Google wants content to focus on people, not search engines like theirs.
In a recent “Helpful Content Update,” Google announced a major change in its search engine algorithm. It’s also a powerful signal to marketers.
The change speaks about emphasizing people-generated content that’s relevant and relatable to people reading it.
Google notes that the new search modes are designed to reward content that gives viewers a “satisfying experience. At the same time, the company notes that content that does not meet viewer expectations will not perform as well in search results.
Nuts and Bolts of Helpful Content Update
The Helpful Content Update is a ranking indicator built into Google’s search algorithms. It checks the content to see how closely it follows the foundational search guidelines Google has published.
Those guidelines indicate that the following attributes are the most valued when ranking sites:
- Substantial descriptions
- Clear attributions of sources
- Extensive original research and analysis
Perhaps as critical as what Google said it will value is what it says it will not value.
Google’s guidelines indicate that websites should be created for users, not to influence or game search engines. The company also urges webmasters to create content that does not deceive users and to avoid content that is exclusively designed to improve search engine rankings.
“People-first content creators focus first on creating satisfying content, while also utilizing SEO best practices to bring searchers additional value,” Google writes in its blog post about the content update.
The update was announced in early August 2022 and rolled out later that month over the course of two weeks.
It acts as a new signal that Google uses, among many, to rank web pages. These signals help Google identify content that is of low value or not helpful to those searching for content.
If a website has a high level of unhelpful content, then the whole website is likely to do poorly in search results. That includes content on the pages that may be helpful. It’s an assumption Google makes – there is likely better content elsewhere to display.
That puts the onus even more so on webmasters to ensure all of their content is helpful and of high value. If there’s unhelpful content on your website, now is the time to remove or update it. Google notes that it may take months before any sites that have removed unhelpful content see improvements in their rankings. While the update will run continuously, it will look to see that unhelpful content has not been returned before removing the “unhelpful” classification.
Google Sends a Strong Message
Calling the shift in search a “Helpful Content Update” sends a powerful message. The name evokes the same user-friendliness it intends to emphasize in search going forward.
It also emphasizes how Google will value authenticity, coming at a time when artificial intelligence-generated content is gaining in capability and popularity. Google is saying that original, human-generated content will continue to be valued highest.
Google recognizes in its announcement that too much content is created not to inform and help, but rather to generate clicks.
In a blog post about the Helpful Content Update, Google notes the change is part of a broader effort to reward content that’s pertinent to what viewers are looking for in a search. That initiative was borne of updates launched in 2021 to its search algorithm based on quality tests and reviews by actual humans.
For years, content creators have tried to game the Google search algorithm. In some cases, this involves a guessing game, using analytics to try and guess exactly how Google ranks pages. Some refer to this practice as “black hat SEO (search engine optimization),” which attempts to optimize the elements within a web page to deliver better positioning within search results.
Gaining complete insights into Google’s practices is impossible, but that has not stopped many from trying. It’s why content creators analyze and research keywords, grapple with how long posts should be, and use metadata (titles and descriptions), subheads, and copy checkers to detect content already on the web to avoid duplication.
It’s a complex process that has become a major business itself – creating content that boosts clients’ search results. The Guardian put it more bluntly, noting that the update is intended “to tackle clickbait.”
Unscrupulous actors can use tactics such as keyword stuffing, which delivers dozens of keywords repeated throughout content in an attempt to manipulate the results. Another deceptive tactic is to create content that mimics Wikipedia but is often unhelpful.
In both cases, and in others, the result is content that resembles alphabet soup. Its content, with words strung together, but not very readable or, to Google’s point, helpful.
There’s also the tendency of content creators and web publishers to chase the changes. They desperately update their content approach to reflect what they believe are the latest changes (or presumed changes) to Google’s algorithms.
Google Gives Power to Searchers
In many ways the Helpful Content Update is giving power back to those doing the searches. It wants people to have faith that when they search for “tacos near me” or “best tires for bicycle” to get accurate, reliable and … helpful … results. That’s a bonus to users, and to Google itself.
Consider the headlines that have followed Google in recent years:
- The debate over “fake news”
- Criticisms of Google and other platforms that they are spreading misinformation
- Increasing concerns and regulations about consumer data privacy
A Washington Post poll in late 2021 showed that 47 percent of respondents do not trust Google to responsibly handle their personal data related to Internet activity.
The company advises that creators follow these recommendations to optimize their search results under the Helpful Content Update:
- Check that your existing and desired audiences will find content useful if they came directly to their site
- Create content that shows “first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge” from, for example, actually using a product or service or visiting a place
- Ensure that your site has a primary purpose or focus
- Provide content that, after being read, will viewers feel they’ve learned enough to achieve their goal and had a satisfying user experience
- Follow the guidance for content from the 2019 core update and product reviews
Conversely, Google also advises that content writers and web developers should avoid the following:
- Content designed to attract people via SEO
- Including a range of content on different topics, hoping it will perform better in searches
- Creating content using “extensive automation”
- Merely summarizing the work of others without adding value
- Writing about trending topics that are not pertinent to your audience
- Providing content that causes viewers to have to search again
- Writing for a perceived preferred word count. Google says it has none
- Creating content about a niche topic for which there is no expertise in the hopes of better search results
- Promising an answer and not providing one
For writers and developers, there is always a moving target when it comes to understanding and using the Google algorithm. Google continues to provide some level of transparency about progress and reasoning. it will remain incumbent on creators to be diligent, following the guidance that Google provides and adjusting, adapting, and honing content strategies as search algorithms evolve.