Getting on top of Google’s Helpful Content Update
On 18th August, Google announced what has been touted as quite a seismic shake-up of its algorithm in the form of the Helpful Content Update. Following the announcement, it finished rolling out around 9th September.
Unlike preparing for other algorithm or broad core updates, which occur a few times a year, the Helpful Content Update has been given its own name and space, occupying a similar significance as updates such as RankBrain, Penguin and Panda in terms of its potential impact and lasting status.
Even at this early stage, many across the SEO industry have already offered up their takes on what this means for webmasters and the future of SEO as a discipline. Some have even provided some initial data and insights on sites that have looked to have been impacted (both good and bad) by the initial shockwaves of this update as it begins to take hold. We’ll unpack what these mean for web business owners over the course of this article.
Additionally, Google has given some clear indications as to what this means and what it intends to target in the SERPs, both positively and negatively. Here, we’re going to take a look into what concrete information we have from Google and apply this knowledge to offer up a future-proof guide for website or business owners. This will focus on what it means for large sites and enterprise-level brands, which have the potential to be impacted by this update more compared to smaller businesses (we’ll delve into the “why” behind this further on).
What we know so far and why this matters
In recent years, Google has been much more engaged with the SEO industry and on the topic of SEO. This has manifested itself in the form of detailed guides on Google Search Central, as well as in the form of individuals such as John Mueller being very active on Twitter and elsewhere. When it comes to the Helpful Content Update, Google has detailed some key focus points of this update in a dedicated article, published at the time of the update’s announcement.
While we won’t repeat verbatim what’s already in that article (and no doubt reposted on countless other blogs), it’s important to home in on some key messaging points that we’ll run through below.
While people-first content may come across as a somewhat lofty, intangible concept, it’s very much been in the search engine lexicon for some time. Aside from what’s detailed in the aforementioned Google guideline, this ties in with existing SEO concepts such as EAT (expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness): providing unique, informed, high-value and well-written content, as well as topical relevance in the context of the website in question. This may be well within the realms of existing best practice and common sense for many. However, there are plenty of examples of websites spinning up content and articles with little relevance to their area of expertise or industry just to capture search demand.
Avoiding content for search engines first
This aspect of the update is arguably the most interesting one in terms of its potential effect. It appears to be addressing keyword research and content techniques of old, targeting content based merely on search volume data that offers little in the way of fresh insight and value to the user. Google refers to those who create content in an attempt to answer popular search questions at any given time, but produce thin content that leaves the user bouncing off and looking elsewhere. Think of countless articles on the web that attempt to capture search trends around topics such as “when does the next season of Stranger Things come out” and “Daniel Radcliffe net worth” with regurgitated (and, crucially, often automated) content that offers nothing new and little in terms of fact.
One aspect we can garner from this is that outside of traditional keyword research techniques, optimising for user intent (providing content that answers the intent behind a search query and not just the exact keyword itself) is at the forefront of SEO now more than ever. For large sites, say enterprise eCommerce brands that have many product inventories and category pages and may rely on aspects of content automation, there is some due care required in lieu of this update.
Making your everyday pages “helpful” for users
If you’re running an enterprise SEO operation, it can be very difficult to ensure best practice SEO across all of your many product and category pages, even if you do have a big team in place.
While automation in SEO is a legitimate technique when it comes to research for keywords and content clusters, it can be a dangerous ploy if you’re relying on it to spin up content for your category and product pages. Many large sites may also make use of scripts to generate on-page SEO elements of their pages as well as templated content, with one common practice being the generation of thin category pages based on the user’s internal searching on your site.
For example, if you’re a clothing brand and don’t have a dedicated category page for a query like “Levi’s skinny men’s trousers in black” outside of faceted navigation, a way to capture this could be to generate a unique page ID, complete with templated intro content and on-page SEO, in an attempt to capture the search demand each time a user searches. While this may seem smart, it can lead to problems not only in indexation management but also in spam generation.
In light of the Helpful Content Update, brands should steer clear of this technique and other ways of using content automation that risk duplicate or near-duplicate AI-generated content being spun up. Instead, look at prioritising your category and content pages by your preferred metrics (be it traffic potential, conversion potential or available search volume) and begin to optimise for the user. Look at creating unique, smart and snappy content for these pages, highlighting the key aspects of your products that the user cares about.
If the user is indeed searching for long-tail product queries such as “skinny men’s trousers in black” (and they likely are), look to optimise for this on your individual product or sub-category pages using the same high-quality copy approach, rather than relying on automation to drive traffic. Rinse and repeat this method using your chosen priority method to provide helpful content to users on your site on additional such topic clusters.
Even if you aren’t using automation techniques on your site, now is a good time for a general content audit across your key pages to ensure you’re “helpful content” ready. Use tools such as Screaming Frog to identify pages with thin or near-duplicate content. Ensure you’ve got clear keyword mapping in order and that there isn’t any keyword cannibalisation going on across your site that could inadvertently fall victim to this update.
Capturing people-first user intent in long-form content
One aspect Google confirmed in its announcement of the Helpful Content Update is that it has never had a preferred word count. Despite some misinformation on this, Google does not measure the authority of an article based on how long it is and the length, breadth and coverage of any given article won’t help you in your ranking pursuits if it’s of poor overall quality.
This again goes back to the key message of this update, which is creating content for people first and not just search engines. When it comes to approaching content that can fall into the category of long-form, be it blogs, guides, articles or case studies, there is certainly a temptation to outdo the competition by going the extra mile in content length and coverage, regardless of what the user may want.
As search behaviour evolves, modern-day user intent mapping, as well as contemporary keyword research techniques, point to providing answers to specific needs within the content as a whole. That may sound rather vague, though consider a popular long-tail search term such as “social media strategies for Twitter”. While a 10,000-word thought piece on what makes a great social media strategy for Twitter may be an option, users expect guides on topics like this to be more succinct and digestible.
Think about how you can incorporate good UX and page design to break up the components of what you want to say into manageable chunks. Use keyword research tools that pull semantically related queries from data pools such as People Also Ask to inform sub-sections around the topic. These could be queries such as “good social media strategy examples”, or “social media strategy templates” that could be factored into your overall piece. Make use of clickable jump navigations to allow users to navigate to the sections of the long-form guide that they wish to peruse. Try not to deviate too much and stick to concise, actionable tips that provide users with real-life value.
If you have existing content that falls into this category that you think may need some work in light of this update, one way of assessing the need for improvements could be looking into Google Analytics metrics, such as bounce rate or average time spent on the page. If your guides rank well and are getting decent traffic but users aren’t spending much time on your content and are looking elsewhere, this may be a sign to improve its layout, content flow and overall user intent-readiness.
Best practice on-page SEO still very much applies in this field. Stick to what you know in terms of crafting great copy, optimised page titles and sharp meta descriptions with an enticing call to action. Images and multimedia such as video content are of course encouraged (taking into account page speed impact) as this consolidates your expertise on the topic, and there are always users who prefer to consume content in visual or audio form.
Make sure your longer content pieces are linked to well within your website infrastructure and form part of a clear, coherent user journey with correct breadcrumbs in place alongside similar-themed articles. Instead of publishing standalone articles, consolidate expertise in your industry or niche through a series of posts that are related to each other and allow the users to browse through as part of an overall journey. This will stand you in good stead for the update.
What should I do with my “unhelpful content”?
If you’re a business owner with a lot of legacy content pieces on your site and you’re worried about being looked upon unfavourably by Google, don’t panic. Use the Helpful Content Update as an opportunity. Unless you’ve got backlogs of thin content that was spun up in minutes or your entire site relies on AI-generated pieces, you’re not going to get wiped off the face of the search results. It's more a case of being outranked by competitors who do tick these boxes.
Instead, think of it as an opportunity to refocus your content marketing efforts and run a campaign of general housekeeping. This is a significant algorithm update, so be sure to bring it to the stakeholder table and present it as a chance to capitalise and get ahead of the game. Whether it’s complete rewrites or tweaks to content and design, prioritise your efforts by looking at traffic potential and your current keyword ranking scenario. Enhance your content with references to up-to-date statistics and look for rich snippet opportunities in the form of relevant FAQs in your posts.
If you’re in a position where you’re worried about swathes of low-quality, out-of-date content that is beyond saving, or simply needs too many resources to salvage, then there are a few options to consider. If there’s little-to-no traffic to these pages, you could consider consolidating some of the content or perhaps redirecting the pages to a contextually similar, more in-depth piece that performs better.
A more blunt and potentially crawl budget-friendly method of handling low-quality content could be to remove them altogether. Take care though, as even if these pieces perform poorly in the SERPs they could still provide some value for users within the context of your website in some way. Culling pages en masse can also lead to a high number of inadvertent 404s created by newly-formed broken internal links to and from these old content pieces.
If you’re not sure, the easiest option may just be to leave this content as is and focus your efforts on improving elsewhere. John Mueller has himself said that removal of old content won’t necessarily have a good impact, so it may be best to focus on improving new and existing assets.
Keep on optimising and improving iteratively
Aside from what we’ve detailed already in terms of outdated content practices, the update will also likely impact niche content webmasters or affiliate business owners who are deploying heavy use of AI techniques to inflate content on their sites. Similar tactics such as content scraping and duplication and publishing of content that exists elsewhere on the web will also likely fall foul of this update.
As we’ve mentioned, there have been some voices in the SEO industry that have documented sites that have, somewhat unsurprisingly, been hit substantially following the update’s release in late August. These appear to be almost unanimously content-thin, ad-heavy sites that are capitalising on popular search terms (in these instances “famous birthdays”, “celeb news” or “Covid news”).
For the bulk of businesses, however, the core practices of writing original, informative content, with expertise that captures what the user is looking for from an intent point of view, will continue to be vital for success. Keep on editing and producing content that you, as a consumer, would read and take away something valuable and informative from.
Avoid hitting certain word count quotas. Don’t just regurgitate what’s already out there and republish it under a different moniker with some tweaks on wording or tone of voice. Offer up well-researched, clearly structured content that references up-to-date statistics and legitimate resources. Crucially, optimise for people first and not just search engines.