Promoting high-quality, people-first content in search has been one of Google’s top priorities for some time now. Google’s Helpful Content System, which was first introduced in their August 2022 Helpful Content Update, is one of the latest tools they’ve added to their arsenal to achieve this goal.
The initial 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 didn’t see much change in their rankings. After the rollout was completed, it left SEOs wondering what all the fuss was about.
But a subsequent update in December of that same year and another rolled out in September 2023 clearly show the Helpful Content System is here to stay – with potentially far-reaching implications for SEO.
In this post, we’ll take a deeper look at what the Helpful Content System is, what is known about the impact of the updates, and what you can do to ensure your site continues performing optimally as new updates are rolled out!
Table of Contents
- 1 Google’s Helpful Content System in a nutshell
- 2 What is Google’s Helpful Content System?
- 3 The Helpful Content Updates
- 4 What impact has the Helpful Content System had so far?
- 5 What should SEOs do to avoid being hit by the Helpful Content System?
- 6 Preparing for future Helpful Content Updates
- 7 Do’s & don’ts
Google’s Helpful Content System in a nutshell
- Name: Helpful Content System
- Released updates so far:
- The first Helpful Content Update: August 25 – September 9, 2022
- The second update: December 5, 2022 – January 12, 2023
- The third update: September 14 – 28, 2023
- Type: new ranking signal, applied automatically
- Goal: Reward user-focused, helpful content
- Mechanism: negative signal, will feel like a penalty if applied
- Effect: Site-wide
- Location/language: While the first update affected English searches only, the following ones were rolled out globally across all languages
What is Google’s Helpful Content System?
Google’s Helpful Content System is a new algorithm Google introduced in their August 2022 Helpful Content Update. It provides a site-wide signal that aims to reduce the visibility of content that provides users with a poor experience.
In Google’s own words: “Google Search’s helpful content system generates a signal used by our automated ranking systems to better ensure people see original, helpful content created for people in search results. “
Since it’s a weighted signal, the more unhelpful content a website has, the stronger the effect will be. If it is applied to your website, it would feel like a penalty that is applied gradually over a period of months.
It was initially only applied to English-language searches, but Google’s Helpful Content System now applies to all languages.
Major updates to this system are called Helpful Content Updates by Google and the broader SEO community.
The Helpful Content Updates
Google’s Helpful Content Updates, of which there have been three to date, are updates related to the Helpful Content System. These updates 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
There have been three Helpful Content Updates to date, but there will likely be more in the future as Google continues to develop this new signal.
The first Helpful Content Update was rolled out in August 2022 and it signaled the introduction of Google’s Helpful Content System in their broader automated ranking algorithm.
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 went 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 second Helpful Content Update was rolled out on December 5, 2022, and aimed to improve the signal introduced in the first update. From this point on, it affected all languages globally instead of only English searches. This second update also added new signals that help the Helpful Content System detect search-engine first content better, as well as identify low-quality pages in the eyes of visitors.
The third update to their Helpful Content System was rolled out on September 14, 2023. This new update included an improved classifier according to Google, although they (again) didn’t go into great detail on what this might mean for website owners and SEOs.
The September 2023 helpful content update is rolling out with an improved classifier. It will take about two weeks to complete. We'll update our ranking release history page when the rollout is complete: https://t.co/hgjEkfpbA2
— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) September 14, 2023
What impact has the Helpful Content System had so far?
Over the past three updates, where the Helpful Content System was introduced and subsequently improved upon, the impact seen by SEOs and webmasters has been mixed.
Many SEOs and webmasters have seen very little change during or directly after these updates.
However, this likely has to do with the fact that the Helpful Content System is applied gradually over time, making it very hard to attribute ranking fluctuations to it directly.
Also, if you’re following SEO best practices and creating high-quality content on your site, then the signal won’t be applied to your site and you shouldn’t see much change.
That being said, the Helpful Content System seems to target low-quality “SEO Content” in search. However, there don’t seem to be any new best practices being reported by SEOs besides the general advice to create helpful content.
There are many examples of websites being hit around the time of the updates though, which give us an insight into the kinds of pages this new signal seems to target.
This post by Lily Ray goes into a broad range of examples, ranging from AI content sites and product review sites to low-added value lyric and travel websites – all of which saw drastic ranking declines around the time the first and second updates were rolled out.
All of the sites covered in this post are either examples of undeniable spam or just generally low-added-value content. This includes things like unedited AI content, sites with a large number of unoriginal blog posts that don’t demonstrate any kind of Expertise, Experience, Authority or Trust (E-E-A-T), and lyric sites adding no additional value when compared to other pages ranking for their keywords.
There also seem to be certain niches and types of websites most impacted by the initial introduction of the Helpful Content System. This article on Web CEO gives a good overview of what these sites are and also dives into the industries that showed the least volatility during the initial update.
As Google continues to improve its Helpful Content System and new Helpful Content Updates are rolled out, it should, in theory, become more and more challenging to rank unhelpful content and helpful content should be rewarded more often.
So, it seems like the Helpful Content System is doing what Google built it to do, even if it might not be able to remove 100% of low-quality content from search just yet.
As pages with low-added value slowly start getting a harsher treatment and, eventually, go the way of the dodo, creating helpful content is becoming more important.
The term “helpful content” is a vague concept though, so it’s not always clear to SEOs and webmasters what they should do to make sure their website traffic isn’t hit by this new algorithm.
Although we don’t have a crystal ball or a “cheeky-peak pass” to be able to see how this algorithm works or what exactly it’s looking for, there are some best practices you can follow to reduce the chances of being hit by this new ranking system…
What should SEOs do to avoid being hit by the Helpful Content System?
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 on the first update, 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.
Preparing for future Helpful Content Updates
Preparing for future updates is hard since there’s no way of knowing what factors are used currently or what might be used in future. However, in the case of the Helpful Content System, Google has been very clear about what the goal is: “present helpful, reliable information that’s primarily created to benefit people, not to gain search engine rankings”.
So, even though we don’t know exactly what factors Google will use to judge whether content is helpful, there are some general best practices we can implement alongside our day-to-day SEO work to improve our chances of a good outcome.
Stick to your website’s topic
The first is to stick to your website’s main topic and not stray too far away from it. This is important for your blog but also when it comes to your service/product pages as well as other pages on your site.
Although it may be the case that very high-authority sites, like large news sites or major publications, can still command a broad niche covering hundreds of sub-niches, most sites can’t.
It’s one thing for Forbes – a magazine first published over 100 years ago with a 30-year-old domain – to rank for all business topics ranging from finance and accounting to marketing.
But if Jim’s one-year-old blog tries to do this, he’s unlikely to succeed.
Choose your niche and stick to it to ensure search engines can easily understand what your website is about and who your target audience is. The narrower the niche, the more topically relevant your website is going to be and the quicker you will be seen as an expert in this niche.
Write from first-hand experience and/or expert opinions
Whether it’s in articles about E-E-A-T, the Product Review Update or their Helpful Content System, expertise and first-hand experience are two things that Google mentions constantly.
This somewhat overlaps with the previous point, but it’s important to talk about things you actually have experience with and have the required level of expertise on.
There’s a lot of debate about what Google means by expertise and experience, with some stating it’s “just links” while others say Google checks images and content for signs of first-hand experience.
We can’t tell you what Google is/isn’t doing now or what they will/won’t try in future.
What we can do, however, is give you a general best practice:
Stick to the topics your business is knowledgeable on and has experience with, and try to portray this experience and expertise where possible. This includes your backlinks, but also author bios and within your content in general. For more detailed advice on how to demonstrate experience and expertise on your website, take a look at our in-depth E-E-A-T guide.
Write for your readers
There’s nothing more unhelpful than a shallow, keyword-stuffed blog post that barely scratches the surface.
Knowing who your readers are and what kind of content they’re looking for is paramount – not just for riding the waves caused by future Helpful Content Updates, but for your overall website performance.
By writing for your readers instead of for search engines, you can improve your user signals and improve your SEO performance.
This doesn’t mean you should ignore on-page SEO though… (more on that later)
It’s still a good idea to optimize your content for search engines and include the right keywords and related search terms in the right places.
Our free TF*IDF tool is a great starting point!
However, user experience should come first. Take your time to optimize your content properly, ensuring it doesn’t affect how the content reads for real visitors.
Keep old content updated
Stale and outdated content is likely going to be classed as unhelpful content since it’s no longer of any use to anyone.
When content was last updated plays a major role in how relevant and factual it is. By regularly updating content, you ensure it’s as helpful as possible to your readers.
This is especially important for time-sensitive topics, but it also holds true for evergreen content. If evergreen content is regularly refreshed, readers know for sure it’s still 100% relevant, which will improve their trust in the content.
This isn’t the only reason why refreshing content is a good idea though…
We’ve actually named it as SEO’s ‘Quickest Win’ in our recent post on content refreshes, given it can have a major direct impact on your Search performance!
Don’t skimp on promotion
Although not stated outright by Google, most SEOs would agree that backlinks and off-page signals play a major role in portraying trust and expertise.
If other sites link to a piece of content, it’s clearly helpful to readers of the page linking to it. If people are navigating to the content from social media or even through ads, it also signals it’s helpful/interesting to those people.
Writing content in a void and hoping someone will stumble upon it by accident isn’t going to cut it – regardless of the quality of your content.
Actively promoting your content will help your content get seen and show Google that publishers and readers view your content as helpful.
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 ranking in search (as long as they are applied to the right type of content) and therefore shouldn’t be ignored.
And let’s be honest – SEO has “died” at least 20 times in the past few years…
Yet it’s still one of the best marketing channels available today. We’re sure it can die at least a few more times before becoming obsolete 😉
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 final summary of some 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 in the months after a Helpful Content Update 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
- Promote your content on various different marketing channels
- Publish low-quality content
- Publish content on topics other than the topic your site is about
- 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!