In mid-August 2022, Google announced that they would be working on what they called “a helpful content update” that would focus on “people-first content.” Essentially, Google was indicating that they were going to update the algorithm to ensure it prioritizes content that is made by humans and provides human users with value.
Based on how it’s being rolled out, all signs point to this update having a significant impact on SEO. However, despite the significance with which it’s being treated, this update does not appear to reflect a change of course for the algorithm. Rather, it seems to reinforce the longstanding guidelines that Google has been using to evaluate content. Metrics like E-A-T, which is a term coined by Google to illustrate how the algorithm looks at and measures the Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness in a piece of content. So, instead of introducing new concepts around, Google appears to be strengthening its existing metrics and potentially signaling to SEOs that their primary content focus should be centered around content that provides value to users instead of the algorithm.
Now, the question remains: is Google saying that SEO shouldn’t be using tools that help optimize content in various ways, from keyword usage to length and tone? Some of the statements made in the update explicitly state that SEOs should not be writing for specific word counts or including certain trends and keywords because the Google algorithm does not consider those things when ranking. However, these data points and mechanisms are precisely the tools used by SEOs to meet the requirements of E-A-T, the very metrics that the algorithm uses to rank content. Confusing, right?
The disconnect appears to be in how both sides (Google and SEOs) view the other. Google is essentially telling SEOs not to rely on tactics and tools that supportand instead focus on the human element and human value. However, the ranking system Google uses is exactly what incentivizes the use of these tactics. The reality of is somewhere in the middle. The majority of SEOs are already attempting to create the most helpful and valuable content for users. What they are trying to find is the connection between that existing user value and what drives traffic through the algorithm. Google’s messaging in the update seems to indicate that they believe SEOs are using these tactics in bad faith as a way to game the system. In fact, the overwhelming majority of SEOs are using them to supplement the strength of content that is already value-focused.
The bottom line is that the content doesn’t get to the people without the algorithm. So, while your content should offer value to the humans who will eventually consume it, it must also incorporate data-driven tactics and strategies that appeal directly to the algorithm, or users will never see it. This update appears to be directed predominately toward spammers and bad actors attempting to use SEO content “hacks” to game the system, reminding them that the algorithm will not reward cheap tricks. For those already producing quality content and attempting to meet the E-A-T criteria and achieve value for the user and the algorithm alike, it shouldn’t drastically change how you approach.
How the Helpful Content Update Impacts Your SEO Strategies
The impact of Google’s “Helpful Content Update” has not been as catastrophic as the weight of its announcement indicated. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things SEOs can do to modify their strategies in order to mitigate the potential adverse effects of the update that may occur in the future.
One thing SEOs can do is think about the entire ecosystem of a page and how the content facet interacts with the other elements of a page within the context of a page’s intention. If a page has content elements that are specifically geared toward driving traffic but don’t add real value to the user experience and the page’s intention, they may be negatively impacted by this update. It’s important to consider how all the content on a page contributes to its purpose, and avoid including too much content that is relevant but not helpful.
For example, if you have a page aimed at teaching someone how to play Van Morrison’s “Brown-eyed Girl,” you don’t necessarily need to include Van Morrison’s entire discography and lyrics. The content may be relevant but not necessarily useful to the user experience. And while the content may not come from a disingenuous approach and may be intended to provide a holistic experience for the user, the focus needs to be on how that content benefits the page’s intent and purpose.
While we have yet to see the scope of the update’s impact, it is more than likely that sites that are affected will end up needing to remove components that provide no real benefit to users. The question is, should SEOs be proactive or reactive in their strategies? Well, that depends. In most cases, you want to gauge what is impacted by the update and modify your strategy accordingly, because it’s unclear exactly what kinds of content will be affected. You don’t want to eliminate things that Google views as relevant to your brand. However, if you have content that’s older and clearly tangential at best, you may want to do some cleanup ahead of the update to ensure the other pages on your site don’t suffer.
If you get hit by the update and do experience a drop in traffic, you need to have a strategy to rebound. The first thing to do is look at what components of your site are still getting traffic and analyze how they differ from the impacted pages. It could be a template, a type of content, a feature, an embed, or something else dragging a page down, and you need to identify where the problem is in order to fix it.
It’s also important to look at what type of content this Google update rewards. Examining the data points and strategies used to produce effective content will help SEOs better understand how their content is looked at by the algorithm, and the direction future updates may go. That may also mean taking a looser approach toward metrics like word count and keyword density in order to focus on less concrete concepts like user experience and usefulness. Finding a balance between data, resources, and processes is the key to creating compelling content that embodies the Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness necessary to be useful to both users and the algorithm.