When Google communicated its helpful content systems update in 2022, lots of folks were worried their content would be affected.
If your content wasn’t up to scratch, you’d be right to be worried.
What could possibly go wrong?
- Lower rankings in search results
- Lower click through rate in search results
- Fewer readers on your website
- Fewer leads through Google search
- Less revenue from inbound content marketing
- More pressure on other marketing channels
- Dramatic decrease in revenue if your primary marketing channel is inbound
It rather spirals out of control, doesn’t it?
So, what if I told you that you don’t need to make vast technical SEO changes or spend weeks on page landing speed and hacking your way to comply with Google policies?
Sounds good, right?
And it’s even easier than you might think.
As the update suggests, all you’ve got to do is….create helpful content!
What is Google’s helpful content update?
In 2022, Google rolled out its helpful content system. This is designed to “better ensure people see original, helpful content written by people, for people, in search results”.
The system itself generates a signal that Google’s ranking algorithm uses to sort which web pages are presented in which order in Google’s search results.
Note, this is merely one signal in an extremely complex algorithm. Google doesn’t disclose how heavily its helpful content system is weighted in terms of ranking power, but you can be sure it’s pretty high.
As a result of the update, many content marketers and SEOs jumped to research what radical changes they would need to help. Many thought this would be one of the most significant changes of Google’s search algorithm for many years.
In reality, all they needed to do was make sure they were making helpful content. After all, if your content is the most helpful online content about a particular topic, it should get rewarded with the top spot on Google.
To understand why Google may penalize some content and reward others, it’s important to understand what Google means by helpful content.
What is helpful content?
Google has always had the stance that content must be “helpful, reliable, and people-first”.
It has also stated time and again that its automatic ranking systems are designed to present the most helpful, reliable, and people-first content—rather than to gain search engine rankings.
If we accept that creating the most helpful content (and not getting the most backlinks) is the best way to showcase our content via Google, we must understand that helpful content includes the following:
- Is original (not copied) content
- Is not exaggerated for clickbait
- Is free from spelling and grammar errors
- Provides insightful analysis beyond the obvious
- Provides a substantial description of the search query
Yes, this has been the way for some time. Google has always focused on rewarding good content.
But now we see a more heavily weighted impact on great content. It is more helpful if your content does these:
- Directly answers searcher’s queries
- Provides a single source for every a searcher needs
- Demonstrates authority to the point of trusting the author
- Is comprehensive or interesting enough to share to a friend or colleague
Even when you check off all these items, you may still find genuine competition ranking for specific keywords and queries.
Ultimately, to stand out and be ranked at the very top, you need to do one major thing:
- Produce the most helpful version available online
Only when you’re satisfied you’ve achieved this can you quarrel that Google is being unfair when your content doesn’t rank #1.
Note: producing the most content still requires a level of trust between Google and your site. All the best practices around building domain authority remain true. Until Google trusts you as a credible source, you won’t be seen as the most helpful.
What if you produced the most helpful guide to startup content marketing, Google ranks you #1, then you create a fake guide to e-commerce marketing strategy?
Google suffers reputational damage and you get rewarded for creating bad content.
The trust and credibility side to Google’s algorithm is ever present for a good reason.
How does Google’s helpful content update impact SEO?
If your content isn’t deemed helpful by Google, it won’t get rewarded with the top spot in the search results.
Theoretically, it should be nothing more or nothing less.
Of course, there are the slots on the rest of Google to fill. You can still rank #2 and get plenty of clicks.
But, studies do show that the #1 result in Google still has by far the highest organic click through rate.
The highlight stat from a study by Backlinko is that the #1 result on Google gets 27.6% of all clicks
If you get hit by Google’s helpful content update in a negative way, you’ll see more helpful content taking your place.
Likewise, if Google feels your content is more helpful, you’ll see your content listed above lesser content.
But it also means that other SERP features like featured snippets and videos become more important. Sometimes, the most helpful way of answering a query is a single sentence or paragraph.
A black and white question needs a black and white answer. In this case, expect to see content you created listed as the answer to a query on Google without the rest of the article included.
In theory, Google has provided a satisfactory answer to what the searcher typed.
In the same light, a video you embed in your blog post might be best suited for answering a particular query.
You did create the most helpful content and Google did post it at the top. But not necessarily how you’ve come to expect it in the past.
These are some unexpected ways Google’s helpful content update is impacting SEO.
One more near-exaggerated example is when searchers are looking for content related to celebrities, movies, or popular products.
Take a look at all the different SERP features in this example of a search for Bebe Rexha.
Google is doing its best to ensure every possible scenario is covered. Here, you’ve got one traditional web page listing, social profile links, links to music players, recent news, images, and information like age and parents.
Then look at what happens when you scroll down…
Before the official website for our keyphrase, we have links to songs, an About section, more social profiles, a People also search for section, and a People also ask section.
When this is the case, marketers must be flexible in their approach to both content creation and analytics.
First of all, we must be realistic in what we’re targeting. Best of luck if you’re expecting to write a high-ranking blog post about Bebe Rexha.
In some cases, no longer will pageviews correlate with conversions. Attribution of first-click data will become harder.
For example, a searcher may type, “Do pop ups convert customers?” and a snippet of your blog post appears with percentages and conversion rates.
The data you’ve sourced and reported is helpful so Google has displayed it. But the searcher hasn’t clicked through because they got their answer.
What they may have done, however, is store your company name in their mind. The next time they need help with a similar topic, they might come straight to your site.
It remains to be seen how marketers will best attack this unique issue. But one the marketing community is looking forward to answering.
How do I know if I’ve been impacted by Google’s helpful content update?
You’ve lost ranking positions to competing pages.
That’s the ultimate sign.
To find out if your pages have been impacted by Google’s helpful content update, follow this process:
- Conduct a content marketing audit in Google Analytics
- Work out which web pages used to get traffic
- Note the pages/posts that have declined in traffic
- Check an SEO tool (or on Google) to see if you’ve lost your previous ranking spot
This will give you a list of blog posts and web pages that used to rank high but are no longer as high as before.
Unfortunately, Google doesn’t tell you why your pages lose out to competing pages. But when you have a list of previously performing pages, you at least have a basis to start from.
From here, you can prioritize your content refreshes. These are when you take old content and spruce it up.
What we really mean here is make it better. Better in the eyes of Google and better for the searcher.
What to include in a content refresh?
The concept of a content refresh is simple:
- Identify old content that used to have good traffic
- Plan what you can update
- Update the content
- Republish it
As part of that update, make sure you include the following:
- Basic spelling and grammar
- Out-of-date statistics
- Internal links
- New keyword opportunities
- Optimization of existing components
- External quotes
The success of content refreshes cannot be understated.
When conducting your content refresh, don’t forget the underlying rule that Google’s Helpful Content update exists for.
Your content must be helpful.
How can I ensure my content is helpful?
Google has outlined some high-level criteria for ensuring your content is helpful.
But what does that actually mean?
Here are three best practices to ensure your content is genuinely helpful.
1 – Use real-world expert contributions
Ritoban Mukherjee, Founder of Nutgraf, a content marketing agency, says he’s been leaning more heavily on client’s expertise and experience.
“Other than including SME quotes from internal experts, I’m also regularly incorporating language that signals to search engines that the brand that I’m working for knows what they’re talking about. For example, if I was writing an article for ScreenCloud, I’d lead into the article with an introduction about the company’s experience in the field, how many companies they’ve impacted, why they should be trusted to talk about this topic. Etc. I don’t think it’s anything drastic, but small changes like these can sometimes go a long way.”
This is an example of using real-world contributions. See what I did there?
2 – Conduct your own original research
Ross Simmonds, CEO of Foundation Marketing, tweeted about the importance of research in your marketing content.
Aside from pleasing Google with your own original research, you have a plethora of stats and deductions you can use in all your content.
Tip: don’t forget to add an internal link to the original report each time!
3 – Test your page load speed and other Core Web Vitals
If we’re talking about being helpful, there’s nothing less helpful than a page that takes forever to load.
The first sign that your page load speed is poor is that you can clearly see it takes a while to load. There is no better judgment than testing your pages on different devices and across WiFi, 4G, and 3G connections.
Your ultimate goal should be to have “good” URLs only for both mobile and desktop.
While it’s easy to get hung up on ticking every box to make every small change in these types of reports, don’t forget that the page experience Google ranks is the whole experience. So, removing something for the sake of page speed may be detrimental to the experience of the article.
For example, a blog post will often load faster without a video embedded. But that video might make the blog post 10x more valuable.
Always consider the tradeoffs when trying to speed up your pages.
Is Google’s helpful content actually helpful?
It’s a resounding yes. Google’s helpful content update is helpful.
It’s helpful for searchers who are looking to get as much information in an efficient as possible manner.
It’s helpful for marketers who need a simple guiding light to create content that genuinely helps readers.
With more emphasis on helpful content, and less focus on hacking our way to number one on Google, the marketers who create the best version available online will be duly rewarded.