Yesterday, Google announced that they will be making a significant update to their search engine ranking algorithm, which they’re calling the “Helpful Content Update.” Learn how the update will impact search engine rankings and what it means for your website’s content and SEO strategy.
What is the “Helpful Content Update?”
According to Google, this update to their search engine ranking algorithm is “part of a broader effort to ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results,” and “aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.”
This update is specifically targeted at content that is written for search engines first and people second. Google believes that SEO is a helpful activity when it’s applied to “people-first content,” but finds that content written primarily for search engine traffic is strongly correlated with content that searchers find unsatisfying.
“Any content — not just unhelpful content — on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in Search, assuming there is other content elsewhere from the web that’s better to display. For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.”
This update will introduce a new site-wide signal that Google will consider, along with other algorithm signals. Any content that is deemed to not be “helpful” (i.e. it’s search-engine first instead of people-first) will now be far less likely to perform well in search. If a majority of a site’s content is not deemed valuable to users, then it’s likely that the entire site’s performance will suffer.
Google’s systems will be automatically identifying content that it deems “unhelpful” in an automated way using machine-learning models. Sites identified by this update may find that rankings will degrade over the course of several months.
This will likely be the most significant algorithm update of 2022.
When will the “Helpful Content” algorithm update be rolling out?
The update will begin rolling out next week and could take up to two weeks to finish. This update will impact English search globally and will expand to other languages in the future.
What can you do to avoid having issues?
There are several core areas that you should focus on in order to try to mitigate the ongoing impact stemming from their “Helpful Content” algorithm.
- First and foremost, focus on creating “people-first content.” This is content that is written for actual humans first, but that also leverages and integrates SEO best practices, rather than allowing SEO to drive all content decisions. Do what’s best for your users.
- SEO should inform content strategy, not drive it exclusively. Allow SEO to serve as a critical input in your content process by leveraging the keyword research, allowing them to assist with topic selection, taking into consideration their competitive analysis, and taking tips on on-site optimization. However, don’t overdo it. SEO is a valuable component of the process, but should not be the only component nor the most important. Essentially, SEO should be a data point and a guidepost, not the entire strategy.
- Always keep your audience’s needs in mind as the most important priority with your content. Be sure to emphasize the unique value proposition or selling points that your website brings that would make it more beneficial to searchers (and your target audience). If there is something that you can offer that no other website/company can, find ways to incorporate those differentiators within your content.
- Demonstrate your subject-matter expertise consistently. Focus on producing content around topics where you have a unique ability to speak with expertise, authoritativeness, and trust (E-A-T). Focus on building topical authority with your content over the course of time, and don’t expect to rank well until you’ve consistently demonstrated your topical authority and ability to provide “helpful content.”
- Clearly address the user’s needs with your content. Do your best to answer your audience’s questions with clear explanations, and provide the necessary depth of information for the subject matter.
What are Google’s recommendations?
Google has also provided some key questions for you to reflect upon in order to ensure you’re producing content that will be rewarded and not penalized by this component of their algorithm:
- Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you? This is all about building your content and SEO strategy towards the expectation that your site is authoritative and trustworthy for a specific audience and topic.
- Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)? Work proactively to showcase your subject-matter expertise in order to build trust with your audience, and provide them with the answers to questions they seek, in-depth and accurate information on a regular basis.
- Does your site have a primary purpose or focus? Google is looking to reward sites who exhibit expertise, and who build authority and trust (E-A-T) around a particular topic.
- After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal? If a user has to return to search results (also called “pogo-sticking”) to review additional websites to find what they’re looking for, this is a sign for content producers to evaluate the quality and/or depth of their content.
- Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience? Similar to the above, are you giving users what they want with your content in terms of the level of detail they’d be expecting in terms of the content, and in a way that satisfies their search intent.
- Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews? These types of algorithm updates have generally focused on rewarding websites who produce high-quality user-centric content, and who exhibit E-A-T that satisfies user-intent and helps in their user journey.
Here are some additional questions Google has provided that if answer in the affirmative could be a red flag for your content and/or SEO strategy:
- Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans? Again, it’s okay for SEO to be an input to your strategy, but you should always make content decisions with the lens of your target audience rather than allowing SEO to be the key driver of content-based decisions. If content is good for users but doesn’t serve an SEO purpose, that’s okay. Vice versa, if SEO strategy dictates that you should rank for something that doesn’t make sense for your users, err on the side of users.
- Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results? Blasting out content and hoping that some sticks is not a strategy, and will serve to degrade your topical authority over time in most cases. Always focus on quality over quantity.
- Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics? There’s no easy way to say this. If you’re using AI to generate most or all of your content, then you’re likely to be impacted by this update. We’re not saying that there isn’t a place for AI and machine learning (ML) in areas of the content process, but all content should be curated by humans for humans. AI will help you expedite your content creation, but unless you go above and beyond, all it will do is help you create what everyone else has already created. Use it wisely.
- Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value? Always ensure that your content is focused on delivering your unique perspective, subject-matter expertise, value proposition, and differentiating elements or opinions.
- Are you writing about things simply because they seem trending, and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience? Let’s use an analogy. If your site is about auto parts, nobody needs to hear your opinion on the last Marvel movie. Know yourself, know your audience, and try to stay in the wheelhouse that you’re best-equipped to deliver upon. Not saying you can’t branch out, but don’t expect good SEO performance in return.
- Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources? We’ll repeat. If a user has to return to search results (also called “pogo-sticking”) to review additional websites to find what they’re looking for, this is a sign for content producers to evaluate the quality and/or depth of their content.
- Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? Don’t write words for the sake of writing words. We think of word counts in our research as an indication of the depth of content that Google is looking for in the sites being rewarded with good rankings. But as Google has said repeatedly, there is no hard and fast rule. Do what’s best for your users to satisfy their search needs and deliver high-quality, robust content.
- Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic? Again, focus on areas where you’re actually equipped to provide expertise within your content. Stay in your lane.
- Does your content promise to answer a question that actually has no answer, such as suggesting there’s a release date for a product, movie, or TV show when one isn’t confirmed? This should go without saying, but if you’re creating content to answer a question—you should probably answer the question quickly and concisely. Don’t make it harder on your audience than it needs to be. Don’t give them the entire “history of jelly” when all they want to know is “how to make a PB&J sandwich.”
Is it bad to incorporate SEO into your content?
No, it’s not. Although SEO gets a bad rap and sometimes even deserves it, Google explicitly stated in their announcement:
“Our advice about having a people-first approach does not invalidate following SEO best practices, such as those covered in Google’s own SEO guide. SEO is a helpful activity when it’s applied to people-first content. However, content created primarily for search engine traffic is strongly correlated with content that searchers find unsatisfying.”
Here are some areas where including SEO in the content process can be extremely beneficial to improving organic search performance:
- Early on in the content topic & keyword research phase
- SEO should have a seat at the table for topic selection (amongst many voices)
- Competitive research to inform content strategy decisions
- Research within Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) to better understand query intent
- Content brief creation to better understand what sites are being rewarded with good rankings and why for a particular target topic
- On-page optimization including URL structure, page titles, meta descriptions, content structure, as well as internal linking
- Ongoing content marketing and promotional strategy (again, a voice amongst many voices but only one seat at the larger table rather than the main driving force)
Are you at risk?
At Search Discovery, our primary focus has been on producing high quality, user-first content that is heavily predicated on meeting the users’ needs while also taking into account how they search. Simply put, we do our research and focus on quality of content rather than quantity.
We do not believe our clients are at risk of performing poorly after this update. That said, we’ll be actively monitoring performance over the coming weeks and months (and will be ready to remediate issues if necessary).
However, if you believe that your site may be at risk, we’d be happy to provide you with an SEO Assessment.
How can you recover if impacted?
Google responded pretty directly around how long it might take for a website to recover if it is impacted by this algorithm update, either immediately or at any time in the coming months. They’ve stated:
“A natural question some will have is how long will it take for a site to do better, if it removes unhelpful content? Sites identified by this update may find the signal applied to them over a period of months. Our classifier for this update runs continuously, allowing it to monitor newly-launched sites and existing ones. As it determines that the unhelpful content has not returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply.
This classifier process is entirely automated, using a machine-learning model. It is not a manual action nor a spam action. Instead, it’s just a new signal and one of many signals Google evaluates to rank content.
This means that some people-first content on sites classified as having unhelpful content could still rank well, if there are other signals identifying that people-first content as helpful and relevant to a query. The signal is also weighted; sites with lots of unhelpful content may notice a stronger effect. In any case, for the best success, be sure you’ve removed unhelpful content and also are following all our guidelines.”
How does this translate to non-SEO’s:
- The impact may not be sudden, but instead may occur gradually over the course of months as longer-term degradation
- The most significant means of recovering rankings and organic traffic would be to improve the quality of your content around a centralized area or area(s) of topical authority, and create user-focused content
- Additionally, you can work to prune “unhelpful content” to improve Google’s overarching view of your site’s topical authority and E-A-T.
Google will be announcing more information about the rolling in the coming weeks on their Google ranking updates page, so stay tuned.