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The Helpful Content Algorithm: Google’s Latest Algorithm Update


Google has recently announced a planned algorithm update called the ‘helpful content’ update. Helpfully (pun intended), from what we can garner so far, it does what it says on the tin - it seeks to promote websites that have content that is helpful to users above those that don’t. But what does that mean in practice? And what should we do if Google doesn’t agree that our content is helpful?


What is helpful content?

In SEO, we talk about creating quality content that is relevant to our target audience. This is aligned with what Google is calling helpful content, and it is nothing new. But what is considered not helpful content is when it has been written primarily for search engines.


I have a few rules I follow religiously when creating content. These are not groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s exactly the point—writing content is often over-engineered and sticking to the basics is the best way to go about it.


  • Put the user first - Gone are the days of writing content for search engines and where content farms perform well. If you’re not considering your audience when creating a piece of content, something has gone horribly wrong. We need to consider who the user is, what they want to know and how they want to find out that information (think videos, infographics and text articles, for example). The most important thing when writing content, in my opinion, is to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Do I want to read this content, and will it be useful to me? If the answer is no, don’t put it on your website.


  • Make sure it’s relevant - Say you’re an eCommerce site and you’re selling pasta (no guesses what we’re having for dinner). Writing an article on hats might get you some traffic, but it’s not relevant to your audience, and it won’t help you to achieve your goal of selling pasta. It’s also confusing to both users and search engines—how do they know you know your fettuccine from your fusilli if you’re telling them about hats? While this is a very simplistic example, the moral is the same. Stick to the stuff you know; you’re almost definitely going to provide more useful insights to your customers that way.


  • Answer the question - What did your article set out to do? With this article, I wanted to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the new Google algorithm update?

  2. What does the update do?

  3. Will my website be impacted, and is there anything I can do about it?

  4. How do I know if my content is helpful?


I believe I have done what I set out to do, but this isn’t always the case. I have been guilty of going off-piste in the past and probably leaving readers with more questions than they started with. Your content might still have value if you don’t answer what you set out to, but I can guarantee it will be better if you do.


Now, to the update!


Will my website be impacted by the helpful content update?


As nobody knows all of the ins and outs of Google’s algorithms, it’s impossible to know exactly what will happen when there’s an update. If your website has been created with your customers front and centre, there is no reason to suspect that you will be negatively impacted. It might even benefit you. However, if you have content that has been created primarily for search engines, this is highly likely to be devalued, and you will see a drop in visibility.


It’s important to remember that with any algorithm update, Google tries to improve how it serves searchers. As humans ourselves, we’re in a good position to judge whether we think a certain piece of content is valuable and therefore likely to do well. If you’re not sure, Google has a handy list of questions to help you to check if your content fits the helpful bill. It’s worth reading and bearing them in mind when creating and reviewing content.


How can I prepare for the update?

Preparation is a little tricky due to the timelines. The update was announced on 18th August and started rolling out from the week of 22nd August—it’s expected to take two weeks for the update to finish.


However, if you know you have content that isn’t adding value to your users, I’d recommend reviewing it as a priority. This could mean getting rid of it entirely but, more likely, it will be refocusing it to ensure that it is helpful. If you’ve gone to the effort of creating the content in the first place, you may as well check if it could be useful in another way.


How will I know if I’m negatively impacted by the algorithm update?

The first thing to note is that if your website is negatively impacted by the update, you won’t see anything obvious by way of a warning or manual action in GoogleSearch Console. What you will likely see is a drop in performance. Keep an eye on your rankings, impressions and clicks and the performance of individual pages (see my next point).


As we understand, the update will look at the site as a whole and as individual pages too. This means that if you have lots of unhelpful content on your site but still have some helpful content, your helpful content will likely suffer too. It will not suffer to the same extent as the irrelevant pieces but will be negatively impacted.


What should I do if my website is hit by the update?

Firstly, don’t panic and don’t make any rash decisions. Quite often, after an algorithm update, we do see high volatility in search rankings, so it’s always best to let the dust settle before making changes. I’ve seen this first hand with clients and, as soul-destroying as it can be to see your rankings plummet, if you believe your site has worthwhile content, Google should recognise that too.


If, however, you have created content that was written for search engines (or at least not primarily for your readers or customers), it would be best to get underway with cleaning that up straight away. Remember, you don’t have to bin content just because it’s not helpful in its current state, it might actually have value and, with a bit of attention, could be a useful resource for your target audience.


If you are negatively impacted, the good news is that you can recover. It can take a while for this to happen—this is the case with most updates—but it is possible. In this scenario, you need to proactively update or remove unhelpful content. If you look at your page’s performance and can identify that some have dropped more than others, there is a reasonable chance that Google is deeming these to be more unhelpful.


You should also use your own judgement. Referring back to what I said earlier, we are all Google’s target audience, so our opinions are valuable. If you work with an SEO agency, they will also be able to guide you here.


Are there more algorithm updates coming?

The helpful content update doesn’t appear to be a one-off. Google has signalled there are further content updates to come, so it’s worth keeping your ears open for more information:


“Over the coming months, we will also continue refining how the classifier detects unhelpful content and launch further efforts to better reward people-first content.”

- Google Search Central


The best way to keep up to date on algorithm update news is via the search marketing news sites (I like Search Engine Journal and Search Engine Land) and checking Google’s search rankings update page here. 


Unfortunately, we are not always forewarned about updates, but if you focus on your customer’s wants and needs, you are putting yourself in the best possible starting position.


Need help mastering Google’s algorithm updates?


I’m fortunate to work with an awesome SEO and Content team here at MindArc who have a vast amount of experience navigating the world of Google. If you need support, either as a one-off or on an ongoing basis, drop us a message, and we’ll see how we can help.

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