Note: Article updated on 14 April to include details of Chrome browser updates. This appears below the original article.
Early in March, many publishers started noticing a drastic decline in traffic from Google Discover – a feed on mobile devices that automatically gets populated based on user interest.
It can be a notoriously fickle source of traffic, so Google’s advice is that it should be seen as supplementary. But while ebbs and flows are natural and generally accounted for by most publisher forecasts, this drop was notably different and followed an exact timeline for all of the publishers affected.
You can read the personal experience of this writer for an extensive primer on the Great Google Discover Decline of March 2021 over here.
Google Discover traffic drop timeline follows Android updates
The reported issues of a drastic decline in Google Discover traffic did not just come from a few small fry publishers like us. It includes some big names in the tech-publishing space like 9to5 and Android Police.
At first, it appeared as if there was nothing to link the sites that have publicly reported the decline, but dig a little deeper and it appears Android updates match the timelines where publishers have reported the first Discover traffic crash.
With the official Google support forums are filled with reports from users who have been experiencing a variety of Discover issues since early March, it seems unlikely that the current issues are simply down to the “unpredictable” nature of the feed.
Let’s break things down a bit.
The first big dip came on around 2/3 March for most publishers. Android started rolling out its 2021 March security update on 1 March. Content can remain on Google Discover for up to three days, so it would make sense for the effect to be felt only a few days after the update.
An extensive thread on one of Google’s official support forums details issues with users being unable to sign into their Discover feed, right after the March 2021 Android update.
The issue was ‘referred to the search team” and eventually resolved on 5 March 2021, according to one of the Diamond Product Experts on the forum. Product Experts are not employed by Google, but rather people who have some extra time to answer forum questions.
For many users (and publishers) the issues persisted and additional problems surfacing, too. Users reported that their apps would randomly crash while others reported translation issues, issues with Wifi networks being forgotten and the persisting problem with the Google Discover feed showing either outdated content or irrelevant content or, in some cases, the Discover feed showed no stories at all.
All of these issues have been reported on public Google support forums. Additional Android updates on 23 and 25 March respectively fixed some issues. But whatever was fixed on 23 March broke again on 25/26 March – as the chart for Discover impressions below shows.
These patterns in drastic traffic declines once again fit the patterns of Android updates on those dates. The graphic below is from one specific site, but the template fits the majority of publishers who have been affected by the Discover issues since the start of March.
At the time of writing, the problems were less frequent, but not stable. My personal feed serves the “there are no cards right now” message at least once a day – even after clearing the cache, restarting and all the other good stuff. The feed also populates itself over zealously after one specific search that I have never shown any interest in before.
For example: search for a hiking route, receive 15 stories on hiking routes – including some at the other end of the world….you know, in a global pandemic where travel is a bit iffy.
Google’s search team – those who engage on Twitter at least – have said that they aren’t aware of any specific issues and has been referring publishers to their Discover documentation.
However, as many will attest and several have shared on this extensive Twitter thread started by Artem Russakovskii from Android Police, this issue is not simply a case of “make good content and they’ll come”.
Timelines of Android updates fitting with the biggest traffic dips for publishers over the last six weeks might not be proof that the two are linked, but it would certainly make for a more palatable explanation as simply being ‘one of those things. Indeed, it would make sense that an Android authority site – whose reader base most likely consist of largely Android users – would be one of the sites that are deeply affected by an Android bug. Now that’s meta, huh.
Chrome updates could also have an impact on Discover traffic
After spending much of the day digging through reams of repositories, it appears some of the dates for Chrome browser updates also fit in with the most notable ups and downs of the last month and a half.
For some, that might have been a double whammy of decimation – first with the Android update which affected some Pixel users most notably – then with additional changes to the Chrome browser.
As reported by Chrome Story: “a new Chrome OS experimental flag suggests that Google might be bringing feed to desktop”. The flag makes reference to Discover’s appearance in the help tab, presumably to toggle appearance in the same way as Android users currently do through settings.
The detail on the publicly available Chromium Gerrit for the Discover flag appearing in Chromebook browsers reads: “This flag simply decides whether the feature should be turned on. Even if the flag is enabled, internal app logic might decide not to show the tab.”
Google Discover coming to a desktop browser near you?
Further searching of the various open-source workflow systems for Chrome has a number of references to changes and other known bugs, including a reference to a problem back in February with iOS devices seeing the same behaviour where Discover feeds are completely empty, despite refreshing.
An extensive list also details issues with the feed management system for the Content Suggestions UI component on Chrome. A new Chrome update with an update that will revert some of the recent changes around the dates where issues spiked is set to be released soon… but we’re not holding our breath for the problems being fixed.