As an SEO with 8 years of experience building niche sites to generate online income, I’ve witnessed quite the evolution in Google’s outlook toward niche websites over the years.
Before the September Helpful Content Update rolled out, niche sites were a big part of every SEO’s content strategy. And this wasn’t something that was any violation of Google’s policy. Back in 2010, Google even published tips on their Webmaster Central blog about properly operating multiple sites in the same space, encouraging people to have niche sites that are specific on a particular topic and cover them wholly. This enables them to rank them better as ‘competition for user attention might be less fierce,‘ says the published document.
However, major algorithm updates in 2022 and 2023 have led Google to take a much stricter approach toward niche sites. It was inevitable because since more people started using AI and niche sites, a trend towards making niche sites has risen lately, but the search results have been terrible according to many arguments. It all started with Charlie Warzel’s septic tank story on the Atlantic.
In this post, I’ll analyze and try to explain what’s changed and how niche site owners can adapt and continue to make a difference instead of abandoning this train.
When Google Welcomed Niche Sites
When I began my SEO career, niche sites were all the rage. With my WordPress expertise, I created sites on topics ranging from dog training to Brazilian jujitsu to vintage sewing machines. These were easy money-making machines. Google seemed to smile upon focused sites like these that offered detailed information to enthusiasts. And of course, enthusiasts for that particular niche would want a specific site to learn more about that topic.
In their 2010 blog post, they advised choosing niche topics where competition was ‘less fierce.’ They suggested niche sites could link back to a broader hub site. Google’s tone implied niche sites had great potential to add value to users.
The Appeal and $$$
For SEOs like myself, niche sites held several advantages. With less competition on the keyword level, it was easier to rank these sites organically. The targeted audience also made it simpler to implement affiliate marketing and monetization. And creating narrow sites aligned with Google’s push for having ‘unique and compelling content.’
Where Things Went Wrong
Unfortunately, over the last decade, the niche site trend led to some unintended consequences. The rise of AI content creation tools enabled virtually anyone to churn out hundreds of thin niche sites packed with keyword-stuffed articles. But these sites offered little value to readers. It became more about ranking for traffic rather than providing useful information. The quality of sites deteriorated as quantity took precedence.
Google Cracks Down on Low-Value Niche Sites
Google finally said “enough is enough” in 2022. First came the Helpful Content Update in December 2022. This aimed to promote sites with experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (EEAT) and demote sites that were creating search engine first content, aka SEO-optimized content. More details about Google’s Helpful Content System are here.
Then in September 2023, Google released another HCU update demoting even more websites with new classifiers. The sitewide update affects a complete website, simply meaning that if your website is hit because Google’s classifier found it unhelpful, changing a few characters won’t fix the problem. You may need to perform a complete audit of what went wrong.
The updates aren’t ending just here. In October and November 2023, Google rolled out two more core updates, back to back, with the same goals to improve their ranking systems. The November Core Update is still ongoing.
I immediately noticed some of my lower-quality niche sites (I’ve to admit) losing visibility. With these updates, Google sent a clear message – sites must prove their expertise to rank well. However, forum sites like Reddit, and Quora saw a huge increment in the rankings after this. Amazon was also among the sites benefiting from this update because sites with thin affiliate pages were also hit, replaced by other competition or direct Amazon links. Many niche sites that were producing search engine first content were badly hit, losing more than 50% of traffic.
Is the Future of Niche Sites in Danger?
So what does this mean for niche site owners like myself moving forward? Is the future for such sites in danger?
Well, if you believe in producing more and more content without a check on quality, Google search will be a hard place to rank and earn money for you. However, if helping users is truly your motto, then Google will welcome you with open arms. After a month of changes to some of my ‘Google-hit’ niche sites, I can tell you that you can recover from these updates and avoid such penalties in the future.
I believe high-quality niche sites can still thrive, but expectations have been raised. Here are my top tips:
- Publish truly helpful, well-researched content – no thin articles just for traffic. Demonstrate your knowledge.
- Build links and establish domain authority within your niche. Become a known expert.
- Focus on quality over quantity. A few authoritative sites are better than hundreds of superficial ones.
- Make sure your site offers a unique angle with the value that other sites don’t have. Don’t just replicate the competition.
- Use your distinct personality and experience to create an authentic connection with your audience.
- Have patience. Good authority signals take time to develop. Keep providing stellar content.
As an SEO, I remain optimistic about niche sites in 2023 and beyond. But the game has changed – Google will not tolerate low-value fluff anymore and they shouldn’t. With the rise in AI-generated content and ChatGPT boom, the content produced by webmasters has been challenging to read.
By emphasizing genuine expertise, great content, and authoritative brand-building, niche sites can still succeed. It requires effort, but the returns are well worth it when you establish yourself as a trusted leader. However, if your focus is on just producing content for the sake of rankings in search engines, then I must tell you that it’s bad news for such webmasters. I’m excited to refocus my niche site strategy to thrive in this new era.
I hope this analysis was helpful. Let me know if you have any other questions! I’m always happy to discuss the latest SEO tactics and trends with fellow internet marketers. I know that I haven’t been active here about SEO and WordPress, but I’m trying to keep up. 🙂
Also, I was able to recover some of my sites after the September Helpful Content update, if you’d like to get your site audited and recover from the HCU, let me know in the comments or reach us through our contact us page.