Unpacking the ‘helpful content’ update from Google

As you may have seen Google will be releasing an algorithm update starting this week.

Whilst Google releases algorithm updates and tweaks regularly (and will often let us know) this one seems particularly important. And there’s potential that this update will create large changes in the search engine result pages (SERPs).

Let’s unpack what Google is saying about the latest algorithm – and crucially – what you can do to protect your site after this update.

Key Takeaways:

  • Chase satisfying users, not search engines
  • Focus on what you know
  • Look beyond search engine tools to understand user needs
  • UX and SEO basics are still key

What is the ‘helpful content’ update?

The helpful content update is a Google Algorithm update that will start rolling out week commencing 22nd August. The primary purpose of this update is to highlight content written by experts and people with topic knowledge rather than content whose primary focus is SEO and traffic.

The algorithm update is a site wide update too – meaning changes will impact all pages, not just a select few.

The rollout will be focused on English language sites first and then roll out to other languages later.

It follows several other product review algorithms whose intention was to elevate content that has real-world relevance and knowledge.

The helpful content update blog piece from Google looks at 2 particular areas to help us understand the impact:

  1. Creating content that puts people first
  2. Avoiding content creately purely for SEO purposes

Focusing on People-first content

As the update from Google explains:

“The helpful content update 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.”

And they break this down further by suggesting if you are answering yes to the following questions then you are creating content with a people first approach.

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?

Analysis

This goes beyond SEO in my opinion and back to basics with marketing. Are you writing with your audience in mind or are you following keywords knowing that it will generate traffic? I think this is potentially targeting those sites who create a vast amount of content – on a wide variety of subjects – purely for the intention of grabbing increased web traffic.

How to resolve it?

One of the key content writing approaches is to always have that audience in the front of mind when writing that content – can you say that’s the case for your content? If not, then it’s back to square one.

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?

Analysis

Expertise, authoritativeness and expertise (EAT) are three metrics that are clearly becoming more important as Google endeavours to deliver content in the SERPs that provide the correct answers and solutions to people’s queries. This appears to be aimed at punishing review sites scrape content from elsewhere and build content quickly.

How to resolve it?

There is no quick resolution to demonstrating EAT. But, following the quality raters guidelines is a starting point. When writing content, be mindful to provide the information about how the information was procured, where does the knowledge come from e.g. internal team of experts, reviewed by a professional etc. Moreover, links are still a great way to demonstrate EAT, so building links and citations from other high authority sites is invaluable.

Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?

Analysis

If you’re a SaaS site, whose focus is on a particular niche or area, then you shouldn’t stray far from that. Answering queries from the broad topic would still be fine – e.g. HR site answering questions around payroll etc, but if you start to veer away from that, then it’s a no-go. This goes hand in hand with the question about audiences.

How to resolve it?

When resources are finite anyway, your content production should be focused on building out topics and clusters that are in your area of interest and expertise.

After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?

Analysis

This follows on from other blogs from Google around Core Updates and I think is really looking at ensuring content provides a complete perspective on the particular topic. Or at least is able to provide links to content to help delve further.

How to resolve it?

A tool like AlsoAsked will provide you with information about additional questions and queries a user may have. But don’t forget to ask your team what are some of the questions they get about the topic and include that information in your content. A tool like Hotjar can provide exit intent information to allow you to understand what a user might be searching for that they couldn’t find in the content.

Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?

Analysis

This to me speaks beyond the content itself and about the page itself. Google has often spoken about intrusive interstitials and site speed (Core web vitals) as being something to ensure are on target. There’s no point in writing really good content, if the user finds it a challenge to read it.

How to resolve it?

Intrusive interstitials are a quick win – but it’s worth taking a deeper dive into Core Web Vitals and how your site is performing to understand where improvements can be made. This isn’t about satisfying SEO either – a good user experience will aid in your conversion attempts too. A simple approach to improving user experience would be to add:

  1. Imagery
  2. Bullet points
  3. Video
  4. Bolded text

To help break up the content and help users find the information they want.

Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?

Analysis

Google is getting very good when it comes to providing a base layer of information when it comes to core updates – and what works in search. Keeping an eye on these and reading the information (and implementing the recommendations) can only benefit your site.

How to resolve it?

SEO is simple, but simple isn’t easy, and circumventing Google’s guidance will only land you in hot water. SEO is about creating ‘helpful’ content that answers users questions – and the effects of good SEO is compounding. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Overall, a lot of what Google has provided for their new algorithm update doesn’t seem to be new, but the emphasis has changed. Ensuring that you are putting your audience front and center, and then utilising SEO best practices (not the other way around) will be key.

What is Search engine first content?

Creating people-first content shouldn’t ignore SEO and how best to implement it. What works for SEO tends to support a better user experience too (Core Web Vitals being a perfect example). But if you are looking to create content purely because you know it drives traffic or you’ve looked at keywords before looking at a customer survey, then you’re gonna have a bad time.

In their update – Google has suggested that answering yes to any of these questions might indicate that you are creating content for SEO first:

  • Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?
  • Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
  • Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
  • Are you mainly summarising what others have to say without adding much value?
  • Are you writing about things simply because they seem trending and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?
  • Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
  • Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).
  • Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
  • 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?

Site Wide Ranking

For the helpful content update, Google has stated:

“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 means that if you have content on your site that is unhelpful, it could drag down the content that has the potential to be really helpful.

This means the focus should be on:

  • Assessing your content (Is it clearly SEO first? Are the onsite metrics poor? Does it rank at all?) and decide whether content should be
    • Deleted
    • Updated
    • Rewritten
  • Assess your content strategy and make sure it aligns with your audience and their needs
  • When writing your content – is it fully addressing the topic?
  • Speak to your internal team e.g. sales or customer service to gather insights to help create content beyond what you can gather in SEO tools
  • Are you able to demonstrate EAT – and provide examples of that in your content – do your blog templates or author profiles need to be updated?

Summary

Overall, this appears to have the potential to be a big update. Not only did they let the SEO community know in advance, they also provided further information to key members of the SEO world. This is an indication that Google appreciates the potential this update will have. It’s likely that if you have been producing content for SEO first then you will be impacted. And quickly amending the content now won’t make any difference now. But installing best practice SEO based on the information provided above will aid in improving your rankings, and your user’s satisfaction.

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