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Understanding Google’s Helpful Content Update

Understanding Google's Helpful Content Update

SEO professionals are no strangers to Google's continual search engine algorithm updates. They both hate and love these updates equally, considering how prolific they can be for websites. Fundamentally, however, these regular updates to Google's core algorithm provide a reprieve for businesses and marketers aiming to maintain a competitive edge.

Google is a seemingly infinite information hub that delivers roughly 99,000 search queries every second, totalling approximately 8.5 billion daily searches. As a search engine, Google has been upfront about its profound focus on providing a seamless and positive user experience to all searchers, using it to find information, products, services, and answers to questions. One of the most significant updates Google announced in its quest to make it the most user-friendly search engine was the Helpful Content Update (HCU).

What is the Google Helpful Content Update?

Google Helpful Content Update

The idea behind the HCU was to ensure that people could see original, helpful, and purposeful website content in search results. In other words, content that doesn't meet a visitor's search intent or expectations – or content deemed of little or no value – will not perform as well because it's not particularly helpful to the searcher.

As 2023 draws to a close, it's easy to view this core algorithm change with scepticism, particularly as this year alone has seen such a profound use of AI-generated content. However, the recent HCU has shaken the SEO world to its core (no pun intended) more than previous iterations. 

In this short guide, we will delve into the 2023 HCU intricacies and shed light on its SEO implications, hopefully giving the SEO professionals reading this plenty of information that could improve their clients' sites in the coming months.

Key Features of the HCU:

To fully comprehend this update's impact on the SEO landscape.

Google has had a Helpful Content System for some time now – a system that promotes quality content and reduces the search presence of content that's unhelpful or purposely written to satisfy search engine bots. Google presents it as a system that works seamlessly alongside its other methods to rank websites.

The recent HCU – which concluded on the 28th of September 2023 – saw guidance added in three specific areas:

  1. Restricting ‌guidance on machine-generated content
  2. Hosting third-party content on primary domains or subdomains
  3. Self-assessment guidance updates

Loosening Guidance on Machine Content

Google's previous guidance on machine-generated content, such as that written by AI programs like ChatGPT, emphasised a human-first ethos.

This guidance is no longer listed, signalling a change in Google's attitude towards AI content, which some may view as a welcome change to previous advice that contradicted its stance. 

Hosting Third-Party Content on Main Website or Subdomains:

The update has addressed the common practice of hosting third-party website content on a separate site's primary domain or subdomain. While some website experts believe the leading site's ranking power could add SEO gravitas to the subdomain content, the HCU could negatively impact sites hosting third-party content regularly.

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For instance, news media websites that accept irrelevant affiliate content could see that content blocked from being indexed. Therefore, many SEO experts say that unless content is directly related to the website's primary purpose, or if it's not created with close supervision, it will not perform as well.

Updates to Self-Assessment Guidance

Google has added new advice to its self-assessment guidance following the HCU rollout. Among the changes is an emphasis on the review process, warnings against false page updates, and caution against adding or removing content to appear ‘fresh' in search rankings.

Put simply, site owners may need to pay closer attention to the self-assessment guidance updates, confirming whether the content has been written by a subject expert or enthusiast, whether it's been substantially changed enough to justify a page date update, or being altered for the sole purpose of creating ‘freshness' signals. Depending on whether these strategies have worked in the past, the Google HCU may mean that efforts may prove more ambitious now. 

Other Updates

Google has also added new guidance for sites affected by the HCU, advising sites to identify and replace or eliminate unhelpful or irrelevant content.

Google's representative, Gary Illyes, provided contextual information about the September 2023 HCU, highlighting concerns about third-party micro-sites, often hosted on subdirectories or subdomains without oversight. The content, usually written and published by freelancers or agencies, can serve to manipulate search results rather than provide valuable content. 

This makes for a volatile situation now, as many SEO experts have entrusted traditional link-building and digital PR tactics to earn quality backlinks to websites, often relying on reputable, relevant third-party micro-sites or directories. 

However, it's still early days as far as the HCU is concerned, and there's not much evidence to suggest that this negatively impacts websites, provided that the content is still relevant. Therefore, it's simply a case of time will tell.

How SEO Experts Can Help Sites Rank After the Update

Leverage E E A T

In the meantime, SEO professionals and marketers can navigate the post-HCU digital landscape with some affirmative action.

Keep Content Relevant

To align with the HCU, marketers must ensure user-generated content is relevant to their target audience. Whether using AI tools or writing this themselves, content must demonstrate experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trust (E-E-A-T) to the reader. 

Many business marketing professionals don't exclusively rely on SEO as a lead generation tactic, often allocating budget to omnichannel strategies like paid social media and PPC, which can, in turn, support SEO efforts.

Marketers will succeed better if they conduct thorough research into their audience's pain points and what they are searching for and use that to influence the purposeful content they create. Keywords and search terms should be a lower priority than addressing the needs of their audience.

Don't Ignore UX

User experience (UX) continues to be a relevant ranking factor, so site owners should take proactive steps to ensure that their website loads quickly, offers easy navigation, and delivers a positive experience, particularly for mobile users. Google prioritises user-friendly websites, rewarding them with improved rankings and traffic, so take this approach seriously alongside content quality and depth. 

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Be Strategic With Link Building

While backlinks have always been critical for SEO, the HCU has yet to indicate that this will change anytime soon. However, marketers may need to think more strategically about link placement, adapting their digital PR and outreach strategies accordingly. It may be more prudent to focus on building links from reputable sources within a specific industry, delivering content that adds value to the referring and linked domains. 

Google perceives links – from sites boasting a high domain authority – as votes of confidence in content that still proves purposeful; bilaterally, this will, in theory, result in improved traffic and rankings. However, be cautious about publishing third-party content on sites that aren't relevant or detract from your content's helpfulness. Assess the audience and readership, and make a judgment about whether third-party content is going to be of value.

Staying Ahead in a Dynamic Landscape

The September 2023 HCU marks another significant step in Google's continual efforts to ensure search result quality and relevance. SEO experts and website owners must be flexible and willing to adapt their strategies to optimise search rankings effectively and maintain a competitive edge.

Staying abreast of Google's updates is an ongoing commitment, and as the SEO landscape continues to evolve, marketers need to pay attention more closely than ever before. By being adaptable and proactive, businesses can overcome shortfalls and problems while thriving by delivering more meaningful content to their audience. Embrace this change with optimism rather than defeatism, as your brand's visibility can still soar with the right approach.

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Stuart Crawford

Stuart Crawford is an award-winning creative director and brand strategist with over 15 years of experience building memorable and influential brands. As Creative Director at Inkbot Design, a leading branding agency, Stuart oversees all creative projects and ensures each client receives a customised brand strategy and visual identity.

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