Last updated on December 8, 2022.
On August 25, Google has rolled out its fifth official update this year, dubbed the “Helpful Content Update” by Google itself.
The update had SEOs and webmasters all over the world glued to their screens, relentlessly refreshing their Analytics and Search Console data waiting to see if their sites would be hit.
However, most haven’t seen much change in their rankings. After the rollout was completed on September 9, it left SEOs wondering what all the fuss was about.
Then, on December 5, Google released a second Helpful Content Update which aims to improve the Helpful Content System and affects all languages.
In this post, we’ll take a deeper look at these updates, what is known about their impact so far, and what you should do now to ensure your site continues performing optimally!
Table of Contents
The updates in a nutshell
- Name: Helpful Content Update
- Rollout of the first update: between August 25 and September 9, 2022
- Rollout of the second update: started on December 5
- Type: Algorithm update (new signal, applied automatically)
- Goal: Reward user-focused, helpful content
- Mechanism: New negative signal, will feel like a penalty if applied
- Effect: Site-wide
- Location/language: While the first update affected English searches only, the second one was rolled out globally across all languages
What are the Helpful Content Updates & what do we know about them so far?
The new Helpful Content Updates are algorithm updates that target low-quality, search engine-first content in Search (i.e. content created for the sole purpose of ranking high on Google).
Next week, we will launch the “helpful content update” to better ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, rather than content made primarily for search engine traffic. Learn more & advice creators should consider: https://t.co/fgf2TPNIqD pic.twitter.com/xOuX2iVk2d
— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) August 18, 2022
In their blog post on the first update in August, Google says that it is “part of a broader effort to ensure people see more original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results.”
They go on to say that “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.”
The first update started rolling out on August 25 and was completed on September 9. It only worked for English searches at that point in time.
The first Helpful Content Update added a new, site-wide ranking signal to their algorithm (i.e. it impacts your complete website and not just the rankings of individual pages). This signal uses machine learning to identify content with little to no value to readers. This should, in theory, help sites with high-quality, user-friendly content and hurt sites with a lot of low-quality, search engine-first content. As expected, Google hasn’t mentioned exactly HOW the new signal determines what content is helpful/unhelpful, nor have they disclosed the expected impact.
SEO conspiracy theory on.
What if the Helpful Update, now almost at its 2 weeks of roll out, nothing was a replica of the Mobilegeddon of 2015/16? A trick by Google to push everybody cleaning the 💩 content they created along the years fearing for the flame of the Balrog? pic.twitter.com/X20pxifrZh
— Gianluca Fiorelli (@gfiorelli1) September 5, 2022
The new signal is weighted, meaning the more unhelpful content a site has the harder it’s hit. However, Google also mentioned that individual pieces of people-first content could still perform well on a site with a lot of unhelpful content if other signals show Google that these specific content pieces are helpful to users.
Moreover, the new signal is applied automatically, and “sites identified by this update may find the signal applied to them over a period of months.” This means that it could still take some time before the full effects are known. It also means that the impact could be gradual in some cases, making it harder to detect when a site is hit by the update.
Good discussion here re the helpful content update.
It seems mild so far, but for the (possibly small) number of sites affected it was serious.
It sounds like it may affect more sites as the ML classifier learns what's helpful and unhelpful. https://t.co/FPUyRRpTf9
— Dr. Marie Haynes💡 (@Marie_Haynes) September 6, 2022
The second Helpful Content Update started on December 5 and aims to improve this signal. It now affects all languages globally and not only English searches. According to Google, this update will further improve the classifier for unhelpful content.
What impact has it had so far?
The first update has led to mixed reactions from SEOs and webmasters. Many SEOs haven’t seen much of an impact at all…
Google's 'helpful content update' pic.twitter.com/CyTsciIi8y
— DataChazGPT 🤯 (not a bot) (@DataChaz) September 1, 2022
Others noticed niches where an impact could be seen…
I've done a lot of work in the lyrics space over the past 10+ years. Lily's comment about lyrics sites had me look further into the niche, & there's actually A LOT of impact. The top players seem fine, but lower quality sites seem impacted (and a # don't have licensing rights…) https://t.co/qjieoKUeei
— Glenn Gabe (@glenngabe) September 7, 2022
Another interesting finding was shared by SEO expert Lily Ray. She noticed that a few sites were negatively impacted that tried to be experts on a variety of topics (instead of focusing on one area of expertise) and didn’t provide any unique or helpful content.
This is more in line with what I was expecting to see from the Helpful Content Update:
This is a site that has a ton of 'meh' content (def. human written) about all kinds of topics – health, dating, horoscopes, celebs, product reviews, etc.
Lots of ads & affiliate links
— Lily Ray 😏 (@lilyraynyc) September 7, 2022
In general, however, most SEOs agreed that, at least for now, the impact doesn’t seem to be as large as expected.
A poll posted by Aleya Solis on Twitter stated that only about 20% of SEOs noticed any ranking changes in the first week of the first update.
Have any of your Websites experienced any impact from the Google Helpful Content Update so far?
— Aleyda Solis 🇺🇦 (@aleyda) September 2, 2022
However, given the fact that Google has stated that the signal can be applied over a matter of months, it’s difficult to tell what kind of an impact this update will have in the long run.
On top of that, Google’s Danny Sullivan has also repeatedly stated on Twitter that this update is an ongoing thing.
With the helpful content update, it's as we've said, an ongoing thing. If you launch some new site full of unhelpful content, it might spot that soon after launch, and the site might not see a change in traffic because it never really gains….
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) September 6, 2022
The 2nd update in December did not have a particularly strong impact in the first few days since its release, but it’s not clear yet if it will have a stronger impact than the first update in the long run.
So it’s worth keeping an eye on your rankings over the next few months. But keep in mind that any ranking fluctuations in the near future don’t necessarily have to be related to this update.
With all this uncertainty, you’re probably wondering what to do now in order to keep your website rankings on track.
What should SEOs do now?
In short: continue creating high-quality content that’s on-topic, satisfies your user’s search intent and follows both Google’s guidelines and SEO best practices.
In its official blog post, Google also mentions multiple times to remove unhelpful content from your site. But how do you know which content is “unhelpful”?
Google provides a number of questions you can ask yourself to make sure you’re not taking a search engine-first approach:
- 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 summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?
- Are you writing about things simply because they seem 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?
As well as a number of questions that can help you judge whether your content is considered helpful or not:
- 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?
- 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)?
- Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
- After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
- Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
- Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?
Whether or not you should follow Google’s recommendation and outright remove content will depend on the situation. Before deleting content, always take into account a page’s traffic before and after the update and whether or not it can be edited.
You may find that making a few small changes or editing the page to be more helpful is all you need to do.
That being said, if you feel like you’ve been negatively affected by these updates, it’s definitely worth going through the questions provided and checking whether your content follows Google’s guidelines to see what changes are worth making.
Will SEO best practices become obsolete now?
Google clearly stated that the updates focus on promoting content that’s user-focused as opposed to search engine-focused, meaning they prioritize content that’s written for the reader as opposed to content that’s solely written to perform well in search engines. However, they also mention that SEO best practices don’t have to be ignored completely, stating the following:
“Our advice about having a people-first approach does not invalidate following SEO best practices, such as those covered in Google’s own SEO guide. SEO is a helpful activity when it’s applied to people-first content. However, content created primarily for search engine traffic is strongly correlated with content that searchers find unsatisfying.”
This means that SEO best practices still remain an integral part of a successful website (as long as they are applied to the right type of content) and therefore shouldn’t be ignored.
Do’s & don’ts
The purpose these updates serve isn’t anything new. Google has been trying to crack down on low-quality content ever since the Panda update in 2011, and there’s no reason to expect this to change any time soon.
If you want your site to continue performing well in the SERPs, here’s a summary of the most important do’s and don’ts:
- Create unique, high-quality content that’s tailored to a specific audience
- Audit the content on your site to ensure it’s helpful and complies with Google’s guidelines
- Monitor your site over the next few months to quickly identify any drops in rankings/traffic
- Keep an eye on SEO news in case new information about future refinements of this update is made available (Tip: You can find an overview of officially confirmed Google updates that we constantly keep up-to-date here.)
- Remove or rewrite unhelpful, low-quality content
- Make sure your site focuses on only a single specific topic
- Demonstrate experience, expertise, authority, and trust (E-E-A-T) in your content
- Follow SEO best-practices
- Publish low-quality content
- Add spam or unedited AI-generated content to your site
- Write content for search engines only (for example, by keyword stuffing)
If you follow these do’s and don’ts and continue creating high-quality content, you shouldn’t have to worry about your rankings being impacted by these updates anytime soon. Who knows: you might even see them tick up in the near future!PS: Get blog updates straight to your inbox!