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How Does SEO Work?

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How Does SEO Work?

You may have heard that SEO is essential when you want to increase traffic to your website.

When you are looking to increase the volume of customers coming to your store, incoming calls, and online orders, you need to be visible in Google Search.

Optimizing your webpages helps you rank higher and convert more searchers to customers.

But how does SEO work?

In this article, you will learn about the process used by marketers to optimize your website for search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, and many others.

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Let’s start by learning what SEO is all about.

What Is SEO, Anyway?

SEO stands for search engine optimization.

At its core, SEO is the process of making your site rank as highly as possible in Google when someone types in [burrito blanket] (or whatever it is you sell, promote, or talk about).

The higher your site ranks, the more visible your business is, and the more traffic and sales your business is likely to generate.

You might be a little lost if you are just getting started in SEO.

There are many sites, books, and guides (we even wrote one here at Search Engine Journal) to help you get started. But you might find that many resources offer conflicting information.

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Part of the reason SEO frustrates so many people is that it changes continuously.

Why? Because when marketers get their teeth into a new “strategy,” they like to run it into the ground.

Essentially, we are why we can’t have nice things.

Also, there’s the fact that Google is constantly updating its algorithm.

SEO is a never-ending battle to get more eyes on your website and convince Google that your site is worth sending searchers to.

How Does SEO Work? Your Top SEO Questions, Answered

So, what matters when it comes to SEO?

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  • Is it all about the links?
  • Does the URL structure really matter?
  • What exactly is a meta description, anyway?
  • Do you need to crank out a 2,000-word blog post four times daily?

Before diving into the more technical aspects of SEO, I will answer the most-asked questions about SEO.

Is SEO Dead?

Yes. It’s completely dead.

Our jobs are over. You should just quit now.

I’m kidding, mostly.

I’d argue that SEO is constantly dying repeatedly. Think of it like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Strategies we’ve come to know and love get replaced by newer, more effective ones. SEO best practices die, and new ones are reborn.

So while it isn’t dead, SEO is always changing. If you want to succeed at SEO, you’ve got to be willing to roll with the punches.

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What Is The Most Important SEO Factor?

There isn’t one golden SEO factor that outranks all the others.

One of the most common answers you’ll get in SEO is, “Well, it depends…”

This might be frustrating, but it’s the truth.

  • Do links matter? Yes, but they need to make sense.
  • Do you have to have links to rank? Probably, but not necessarily.
  • Does content length matter? Yes, but a crappy long post won’t outrank a short, amazing post.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

How Long Does SEO Take To Work?

Well, it depends. (Sorry!)

Only Google knows exactly how its algorithm works.

They release updates, and there are a few lists of the most crucial ranking factors.

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The truth is that SEO takes as long as it takes – that might be weeks or even months, depending on your strategy.

If someone else does something just a tiny bit better, you might get bumped off the top of the SERPs.

What Is The Difference Between On-Page SEO & Off-Page SEO?

On-page SEO refers to changes you make on the site you own that impact SEO.

For example, adding an XML sitemap to boost your SEO.

Off-page SEO refers to SEO strategies that happen off your website, such as building links to pillar content.

Link Building Is Hard – Can’t I Just Buy Links?

You could. You could also run your hand through a blender. No one is going to stop you. But it’s often an ineffective SEO strategy.

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Rather than buying links, I’d recommend starting with our guide to link building.

SEO Factors That Rule Today & Beyond

Now that we’ve covered the basics, you are ready to get your hands dirty.

Below, we’ll cover a few of the most critical SEO factors.

Keep in mind that SEO trends change constantly, and what works now might not work in a few months.

Relevant, High-Quality Content Wins

There are many technical SEO factors – site structure, anchor text, URL structure, and so forth.

Those details matter, but the backbone of SEO is high-quality content. If you get that right, the rest of SEO will be much easier.

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If you want to crack the first page on Google, you need relevant, well-optimized content that earns links.

What do we mean by high-quality content?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when developing content:

  • Keywords are still critical, but context matters more. Google crawlers now analyze the context and look for related secondary keywords that share the searcher’s intent.
  • Include clear, keyword-rich titles, meta descriptions, alt attributes, H1 tags, and URLs. These factors tell Google that your site is relevant and help it rank.
  • Length matters, but relevance matters more. Google says, “The amount of content necessary for the page to be satisfying depends on the topic and purpose of the page.”

In short, ensure that all your content is written for humans first and optimized for Google second.

Metadata Matters

Metadata is the title and lines of text on the search results page.

For example, if you Google [who killed Carole Baskin’s husband], here’s the metadata you’ll see:

Screenshot from search for [who killed Carole Baskin’s husband], Google, July 2022

Metadata tells the user what they can expect to find if they click on the page.

Optimizing your metadata is pretty simple:

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  • Include relevant but not repetitive keywords and variations in the title and description.
  • Keep it short, but not too short. Google cuts off meta descriptions around 160 characters, so aim for less than that.
  • Be clear and concise so users know what to expect.

Think of metadata as ads for your content.

Why should users click? What can you tell them?

Use the meta to encourage clicks, which will drive traffic and lead to more business.

Links Matter, But…

Links have been a critical aspect of SEO as long as Google has existed.

Links work as ‘votes’ telling Google that other sites think your content is useful and relevant.

The more high-quality, relevant links you acquire, the higher your site will likely rank for related key terms.

In short, links are still fundamental to SEO.

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But, quality matters more than quantity.

If you invest in link building as part of your SEO efforts, target links from topically relevant, popular websites in your niche.

User Experience (UX) Impacts Rankings

User experience (UX) plays a substantial role in how well your website will rank on Google.

However, user experience depends on many factors like site infrastructure and layout, content, and so forth, making it hard to measure.

If you want to win at SEO, UX should be a top priority.

Here are a few best practices to follow:

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  • Track internal metrics like time on page, CTR, and bounce rate. These signals are not direct ranking factors, but optimizing your site for high engagement can help indirectly. These statistics can tell you about your content’s performance. Happy users, happy Google.
  • Make your site easy to navigate. Improve your website’s navigation to ensure users quickly find the page they are looking for. “The simpler, the better” approach works perfectly here. Navigation bars, drop-down menus, internal links, and a site search will help.
  • Site speed matters a lot. Your site should load in less than two seconds in an ideal world. Image compression, code and structure optimizations, and faster servers will help. Start with Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool to see where you stand.

As Google becomes smarter, UX will likely play an even more important role in the future.

So now is the time to learn the basics and implement best practices on your site.

Mobile Matters More Than Ever Before

In 2018, Google moved to mobile-first indexing, which means the search engine uses mobile versions of your site to rank your sites in their results.

Google’s move makes sense because more than 50% of traffic worldwide is generated from a mobile device.

What does that mean for SEO?

First, Google suggests investing in responsive design. You must make your content consistent across desktop and mobile devices and ensure your site loads fast on mobile and desktop.

In short, you need to up your mobile game or site to languish at the bottom of Google search results.

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Don’t Ignore Voice Search

When it comes to voice, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there.

Google said, way back in 2016, that voice searches made up around 20% of all searches performed in the Google app.

Today, over a quarter of all Americans own a smart speaker. Yet 72%  of marketers have no plans to optimize for voice search.

Does voice search matter? It does.

Voice search has grown in popularity and will likely continue to do so. It shouldn’t be your #1 SEO priority, but it does make sense to start optimizing for voice search.

Here’s why:

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Most of the voice search optimization strategies also make sense for semantic search.

Here are a few steps to help optimize your site for voice search:

Voice search optimization is not a must-have right now, but voice search optimizations make sense for Google in general and may give you a leg up in the future.

3 Tips For Actually Succeeding In SEO

There are two types of SEO advice: the technical stuff I covered above and the core principles of SEO. The technical stuff will change, but these SEO tips stand the test of time.

If It Seems Shady, It Will Probably Burn You

You might have heard of black hat, white hat, and gray hat SEO.

Black hat SEO refers to the practices that are totally against Google’s terms of service.

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Like building 10 sites and interlinking them to make Google think your crappy bitcoin sites are legit.

This is where the acronym PBN comes into play.

Then there is a gray hat, which may not be technically wrong but walks a thin (gray) line.

White hat is above the board, totally legit SEO. Some have convincingly argued that a white hat isn’t a thing anymore.

A lot of SEO pros walk the gray hat line. And a lot of them get burned.

To succeed in SEO, you need to do things the right way.

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If something feels off – like buying or selling links – it will probably burn you and torpedo your chances in search.

Trust me. It is not worth the long-term risk.

Read Real Experts

There are a lot of SEO “experts.”

Some of them claim to get you to the top of page one on Google “guaranteed!”

Others don’t actually do SEO but write about it a lot. Make sure your sources are reputable.

Take everything you read with a grain of salt because nothing is universal.

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What works for an ecommerce site in tech isn’t necessarily going to work for a restaurant supply store.

Pay attention to what comes from Google directly from folks like John Mueller and Gary Illyes.

Test, Test, And Test Again

SEO is about determining what works for your site in your industry based on your unique landscape.

The only way to figure that out is to test – and keep testing repeatedly.

If you’re using shady tactics, all your work may go to waste if Google’s latest algorithm update changes things. But if you apply SEO best practices and consistently test, you can be prepared for when the winds change.

Testing is an eternal part of any successful SEO strategy.

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Conclusion

SEO is ever-evolving.

Every SEO professional would love to find the magic formula that rockets their sites to the top of SERPs and keep them there forever.

Unfortunately, SEO doesn’t work that way.

There are rules and best practices, but SEO’s core is figuring out what works for your site or client and then changing it when it stops working.

My final advice is this:

  • Keep a close eye on your competitors.
  • Follow best practices.
  • Test.

Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal



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WordPress Releases A Performance Plugin For “Near-Instant Load Times”

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WordPress speculative loading plugin

WordPress released an official plugin that adds support for a cutting edge technology called speculative loading that can help boost site performance and improve the user experience for site visitors.

Speculative Loading

Rendering means constructing the entire webpage so that it instantly displays (rendering). When your browser downloads the HTML, images, and other resources and puts it together into a webpage, that’s rendering. Prerendering is putting that webpage together (rendering it) in the background.

What this plugin does is to enable the browser to prerender the entire webpage that a user might navigate to next. The plugin does that by anticipating which webpage the user might navigate to based on where they are hovering.

Chrome lists a preference for only prerendering when there is an at least 80% probability of a user navigating to another webpage. The official Chrome support page for prerendering explains:

“Pages should only be prerendered when there is a high probability the page will be loaded by the user. This is why the Chrome address bar prerendering options only happen when there is such a high probability (greater than 80% of the time).

There is also a caveat in that same developer page that prerendering may not happen based on user settings, memory usage and other scenarios (more details below about how analytics handles prerendering).

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The Speculative Loading API solves a problem that previous solutions could not because in the past they were simply prefetching resources like JavaScript and CSS but not actually prerendering the entire webpage.

The official WordPress announcement explains it like this:

Introducing the Speculation Rules API
The Speculation Rules API is a new web API that solves the above problems. It allows defining rules to dynamically prefetch and/or prerender URLs of certain structure based on user interaction, in JSON syntax—or in other words, speculatively preload those URLs before the navigation. This API can be used, for example, to prerender any links on a page whenever the user hovers over them.”

The official WordPress page about this new functionality describes it:

“The Speculation Rules API is a new web API… It allows defining rules to dynamically prefetch and/or prerender URLs of certain structure based on user interaction, in JSON syntax—or in other words, speculatively preload those URLs before the navigation.

This API can be used, for example, to prerender any links on a page whenever the user hovers over them. Also, with the Speculation Rules API, “prerender” actually means to prerender the entire page, including running JavaScript. This can lead to near-instant load times once the user clicks on the link as the page would have most likely already been loaded in its entirety. However that is only one of the possible configurations.”

The new WordPress plugin adds support for the Speculation Rules API. The Mozilla developer pages, a great resource for HTML technical understanding describes it like this:

“The Speculation Rules API is designed to improve performance for future navigations. It targets document URLs rather than specific resource files, and so makes sense for multi-page applications (MPAs) rather than single-page applications (SPAs).

The Speculation Rules API provides an alternative to the widely-available <link rel=”prefetch”> feature and is designed to supersede the Chrome-only deprecated <link rel=”prerender”> feature. It provides many improvements over these technologies, along with a more expressive, configurable syntax for specifying which documents should be prefetched or prerendered.”

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See also: Are Websites Getting Faster? New Data Reveals Mixed Results

Performance Lab Plugin

The new plugin was developed by the official WordPress performance team which occasionally rolls out new plugins for users to test ahead of possible inclusion into the actual WordPress core. So it’s a good opportunity to be first to try out new performance technologies.

The new WordPress plugin is by default set to prerender “WordPress frontend URLs” which are pages, posts, and archive pages. How it works can be fine-tuned under the settings:

Settings > Reading > Speculative Loading

Browser Compatibility

The Speculative API is supported by Chrome 108 however the specific rules used by the new plugin require Chrome 121 or higher. Chrome 121 was released in early 2024.

Browsers that do not support will simply ignore the plugin and will have no effect on the user experience.

Check out the new Speculative Loading WordPress plugin developed by the official core WordPress performance team.

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How Analytics Handles Prerendering

A WordPress developer commented with a question asking how Analytics would handle prerendering and someone else answered that it’s up to the Analytics provider to detect a prerender and not count it as a page load or site visit.

Fortunately both Google Analytics and Google Publisher Tags (GPT) both are able to handle prerenders. The Chrome developers support page has a note about how analytics handles prerendering:

“Google Analytics handles prerender by delaying until activation by default as of September 2023, and Google Publisher Tag (GPT) made a similar change to delay triggering advertisements until activation as of November 2023.”

Possible Conflict With Ad Blocker Extensions

There are a couple things to be aware of about this plugin, aside from the fact that it’s an experimental feature that requires Chrome 121 or higher.

A comment by a WordPress plugin developer that this feature may not work with browsers that are using the uBlock Origin ad blocking browser extension.

Download the plugin:
Speculative Loading Plugin by the WordPress Performance Team

Read the announcement at WordPress
Speculative Loading in WordPress

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See also: WordPress, Wix & Squarespace Show Best CWV Rate Of Improvement

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10 Paid Search & PPC Planning Best Practices

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10 Paid Search & PPC Planning Best Practices

Whether you are new to paid media or reevaluating your efforts, it’s critical to review your performance and best practices for your overall PPC marketing program, accounts, and campaigns.

Revisiting your paid media plan is an opportunity to ensure your strategy aligns with your current goals.

Reviewing best practices for pay-per-click is also a great way to keep up with trends and improve performance with newly released ad technologies.

As you review, you’ll find new strategies and features to incorporate into your paid search program, too.

Here are 10 PPC best practices to help you adjust and plan for the months ahead.

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1. Goals

When planning, it is best practice to define goals for the overall marketing program, ad platforms, and at the campaign level.

Defining primary and secondary goals guides the entire PPC program. For example, your primary conversion may be to generate leads from your ads.

You’ll also want to look at secondary goals, such as brand awareness that is higher in the sales funnel and can drive interest to ultimately get the sales lead-in.

2. Budget Review & Optimization

Some advertisers get stuck in a rut and forget to review and reevaluate the distribution of their paid media budgets.

To best utilize budgets, consider the following:

  • Reconcile your planned vs. spend for each account or campaign on a regular basis. Depending on the budget size, monthly, quarterly, or semiannually will work as long as you can hit budget numbers.
  • Determine if there are any campaigns that should be eliminated at this time to free up the budget for other campaigns.
  • Is there additional traffic available to capture and grow results for successful campaigns? The ad platforms often include a tool that will provide an estimated daily budget with clicks and costs. This is just an estimate to show more click potential if you are interested.
  • If other paid media channels perform mediocrely, does it make sense to shift those budgets to another?
  • For the overall paid search and paid social budget, can your company invest more in the positive campaign results?

3. Consider New Ad Platforms

If you can shift or increase your budgets, why not test out a new ad platform? Knowing your audience and where they spend time online will help inform your decision when choosing ad platforms.

Go beyond your comfort zone in Google, Microsoft, and Meta Ads.

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Here are a few other advertising platforms to consider testing:

  • LinkedIn: Most appropriate for professional and business targeting. LinkedIn audiences can also be reached through Microsoft Ads.
  • TikTok: Younger Gen Z audience (16 to 24), video.
  • Pinterest: Products, services, and consumer goods with a female-focused target.
  • Snapchat: Younger demographic (13 to 35), video ads, app installs, filters, lenses.

Need more detailed information and even more ideas? Read more about the 5 Best Google Ads Alternatives.

4. Top Topics in Google Ads & Microsoft Ads

Recently, trends in search and social ad platforms have presented opportunities to connect with prospects more precisely, creatively, and effectively.

Don’t overlook newer targeting and campaign types you may not have tried yet.

  • Video: Incorporating video into your PPC accounts takes some planning for the goals, ad creative, targeting, and ad types. There is a lot of opportunity here as you can simply include video in responsive display ads or get in-depth in YouTube targeting.
  • Performance Max: This automated campaign type serves across all of Google’s ad inventory. Microsoft Ads recently released PMAX so you can plan for consistency in campaign types across platforms. Do you want to allocate budget to PMax campaigns? Learn more about how PMax compares to search.
  • Automation: While AI can’t replace human strategy and creativity, it can help manage your campaigns more easily. During planning, identify which elements you want to automate, such as automatically created assets and/or how to successfully guide the AI in the Performance Max campaigns.

While exploring new features, check out some hidden PPC features you probably don’t know about.

5. Revisit Keywords

The role of keywords has evolved over the past several years with match types being less precise and loosening up to consider searcher intent.

For example, [exact match] keywords previously would literally match with the exact keyword search query. Now, ads can be triggered by search queries with the same meaning or intent.

A great planning exercise is to lay out keyword groups and evaluate if they are still accurately representing your brand and product/service.

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Review search term queries triggering ads to discover trends and behavior you may not have considered. It’s possible this has impacted performance and conversions over time.

Critical to your strategy:

  • Review the current keyword rules and determine if this may impact your account in terms of close variants or shifts in traffic volume.
  • Brush up on how keywords work in each platform because the differences really matter!
  • Review search term reports more frequently for irrelevant keywords that may pop up from match type changes. Incorporate these into match type changes or negative keywords lists as appropriate.

6. Revisit Your Audiences

Review the audiences you selected in the past, especially given so many campaign types that are intent-driven.

Automated features that expand your audience could be helpful, but keep an eye out for performance metrics and behavior on-site post-click.

Remember, an audience is simply a list of users who are grouped together by interests or behavior online.

Therefore, there are unlimited ways to mix and match those audiences and target per the sales funnel.

Here are a few opportunities to explore and test:

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  • LinkedIn user targeting: Besides LinkedIn, this can be found exclusively in Microsoft Ads.
  • Detailed Demographics: Marital status, parental status, home ownership, education, household income.
  • In-market and custom intent: Searches and online behavior signaling buying cues.
  • Remarketing: Advertisers website visitors, interactions with ads, and video/ YouTube.

Note: This varies per the campaign type and seems to be updated frequently, so make this a regular check-point in your campaign management for all platforms.

7. Organize Data Sources

You will likely be running campaigns on different platforms with combinations of search, display, video, etc.

Looking back at your goals, what is the important data, and which platforms will you use to review and report? Can you get the majority of data in one analytics platform to compare and share?

Millions of companies use Google Analytics, which is a good option for centralized viewing of advertising performance, website behavior, and conversions.

8. Reevaluate How You Report

Have you been using the same performance report for years?

It’s time to reevaluate your essential PPC key metrics and replace or add that data to your reports.

There are two great resources to kick off this exercise:

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Your objectives in reevaluating the reporting are:

  • Are we still using this data? Is it still relevant?
  • Is the data we are viewing actionable?
  • What new metrics should we consider adding we haven’t thought about?
  • How often do we need to see this data?
  • Do the stakeholders receiving the report understand what they are looking at (aka data visualization)?

Adding new data should be purposeful, actionable, and helpful in making decisions for the marketing plan. It’s also helpful to decide what type of data is good to see as “deep dives” as needed.

9. Consider Using Scripts

The current ad platforms have plenty of AI recommendations and automated rules, and there is no shortage of third-party tools that can help with optimizations.

Scripts is another method for advertisers with large accounts or some scripting skills to automate report generation and repetitive tasks in their Google Ads accounts.

Navigating the world of scripts can seem overwhelming, but a good place to start is a post here on Search Engine Journal that provides use cases and resources to get started with scripts.

Luckily, you don’t need a Ph.D. in computer science — there are plenty of resources online with free or templated scripts.

10. Seek Collaboration

Another effective planning tactic is to seek out friendly resources and second opinions.

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Much of the skill and science of PPC management is unique to the individual or agency, so there is no shortage of ideas to share between you.

You can visit the Paid Search Association, a resource for paid ad managers worldwide, to make new connections and find industry events.

Preparing For Paid Media Success

Strategies should be based on clear and measurable business goals. Then, you can evaluate the current status of your campaigns based on those new targets.

Your paid media strategy should also be built with an eye for both past performance and future opportunities. Look backward and reevaluate your existing assumptions and systems while investigating new platforms, topics, audiences, and technologies.

Also, stay current with trends and keep learning. Check out ebooks, social media experts, and industry publications for resources and motivational tips.

More resources: 

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Featured Image: Vanatchanan/Shutterstock

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Google Limits News Links In California Over Proposed ‘Link Tax’ Law

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A brown cardboard price tag with a twine string and a black dollar sign symbol, influenced by the Link Tax Law, set against a dark gray background.

Google announced that it plans to reduce access to California news websites for a portion of users in the state.

The decision comes as Google prepares for the potential passage of the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA), a bill requiring online platforms like Google to pay news publishers for linking to their content.

What Is The California Journalism Preservation Act?

The CJPA, introduced in the California State Legislature, aims to support local journalism by creating what Google refers to as a “link tax.”

If passed, the Act would force companies like Google to pay media outlets when sending readers to news articles.

However, Google believes this approach needs to be revised and could harm rather than help the news industry.

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Jaffer Zaidi, Google’s VP of Global News Partnerships, stated in a blog post:

“It would favor media conglomerates and hedge funds—who’ve been lobbying for this bill—and could use funds from CJPA to continue to buy up local California newspapers, strip them of journalists, and create more ghost papers that operate with a skeleton crew to produce only low-cost, and often low-quality, content.”

Google’s Response

To assess the potential impact of the CJPA on its services, Google is running a test with a percentage of California users.

During this test, Google will remove links to California news websites that the proposed legislation could cover.

Zaidi states:

“To prepare for possible CJPA implications, we are beginning a short-term test for a small percentage of California users. The testing process involves removing links to California news websites, potentially covered by CJPA, to measure the impact of the legislation on our product experience.”

Google Claims Only 2% of Search Queries Are News-Related

Zaidi highlighted peoples’ changing news consumption habits and its effect on Google search queries (emphasis mine):

“It’s well known that people are getting news from sources like short-form videos, topical newsletters, social media, and curated podcasts, and many are avoiding the news entirely. In line with those trends, just 2% of queries on Google Search are news-related.”

Despite the low percentage of news queries, Google wants to continue helping news publishers gain visibility on its platforms.

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However, the “CJPA as currently constructed would end these investments,” Zaidi says.

A Call For A Different Approach

In its current form, Google maintains that the CJPA undermines news in California and could leave all parties worse off.

The company urges lawmakers to consider alternative approaches supporting the news industry without harming smaller local outlets.

Google argues that, over the past two decades, it’s done plenty to help news publishers innovate:

“We’ve rolled out Google News Showcase, which operates in 26 countries, including the U.S., and has more than 2,500 participating publications. Through the Google News Initiative we’ve partnered with more than 7,000 news publishers around the world, including 200 news organizations and 6,000 journalists in California alone.”

Zaidi suggested that a healthy news industry in California requires support from the state government and a broad base of private companies.

As the legislative process continues, Google is willing to cooperate with California publishers and lawmakers to explore alternative paths that would allow it to continue linking to news.

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Featured Image:Ismael Juan/Shutterstock

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