Google’s helpful content update: What marketers should do next.

In this article What is the helpful content update? What are the key takeaways? Which industries will it affect? What does it mean for brands and their strategies? Final thoughts Want to know more?

Google has started rolling out its new helpful content update and it all boils down to one thing: creating content for people.

Yes, look at keyword volumes, uncover those big, untapped opportunities and analyse your competitors – that’s all still so very, very important.

But Shakespeare got it right with that line in Hamlet – ‘to thine own self be true’.

At the heart of the helpful content update is the need to be honest and do what you say you’ll do. Create genuinely helpful content that delivers what you’ve promised the user.

It’ll take a few weeks to see which industries, sites and keywords are impacted most by this update. But it’s one of the clearest messages yet from Google that brands and marketers need to focus on humans first.


What is the helpful content update?

The helpful content update is the latest change to Google’s search algorithm and aims to ‘make it easier for people to find helpful content made by, and for, people’, according to Danny Sullivan, Google’s Public Liaison for Search.

It’s being rolled out globally but for English searches only – there’s no date yet for when it’ll be used for other languages.

It’ll look at the site as a whole, so you can’t dine out on a few good pages. If a site is 80% brilliant and helpful content, but 20% is keyword-stuffed or irrelevant, Google will notice.

Beyond that, details are sparse, but it follows years of similar updates to the search engine’s general direction.

In 2011, the Panda update targeted duplicate, thin and spammy copy. In 2013, Hummingbird took a dim view of keyword stuffing and poor-quality copy. Two years later, RankBrain shuddered at shallow content and poor UX. Then Bert came along in 2019, seeking natural language.

But it was 2018’s Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (EAT) guidelines that had the biggest impact on content.

Not an algorithm update in themselves, the guidelines instead form the bedrock of the criteria that Google’s third-party Search Quality Raters use to judge your site’s content.

Coming to the fore on the back of August 2018’s Medic update, suddenly, bylines, sources, interviews, publish dates and storytelling mattered. Editorial best practice was finally valued.

And the helpful content update keeps that trend going.

It’s about being informed by data and SEO best practice, and then thinking: what else might the user need? That extra level of detail is what really matters.


What are the key takeaways?

  • Human copywriters are irreplaceable – Google warns of using ‘extensive automation to produce content on many topics’. This is a double threat: first, use artificial intelligence (AI) wisely and don’t create content for creating content’s sake
  • Focus on what you know – if you specialise in one thing, product, service, or industry, write about that. Write about what you want to be known for
  • Sort out your whole site – one good page won’t mask a site’s sins. The whole package matters
  • Write as many words as you need to – by all means look at the search engine results page (SERP), look at competitors, but do what’s right for you because Google doesn’t have a preferred word count
  • Your content plan should be informed by data, not led by it – it needs to reflect your site’s purpose, not someone else’s


Which industries will it affect?

The helpful content update applies to every website in every industry.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see it impact Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) websites – but then, they’ve been under strict scrutiny for a while, especially since the Medic update, so the biggest names might already be up to scratch.

In its blogs, Google has taken a particular aim at reviews websites, calling out articles that quote other sites and just compile opinions. Authors will need to add value, not just regurgitate information from others, verbatim.

Search Engine Roundtable reported it’ll be ‘felt more for online-educational materials, entertainment, shopping, and tech-related content’.

If you’re using good copywriters who write considered, clearly structured, well-researched content, you’re unlikely to have much to worry about.


What does it mean for brands and their strategies?

If you’re following content and SEO best practice already, this update should have minimal impact on your site’s organic search performance.

Still, it’s worth doing a content audit at the very least to find out:

  • What pages could be improved
  • What new pages might be needed
  • What pages shouldn’t be there at all

Strategies should be allowed the freedom to include good ideas because they might just be good ideas. Content plans should follow suit. And finally, content briefs shouldn’t just follow the traffic.

You don’t lead an industry by following what others have done already.


Final thoughts

The helpful content update is brilliant news for anyone using a search engine – and it’s a big boon for copywriters and creatives.

Sometimes, you can have a brilliant idea that fits with the audience research, social trends and brand identity. You know it could boost onsite metrics – more time on site, more return visits, it could be used across social and CRM – but the search volume just isn’t there. This is the update that says: if it’s a good idea, it could do more good than data can predict.

Like any Google update, it’ll make websites and online experiences better for users. If you stick to doing what’s right for your audience, you’ll be doing it right.

Humans know what other people might be interested in – we need to be able to trust ourselves.


Want to know more?

To read the official announcement, published on 18 August 2022, read Google’s blog post, More content by people, for people in Search, and for more information have a look at the developer blog, What creators should know about Google’s helpful content update.

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