The SEO Impact of Google’s “Helpful Content Update”

Google has recently announced a brand new algorithm update dubbed the “Helpful Content Update”.

Like all of Google’s algo updates, this one is also designed to improve the quality of their search results.

This time round, their focus is on “people-first content”.

What is Google's "Helpful Content Update"?

First things first, let’s get into what this updates means and how it works.

The “Helpful Content Update” began rolling out on August 25, 2022.

It is a site-wide algorithm update that is essentially a crackdown on content created purely for search engines, with no real value for users.

Note the site-wide application.

This means that if Google determines a significant portion of your website’s content is considered “search engine-first”, it can lower the rankings of all the content on your site, including high-quality pages.

Along with this update came an announcement named “more content by people, for people in search”

This update is fairly self explanatory, but it gives you some more context into what Google is looking for.

The SEO Implications

As has always been the goal, Google wants people to build high quality sites.

With this in mind, I’d argue the recent helpful content update does not present any new ideas, but rather enforces Google’s long-term vision with the power of 2022 search engine technology.

All the way back in 2011, Google gave us advice on how to create high quality sites for users.

This advice still stands strong today.

The general premise here is the same as it’s always been in my opinion: Focus on creating content that is helpful for users.

How do you do that?

By intent matching against keywords and keeping Google’s quality raters in mind when briefing & producing content. Those being:

  • E-A-T
  • Meaning
  • Relevance
  • Quality
  • Usability
  • Context

To better explain the SEO implications, here are what I see as some notable call outs from Google’s update.

maintain topical focus and match search intent

“Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?”

Google is talking to relevancy here.

Relevancy is most easily achieved through keyword targeting.

The most basic signal that information is relevant is when a webpage contains the same keywords as your search query.

However, and more importantly, relevance is also about showcasing topical knowledge and serving content in the right medium.

This is what Google is trying to push. It’s easy to add keywords to a title, but it’s hard create great content that covers a topic.

Some questions to ask yourself:

Does my website content convey subject matter expertise?

If your website is in the automotive niche, does your website have content about different models, engines, parts, accessories, technology, safety, performance, etc…?

Does my website content stay within the bounds of topical relevance?

Google wants websites to maintain focus. Trying to target too many topics on one website will dilute your relevancy and ranking value.

Does my content match search query intent in format, length and even medium?

Matching user intent and providing sufficient answers to a search query is everything.

Google wants to serve people good information in the most meaningful and accessible way possible. This means that:

  • A search for shampoo is likely to return product results
  • A search for cooking is likely to return recipes
  • A search for a song is likely to return a video
  • A search for “best ….” is likely to return a listicle

Understanding and then answering intent with the right content on your website is also a key component in maintaining topical focus.

Review the performance of your website conent

Now is a better time than ever to begin reviewing site-wide content performance.

In their update, Google also stated:

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

I bring this up because Google’s core updates are focused on things like:

  • Content that serves the genuine interests of visitors – Intent matching
  • Content that is original and insightful
  • Content that provides a substantial description of the topic – Intent matching
  • Content that has stylistic or load issues
  • Content that is dead weight = no clicks, no sessions, no ranks

As the Helpful Content Update is a site-wide content update, it’s important for SEO’s to take stock of all the content on a website.

The reason for this is that there may be unhelpful content weighing down your performance anyway due to crawl bloat, query degradation, a lack of freshness and keyword overlap.

However, with this new update, unhelpful content can now impede the performance of great content on your website.

Google directly 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.”

Consider this a nudge from Google themselves to start cleaning up the unhelpful pages on your website.

To identify unhelp pages, SEO’s should review:

  • Click & impression volume over the past 16 months (max GSC date range)
  • Session and user volume over the past 16 months to match GSC dates
  • Keyword ranks on all pages
  • Backlinks to all pages

Use these metrics to determine what content on your site is actually providing organic value.

The outcome of this exercise allows you to identify:

  • Deadweight – no clicks, traffic, ranks etc. It’s adding no value
  • Topical overlap – old blog posts often contribute to this. Over the years websites end up with multiple posts on more or less the same thing
  • Opportunities to consolidate – combine your topical overlap into an updated piece!
  • Opportunities to update – is a successful post years old? Update it
  • Content gaps – Identify posts and pages that are not ranking, or even areas you need something brand new on

All this leads to another questions though: How much should you be posting?

Content frequency

Most SEO’s are familiar with the notion of quality over quantity.

It’s also clear by the update’s wording that Google will be taking aim at websites that publish masses of content with a broad topical focus.

Obviously there is nuance here. For example, it makes sense that a news publisher would have a high content frequency and a broad topic range.

Content frequency is best assessed case by case for every business.

If you can post helpful things daily, great.

If you can only post one helpful thing a month, great.

Just make sure whatever you’re publishing is:

  • Properly keyword researched
  • Created in the right format, length and medium
  • Adds value to the topical relevance of your entire website

A note on AI content

AI content is here and it’s not going anywhere.

In fact, current AI technology produces content that passes as human-written.

Tools like GPT3 are able to produce readable content in seconds. Using the text-davinci-002 setting in GPT3, I was able to achieve this (highlighted in green is the AI answer):

helpful content update gpt3 example

Sounds pretty good right! It reads properly and is a good summary in general. This is far from “unhelpful” content.

I am not sure about “likes” being a factor, but you can see for the most part the content generated is decent. It just needs a sense check.

I also do not see AI replacing copywriters, but rather a tool to be used as:

  • A writing assistant and compliment to copywriters
  • A platform to generate insights
  • A summary generator of longform content

The current stigma with AI content is that it is unreadable crap. Spun copy that doesn’t read properly.

There is a lot of that out there… but, this is changing as technology progresses.

This is where content creators will find a balance between what’s useful AI content and what is bad AI content.

In my recent tests, I’ve found AI generated content very good at:

  • Answering FAQs
  • Providing short product descriptions
  • Idea generation

In general I’ve found AI content is best used to provide sharp and descriptive content snippets.

Idea generation is also a concept that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by.

While I’ve found some of the content generated by AI to be unusable or in need of human edits, there are many times a new topic or snippet of information has also been surfaced for me.

With that in mind, I feel SEOs and copywriters will start to heavily use AI content for:

  • Prompt engineering
  • A keyword & topic research tool
  • Idea generation

Experiment with it as part of your technology stack, as I’d argue that not all AI content = unhelpful content.

Summary

The “Helpful Content Update” is all about Google emphasising their mantra of creating content for users. Stick to:

  • Focus on creating content of value that matches search intent
  • Ensure every page on your site serves a purpose
  • Reduce topical bloat and trim deadweight content