A-T: expertise, experience, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.”
They go on to say: “Evaluating your content in this way, whether you’re using AI-generated content or not, will help you stay on course with what our systems seek to reward.”
In other words, Google rewards good content, regardless of authorship.
This Feb 2023 Google update is a reversal of past policies. In April 2022, Google’s Head of Searches, John Mueller, declared that all AI-generated content was spam. And as such, spam would be handled by Google’s sophisticated SpamBrain system. This signalled to content marketers that AI was best avoided for content creation.
So, why the change of heart?
Automated vs. AI-generated Content
There’s been a shift in the environment of AI-generated content. April 2022 now seems like the distant past considering the advances in the abilities of large language models (LLMs) like Open AI’s ChatGPT.
The latest iteration of the chatbot, based on GPT-4, is increasingly capable of producing unique, human-like text that’s incredibly responsive to your input and prompts.
The following statement is now true: human creators can create valuable, high-quality content using platforms like ChatGPT.
Yet, the following statement is also true: human creators can use platforms like ChatGPT to manipulate rankings intentionally with spam-like content.
Going forward, Google will strive to reward great content while penalising content it deems poor quality. This places the importance on the content itself rather than how it was produced.
In the past, penalising poor content meant penalising automated content; they were one and the same thing.
During the internet’s early days, you might recall stumbling upon pages filled with poor-quality gibberish that didn’t assist you in finding what you sought.
These pages were auto-generated around specific keywords, aiming only to climb the search results ladder. These pages didn’t make sense, failed to address your search query, and Google unequivocally deemed them spam.
Other forms of auto-generated content include scraping content, machine-translated content without human quality checks, spinning content, and amalgamating content from diverse sources, including RSS feeds, to form a brand new page.
All these tactics went against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, now called Google Search Essentials. Bad marketers and writers used them to manipulate search engine rankings rather than earn them by creating high-quality content that genuinely addressed the searcher’s needs.
Now, however, the context is different. While bad actors are still looking for manipulative shortcuts to higher rankings, excellent writers can use AI tools to make their content creation processes more efficient. Google recognises its E-E-A-T criteria can still be met even when writers incorporate AI into their processes.
Google does not have a bitter vendetta against AI-generated content. Instead, it focuses on rewarding content that meets its stringent criteria. And the foundation of that criteria is that it wants to provide valuable content to its users. If human creators use AI to create valuable content, then it’s all golden in Google’s book.
So, Carte Blanche for AI in SEO Content?
You’ll need to use AI wisely to ensure you don’t fall into overly generic patterns and robotic content. What Google constitutes ‘poor’ may change over time; all SEO experts know success depends on the latest updates!
As Joshua Hardwick, Head of Content over at Ahrefs, reminds us, Google is already very good at surfacing good content while burying the bad. It will continue to do this as the methods of content creation evolve.
The quality of AI-generated content can be fantastic, and it promises to get only better. Even in a relatively short space of time, ChatGPT’s ability to create compelling text has skyrocketed.
It’s worth remembering that Google’s systems can only penalise something it can recognise. They can only punish content producers if they can identify a crime in the first place.
In the same Ahrefs piece mentioned above, Joshua Hardwick uses an analogy to reflect that Google isn’t perfect. He says, “You can think of Google Search as one of those toys with holes that only let through specific shapes. They work, but if you spend time twisting and turning the shapes (or grab a hammer), you can often force the wrong ones through.”
In the context of AI, this means that some unhelpful, AI-generated content will still get through Google’s filters and thrive, just as low-quality human-written content does. That’s part of the nature of this behemoth. However, the exceptions to the rule shouldn’t dictate our practice as well-meaning SEO content writers.
Also, while there are AI detectors available like Originalty.ai, it could well become more and more difficult to detect whether AI was involved in content creation anyway. Putting both human-generated and AI-generated text through similar AI detection tools can deliver wildly varying results, with some tools failing to spot AI while simultaneously returning false positives on human text.
The picture is still evolving.
It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that Google will be able to detect AI content in the future with reliable confidence. If that happens, it may then come down to a business decision on whether Google chooses to clamp down on AI-generated content.
Cynically speaking, Google is behind its competitors like Microsoft in the race for a market share of large language models. Microsoft is heavily invested in OpenAI, makers of ChatGPT. Google’s first foray into the space, its chatbot ‘Bard,’ has hit plenty of snags so far. However, the latest release in the US seems to be gaining more plaudits.
Google’s stance on how AI affects its SERPs pages may depend on how well its Bard feature performs in the future. It’s safe to assume it will be much more competitive at some point, given the amount of money it is investing in ChatGPT rivals. Therefore, it’s unlikely that Google will penalise AI-generated content when it is so heavily invested in successfully incorporating AI into its search functions.
However, the space is still evolving, and content marketers must be receptive to ongoing developments.
In the meantime, it’s best to be mindful of best practices when using LLMs like GPT.
These best practices can help ensure writers and content marketers use AI tools like ChatGPT strategically to create powerful, informative, emotive content that proves valuable to users and pleases Google’s algorithms.
But first, here is a quick overview of some potential use cases:
Overview of Use Cases for Digital Marketers
You can quickly go down a rabbit hole of research to discover the rapidly expanding potential use cases of large language models within marketing. We’ve collated a few of the most common here:
- Content ideation. Utilise AI-powered tools to generate content ideas based on keywords, trends, and user intent. Create lists of potential ideas in seconds and refine them as needed with further prompting. This can help you get out of a creative rut. And, of course, you are using your judgement as to what’s best for your specific circumstances.
- Basic copywriting. Create first drafts for written content with AI-powered tools like ChatGPT, then spend time editing and refining it to ensure quality, brand voice incorporation, and the human touch that only you can apply.
- Content optimisation. Analyse and optimise your content for search engines and user engagement with AI’s help. You can use AI to help with your keyword research and other elements of the optimisation journey.
- Personalisation. Quickly customise content for different audience segments.
- Social media content. Streamline your social media content creation process by asking AI to generate a selection of suggested captions, hashtags, and image suggestions. Again, the emphasis here is on ideation. You remain in control and use the system’s vast database to your advantage.
- Translation. Don’t let language barriers prevent international reach. Translate your content into different languages with AI-powered tools to reach a global audience.
- Chatbots. With plenty of plugins available, you can easily implement AI-powered chatbots on your website for instant customer support and an enhanced user experience.
Best Practices for Using AI
Here are three golden rules to remember when using AI for your written content. These best practices should keep you in the good books of both Google’s algorithms and, more importantly, the actual readers of your content.
- Prioritise content quality and deliver value
- Understand your audience
- Don’t get carried away
1. Prioritise content quality and deliver value
Always place a premium on the quality of your content, whether it’s AI-generated or human-written. Quality content is informative, accurate, and valuable to your readers. Apply the same sound writing principles to any AI-assisted content you end up using that you would for your own work. Remember, your audience is not looking for filler text; they’re seeking content that answers their queries, provides insight, or offers a new and thought-provoking perspective.
2. Understand your audience
Thoroughly knowing your audience is critical to all content marketing, and it’s no different when incorporating AI. Understand the interests, preferences, and needs of your target audience through considerable market research. What are they looking for? What tone of voice resonates with them? Do they appreciate humour? When you clearly understand your audience, you can prompt your chosen AI tool more effectively to create content more likely to engage and captivate your readers.
3. Don’t get carried away
If you’ve never used ChatGPT or similar AI tools, the speed and ease at which it seemingly creates good content is immediately impressive and somewhat intimidating. It could tempt you to churn out content at a quicker pace.
There’s two things to bear in mind here.
First, not all content is good content. Peel back the layers, and you may find misinformation, bias, or just content that isn’t up to scratch. You always need to do your due diligence in content creation, even if AI can speed up the process somewhat. Second, remember, AI tools are just that – tools. They can help you create great content, but they can’t replace the human element that makes content truly connect with readers. So, use AI as a tool to supplement your content creation process, not to replace it.
Google doesn’t punish AI-generated content directly but takes action against low-quality content. This means continuing your SEO best practices should see you safe using AI in your content creation.
It’s up to content creators to ensure that human-generated or AI-generated content meets the highest standards of quality and provides value to their audience. Embrace human creativity, skill, and judgement throughout the process of using AI. Use AI tools strategically and sparingly to create engaging, shareable, and memorable content that aligns with Google’s guidelines.