Does Google Penalize AI Content? Here's What We Know

Does Google Penalize AI Content? Here’s What We Know

Most of us remember when AI was primitive, and any form of creativity from computers was a pipe dream. However, over the last year and a half, AI has become a major player in content marketing. In fact, generative AI has disrupted an entire industry by being not only novel but also inexpensive.

However, AI content is highly controversial. Entities like the New York Times have sued over copyright issues, mass-produced content is flooding the SERPs, and people hotly debate the quality and usefulness of this material.

Key to the AI question is how well it performs on Google and other search engines. After all, you generally need a high placement on a results page to get a decent amount of organic traffic. And if AI content performs poorly, then it ultimately isn’t worth the money you paid to create and post it.

With that in mind, does Google penalize AI content, or not? Let’s find out.

Understanding Google’s Guidelines and AI Content

Like most other policies, the Google guidelines for AI content aren’t always clear cut. Just a few months ago, there was relatively little data on the topic – and Google’s position was rapidly evolving. Luckily, we know a lot more now than we did.

Google’s official stance: AI content is not inherently penalized

According to Google Search Central: “Appropriate use of AI or automation is not against our guidelines.” They go on to note that types of automation have been used in publishing for a long time.

Naturally, the definition of “appropriate” use can vary. However, Google gives us some guidelines on what is considered appropriate:

  • User-centric content. That is, content should provide value to users, satisfy user intent, and give consumers the information they need within the article. Human-written content has the same requirement. AI-based content should contribute to the goal of user-centric websites rather than detracting from it (no fluff).
  • Be in line with transparency and ethical guidelines. Here, Google specifies that creators should disclose their AI usage as appropriate. They should also ensure that the content they publish is accurate, unbiased, and avoids harmful stereotypes or misinformation.
  • High-quality, original work. A lot of what AI produces is of low quality, particularly when unedited. While quality can also be an issue with human-generated content, AI requires extra vigilance both for accuracy and a lack of keyword stuffing. Similarly, originality is critical. Most AI pulls information from the Internet, so ensuring that the final article has something different for your readers is important.

Defining “Inappropriate” AI Use

Just as Google has specific guidelines for appropriate use, they spell out several ways that AI usage is inappropriate. Some of these would also apply to human-produced content, though it’s much less common to produce such content by hand with the availability of AI tools.

  • Content Generated Solely for Manipulation: Unfortunately, this is not unique to AI-produced content because it refers to material created solely to manipulate the SERPs. A common example is keyword stuffing and low-quality content that could be irrelevant or lack valuable information. Think about the “me-too” blog posts where the same information was repackaged from other sites with the goal of getting more page views than the competition.
  • Content that’s primarily automated and features limited human oversight: If you’re using AI mostly to save money on mass-produced content, this is a temptation. AI should be used as a tool to enhance human efforts, not replace it. Therefore, Google often penalizes AI content that doesn’t show evidence of human input and editing. Of course, this content often isn’t original or of high quality.
  • Overuse of AI for more complex content: It’s easy to use AI for product descriptions, outlines, and similar material, especially because it doesn’t go in-depth or require much originality. However, complex content requires research, a significant understanding of the topic, and nuance. If you overuse AI in these situations, you’ll likely see user experience suffer. Typically, poor UX leads to lower SEO performance, too.

Differentiation Between “Appropriate” and “Inappropriate” Use

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Guidelines are a great way to start answering does Google penalize AI content. However, they are only part of the story. A better way to learn what works and what doesn’t is with examples. As you’ll see, the focus is on the process and your final results.

Example of “Appropriate” Use:

A writer uses AI to research and gather information for a blog post about a complex scientific topic. They then use their knowledge and expertise to analyze the information, write the post in their own voice, and ensure its accuracy and originality.

Especially with scientific and other complex topics, it can be difficult to sift through all the articles on the Internet to find the right ones. So, someone might ask the AI to find “scientific journal articles” on Google Scholar or gather information from government websites. This way, the writer has less material to vet and can save a large amount of time.

After the information gathering is complete, the writer can not only analyze the information and write it by hand, but they can also include sources. This lets you avoid plagiarism and copyright infringement, which are concerns when AI text gets written with minimal human intervention. Plus, the credibility of the resulting article will be much higher.

Because readers prefer quality content, you’ll get improved performance for this kind of content.

Example of “Inappropriate” Use:

A website owner uses AI to generate thousands of articles automatically without any human oversight or editing. These articles are keyword-stuffed, irrelevant to user needs, and often contain factual errors or misleading information.

Remember the bad old days of poor-quality content on top of seemingly every SERP you got? Often, this was because of keyword stuffing and other now-frowned-upon techniques. Back then, human writers would insert as many keywords as possible with the maximum frequency. Sometimes, they’d even add more keywords in white text for the algorithms to read. Now, many people use AI to do the same thing.

Google has done a lot of work over the years to curb this kind of junk content, and they have no intention of stopping. However, AI often lacks the subtlety needed to avoid keyword stuffing or to drill down on user intent. Instead, they produce whatever the prompt says. Furthermore, experts recognize that AI-generated content often doesn’t have the nuance and creativity of human-written content. When combined with poor AI practices, these differences become more glaring.

Potential Risks of Using AI Content for SEO

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Although the answer to “Does Google penalize AI content?” is “not necessarily,” it’s important to recognize that there are risks to your SEO performance.

Google’s focus on user experience and content quality

As I mentioned above, quality and user experience are a major emphasis for Google. One of the reasons Google became so successful is that the search engine delivered better results than its competitors at the time at a faster speed. Specifically, Google results were often more user-centric and relevant because the algorithm was better at weeding out useless content.

Considering that quality is so important to Google, there’s little chance that standards will lower over time. And because AI-generated content can frequently be lower quality or less relevant to users, it can be at a disadvantage against human-created content. This is why human input is so critical if you decide to work with AI.

Algorithm updates and the risk of penalties

One reason that Google continues to be the #1 search engine globally is its continual emphasis on improvements. It doesn’t do to have the best algorithm at one point in time if your competition catches up. Similarly, website owners are always trying to get low-quality content or spam at the top of the SERPS.

Because of these issues, Google frequently updates its algorithm. These updates help keep Google SERPs relevant over time as content creation practices change. Furthermore, there can be shifts in scholarship and customer expectations that need to be addressed.

Practically speaking, this means that your AI-generated content might do extremely well one minute and then get relegated to page two the next. And because this kind of content can be difficult to customize in the first place, there’s a higher chance that you’ll need to start over with your content for that keyword.

Worse, you might have trouble with search rankings from the beginning. One of the challenges of AI content is that it can misuse words and fail to pick up on nuances that can change the meaning of sentences. In other words, AI can be less precise and less accurate, even in the best of circumstances. Pair this with the AI-based Google search engine algorithm, and it’s easy to see how text can be misinterpreted and end up penalized for having less than its actual relevance to a query.

5 Best Practices for Using AI Content Safely and Effectively

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Now that you understand the potential and risks of using AI for content creation let’s look at some best practices. These will help you harness the benefits of AI as a labor-saving tool while minimizing the hazards. Meanwhile, your readers will get better content than they would if you posted AI content the “wrong” way.

Prioritize informational completeness over keyword volume

As with human-created content, AI-generated material should always focus on giving quality information. While keywords are vital for SEO as part of content classification and indexing, Google always prioritizes the quality of content. So, if you post thin content that doesn’t tell people what they want to know, it won’t perform well. Plus, when people learn what they want to know, they will have a better overall experience.

In other words, AI is a tool to plan and enhance content, not replace human expertise. Humans know how to vet information and present it in ways that are easy to understand. Similarly, it’s easier for human creators to avoid keyword stuffing by inserting them naturally throughout the text. On the other hand, AI can help source information, organize it, and make helpful suggestions.

When you post the right content, it’ll automatically be more competitive for SEO.

Ensure factual accuracy and originality

One of the biggest drawbacks of using AI for content generation is that the algorithm lacks critical thinking skills. Instead, AI will scrape information from the Internet and repackage it without determining what might be useful or accurate. In one famous incident, an attorney used ChatGPT to write a legal brief. Unfortunately, the algorithm delivered text with fictitious cases, leading to Bar discipline.

If the attorney had checked everything for accuracy, he wouldn’t have gotten into trouble.

While most failures to fact-check won’t result in such serious consequences, there are many reasons you want to ensure accuracy. For one thing, Google penalizes content containing misinformation, especially on certain subjects. For another, if people notice that your content can’t be trusted, then you won’t get as much repeat traffic – or respect as a subject matter expert.

Also, you need to avoid plagiarism. As with print-based content, you can borrow from various sources for web articles. However, you should still backlink or otherwise give credit to original authors. AI frequently plagiarizes content, even quoting it verbatim, leading to copyright infringement. If you post plagiarized content, there’s a chance you will run into trouble with any copyright holders.

Fortunately, checking for both accuracy and plagiarism can be easy. First, ask your AI assistant to give you sources for any facts. You can easily follow the included links and see if the information matches. Then, use Google to find out what trusted sources have to say. To check for plagiarism, leverage a tool like Copyscape or Grammarly Premium. As a bonus, the latter will help you edit the text in other ways, too.

Further Reading: 15 Creative and Killer Content Marketing Ideas (with examples)

Optimize for human readability and engagement

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Nobody likes boring copy. Even if the topic itself is (somewhat) boring or academic, there are ways to engage readers. For instance, you can make the text easier to read or vary your language as appropriate. Similarly, human touches like examples or light humor can keep people reading.

Because AI content on serious topics can feel like you’re reading a textbook, editing for clarity and flow is important. Read through the draft and ask yourself, “is that how I’d say it?” At the same time, make sure that the finished product uses the right words in the right way. And, ensure that the flow of writing makes sense to you as a human reader. If in doubt, asking someone to read the text and give feedback can be helpful.

Don’t forget to add a human touch and ensure the text adheres to brand voice, either.

Focus on Quality and User Value

Don’t prioritize speed or volume over content quality. Remember, Google prioritizes content that provides genuine value to users. One of the advantages of AI is that it can speed up your writing process by gathering information and producing rough drafts. However, it’s possible to go too fast and forget to publish content that people want to read.

Instead, focus on creating AI-generated content that is informative, engaging, and solves user problems in a meaningful way. Not only does this require checking information, but you should also spend time editing and polishing the content to a high standard. Ideally, people won’t be able to tell that AI wrote the first draft.

Further Reading: AI in Content Marketing: Benefits, Ways to Use, and 5 Case Studies

Implement Human Oversight and Control

While AI can be a powerful tool, it shouldn’t replace human judgment and creativity. AI algorithms are trained to make decisions based on preset parameters. They are incapable of thinking outside the box, even though they can reach different conclusions from human operators. And ultimately, what makes content truly original is that it offers something different from the competition.

To keep your content from falling short, establish clear processes for human oversight throughout the content creation process. This process should begin with the prompts, the outlines, and the choice of any options. This ensures that AI-generated content aligns with your brand voice, tone, and overall content strategy. Once you have a draft, utilize human editors to review and refine AI-generated content, ensuring factual accuracy, originality, and adherence to brand guidelines.

8 Tips to Avoid Penalties and Maximize SEO Impact with AI Content

Because AI is so convenient, it’s understandable that many of us want to use it. At the same time, we don’t want our content to get penalized and draw fewer visitors to our websites.  By following some of these tips, you can ensure that the answer to “Does Google penalize AI content?” is typically “no” for yours.

Use AI for specific tasks, not entire content creation

Despite the claims of many developers, AI shouldn’t be used for the entire content creation process. Instead, use it for tasks like research, outlining, generating ideas, or analyzing data. From there, you can create content more efficiently than if you did everything by hand. Often, you’ll produce better content because it’s better planned or leverages better information.

However, if you use AI for the whole process, you’ll run into the issues I discussed above.

Focus on user intent and solving user problems

Even the best-written content can fall short on the SERPs if it doesn’t match user intent or adequately address people’s problems. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard for human writers to determine exactly what people want when they search for something, especially in more crowded fields.

On the other hand, AI can help analyze search queries and identify user intent. It does this using various analytical data, from your website’s Google dashboard to social media information and more. Just like Spock from Star Trek, AI takes a dispassionate look at data and comes to logical conclusions that lack traditional human biases. From there, writers can tailor content to fit user needs.

Maintain control over content and editorial process

The logical approach of Spock and AI fall short because it doesn’t benefit from the whole picture. Humans have information that goes beyond algorithms – not to mention emotions and subtlety that robots lack. For this reason, it’s critical that humans oversee the content creation process from planning all the way to publication.

Generally speaking, AI is most useful for certain steps like brainstorming, creating drafts, and analyzing information. As you continue through the content creation process, ask yourself if you can do something better yourself or if the AI can enhance your efforts. At the same time, ensure that your AI-assisted creative process doesn’t cause potential liability. You can do this in larger teams by ensuring content goes through several human reviews along the way.

Further Reading: The 18 Elements of Successful Content Planning

Monitor Performance and Adapt

Even when you use AI in your content creation process, it’s important to get the right results. Continuously monitor the performance of your AI-generated content, tracking metrics like organic traffic, bounce rate, and conversions. This way, you will have a clear view of whether or not you’re getting good ROI from your content, just as you should with purely human-created content.

Analyze the data to identify areas for improvement and adapt your AI usage accordingly. It could be that your blog posts aren’t doing well, but the product descriptions couldn’t be better. And where you need improvements, the right information can help you pinpoint the most important changes. For example, maybe there’s still too much robotic text on that early landing page.

Once you’ve found strengths and weaknesses in your AI usage, make adjustments to maximize your success. Double down on what works and change what doesn’t. This iterative approach ensures your content remains relevant and impactful, maximizing its SEO value. Remember, these changes need to happen over time and should be reviewed regularly.

Further Reading: How to Perform a Complete Content Audit for 2024

Promote Transparency and Build Trust

No matter which ways you leverage this technology, clearly disclose the use of AI in your content creation process. According to Google guidelines, you definitely should do this when the AI does all or most of the content creation process.

However, right now there’s a huge emphasis on transparency in content creation, and authenticity in its contents. People want to know what content they consume and where it comes from, especially given the controversial nature of AI. Practicing transparency builds trust with your audience and demonstrates your commitment to ethical practices.

To make disclosure easy, consider adding a disclaimer or author’s note acknowledging the role of AI in content creation. You can easily put this at the bottom of a page or write an article about how you use AI to assist content creation. That way, everyone is on the same page.

Integrate AI with Existing SEO Strategies

Don’t view AI as a standalone solution; integrate it seamlessly with your existing SEO strategies. Your existing strategies have likely worked well for you so far, and the basic principles of SEO haven’t changed. For this reason, they remain very useful and highly relevant.

Generally, use AI to enhance keyword research, optimize content structure, and improve internal linking. This data and organization fits into your overall strategy in ways that complement human effort, rather than replacing it. And if you use some modern SEO strategy software, there’s a chance you have some AI functions already built in.

This holistic approach to technology maximizes the effectiveness of both AI and established SEO practices. In other words, both old and new technologies work together and provide the potential for even better results.

Further Reading: 7 Best Content Optimization Strategies for 2024

Consider Long-Form Content and Expertise

While AI can be helpful for generating shorter content formats, consider long-form pieces requiring in-depth expertise. Such content often demands a deeper understanding of the topic and nuanced writing, which AI may not yet fully grasp. Long-form content also provides more information for your consumers that can help establish you and your brand as experts within your niche. Plus, there are well-established benefits to this kind of content for overall website SEO and organic reach.

With that said, AI can still play a role in long-form content. For instance, it can help with research, outlining, and brainstorming. At the same time, heavy human input is critical to ensure that these content types are of high quality.

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The field of AI and SEO is constantly evolving, with new tools, techniques, and guidelines emerging regularly. As an example, just a few months ago it appeared that Google was wholesale penalizing AI content. Now, it’s all about the quality of your content regardless of how it was created.

Stay updated on the latest developments to ensure you’re utilizing AI effectively and in accordance with current best practices. Industry standards change over time, especially due to regulatory and technology changes. Often, these changes necessitate a shift in your SEO strategy or alterations in other aspects of content creation.

Finally, subscribe to industry publications, attend conferences, and network with other AI-savvy professionals to stay ahead of the curve. Especially in highly competitive fields like SEO and AI, being proactive makes a huge difference in the growth of your business and its website. Plus, catching up often requires more effort than being up-to-date.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we know that Google doesn’t penalize AI content per se. However, this type of content must live up to the same standards as its human-created competition. As the technology stands right now, it’s relatively difficult for content that’s been primarily created with AI to measure up. For that reason, it often doesn’t perform as well on the SERPs.

Nonetheless, AI is a very useful tool for content creation. It can help plan content and fine-tune your strategy while speeding up the creative process. By following Google guidelines and best practices, you can enjoy the best of both worlds.

Hero Photo by Mariia Shalabaieva on Unsplash

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Neal Schaffer
Neal Schaffer

Neal Schaffer is a leading authority on helping businesses through their digital transformation of sales and marketing through consulting, training, and helping enterprises large and small develop and execute on social media marketing strategy, influencer marketing, and social selling initiatives. President of the social media agency PDCA Social, Neal also teaches digital media to executives at Rutgers University, the Irish Management Institute (Ireland), and the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland). Fluent in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, Neal is a popular keynote speaker and has been invited to speak about digital media on four continents in a dozen countries. He is also the author of 3 books on social media, including Maximize Your Social (Wiley), and in late 2019 will publish his 4th book, The Business of Influence (HarperCollins), on educating the market on the why and how every business should leverage the potential of influencer marketing. Neal resides in Irvine, California but also frequently travels to Japan.

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