Google’s Helpful Content Update: Everything You Need to Know

Graphic representing Google's Helpful Content update.

How this New Massive Algorithm Update from Google Search Can Affect Your Website’s Search Traffic

It’s that time of year again! (Actually, it’s happened multiple times this year now, but who’s counting?) An algorithm update from Google that impacts how webpages rank.

You’ll probably want to pay attention here because this update is a big one.

How you rank on Google Search directly influences how many people find your website and how many leads your business generates.

Google announced the Helpful Content update on Aug. 18, 2022, via a blog post by Danny Sullivan, a Public Liaison for Google Search.

The update began rolling out the following week. But the effects will be seen gradually as more data feeds the machine-learning algorithm over time (more on this below).

This is the first major Google update since the Broad Core update announced the previous May. Broad Core updates are major, reoccurring algorithm improvements by Google with wide, general scopes, so it’s hard to know or guess specific details.

But with the Aug. 2022 Helpful Content update, guess what? There are particular details about what it means and how to adjust for it to optimize your website’s performance.

Kind of….

So what is this all about? What’s changing with how Google evaluates websites from its Helpful Content update? How will it affect your website? And what are tips to improve your website after the Helpful Content update?

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered to help you know how to optimize content for SEO and provide great experiences for your audience so your business can get ahead!

What Is Google’s Helpful Content Update?

Are you ready for this? Google’s Helpful Content update is about…helpful content.

As Google themselves explained from the above-referenced announcement, their goal is “to tackle content that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines rather than to help or inform people.”

In other words, trying to spray search engines with keyword-stuffed articles, instead of focusing on overall quality to actually answer users’ queries, isn’t wanted by Google.

So if you provide website content that’s helpful for search-engine users, then drink it down! If your content is written to game search-engine rankings, then send it back!

What’s the Backstory Behind Google’s Helpful Content Update?

Google’s motivation was to expand upon an early trial run from previous updates for product reviews. In 2021, their goal was to show more helpful reviews by customers of company products on SERPs (search-engine results pages), like what you would see in the below image from searching for gaming laptops, for example.

Example image of an online product review.

As Sullivan explained, the Helpful Content update expands on what Google’s learning from a previous update, to make product reviews more helpful, by applying this knowledge to content in general, including webpage content.

Google’s also implementing an additional iteration of the existing product reviews update at the same time as they roll out the Helpful Content update so the two can complement each other. In her initial analysis of Google’s Helpful Content update, SEO influencer Lily Ray breaks down the following example of how the Helpful Content update—as a complement to and extension of a reviews update—would reward well-written content.

Example of content for a great product review after Google's Helpful Content update.
Blending language like “tested,” “independently research,” “recommend” and “process” with author credentials is how this content uses E-A-T to rank well for Google’s Helpful Content update.

Ray believes this article about tweezers secured the top organic spot on Google Search for its target keyterms after these updates because it sticks to best practices of E-A-T (Expertise, Authority, Trust), quality guidelines that suggest your content demonstrate topical expertise, come from an authoritative perspective and earn your audience’s trust.

Simply put, if you want your content to dominate search engines, care about your audience and put in the effort to write for people. Show that you’ve formed a researched opinion, illustrate that you can communicate your opinion and engage audiences with compelling writing.

Banner image promoting SEO content services from Crowd Content.

What We Know About the Helpful Content Update So Far

Ok, let’s reel it in a bit!

We know the Google Helpful Content update extends beyond on-SERP reviews and even review articles to all types of content in general.

This means it can have a major impact on your website, affecting your lead-gen rates and website metrics.

But how? And what can you do about it?

Let’s start by figuring out how the Helpful Content update differs from other Google Search algorithm updates and what we know so far based on early effects & what Google is telling us.

How Does the Helpful Content Update Differ from Other Google Search Updates?

The Helpful Content Update is unique, there’s no way around it.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Most other unique updates are named things like Panda or Penguin—not really what you would call descriptive monikers.

Here, Google is clearly well-committed to pushing the message that this update is about something…something big. They’re on a mission to encourage content creators to make articles, blog posts and webpage copy as helpful and valuable to website visitors as possible.

In other words, it’s time to get on board and ditch the rushed, low-quality stuff you’ve been pumping out over the years.

But what specifically is unique this time around? Let’s compare this update to a broad core update.

As mentioned, the last time we had one of those was the Google Broad Core update of May 2022.

Again, a board core update refers to periodic updates Google Search makes to its algorithm that are expansive across the board, hitting at the “core” of main ranking factors the algorithm looks at, but not necessarily targeting any particular area in depth.

Because of this lack of deep specificity, Google doesn’t publicly release details about what has changed and what remains the same. And they always refer to the same set of high-level SEO guidelines as advice to website marketers about how to react.

Therefore, with core updates, it can be hard to diagnose how to improve details or what to fix. Effects can be scattered or inconsistent in a way that can balance out.

Take a look at this information below from Semrush about average ranking gains and losses by industry.

Data showing industry ranking results after the May 2022 Broad Core update.

This graph shows that average gains and losses within almost all verticals balanced out following Google’s May 2022 Broad Core Update.

That means the effects were at least industry-agnostic, and the best practices moving forward involve the usual, like ensuring you’re following the best practices of E-A-T.

How are things different this time around with the Helpful Content update? Let’s take a look!

Early Effects of the Google Helpful Content Update

We’re not in Kansas anymore, that’s for sure.

The weeks following the launch of the Helpful Content update produced surprising and mixed early results. And the subsequent online commentary (i.e., “what’s really going on here?”) has sparked confusion, further distinguishing this update from the recent Broad Core update.

Many SEO analysts predicted that the Helpful Content update will be at least as impactful as Panda was—maybe even more so.

It felt like Armageddon was coming. But for now, things are still calm.

That doesn’t mean lots of websites are out of the woods yet though. Google is urging content creators to stay vigilant because this update is designed to self-adjust over time as it makes an ongoing impact.

We’ll deep dive into why and what that might look like further below in this post, but let’s start with the early data thus far.

Let’s look at the below data via Rank Ranger. It shows no statistically significant differences in average, across-the-board search-engine rankings between the weeks before and after the launch of the Helpful Content update.

Graph showing Google SERP fluctuations after the Helpful Content update.

And SEO company Sistrix observed no significant changes from the helpful Content update a week after the rollout, noting this was slightly unusual compared to broad core updates, where moderate changes are usually noticed within a few days.

So what’s the deal here? Is this all smoke and mirrors?

Not entirely. Sistrix did concede one example website that took a noticeable hit in rankings; the below image shows <foodandwine.com>’s visibility metrics nosedive.

Data showing a drop in organic visibility for a sample website after the Google Helpful Content update.

And Ray highlighted websites with “‘meh’ content” in industries you might expect to see employ content mills, like health, dating, horoscopes, etc.

Most websites didn’t really see an impact, other than websites with unsurprisingly low-quality content.

Does this mean Armageddon was more like a Nah-mageddon?

Actually, maybe.

Google made a big deal about the Helpful Content update and were careful to position it more distinctly than a broad core update. It’s possible the Helpful Content update isn’t any more impactful than a pedestrian “spam update” and Google hyped it up as a public-relations stunt to encourage content marketers to take quality-control more seriously.

On the other hand, the Helpful Content update’s rollout will be gradual. In fact, it will be continuously gradual.

What does continuously gradual mean though? You might also ask, How will it impact my website?

Let’s unpack these questions by taking a look at what Google says—and at others’ interpretations of what Google’s saying….

What’s Google Saying About What the Helpful Content Update Means?

On the same day of the announcement, Google published guidelines for website-content creators to help them optimize their website for the Helpful Content update.

Their core recommendation is to focus on writing what’s known as “people-first content.” Write for the people who will read your content, not for search engines.

As Google says, write “content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience.”

They provide the following list of questions you should ask yourself before publishing any content on your website to ensure your content is the best that it can be for your readers:

  1. 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?
  2. 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)?
  3. Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
  4. After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
  5. Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?

Ultimately, Google’s goal is to reward webpage content that checks off the above criteria with better search rankings—and thus more website traffic!—while also explicitly saying content that doesn’t meet this criteria “won’t perform as well.”

How Google’s Helpful Content Update Impacts Search Rankings With Machine-Learning

How does this advice from Google translate to your day-to-day work? How can you apply these guidelines to improve your content for search engines?

SEO influencer Kevin Indig perfectly summarized a takeaway from each one of Google’s guidelines.

  1. 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?
    • Satisfy an existing demand and/or build an audience.
  2. 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)?
    • Provide factually correct content.
  3. Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
    • Focus on a core topic.
  4. After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
    • Create original content.
  5. Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
    • Don’t force visitors to navigate back to the search-engine page to find their answer elsewhere.

What’s interesting is that Indig also highlighted a unique point from Google’s guidelines, that the Helpful Content update “introduces a new site-wide signal” to determine a sort of overall quality level.

In other words, even individual pieces of helpful content could underperform on search engines if your website has what Google describes as “relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall.”

What the heck does that mean? You publish a well-researched & well-written post that satisfies user expectations and it doesn’t rank as well as it could because your website already has lots of bad content already?

Well, kind of, yeah…. In fact, that’s actually Google’s intention.

A disportionately high amount of unhelpful content shows your website isn’t optimally focused on a core topic and on providing holistic solutions to visitors’ queries.

Google wants helpful content to be associated with websites that have strong reputations in their field—that helps send trust signals to users.

How does Google do this? As Ray clarifies in a LinkedIn post, this site-wide signal is a “classifier” applied to websites by the Helpful Content Update that uses machine-learning to gradually assess the quality level of a website’s content.

This is what we mean by continuously gradual. The classifier will perpetually learn more about your site over time to feed more & better data to Google algorithms.

This is the message Google is trying to impart. Ray’s LinkedIn post was in response to a Twitter discussion between Sullivan and SEO consultant Glenn Gabe over whether the Helpful Content update has actually been as big of a deal as it was made out to be.

Sullivan clarified that the site-wide signals from the Helpful Content update were what made it unique and that impacts from the update would be “noticeable” over time, referring to Google documentation about improving SEO as guidance for webmasters.

Clearly Google is taking a stand and instructing us that, even if the effects have been underwhelming thus far, the impacts of the Google Helpful Content update could never end.

So if your website has lots of low-quality, unhelpful content from over the years, even if you haven’t seen a major hit yet from Google’s Helpful Content update, you still might over time.

How to Improve Old Content After the Helpful Content Update

Okay, so what’s the solution here? You can’t only focus on providing quality content moving forward; also audit your existing content by the same standards you apply to new content.

In fact, this might be the biggest takeaway from the Helpful Content update.

Let’s look at some simple steps to get you started.

Steps to Improve Old Content on SEO After a Google Update

  1. Develop quality criteria around E-A-T
  2. Create a database and audit existing content
  3. Identify content decay
  4. Update or redirect existing content

1. Develop Quality Criteria Around E-A-T

We mentioned E-A-T earlier, but it’s a strong foundation for developing criteria for grading content quality.

Ensure your content reflects expertise, is written authoritatively and establishes trust. To do this, refer to an E-A-T SEO checklist to hit all the right notes, like double-checking your old content is comprehensive, backed by reputable authors and reviewed by industry experts.

For a detailed list of criteria you can steal, feel free to thank SEO consultant Aleyda Solis.

<https://twitter.com/aleyda/status/1560550093941456896>

2. Create a Database and Audit Existing Content

Now that you have set standards to audit your old content, it’s time to start, well, auditing your content.

Looking at E-A-T standards is a great way to make subjective or qualitative qualifications. But sometimes real, hard data makes things a lot easier.

See what’s underperforming in Google Search Console to start by narrowing things down.

The SEO influencer known as Niche Site Lady on Twitter outlined a great process for deciding which website content to cut or update by looking at traffic data and cross-referencing organic clicks with impressions.

3. Identify Content Decay

Your audit can’t only include underperforming content in your audit. There might be warning signs for content already bringing in traffic too.

First, what is content decay?

It’s the process of traffic-generating content beginning to lose its traffic. In other words, things are on the downhill.

Illustration of a graph showing what content decay is.
The four stages of content decay: early traction, growth, peak and decay.

Common culprits of content decay usually include increased competition from other websites. But think about it, if your content were strong enough in the first place and fully helpful for your users, then in theory the risk from competition is low.

Pull reports from Google Analytics to identify content decay. Don’t rush to delete articles with decreasing traffic—they’re still generating traffic, after all—but study what else ranks for the same search queries to see what you’re missing, and then update your content accordingly.

4. Update or Redirect Existing Content

The ultimate question remains: Should I update my content or redirect it?

It can be a fine line. Sometimes it comes down to a judgment call. If your content topic is important for your audience, then it’s likely worth an update. Otherwise a redirect might be in order. Sometimes known as 301 redirects, referring to the relevant HTML-response status code “301,” a redirect enables you to depublish content by instructing web browsers to automatically send users elsewhere on your website.

Illustration showing what a 301 redirect is.
Visual description of what a 301 redirect is.

So for anything that doesn’t make the cut, either update the content if it’s worth salvaging or if you have to remove it, set up a 301 redirect to send its website traffic to a better version of the content you have on your site.

If there’s not a direct match, map the old content at least to something as best you can. Remember, your goal is always to resolve user queries and satisfy audience expectations.

Let’s look at an example! Say you’re an ecommerce website that sells waterproof shoes.

You have a blog post about why waterproof shoes are worth the cost.

Now your traffic decreases after the Helpful Content update. You conduct a content-quality audit and suspect this “costs” article isn’t helping. There are lots of better-written content pieces on the same topic from other websites performing better on Google Search.

Maybe this other content goes into more detail on secondary keyterms, showing expertise by discussing not just benefits, but also price-point differences, the reasons behind what drives prices, why your shoes are versatile even when there’s no rain, the concept of waterproofing as an investment, the effects of waterproof technology on shoe aesthetics & comfort and so on.

Your article? It’s a listicle of basic benefits of waterproof shoes, essentially a front to target the primary keyword “cost.” But the content isn’t otherwise diverse, so the listicle just ends up floundering. In other words, it’s not as helpful as it could be.

Option #1. The article is worth saving to compete for the primary term about costs, so you add more unique information about why customers should spend more for waterproof shoes.

Option #2. Since it already has some traction for keyterms about “benefits,” you redirect the traffic to another post you have specifically about that topic.

Which option should you go with? This is where SEO is half-art and half-science. Sometimes it’s a guess—but always a researched, educated guess.

In this hypothetical scenario, if the destination page (about “benefits”) already ranks well for its target keyterms and the existing page (about “costs”) has previous activity about “benefits” from either Google Search Console or rank-tracking tools like Ahrefs or Semrush, then go Option #2 and 301-redirect the “costs” article to the “benefits” one.

But if you do go with the latter and redirect the page and “costs” remains a high-value target keyword, you can still write net-new content for it!

Otherwise, just go with Option #1 and update the existing content in the “costs” article.

Takeaways for Moving Forward With the Google Helpful Content Update

At a high level, what should content marketers consider moving forward after the Helpful Content update?

Google certainly doesn’t make your job easier, but you need to stay on top of tips and best practices to ensure your website traffic grows and your company can scale.

With the site-wide classifier from this update, the message from Google is simple: lackluster content on your site will drive down rankings and traffic over time (even if the update’s impact has been meandering thus far).

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is to pay special attention to optimizing legacy content on your website on top of what you’re doing with new content. Investing in subject-matter expert services can help you improve new & old content alike to crush those E-A-T requirements so you can start futureproofing your website for better sales.

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Kevin Elliott is the SEO Manager at Crowd Content. He specializes in website marketing, driving organic traffic and helping companies realize their potential with content marketing. He also loves his dog Karl!

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