Launched back in August 2022, with an update in December, the ‘helpful content update’ is the latest significant change to Google Search’s algorithm, with the company stating it would be prioritising content “written by people, for people.”
Sounds obvious, but the devil, as always, is in the detail.
Google acknowledges the power of SEO in elevating search visibility, but it has long been on the hunt for those websites who prioritise the algorithm over content that people are really looking for. The helpful content update seeks to address this perceived issue by rewarding websites that provide valuable, relevant content whilst penalising those that don’t.
The big question is, how does this all work in practice and what indicators is Google using to differentiate good helpful from unhelpful content
The helpful content update works through a site-wide signal that identifies content that provides little to no value or does not help users with their particular search queries. If a website is found to have relatively high amounts of such low-value, unhelpful content, it will perform worse in Google Search.
The process is completely automated, identifying content through a machine-learning model. It is neither a manual nor a spam action.
So what exactly does Google consider ‘unhelpful content’?
It’s a question that can be answered with a series of questions that you can ask yourself.
This is the line of questioning you should start with when examining your content to get an idea if it’s helpful or unhelpful by Google’s standards. The philosophy fuelling this approach goes back to serving “people first” when creating content, and actively avoiding the creation of content to game search engines.
People use search to look for content that’s relevant to their interests, useful for their inquiries, trustworthy in their eyes, and engaging to consume. People-first content offers all those elements.
When people are done consuming people-first content, they leave feeling satisfied. They have their questions answered, their curiosity sated, their trust gained or strengthened, and maybe even have their feelings stirred.
If your content is – for the most part – regurgitating what’s already been said without contributing original perspectives or analysis, then it’s in the firing line.
A common example of search engine-first content, that you yourself may have stumbled upon, is content that purports to answer a question but doesn’t. People will always be Googling questions like “when is the next iPhone coming out?”. Search-engine first content would typically present a 500-word article repeating that question in so many different ways only to say in the end that there’s no actual release date yet. Avoid creating this kind of content, as Google is no longer tolerating it with this update.
Google Search prioritises content that it deems most helpful to rise up the SERPs. Determining what’s ‘most helpful’ is based on how much content shows experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (EEAT).
Helpful content doesn’t need to demonstrate all E-E-A-T qualities, but what does matter the most is that it shows enough of either experience, expertise, and authoritativeness that it becomes trustworthy.
A review of a smartphone where the content creator shows plenty of first-hand experience using the phone can still be helpful even if that content creator doesn’t have all the expertise to know how the underlying technology of the device works.
E-E-A-T matters even more when it comes to subject matter that concerns people’s financial stability and personal safety, and the welfare of society. News about natural disasters, medical advice, legal advice, property investments, and online shopping pages are some examples of content that Google is more strict about assessing. Such content is called ‘Your Money or Your Life’ (YMYL) content, and it has to show the qualities of E-E-A-T for Google to consider it helpful.
The signal added in the update is part of the large group of signals Google uses to assess how well web pages will rank. As such, a website that may be evaluated as having unhelpful content by this measure can still rank well, as long as Google’s other ranking signals see that the website still provides relevant, people-first content.
The helpful content update signal is weighted. The more unhelpful content that is detected on a website, the greater the adverse effects will be for that site’s search visibility.
Google monitors websites actively to check for unhelpful content, including both new and existing sites. For websites that are adversely affected by the process, it can take months to recover, as Google will want to see over a long period that any unhelpful content removed doesn’t return.
Getting hit by the helpful content update is costly, as your website can get buried in the SERPs for months while you fix everything. Avoid falling down that hole by taking these practical steps.
The temptation to artificially boost your rankings can lead to creating content that may be popular but is actually outside your field of expertise. It’s going to be immediately apparent to people who are knowledgeable about the subject you’re covering that your content is inauthentic, or just inaccurate.
For the audience that you’re already serving, content that only capitalises on a trending topic but has zero connection to everything else you offer will not resonate. Either way, Google will evaluate your content as unhelpful.
It’s incredibly difficult to express any real sense of familiarity with a subject if you have no actual hands-on experience with it. Whether it’s covering a product or a service, you’d be hard-pressed to form a genuine opinion that people would find helpful when you haven’t used it yourself.
If you do actually have first-hand experience with the subject you’re talking about in your content, show it. Take some pictures with the camera of that new smartphone you’re reviewing. Record a video of you cooking that vegan recipe you recommend to beginners. Share a personal anecdote about your visit to a trade conference. Or quote someone you’ve interviewed about a subject, if you’re not bringing in outside expertise. The more human and authentic you can be the better.
Your recent content strategy may be delivering entertaining blog posts, comprehensive guides, and insightful analyses, but you may also have content from previous SEO efforts that would no longer pass muster.
Take the time to review your old content that may have been created mainly for search engines, and get rid of anything that could trigger Google’s helpful content signal. Be brutal in your pruning process.
Another clear sign that content was only created for search engines is that it goes on and on without ever actually getting to the point. Such content creation operates under the mistaken belief that just by hitting a specific word count or video length is good enough for Google.
Make sure that when people are done reading your articles or watching your videos, they leave satisfied having had their questions answered and concerns addressed.
While the helpful content update emphasises a people first approach when creating content, this doesn’t mean completely foregoing SEO good practice. Google themselves recognise the additional value SEO brings to searchers.
It’s just a matter of priorities; where the focus should be on helping people, and where SEO best practices are implemented to support that primary purpose.
At Superb, we take algorithm updates in our stride, as we’ve seen so many of them come and go. Whilst we cannot ever claim to know what’s coming round the corner, we can confidently say that we have the expertise, knowledge and tools to deal with sudden rankings drops due to algorithm updates (and they will hit your web rankings at some point, believe me).
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