Google’s helpful content update: How will it affect your website?

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Everything you need to know about the update that industry insiders are comparing to Panda.

Google has recently introduced a new search algorithm update called the helpful content update. Industry insiders expect major disruption from this update with many drawing comparisons with the chaos caused by Panda in 2011.

The update started rolling out a couple of weeks ago, which means time is running out to make any changes to your website and content. In this article, we explain why this particular update is getting so much attention and what you can do if your website is affected.

What is the helpful content update?

The helpful content update will target websites that have significant amounts of “unhelpful” content primarily created to rank well in search engines, rather than deliver value for the end user.

If you read Google’s first announcement on the helpful content update, published 18 August, this is how it describes the goal of the update:

“The helpful content update aims to better reward content where visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience, while content that doesn’t meet a visitor’s expectations won’t perform as well.”

In the same announcement, Google specifies what website owners and SEOs need to do to create content that succeeds with this latest update: “By following our long-standing advice and guidelines to create content for people, not for search engines”.

So the emphasis here is on user expectations and satisfaction. The update aims to reward content that delivers what users are looking for and demote content that fails to live up to their expectations when they click through.

Crucially, Google says this update introduces a “new site-wide signal” which means unhelpful pages could impact the ranking of your entire website. Essentially, if you have too many pages on your website flagged as unhelpful, then you could see a major drop in search ranking across your site.

Likewise, removing potentially unhelpful content from your website could have a positive impact on your remaining pages.

Furthermore, Google says the new signal will be weighted, which means the more helpful or unhelpful your content is, the more it will be affected by the update.

Why is this update being compared to Panda?

The helpful content update is drawing a lot of comparisons with Panda and many SEOs predict this update will have a similar impact.

SEOs that worked through the 2011 Panda update will remember how traumatic it was for website owners. The origins of the first Panda update were rooted in user complaints about the growth of content farms and the diminishing quality of search results.

In response to such criticisms, Google embarked on a war against web spam with a series of major algorithm updates punishing “black hat” SEO practices – most notably, Panda and Penguin.

More than a decade later, a vocal group of users is complaining about the quality of Google Search results. Some blame publishers for producing low-quality content while others argue Google is responsible for which content ranks in its SERPs, but the growing consensus within this debate is that the quality of Google Search results has declined in recent years.

This is relevant because the environment of the helpful content update feels familiar – not as extreme as the background of Panda but reminiscent.

Context aside, this update shares several similarities with Panda:

  • Target: Low-quality content – in this case, content created for search engines, not users.
  • Site-wide update: Like Panda, this is a site-wide update that means individual or groups of pages can affect the ranking of pages across the domain.
  • Impact: Google has reportedly described the expected impact of this update as “meaningful”.
  • Recovery: Removing affected content/pages can result in recovery.
  • Validation: With timeout and validation periods, it could take months to recover rankings after removing/fixing problematic content.

Google’s description of the helpful update content suggests further similarities with Panda, too. It talks about rewarding quality content and, by extension, punishing content created for search engines ahead of users.

It sounds like the technical operation of the update could be similar, too:

“This classifier process is entirely automated, using a machine-learning model. It is not a manual action nor a spam action. Instead, it’s just a new signal and one of many signals Google evaluates to rank content.”

The phrase “classifier” sounds a lot like the filter Panda applied to pages flagged up as low-quality.

Despite these similarities, the helpful content update is a completely new signal designed to solve different problems from Panda. The new update is drawing comparisons with Panda because its impact is anticipated to drastically affect how pages rank in Google Search.

What does the helpful content update target?

Google wants publishers to take a “people-first approach” to producing content, reinforced by SEO best practices. As we’ve seen with major content quality updates in the past, Google has published a series of questions to help website owners avoid creating content for search engines first:

  • Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines, rather than made for humans?
  • Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
  • Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
  • Are you mainly summarising what others have to say without adding much value?
  • Are you writing about things simply because they’re trending and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?
  • Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
  • Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).
  • Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
  • Does your content promise to answer a question that actually has no answer, such as suggesting there’s a release date for a product, movie, or TV show when one isn’t confirmed?

In its initial announcement for the helpful content update, Google repeats the phrase “people-first” on nine occasions.

It also describes the kind of publishers the helpful content update is designed to reward:

“People-first content creators focus first on creating satisfying content, while also utilizing SEO best practices to bring searchers additional value.”

In addition to the list of questions above, which are designed to help publishers avoid creating content primarily for search engines, it also asks the following six questions that people-first publishers should be able to answer “yes”:

  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?
  6. Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?

Looking at both lists of questions and everything else Google has said about the helpful content update, nothing changes in terms of what Google wants from content and creators. The same rules apply but SEOs will be busy analysing the impact of this update for many months to see whether the weighting of any factors changes.

What should I do if my website is affected by the Google helpful content update?

If you detect a site-wide drop in rankings, it’s certainly possible that you’ve been affected by the helpful content update. If this is the case, refer to both lists of questions above and perform an honest analysis of your content to determine how much risk this update poses to your website.

If you’re already worried about the potential impact of the helpful content update, perform this analysis as quickly (but comprehensively) as possible.

The trouble with site-wide updates is that your whole search ranking can suffer but the good news is you can take action to recover. Better yet, if your content performs well with this update, your whole site could benefit over the coming weeks or in the near future if you take steps to improve the quality of your content.

If your rankings drop as a result of this update, the first step is to run a content audit and remove or update problematic content. This is in line with Google’s advice on dealing with the helpful content update.

“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.”

Removing problematic content may be the fastest way to recover your search ranking but you have to determine why you produced this content in the first place. For many website owners, this update will require an overhaul of publishing processes to ensure all future content meets Google’s requirements.

Here are the key steps you’ll need to take:

  1. Define your audience: Specify your target audience and publish content specifically for them.
  2. Audience research: Put resources into understanding your target audience and what they need from you.
  3. Content relevance: With your audience defined, ensure every piece of content is relevant to them and avoid publishing content simply for views from wider, irrelevant users.
  4. Topical focus: Keep your content topics tightly focused to your brand and target audience – resist the urge to venture outside of this for low-relevance keyword opportunities.
  5. Content depth: Provide in-depth information but don’t add fluff or artificially inflate word counts – deliver as much value in as few words as possible.
  6. Expertise: Make sure you have the expertise to publish content on the topics you cover – follow the guidelines for E-A-T and YMYL.
  7. Use humans: Avoid using any AI technology to produce auto-generated content.
  8. Helpful content: Make sure every piece of content delivers value to its target audience.
  9. People-first content: Avoid creating content simply to drive traffic from keyword opportunities.
  10. Offer something new: Don’t simply regurgitate or summarise what everyone else is saying – offer something new of value.
  11. Deliver on promises: If you promise something in your titles, search listings, intros, etc. make sure you deliver within the same piece of content.
  12. Positive experiences: Do everything you can to deliver a positive experience while users engage with your site and content.
  13. Run regular audits: Constantly analyse your content to ensure it delivers value and remove or update problematic pages.

The steps we’ve outlined above are based on everything Google has told us about the helpful content update. Let’s be honest, though, publishers should already be doing all of the above as part of their content marketing and SEO strategies.

We may add further steps to the list above as we learn more about the new update, especially if we find Google is changing the weighting to certain signals or it’s using new technology to judge “helpful” content with greater accuracy.

For now, though, the steps for producing quality content are the same.

When will the helpful content update finish rolling out?

The helpful content update started rolling out on August 25, 2022, and Google says the rollout could take up to two weeks to complete. So the update should finish rolling out at some point next week and you can keep checking the official Google search ranking updates page for status updates.

What can we do to help?

Of course, good content requires so much more than implementing keywords and sticking to a sufficient word count. For any website, and if done correctly, search engine optimisation is very important, but unfortunately, some websites run with unethical SEO techniques like buying backlinks or spamming keywords to rank higher.

Our SEO and Content specialists help to create unique, meaningful content, powered by data. If your website has more low-value content than you know how to deal with, our team can help you to identify and prioritise pages that will help you to achieve organic success.

At Vertical Leap, we’ll be keeping a close eye on how this update will impact our clients.

Get in touch

Worried? Give us a call on 02392 830281 or email [email protected] and let’s work together to breathe new life into your existing content, identify any content that isn’t adding value to your search ranking, and create a strategy with you to improve it.

Abbie Mitchell profile picture
Abbie Mitchell

Abbie is a member of the sales and marketing team at Vertical Leap. She helps businesses understand the importance of digital marketing and advises on which services will help them best achieve their objectives.

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