Google announced its Helpful Content algorithm update on August 18th. The rollout is underway and will most likely be complete in early September. This update reinforces Google’s established stance on creating content for people, rather than search engines. As the algorithm has evolved over time, it’s become more adept at recognizing natural speech patterns and styles – it knows if you’re writing for a human reader or a search engine spider, and it prefers the former. This is why at Brunner; we always tell our clients to use keywords that are relevant to your product and your audience. And most importantly, write what you would want to read.
What Type of Content Will be Impacted?
The helpful content update aims to better reward people-first content from which visitors feel they’ve had a satisfying experience. Content built with a search-engine first approach (i.e. less substantive and valuable content created for the sole purpose of ranking in organic search to drive traffic flow and brand awareness) will be subject to devaluation.
How Do You Avoid Serving Search Engine-first Content?
In their Search Central post about the helpful content update, Google poses the following questions:
- 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 are 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? (It doesn’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?
Likely, content aimed at answering simple fact-seeking queries will not be impacted by the update. Instead, content that could be served for queries helping users make a meaningful decisions, will likely be the focus.
As an example, ‘what is smart home integration?’ won’t likely be the focus of the update, but content that answers the question ‘will smart home integration save me money/energy?’ will be.
How Will Sites Be Impacted?
One of the reasons this update has the SEO industry talking (aside from being the first named update in a while) is how this will impact websites. The update will not devalue search-engine-first content on a page-by-page basis but rather on a sitewide basis. This means if you are guilty of any of the above guidelines and routinely publish content with a search engine-first approach, you likely will see visibility and traffic declines across your entire site, including content pieces that may not necessarily violate those guidelines.
What Should You Do?
Brunner recommends a review of any website content that you feel will violate the guidelines, or is providing little value to users, and proactively remove it. We also recommend proactive content creation in-line with Google’s guidance. Below is guidance around creating new content and removing the old in line with Google’s directives.
Create Expertise-Driven Content
At the heart of what Google (and other search engines) aim to achieve through core, ranking algorithm updates is an enhanced ability to assess content quality. Recently, due in large part to enhanced AI- and machine-learning-driven capabilities to understand authors as entities, content quality is assessed not only based on what is being said but who is saying it. Ask yourself, “is the publisher uniquely qualified to speak to the topic at hand? Are they credentialed in this particular field? What is their level of education and experience on the topic? Can they provide first-hand anecdotal evidence or first-party research to support their claims?” Keep reading for more detail:
- Elevate True Subject Matter Experts Not all brand content needs to stem from the minds of the marketing department. Within every organization are the doers whose unique perspectives and deep experience can be leveraged to source content that will offer real and actual value to your audiences. If these experts aren’t directly creating the content, their insights should still be incorporated to enhance your value proposition via direct interviews, questionnaires, and/or quality assessments.
- Authorship Transparency When elevating subject matter experts and promoting their insights, it is important to help search engines understand who the source of the information is and why they’re qualified to speak to the topic. Content pieces should ideally have a clear author byline – linking out to an author bio page, on which the author’s background, relevant experience, education, accomplishments, credentials, etc. are expounded upon for readers and search engines to absorb.
The DiffBot Natural Language API is a nifty tool that helps us better understand how search engines will process author bios and make network connections between objects and entities. Try writing up a mock bio to visualize how the natural language will be processed.
Quick note: Experts don’t have to be people. Organizations as publishers also can be authorities. Make sure the same author bio principles are applied to About Us pages.
- Structured Data Markup As we see with the DiffBot Natural Language API, search engines are growing much more adept at understanding semantic connectivity and the relationship between entities based solely on text (and even audio and video-based) content. This may lead to a deprecation of structured data markup down the road, as it becomes less necessary. For the time being, however, there is no harm in sending additional signals for search engines to better understand content creators and their connection to the topics. Some Schema markup types to leverage:
- Organization Schema
- Person Schema
- Article Schema
- Website/Webpage Schema
Help Users Get Answers
SEO experts have been “answer focused” for years – ever since Google rolled out Featured Snippets that would elevate concise answers to relevant queries and link to the source website. Structured Data and Rich Results are recommended to support elevating helpful content in search results. In short, Google wants your content to be found – if it’s helpful. As you create content, consistently ask yourself if it’s addressing the needs of your readers.
- Answer questions succinctly and then expand: A brief answer to a direct question not only supports Featured Snippets – but also shows your readers you are an authority on the subject. From there, you can expand into supporting details and optimize that with keywords.
- Leverage keyword questions in headings: Follow those headlines with a direct answer – try not to bury the information just to keep someone reading.
- Only make your content as long as it needs to be: Long-form content has been an essential component of SEO copywriting, and this shouldn’t change that – but if you’re stretching an article to meet a prescribed word count, you’re not creating helpful content.
- Include anecdotes and first-hand accounts: This can help your content be more relevant and approachable, as well as unique. No one else has the exact quote or perspective of you and your expert team. Leverage that to build your authority.
Have Actionable Next Steps
Nothing is less helpful than doorway content that leads nowhere. Unactionable content keeps your users stuck in their search funnel and your business goals unmet. Craft content that helps your user learn something new about your product, service, or industry and provides a clear next step so they can progress on their journey – whether that is to learn more on a subject or to discover your solution to their problem. Links to deeper supportive content, videos, product pages, reviews, or applications all help your users take action. And with analytics, they help you better understand when content is actively engaging your audience. Build these next steps thoughtfully, ensuring your “Related Content” is truly related and your link to a product detail page is not an odd sell in relation to the topic of your content.
Review Existing Content
If there are content pieces on your site that were built from a search engine-first perspective and don’t offer unique human value, consider the following actions:
- Update the content with a unique POV or net new information
- Information gain score (or the unique value of your information) is a critical component to satisfying your audiences and, as a result, to organic search performance.
- Consider conducting first-party research, surveys, or providing first-hand experience in the content you serve. If you’re using information that already exists across the web, try to frame it in a new light that aligns with your organizational values.
- In extreme cases, consider archival or other means of de-indexation
- If you know you have content that is not targeting users as well as it should, but maybe you’ve been letting it hang out as it wasn’t hurting anything, now is the time to remove it. You can leverage a noindex tag temporarily if you’re worried about the immediate impact of the update, but you should ultimately revise or 301 redirect these pages to more helpful content.
- This approach should be reserved for egregious examples of guideline violations, including AI-created, duplicate, doorway, or (in certain cases) syndicated content.
- Regularly review your content to ensure it:
- Meets user goals.
- Empowers readers to take the next steps.
- Supports organizational goals, values, product/service offerings, etc. – either directly or tangentially.
- Regularly monitor performance
- Routinely check in on levels of non-brand visibility and traffic flow in SERPs.
- Significant negative volatility that aligns with the update rollout should be used as a springboard to rethink previous philosophies around content creation and seek effective realignment with stakeholders.
- While monitoring the impact of the update is advised, we do not recommend changing content to suit the algorithm – any updates you make should revolve around creating better content for users.
What Are Your Next Steps?
Best-practice SEO is still safe. This update is not devaluing keyword-optimized content, rather, it is ensuring site content is helpful and on message – not attracting users to boost traffic. If your goal is to help answer a user’s question, you have to know that question, and keyword research can help you find it – and bring them to you. Creating content that is still informed by, and optimized to, relevant keywords is still a best practice and supported by Google – it’s all in your approach:
- Be altruistic in how you create content: If you always put your users first – in how you craft content and organize your website, you’ll be well positioned to succeed with this update.
- Create content that is relevant to your brand positioning: Choose keywords and topics that truly align with the goals of your company and your customers.
- Select keyword phrases that read naturally: If something sounds off, it probably is – while there will always be some awkward phrasing as you match up searcher intent with relevant content, try to control for this with the terms you select and how you incorporate them into your content.
- Focus on quality over quantity: The previous emphasis on the importance of long-form content may have resulted in websites with a large – though not always relevant – content repository. Going forward, rather than building up a deep library of content, focus on a targeted library of deep content.
Monitor the impact of the update on your site’s performance in the coming weeks and months. If you know your website hosts content that was created from a search-engine first perspective, and you’re concerned about the value it adds – trust your gut and launch a review.