Helpful Content Update: SEO & Content Questions Answered

Posted by Emery Pearson on Dec 1, 2022 1:58:16 PM

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Google released the Helpful Content Update this summer, marking one of the biggest shake ups in SEO this year. Our SEO specialist, Alicia, and content specialist, Emery talk about some of the key questions that stem from this update. 

What Is the Helpful Content Update?

Alicia: This is an update to Google’s Algorithm which targets low-quality content, otherwise known as “unhelpful” content that is essentially only created to rank and not to help people (your target audience). Google is trying to get rid of content that doesn’t meet the E-A-T (expertise, authority, trustworthiness) standards. Basically, if your content doesn’t actually answer a user’s question or leaves them wondering more, or clicking from page to page to find their answer, you have “unhelpful content”. One thing to note about this update is that it's an automated machine-learning process so it’s sort of working in real-time to catch this content.

Emery: It definitely sounds like a key thing Google is trying to do away with is AI-generated content. In Google's view, AI content is on par with spam content, and they consider it to be against Webmaster Guidelines. This is likely due to how many sites use spam/AI-generated content and aggregation to produce content for the sole purpose of monetizing a site.

Google does not like content that is created for SEO purposes. They never have, and they continue to find new ways to penalize sites that do just that. The Helpful Content Update is just one of many updates and approaches Google has taken to ensure searchers find what they actually want rather than being shown content that exists in order to be monetized.

Update 2/9/2023: Yesterday, Google posted an article with guidance about AI-generated content that sounds different from their initial takes on AI content. This article discusses the usefulness of AI for content creation and essentially gives the go-ahead for sites to utilize AI for content creation—with some caveats. The key takeaway is that AI content should not be used for manipulating search results. If it's spammy, the site will be penalized. 

Google will continue to use SpamBrain to identify spammy, unhelpful content. If you do use AI to create content, be sure you understand Google's guidelines as you assess it. We're going to continue to learn more about the latest guidance and AI in general, and we'll update with more information and clarification when we have it. 

How Does This Update Change The Way We Do Blogging Going Forward? (How Do I Create Helpful Content?)

Alicia: We are now being forced to do what we should’ve been doing all along—making the internet a helpful resource. Websites will need to show their expertise, authority, and trustworthiness when it comes to creating content. Ideally, content creators will be sticking to a focus (in their lane/field of expertise) for their content in order to better help humans. Our clients are in a good position after this update because Tribute Media has been creating helpful content for our clients for many years.

Emery: Like some of the other previous Google updates (such as BERT), this really just confirms what we've been doing all along. However, there are some takeaways that we'll be continuing to think about and incorporate into our content strategies. For example, this update–like E-A-T–reemphasizes how much trust matters to Google. So I think the questions we all should be asking are, how are we showing our trustworthiness? How can we create content that inspires trust, not just in Google, but in our visitors? Standing out in today's web landscape means really leaning into what you do that makes you authoritative in your field, and your content needs to reflect that.

A lot of the chatter about content these days revolves around the importance of subject matter experts (SMEs) so I think that's something we'll focus on incorporating into our own content strategy and encourage our clients to do the same. This, too, is related to trustworthiness–searchers are tired of having to comb through tons of information to find the right answer, and they're tired of aggregated, rehashed content appearing on the top of the SERPs. Google gets that, and they will continue to do the work of getting the right content to searchers as quickly as possible. In turn, this is going to benefit those who are creating trustworthy content that's backed by expertise–meaning those SMEs are even more critical.

Another important key point with this update is that Google has indicated that single pages can and will be used as sitewide ranking signals, which is why it's crucial to consider both new content you're adding to your site and existing content.

What is a Sitewide Ranking Signal? How Does That Affect Me?

Alicia: A site wide ranking signal is how Google describes its method for identifying the overall quality of your content. Unfortunately, if you have one bad piece of content, it not only affects that specific page, but the entire site. If you are hit with this new ranking signal, updates to your rank could take months after you remove the unhelpful content or improve your content writing style.

Emery: I'll just add that it can be useful to think about this in terms of the percentage of helpful versus unhelpful content on your site. More unhelpful content equals a bigger impact in that case. If you have a lot of old, unhelpful content, it's probably worth your time to update or eliminate it–and if you have limited time, you may want to consider prioritizing that old content over adding new content.

Will The Helpful Content Update Deindex My Current “Unhelpful” Content?

Alicia: Google hasn't said it will deindex your unhelpful content. However, they have said that unhelpful content will lead to lost traffic and rankings. Google says, “The signal is also weighted; sites with lots of unhelpful content may notice a stronger effect.” There is no unhelpful content error currently in Google Search Console either.

Emery: I spend a lot of time looking at what's indexed and not on sites I work on, and I do think Google will remove unhelpful content from the index. This is pure speculation, but having looked at sites with lots of old content (short, superficial blogs, etc.), I believe Google has already been doing that. But it isn't possible to know exactly why Google either hasn't indexed or has deindexed a page (unless it falls under one of the few errors on Search Console). Still, I think looking at page indexing in Search Console and analyzing what isn't indexed can be useful in light of this update. If a lot of old content, or thin, generally unhelpful content is there, I would take that as a sign that your site needs some work. You can add noindex tags to pages you don't want Google to count, and/or update outdated, unhelpful content.

Within this question I think it's also good to note that Google is unlikely to completely deindex your site due to unhelpful content like they would a manual action penalty. But, as we've said, you'll probably see a decline in visibility and traffic if your site has a lot of unhelpful content.

When Did The Helpful Content Update Roll Out?

Alicia: The update began on August 25th, 2022, and finished updating around September 9th, 2022. If you want to see if your site was affected by the update you can compare your data from before that completion date to after and look for any serious decreases in impressions/clicks in Google Search Console.

Emery: There was also a core update not too long after this one, so it may not be obvious whether you were hit by this update or the core update.

Why Is the Helpful Content Update Important?

Alicia: It’s important because it encourages and rewards content creators to serve people over the search engine. It will be refreshing to see more original and helpful content written by experts in their field. In the end, your audience will have a better experience on your site and engage with your content.

Emery: Definitely agree, and I think overall it's going to make the experience of searching Google better in a lot of ways. It's going to force a lot of websites to step up their game, which might seem unfair to some, but it is possible for any website–no matter how small–to make it to the top of the SERPs, so the hard work isn't for nothing.

How Can I Tell If I Have Helpful or Unhelpful Content?

Alicia: Google has a list of questions to help you identify whether your content is helpful or not. Here are a few questions from that list that resonated with me:

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

Find your niche and run with it. This aligns with Google’s E-A-T concept. Build on your expertise, create authoritativeness in that subject and earn the trust of your audience.

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

I’ve seen this with a lot of content where people are taking a really popular piece of content from someone else and just summarizing it to get traffic to their page. From the perspective of a searcher, this can be really frustrating because chances are we have already seen the popular piece of content you’re summarizing and we are looking for fresh opinions or perspectives.

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

As a searcher myself, there is nothing more frustrating than clicking on a link, reading the content, and feeling underwhelmed. I don’t want to be clicking from page to page trying to find the answer to my initial question. I think it’s great that google is encouraging you to put as much helpful information on a page as possible to help humans out.

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

I love this question because I’ve seen many blogs, in let’s say the jewelry industry, with topics like “Best Amusement parks in the US” or “Top 10 Places to Eat in [Fill In Blank] city”. They are focusing on topics that have nothing to do with their industry, just to attract people but they are attracting the wrong audience. If you think about it, if I am searching for the top places to eat in Boise, Idaho and I come across this page, I am not going to think “You know what, I think I need a new piece of jewelry.” because that is just not where my mind is at. I also won’t trust the opinion of the jeweler’s blog as opposed to an actual food blog because it only makes sense that the food blog will know a lot more than the jeweler. Google essentially wants you to stay in your lane.

Emery: These are all great questions! It definitely boils down to "does this content exist just to target keywords?" And if the answer is yes, then you've got plenty of work to do. If the answer is no, that doesn't automatically mean your content is helpful–you've gotta dig into it and make sure you're responding to what users want, not what you think they want. These questions are a great place to start.

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What Do I Do With Unhelpful Content?

Alicia: You’ll want to get rid of your unhelpful content as soon as possible. This could mean deleting it altogether, simply removing it from the index, or updating the content to make it helpful. As they stated in Google Search Central, “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.” Meaning once you have been identified as “unhelpful” it could take months before that label no longer applies to your site.

Emery: I don't think enough people take advantage of the noindex tag when it comes to web content! If you're tackling unhelpful content on your site, get to know the purpose and function of this tag. Not everything on your site needs to be crawled by Google, which is why this exists. It'll make addressing your unhelpful content much easier.

How Will AI-Generated Content Impact the Future of SEO?

Alicia: Google has indicated that auto-generated content will be considered unhelpful because it is rephrased versions of content already out on the web. One of the biggest risks of using AI-Generated content is the impact of Google’s penalty. You will see a drastic decrease in web traffic and it will be significantly harder to build back your trustworthy reputation.

Emery: Google has been addressing spam content–whether it's scraped or spun or automatically generated–for years now. In their view, AI content is spam content.

Can Google Differentiate Between AI-Generated Content & Human-Generated Content?

Alicia: While it hasn’t been confirmed whether Google can differentiate between human-written content and AI-written content, Google can tell the difference between high-quality content and spammy content. I’d advise folks who utilize AI for their content because they don’t have the time or aren’t strong writers to, instead, utilize a marketing agency with experienced content creators.

Emery: Yep. It might be harder for Google to identify auto-generated content now versus spam content of the past, but that doesn't mean they'll stop trying. I doubt folks will stop trying to make AI content work, but I would also strongly recommend avoiding it to anyone who is considering it. You can outsource your writing if you can't do it yourself, and the expense is well worth it if you consider the outcome of Google determining your content to be unhelpful, or even spam. Though we've been talking about "unhelpful" content, it's important to note that spam content (which, under Google's guidelines, AI-generated content is) can result in a manual action, which is far more severe than losing traffic and visibility.

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Emery Pearson

Written by Emery Pearson

Emery is the content strategist at Tribute Media. She has an MA in rhetoric and composition from Boise State University, and she is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University. She lives in southern California with a bunch of creatures and many plants.