Everything We Know about the Helpful Content Update (So Far)

Feature image for the "Everything We Know about the Helpful Content Update (So Far)" blog post.

On August 18th 2022 Google announced that an algorithm update, called the “Helpful Content Update”, would shortly roll out.

On August 25th 2022 the rollout began. It should take roughly two weeks to complete.

If you’re responsible for writing for or managing a website with any content at all, then you’ve probably got a lot of questions, including:

  • What is the Helpful Content Update?
  • Which types of website are going to be affected?

Primarily, you’re asking yourself: “Should I be worried?

By the end of this post, I’ll have not only answered that question but also explained what you need to do about the update (if anything).

I’ll explain:

  • Exactly what you need to do
  • How long you can expect to wait before seeing results (spoiler: it’s not going to be as soon as you’d hoped)

Sidenote: The irony of my writing this attempting to write helpful content about the Helpful Content Update hasn’t escaped me.

So, what is the Helpful Content Update?

Skip the analysis. Give me the gist.

If you’re in a rush and just want a summary of:

  1. What the update is
  2. What you need to do about it

Then click here to go straight to the summary at the end.

 

Screenshot of Google's Helpful Content Update announcement blog post.

 

What is the Helpful Content Update?

The Helpful Content Update is a Google search algorithm update that aims to improve the quality of the search results and reduce the volume of “low-quality content”.

Sounds simple.

But what is low-quality content?

According to Google, low-quality content is:

  • Unoriginal
  • Thin and lacking depth
  • Written to rank, rather than to help people

They want to reduce the number of times that a searcher finds a page in the search results, decides it’s unhelpful and returns to the search results again to find a better one.

In particular, they want to limit the ranking potential of websites that have a lot of unhelpful content, especially if the content on that website is deemed to be unrelated to the website’s core topicality.

In fact, the Helpful Content Update is going to be applied sitewide, according to a conversation algorithm expert Glenn Gabe had with Google’s Search Liason:

 

During our call, Google’s [Search Liaison] Danny Sullivan explained to me that the new ranking signal is a classifier.

If your site is deemed to have a lot of what Google considers “unhelpful content”, then the site will be classified that way (and that can negatively impact your rankings at a site-level).

 

If you have 100 blog posts on your website and 10 of them are extremely “unhelpful” then the other 90 pages may have increased difficulty ranking.

Google explains a lot more in its update and supporting documentation. We’ll dig much deeper into it in just a moment.

 

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Why Google released the Helpful Content Update

Google released the Helpful Content Update to increase customer satisfaction.

You want your customers to be satisfied so that they come back and use your services or eCommerce store again.

Google wants people to keep coming back to its search results again and again too.

To do so, the first result people click on has to be:

  1. The perfect answer to their query
  2. Detailed enough (without going overboard)
  3. Trustworthy
  4. Useful

Google has a long history of releasing algorithm updates aimed directly at devaluing low-quality content.

Panda, an algorithm update released in 2011, was an attack on “content farms”.

Content farms were websites which posted 100s or 1000s of pages (using mostly scraped or thin content) to rank for as many keyword queries as possible — the intent being to get people onto the site and show them ads and affiliate links.

Panda was a heavy-hitting algorithm update that affected 11.8% of search queries (at the time) and it significantly changed the way the SEO industry worked.

Websites had the option to either:

  1. Re-write all of their low-value content (or just remove it)
  2. Give up on the website entirely and start a new one.

Panda still exists as part of the algorithm today.

It used to be updated pretty regularly before then becoming part of the core algorithm and, presumably, updated during Broad Core Updates.

It is not a real-time algorithm running independently of the core (as was made clear by Gary Illyes, a Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google).

 

Screenshot of Gary Illyes explaining that the Panda algorithm update doesn't run in real time.

 

Panda cleaned up the search results. Websites adapted and the search results are better as a consequence. Unfortunately for Google, content farm owners found new ways to circumvent the system and low-quality content still makes it through to the search results.

The Helpful Content Update could be viewed as an expansion of Panda.

As Redditor /u/Viacheslav_Varenia jokingly put it: The son of Panda will come and kill many.

 

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Dissecting Google’s Announcement

The announcement post is pretty simple.

We continually update Search to make sure we’re helping you find high-quality content.

Next week, we’ll launch the “helpful content update” to tackle content that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines rather than to help or inform people

Great.

This ranking update will help make sure that unoriginal, low-quality content doesn’t rank highly in Search

Brilliant.

Sounds fantastic.

They even include a clear example of how the update should improve the quality of the results when a user searches for a new film:

For example, if you search for information about a new movie, you might have previously seen articles that aggregated reviews from other sites without adding perspectives beyond what’s available elsewhere.

This isn’t very helpful if you’re expecting to read something new.

With this update, you’ll see more results with unique, authentic information, so you’re more likely to read something you haven’t seen before.

 

Screenshot from Google's Helpful Content algorithm update announcement.

 

Now you might be thinking, could my use of multiple quotes from the post be seen as unoriginal because the content is coming from another website?

Simply, no. Because the sections before and after this one are my “added perspectives” about the update.

I’m not copying the text and publishing it without commentary. I’m not passing the original post through copywriting software that’ll re-jumble the text and use synonyms to replace words from the original text.

This post is a dissection and simplification of the original post so that it’s useful to an audience who might not be familiar with how the algorithm (or SEO in general) works.

It’s Already Tried and Tested (More-or-less)

At the end of the post, writer Danny Sullivan explains that the Helpful Content Update is tied to another update from the last twelve months, called the “Product Review Update“.

Like the Helpful Content Update, the Product Review Update focused on promoting originality and devaluing unoriginal, aggregated, and lightweight review pages.

Affiliate marketers make money by convincing people to click their links and visit the products they reviewed. But buying every review item is expensive, so some default to “borrowing” reviews from elsewhere.

It’s far simpler to fill up your Top Ten list if 50% of the copy in your review is “borrowed” from other review sites. Even if they’ve credited the original writer authentically, the reader is gets a low-quality reading experience.

“Hey, I just read the exact same viewpoint on three other websites. How am I supposed to really know what [the product] is like?”

To stop this happening, and promote greater review authenticity, Google released the Product Review Update and review websites got toasted, with some losing more than 50% of their total search traffic.

Seemingly, the Helpful Content Update is intended to replicate this for other topics too.

Decoding the details

Linked from the update is a post on Google’s Search Central blog. If using RSS readers was still a thing, I’d wholeheartedly recommend following the blog’s updates.

The update is where everything becomes clearer.

It focuses on two areas:

  1. Focus on people-first content
  2. Avoid creating content for search engines first

Each section has a bullet point list of things to consider when creating content for your website, with the red flag your-ranking-could-drop-like-a-stone warning that “Answering yes to some or all of the questions is a warning sign that you should reevaluate how you’re creating content across your site“.

Let’s break each bullet point down:

Focus on people-first content

This is the first section of two in the linked blog. It covers the kinds of questions you should be asking about your website and the content you publish on it.

 

Screenshot of the question, "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?".

 

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?

Are you writing about sports performance and you’re selling sportswear?

Are you writing about human resources and you’re selling performance management software?

Are you writing about workplace compliance and you’re selling risk management solutions?

Then you should be fine.

If people are in the awareness stage of the buyer funnel (see video below) and they’re looking for informational content about the thing that you sell, then you should be absolutely fine.

You can learn more about creating content for every stage in your buyer funnel in this video:

 

What Google is trying to avoid is businesses straying “out of their lane”.

Glenn Gabe put it best when he recommended that businesses should “stay in their lane“. Websites shouldn’t start posting content about subjects that aren’t directly related to their business offering and expertise.

If the subject doesn’t directly (or very closely) influence the learning journey a buyer may go through before committing to a product or service, then your website might not need to publish anything about it.

Helping people to learn more about your industry or vertical is a noble thing to do, but only when you can do so from a position of deep knowledge and expertise.

Helping people to learn more about your industry or vertical is a noble thing to do, but only when you can do so from a position of deep knowledge and expertise. Click To Tweet

Yes, you can write about indirect subjects, but keep in mind that there are two possible outcomes from doing so:

  1. Google won’t rank the content
  2. Google won’t rank the content AND your entire site will have a lower classification because of it

We’ll discuss website classifications shortly.

 

Screenshot of the question, "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)?".

 

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)?

As with Google’s Product Review Update, content writers must be able to write from a position of expertise and/or knowledge gained from first-hand experience.

In the case of the Product Review Update:

  • You shouldn’t review a product you haven’t used
  • You shouldn’t review a book you haven’t read
  • You should review a movie you haven’t seen

With the Helpful Content Update:

  • You shouldn’t write about a subject you aren’t qualified to write about
  • You shouldn’t write about a subject you aren’t directly experienced with
  • You shouldn’t write about a subject you aren’t deeply knowledgeable about

Right.

You may be asking yourself:

 

What if I’m not writing the content for my website?

I have the expertise and qualifications required to write about it. But, I don’t have the time to do it, so I outsource it instead.

 

Outsourcing content is completely fine when you find the right writer. The right writer who fits into that third category of “deeply knowledgeable”.

The best writers are those who get deeply passionate about what they’re writing about. They get hyper-fixated on the subject, read everything they can about it, and get involved with the subject as best as much as they can.

Outsourcing content is *completely fine* when you find the *right* writer. The best writers are those who get deeply passionate about what they’re writing about. Click To Tweet

I’m fortunate to work with loads of incredible writers who, on more than one occasion, have made clients speechless with the level of insight they have into their industry.

I’ve seen our writers attending their client’s industry conferences, mostly to learn, but sometimes to speak as well.

To quote Google:

 

Is this content written by an expert or enthusiast who demonstrably knows the topic well?

 

If your writer is a genuine enthusiast about the subject matter, then by default the content should be filled with knowledge and insights.

Google isn’t trying to shut down outsourced writing. It’s trying to shut down badly-written generic content that’s devoid of research and not remotely helpful to anyone.

It’s also trying to shut down automated content creation, which we’ll also come onto soon as well.

 

Screenshot of the question, "Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?".

 

Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?

Do you have a website to advertise your products or services?

Great.

Do you have a website to educate and inform people about something?

Also great.

Do you have a website with the sole purpose of earning advertising revenue from people?

Not so great.

Your website should be there to make the internet a better place, a useful place.

If your website’s focus is getting as many people as possible to your site so you can show ads and affiliate links to them, then (and this is just a guess) you’re probably in for a bad time.

If your website’s focus is getting as many people as possible to your site *so you can show ads and affiliate links to them*, then (and this is just a guess) *you’re probably in for a bad time*. Click To Tweet

If your website’s focus is getting as many people as possible to your site so that you can promote your loosely-related products or services, then you’re probably in for a bad time too.

Again, if you’re publishing content that’s directly related to what you do or what you sell, then you shouldn’t be concerned.

 

Screenshot of the question, "After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they've learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?".

 

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

Google is trying to avoid people doing repeat searches.

You’ll have had this experience yourself.

You search for something, you click the first result, and (annoyingly) it doesn’t even remotely answer your question, so you go back to the search results and either click another page or fine-tune your search.

This experience, called “pogoing“, is something Google has longed to avoid since it first made its search engine public.

After all, if someone can’t find the best result the first time then its search engine has failed.

Before Google, you’d load up Yahoo, open up the first ten results, and go through them all until you found what you were looking for.

Google’s results were better, so you’d maybe only need to open a few before you found your answer.

Google’s customer experience objective has, most likely, been to reduce this to zero.

You google something. The first result is the perfect answer. You’re happy. You continue to use Google because you trust it.

If your content isn’t answering the search query effectively then Google isn’t going to rank it at the top (no matter how well prepared you might be).

 

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Screenshot of the question, "Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they've had a satisfying experience?".

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

Again, an anti-pogoing evaluation.

Is your content so good that people feel smarter as a result?

Congrats, you’ve won the internet for today.

The better your content is at helping people to know more about a subject, the more likely Google will choose to rank your content at the top of its search results.

By the way, this doesn’t just relate to educational and informational content.

All content, including entertainment content, needs to be equally good at offering a satisfying experience.

Celebrity news content, whilst produced for fast consumption, doesn’t have to be a few short sentences about the person in question. Extend it to be useful to the reader. Could they learn something new about them?

But it shouldn’t feel like padding out either.

In another life, I used to write travel content. Most of the travel content I was competing against would be padded out with useless historical facts and trivia that would be completely useless to anyone looking for:

  • The best times of year to visit
  • The best areas in a city to stay in
  • The best clothes to wear in each season
  • and so on.

Instead, the copy would be padded out with Wikipedia factoids that’d only be useful in a pub quiz.

Insightful background information can be great. Padding out, not so much.

Take a knife to anything in your content that the reader would be no worse off without knowing.

 

Screenshot of the question, "Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?".

 

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

There’s a lot covered in the guidance, so I highly recommend reading them, but I’ll do my best to summarise them:

  1. Content should be original
  2. Content should be well researched
  3. Content should reference supporting material
  4. Content should be insightful and not just an observation
  5. Content should feel like a comprehensive answer to a query
  6. Content should be expert-led, authoritative, and trustworthy (see: What is E-A-T?)
  7. Content should be well presented and free of grammatical/spelling errors
  8. Content should be embellished with appropriate multimedia content
  9. Content should be so good people want to bookmark or share it
  10. Content should be accessible across any device

There’s a lot more in those two linked guides, so please read them both immediately after finishing this post:

  1. What site owners should know about Google’s core updates
  2. Write high-quality product reviews

One good theoretical test for content is: would you feel comfortable getting it signed off by your CEO when showing it to them on a smartphone?

If not, return to your draft and start again.

This quote from Matt Cutts, a former Head of Web Spam for Google, summarised this perfectly 10 years ago when asked how to recover from the Panda update:

 

Take a fresh look and basically ask yourself, ‘How compelling is my site?’ We’re looking for high quality. We’re looking for something where you land on it, you’re really happy, the sort of thing where you wanna tell your friends about it and come back to it, bookmark it. It’s just incredibly useful.

 

Now onto the next section…

 

Avoid creating content for search engines first

This is the second of the two sections. This covers the questions you should be asking about the content you produce and who you’re producing it for.

 

Screenshot of the question, "Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?".

 

Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?

This one is simple.

Are you:

1. Writing content for a problem your target audience is experiencing (and you can help with)?

Or are you:

2. Writing content for a search query just because it has 1,000s of searches every month?

If it’s the former, great. You’re creating content for the right reasons.

If it’s the latter, take caution.

It’s a very noble thing to be able to help people on the internet and make the internet a deeper resource of knowledge and information — but, if you’re writing it without the expertise required to do so knowledgeably, then you’re not writing to help people, you’re writing to earn search traffic.

It’s a very noble thing to make the internet a deeper resource of knowledge and information — but, if you're doing it just to earn search traffic, don't. Click To Tweet

Next one.

 

Screenshot of the question, "Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?".

 

Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?

Another simple one.

If you write about finance, don’t write about freehold versus leasehold property. Leave that to an estate agent or mortgage advisor’s website.

If you write about legal affairs, don’t write about performance management techniques. Leave that to a dedicated HR company (unless it’s a legal HR issue, that’s different).

If you’re reporting the local news, you’ve no place doing technology reviews. Leave that to technology review websites (there are plenty).

If about.com were still around today, it’d be a perfect example of a website writing about lots of subjects, not many of them from a position of authority.

Instead, it rebranded and split into a number of verticals of different subject-specific brands, including:

Consequently, readers of each site are now getting perfectly related cross-promotions of content from around the same site. And their ranking performance is pretty darn good too.

 

Screenshot of verywellhealth.com's organic visibility on Semrush.com.

Screenshot from Semrush (which you can try for free using our affiliate partner link)

If you’re considering expanding the topics you cover on your website, ask yourself whether those topics are must-read subjects for your audience.

 

Screenshot of the question, "Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?".

 

Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?

This is the question that has a lot of people worried.

There are lots of marketing automation tools available to content creators, but AI copywriting software is probably the one that has been inserted into most content creation processes over the last five years.

Interest in AI copywriting software is at an all-time high — and for good reason.

Used well, it can significantly help with workloads for time-pressed content creators and digital marketing managers. It can really help when you’ve dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces of copy to write.

What Google is fearful of is an abuse of copywriting software.

We believe they’re less fearful of is automated copywriting software as a content writing aid.

Let’s look at the question again:

 

Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?

 

What Google is looking to curb is the excessive use of AI copywriting tools to create hundreds and hundreds of pages of content across dozens of different topics.

What Google is looking to curb is the *excessive use* of AI copywriting tools to create *hundreds and hundreds of pages* of content across dozens of different topics. Click To Tweet

There are websites, especially in the affiliate industry, that are filled with thousands of pages of automatically generated content that offer no additional value to what’s already available in the search results.

It fails to match those earlier simple criteria of being:

  • Original*
  • Well-researched
  • Insightful
  • Expert-led
  • Authoritative
  • Trustworthy

*Arguably, most AI-generated copy is “original” in the sense that it’s almost always new paragraphs that pass 99.9% of all plagiarism checks. It’s just not “original” in the sense that someone created it from scratch (because it’s mostly regurgitating previously-published content).

In our opinion, copywriting software can be incredibly helpful for

  • Improving workflows
  • Inspiring content creation (it can be fantastic for brainstorming, for example)
  • Helping to build a content outline

It should not, however, be used to fully automate the entire content creation process and remove the writer entirely.

Google wants to stop mischievous people from taking other people’s content, passing it through automation software (to reorder words, replace them with synonyms, etc), and publishing it as “original content”.

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What about automatically translated content?

Google provides translation software businesses can use to automatically translate and localise their content.

This is great for when you have a website that you’ve not yet been able to create bespoke localised content in the native language of the reader. But, it’s intended as a stop-gap.

What Google wants people to do is lean on the software at first, but create localised content at the first opportunity.

If you’re using Google’s translation software to create hundreds and hundreds of pages in a dozen languages and never replacing it with bespoke copy, Google is bound to devalue it.

Google is probably quite proud of how strong its translation software is today.

But what they really want is a near-perfect customer experience for people using Google search.

They don’t want people reading badly translated content. They want people to read incredible content in their native language that’s deeply satisfying.

Whilst you may need to depend on automated translation software, for now, we’d highly recommend replacing it with new content as soon as possible.

 

Screenshot of the question, "Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?".

 

Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?

Oh, the irony.

This post is kind of a summary of what Google has addressed, but my breakdown of each bullet point in real terms — and the upcoming What to do about the Helpful Content Update section — are where I’m adding value.

This may be — and this is an educated guess based on the information provided by Google — a small attempt at curbing the Skyscraper Technique (kinda).

The Skyscraper Technique takes all the content from the top ten ranking pages from the search results, combines them, and publishes it as a “definitive” piece.

It’s actually a process that we love here at Exposure Ninjawhen it’s done right.

The problem, in Google’s eyes, is that the reader has nothing to gain from that content unless it’s a substantial improvement on what’s already available.

What users of the technique sometimes miss out on is the expertise and real-life experience required to add new insight to the subject matter.

To reference an earlier bullet point:

  • Content should be insightful and not just an observation

When we use the process here at Exposure Ninja, we utilise all the expertise, experience, and thought-leadership of our writers and clients; whereas, that’s not always the case with skyscraper-ed content (especially when only done to satisfy robots, not people).

This also sounds like a replication of the recommendations from the Product Review Update:

  • Evaluate the product from a user’s perspective.
  • Demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about the products reviewed – show you are an expert.
  • Provide evidence such as visuals, audio, or other links of your own experience with the product, to support your expertise and reinforce the authenticity of your review

If you can’t add your own perspective or that of your business, then you may wish to reconsider creating content for the search queries you’ve identified.

 

Screenshot of the question, "Are you writing about things simply because they seem trending and not because you'd write about them otherwise for your existing audience?".

 

Are you writing about things simply because they [seem trending] and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?

Hoping on a trend can be great for traffic and increasing brand awareness. But only if it relates to problems or queries your target audience has.

Trend hopping can be great for thought leadership too.

Imagine you work for a family legal firm.

You see that there’s a big news story about a legal fight between a celebrity couple.

You decide to write a blog post about the legal implications for all parties involved, with some good recommendations on the legal options for any reader who might be considering similar legal action with their partner.

This is a perfectly legitimate thing to post about on your website.

You’re writing about an area you have deep expertise in. You have given the same legal advice hundreds of times before and you have the qualifications and time in the courtroom required to speak from a position of authority.

What Google is opposed to is websites publishing content about trending topics solely to exploit the traffic potential, rather than to offer advice or deeper insight.

Jumping on trends to offer a professional perspective is totally fine.

Jumping on trends because “it’s easy traffic” isn’t.

 

Screenshot of the question, "Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?".

 

Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?

Google is again addressing pogoing.

It wants all the content it ranks to perfectly answer the search query a person has used.

It wants the first page opened to be the only page opened, more or less.

If the content is thin, too short (or too long), or not written from a position of expertise, then the reader is bound to bounce.

But remember, no two users are the same.

One reader might like a short, concise piece of content to read through. They just want the facts. They’ll then decide if they want to read further.

Others might prefer a long-form version with so much depth and detail that they don’t need to read any other pages.

You must know your audience and their most common problems perfectly to know how much detail you need to go into.

Keyword intent is also a large element of whether a piece of content will be satisfactory or not.

 

Screenshot of the question, "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).".

 

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).

For years SEOs recommended that you needed a minimum of 500 words for your content.

That then increased to a minimum of 1,000 words.

Studies that looked at the top-ranking pages found that content with the highest word counts had the higher rankings. So, inevitably, the recommendation was to increase the “minimum word count” again to 2,000 words.

 

Backlinko graph showing the average word count per ranking position in Google's search results.

Graph from Backlinko

Looking at the data, doesn’t it seem like the word count only increases after SEOs recommend a new minimum?

Google doesn’t have such a recommendation.

They don’t set a “minimum word count”.

Google has repeatedly said that content should be as long as needed to answer the query.

John Mueller, a Webmaster Trends Analyst for Google, has long said that word counts aren’t a ranking factor.

During a 2021 SEO office hours session, John summarised how word count should be viewed perfectly:

From our point of view, the number of words on a page is not a quality factor, not a ranking factor.

So just blindly adding more and more text to a page doesn’t make it better.”

 

It’s a bit like if you want to present something to a client who’s walking in, you can give them a one or two page brochure or you can give them a giant book of information.

And in some cases people will want a book with a lot of information. And in other cases people want something short and sweet.

And that’s similar to search.

If you have the information that you need for indexing for …kind of making it so that users and Googlebot understands what this page us about, what you’re trying to achieve with it uh… in a short version then fine, keep a short version; you don’t need to make it longer.

Just blindly adding text to a page doesn’t make it better.

Thanks to Roger Montti of Search Engine Journal for the transcript.

 

 

If the answer should be 100 words long, then the content should be 100 words long.

It’s entirely possible that Feature Snippets were created because SEOs had fixated on high word counts in order to rank at the top of Google and, as a consequence, search users were finding it hard to locate the answer they were looking for in the 2,000-word text.

It’s likely that the scroll-to-text fragment was created to help with this very same problem too.

If a search query you’ve identified can be answered shortly and concisely, write a short, concise piece.

If the search query is deeply complex, your content should be in-depth as well.

If a search query you’ve identified can be answered shortly and concisely, write a short, concise piece. If the search query is deeply complex, your content should be in-depth as well. Click To Tweet

 

Screenshot of the question, "Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you'd get search traffic?".

 

Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?

Don’t write about something just because the search traffic looks good.

To repeat Glenn’s maxim: Stay in your lane.

 

 

Don’t write about subjects you don’t have the expertise, qualifications, experience, knowledge, or deep-rooted topic enthusiasm to do so.

 

Screenshot of the question, "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?".

 

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?

The problem that Google is trying to eradicate here is highly common with newspaper and magazine websites.

Imagine that a new Star Wars film is announced. Disney only announces the title and provides very little detail about the plot or possible cast.

Some entertainment sites will then release a padded-out article with a title along the lines of:

Star Wars: Darth Jar Jar – Release Date CONFIRMED. Actor coming back(?!)

Of course, it’s a fabrication. They don’t know the release date. They have no idea who’s going to be cast in the film. It’s all clickbait.

When you open the article, all you’re greeted with is a very thinly written explanation about:

  • The announcement
  • What Star Wars is
  • When it was bought by Disney
  • Which Star Wars films and TV series have been released lately
  • How much various Star Wars releases have grossed internationally
  • What a few of the actors from the prequel trilogy look like now (you’ll never guess what Jake Lloyd looks like today!)

Overall, there’s very little substance. Just some basic clickbait to get people looking at ads and, maybe, looking at other clickbait content on their website too.

Whilst this question is framed around the entertainment industry, it applies to other industries too.

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How the Helpful Content Update works

Google has given us recommendations and checks to follow for our content.

The question now is: How does the Helpful Content Update work?

Here’s what we know so far:

It’s a sitewide clarification

Glenn Gabe was fortunate enough to speak with Google’s Search Liason (Danny Sullivan) directly.

During their call, Danny explained that:

the new ranking signal is a classifier.

If your site is deemed to have a lot of what Google considers “unhelpful content”, then the site will be classified that way (and that can negatively impact your rankings at a site-level).

This means that if some of your content is low-quality, your entire website will be classified as a source of unhelpful content.

The Google Search Central blog confirms it too:

This update introduces a new site-wide signal that we consider among many other signals for ranking web pages.

In simple terms: your low-quality content limits the ranking potential of your high-quality content.

This is incredibly significant.

Google’s algorithm is split between page-level and domain-level ranking considerations.

An entire website may not perform well in the rankings, but several pages from it may rank at the top of Google if they’re deemed to be the best answer available.

After the Helpful Content Update, some high-quality content may struggle to rank because the domain has been classified as a source of low-quality content.

After the Helpful Content Update, *some high-quality content may struggle to rank* because the domain has been classified as a source of low-quality content. Click To Tweet

We can safely presume that Google will not make the classification system public.

They used to publicly share a PageRank scoring system, but that just led SEOs to try and game the system, so they retired it.

Any low-value content you have on your website needs to be dealt with, which we’ll get onto in the next section.

It’s always running

This new part of the core algorithm, and the classification it applies, is set to continuously run:

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.

So it looks like the signal will quickly catch low-value content on new and old websites.

However, whilst it may be quick to catch low-value content, it doesn’t sound like losing the qualification (or regaining lost ranking positions) will be as fast.

The recovery time for affected websites won’t be fast

As [the new signal/algorithm] determines that the unhelpful content has not returned in the long-term, the classification will no longer apply.

This sounds quite similar to what websites affected by Broad Core Updates are told; they may need to wait until the next board core update happens before they see a reversal in their fortunes.

Affected websites may choose to remove all their low-value content overnight and hope for the best. It’s entirely possible that their previously high-ranking high-quality content will return to the top of the search results, but the wording in the blog post doesn’t suggest that.

The wording suggests that the new sitewide classification will take time to shake off, much like with bad company PR.

If your website has earned a bad reputation for false claims and untrustworthy fabricated stories, turning that around takes more than a brand name change and website redesign. The entire editorial process has to change and writers need to be replaced (or retrained).

Google may have considered this within its classification. That “bad seeds” don’t change overnight. That change comes over the long-term and, if badly affected websites want to see their rankings return, a change in ethos may be necessary.

The trouble with that analysis is that many affected websites may be falsely flagged.

As with all machine-learning algorithms, there are going to be mistakes, and it’s going to take Google a while to train the machine to perfection, so some websites are going to get needlessly hurt in the process.

We’ve seen it with the Medic Update and many broad core updates since then.

So what should website owners and managers do to avoid being classified as a source of low-value content?

Let’s dive into it.

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What to do about the Helpful Content Update

If your website has been affected by the Helpful Content Update or you’re looking to avoid any future “low-quality content” classification, then you need to follow the following steps:

  1. Review your content creation process
  2. Review how automation is used within your content
  3. Review who’s creating your content
  4. Review where your content is coming from
  5. Review who’s peer reviewing your content (if anyone)
  6. Review how your content appears on the search results pages

Before you do so, the first thing you’ll need to check is why you create the content you do.

Why you’re creating the content you do

Who does your content serve?

You have an audience. They’ll have queries and questions during the awareness, interest, desire, and action stages of the buyer funnel.

Does the content you create serve those people and the questions or problems they may have?

If so, keep creating.

Does your content relate to your business? Or is it only loosely related?

If it’s related, create it.

Would your sales funnel break without the content?

If so, then your business depends on you creating it.

Would the person’s problem or query remain unsolved without it?

If so, not creating it would be an injustice to that person, so create it.

Are you filling a content gap you’ve spotted in the search results?

If so, fill it.

Or are you only replicating what’s already ranking (and not improving on it) just because the average monthly search volume looks decent?

If so, don’t create it.

Once you’ve reviewed those questions it’s time to review your content creation process.

Review your content creation process

Compare your content creation process against the questions Google is asking in its guidelines:

  1. Is your content original?
  2. Is your content well researched?
  3. Does your content reference supporting material? (i.e. are you linking to your research?)
  4. Is your content insightful (and not just an observation)?
  5. Does your content feel like a comprehensive answer?
  6. Is your content expert-led, authoritative, and trustworthy?
  7. Is your content well presented and free of grammatical/spelling errors?
  8. Is your content embellished with appropriate multimedia?
  9. Is your content so good that people would want to re-read or share it?
  10. Is your content easily accessible across any device?

Ask yourself the above questions when you’re creating content.

Search Quality Raters Guidelines

These are the types of checks that Google is asking external Search Quality Raters to complete.

Google uses a third-party team to assess the quality of the search results as it improves the algorithm. As it gets better and determines what is (or isn’t) high-quality content, the Search Quality Raters check whether the search results are better as a consequence.

They have a 167-page guidebook which takes them through how to do those checks.

The guidelines have become an SEO bible since it was first uncovered and intensely analysed following the Medic Update in 2018.

In our 2018 analysis, we recommended that every website owner and manager should read them. We stand by that recommendation today too.

If you have multiple people involved in your content creation process, make sure they’re double-checking these questions too.

Enable each person in the process to add their insights, their expertise, and their enthusiasm for the topic at hand.

It also adds an element of peer review.

If you’re using a vendor for your content, make sure they’re following these guidelines within their processes too.

Your vendor or agency should only be providing you with original, well-researched, in-depth content. Good quality content may come at a higher cost, but the cost of not using high-quality and trustworthy content creators could be a poor classification for your website.

Review how automation is used within your content

Automation is great when it’s used correctly.

If you’re using excessive marketing automation software to create entire pieces of content, then be warned that this may be detrimental to your website’s ranking performance.

If you’re typing a few words into an AI-based copywriting tool and then publishing the results (without reviewing them), then it’s likely that the content is going to be penalised.

Can we say so with certainty? No.

Do we think the chance of fully-automated content being heavily penalised is greater than 90%? Yes, we do.

As stated earlier in this post, we think that copywriting tools can be incredibly useful for helping to craft the outline of how a final piece of content should look — and incredibly useful for breaking writer’s block too — however, it’s not to be used as the singular “creator” within the content creation process.

Review who’s creating your content

Your content creators need to be either:

  1. Experts in your field
  2. Qualified to write about your field
  3. Deeply knowledgeable and enthusiastic about your field

If your content writers aren’t able to fit into one of the first two categories or aren’t able to rapidly expand their knowledge to fit the third one, then you have to consider replacing that content creator.

You need to audit how they create content.

How do they research it?

Where does their expertise come from?

Employing content creators, internally or externally through a vendor, is absolutely acceptable within the guidelines Google has set out in this update and for ranking in general.

Employing content creators, internally or externally through a vendor, is *absolutely acceptable* within the guidelines Google has set out in this update and for ranking in general. Click To Tweet

What they’re trying to avoid is deceitful content creation.

What also they’re trying to avoid is cheaply made, low-quality content.

One good rule of thumb to follow, as with any purchase, is that the cheaper your content, the lower quality it probably is.

Review where your content is coming from

Is your content automated?

Is a copywriting tool turning the copy from the first 100 pages of Google into a “new” piece of content for you?

Or is your content coming from a content mill where writers are being paid to turn content around quickly and cheaply, with very little attention paid to quality?

This is something you’ll need to check.

Depending on where you source your content, a large percentage of it may be lifted from other websites.

At Exposure Ninja, we use plagiarism detection to make sure our content is bespoke and entirely original. But not every website performs that check.

It’s entirely possible that many businesses are publishing content that hasn’t been checked through or peer-reviewed. Running a website is a time-consuming thing. Marketing is incredibly time-consuming. So, sometimes, some checks get bypassed to save time.

No website can afford to skip those checks anymore.

You need to know who is writing your content and you need to do plagiarism checks too. We use several but highly recommend Grammarly’s Plagiarism Checker.

Review who’s peer reviewing your content (if anyone)

Another easily skipped check.

After the Medic Update and the evolution of E-A-T, peer reviewing became more of a focus for many businesses.

Being able to verify that content is authentic and can be trusted as an authoritative source of information not only became a requirement for Your Money, Your Life search queries but for all searches.

One great example of easy-to-validate peer reviewing is on the Healthline website.

 

Screenshot of the an article from the Heathline website.

 

Healthline highlights its peer review team and links to its medical team page so that each peer can be verified.

Depending on your industry, you may not need to link to all the peers within your business (or industry) that have validated your content. But, you can certainly have people review it to make sure that it’s:

  1. Correct
  2. Authentic
  3. Well-researched
  4. Trustworthy

Review how your content appears on the search results pages

Part of this update is focused on making sure that the content isn’t clickbait.

The content of the page has to match the title and description that appears in the search results.

If your title promises something then the body of the content on the page has to match it.

When page titles and meta descriptions are written for your content, it’s entirely right and fair to try and make them as clickable as possible. Just refrain from baiting people with titles that don’t match your content.

Start by updating the title and description guidelines within your content creation process, then double-check your existing content to make sure your metadata passes the same checks.

What to do if your ranking drops after the Helpful Content Update

The painful thing about ranking drops is that, sometimes, perfectly innocent websites that follow the book all the time can get caught in the crossfire between Google and duplicitous website owners.

For some businesses, ranking drops can result in their shutting down entirely because they’re so dependent on Google’s organic search traffic.

Some businesses might be able to shift their marketing budget to paid search ads whilst they’re waiting for their rankings to return, but there’s no guarantee that they will.

It’s a long waiting game, but that might be exactly what’s required.

Here’s what you need to do if your ranking drops.

Some people are going to be burned unfairly

The signal is also weighted; sites with lots of unhelpful content may notice a stronger effect“, says Google’s guidance.

From that, you’d expect that only the worst offenders are going to be the hardest hit, but the decision on whether a website’s content is low-value or not is being made by a machine, not a human.

Machines, however (artificially) intelligent, are not infallible.

They’re going to make mistakes and that’s going to come at the cost of a lot of website rankings and organic traffic.

It is not a manual action nor a spam action“. I.e. nobody is pressing a “remove this website from the search results” button.

Option 1 — Be patient

Our top recommendation is to be patient.

It’s hard to be patient when your organic traffic drops.

But, time and time again we’ve seen website rankings drop significantly, only to rebound only a few weeks later.

Most Google algorithm updates take up to two weeks to finish. During that time, we often see recoveries.

Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t see recoveries until the next big update.

Websites that lose ranking during Broad Core Updates typically don’t see a rebound until the next update, which tends to happen quarterly.

Based on Google’s declaration that “Over the coming months, we will also continue refining how the classifier detects unhelpful content and launch further efforts to better reward people-first content.” we can predict that there will be ranking reversals. We just can’t predict when.

In the meantime, you can work on the following:

  • Finding your deranked content and improving it
  • Finding your low-value content and improving it
  • Finding your deranked/low-value content and removing it

 

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Option 2 — Find your deranked content and improve it

This should be pretty easy for you to find.

Either your rank tracking software will tell you, or Google Search Console will.

Regardless of the tool you use to check your deranked URLs, gather them all into a simple spreadsheet.

You’ll then need columns for each check covered earlier in this post:

  1. Is your content original?
  2. Is your content well researched?
  3. Does your content reference supporting material? (i.e. are you linking to your research?)
  4. Is your content insightful (and not just an observation)?
  5. Does your content feel like a comprehensive answer?
  6. Is your content expert-led, authoritative, and trustworthy?
  7. Is your content well presented and free of grammatical/spelling errors?
  8. Is your content embellished with appropriate multimedia?
  9. Is your content so good that people would want to re-read or share it?
  10. Is your content easily accessible across any device?

Our expectation is that URLs that lost ranking won’t return positives for all ten checks.

If there’s a negative check, work to turn it positive.

Improve your content so it’s original, well-researched, references supporting material, and so on.

Make sure it’s peer-reviewed, free of ambiguity, and — most importantly of all — matches the search intent of the person looking for it.

Check the page title. Check the meta description.

The last mammoth challenge in restoring lost ranking is improving the relationships between content, on and offsite.

  • Is the other onsite content that’s linked to the page also high-quality?
  • Is the offsite content linked to the page high-quality too?

SEO isn’t just a localised practice. It’s about how well a website interconnects as part of the internet as a whole.

If trustworthy high-quality websites are linked to yours, that tells Google that your content is high-quality too.

If untrustworthy low-quality websites are linked to yours, that tells Google a lot too.

When the link spam and link manipulation algorithm update, Penguin, was launched in 2012 agencies immediately went to work selling link removal and Penguin recovery services. They’d search for a website’s most harmful backlinks and try to have them removed.

It’s not entirely out of the question that SEOs will start reaching out to newly classified “low-value” domains that link to them and ask for those links to be removed.

That might be an option worth considering, but only when all deranked onsite content has been improved.

It’s not entirely out of the question that SEOs will start reaching out to newly classified “low-value” domains that link to them and ask for those links to be removed. Click To Tweet

Option 3 — Find your low-value content and improve it

If your website hasn’t (yet) been affected by the Helpful Content Update, but you’re concerned that it may happen, your best option is to find your low-value content and improve it now.

To do so you’ll need three things:

  • Your analytics software
  • Your eyes
  • Plagiarism software

Start by checking your analytics software. Check which pages have a low viewing time. If people are only staying for a few seconds or less than a minute it means that either:

  1. You’ve answered their query perfectly, so they’ve left
  2. Your content isn’t satisfactory enough, so they’ve pogoed back to the search results to try another page

This is where your eyes come into it.

You’ll need to manually check all of your content.

Downloading all your visited pages from your analytics software and sorting them from lowest session duration to highest will help you to prioritise them.

Next, you’ll need to visually check them all, and as best possible, check them against the search queries they’re ranking for (using Search Console) and their intent.

You’ll then need to check all of the same pages through your plagiarism checker of choice.

It won’t be a quick solution.

But, with the update’s classification being sitewide, it’s a necessary one.

When improving your content, don’t forget to follow the same checks covered so far and make sure it’s all peer-reviewed too.

Option 4 — Or find your deranked/low-value content and remove it

This option should only really be used as a last resort.

You can choose to completely delete the problematic content or noindex it.

Deleting the content, whilst painful, might be a good route, but improving (or replacing it) would be a much better option.

If you have internal links and backlinks to that content then you’ll lose the benefit of them by deleting that content. Replacing it keeps that link equity (i.e. link juice) alive and working in your favour.

Noindexing is the worst of the two options.

By noindexing the content you’re telling Google that it’s not good enough for search users to read, but good enough for people to discover via internal and external links.

Either the content is helpful, or it’s not, and John Mueller agrees:

If the content is helpful, make it public.

If it’s not, make it helpful.

Only if you really, really have to keep unhelpful content should you choose to noindex it.

And only if you really, really must do should you choose to delete it.

Option 5 — All of the above

Well, almost all of the above.

If you have content that would be better off deleted, delete it and ensure it returns a 404 status code.

If you have content that’s better off noindexed, like some filtered navigation pages, by all means, noindex it.

But the best option of all is a combination of them all.

Improve your deranked content (if you have any).

Improve your lowest value content (if you have any).

Review your content and determine whether it passes all the checks with flying colours.

If not, it’s time to get revising.

 

 

Looking long-term

Let’s wait and see

Whilst we can analyse the information Google has given us about the Helpful Content Update, we can only speculate based on what we’ve seen before.

With over ten years of experience in the SEO industry, our agency has been through Penguin, Panda, the Medic update, and enough Broad Core updates that we can make a well-educated and authoritative guess about what will happen.

The update may just create a ripple, a murmur.

But that ripple could turn into a tsunami of business-changing ranking decreases.

The only thing we can do now, whilst the algorithm update is still rolling out to all of Google’s data centres, is to wait and see.

Once we know more, we can assess more and add further depth to our recommendations above.

Fortunately for us (and our clients), we’ve long followed a content creation process that satisfies all the requirements of this update and all those before it.

Watch for fine-tuning and updates

With the update being part of the core algorithm, it’s entirely possible that a significant update to how the Helpful Content Update works may only come during (mostly) quarterly Broad Core updates.

Alternatively, the Helpful Content Update will update between broad core updates, as the Product Reviews Update has done since it was first released in April 2021.

Or, it will update continually. Google doesn’t announce all the fine-tuning it does. It’s also possible that the Helpful Content Update won’t go through a significant core-changing adjustment for years.

As things stand, there’s really no way to know.

 

Screenshot of Google's algorithm update history table.

 

Stay updated on all future algorithm updates

There are several ways to follow the results of the Helpful Content Update algorithm release.

There will be a lot of social commentary about it, including on our social media channels (LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and MySpace).

The best accounts to follow on Twitter that’ll provide the best updates and analysis are:

John Mueller has also created a feedback form and feedback thread on Google’s Search Console community forum too.

You can stay up-to-date with the best SEO strategies via our YouTube channel.

And if you sign-up to our mailing list below, we’ll keep you updated on all our analysis as and when we have it.

 

 

The summary (for those who skimmed)

If you’ve skimmed to this point (who can blame you, there are 9,473 words prior to this section), then this is everything you need to know:

  • Google released a new algorithm update on August 25th 2022.
  • It’s called the “Helpful Content Update“.
  • The update will be part of the core algorithm.
  • The update aims to remove low-quality content from the search results.
  • There will be a new classification for websites that have low-quality content.
  • Google hasn’t announced what that range of that classification is.
  • The classification is sitewide so even a small amount of low-quality content on a site can affect the ranking potential of all other pages.
  • The update runs continuously, so it’ll pick up low-quality content as it appears and update a website’s classification accordingly.
  • How often the update will be improved has not been disclosed.
  • Impacted websites probably won’t see a fast recovery.

If you’re concerned about whether your content creation process passes Google’s Helpful Content guidelines, you’ll need to pass the following checks:

  • Is your content original?
  • Is your content well researched?
  • Does your content reference supporting material? (i.e. are you linking to your research?)
  • Is your content insightful (and not just an observation)?
  • Does your content feel like a comprehensive answer?
  • Is your content expert-led, authoritative, and trustworthy?
  • Is your content well presented and free of grammatical/spelling errors?
  • Is your content embellished with appropriate multimedia?
  • Is your content so good that people would want to re-read or share it?
  • Is your content easily accessible across any device?

And if your website has been affected by the rollout of the Helpful Content Update, you’ll need to consider doing one of the following to reverse the ranking drop:

  • Find your deranked content and improve it
  • Find your low-value content and improve it
  • Find your deranked/low-value content and remove it

We’ll update this post when we have more analysis to share.

In the meantime, we highly recommend reading through the following articles and guides:

If you’ve been significantly impacted by the Helpful Content Update and you’re looking for help formulating a recovery plan, please submit your website for a free website and marketing review and we’ll see how we can help.

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About the Author
Dale Davies
Dale Davies is the Head of Marketing for Exposure Ninja. Dale's job is to promote our brilliant team and earn leads, leads, leads. After spending...

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