September has been a busy month in the SEO world, starting with Google’s Helpful Content Update (HCU), which finished rolling out on Sept. 9. Members of the SEO community and algorithm tracking tools reported fluctuations almost immediately.
There was, however, no rest for the weary. A mere three days later, Google announced a broad core update for the search algorithm. To say SEO professionals were caught off guard would be putting it lightly. While the long-term impact of these updates is not fully understood at the time of writing, having a high-level idea of their intention can be crucial to developing better content and more technically-sound pages going forward.
What was the helpful content update all about?
Google describes the helpful content update as something intended to benefit sites that “focus on people-first content,” meaning they want you to “avoid creating content for search engines first.” These are a bit vague and, frankly, a bit synonymous. So instead of taking them as they are, I’ve distilled them down into what I believe are their core points (pun intended):
Humans come first
To paraphrase Wil Reynolds during his presentation at MozCon this year, “people come to search engines because they need help, and we get to provide that help.” A pretty cool thought, right? It’s also a simple one: at the end of the day, all content creation and development is done for the sake of the humans reading it. While making sure search engine bots can crawl and index your content is crucial, it doesn’t add up to much if you’re creating it for the pure sake of ranking — and the helpful content update (is the name making sense now?) is meant to benefit the sites that keep this goal in mind.
So, what makes content “unhelpful?” It’s been long-established that keyword stuffing will backfire and word count is not a ranking factor (this, by the way, is also repeated in the official Google blog for the HCU.) To think of it on a business level, ask yourself “what do current and potential customers want to know about my product/service?” Not only will this be a great starting point for content in itself, but it’ll also lead you down many helpful paths when performing more rigorous keyword research.
And if you find something you’re preparing to write has never actually come up in conversation with a customer, maybe it’s worth skipping, even if it was a blip on a keyword research tool at some point.
Just because you can rank for something…
… doesn’t mean you should, and it seems that the HCU will likely enforce that. In the Search Central blog, Google asks, “Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?”
I have a perfect example for this (bear with me here, non-gamers.) The video game Destiny 2 has a merchant character named Xur who appears in-game just a few days a week to sell rare items, and each week the location he camps at changes. On a couple of occasions, I went to Google to see where he was and what he was selling, which would often point me to articles like this one on Forbes. It answered my question, sure, but it also led me to ask another question:
“Why the hell am I reading a video game guide on Forbes?”
Herein lies the dilemma. Sites as large as Forbes (Business Insider and CNet also come to mind) are often able to quickly rank for a hot topic because of the clout behind their domain, even when it’s nowhere near the main focus of their site. Since these sites also frequently appear in featured snippets as “news articles,” these pieces may rank above a purpose-built site like whereisxur.com. I think one of the big intentions behind the helpful content update is to level the playing field in this sense.
Speaking of Wil Reynolds, he also demonstrated this point in an excellent blog post back in August (see: the “Stay in your lane” section), which initially led me to explore this idea, so big kudos to him!
The rise of the machines
The Search Central blog also asks, “are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?” Let’s explore this.
AI writing tools are here, and they’re not going away. These systems can be used to write coherent blog posts and other site content with simple prompts. When deployed at scale, they could easily cover any number of topics with little human input.
So, what’s this got to do with the helpful content update? Well, as I said, you could use an AI writing tool to churn out very large amounts of content at once with minimal human scrutiny. This process introduces two issues:
- While these tools have come an incredibly long way, they are still imperfect. Without human oversight, strange and unnatural-sounding results can be reached.
- Most tools that can produce substantial results at scale cost money, potentially making them inaccessible for smaller businesses with tight marketing budgets. As a result, one could argue that larger companies could simply “pay to win,” which Google very deliberately aims to avoid.
These points tie back into the subject of designing for humans; if you’re feeding a bunch of keywords/phrases to a bot and publishing the results en masse, are you really taking the time to consider the needs and wants of your audience?
While there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with utilizing AI to create content, I believe Google intends to put ranking priority on content that has had actual human review and input and is not automatically generated.
Not writing clickbait should be evident by now, but because it’s incredibly important, here are some very self-explanatory quotes from the Search Central blog:
- “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?”
- “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?”
It’s simple stuff. If you have nothing of value to add to a topic, focus your attention elsewhere. Above all, don’t be misleading.
And what about the broad core algorithm update?
At time of writing, this update is still in the middle of a two-week rollout period, so data on its purpose and impact is still limited. Chatter from SEOs and webmasters has varied, with most of it skewing towards a negative impact or no impact at all.
Personally, I haven’t observed a significant change among my sites. For the ones that have seen fluctuations, it’s hard to say if it’s a direct result of the HCU/September update since those sites, coincidentally, have had other improvements made in recent weeks that aren’t strictly focused on content.
There is speculation that the September core update was directly tied to the helpful content update, which would seemingly be supported by their extremely close proximity; by comparison, the last major core update was in May 2022 and before that, November 2021. Google has not confirmed or denied if this is the case.
While there is much study to come in deciphering the full implications of these two updates, as well as their curiously close rollout dates, the core takeaway (again, pun intended) is to simply remember the human when you’re creating content.
Though studying the volume and other metrics behind keywords is essential to developing content, the most critical practice of all is understanding your audience. As search engines get better and better at deciphering thoughtful, quality content from mass-produced content intended to appease them specifically, you’ll find that the winning strategy is to be helpful to people first. Then, the rankings and conversions will follow. To learn more about developing quality content and positioning your business for success online, contact us!