Towards the end of August 2022, Google announced the launch of a new algorithm update named the Helpful Content Update. Reportedly one of the most impactful updates in recent history, taking its toll site-wide, Google’s announcement has naturally caused a lot of chatter throughout SEO circles.
In this blog post, we discuss what to expect from the Google Helpful Content Update and what this teaches us about content for online search in 2022.
On the 18th August 2022, Google published the following announcement on Twitter:
Typically, when the search engine announces such updates, it signals the importance of optimising for Google’s Quality Guidelines. However, with this update introducing a new quality metric affecting creators site-wide, the digital marketing community should brace for a big shakeup.
With the roll out starting early on the 24th August 2022, the Google Helpful Content Update seeks to better reward content that provides a satisfying experience to visitors. In this sense, the update is designed to reward ‘people-first’ content that provides original, helpful information designed for humans, rather than search engines.
By the other stroke of the brush, the update is also designed to penalise websites that have a relatively high amount of unsatisfying or unhelpful content – essentially, where the content has been written for search engines rather than humans. Therefore, the overall purpose is to help searchers find high-quality content that feels authentic.
Unlike previous updates in recent years, such as the July 2022 Product Review Update, which targets specific types of pages, the helpful content update is site-wide. This means it has the potential to impact all pages. As such, if a domain has a relatively high amount of ‘unhelpful’ content then the whole site could be penalised.
What is also interesting about this new update from Google is that it introduces a new signal that Google will consider among many other signals for ranking web pages. While the impact of the update has yet to be felt, if the effect is as big as Google suggests, we may be in for an SEO shake up comparable to the launch of Panda 10 years ago.
By nature, site-wide algorithm updates like these can have a detrimental effect on site rankings, traffic and revenue. The impact of such ‘shake ups’ is often felt far beyond the original update date and some of the biggest players on the internet can be hit. Let’s take eBay as an example, which reportedly lost 80% of its organic rankings following the Panda Update (2011). Over the course of about three days, eBay fell from #6 in to #25 in Moz’s Big 10 – a metric of the ten domains with the most ‘real estate’ in the top 10 search result positions. Consequently, it lost over two-thirds of the ranking real-estate it previously held!
As the recent Product Review Update illustrates, Google is on an continuous endeavour to improve its online experience for real people. In the same sense that the Product Review Update sought to reward authentic, helpful reviews written by real people, the Helpful Content Update seeks to reward original, helpful content written by real people, for real people.
The Helpful Content Update works by introducing a new site-wide signal that will be considered alongside Google’s pre-existing ranking signals. Google’s systems will automatically identify content with little worth, low-added value or otherwise not particularly helpful for users. Sites with numerous examples of ‘unhelpful’ content will be penalised at the domain level.
Such updates typically work by using a classifier – a type of machine learning algorithm used to assign a class label to a data set. The classifier for this update is entirely automated and uses a machine-learning mode that runs continuously. Domains affected by this update therefore may find the signal applied to them over a period of months and to varying degrees. Google is careful in describing the effect of this update as a ‘signal’. It is not a manual action nor a spam action, and you won’t see any ‘penalty’ listed in Google Search Console.
If your site is negatively impacted, it isn’t clear how long it will take for rankings to recover once the ‘unhelpful’ content is removed. However, as the update runs continuously, the idea is that once the algorithms find that your site’s content has shifted to be helpful to searchers, the strength of the signal may be reduced, or even lifted completely, allowing traffic to return to expected levels.
The update impacts only English searches globally, however, Google’s plans are to expand to other languages in the future.
As the Google Helpful Content Update is site-wide, any content on sites determined to have high amounts of unhelpful content will be penalised. Therefore, even if your site has satisfying content, if Google considers the overall weight of content at the domain level to be in favour of ‘unhelpful’ content, the whole site (including that helpful content), will be hit.
In its recent blog post, Google has signalled the type of content that domains should avoid publishing in order not to be hit. This is regarded as ‘search engine-first’ content, and is characterised by one or more of the following:
In the short term, removing unhelpful content could help both the rankings of your other ‘helpful’ content and the domain overall. It is also recommended publishers check they are following all Google Webmaster Guidelines.
We recommend carrying out an in-depth content audit to identify low quality content and prevent penalisation.
Google has said that the focus of this update is on rewarding ‘people-first content’. But what is ‘people-first’ content? Google says this is content that leaves visitors feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience. In its blog post, the search engine lists six questions that publishers should consider when writing or reviewing content. The idea is that if your answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then your content is probably ‘people-first’.
Here, we’ll outline the six questions with a consideration of what this might look like or mean for publishers.
In answering this question, a good point to reflect on is whether your content would exist if it wasn’t for search engines. Content should have a purpose outside of driving traffic to your site. For example, a business may want to publish content that helps teach its intended audience about its services or products. If my business was a health food product for instance, I may want to create a blog post that helps educate my intended audience on the associated health benefits of my product.
This question reinforces what we already know – that Google is interested in content that shows a level of expertise, authority and trust (EAT). Sites should seek to publish content on topics they are (to some degree) qualified to talk about. Taking the example of a business centred on health food products, we might want to have a blog post written by a medical professional who has tried the product and is qualified to talk about associated health benefits
When writing any piece of content, it’s important to ask the question ‘why?’. Is your piece designed to share information? Or is it to sell products? Or perhaps to entertain? The Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines teach Google’s quality raters the importance of determining a page’s purpose. Therefore, it is important from the start that the purpose of your content’s existence is clear.
This question goes back to purpose. Does your piece of content fulfil its purpose? In the previous example of a blog on the potential health benefits of a certain food product, does the article teach both why and how, with some added value? Or does the article simply parrot what others have said, without any real analysis or added value? If you’re unsure – you may want to ask yourself the question: what does a visitor to my content leave with that they didn’t know or have before? Was it a satisfying experience?
This question pretty much follows on from the previous point of whether a piece of content meets its purpose and provides a satisfying experience. A visitor should not leave your site feeling like they need to visit another site to answer their question or meet their needs. If your article is promising to deliver something – whether that’s facts, information or entertainment – you should be delivering it in the fullest sense possible.
This one should go without saying. Google is a constantly evolving programme, and while your content should be ‘people-first’, publishers are still reliant on the algorithms and expectations of the Google platform to surface their content. Therefore, one should always be aware of the guidance for core updates and for product reviews, as these also have a great influence on whether your content ranks or not.
If all the above has you questioning the importance of SEO in an era of ‘people-first content’, then you shouldn’t worry. Google has made it clear that this is not an attack on SEO. Good SEO has always been about driving valuable traffic from real people. Therefore, SEO – if done correctly – can and does help people-first content perform even better. If your site has been affected by this core update and you think you need SEO support, then you can get in touch with our SEO experts. Established in 2010, we have over ten years worth of experience supporting clients re-establish themselves in response to core updates.