Google’s Helpful Content Update: What SEOs Should Know Before Go-Live

Google's Helpful Content Update

If you’re following the news in the SEO sphere, you’ve probably heard about Google’s Helpful Content Update, the latest algorithm update aimed to crack down on low-quality content ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). This update is designed to promote helpful and informative content while demoting content that is not.

If you’re wondering how this will affect your website or blog, don’t worry – we’ve got you covered.

An Introduction to Google’s Helpful Content Update

Just to be clear on the terminology of this new update, it isn’t a helpful content update, per se (not that it won’t be ultimately beneficial to everyone – searchers and writers alike), but rather an update that aims to prioritize and uplift content that is helpful.

So, what does Google mean by helpful?

Helpful content is informative, useful, and well-written. In other words, it’s the type of content that provides value to the reader and helps them solve a problem or answer a question. It is also unique and fresh, not regurgitated information that can be found anywhere else on the internet.

In recent history, the foremost blog content writers have been at the top of SERPs (search engine results pages) for two reasons: 1) their content is helpful, unique, and directly targeted to the search intent of their target visitor, and 2) their content is optimized (sometimes hyper-optimized) for search engines.

But the question is, how much emphasis should search engines be putting on keyword optimization, and how much emphasis should they put instead on user experience and the overall quality of the content? Are we tipping the scales too far in the direction of reason number two? Are helpful blogs and pages in any market or area of interest being unfairly penalized because a writer doesn’t use the latest and greatest SEO tactics to keep them afloat in the rankings?

The reason search engines have sorted through content this way in the past is simple: using a keyword-focused algorithm is a convenient and relatively easy way to comb through content and put the most relevant content on the front page.

Google and other search engines have done great work in ensuring that people don’t abuse this system using what we in the SEO community call black hat SEO techniques like keyword stuffing and link farming. But this has been a work in progress, and it seems that the helpful content update is the next rung on that ladder to a fair and ultimately helpful information sphere.  

After all, Google’s primary goal with its search results is to provide the best and most useful information to its users. 

Google’s Words on the Situation: A Breakdown

Google announced the helpful content update through this article to prepare users for what’s coming down the pipeline. They explain that they will be looking out for sites/pages that:

  • Are written in an attempt to game search traffic rather than help people
  • Are not refined in terms of what topics they cover
  • Clearly use AI to poorly cover a range of topics quickly
  • Do not provide unique value to a certain topic and repeat other sources’ content
  • Have content that doesn’t completely answer a searcher’s question/force users to Google search the same topic again for better information
  • Write about trending topics that have little relevance to their existing or intended audience or usual topics of interest
  • Have too-long pages for the sake of reaching a particular word count (even though Google doesn’t have a preference)
  • Target a niche market or area of interest despite not having expertise in that area
  • Attempt to answer questions that have no definitive answer (think release dates for TV shows that have not been announced yet)

We have not yet been given very much information on how Google plans to crack down on sites that don’t provide helpful content. But we assume they’ll be implementing a lot more Natural Language Processing (NLP) metrics to discourage poorly written content from slipping through the cracks. It also seems they will be paying closer attention to a site’s authority, relevance, and usefulness when it comes to the topics it covers.

What This Means for the Future of SEO and Content Writing

Unfortunately, nobody really knows the specifics of this algorithm update or how it will change the utility of our favorite SEO tactics. All we can do is make educated guesses based on what Google has given us thus far. Here are a few of the things I think will change in the near future:

A Stronger Emphasis on User Metrics

It is my opinion and the opinion of other experts in the field that Google will likely put more emphasis on user metrics to gauge the quality of a piece of content. These include things like time on site, organic click-through rate (CTR), and bounce rate.

Essentially, what Google may be measuring is whether users are finding what they’re looking for when they click on a result from a Google search. If they’re not, that result is going to take a hit in the rankings. So, if you haven’t optimized your strategy where user metrics are concerned, you might want to start looking into that.

A Decreased Relevance of Keywords

If Google is really starting to focus on user experience and quality content, that’s most likely going to mean a decrease in the importance of keywords. That’s not to say that you should stop using keywords altogether, or that keywords will no longer have a significant impact on your SEO (in fact, if you’re looking to start researching keywords, check out our blog on the best keyword research tools on the market today). But, it does mean that you should focus more on providing helpful and informative content rather than packing your posts with keywords.

An Increased Relevance of Topic Clusters

If Google is going to start focusing on quality over quantity, it stands to reason that it would also place more emphasis on in-depth, comprehensive content. This means that topic clusters and pillar posts might become more important than ever before.

A topic cluster is a group of related content pieces that all revolve around a single, main topic. The main piece is usually a comprehensive article or blog post, and the supporting pieces are usually shorter blog posts or even just social media posts.

The benefit of a topic cluster is that it shows Google that you’re an expert on a certain topic. It also allows you to rank for a variety of long-tail keywords, rather than just a couple of short ones.

It’s hard to get more specific than that about Google’s new methods to combat unhelpful content, though one can theorize. For example, Google might place more emphasis on where keywords are placed in an article or website page. If a high percentage of relevant keywords on any one page exists primarily at the bottom of a page (like an FAQ section), that content might be deemed unhelpful.

It is also highly likely, according to SEO expert Matt Diggity, that Google also might downrank sites that utilize parasite SEO practices. When low-quality websites piggyback off of the traffic and search engine ranking of a more authoritative website, it’s called parasite SEO. This is often done by publishing thin or duplicative content that doesn’t add value to the internet to high-authority sites, and it stands to reason that this new update will take new measures to fix this issue. So, not just unhelpful content, but also any content deemed “spammy” could be at risk of being downranked.

How to Prepare for Google’s Helpful Content Update

If you’re worried about how this update is going to affect your website or blog, there are a few things you can do to prepare:

  1. Evaluate your current content strategy. Take a look at your most and least popular pieces of content and ask yourself whether they’re truly helpful and informative. If not, consider rewriting or repurposing them.
  2. Look at your user metrics. Are people spending a lot of time on your website? Are they clicking through to other pages? Are they engaging with your content? If not, you might need to make some changes.
  3. Think about your target audience. Who are you trying to reach with your content? What sorts of things are they interested in? Make sure that your content is tailored to their needs and interests.
  4. Consider using topic clusters if you’re not already using them. Topic clusters can help you rank for a variety of long-tail keywords and show Google that you’re an expert on your chosen topic.

Perhaps most importantly, you should audit your site now and decide which pages could be flagged as unhelpful by Google.

According to G-Squared Interactive, sites determined as “unhelpful” by Google now will have a hard time getting helpful content to rank in the future. This means that, even if you start putting out exclusively helpful content next week, it may take months before your site recovers from being deemed as a generally unhelpful site by Google.

If your site is deemed unhelpful, even your best pages/blog posts won’t rank. In other words, you should check on your content’s helpfulness now. View your user metrics per page and utilize site crawls by Ahrefs or other SEO tools to see which pages are not performing well where user metrics are concerned. You’ll want to either completely remove those pages or re-optimize them. Don’t wait! 

Don’t Throw Out Your SEO Tools Yet

Keyword optimization isn’t over. Long-tail keywords are still going to be important, as is using keywords throughout your content in a way that sounds natural. You should also focus on using semantically related keywords (keywords that are related to your main keyword but aren’t necessarily synonymous with it).

So, while keyword stuffing is going to become a thing of the past, I believe that using keywords thoughtfully and strategically is still going to be an important part of SEO.

Moreover, companies that make products like Surfer SEO are able to remain relevant in the ever-evolving SEO world because they tirelessly work on updating their programs to reflect the latest trends and changes. This means that, even though Google’s algorithm is changing, you can probably count on your SEO tools to change with it.

Is This the Beginning of the End for AI Copywriting Assistants?

AI copywriting assistant (how helpful content updates will affect AI-generated posts in search results)

Google confirmed that “extensive automation” is something that will be looked down upon with the helpful content update. This has led some people to believe that Google is now against the use of AI copywriting assistants.

Will AI like Jasper survive this new turn of events? I don’t think there’s any need to panic just yet. Just make sure you’re doing your due diligence on every blog that you and your AI assistant write. Make sure it is truly a joint effort, and always always always ensure that you know who your primary visitor will be. Appeal directly to them both through your post’s content and the tone that you’re using. 

How does Google decide what is AI-generated content versus what isn’t? I believe that Google will look at a variety of factors when determining whether content is automated or not. These factors could include:

  • Repetitive content: If you’ve used an AI copywriter before, you might have noticed that it repeats certain phrases and even whole paragraphs throughout your content. This is already looked down upon by Google, and I believe that this will continue to be a red flag for the algorithm.
  • Faux facts: Advanced AI is great at knowing when to add a helpful fact to a blog to increase the writer’s perceived authority on a topic, but it’s not so great at utilizing real-life data. It can even go so far as to draft up fake quotes from “experts” in order to make a point. If you’re using an AI copywriter, make sure that you’re fact-checking everything it writes!

AI is still helpful, especially when it comes to generating ideas and doing research. However, as with anything, you should always be aware of what sorts of things Google is looking for and adjust your content strategy accordingly.

Google Platypus? Pig? Pheasant?

Some are saying that this news of this update is reminiscent of Google’s Panda algorithm, which was first released in 2011. Google Panda was a broad core algorithm update designed to target low-quality content and sites, and it did so by devaluing them in the SERPs. Google Penguin, in a similar vein, was designed to target sites with low-quality links. These were a huge deal, and they deeply impacted search engine optimization techniques in the long run.

So, is this the next ground-breaking, potentially animal-themed algorithm update that changes the world of SEO as we know it? Only time will tell, but many experts think so.

Google’s Helpful Content Update: The Bottom Line

The truth is, it will be a guessing and waiting game to see how this will directly and immediately impact the SEO techniques we know and love. It’s hard to know how much weight this update will carry, or how long it will take for Google to make its decision on what content is helpful and what isn’t. What we do know is that, if you want your content to rank, you should ensure that it is truly helpful to your target audience. Write with them in mind, and focus on quality over quantity.

The moral of the story is this: Google’s new helpful content update is yet another reminder that we should always be focused on creating helpful, informative content. Keep your target audience in mind and produce content that appeals to their needs and interests. Utilize keyword optimization, yes, but don’t put it at the forefront of your SEO strategy while neglecting the most important aspect of your content: its helpfulness to the reader.

Most importantly, don’t wait to start putting out helpful content – the sooner you start, the sooner your site will begin to recover in Google search results (if it needs to).

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About Kouressa Smith

Kouressa is DOS’s resident Website Content Manager. In this position, she directs the content creation for DOS’s website development projects. She develops SEO strategies, maps out the overall direction of content per website, and helps facilitate the creation of that content. Kouressa has over seven years of experience writing professionally and an educational background in creative writing and technical communication at Texas Tech University.

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