Google’s Helpful Content Update: What You Need To Know

In August 2022, Google announced its helpful content update.

The punchline? If Google determines that most of your content is unhelpful, it will impact the search performance across your entire site.

This is a welcomed change for committed creators striving to produce top-notch content.

But there’s a bit to unpack here, so let’s start with why Google is rolling out this update.

There are still too many unsatisfactory pages that rank in the SERPs

No doubt, you’ve Google’d something, clicked on a link because you felt it would address your needs, only to find that:

  1. The content is off-topic, i.e., the promise in the title didn’t match your intentions.
  2. The page kind of answered your questions, but you didn’t learn anything new.
  3. The content feels impersonal, like a robot. Ahem, that’s because it probably is the work of a robot 🤖 (read: Will AI Replace Content Writers?).

This is the shitty experience that billions of searchers are experiencing daily.

But how is this happening under Google’s watchful eye? Well, as Gary Vaynerchuck always says, marketers ruin everything.

Marketers discover how to get attention and exploit the opportunity through scale, process, and automation.

Google calls it a search engine-first approach.

Examples of search engine-first approaches that you need to stop doing

Hopefully, most SEOs have moved past the days of keyword stuffing and black-hat link-building techniques. Google addressed these issues many years ago.

These new exploitations are more nuanced. And honestly, they may sneak up on you. I know I’ve had some of these habits at some point. Let’s look at some examples.

Example #1 – Taking content clusters too far

Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?

There are a few ways to interpret this question from Google’s guide.

One thought is that they’re trying to crack down on folks trying to win rankings through sheer content velocity. The more pages you have on your website, the more opportunities you have to rank.

Again, marketers ruin things through scale. However, I think SEOs are more intelligent than that.

Scale and velocity are still a priority. But only tightly related to the website niche. And that’s where content clustering comes in.

Content clustering is where you create a series of posts related to one overarching topic. It’s a slight move away from the “ultimate guides” that attempted to cover a topic comprehensively.

For example, let’s say you run a site about eco-friendly living, and you want to write about how to make zero-waste products.

You could write a 4,000-word guide covering all the different products you can make waste-free. The idea is that the user lands on your page and enjoys your one-stop post for all the sustainable products they can make.

The problem with this approach is that users may only want to learn how to make zero-waste toothpaste. Yet they have to sift through thousands of words to get what they want.

With content clustering, the topic of how to make zero-waste products becomes a pillar article in your series. Instead of writing an A-Z guide, this post provides an overview of the different products you can create. Then links to more specific articles in your catalogue covering individual products.

So the browser that just wants to know how to make zero-waste deodorant is satisfied with the dedicated post covering the topic. They also have the option to read your other tutorials if they want more information.

I’m all for content clustering as it provides a better user experience and gives your website more topical authority.

But we can take it too far and create anything and everything under the sun with the hope of ranking.

Trying to overpower the SERPs with content velocity puts you at risk of page cannibalization and templated articles, which provide a bland experience—especially when combined with the following example.

Example #2 – Relying too much on AI to produce content

AI content is picking up steam, and rightfully so. Tools like Jasper are getting eerily good at writing like humans.

What started as an innocent writing assistant has evolved into a content automation machine for marketers to exploit.

Earlier this year, Spencer Haws from Niche Pursuits started an experiment of producing 1,000,000 words of content using AI to see if it performs in search.

I love Spencer and have learned a lot from him over the years. I know this is an experiment to document for his audience. But his case study is a representation of what the many SEOs who are publishing copious amounts of AI-generated content.

Google knows it. Interestingly, I don’t think they’re entirely opposed to AI content.

Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?

I interpret this question as if we heavily rely on automated content; then we risk producing an unsatisfactory experience. They didn’t say, “are you using any automation to produce content?”

So AI content with lots of input from credible research, sources, and your personal experiences are probably still okay. But doing that prep work defeats the purpose of scale and automation for many marketers.

Example #3 – Summarizing what others say without adding any value

Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?

I’m helping my mother-in-law develop an SEO system for her organic tea business.

She doesn’t know anything about SEO. But she mentioned in passing that whenever she Google’s something in the tea space, the top results all say the same thing.

“It’s like they’re copying each other.” Those were her exact words.

I explained to her that it’s a common practice for writers to use the top results as the only research for producing an article. Then they use content optimization tools like Surfer and Frase, which score you based on how similar you are to the top results.

She said, “that’s ridiculous.” I have to agree with her.  

In response to this cookie-cutter search experience, Google has blatantly said:

With this update, you’ll see more results with unique, authentic information, so you’re more likely to read something you haven’t seen before. Source

To add something unique that readers haven’t seen, writers need to work harder to get original material.  

Example #4 – Readers feel the need to keep searching after reading your content

Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?

There’s no one way to satisfy a reader. It could be the writing style, original data, visuals, or something else. Even then, the experiences are unique for each user.

One thing is for sure; Google is getting better and determining if a reader is satisfied with the content. And the less dancing a user does between the SERPs and the linked pages in the results, the better.

Your content goal should be to end the users’ search.

Example #5 – Writing to a set word count

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).

SEO in 2010 was all about pumping out 500-word articles.

Then it was the 5,000-word definitive guide.

I’ve recently worked with clients in the B2B space that end up with around 2,000 words on average.

There’s always a new study every year on the ideal word count for a blog post (probably because it’s a good search term), so many of us blindly follow the data.

If we’re not chasing industry averages, we’re told we should keep the word count in the vicinity of the top-ranking pages. I’m pretty sure I gave this advice to someone last week.

The logic here is that if the average word count of the top three results is 1,500 words, you shouldn’t stray too far away from that target.

Not anymore. That’s putting search engines above people.  

Upon reflection, this approach perpetuates the previous issue of copycat content. I hope these updates discourage creators from following the crowd.

Example #6 – Entering a niche purely for search traffic

Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?

Some folks love the game of business. The thrill of building, acquiring, and selling niche websites as part of a portfolio is what drives their motivation.

The blog topic doesn’t matter; it’s about applying a process and getting results. In other words, they’ll hire writers who specialize in the topic.

However, most of us who are part of solo or small teams looking to make a living through SEO writing need to have the expertise or at least an interest in the topics we’re writing about.

Sure, I could write about succulents. But I’m not interested in them. So it would show in my writing.

Google is responding to search engine-first content by prioritizing people-first content.

What is people-first content, and how do you measure it?

Google defines people-first content as focusing first on creating satisfying content while also using SEO best practices to bring searchers additional value.

The way I interpret people-first content is through engagement. To engage a user to read and digest every word on your page, you must think about their experience.

Much like how YouTube measures content satisfaction by watch time, we should be viewing article engagement by read time.

Only after you’ve thought about how you’ll increase your average read time should you then move on to using SEO best practices. That’s my abstract example (see, I’m trying to add something unique to the conversation 😉).

Google has provided some interesting questions to help you measure your people-first efforts. Let’s take a look.

Will your audience find the content useful if they came directly to you? 

Say a visitor discovered your content through your newsletter. Or visit your homepage regularly. Would they find your content valuable? Or would they be disappointed with your collective body of work?

If you feel good enough about your content to share in your weekly newsletter, that’s a sign that your audience will find your articles helpful.

If you’ve been aggressively building out your clusters and answering obscure questions, you might not be as proud to distribute your content on other platforms.

Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand experience? (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)

This one’s a biggy.

Google called out product reviewers and travel bloggers who aggregate and repurpose content instead of sharing first-hand experiences.

How will Google’s AI measure first-hand experience? Who knows. My guess is that using original images is a good starting point.

And speaking in the first person about what you liked and didn’t like about an experience would feel more first-hand.

Google’s helpful content update

Put people first, SEO second. That means there’s more pressure on being original.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves and create unique and engaging content.

And hopefully, this update will weed out all copycat marketers taking up valuable real estate in the SERPs.

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