Is the Google “Helpful Content” Update Really Helpful?

 In General, Marketing, SEO, Social Media

Will the new Google “Helpful Content” Update be a blessing or a curse for website owners?

It’s long been known that Google’s stated goal for search is to provide a top-quality experience and give users the answers they’re looking for.

But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Sometimes the Google search results provide “answers,” but the content can be confusing, disjointed, or just plain wrong. Other times, the answer is so buried in the text of the article or so fragmented that it might as well not be there at all!

The new Google Helpful Content update, which is rolling out this month (August 2022), aims to end some of the crappy content frustration users have as they search for answers to their queries. The downside is that it also might create frustration for website owners who have over-optimized their content to leapfrog competitors in the rankings.

What Does the Google Helpful Content Update Actually Do?

The challenge for all website owners is creating content that not only ranks well, but also provides useful and actionable information for people who are genuinely looking for helpful content (which is the vast majority of people).

If you’re a content creator, none of this should be new. For years, we content marketers have been preaching about developing content that provides value to audiences, and to its credit, Google has made it a mission to promote content that does just that. The trouble is, despite Google’s many rigorous ranking rules and suggestions, gray- and black-hat marketers have made it a mission to get around those rules and shortcut the search giant’s algorithm in order to jet to the top of the first search page.

Fortunately, Google has worked hard to penalize and reduce the amount of spammy content over the years, but this update could be one of the biggest yet in that regard. So, what does it actually do?

  • It Promotes Content Built for Humans, Not Search Engines

    The update is reminiscent of two major Google updates that occurred in 2011 and 2012, both of which transformed search results and changed the way content producers applied search engine optimization (SEO). The first, Panda, launched in February 2011 and downgraded websites that offered content of poor quality. The second, Penguin, launched in 2012 and focused on penalizing or downgrading sites that participated in spammy backlink schemes. Google calls the Helpful Content update a “people-first” update, which it says aims to prioritize natural language content that provides value.

  • It Only Involves English Language Search – No Other Languages (for now)

    Google says it plans to expand the update to other languages over time, but for the near future, it will only apply to English-language websites worldwide.

  • It’s Not a Penalty, But It Might as Well Be

    Google goes out of its way to say that this update is not a penalty, but the ultimate outcome will likely feel that way. Because the update will be an automated part of its algorithm and won’t be applied manually, Google doesn’t consider it punitive. Instead, the update simply adds a new signal to its ranking parameters, making it more of a ranking factor than a ranking penalty. Sooo … tomAYto, tomAHto.

  • It’s a Sitewide Update, Meaning All Pages Are Affected, Not Just Blogs

    The update affects all website pages but is a bit of a mixed bag for site owners. On one hand, Google says the new ranking signal is weighted, which means that sites containing heavy amounts of unhelpful content will likely see a larger negative impact than others. On the other hand, Google says that even for egregiously bad websites, “removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.”

  • It May Take Months to Recover

    This all begs the question of how long it will take to recover from negatively impacted pages. In other words, if your site has lots of search-oriented content and you fix it all, will the rankings recover immediately? In a tweetstorm shortly after the public became aware of the update, Google Search Advocate John Mueller said it could take months for impacted sites to recover their rankings.


    One reason for this may be because Google wants to make sure the upgraded (or removed) content has truly been addressed for the long run.

  • Don’t look to Google Search Console for Help

    Google Search Console is the place to go for website errors and warnings. It’s extremely valuable to website owners and SEO professionals, because it helps to identify and correct ranking issues such as poor site speed, canonical problems, and more. Sadly, the search console will not tell you which content is unhelpful, which means you’re on your own to identify and fix content that doesn’t adhere to Google’s quality guidelines.

  • It’s Industry Agnostic

    Google has said this update is not focused on one specific area, meaning that it isn’t designed to just hit product sites or service sites, but every site. The emphasis on quality content extends to niche sites and non-niche sites alike. For example, your business may be an affiliate site focused on soccer, but your content is geared toward getting people to purchase the products you’re including in your content. If that content doesn’t solve user problems, the algorithm might reduce your rankings in favor of more helpful content—even if that content comes from a less authoritative website.

What Does Google Consider “Helpful Content?”

When Google refers to “helpful content,” it’s generally referring to content that involves the following attributes:

  • The content is consistent with the rest of the website and is focused almost exclusively on the site’s subject matter area or areas.
  • The content is geared toward a specific audience (or audiences) and that (those) audience(s) will find the content useful if they arrive at the website directly.
  • The content clearly demonstrates first-hand expertise and depth of knowledge about the subject or subjects. For example, content for service providers should be narrowly geared toward the identified services. Content for product manufacturers, for example, should be focused on the product or products. This doesn’t mean other topics cannot be discussed—they should just be discussed through the lens of your website’s subject matter.
  • The content is well-written and well-structured and has a primary purpose or focus.
  • The content leaves users feeling as though they’ve learned enough about the topic to achieve the goal that brought them to the website.
  • The content leaves users satisfied and feeling as though they had a good experience.

What Can You Do to Improve Your Content (and Your Rankings)?

With the update announcement coming in mid-August, those of us who focus on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) haven’t had a lot of time to figure out what the new update fully entails (and Google isn’t in the habit of oversharing with marketers). However, Google has repeatedly warned agencies and brand marketers for many years that the secret to achieving high search rankings is providing a positive “user experience.”

Google offers a handful of questions to help you navigate the process.

Give your content a hard look if you find yourself answering “yes” to any or all of these 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 seem [to be] 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? (No, we don’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?

Once you’ve identified problem areas, Google recommends that you revisit their guidance on building websites and their quality guidelines for webmasters and take necessary corrective action.

Perform a Content Audit

Perhaps the best way to navigate this new update is to reach out to a content marketing professional and have them perform a content audit. Content audits are good to do regularly because they help you update old or outdated pieces and/or repurpose content for new audiences.

While it’s always good to perform a content audit after a major update, performing an audit after this update can help you avoid major problems with your long-term rankings.

Ready to Get Started?

Conducting a content audit is a big undertaking, and it takes time to do it properly, but the value you’ll get will far outweigh your investment and time. Even beyond this update, a content audit would help you identify missing content, poor quality content, and/or content errors and issues. With this update, however, the need for a content audit–and corrective action to resolve the issues it raises–is more urgent than ever.

Fortunately, Headline Consultants is here to help. We not only offer content marketing consulting, we also can help review your content and implement updates and improvements as we go. If you’re ready to tackle Google’s helpful content update head-on, call us today at 717-381-5385 or contact us when you’re ready.

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